I cannot ever recall hearing someone say anything akin to “There are too many movies coming out nowadays” or “There’s just too many books out there.” Yet I have heard, time and time again, that there are just “too many games”. And indeed, that is a general concept I can understand – I have so much unplayed stuff in my Steam library because I simply don’t have the time. I spend the vast majority of my time playing video games, and if I hit the lottery and dedicated myself solely to completing the games I already own it would be an undertaking that would take several years.

Still, I see this as no different than someone who has a long list of books to read or are working their way through some “Top 100 Movies of All Time” list.  So why do we hear this stuff about games all the time, and we don’t really hear it about other mediums of entertainment? Why is the games market “oversaturated?” Or more specifically, why do people claim that it is?

Honestly, I’m not really sure that it is. So why are people saying it? This question has been on my mind for some time now.

I think a portion of this complaint can be attributed to a lot of similar games being released over the last few years. “Retro pixel platformers” are practically a joke unto themselves for how many there are. But boy howdy, imagine the dude who really loves pixel platformers—if another one never came out he’d still have enough of them to keep himself entertained for the rest of his natural life.

Another part of this claim may be related to developers who are bitter about their game not being particularly successful. And indeed, in some ways there may be “too many” games in a particular genre. Or rather, there’s the appearance of there being too many; players just have so many choices that the odds are really low that your game is the one they pick to play.

If the definition of a saturated market is “there’s lots of products to choose from,” then sure, the games market is oversaturated in this respect. As with all products, you have everything you would expect: a few really excellent products, a lot of good products, a lot of mediocre products, and a whole bunch of low quality stuff. (I don’t think I can play another RPG Maker-made game without snapping at this point.) But so is nearly every other form of entertainment.

A lot of this has to do with the change in how we buy things thanks to the digital landscape. According to PCR, 92% of PC Game sales were digital in 2013.  It’s rare that Steam “runs out of stock” (although it can and does happen sometimes). Steam has a mild degree of curation in that they have what amounts to staff picks as well as pure sales-driven leaderboards, but aside from that no one game gets put “higher on the shelf” than any other.

I’ve heard some people make the argument that Steam ought to have better quality control and curate their products more. I can understand that, but I disagree with it largely. Amazon probably doesn’t check to make sure every product in their store is quality—there’s plenty of low-quality tat you can buy on there in nearly every category. There’s certainly some “bad” products that a small subset of people actually enjoy. Look at the example of “cult” films and games —B-movies that are typically thought to be terrible and yet are enjoyed by a small subset of people nonetheless. The most important thing to me in this regard is a robust refund system for when a product doesn’t work or isn’t up to the consumer’s expectations. While Steam’s refund system could be better in my book, it exists to enough of a degree that I’m content with it as it stands.

Gaming is in a bit of a more unique situation in terms of sales in that the vast majority of PC games are sold via Steam. According to CNET, 3 out of 4 PC games sales go through Steam. Still, that is not to say that other markets don’t exist. You probably want your music on iTunes, but if you don’t put it there then it’s not necessarily a death knell. (Indeed, quite a few musicians make a decent amount of money through direct sales or via other services such as Bandcamp.) Steam Spy’s summary for 2015 lists over 2,800 games came out so far at the time of this writing. That’s a bit over 7 games a day, and whatever game you release is going to be competing against at least six others – nevermind the most popular blockbusters of the time.

That said, I strongly believe that quality products will eventually get found and at least be able to establish some kind of a niche market. If you’re not really offering anything new, interesting, and/or of a good quality it is probably more your fault than the fault of the games market being “oversaturated.”

Bundles are another thing that are somewhat larger in the gaming world. You can certainly find things like 2-in-1 Blu Ray packages, book bundles, and the like for all sorts of entertainment. However, I think it’s a fair argument to make that bundles as a sales strategy is most prominent in the video gaming world (unless you want to get pedantic and consider an album full of songs as a “bundle” of individual tracks or something like that). Still, entering into a bundle is usually up to the developer, and they would almost certainly go into it knowing that they are going to be making much less money per copy for the titles they sell. (I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bundle’s sales hit an average that adds up to the retail price of all the titles within that bundle.)

There’s also the different nature of games as a medium to consider. There are quite a few games with a rather short lifespan in terms of how much you will get out of them – The Stanley Parable, for instance, is probably only going to give you three to four hours of fresh gameplay total in my opinion. (The HowLongToBeat page for the game bears out similar playtimes.) There are also quite a lot of games with an awful lot of replayability in them. A huge blockbuster title like Grand Theft Auto V or a sandbox building adventure game like Terraria are going to give you dozens if not hundreds of hours of gameplay and you still may not have seen everything the title has to offer.

Still, you see these sorts of patterns in other kinds of entertainment as well. Some people will see a movie once in the theater and some will go multiple times. Some people will buy the Blu-Ray or a digital download and watch the same movie dozens of times after that. I don’t have hard data on this behavior, mind, but I imagine games are quite the same way. Think about this – how many games have you, the reader, personally left half-finished? I certainly have my share, and that’s not to say the games that I’ve purchased but nonetheless not yet touched.

I digress; I really don’t think there’s “too many games”—that’s a ridiculous prospect. There’s over ten million people on Steam alone and many, many millions more own PCs or Macs that can play games to some degree. Someone putting a game online has literally hundreds of millions of customers who could potentially buy their product.

I can’t really be sure why people are saying the games market is oversaturated. But enough people are saying it that some people believe it without even thinking about it.

However, I must admit that a game developer will have an uphill battle if they make a game in a genre that gets frequent releases. If you were to make a pixel platformer, you’re certainly going to have a hard time but you’re not doomed to failure either. Look at Shovel Knighta pixel platformer that was wildly successful largely because they managed to stand out in ways that other games in the genre weren’t able to manage.

So whether or not the games market is actually oversaturated may be irrelevant if enough people believe that’s the case. (Arguments can be made that certain types of games such as pixel platformers probably do have far too many titles to choose from.) All a developer can do is try to stand out in one way other another. They might have to try for a unique art style or a gameplay mechanic that hasn’t been tried before. Perhaps they could make a really great game and sell it for an absurdly cheap price. Of course, they can always try to focus on a genre that hasn’t gotten much love over the years—there aren’t a whole lot of games like Simcity and Cities: Skylines floating around out there, for example.

Games like Shovel Knight show that you can build a successful pixel platformer. Telltale’s The Walking Dead shows that a point & click adventure can be broadly successful. If there’s anything I can take from thinking about this question, it’s that developers will only fail to succeed if they fail to excel and innovate with their product.

But this phenomenon applies to other kinds of entertainment as well. Go ahead, try to sell a zombie movie to a movie studio and see how well that works out for you. You’d have just as much of a challenge trying to get a publisher to buy your book about a boy who goes to wizard school or trying to get a record label to pick up your rap album about how hard life is on the streets. It’s not impossible, but it’s difficult.

I’m not sure if my opening question of “Why is the games market ‘oversaturated’?”—or more specifically, “Why do people claim the games market is oversaturated and don’t make the claim for other forms of entertainment?”—can ever actually be answered.  Debates can be had over what is and is not oversaturation. Some genres have far too many titles to choose from. Some styles of game have been copied relentlessly. (I’m looking at you, Minecraft clones.) Until we figure out why this perception exists in the video game market I suppose we’ll just have to acknowledge that this meme is accepted wisdom in the gaming world.

The gaming industry hasn’t been a mainstream entertainment medium for very long in the span of human culture. Books have been widely available for hundreds of years. Movies have nearly a century of history behind them, good and bad. Music and other arts have existed since mankind had enough food stored up to be able to relax a bit.

One might argue that it’s becoming increasingly easier to get into game development and I would feel that that is not a phenomenon specific to the games industry. Thanks to Kindle, it has never been easier to get a book published – well, digitally at least. For the investment of a few thousand dollars you can have the equipment to make a pretty decent song or video. The tools are about as available as anyone could possibly hope for them to be in nearly every medium of entertainment and the amount of people creating these works of art increase by the day. Yet some will fail, some will succeed, and most will probably barely scrape by.

I think a lot of what we are seeing here is a combination of a lot of factors. Players buy a lot of games and don’t have the time to play them all to their satisfaction. Thousands of developers work very hard to make thousands of games every year just on PC – nevermind the console and mobile markets – and yet most of them probably haven’t been as successful as they have hoped.

I have to wonder if this isn’t similar to the cycles of moral panic we’ve seen in the last century. We have heard that (in chronological order) literature, movies, comics, rock music, tabletop games, rap music, and now video games are destroying our moral fabric and ruining the country. Perhaps what we are seeing is merely a symptom of a medium that is still relatively new in the human timeline.

It seems that I can’t really answer my question to my own satisfaction – asking this question has only led me to many more questions. I think in time we will see this idea gradually fade away just as your average person doesn’t literally think that heavy metal is a tool of the devil. If I’m still writing 50 years from now I full well expect to be musing on the ridiculous notion of the interactive neural holographic market being oversaturated.

Do you think the games market is oversaturated or do you believe that’s a ridiculous idea? Is there a particular genre that you feel has “too many games” in it nowadays? Let us know in the comments below!

Robert N. Adams

Senior Writer

I've had a controller in my hand since I was 4 and I haven't stopped gaming since. CCGs, Tabletop Games, Pen & Paper RPGs - I've tried a whole bunch of stuff over the years and I'm always looking to try more!