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Deep dive: Inside Strange Horticulture's delightful Steam success

Cozy puzzle detective games for the win.

[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, folks. And I’m also grinning and waving to all of you attending GDC this week in San Francisco - sounds like it’s going to be a busy one. In the meantime, we’ll be keeping you well-stocked for newsletters.

Oh, random ‘music while working’ mix suggestion to start your week? This early jungle mix from LDLN on NTS, inspired by the exhibit Sweet Harmony: Radio, Rave & Waltham Forest, 1989-1994, is great if you dig proto-UK drum and bass. (If you want something more downtempo, may I recommend Mixmaster Morris’ Mixcloud?)

[FYI: we’re still doing a 30% off the first year of GameDiscoverCo Plus deal for the next 30 paid subs. You get data-rich exclusive newsletters (what’s really selling and why?), custom Steam/console charts to rank and data-export, two eBooks, a member-only Discord & more.]

Strange Horticulture - behind its Steam success?

We’ve recently been talking to Erik Schreuder, CEO of indie publisher Iceberg Interactive - and we’re delighted to share insights and outcomes from the late January 2022 release of the Bad Viking-developed ‘occult puzzle game’ Strange Horticulture on Steam/PC, which has racked up almost 1,700 Overwhelmingly Positive Steam reviews since then.

The game was sitting at around 20,000 Steam wishlists at launch. But what’s been really impressive is its first-week results (about 5x as good as median, according to our Plus data), and its long term sales. It’s now the 18th best performing new January 2022 title by total Steam reviews to date - which is great for such a small title.

The game was made by a two brothers based in the UK, whom got to discuss the creation of the game just after its debut, btw. (They’ve been making Flash games like Bad Eggs Online for almost a decade before creating this, so have a lot of experience shipping titles!)

Anyhow, Erik from Iceberg was kind enough to share both lifetime Steam revenue to date (below), as well as talk pre-release wins & lots more in the below Q&A. Let’s go:

Q: When you signed this title, what things specifically appealed to you about it? Why did you think it might do well on Steam?

Erik: Strange Horticulture had a really great demo. The art is adorable, the characters are charming and the mystery is really intriguing. It’s also an oddly relaxing game that captures the vibes of tabletop classic like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, a real rainy-day experience with a wonderful pace, we just loved it.

In commercial terms, the game gave us a bit of a Potion Craft vibe, which is a great market to tap into, as well as elements of other favorites of the team, such as Papers Please. We felt it was destined to be a success - in fact, we can't remember a time when the entire team was so in agreement about a title.

Q: How do you feel about the Next Fest inclusion for the game, and Next Fest in general for your games? Was that a major reason why the game picked up interest - the demo?

Honestly, we’re a bit mixed now about Next Fest. When Steam started to run these events in 2020 they were fantastic. We saw a lot of engagement across all our participating titles - store visits, wishlists, and follower. In some cases, this was well beyond the other digital events we did during the pandemic.

However, we’re finding each event is worse than the last across these metrics - likely due to both too many games participating, and less excitement from audiences to really get engaged. October traditionally and this February in particular were busy periods, with more exciting AAA releases to soak up the limited attention.

Strange Horticulture was an outlier though, and did perform well during the October ‘21 Next Fest. But that was more thanks to the external traffic generated by a very positive Rock Paper Shotgun feature than through the event itself.

That said, we can credit the demo (which we premiered at Gamescom) for catching the eye of RPS originally. This opened the door for us to send them a bigger preview build with an embargo timed for Next Fest. So the demo was critical - but we could debate if Next Fest in particular is a reason for our success.

Q: Is there anything specific about the community management or marketing for this game that you think helped?

On the surface we think Strange Horticulture is a wonderfully “hooky” game. It has superficial qualities that aren’t played out and generic, but are still quite universal and have a strong audience appeal. Books, cats, plants, old maps - they gave us a lot to work with in our marketing to stand apart, and to help target our messaging at different and diverse communities.

We wanted to reach folks on Reddit, but had our doubts about development-focused subreddits like r/indiedev and the like. Sure, a pretty gif of the map unfurling might have performed well, but it wasn't exactly the audience we were trying to reach.

Instead, we focused on subreddits like r/MapPorn, r/ImaginaryMaps, r/IndoorGarden, and r/Houseplants (above). We wanted to make sure our posts reached people who would 'get' the beauty of Strange Horticulture, rather than throwing stuff at every proverbial wall and seeing what sticks.

A big factor in this, though, was authenticity. Bad Viking’s Rob, who was the one posting on Reddit, genuinely enjoyed using the site, and would also post random pictures of his plants and terrarium. It helps when you can show you're a part of a community, rather than using it for self-promotion.

After launch, we continue to monitor mentions of the game through F5bot, occasionally popping into threads. The game is even mentioned on D&D subreddits, urging DMs to pick it up and use its puzzles and plants in their own games.

The post-release Steam wishlist surge for Strange Horticulture shows very strong ‘word of mouth’, in GameDiscoverCo’s view.

Q: Directly after release, the game seems to have done very well vs. expectations. We have its first week 'Hype to Reality' score as about 5x as good as a normal game. Were there things directly after release that you can point to?

Following her preview in October, Alice Bell from Rock Paper Shotgun recommended the game in a full review at launch. After that we started to get love from many more press outlets - helped in part by being able to send review keys out more than a month ahead of launch, which isn’t very typical.

The game was released in January, and before the December holiday, we sent out keys to press and gave them a longer time to review the game than we normally do. We were lucky that the developers were completely ready in time to allow us to do so, and that the game was relaxing and cozy to play over a holiday.

As a publisher, we’ve never had a true Game of the Year contender, and that’s what this is. It’s still one of the best reviewed PC games of 2022 so far, even after an especially fruitful Q1 for quality releases. It’s also important that the actual players agreed with the press, quickly voting the game into Outstandingly Positive on Steam, which has perpetuated our visibility and sales there for much longer than usual.

Launching on a Friday also served us very well. It can be a double-edged sword - the downside, of course, being that your first couple days after launch are stressful as any bugs need to be addressed quickly.

On the other hand, the larger Friday crowd on Steam can potentially boost initial sales enough to keep a game in the New & Trending section on the front page, which turned into a positive algorithm feedback loop that worked very well for Strange Horticulture. Of course, the more games that do this, the less often it will work!

Wow, long tail! As Iceberg notes: “[sales] have not declined as much as one would expect over time, and it’s still never done under 300 units per day.”

Q: The game seems to have good long-term 'word of mouth' support. Why do you think that is?

Strange Horticulture is so cozy. It’s relaxing, but has an intense buildup and a feeling that something dark is just around the corner. The puzzles are not necessarily difficult, though every time they feel rewarding to complete. There is no time pressure and failure just makes you want to go back and try again. Solving a mystery or objective gets more rewarding as the story branches deeper, and the player is introduced to new personalities, locations and plants.

The game has a very strong theme, and that helps people identify friends and family members who would enjoy it. Everyone knows someone who would enjoy running an occult plant shop, whether they are into Harry Potter and other whimsical fantasy media, or are just big fans of plants.

You won't believe the sheer amount of people with "cat dad" or "plant mom" in their Twitter bios, tagging other plant and cat parents because they were 100% convinced they'd love Strange Horticulture too!

We got a bit lucky as well with a current trend that seems to be just ramping up, in cozy witchy games. Strange Horticulture (as well as Potion Craft and Songs of Glimmerwick, for example) was perfectly positioned to appeal to fans of this content. And right now, as we’re all recovering from 2+ years of the COVID pandemic and other global stressors, a bit of magical cozy escapism is just what we all need.

[Thanks to Erik and the Bad Viking crew for letting us chat. We think the game’s doing so great - and it’ll easily sell 250,000-500,000+ units over time - because it’s incredibly well made, feels high-value, and as they say, has the right vibe and genre for the right time. Congrats.]

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