In Analysis, Distribution, PC

Steam Workshop Drives User Generated Content

As part of its latest research into user-generated content (UGC), DFC has been interviewing gamers across the spectrum. Some of our most surprising findings have come from teenage girls. This surprisingly sophisticated user base clearly prefers Steam over Electronic Arts.  In large part this is driven by the Steam Workshop.

Today’s game market consists of so many distinct markets and user types it is crucial to talk to many types of users. DFC is doing research on UGC and open-world games. This is a huge topic and to specifically focus on products like the Sims and SimCity, we talked to high school girls.

The results were surprising. The Sims was clearly preferred over the city building games that include SimCity and Cities: Skylines. However, almost all users were into checking out user-generated mods. The result was a distinct dissatisfaction with the approach of Electronic Arts.

The problem with the Sims 4 was that EA actively discourages mods. This means users have to go out to sketchy websites and figure out how to install those mods. In many cases those web sites are scams and can lead to viruses if you click on the wrong button.

Once you override EA warnings and get the mod installed there is a less than 10% chance it will work. Users complained it takes “forever,” to try something that doesn’t work.

Users claim Steam is a totally different process. You can click a button to try a mod and it is easy to download. Once again many of the mods don’t work but the process only takes a few seconds. If it doesn’t work, you just move on to the next mod.

When prompted, users recognized the name Steam Workshop. However, the overall takeaway was “I would much rather buy a game from Steam than Origin (EA’s store).” This may be an indicator of why, after 8 years, in late 2019, EA announced it was bringing games back to Steam.

Steam Workshop

There was a smaller group of users that had tried both Cities: Skylines, and its direct competitor, EA’s SimCity. Cities: Skylines, published in 2015 by Paradox Interactive, was a surprise success, versus the more well-known SimCity that had a mixed reception on its release in 2013.

Once again, the attitude towards SimCity from Cities: Skylines users was dramatic. SimCity was described by words like “terrible,” and “gross.” Users claimed it looked bad and did not play smoothly.

The negative reaction to SimCity was not at all surprising and reflected general consensus. However, what is surprising is that among this demographic mods are seen as a crucial part of the experience.

Overall the takeaway, is that UGC is an important part of all-types of games. Previously the focus had been on games for a younger demographic including Minecraft, Roblox, Sony’s Little Big Planet, Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker and Microsoft’s failed Project Spark.

However, more adult themed games like the Sims and Cities: Skylines are reaching a demographic that is now actually into mods. This is troublesome for an Electronic Arts who several users characterized as patronizing.
Electronic Arts specializes in selling add-on packs for the Sims. The cost of these expansions can add up quickly and most Sims users admit they were buying them.

The model EA is using is working but there is some concern that the user base is not exactly happy with that model. For example, it was mentioned that Electronic Arts asks multiple choice questions about “what would you like to see in our next expansion pack.” One user said the answers never offer the option of having easy to use mods like on Steam.

UGC plays a huge role in the future of games. Mods definitely will be a major feature of any cloud-based service. Steam and the console manufacturers are learning to embrace UGC. The larger independent publishers still struggle in this area.

Electronic Arts is working on becoming a leader in digital distribution as digital publishing becomes a large portion of their business. The company is even looking at launching its own cloud service code named Project Atlas. However, EA was a leader in physical distribution, digital distribution is a completely different area. Right now, it is looking at the distribution part of EA may not translate to the digital age.

It is really only in talking with consumers that the reality of digital distribution becomes apparent. When a 15-year old high school girl can articulate the difference between distribution on Steam versus EA’s Origin better than a 35-year old lifetime gamer, you know there is an issue.

UGC is a distribution play of the future which is a reason Steam has focused on it. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft have definitely been heavily involved in this area. After Project Spark failed, Microsoft acquired Minecraft.
Just this week VC firm Andreessen Horowitz announced a $150 million investment into UGC powerhouse Roblox. David George and Mark Andreessen [wrote a blog post on the creator/player social network effects]( of UGC.

Overall UGC represents a major shift in the way not only games are developed but how they are distributed. Mods come from all over and can be very unreliable. One of our teenage respondents noted with a big laugh that some of the most reliable mods are the ones developed in Russia. Publishers like EA can not stop these mods, but they can figure out ways to harness the popularity.

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