For the longest time, Steam has held the PC gaming monopoly.
Big players like Ubisoft and EA have tried to muscle in with their own marketplaces, even wielding their own blockbusters as potential killer apps. But their attempts have been self-serving, and at worst a nuisance. Helping players was less of a motivation than cutting Valve out of the transaction.
With its unprecedented power has come unprecedented responsibility. With the rise of gamemaking tools and the opened floodgates comes problems with discoverability and curation. Not to mention, while Steam and its head Gabe Newell are often held up as the shining light of PC gaming, this is a platform that has engaged in anti-consumer behaviour on multiple fronts. There’s a lot that it does right. But for many reasons, Steam doesn’t deserve its reputation as the good guy.
Fortunately for all of us, there are more options these days when shopping for games, and in many cases, cheaper options. We’ll go through a few of our favourites and why we like them. None of these are intended to replace Steam, and it’s certainly nice having a digital collection all in one place. But some of the below options give you Steam codes anyway, and you might find you like the feel of some of them more than Valve’s juggernaut.
Itch is awesome.
This is one of the more indie-focused stores you’ll ever see. There’s everything ranging from free and freemium to premium, from strange and experimental to polished, from prototype to full release. It has its own version of an Early Access program too, with community support built in.
Crucially, it also allows for a “pay what you want” option. Even the amount that goes to Itch itself can be changed. It can be zero, or it can be lots. So far, Itch is a great community that supports itself, and it’s relying on peoples’ goodwill to not abuse the optional royalty system.
This virtual shopfront started out as a way for developers to share their gamejam projects. You still see a lot of this history in the current version. Various small projects made within 48 hours or for some other challenge are displayed as prominently as major indie releases. It means there’s a lot to sort through sometimes, but that’s also part of its charm. We hope Itch.io stays weird.
We kind of like just using the web interface, but it also released its client a while back with a few benefits. One of the cooler ones is the ability to record gameplay of anything you use through the store client. You never know — it could come in very handy if your Shadowplay or OBS decides to be temperamental when dealing with these indie games.
You’ve probably heard of the Humble Bundle by now. Every so often it bundles together a gaggle of games for sale and donates a portion of the money (determined by you) to charity. The static Humble Store is much the same, and it has monthly deals that are always worth looking at.
There are far too many great indie games for any one person to play, even if they dedicated all their time to it. And even if you did dedicate all your time to playing the games you get through this monthly deal, we still doubt you’d get through it all. There’s just so much good stuff there.
The deal here is, you sign up for the monthly subscription and you get access to that month’s games. There’s no obligation to stay subscribed, but by the time you see the next month’s deal, you’ll probably feel silly for terminating your account.
So many friends of ours have signed up for one month of the Humble monthly deal and canceled it… only to do the same thing the month after. And the month after. Each monthly deal is consistently so baller.
Time to give it up and stay subscribed, friends. The value is just too awesome. Often you’ll get the Steam keys and other extras in the package as well. There are various other knick knacks and paddywhacks — the last thing we bought from there was a bundle of 15 Horus Heresy books for $15. Not too shabby!
Good Old Games
What started as a storefront concentrating on licensing older games has evolved into a broader marketplace with a focus on games that don’t fit into the category of mainstream sale. That means there’s a hefty amount of real estate on the Gog.com homepage dedicated to current indie games and re-releases of older games like Star Wars Episode 1: Racer.
GOG also has a strong allergy to Digital Rights Management (DRM) and prominently displays what level of DRM the game may have. Though if it’s being sold through GOG, that level is usually zero. It’s definitely a positive point considering that over the last 15 years, DRM has become notorious for ruining experiences.
There are other little benefits to buying through GOG too, like being told exactly how big the download will be, and what kind of multiplayer the game will have. Often if the game is available on Steam, you’ll get the Steam code anyway. So if you find it cheaper on GOG, you might as well go for it, even if you like to have all your games in one place. Some games even have a 30-day money back guarantee — certainly better than Steam’s two-hour alternative.
To top it all off, GOG keeps its prices fair across all regions. Those of you in the US might not be aware, but games publishers have kept prices artificially high in some regions for no other reason than “because we can.” In Australia, we call it the “Australia tax.” Once upon a time, a higher price was justified when retail boxes were shipped overseas en masse. That type of price hike has no place in the digital realm though, and while Steam will often have arbitrarily higher prices across regions, this means you can sometimes find a cheaper price on GOG.
Of course, sometimes indie development doesn’t take the form of a standalone game. Sometimes it’s a mod of an existing game, be that something small like sticking 40k Space Marines into XCOM 2 or Star Wars ships into Sins of a Solar Empire, or a total conversion mod like the original Natural Selection.
ModDB has been the main source of all of these for quite some time, although in recent times it’s dabbled in providing standalone indie releases as well.
— ModDB (@ModDB) May 7, 2018
Many games these days prefer to exercise total control over their online-only experiences. The steady move away from dedicated servers and community-controlled experiences has hindered the mod scene. So it’s great when games like XCOM 2 embrace the community so heartily. It also vastly increases the value and longevity of the game.
Throughout it all, ModDB has been a great home for quality mods like The Third Age of Middle Earth, built on Mount & Blade. Over the years, it’s become a great place to just discover new games as well. And for that, we’ve been grateful.
The GameJam Sites
This is where the real experimentation happens. Indie developers get together and “jam” out a prototype of an idea — usually in a limited time, such as 48 hours.
The most famous of these is the Global Game Jam, in which sites around the world will wait for a theme to be revealed and start making an interesting game along those lines. Not only is it a great learning experience and creativity exercise, it’s a fantastic way to meet other creators.
But if you’re not making games yourself, that doesn’t stop you from taking part in the playing and voting process. Ludum Dare, a monthly gamejam, offers an opportunity to regularly engage with raw prototypes. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t expect amazing graphics and polished gameplay from these games. But occasionally you get a really cool idea.
Many of them go on to become full releases. We were at the gamejam in which Death Squared was made, and its original prototype wasn’t too different from its final release, idea-wise. You’ll find the higher rated games in these competitions to be quite interesting, even after just two days of getting the core idea into digital form. Another upside is, they’re free!
Straight From the Source
Nowadays, indie game developers are like indie bands. They build up their own followings and support themselves through that, rather than rely on publishers or even Steam.
The abovementioned Itch.io is a great tool for this, as it allows many different pricing and royalty options. But some developers have their own site with a cool home for everything they’ve made. Sometimes they’re full games, sometimes they’re just there for free. Sometimes there’s a donate button.
There are some really cool examples of this. The Captain Forever games have had a dedicated following for a long time. Local indie sensation Managore has a long list of games on his site and Twitter feed.
presenting WALKIE TALKIE, an online chatroom platformer, made for ludum dare 37
— Daniel Linssen 🦊 (@managore) December 12, 2016
It’s actually easier than you think to follow a cool list of indie creators. People making interesting things tend to share other people making interesting things. Click those follow buttons and stay up to date with what they’re up to, on whatever your preferred social media platform is.
Those ‘Console’ Things
Times have changed. Whereas PC was the ultimate home for indie games in times past, now it’s just the usual home for indie games. The consoles, bless ’em, have started to make it easier for indies to get published.
That’s a really cool development. There’s something really nice about being able to make a game in your spare time and actually have it on your TV screen, played by four people at once. It was the claim to fame by the Ouya before the other consoles just implemented the feature anyway.
— ID@Xbox (@ID_Xbox) May 4, 2018
After its experiments with indie publishing on the 360 were slammed by its most successful developers, the Xbox One has employed a new, two-pronged approach to this. Its ID@XBOX program allows anyone to upload a game and be rated. Its separate, main marketplace is a more curated experience with games that meet a certain quality threshold.
Its a smart approach to the discoverability problem that occurs when the floodgates of indie game creation are opened.
The PlayStation Network has a more straightforward approach of only allowing quality games on its platform, appearing in the store as usual. This hasn’t stopped it from luring a long string of great indie games, though. Neither has it shied away from the weirder, more experimental games. Even the ultra-protective Nintendo is getting in on the action, with Nindies on the Switch.
Steam currently has a very hard suite of problems to solve, and as a result, more specialised stores are popping up to serve the underserved. What used to be the starkest of monopolies has become a faster moving space.
While we didn’t include it as a major entry, there are some more outside-the-box solutions on the horizon such as Robot Cache, aiming to provide a blockchain-based game store. The main benefit there would be the ability to resell your game to another player, and a low 5% cut for the platform (industry standard is 30%).
We’ll see how that plays out. For the time being, exploring the above options will give you way more games than you’ll have time to play. With only 24 hours in every day, we’ll never get through it all. But it’s a good problem to have. Enjoy!