How does releasing games through Apple, Valve, Nintendo and Sony’s digital storefronts compare?

Swedish indie Image & Form has released games through the App Store, DSiWare, eShop and Steam in the last few years. It makes its PSN debut next month with the release of Steamworld Dig on PS4 and Vita.

Next month, Swedish indie Image & Form will release Steamworld Dig on PS4 and Vita, making PSN the latest in a long line of platforms to host its work. The studio has found success through the App Store, DSiWare, eShop and Steam releases too in the past few years, having started out in web development before moving into edutainment software and then onto making its own titles. Its experience of releasing games across all these digital storefronts varies wildly, each presenting its own benefits, challenges and level of interaction with the platform holder.

Image & Form scored its first mobile hit with Anthill, after several attempts – the first few releases “weren’t that great,” says studio CEO Brjann Sigurgeirsson. The developer’s experience with Apple – or rather, the lack of it – suggests that the App Store’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. “So many games are coming out every day and the largely DIY submission procedures are so effective that it’s impossible for Apple to keep up personal relations,” says Sigurgeirsson. “A year and a half after having released a Game of the Week I met my first Apple representative in person, and many developers probably couldn’t tell you who ‘their’ person is. The ‘right’ Apple e-mail addresses used to be hard currency, real bargaining chips.”

In throwing its doors open and welcoming all comers, Apple has made it easy for developers to release a game, certainly, but perhaps it’s too easy right now. Sigurgeirsson would like to see Apple raise the entry level to the App Store – “make it a tiny bit harder to become a licensed developer, so that the average quality of the games goes up,” he says.

Anthill was a hit for Image & Form on the App Store, but Apple remained at arm’s length. “The largely DIY submission procedures are so effective that it’s impossible for Apple to keep up personal relations,” says Sigurgeirsson.

That experience differs wildly from Image & Form’s dealings with Nintendo for its DSiWare and eShop games, Steamworld Tower Defense and Steamworld Dig. The former game, released on DSiWare in 2010, was an ordeal; first Image & Form had to jump through multiple hoops to become a licensed DS developer, and a lengthy submissions process followed. The decision to make a tower defence game was based on there being few contenders in the field at the project’s outset – by the end, there were plenty. “We thought the game wouldn’t stand a chance,” says Sigurgeirsson. “To our surprise, Steamworld Tower Defense paid for itself quite quickly. I say it was a surprise, because the DSiWare Store was an abomination. There weren’t very many games on there and it was near-impossible to navigate. We got a great review from IGN, which probably saved the game.”

Nintendo’s attitude to indies had improved dramatically by the time Image & Form decided to release Steamworld Dig through 3DS’ eShop. “The ocean was very blue there compared to what the App Store had become,” says Sigurgeirsson. “If we were going to leave mobile, we didn’t really know where else to go. We had no connections with Valve, Sony or Microsoft, but we had developed, submitted and published Steamworld Tower Defense. Nintendo treated us with respect from the very outset. It was a breath of fresh air to actually talk to real people from the platform on which we were about to launch, and Nintendo had completely transformed themselves.”

When the studio started development of the game in October 2012, there were still doubts that 3DS was going be a viable platform. “The hardware was cool, but the really strong titles hadn’t arrived, and unit sales hadn’t taken off,” says Sigurgeirsson. “The 3DS was in limbo. And yet, we had nowhere better to go. Then, in spring 2013 came Animal Crossing: New Leaf, sold like crazy and ruled the eShop sales charts. Suddenly it became clear that the 3DS was a hit product, dwarfing the PS Vita and beating all other devices.”

Happily for Image & Form, Steamworld Dig was the game to dethrone Animal Crossing from the number one spots on eShop in Europe, America and Australia. Nintendo was generous in its support of the title, too, promoting its release heavily on eShop and also giving it a slot in one of its Nintendo Direct broadcasts.

Steamworld Dig’s arrival on 3DS’ eShop was supported heavily by Nintendo, helping the game to knock Animal Crossing from the top of the eShop charts. It has sold steadily ever since.

“We – and a few other indie devs – became poster boys for the new, indie-friendly Nintendo,” says Sigurgeirsson. “We weren’t expecting them to be so responsive and personal – they’ve really turned themselves around in that respect. I would recommend any developer to contact them.”

There were still a few drawbacks. Submission procedures at Nintendo remain cumbersome and time-consuming, and Nintendo of America has different procedures to its European counterparts. “I’m sure they would save a lot of time streamlining and unifying their processes,” says Sigurgeirsson. “Nintendo of Japan is a different animal altogether. There’s not enough space on your website to even start listing all the strangeness that goes on over there.”

An introduction to Valve through friends at Rising Star Games was the catalyst for Steamworld Dig’s move to PC, Mac and Linux, a process which took about two months. Since its December release on Steam, Steamworld Dig has sold well, already racking up half the total sales of the 3DS game, which was released in August.

One might expect Steam sales to overtake eShop downloads quickly and easily, then, but the storefronts show two sets of consumers with radically different behaviours. “We have quite steady daily figures on the 3DS, while gamers on Steam have gotten used to buying games when they’re featured or on sale,” says Sigurgeirsson. ”Features equal spikes, while the game almost flatlines in between.”

With the Steam release complete, Image & Form set about looking into releasing the game on other platforms, and Sony were the quickest to respond. A back-and-forth with SCEE’s Shahid Kamal on Twitter led to more formal conversations in November and the receipt of PlayStation dev kits the following month. The studio’s experiences with Sony have been similar to Nintendo – lengthy submission procedures, differences between SCEE and SCEA – but overall it has “very helpful staff that promptly respond to our silliest rookie questions,” says Sigurgeirsson.

Steamworld Dig’s fortunes on Steam are dependent on sales and feature spots – “the game almost flatlines in between,” says Sigurgeirsson.

Taken as a group, Sigurgeirsson would like to see “Apple become a bit more personal,” and for Nintendo and Sony’s submission processes to be standardised and streamlined. Sigurgeirsson describes Valve, meanwhile, as “a wonderful company to work with.”

“A small number of people are ‘your’ guys, and you turn to them for everything and anything – they fix it,” he tells us. “It seems that every person there knows exactly how everything works. I think that one of the strengths of Steam has been how restrictive Valve has been with releasing new titles. Greenlight is changing that now, and I hope that they refrain from letting it go the way of the App Store. They have very strong gatekeepers.

“Now, if only their customers could get used to buying games at full price…”