After the last two/three years of Steam storefront being flooded with shovelware and Valve’s attempts to remedy the over-saturation and drastic drop in quality on their service by algorithmically-generated recommendation and the (rather bare-bones and underutilized) Curator system, we’ve receive a new tool to find games actually interesting to us and shape our Steam experience. The developer and publisher profiles, with the possibility to follow them and be updated about new releases and announcements through Steam messages and/or E-mail is a very simple, but very welcomed addition, that will make it easier for both players and developers to reach their goals – for the latter, easily reaching their fans with information on their new products, for the former, being in touch with their favorite creators’ work without actively looking for such information on social media etc.
I’m personally very happy to see this feature and see it generally as a step in the right direction. It’s also, sadly, a very Valve-like move, coming extremely late and once more putting all the curation effort on the backs of the users, who are basically expected to already be well-informed and sure about their needs, before they can make any kind of sense of what Steam offers them. It also further limits the potential visibility of self-published indie games, more and more destined to obscurity be Steam’s overcrowded New Releases tab and absence of games without an arbitrary number of user reviews from the Discovery Queue.
This is most likely only the first of a number of customization features that Valve will introduce in the coming months and I expect them all to go in the same direction – working against “unproven” games and developers, which will effectively eliminate large portion of the lowest-quality and most exploitative releases, discouraging people from creating “games” such as Achievement Hunter, but might also bury a significant number of the small EVN projects. I also think that this evolution of the Steam platform is pretty much inevitable – with Valve not willing to take up on manually curating the Storefront, filters and more elaborate community-based features are the only way for the platform being useable for an average user. I also wouldn't expect any other service to be able to replace Steam in the foreseeable future – GoG might’ve opened to some of the strongest players on the VN market, such as Mangagamer and Sekai, but won’t anytime soon be an option for upstart developers. Platforms such as Itch.io or even FAKKU will keep their limited appeal, being useful, but hardly a valid option for fully-fledged, commercial EVN releases. What is my take from all this? I think it mostly proves my long-held opinion, that
even in the age when self-publishing seems like a viable option, the help of a good publishing company can be indispensable – and in a niche market, such as the OELVN scene, even more so.
The know-how, resources and brand name of the biggest VN publishers are not something an indie company can easily compete with. Also, while 3-4 years ago, when the EVN scene was barely forming as a proper game development industry, every decent-looking new project was a major event within the VN community and could hope at least for some attention and sales, even if it proved artistically bankrupt (just look at Dharker Studio’s early releases). Today, your game will compete with tens of other titles, many of them appealing enough to take your share of the precious attention and money. If you don’t know how to promote your game and don’t have an already-established brand, it will fail, unless some extremely lucky circumstances come to your help, no matter how good your product actually is. If a beautifully-looking game such as Ignis Avis Venatio (a successful Kickstarter project!) can sit on Steam for months without a single user review, there is no limit to how deep your project can sink without good marketing. If you can, reach out to experienced publishers with your projects – getting all the income from your game might not be that big of an advantage if no one buys it. And as I see it, selling as indie OELVN will only get harder and harder – as much as you might not love making a deal with bigger VN companies, their reach, knowledge of the market and the trust associated with their brand might be your best bet for succeeding.
And now, let’s do some shilling (no, I’m not compensated for any of this)! Many developers and publishers have already set up their pages in the beta version of the Steam Creators portal. Who is worth following, from an EVN fan’s perspective?
Sekai Project – while Sekai might be associated with translation projects above anything else, they had a huge role in introducing OELVNs to Steam in time when access to the platform was still limited. Today, they still act as a publisher for notable projects, such as Studio Élan’s Heart of the Woods and Love in Space’s Shining Song Starnova.
Hanako Games – one of the original powerhouses of the EVN scene, while Hanako’s projects are mostly within the yuri on otome niches, many of her games are among the best Western VNs to date, that can appeal to more than just fans of these particular sub-genres.
WinterWolves – the studio behind the ambitious VN RPGs (best known one being Loren: The Amazon Princess) and a large number of smaller romance VNs and dating sims is another well-established actor on the EVN scene. While their project varies in quality, they can always be expected to deliver varied and interesting romance scenarios and compelling gameplay elements.
Razzart Visual - author of some of the best yuri EVNs might've also delivered some less enthusiastically-received ecchi titles, but can always be relied on to offer artistically impressive and solidly-written games, while some of her upcoming yurige should prove once more to be real treats for all fans of the f/f romance.
I will try to expand on this list, as the initiative develops and more companies set up their presence within it - be sure to check back in a few weeks! But for now, thank you all for reading. Do you agree with my perspective on the role of publishers in the EVN scene? What's your take on the changes Steam tries to implement? I would love to hear your thoughts.