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Does your game have 'staying power'? 2

This game discovery round up looks at what happens if you have a slow start, but your game is great. Can we all hold out hope and push for that Wandersong-style long tail?

Simon Carless, Blogger

September 28, 2020

8 Min Read

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter, which you can subscribe to now, is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome back to another week of meditating on video games, platforms, and how you sell ‘em. This time out, I wanted to start with a semi-inspirational story, and link it to a discussion of your games’ long-term revenue possibilities. Avanti!

Wandersong - how it turned out nice again

Over on Medium, Greg Lobanov has written a postmortem of delightful singin’ story adventure Wandersong, two years after it first shipped. I remember when this game first debuted on Steam, and I was tracking its review numbers and realized… it just wasn’t doing that well. (I do think Wandersong lacks a strong initial hook, fwiw.)

Greg confirms as much in the article, noting “…our initial sales were way, way less than we were expecting/hoping for, which was crushing.” Using the Wayback Machine, we can see that the game had 71 reviews (albeit Very Positive!) three weeks after release. So probably very low single digit thousands of copies.

But good news - the game now has 874 Overwhelmingly Positive reviews, and Greg shares his (no Y axis) Steam revenue numbers below, noting: “What seemed like a scary and quiet launch turned out to be the beginning of a slower, different kind of success altogether… I guess I’d chalk it up to good word of mouth.”

Appearing on Xbox Game Pass in December 2019 also helped more people appreciate Wandersong (I played and loved the game because of Game Pass!). But on Steam it looks like the game carved out a niche regardless. And it did great when discounted, presumably because of both converting wishlisters and opportunistic sale buyers.

The point I took from this? Well, I was looking at sales ratios for Steam games I have access to stats for. It seems like a ‘base’ among these games is for Year 1 revenue to be 2.5x Week 1 revenue - for a positively reviewed game that had its fans clustering to buy when the game launched.

But another game I saw managed 2.5x Week 1 revenue in Month 1 alone, due to streamer featuring, and 5.5x first week in Year 1. Sometimes these are games that had Very Positive Steam reviews, ideally some updates, but definitely good word of mouth and ‘staying power’. GaaS-y games that start in Early Access can do even better - I’ve seen one with lifetime revenue - two and a half years so far - of 17x first week, for example.

Anyhow, what I’m trying to say is - I’m guessing that Wandersong’s total Steam revenue is now 7-10x (or even more!) than of its first week. So if you have a slow start, but your game is great - hold out hope and push for that Wandersong-style long tail. It wasn’t a smash, but it gave Greg and friends enough money to keep making games.

(Finally, I appreciate that Greg is honest about the mental strain of just, well, releasing a game: “Whether a game is a runaway success or a runaway failure, creators will always find a reason to feel terrible when their project comes out.” Please, both publishers and friends of people releasing games - support them, cos it’s a period of such intense stress.)

Demos/prologues - should we be questioning their value?

I have to admit I’m feeling confused recently by the value of making a demo (or standalone prologue) version of your game recently, particularly on Steam. Does just spamming out demos for your games on all platforms really, really help sales?

At least on Nintendo Switch, where there’s some obvious top-level search mechanisms for demos, it was at one point worthwhile for increased visibility. Here’s a clear example via Death Squared for Switch:

However, can you make a Steam demo for your game that is succinct, doesn’t give away too much, will reach many new players, and leaves them wanting more?

I was chatting to SomaSim’s Rob Zubek (City Of Gangsters) about this recently, and he made a couple of good points: “Firstly, there's psychological research that people evaluate freebies differently (as less valuable) than things that cost them something, even just a symbolic token amount. Dan Ariely's ‘Predictably Irrational’ has good material on this.

Two: for systemic games, it's hard to figure out how to slice it up in such a way that the demo is both comprehensive enough to be interesting, yet leaves the player wanting more. I have no evidence but from my own experience with demos, it feels like demos of systemic games leave me not wanting more.”

Apart from the ‘finding new players’ issue, think the biggest issue for me may be conversion rate. It’s possible that 10,000 demo/prologue installations on Steam will end up with a tiny percentage converting? Early in the development of Xbox Live Arcade, when it was demo-centric, the average conversion rate (from trial download to purchase) was 18% [PDF link].

But that was with limited inventory, and crazily high compared to PC casual game portals back in the day, starting at 1%, and “..the rule of thumb could be that very targeted games receive higher conversion rates, up to 2%, 3% or even 5% while more generic games, or games with severe competition may receive a .1% - .5% conversion rate.” So.. your Prologue with 10k downloads and a couple of hundred Steam reviews could lead to… 100 extra sales, if things go ehhh?

On the plus side, it looks like The Riftbreaker’s Steam prologue has further helped its case and has reached new audiences, who then added to the hype. But with a pre-release Prologue that No More Robots published, I feel like the demo/prologue was pretty marginal in terms of affecting the game’s success. (Many positive reviews from people who were already fans, so were planning to buy the game anyhow?) This may be closer to the default in the crowded Steam market.

I also think you can make errors with demos that can turn off potential buyers. And overall, I think demos are probably being over-prioritized as a marketing tool right now. But… demos may allow you to build Steam wishlists that you can get sale discounts emailed to? So it’s complicated.

(If you have opinions or data on demos, please ping me and we’ll do a follow-up column with thoughts from readers.)

Other stuff…

OK, am ending out this round-up with a few other notable data points, as per usual. (Feel free to tip me via email or on Twitter if you spot any we missed.)

  • In ‘clever ways to do instant demos’ news on iPhone, iOS 14 has a new App Clip feature, which is basically ‘instantly playable <10 mb game snippet’. And one game - Phoenix 2 - has already got it working. Interesting, huh?

  • Steam has released its top new 20 games of August chat (as well as the top 5 new free-to-play titles for the month - I was very amused to see Frog Fractions in there.) Quite a lot of Early Access -> 1.0 releases in there (Undermine, Factorio, Risk Of Rain 2), but also new debuts like Rogue Legacy 2 and Spiritfarer. And, uh, Train Sim World 2!

  • So, who’s going to buy these newfangled consoles - at least in the U.S. - this holiday season? NPD’s Mat Piscatella pointed out this Civic Science survey on buyer intent, which is interesting. Xbox faring a bit better in aggregate than ‘core gamers’ might think?

  • Rise To Ruins dev Raymond Doerr just hit $2 million gross on Steam, and was kind enough to link his Steam back end summary page for the godlike village sim on Twitter. Things to note: net to gross was 84% without Steam cut - with an 8.5% refund rate & the rest going to VAT. (So that’s 58.8% net, after Steam cut.) Also, 320,000 units is a LOT for $2 mil gross - cheaper EA, and sometimes discount-driven? Impressive, though - poke around!

  • So, you are going to be able to stream Xbox games to your iPhone. But rather than going with Amazon’s web browser approach (maybe they’ll do that later too!), Microsoft is rolling out a ‘remote play’-style streaming approach from your Xbox. And the cloud gaming options just keep booting up, here.

Finally, just to show how exceptional Among Us’ stats have been recently, Steam themselves Tweeted this out the other day. Seriously? Seriously:

[This newsletter is handcrafted by GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We’ll be launching a ‘Plus’ paid newsletter tier with lots of extra info/data - watch out for it soon!]

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Simon Carless


Simon Carless is the founder of the GameDiscoverCo agency and creator of the popular GameDiscoverCo game discoverability newsletter. He consults with a number of PC/console publishers and developers, and was previously most known for his role helping to shape the Independent Games Festival and Game Developers Conference for many years.

He is also an investor and advisor to UK indie game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw), a previous publisher and editor-in-chief at both Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine, and sits on the board of the Video Game History Foundation.

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