Desura – grand ambitions

Update: Linden Lab sold Desura to Bad Juju Games on November 5th, 2014.

Kris Ligman over at Gamasutra had an interesting chat with Rod Humble recently, in which the Lab’s CEO discussed the acquisition of Desura earlier in July, providing more of an insight into why it was done and – perhaps – some of the longer-term thinking going on at the Lab.

I’ve been intrigued by the acquisition since first reading the press release. Of all of the Lab’s moves to establish itself beyond SL, this is perhaps the one which could stick, and stick well – if they can follow-through on it. For one thing, Desura isn’t a start-up facing an uphill fight to gain a marketshare. It’s already established and, despite being a minnow to Steam’s whale, has nevertheless carved out a niche for itself in a sector which offers the potential for growth.

I’m not a gamer by any stretch of the imagination, but in digging around Gamasutra, Desura et al, I tend to agree with Iris Ophelia on the positives around the move.

Desura: have LL boxed clever on their latest acqusition
Desura: have LL boxed clever on their latest acqusition

There would also appear to be attractions beyond those Iris states. For a start, there could be the opportunity for something of a symbiotic relationship between the Lab and game developers which grows out of the acquisition.

The Lab is looking around and trying to establish a broader portfolio of products and hopefully develop them into revenue streams. At the same time, it is possible that some game developers are looking at Desura as a means of honing skills and perhaps getting noticed “out there” by a games house. Thus, through Desura, the Lab potentially gains a platform through which they can scout talent they may wish to recruit at some point, and game developers have a service they can use to promote their offerings without jumping through hoops or fighting for attention, as Iris points to being the case with Steam’s Greenlight, and be aware that the Lab might just see something they like and snap them up.

While it is unlikely to have been a consideration in the acquisition, Desura does now mean the Lab has a direct channel-to-market for any PC / Mac  / Linux games and software they produce – such as Patterns, which is already offered through Steam, but which would appear to be a good fit for Desura as well. Might we yet see the hinted-at versions of Creatorverse for PC and Mac popping-up on Desura at some point in the future (assuming Creatorverse is actually still under active development)?

Patterns: an additional channel-to-market via Desura?
Patterns: an additional channel-to-market via Desura?

However, Humble’s comments in the article make it clear that the Lab is looking at Desura in far broader and more ambitious terms. In framing the reason for acquisition to Ligman, Humble states (emphasis mine):

[We want] to make it the most open, developer- and user-friendly distribution service for all kinds of digital goods, starting out with games and mods and going from there. For us it’s a natural step… We’re about user-to-user transactions and empowering people’s creativity.

This is a pretty hefty ambition, and suggests that the Lab might be willing to take Desura into more open competition with Steam, which started offering “other” digital goods in the form of non-games software last year. And while this is pure speculation on my part, could it perhaps also be that LL have their eye on content creators interested in being able to sell their mesh creations to users of virtual worlds – not just SL, but OpenSim (and perhaps even Cloud Party)?

This may not happen immediately (if at all), but the idea needn’t be that much of a stretch. Desura is already geared to handle payments in the user’s local currency, so it would be relatively easy – and attractive to content creators – to provide a means by which they could potentially reach multiple grids without having to fiddle-fart with local on-line markets or deal with different virtual currencies. Sure, users would mostly likely have to upload whatever they buy to their chosen grid (and pay any associated upload costs), but this needn’t necessarily be a huge blocker to the idea.

Pushing my own speculations to one side, that the Lab does have ambitions for Desura inevitably raises a couple of questions: can the Lab actually live-up to its own ambitions. and will it actually be allowed to do so?

In terms of the first question, the concerns are twofold. Desura is community-oriented, and the Lab’s track record of community relations within SL hasn’t exactly been stellar. Can they fare better with the Desura user community? The other, perhaps more vital, point is that while it is already up and running and has its own community, Desura is still pretty small and needs a lot of commitment and nurturing in order to grow. This will require time and effort on the Lab’s part – do they actually have the patience and willingness to run the course (as well as the expertise to run it well), particularly among the board, who are liable to have one eye firmly on ROI? In this, it is interesting that the Lab may not actually be looking to go it alone, with Humble admitting they could well be looking to bring-in partners.

The answer to the second question  – will the Lab be allowed to develop Desura in keeping with their ambitions – in a way comes down to Valve and Steam. Currently, Steam’s focus is slewed towards the bigger names in games development, and Steam Greenlight currently appears to have a number of barriers standing in the way of the smaller developers. However, should Valve sense that Desura is getting a little too big, there would be nothing stopping them from making their own offering far more appealing to game devs across the board, undermining Desura’s appeal, and leaving it starved for growth.

The interview with Ligman is perhaps one of the more forthcoming Humble has given – in some respects, would that he’d be as candid when talking SL. It’s fair to say that in the piece he’s gone a good way to answering the question of “why?” regarding the acquisition, and which has been on a lot of lips since the move was announced. As to the additional questions as to whether they can bring their ambitions for the service to fruition – well that, as they say, will be determined in time.

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