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How can games that don’t hew to today’s discoverability ideals actually get alone and do well in the market? Maybe we need a new business model for this...

Simon Carless

July 12, 2021

11 Min Read

[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.]

Welcome back to the world of, uh, today. We’re moving past the Switch and Steam summer sales and into the halcyon days of mid-summer, where school is out and there’s quite a lot of video game buying going on! (Though the real money is in Pokemon card grading & suspiciously high Mario 64 auction wins. I blame NFTs.)

So let’s get to it, with the first item in this week’s newsletter talking about how games that don’t hew to ‘today’s discoverability ideals' can actually get along, little doggie?

[LAST CHANCE REMINDER: three days left on the 20% off discount for new GameDiscoverCo Plus subscribers, following the launch of our ‘Complete Game Discovery Toolkit’ eBook. You also get Discord, exclusive weekly newsletter, Hype data access. Thx!]

How can shorter, niche games get discovered?

If you folks didn’t spot it, former Bioshock dev & Where The Water Tastes Like Wine mastermind Johnneman Nordhagen wrote an intriguing editorial the other day called ‘Steam & discoverability’ - though to be honest, its arguments abstract to pretty much any game selling platform.

Basically, Johnneman notes that he feels the Steam algorithm rewards popular titles with lots of CCUs and high replayability & continual reviews. This creates a continuous recommendation system that works well for Games As A Service-led titles that have a lot of updates & replayability.

But it doesn’t work for a key, wonderful and innovative part of the game industry. As he says: “Personally, the kind of games I love to play and make are generally small, unique, narrative-focused, and do not have broad audience appeal — exactly the sort of title that gets no help from Steam’s algorithms.”

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say ‘no help’ - if games are well received over time, they will keep getting incrementally better Discovery Queue referrals. But by and large, it’s true that ‘great but niche’ games that are unlike other games you play can be tricky to find. (That’s why Steam250 created the Hidden Gems chart, for example.)

Johnneman goes on to note: “The criteria which Valve has chosen for Steam’s discoverability rewards certain types of titles and punishes others. It’s obviously possible for weird, story-driven single-player games to be successful in this universe (Disco Elysium springs to mind), but the deck is at least somewhat stacked against them.”

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been tracking the success and sales of Chicory: A Colorful Tale (above), the Greg Lobanov/Finji title which has been getting rapturous reviews, but got off to a slow start on Steam. (It’s doing exactly the same thing as Greg’s last title, Wandersong, whose ‘staying power’ I wrote about late last year. And I suspect it’s going to power through to a good result in the end.)

As a fan of shorter, perfectly crafted games (I was even chatting to Stuffed Wombat last year about helping to fund the sublime QOMP, although he found a more suitable angel investor in the end!), I definitely feel this issue. Games that are ‘one and done’ are at such a disadvantage in today’s market on multiple levels: less post-release updates, poor CCUs, less likelihood of post-launch traffic spikes from streamers.

And those platforms like Apple Arcade which initially tried to focus in part on one-off narrative experiences have pivoted to more evergreen, replayable titles. In part, I suspect, this was because management’s KPIs were not being fulfilled by the existing slate of titles.

Frankly, if you look at Xbox Game Pass too, a possible oasis for alternate play styles, the GaaS-ish replayable titles are starting to crowd the ‘Most Played’ area of even that service. (I wrote about that, too - although credit to Game Pass for signing games like Rain On Your Parade to allow some quirkiness in there.)

So what are the possibilities, here? Some suggestions:

  • What about a particular area of a subscription service that caters to those looking for short/one-off innovation or novelness? In the streaming video space, it’s great to see HBO Max licensing niche Criterion content for its TCM hub, for example. It needs to be paid for and ‘carved out’ by the platform, though. (And long-term, will the metrics look good?)

  • How about explicit and larger-scale editorial featuring of the best ‘hidden gems’ to buy on any given platform? Apple & Sony have done this at times. On Steam, editorial featuring for smaller scale games is rarely done because of its perceived subjectivity. And often niches have limited interest - wider advertising may not scale standalone sales, long-term. But it’s a palatable short-term fix.

  • How about a bespoke service that’s purely for a mass of short-form narrative or ‘one off’ titles? It’s not going to be a massive moneyspinner. But perhaps it could provide for interesting/exclusive experimental titles - as Humble Originals once did as part of Humble Bundle. (Oddly, Playdate is kinda this, but as… a dedicated handheld device? But a PC-based subscription is more what I mean.)

Concluding his opinion piece, Johnneman notes: “I can’t present a compelling short-term business case why they should change discoverability to help small, weird, niche titles. The best I can do is gesture vaguely at the long-term health of games if we lose new types of genre, small teams, and a diversity of business models for games.”

And I agree that something is being lost here. Sure, niche is niche. Monetization of games of this sort can be dismal, but they’re genuinely entertaining. For example - I’m a little obsessed with GMTK Jam 2020 winner You Are Now Possessed, and totally think it should be a full-sized game.

But monetizing games like this on their own - unless you hit the Baba Is You tipping-point - seems like a bit of an imposing challenge. Can we not create a grouped business model to solve for this type of title? (One that doesn’t require you to make a whole new handheld?) Answers on a postcard, please.

Hype analysis: biggest upcoming city-builders?

So we’ll keep most of the game-specific analysis to the GameDiscoverCo Plus-exclusive newsletters we send out every Friday. But since our updated Steam Hype data now allows searching by Steam tag, we’ll be looking at a tag once per month in the free newsletter. For science.

And the first one of these - pictured above - is for ’city builder’, a tag/subgenre we think is still incredibly strong on Steam. Heck, the Top 10 unreleased Steam games listed above are all in the Top 75 of our self-calculated Hype points score (weighted combination of Steam followers, wishlist rankings, Steam chatter & more.)

So what trends or possibilities can we divine from what’s hot up there right now? Let’s take a look:

  • Interesting to see that the top title is Amplitude/Sega’s Humankind, which is really a Civilization-like 4X across multiple periods of history - but obviously has a lot of city-building elements. Its total of 143,000 Steam followers so far must equate to around 1.5 million wishlists? Impressive, if not surprising, given Amplitude’s great history in the genre with Endless Space/Legend.

  • Also maybe surprising to see Dwarf Fortress with nearly 100,000 followers, but the legendary ASCII strategy/building title is promising a quantum leap in usability by adding a paid more-graphical Steam version to the free ‘donationware’ original. (This just went great for Doki Doki Literature Club Plus, so no reason it won’t do similarly here!)

  • The ever-opportunistic PlayWay has decided that ‘3D citybuilder + specific setting’ is a good place to plant their flag in the sand. So they have both Builders Of Egypt (whose Prologue is much-played but not yet much-loved) & Viking City Builder (the clone of the higher-ranked and non-PlayWay Manor Lords that we discussed in our PlayWay piece) in the Top 10. Also China & Greece, actually. This genre is rough to replicate from ‘target gameplay’ trailers, so they may be working on these titles for some time.

  • You can also see the effect of having so many Steam tags per game, all player-taggable. There’s a couple of titles - Grounded-like multiplayer survival game SmallLand & basebuilding space management title Falling Frontier in particular - that you wouldn’t really call ‘city builder’ up front, yet nonetheless got tagged as one of the 20 or so possible Steam tags per game. But they’re great looking!

  • A couple of other games sneaking into the Top 10, both of which I really like the look of: Timberborn is a city builder starring ‘lumberpunk beavers’ and lots of wooden buildings, and Terra Nil is that “reverse city builder about ecosystem reconstruction” which has picked up almost 17,000 Steam followers since June 8th (?!) Nice work.

Anyhow, hope this was interesting, and we’ll explore another tag next month. And reminder: if you sign up to a GameDiscoverCo Plus subscription, you can access the Steam Hype back-end and sort by any tag/date - across the entire catalog of unreleased Steam games.

The game discovery news round-up..

And let’s finish up the first GameDiscoverCo newsletter of the week with some goodness related to platforms, discovery, et cetera. (BTW, the second free newsletter for this week will be on Thursday, not Wednesday, since I’m traveling on Wednesday. Please expect it.) Onward:

  • The ‘lawsuits against platforms’ bandwagon rolls on. But the latest marginally more ridiculous antitrust suit again Steam seems to be from Darkcatt Studios, who were banned from Steam for some drama-filled reasons a few months back. And they also allegedly like replying to people who don’t like their game and calling them ‘Karens’. According to the suit: “Steam removes games or Developers as a show of strength to keep Developers loyal and maintain its monopoly, despite the cost.” Riiiiight.

  • We have a Lazyweb* request! Is anyone keeping - or can anyone keep - a list of Steam sales that are likely to occur yearly and might be eligible for third-party developers? There’s some really great sales out there - like LudoNarraCon or Tiny Teams - that are or might be yearly - but SteamDB only keeps track of select first party sales. We might try to do it ourselves somehow, but wanted to see if anyone else has done it, first!

  • The latest PlayStation 4/5 monthly download charts for June 2021 are out - here’s PS5 and here’s PS4 across U.S.+Canada/Europe. Notable things? Well, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is still a palpable smash on PS5, but Chivalry 2 (Beta screenshot above) has done notably well there - as have Guilty Gear Strive & Scarlet Nexus in North America. And on PlayStation 4, the return of Cyberpunk 2077 took it back up to the top of the charts in both territories, with lots of ‘evergreens’ (GTA, Minecraft, FIFA, NBA) crowding the rest of the charts.

  • Coupla reader follow-ups on the last newsletter & the Neon Doctrine publisher agreement: first potential gotcha is the developer having to pay either a) a set sum or b) all publisher costs to date, if the game is cancelled for any reason. (Negotiate that to be a reasonable number.) Second, context is key: % royalty after recoup - and recoup % - can be heavily predicated on the advance. (Is it 0 or $1 million? The riskier for the publisher, the more they may try to get.) The agreement itself still looks sound, though.

  • Microlinks: More from Matt Stoller on the Biden administration’s actions on Big Tech and ‘the politics of monopoly’; keep forgetting about How Long To Beat, which is a curious & weird site tracking game completion times; recently new on YouTube is this Steam business team Q&A panel hosted by the virtual DevGAMM event.

Finally, the Fesshole Twitter account is anonymous - largely British - people confessing to all kinds of sins, small and large. But a recent confession is video game related and pretty tragifunny, so we’re passing it along. Happy Monday:

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]

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About the Author(s)

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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