There are a lot of digital storefronts available, each with their own unique benefits. Some work well with certain types of games and engines, while others might not.
Which Digital Game Distribution Platform Is Right for My Game?
Knowing which one you are ultimately publishing to will make development easier, as special features of that platform can already be considered and integrated into the design from the very start.
We’ll take a look at most of these and see what their properties are.
Due to the nature and the number of stores available, we won’t be able to cover all of them, but rather will look at the most popular ones for smaller developers and what types of platforms are available. We will also forego VR-exclusive platforms, as these are pretty self-explanatory when making a VR game.
Ready? Let’s go!
Types: Windows Standalone, Mac Standalone, Linux Standalone, VR, Films
Barriers to Entry: US$100 (or local equivalent)
This is the big one, and it has a de facto monopoly on desktop-game sales.
After the discontinuation of Steam Greenlight, publishing on Steam has become very straightforward, with only a one-time US$100 fee necessary per title published. This fee can be recouped once a game has earned over $1,000, which can be a lot for minor titles though.
The open gates have led to an inflation of games on the platform, which sadly means that publishing a game on Steam no longer automatically guarantees success.
Having a game on Steam allows you to integrate with Steam Achievements, which will be displayed in the launcher. Games can also be integrated into the Steam Trading Card System, a metagame about collecting and trading “cards” that are given out while playing a game.
The Steam API can also be used to facilitate multiplayer, although this is an advanced feature and should be part of development from the beginning, if considered.
Early-access publishing is also possible, and games can receive integrated mod support through the Steam Workshop.
When you make a desktop game, it should be on Steam. It is relatively simple to set up, and there are practically no downsides.
Kongregate & Newgrounds
Types: Flash, Unity WebGL
Barriers to Entry: None
Kongregate bills itself as the “YouTube of games” and wants to make publishing as straightforward as possible. It allows Flash apps as well as Unity builds. Newgrounds is one of the oldest Flash portals and helped popularize the format.
Interfacing with the Kongregate highscore system will display a highscore on the site and will track different users. Implementing highscores and giving Kongregate web exclusivity increases the revenue share up to 50%. There is no payout limit, and funds can be requested at any time.
Some games have Kongregate-integrated achievements. These cannot be created directly, but can only be offered by an admin who finds a game worthy of these.
Risks: There seems to be no easy way to shut down or unpublish a title on Kongregate except to upload a defunct version.
If you are making a free Flash game, it might as well go on here and earn you extra revenue. It is also possible to put up a demo for a larger product that is sold on a larger platform, such as Steam or iTunes.
Types: Flash, Unity, Windows Standalone, Mac Standalone, Android Standalone
Barriers to Entry: None
Itch.io has a wide range of platforms. Everything that can be uploaded can be offered, and things that can be played via a browser plugin can already be played there. It also offers an optional Steam-like installer.
Payment can occur via a fixed price, donation, or a pay-what-you-want scheme. Early-access publishing is also possible.
Since its inception, itch.io has become a mainstay for indies and even a social network of sorts, with people receiving streams of updates to their favourite early-access games.
I highly recommend checking out Itch.io and having a presence there.
GamersGate & Green Man Gaming
Types: Windows Standalone
Barriers to Entry: Only established games of a certain size
GamersGate and Green Man Gaming have been around for a long time and have established themselves as solid storefronts
The games on sale are highly curated, though, and only established companies and games of a certain scope and quality and accepted, which means smaller ventures should focus on other platforms.
Nintendo Game Store
Types: Wii U, Switch
Barriers to Entry: Nintendo Approval
In the last years, Nintendo has taken great steps to reduce entry barriers to the Wii U Store, so smaller development studios of just a few people can apply and create games for it too.
Paladin Studios’ Momonga – A Pinball Adventure (which I had a small part in developing) was created by roughly six people, first for mobile.
This makes the Nintendo Console stores a feasible late target for publishing.
It helps to have already established yourself with one or two solid titles before applying, as they only accept “good” titles in their store. Once accepted, developers can access a special development console, on which they can develop their game.
As with all TV-played games, it would need to be adapted to work on screens and played with the specific hardware.
In development, this should be a long-term goal, which gets easier to accomplish the longer your game-making operation exists.
Types: iOS Apps (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, iWatch)
Barriers to Entry: US$100 yearly fee (or local equivalent), Mac Computer
The iTunes Store can be accessed by all iPhones and serves apps for that platform exclusively.
One important step in development is that it has to be developed on a Mac. While most Mac and iOS software is created on a Mac to begin with, other tools (Unity, Kotlin, GameMaker) can be created on other computers and then deployed to Macs/iOS, but they still require the last step to be done on an Apple device. Before getting access to the store, you also have to pay a US$100 yearly fee.
Before an app (or update) is published, it needs to pass Apple approval, a process that can take several days. During certain times of year (Halloween,
Christmas), when a lot of apps offer holiday-specific updates, the approval process can take up to two weeks.
Games can also be integrated with Game Center, which offers achievement tracking and other features across games.
Risks: The yearly fee has to be paid, otherwise games get pulled off the store. Also, game clones are rampant and can often appear more prominently than the original title.
If you have the hardware, can afford the entry fee, and your game can deploy to iOS, it makes a lot of sense to create an iOS version.
Mac Desktop Store
Types: Mac Standalone Apps
Barriers to Entry: US$25 yearly fee (or local equivalent), Mac Computer
The Mac App Store is bundled with every Mac and offers direct downloads onto computers. Only Mac Standalones are sold.
The yearly developer fee is only US$25, unlike the iTunes mobile store.
Risks: The yearly fee has to be paid, otherwise games get pulled off the store.
Google Play Store
Types: Android Apps
Barriers to Entry: US$25 one-time fee (or local equivalent)
The Google Play Store is the official storefront for Android devices.
To begin publishing, a US$25 one-time entry fee has to be paid. After that, apps can be uploaded fairly quickly and will appear on the store within hours.
Risks: Requires a Gmail account. When an app gets shut down for whatever reason (e.g. a collaborator has been accused of copyright infringement), the entire Gmail account is shut down, including access to all other Google and YouTube accounts and logins of that user. I highly recommend creating a separate account to publish on. Also, game clones are rampant and can often appear more prominently than the original title.
Amazon App Store
Types: Android Apps
Android Apps can also be sold on Amazon, where they can reach Kindle devices. You can check out this tutorial on how to set things up!
Risks: Amazon occasionally offers apps for free. During these times, the download numbers increase immensely, but the creators do not get reimbursed for these.
Direct Payment (various)
Types: Any Content, App & Game (except iOS)
A lot of services allow you to sell games and apps directly to users. This usually gives you most of the revenue, as compared to the usual ~30% of the sale price a portal takes.
FastSpring, PayPal and the Humble Widget are popular solutions, and they take less than 10% of the sale price. SendOwl charges a monthly subscription, so this makes more sense at a later date, once sales have been established.
The downside is that you’ll have to set up everything before the sale (website, ads) and everything after the sale (delivery of files,
support) by yourself.
Android-Based Microconsoles & Smart TVs
Types: Adapted Android Apps
Barriers to Entry: Specific Hardware, various certification processes
There are several microconsoles (Razer Forge, GameStick, Amazon Fire) and Smart TVs which can run Android apps on TV sets.
A lot of Smart TVs also run on Samsung Tizen, which is a Linux-based operating system, to which a lot of engines (GameMaker, Cocos2d, Unity,
etc.) can deploy.
When you create an Android game, these platforms would be an interesting late platform target. Games need to be adapted to work on TVs, though, which you can learn about in this tutorial!
Windows Store & Windows Mobile
The Windows Store can be exclusively accessed by Windows Phones, Surface Tablets, and Windows 10 computers.
A lot of engines offer deployment to these (like Unity). The stores themselves provide an entire ecosystem outside of iTunes and Android Stores, but have a comparatively small audience and should be a late development option.
Origin, Battle.net, and uPlay only publish major titles created by EA, Blizzard, and Ubisoft respectively.
Should you get folded into the mix, your games will appear there.
Desura, Indievania, and IndieCity used to be pillars of the indie community, but have sadly become defunct in recent years.
New portals such as Itch.io have proven to be worthy successors and continue to allow easy and straightforward publishing.
What does this mean for you, the developer?
It makes sense to focus on one platform first, and then eye other potential targets once your game has been established.
If your game is Flash-based, you can target Flash portals first and then move to desktops via Steam.
If you sell very unconventional games and get a lot of your traffic through your own website, it makes a lot of sense to set up your own direct payment system.
If you are making a mobile game, it makes sense to focus on the mobile portals first. If you are making an Android game, microconsoles become an option. Depending on your development environment, you can then also look into desktop variants!
Snuggle Truck, for example, debuted on Flash platforms. It was later ported to mobile devices, and then desktop computers.
If you are making a desktop game, you have many more options than just Steam, and expanding to Itch.io and the Mac Store could greatly increase your audience.
And making a game that works in a browser, on desktop and on mobile would be tricky, but would offer you a very wider audience to being with! For example, Rymdkapsel manages to be very entertaining on both tablets and desktop computers, and has an easier time finding people to play it.