"Steam has done a tremendous job," says Scott Reismanis, founder of DesuraNET. Their soon-to-be-released digital distribution platform, simply named Desura, might be competing in the same market, but Reismanis is keen to point out the worth of Valve's own service. "Introversion software - makers of the great Darwinia game, among others - claimed they were 'the last of the bedroom programmers'. Now, it seems that couldn't be further from the truth."
So where does Desura come into play? On first sight, it looks very much the Steam-alike. There's an online store, on which to purchase a variety of PC games, and a client through which to play them. Even the colour scheme and layouts are familiar. What's somewhat different, though, is Desura's focus on bringing independently developed PC titles to the masses.
It's set to do this in a couple of ways. The first, quite simply, is to provide a service that encourages and nurtures independent development. "Steam still rejects a lot of the indies," says Reismanis, "and I'm not sure they explain why. We are still going to employ quality control, but we aim to be as approachable and transparent as possible, so we can coach and help teams polish their game up to the point where it can be distributed. The difference between an indie and a big commercial game is, usually, an indie is made by a small team of people who control their game from start to finish and care what their fans think. Because Desura is a dynamic, community-driven site, developers will be able to interact with their fans - and vice versa - which I hope will yield better games, since the developers who care will have a dedicated and willing userbase to seek feedback from 24/7."
The Desura team's focus on independently developed games comes as no surprise, given their background. Since 2002, Reismanis and co. have poured their professional lives into ModDB.com, an expansive and community-driven database consisting of a vast array of indie games and user-created mods. At present, more than 6,000 games and mods are available to download from the site, where its two million unique users can leave feedback on others' work and request help with their own.
"Desura's a natural evolution that's been planned for years," Reismanis explains. "ModDB is a great site for developers and gamers that want to explore off the beaten track and find interesting games and mods to play. Desura is a great service for those gamers who want to dive straight in and play."
The two services serve different purposes, then, but are carefully designed to complement one another. "We view Desura as the distribution channel, while ModDB is the development channel, for all content at all stages," Reismanis continues. "The beauty of this setup is that games and mods that want to publish on the platform can set up their profile from day one and slowly build a fanbase via ModDB’s huge and active community. Then, when they are ready to publish, they 'click a button' and all of their content magically appears on Desura."
The two sites work hand-in-hand behind the scenes, as well, sharing login details and much of the same content. Aside from the indie focus, the other big aim seems to be accessibility. Playing around with an early beta version of the service, I was delighted to discover that Desura's much-touted 'one-click install' feature really was just that: quite literally a single press of a button, a short wait, and the game was on my hard drive and ready to launch through the client.
"Ease of use and minimalist design is our mantra," Reismanis says. "After all, simplicity is what has helped Google, Apple and Amazon become rock stars in the online world. One-click install is an essential part of the service - I don’t know why anyone would possibly want to manually install and patch their games any more when Desura can do it for you."
How does it work? There's a pause. "The app developer tells me it's complicated," he smiles.
Desura's focus on indie games might be its selling point at present, but Resimanis has high hopes for the service's future. Eventually, he hopes Desura will be a "one-stop shop" for gamers worldwide. "Our focus on launch is to perfect our product by working with the indie teams, and helping them get on the platform first," he says. "After all, that is our background and expertise, so for us this approach makes sense. But once we are ready, we have every intention of inviting major publishers to release their games on Desura. Big or small, our only criteria is that you make a great game."
Its potential effects on the modding community could perhaps be the most significant, though. Since the birth of user-created content, even the most enthusiastic of PC gamers have considered mods to be impenetrable, difficult to source and even trickier to get working. Given Desura's astounding accessibility, that stigma could well be lifted.
"The main problem modding communities face," says Reismanis, "is that the majority of gamers don't know what a mod is or where to find them, and even fewer know how to install and play them. There's a large barrier to entry that instantly rules out a large majority of gamers. Desura knocks down this wall." The service even includes an Installation Wizard, which checks your system to ensure you've the right versions of the right games installed to be able to play the mods on your wishlist.
"So many mods are amazing and deserve their 15 minutes of fame," says Reismanis. "Blizzard knows this, and that is why a 'modshop' for Starcraft 2 is one of their big selling points. Desura going mainstream would be a game-changer for mods, and great for the PC games industry."
One of the great appeals of modding is the strong sense of community it thrives upon, and this too is something Desura hopes to incorporate. Much of this functionality is missing from the current build, but Reismanis is already talking about a variety of methods by which Desura's users can become actively involved in the service, maintaining communication with developers the world around.
"Instead of creating static game profiles with a handful of images and a trailer," he explains, "developers can post news, features, downloads, images, videos and all manner of content any time they want. Our community can then track, rate and comment on all of this content, bridging the gap between games, developers and players by providing a platform where they can interact. In the long run we believe this will increase player satisfaction, word-of-mouth promotion and feedback for the developers, enabling them to build better titles and to release to more people. This sets Desura apart, and makes it much more fun to be involved with."
The service has been vaguely stated for an April launch. Is the team still on-track to meeting that target? "Done when it's done!" Reismanis jokes. "No, April it shall be. We have a few core things to finish first. Expect Desura to be continually evolving, and the first public release to still only be a taster of what is to come. It will take a while for our catalogue of games and community to grow, so we just need to manage expectations and ensure people know that what they see in April is still only the early ideas."
But even now, the signs are promising. With only a smattering of games and mods available to download, and a mere fraction of the community features integrated, it's already shaping up to be a valuable service. Since its announcement, the hype within the independent development scene has been rapidly growing - and with good reason. "We wanted to make our first impression last," says Reismanis. "I believe we have achieved that, but the real goal is taking Desura public and start selling games - and that is a challenge we are definitely looking forward to."