Should Indies invest in physical game releases?

In the current gaming landscape, where each week hundreds of games are leased onto various platforms, it can be very difficult to get your game noticed. For many independent developers, especially those that self publish, the only viable option of releasing a title is to do it through the digital storefronts such as Steam, PlayStation Store and Xbox Live. Whilst it is great that these platforms allow games to be released that traditional publishers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole, it unfortunately means that a lot of great games get lost in the crowd.

Whether you prefer to keep all your games digital or like to have a physical library, nobody can deny that having a presence on a store shelf gives a game greater visibility than if it was a digital only title. In this world of instant access to reviews and opinions on games, it is fair to say that games being bought based on cover art and the back of the box blurb are well behind us. But if a game can be seen, it is more likely to get noticed and more importantly for developers and publishers, get bought.

Whether it be a independent video game shop or a supermarket, all retailers of games have limited stock and shelf space on which to sell games. This is in contrast to digital stores, which effectively have no limit to the amount of titles they can sell at any time. Steam is doing its best to combat the problem of good games getting lost through the Steam curation service it is currently working on. This service aims to provide Steam users with game recommendations which cater to their tastes. If done well, this will solve the problem of users’ storefronts being chock full of titles they have no interest in, but it could also mean that gamers miss out on titles they might actually end up liking, even if it is outside of their gaming comfort zone.

Speaking with gamesindustry.biz at this years Game Developers Conference, creative director Martin Sahlin and technical director Jakob Marklund at Coldwood (the makers of Unravel) had a lot to say about the games distribution. Sahlin said “I would want to see Unravel on a disc, on a shelf, in a store. The concept of Unravel had a really wide appeal. A lot of different people who weren’t at all into games, or were actively disinterested in them, said it looked like something they would want to try. But all the means of actually getting the game are quite niche. You have to be in these obscure online stores, and the people who are not involved in games don’t care about those. But if you could get it in the supermarket, that would be a different thing. I would rather do that.” Marklund also liked the idea of having a physical version of the game, albeit for a simpler reason, “It’s nice to have a box. This is my game. I bought it and care about it.”

It’s easy to see where Sahlin and Marklund are coming from. A physical copy for them means more visibility and therefore greater sales. Unravel was unique in that despite it being classed as an indie game, it was actually backed by EA. Whilst many indie games are self published, there is also a large amount that belong to smaller scale publishers such as Devolver Digital and Team17. It could be a good idea for publishers such as these to release physical as well as digital versions of the game, even if they were exclusive to certain retailers. Alternatively, a box edition containing multiple games within their portfolio could be released. This was something Xbox did with the ‘Triple Arcade Pack’, which was a boxed disc containing the extremely popular Xbox Live Arcade games Limbo, Splosion Man and Trials HD.

Limbo from the Xbox Live Triple Pack

Not all indie devs are of the same opinion that more should be done to bring about retail versions of their games. In an interview with MCV, Miguel Paniagua of Tequila Works said that the money spent on bringing a game to retail could be better spent on improving the quality of the game. Tequila Works have been working on the game Rime, a title set for its own retail box version, a decision that was ultimately made by the game’s publisher, Grey Box.

“They saw it as a chance because Rime is not like a typical indie project. It has grown a lot. It’s a big team, so it’s not a typical indie project and it has a story behind it. We announced it in 2013, we had a trailer in 2014 that was also very popular, so the name of Rime, I think [publisher Grey Box] thought it was worth it to take on the stores” Paniagua said.

Tequila Works used their links with Grey Box to bring another game to retail channels, with a PS4 retail version of The Sexy Brutale, a game by Cavalier Game Studios. Founder of the studio and game director Charles Griffiths believes that more can be done to get indie games into boxed versions: “Some of it is that distributors or publishers don’t seem willing to do it unless the game’s already proved a measure of success, so unless they feel like they can guarantee a minimum of a few thousand copies, it seems like it is harder for games to make a case from Day One that they should be in physical versions of shops. It would be nice for it to happen more often”.

The Sexy Brutale

Griffith’s argument stands true, whilst there are plenty of examples of indie games getting physical copies, they tend to be proven successes such as those included in the aforementioned Xbox Triple Arcade Pack. It makes sense from a business perspective as this minimises the risk for the publisher, but it is undoubtedly a shame that more indie experiences don’t get the attention they deserve amongst more casual gamers who are less likely to browse the likes of Steam and PlayStation Store. Indie games are often the games which breach subject matters not normally covered by AAA titles and take the medium into new and exciting areas. If video games are to finally break down that barrier that prevents them from being taken seriously by non-gamers, more indie games in stores would be a step in the right direction.


This article was kindly submitted by Kurt Lewin (@angry_kurt) whose work can be found at  medium.com/@kurtlewin92. If you would like to submit articles to us please drop us an email at oliverguy@lastlifeclub.com.