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Game Discoverabilityland: Tim Epic vs. Tim Apple (also non-Tim news!) 2

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Simon Carless, Blogger

August 20, 2020

10 Min Read

[Hi, I’m ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, which you can subscribe to now, a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

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(Sorry, I should probably translate that. ‘Welcome to the latest version of my weekly GameDiscoverabilityland ‘round-up’ newsletter, which has a lot of useful information about game platforms and trends. But first, we have to get past the bit with the Tims in it…’)

That Epic vs. Apple (& Google) thing…

So, I’m pretty sure you all noticed that the issue of platform monopolies and ‘fair’ platform fees is being frontpaged by Epic (and its CEO Tim Sweeney) getting banned from - and suing - Apple’s platforms (and its CEO Tim Apple, uhh, Tim Cook), following that deliberate provocation involving IAP and Fortnite.

As you can tell and I’ve already referenced, I am very allergic to ‘hot takes’. These often tend towards a manic Kent Brockman-style ‘this reporter believes’ riff. But there are so many important, juicy things going on here that I can’t just ignore it.

After scrawling down some scrambled notes like ‘What features does a platform need to charge 30%?’‘How long would Tim Sweeney talk to you about this if he cornered you at a party?’, and ‘If Epic is so obsessed with actual cost of services, how much does a Fortnite skin cost to make and what’s its profit margin?’ (I kid! I kid!), I gave up.

So I’m going to link to two excellent ‘warm takes’ on the matter, which you should read in full, and leave it at that. First, Chris Plante’s great new Substack newsletter did an excellent job of breaking down the complexities. Extracting selectively: “Okay, so, deep breath, it's impossible to respond to all of these provocations between Epic and Apple linearly. So let's consider that a few things can be true all at once: Epic isn't purely altruistic… Epic can be self-interested and still be doing a solid for smaller studios… Epic was wrong to create a glorified propaganda ad that will be seen by millions of kids… The Apple problem is even bigger than Epic.” Plz read.

Secondly, policy wonk and anti-monopolist Matt Stoller did a piece on Apple vs. Epic in his ‘BIG’ newsletter. Here’s the crux: “What’s important is that this debate is as much philosophical over the moral nature of who should control commerce as it is about money. Typically large businesses reserve their political capital to limit government enforcers or regulators, but something strange started happening a few years ago, and it’s continuing today with this suit. Businesses began battling each other, and some started asking for an expansion of public power to structure markets.”

This is truly a weird artifact of late capitalism, and I have no idea what happens next. But I’d like to see more large company profits/margins redirected towards ‘the small guys’. And that is what Epic is trying to do here, even if we scoff at them doing it in ‘corporate behemoth’ form. So… that’s a thing.

Follow-Up From ‘Gross To Net’ Piece…

Just a couple of follow-ups on my ‘how you get from gross to net revenue on Steam’ piece. I thought people would be bored with it, but it has ended up being the most-read piece in this newsletter’s history (!).

One rather important thing is on additional possible taxation after you get to the ‘net is 57% of gross’ number. I missed this partly because all of the game publisher/devs I’ve worked alongside recently are based in the U.S. or the U.K.

As a Gamasutra commenter adds“If you or your company are in a country that doesn't have a double taxation treaty with the U.S. (e.g. Argentina) there is a withholding tax which is usually 30%.” So that’s the cherry on top of the (yucky) cake for some countries. But lots more info is on Steam here, you might be able to get some it written off on your local taxes, it’s complicated, speak to your accountant, etc…

Secondly, Finji’s wondrous Bex Saltsman had a really good Twitter thread on the reality of the net numbers if you break em down, based on ‘oh, this game grossed $1 million! Net is $577k, that’s so much money!’ Grabbing some of her comments here:

“The next step of this is... the comment "WOW $577,500! Those devs are rolling in cash!" Publisher Percent: idk, let's say it's 20% (this is below industry standard and let's say 0 expenses.) Devs get $462,000. Ahhh. But there are 4 of you with an equal share. $115,500 each. But let's be real here- there are expenses against that project at launch: Marketing costs, loans, etc. All of those come out of the "profit." Hopefully you can break even on your spend so you can make another game... which takes 2-5 years. So you have $115,500 to live on for 2-5 years (This assumes you made that $1m in the first payment cycle and it didn't take you 3 years to make that.)… and with these numbers- everyone has some kind of side gig or is independently wealthy?”

I missed some nuance, so read the whole thing. But for non-F2P teams getting paid competitive U.S. wages in particular - yup, you have to side-project. Or make games quicker. Or be privileged. Or get lots of external funding. Or all of the above.

Just Steam things…

Looks like there are so many Steam-specific news tidbits for this round-up that I’ll need to give them their own section. Like this:

  • There is a new FAQ on the Steam community page: “In the game you ship via Steam, and in communications on Steam, you may only promote the Steam version and its availability via Steam, and not other distribution outlets. This applies both to full versions of your game and to content patches that change the existing version.” Heads up!

  • The excellent unofficial SteamDB info site has just added a third ‘possible number of game owners’ number for every game on Steam, based on my recent research into sales/reviews. xPaw ended up using my 2020 estimate (20-60 sales per review), which is probably low given my ‘all-time Steam game’ estimate is more like 25-100 sales. But the other two estimates likely skew high - SteamSpy definitely does - so it’s a good compromise!

  • I’m starting to see more games launching on Steam and Epic Games Store simultaneously, which is interesting. (Previously, it was almost entirely timed exclusives on EGS first, which Epic paid for.) Recent examples for smaller games include Milky Way Prince and Kill It With Fire. I presume this’ll continue as Epic looks to bulk out its store. Not sure how you get ‘picked’ to be a EGS/Steam simul-ship, other than personally pitching Epic. Tell me what you know!

  • Microlinks: here’s a mini-postmortem of being in the Yogscast-organized Tiny Teams sale on Steam; on ‘do prologues work?’ I noted that Kill It With Fire had 300k Steam demo/prologue downloads but seems to have sold marginally (<10k copies?) so far on its actual release; xPaw spotted that they’ve lowered the Steam launch discount cooldown (first discount after launch discount!) from 2 months to 6 weeks.

Other (non-Steam) things…

And, conversely, here’s all the game discoverability links which are not - in fact, in the main - about Valve or Steam. Phew:

  • There’s a report that Apple will start launching bundled subscriptions in October called Apple One, “starting with a basic combo of Apple Music and Apple TV+, while more expensive bundles will add Apple Arcade, then Apple News+ at the next tier, then extra iCloud storage for the tier above that.” This meta-bundling could clearly help Apple Arcade’s likely underperformance.

  • The latest edition of Ryan Clark’s ‘Clark Tank’ - basically the video version of what I do here with more game analyses - is now available on YouTube. It covers a gigantic amount of ground across Steam, Switch and beyond, including Bigosaur’s latest monthly eShop revenue ranking chart - well worth checking out.

  • Two new EA subscription service things - firstly, they’re trying to consolidate their naming down to EA Play for all their subscription options on console and PC (probably good, but the subs aren’t crossplatform!), and EA Play is now dated as coming to Steam on August 31st.

  • We’re seeing more from Microsoft about ‘the new Xbox experience’, and they’re definitely pushing the multiplatform & subscription aspects hard. For example, a new Xbox mobile app “better integrating your phone into the social experiences on Xbox”, and new stores where it’s “easy to understand at a glance what’s included or discounted with any memberships you have, like Xbox Game Pass.”

  • Another notable announcement - former Valve contractor Lars Doucet has announced (on Twitter, with screenshots) that he’s working on a new data platform for Steam and other games, Game Data Crunch - with lots of high-quality data scraping. Not much there yet, but likely to be very soon. You can support the site on Patreon, & I’ll alert you all when it’s live.

  • Highlighting this from Danny Weinbaum’s great Eastshade postmortem“Steam is by far our biggest market share. In fact, I would call our console launch a faceplant. Our sales were about 10% of… expected... We were fortunate that Microsoft featured us on the family homepage, and Xbox sales have picked up substantially since then. Playstation has remained a trickle, and our PS4 release was hardly worth it for us, especially considering what a difficult platform it is to release on, from both a development and administrative perspective.” (I’m starting to hear from a number of people that console sales can be disappointing compared to PC for indies, unless you have a game that traditional ‘console fans’ flock to.)

  • Micro-links: ‘Why is Amazon having so much trouble making good video games?’ (more about studios than platform, but intriguing), why video game tax relief is good for UK game devsIron Galaxy’s Dave Lang has a ‘12 years of how I grew my company’ Twitter thread (updated daily) that talks about company culture, journey & intent in a mode of self-reflection we should all emulate.

  • Wanted to recommend another Substack newsletter in the video game space, The Pause Button. Run by Fawzi Itani and Max Lowenthal, it mixes up the business side of games with some more game culture-centric links, and definitely has discoverability-adjacent content, like their latest newsletter leading with the Amazon ‘Prime Gaming’ rebrand. Go check it out!

On the way out of the door, let me add the bonus data-point that I promised after publishing the Steam review/sales ‘New Boxleiter number’ a few days ago:

Interesting, huh? The surprising part to me is the lower-selling games having such good reviews. Twitter folks speculated that it’s acquaintances/extreme fans of the bottom-selling games that are keeping their positive Steam review % so high.

Or perhaps those games are so niche that if you buy them, you can’t help but like them? Either way…

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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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