Steam Powered Nexus?
Should WildStar launch on Steam? With over 12 million concurrent users and an estimated 140 million active gamers, Valve’s platform certainly represents a huge chunk of the PC gaming market. It seems like a no-brainer that an MMO studio would want their game on the biggest storefront in town.
And yet, it’s not always the case. Blizzard has famously eschewed the service in favour of its home-grown Battle.net. Star Wars: The Old Republic is available through EA’s own Origin store. NCSoft themselves have been lukewarm with Steam, launching Aion and Lineage II on the service, but keeping back new releases like Blade & Soul.
With Carbine’s MMO continuing to evolve, should the studio jump onto Steam as a way of reaching out to new players? On the flip-side, will integrating with Valve’s storefront be worth the risks and costs involved? In this week’s column, I’ll be looking at both the pros and cons behind making the move.
A Well-Worn Path
On the face of it, launching on Steam is a path laden with developer riches. The big draw is undoubtedly that massive audience of gamers, but there’s a number of other benefits too. There’s the built-in background patching mechanism, a straightforward payments and refund system, and a ready-made social network to plug into your game. It’s something that Trion Worlds has used to great effect when offering bundled content for Trove, and more recently with Founders Packs for Devilian.
Don’t go thinking that it’s all gravy, however. Steam takes a 30% slice of all sales, which can be a painful bite for studios used to running their own affairs. And having a ready-made community can be a mixed blessing, with gamers all too willing to share their opinions on a title by leaving a short review. For MMOs like The Secret World, it’s been a source of fresh acclaim, while for others like Archeage it can end with mixed results.
With WildStar, Carbine has a number of options beyond a simple entry as a free-to-play MMO. The studio could offer the Digital Collector’s Edition pack as a DLC upgrade, in a similar manner to FFXIV and Elder Scrolls Online. And, just as CCP sells Aurum for EVE Online’s item shop, Carbine could sell NCoin in bundles on Steam. Throw in a few item bundles as Trove does, and you’ve got a range of packages all ready to roll.
Likewise, Carbine could use the opportunity to remarket WildStar to a new audience. It gives the studio a chance to unchain itself from the unfavourable punditry of die-hard genre cynics and the continual complaints about the art style or combat mechanics, and instead find more players who will love the game for what it is, rather than what it originally or unintentionally promised to be. Crucially though, launching on Steam isn’t a silver bullet – a bad game will continue to perform badly.
There are other opportunities as well. Steam Workshop could be a great source of housing décor and cosmetic armour that could appear on the item store. Steam Sales could bring in new players, and sell bundle packs to existing ones. And Steam’s in-game chat client would make it easier to find those few extra players when you’re looking to fill out a raid.
Listing a game on Steam is only half the battle – players still need to find it, download it and play it. Steam’s major storefront update from early 2015 introduced several new ways for gamers to find new titles we might enjoy, based on previous purchases and those on our wishlist. It sounds great in theory, but it only works if your title is unique and distinctive. Declare yourself a fan of survival sandboxes, and expect to be inundated with an avalanche of voxel-based variant eager to be the next Minecraft.
WildStar would face stiff competition from several established genre stalwarts, should Carbine choose to launch it on Steam. Trion and Daybreak have both released most (if not all) of their online games on the platform. EVE Online, FFXIV and ESO are additional heavy-hitters, to name a few. Amongst some very prominent alternatives, WildStar might struggle to be noticed, even with Steam’s discovery updates.
Then there are Curators. Alongside the new way of recommending titles to us, Steam now encourages groups and individuals to curate lists of games that they feel are worth playing, and write a little about why. Players can then follow Curators whose opinions we trust, which can provide further encouragement to try out a new game. After all, for the grand price of free plus a few hours of download time, it wouldn’t take much for someone to give WildStar a whirl.
Dealing with the Complexities
There is, of course, one key problem to having a huge number of free-to-play MMOs within easy reach. When the game costs nothing to buy, and has no mandatory subscription, the only thing we’re forced to part with is our time. As long as a game is entertaining, that time is probably well spent, but as soon as it becomes a chore, we’re off to look for the next fun thing to play. There’s very little ‘stickiness’ with the MMOs of today – the journey of levelling up can be more rewarding than the value of an endgame-ready character, and so we abandon them and move on.
It’s something that Blizzard is acutely aware of with World of Warcraft, and actively tries to combat with a number of alternatives. Through the Battle.net launcher, bored Alliance and Horde players can easily switch to Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and (soon) Overwatch, keeping them in the same stable. Trion, despite throwing the kitchen sink at Steam, has also started investing in its own unified Glyph launcher and patcher. By comparison, NCSoft is behind the times, with each game appearing to be held at ‘arms-length’. Launching on Steam wouldn’t necessarily help with this, but it would certainly make hopping from one to the other easier.
And this, ultimately, is where the answer is likely to rest. Now that NCSoft has started to unify account management and item shop currency, it needs to develop a unified approach to Steam, and to its own patcher and storefront. Currently, only Lineage II and Aion are available on Steam, and even then only in a limited fashion. By following Trion’s and Blizzard’s approach, the studio might have better luck retaining players within its own stable of games.
All of which means that it’s probably out of Carbine’s hands. Should WildStar launch on Steam? Almost certainly. Whether they’re able to, in a way that takes full advantage of the features that Steam has to offer, rests squarely with NCSoft. And that is a far trickier question to answer.