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Deep dive: how Astroneer made it to 8 million players

It's a long way up to space?

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome to the working week, my friends and colleagues in ‘the game business’! And we’re excited to kick this one off with some transparent, public data. It’s provided as part of a special ‘three years after 1.0 launch’ celebration by System Era Softworks, for its space sandbox adventure Astroneer.

Analysis: looking at Astroneer’s lifetime sales?

So, the folks at System Era were kind enough to provide not one, but two round-up posts related to Astroneer’s ‘three years in 1.0’ anniversary. (The game originally debuted in Steam/Xbox Early Access in December 2016, btw. Then it got a full 1.0 release in February 2019 and a later PlayStation port - and very recent Switch version.)

Firstly, the ‘Astroneer by the numbers’ post from System Era’s Joe Tirado has a plethora of great stats, including a large and fun infographic for the GaaS title. Breaking this down even more digestibly:

  • The game has been purchased by nearly 4 million people since 2016. But it’s been played by over 8 million - thanks to its June 2019 inclusion and subsequent popularity on the Xbox Game Pass subscription service.
  • System Era also reveals total lifetime revenue for the game: $75.7 million USD, although, like Yacht Club’s comments, they make it clear that the often U.S.-based team isn’t all wearing money hats: “Astroneer’s success gave the original 5 person team the means to to build System Era into a 40 person powerhouse… most of you reading this already know, but our net profit number is much lower, factoring in the cut taken by platforms, taxes, and other business costs.”
  • Up to the Switch launch, the unique player count shows 68% on Xbox, followed by 28% on Steam and 4% on PlayStation. But if you look at sales per platform, 70% were on Steam, 20% on Xbox, and 9% on PlayStation. Makes sense - you can use the ‘nearly 4 million’ figure to work out precise sales, btw.
  • There’s an interesting (maybe slightly surprising?) U.S. tilt to purchasers: 36% of all buyers are in the U.S., and then 9% in China, 7% in Germany, 5% in Korea and the UK, and downward from there. But perhaps not that different to a lot of other titles with a similar genre and early start on Steam.
  • It’s great to see publicly stated that the company has a 10% profit share equally split among staff, in addition to normal salaries and benefits. When games outperform expectations, the upside should be shared in some way with the people making it happen - and not just public shareholders or owners.

There’s plenty of other interesting data in there. For example: 990,000 peak MAU (monthly active users), and 560,000 average MAU across the game’s (post-1.0!) operation, 21,000 peak CCU (concurrent users) across PC/console, and more.

Overall, the game has been run super-well as a ‘games as a service title’, with regular named patch updates. (Astroneer doesn’t have paid DLC, btw, but it does have in-game cosmetics you can buy with QBIT virtual currency, which have grossed $2.7 million lifetime to date.)

There’s also a lot of learnings from the separate marketing & comms postmortem that Joe wrote for GameDeveloper.com. Among them:

  • Message clarity: “After 1.0 launched, we focused on clarifying our message for the future of the game by being direct with what we were going to do (and, perhaps as importantly, what we weren’t) and why. Early Access was filled with lots of big dreams about what we could do, but it was time to be more disciplined.”
  • The platform store is king: “a huge focus for us as a team” were these core things: “Wishlists; Great key art and screenshots; Thoughtful trailers; A solid sales pitch; Careful platform tagging; Translating store pages to other languages; Having a well thought out plan for discounts; Launch visibility.”
  • Games are global, and your marketing/languages should be too: “That means if you aren’t translating to as many languages as you can, you are leaving out huge audience groups for your title… We also found success making content for specific regional audiences [like Lunar New Year.]”

Astroneer’s debut on Switch: what can we learn?

But one thing we did want to drill down on was Astroneer’s Nintendo Switch sales. The game debuted on January 13th, 2022 in digital form, though the physical Switch version only shipped in February.

So, the recent Yacht Club analysis seemed to imply that their game Cyber Shadow was named one of Nintendo’s top-selling ‘indie’ titles of 2021 “with around 40,000 Switch units sold”. This has led to people asking us - just how bad/good is the Switch market, even for big games being converted there?

System Era does say “we aren’t ready to talk about [Switch sales] yet” - but we are! One statistic that System Era does give us is that: “Astroneer launched on Nintendo Switch in January and sold over 220,000 units across all platforms in that same month.” We did check, and the Steam version of Astroneer amassed just over 1,700 Steam reviews during the month of January.

So if were to extrapolate from lifetime ‘% by platform’ - and guessing that Astroneer has a high ‘reviews to sales’ ratio - perhaps the Steam version sold 80,000-100,000 copies in January, and the non-Switch console versions another 30,000+ copies.

This means - warning, total guesstimate - that the Switch digital version could have sold around 75,000-100,000 units in its first 2 and a half weeks on sale. We are manually tracking Astroneer’s U.S. ranking on the U.S. Switch eShop for Plus subscribers, and have made a graph for you all showing its post-launch success:

So the game rapidly rose up to be the #2 third-party ‘recent’ Switch eShop title in the U.S. by download count - and stayed high for a while. It’s definitely a high end, impressive result for Astroneer. We’re guessing that 100k digital units a month is on the highest end of third-party Switch game sales. (Physical may add extra heft.)

(These eShop download charts are calculated by Nintendo using total sales over 14 days, by the way. So there’s always a ramp-up period that you wouldn’t see in Steam’s real-time charts.)

Unfortunately, we weren’t tracking the Switch eShop rankings for new games when Cyber Shadow came out, to compare ranking. But we do know that Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon sold just over 20,000 units in its first (calendar) month on Switch starting in December 2021. (And then slowed WAY down, as Switch releases seem to.)

Along the way, Pocket Dungeon maxed out at #12 on the ‘recent, third-party U.S eShop’ chart we make - the same one Astroneer got to #2 on. And only a handful of new Switch games get anywhere in this chart. So.. there’s some context, at least?

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]

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