Interviews & Opinion

The Steampocalypse: How the massive number of games on Steam has made the platform a hostile environment for devs

The Steampocalypse: How the massive number of games on Steam has made the platform a hostile environment for devs

If you've been paying attention to the PC games market - and if you're here then the odds are they you have - then you'll be more than aware that Steam has progressively become more and more of a challenging marketplace.

What was once a closed environment has become progressively more open as Valve has introduced new schemes such as Greenlight and, more recently, Steam Direct. Then there's a platform like Early Access and the small matter of Valve adopting a more 'anything goes' policy as of earlier this year. While making the platform more accessible, it has actually made it far more challenging.

This is what Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital has dubbed the 'Steampocalypse'.

"If you're going to summarise it, the Steampocalypse at its root is basically the growth of the number of games on Steam," he says.

"This makes Steam a very unpredictable storefront and it's also driving down the average amount of money each game makes. Another unintended effect of it is that it's further creating a discrepancy between the winners and losers on Steam. There's less grey area than there used to be. That's the Steampocalypse. There are not as many able to make a living making games on Steam."

Where before there were both winners and losers on the platform - titles that did really well or really poorly - there was also a pretty large section of projects that did fine. Ones that sold enough to support the studios but maybe didn't set the world on fire.

This, Rawlings says, is the segment most affected by the so-called Steampocalypse.

"It's always been the case that the majority of games don't make their money back," he explains.

"That's nothing new. What the Steampocalypse is seeing is that grey area of games that did alright or occupied a niche and did okay is shrinking. The amount of games in that space is going down and the amount of money the games in that space make is also going down as development costs are rising."

This isn't the only 'apocalypse' to have affected the games market in recent memory. Back in 2015, the indiepocalypse - the notion that it was becoming increasingly hard to have success as an indie studio - reared its head. Looking back, it's likely this was just the market adjusting - as more indie games hit the market, the probability of one indie game being successful decreased.

Rawlings says that while the Steampocalypse is a market correction, it is one that is going to deeply and gravely affect many game creators in the coming years - hence the biblical language.

"Apocalypse is a dramatic word for a market shift. Last year Steam made more money than it's ever made. It's not Steam having an apocalypse - it's certain types of development that are suffering," he insists.

"We call it Steampocalypse because if it doesn't work out for you, the end result is that you lose money and your company fails. For some developers, it is an apocalypse. It represents a genuine existential threat, i.e. their existence as game developers is threatened by what is happening. Some of them have already gone under and are no longer with us. The difficult thing is that most of those stories you'll never hear about because they'll be these solo developers or two or three person studios releasing their project, no-one seeing it, no-one reviewing it, it'll get no traction and then they'll just leave the space.

"Every now and again you'll hear stories about a disaster and we only know of it because the game going into it was a bit more widely known. LawBreakers is an example. They were getting coverage, it looked like a great game and the previous track record was high - but the market had changed quite dramatically. It wasn't just the number of games on Steam but that's probably the biggest indicator. It doesn't represent a threat to games or Steam and it doesn't represent the end to a whole thing. But what apocalypses do is they create a lot of casualties. They tend to wipe out a class of developers or a type of game. The polite term of 'market correction' is true, but the stories that market correction will be people losing jobs. To me, you're right to say this isn't an apocalypse overall, but for some people it will be."

The impact of the Steampocalypse is yet to be seen. Much like the indiepocalypse, it's likely that the studios that survive will be stronger and go on to a new level of success. Rawlings says that it's hard to see what the market will look like following this, largely because the landscape changes so fast.

"It's really hard to say because every projection anyone has ever made tends to be wrong. Who two years ago was telling you about battle royale games being the next big thing? No-one. If we had known we'd all have been making them back then and we didn't," he explains.

"That, to me, is the frightening and the fascinating thing about working on games. The pace and speed of the market change means that you have certain variables you can account for, what your game is like, your attempts to market it, your resources, your effort, and then there's a whole load of variables you cannot control - what Steam will do, what consumers will do, what other games will be released, how they'll be perceived, what other competing platforms and companies will do..

"I hesitate to speculate as to what it'll look like, but what it will be is the companies that are agile, that are able to pivot and respond to change will be the ones that will do well. Epic is a great example of this - Fortnite originally wasn't a battle royale game, it had Paragon which was a really nice looking game but the company made its money not off the original Fortnite, nor Paragon, but a new mode it quickly pivoted to. It used its tech, its expertise to spot a place in the market, moved into it quickly and then innovated within that space. That to me says Epic had the capacity to respond quickly - that's why it had an advantage."

In order to weather these changes, Rawlings says that companies need to be built to take into consideration that the game they are working on might bomb. Other streams of revenue - such as consultancy and work for hire - need to be considered.

"It's having a budget plan that doesn't say: 'We spend all our money making one game, it's released, we make game two'. That's the mistake people make," he explains.

"You need a basic minimum budget and figure out what happens if your game does sell badly. That's not an indictment saying your game is shit, and it might be that you can turn it around, but plan for that. What will you do if your game doesn't do the numbers? Maybe you need to line-up bit of work for hire after the current contract which cushions you. Maybe you end up splitting off some of your people to another company to help out work. There's various other ways of making money but the key thing is you need to plan for that.

"The mistake is that the sales of the game will be enough to continue as you were before. It probably won't."

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.