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The 5 big trends in PC game discovery for 2021

We look at the big-picture story for the year so far.
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

We do - as you’re probably aware - do an awful lots of ‘specific numbers’ newsletters here at GameDiscoverCo. So let’s branch away from that for a second, because we want to do a couple of bigger trend pieces, for console game discovery (next Monday!) and PC game discovery (right now!)

Some disclaimers before we start: We’re biased towards devs and publishers who are intentionally trying to be profitable over time, we’re ‘pessimist realists’, we have a soft spot for indie creators who bootstrap their way to success, and we don’t love the business imperatives & moral compromises around aggressively monetizing IAP in games. So… let’s hit it:

1. ‘PC-like’ games are doing great on PC.

For a while, I felt like devs and publishers were trying to do the ‘this game works just as well on PC and console, and will sell just as well on both’ dance. And this did work for some games: the Overcooked series, for example, or a bunch of PC/Switch crossover hits like Stardew Valley.

And while Chucklefish proved it was still possible with Eastward just recently, these titles feel few and far-between nowadays. And that’s because a lot of recent breakout PC games - from ‘lumberpunk’ building sim Timberborn to alchemist sim Potion Craft and beyond - feel like they were built for the PC market first.

It’s not surprising that the PC market would gravitate towards games with greater depth, more complex controls, and a PC-centric UI. But I do think it’s a bit of a sea change for funders who are trying to calculate the multi-platform return for games. And it potentially aids bootstrapped teams who can launch on PC, see if a game does well, and then target console conversions - UI and controls permitting - later.

2. Steam is still blowing away the competition for PC ‘platform of choice’.

Frankly, at this point I figured Epic Games Store would be more of a competitor than it’s currently proving to be. Or perhaps I thought one of the other stores like GOG or even Kartridge would have stepped up. But all the data I’m seeing is that for most non-AAA, non-F2P titles, Steam is at least 90% of total revenue for ‘regular’ platform sales. (BTW: Itch.io is great for artier, experimental games, short horror titles, game jam titles & so on, but doesn’t monetize more seriously.)

EGS seems to work for much larger, graphically intensive games. But the crossover from Fortnite players to paying EGS ones hasn’t been as strong as most people thought. And while free giveaways and select exclusive launches still do great, simultaneous debuts on Steam and EGS really show Epic as lacking ‘regular buyer’ punch. (I mentioned in Friday’s Plus newsletter that Inscryption chose to debut on Steam and GOG but not on EGS, if that gives you a general idea.)

Obviously, the above may not be your final revenue %s per store. You may juice things by selling Steam keys on Humble (the ‘established’ resale place), or Green Man Gaming or Fanatical (the sharkier ‘big discounts now!’ crowd), or any number of other resale sites. But in many way, that’s still selling access to Steam - just via third parties. And Steam’s continued evolution is keeping it ahead of the competition for now.

3. ‘Long in post-release’ games can monetize better and better

When a player makes a buying decision, it’s not as if he has to pick a game that just came out for the first time last week. And if you look at the top-grossing Steam SKUs worldwide at any given time, you’ll see plenty of titles - we spotted games such as Dead By Daylight and Raft in there - that continue to shine, years after the release.

The issue here is evident: to win a buying decision over Dead By Daylight, if you want to make a 4 vs. 1 horror game? You’re competing with everything Behaviour Interactive made leading up to the game’s 2016 launch, but also the five years worth of post-release content (patches, intriguing DLC, and more.) Not to mention a continued, active user-base as a multiplayer game.

This has completely changed the long-term revenue curve for some games - as I’ve seen first-hand with Descenders. You get influencers constantly playing the game, especially thanks to new patches, paid DLC and levels, and even IAP. They then re-introducing it to a new audience, who play it for the first time… the main adjustment here is a) devs realizing you have to compete with the OGs, and b) choosing subgenres or twists that allow players to feel like it’s a fresh approach, which deserves a new look.

4. Investment is flowing into small/medium games like never before

This shouldn’t be surprising, since post-COVID valuations and investment are skyrocketing throughout the game biz. But I’ve been blown away by the amount of publishers and investors getting into the premium PC/console space in the year or more.

And it’s still a tempting place to invest. There’s a heck of a lot of talented teams and interesting games, & breakout hits without ridiculous amounts of spending are very possible (see: Valheim, Teardown, to name but a few.) And if you can hit it ‘big’ enough with even, say, one in eight games, you can likely still balance your portfolio to profitability - many of the top indie publishers are doing so.

This is great news for devs who want to get their games funded! All this ‘cheap money’ is rattling around, looking for a good place to land. And with the additional wildcard that devs/publishers can themselves land seriously high company valuations on certain public share markets (Sweden, UK, Poland, etc), there’s a tinge of a stock bubble element to his. But it largely seems steeped in genuine attempts to create ROI. (Which I appreciate, if you read my disclaimers.) So… let’s carry on with that?

5. Supply/demand means it’s not enough to make a good game

This, I’m sure, has been true for a while now. But I’m feeling it even more in 2021, especially with Steam regularly launching over 250 games per week, if you’re keeping track via ICO’s Steam newsletter.

Honestly, one of the more heartbreaking parts of getting into consulting in this space has been working with devs and publishers who shipped a perfectly good game, but can’t understand why demand for it hasn’t scaled up. They look at the (positive!) Steam reviews, an existing userbase who is digging the title, and it doesn’t make sense to them.

The answer to this, in part, is in the supply and demand around your game and adjacent titles. As I hinted above, I think there are some ‘displacement genres’ - I would count action RPGs and battle royales among them - where you literally have to get people to stop playing their favorite game, in order to start playing yours. That’s a high bar, and can significantly stunt demand.

And then there are other genres or styles or game where players switch their game of choice, but perhaps less often than you would like. So that’s the biggest question I would try to ask yourself on games nowadays as a dev or publisher: what’s your discovery floor and ceiling, based on the style and promise of the game?

For example, are you making a wonderful, niche game that won’t sell less than 1,000 copies, but will never sell more than 10,000? Or is it more like a ‘swing for the fences’ approach which could sell 750, or could sell 750,000? Balancing these risks and rewards, especially in a crowded market, is the most difficult thing you’re going to do - bearing in mind that no market is predictable, especially not such a creative one as this. But that’s half the fun… right?

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new 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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