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Nova Drift: the making of a Steam holiday 'sleeper' hit 2

Nova Drift - arcade space combat roguelite, Geometry Wars meets Asteroids meets randomly generated ‘runs’ - had a really good holiday season sales-wise. But why? We look into it.

Simon Carless, Blogger

January 11, 2021

8 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.]

You may know the devs from Pixeljam - an indie studio which is now 16 years old (!) - due to their earlier titles like Dino Run. This was originally a Flash title and migrated to Steam in enhanced form back in 2015. Anyhow, the team are veterans and do interesting work.

The most recent of these is a game called Nova Drift, which launched into Early Access in March 2019, and had been picking up positive reviews and minor (but not gigantic?) buzz ever since - Steam250 shows the game gradually adding 300 very positive Steam reviews per quarter or so since EA launch.

It’s an arcade space combat roguelite - so basically Geometry Wars meets Asteroids meets randomly generated ‘runs’. Great idea - grafting procedural things onto existing genres is often a really nice change of pace.

And as Miles Tilmann from Pixeljam told me recently: “Our holiday sales bump has been amazing - Nova Drift went from a baseline of 10-50 units per day to 100-500 units per day, even after the Steam Winter sale has ended.” You can see the effect in the above Steamcharts simultaneous user monitoring for Nova Drift - sharply up from averaging 100 simultaneous players for the past 18 months to more like 400+ in the last week or two.

So this is the dream situation for a lot of devs who’ve been working hard on Early Access games for extended periods of time. But how did it happen? Miles says it was ““…a perfect storm of Steam Winter Sale featuring us (in the space genre), follow-on Twitch activity, YouTuber videos (a few with 100K+ subs), and dumb luck. Never forget dumb luck. Although we've been working at getting Nova Drift out there for years, so maybe ‘luck’ is unfair.”

And having done some robust investigation, I agree that no one thing seems to have spiked the game’s sales - it’s all of the above. But when you start getting over 2,000 reviews or so on Steam of that positivity (98%!), the Steam algorithm starts taking you a bit more seriously.

And Pixeljam’s Tilmann does think that around Winter Sale time, Nova Drift got “…bumped up into a new tier of discoverability. Before, our game never showed up on the "more like this" section of the "top tier" indie roguelikes (Noita / Hades). But now it does.” Steamlikes is showing 2189 other Steam games recommending Nova Drift, which is only barely outside the Top 100 - very impressive.

And the YouTuber ‘halo effect’ - although this latest set started after the Winter Sales commence - is also a big part of spreading the word. Northernlion (a key YT-er in the ‘people actually buy games he streams’ space) tried the game back in December 2019.

This latest set of January 2021 videos hit a lot of the other variety YouTubers which I think Steam players take seriously, including SplattercatGamingBaerTaffy and Retromation - the latter two doing video series, not just one-offs:

Oh, and the game being its joint largest percentage off ever - at $8.99 in the U.S. instead of $14.99 - obviously helped people smash that ‘Buy’ button after finding out about it. (Cheeky comment: that’s too cheap for the amount of gameplay people are getting, Pixeljam. Nova Drift feels like a $19.99 not-on-sale game at the very least. Hope you put the price up after it comes out of Early Access.)

Finally, Miles also noted that Nova Drift has a much better hook/buyability factor when you go to the Steam page than Pixeljam’s other games like Dino Run and Cheap Golf - at least according to his internal marketing stats of purchases after Steam page visits.

Anyhow, this all makes sense, and ties in to a discussion we’ve had in this here GameDiscoverCo newsletter recently. You have better chances of being ‘found’ again significantly after your initial Steam release if you have a) good replayability and b) strong development roadmaps.

But I suspect you need to already have a decent-sized fanbase for this to happen. Nova Draft already had 2,500 Steam reviews (pretty good!) when it got this extra boost. So don’t go expecting your game with 50 reviews will also do similar, I’m afraid. But.. you never know. (Slay The Spire was famously DOA for a few weeks before getting picked up by streamers and taking the heck off.)

The game discovery news round-up..

We’ll be back later in the week with another ‘the holidays went well for this Steam game’ feature. And in the meantime, let’s look at some of the game platform and discovery news that popped up while we were slumbering peacefully:

  • Kinda interesting to see a hardcore F2P analyst take on Fall Guys, which is what we have with this Department Of Play analysis‘How to save a hit’. It takes the tack that the game is no longer doing as well as it should. The four Achilles heels it has? “Inability to Socialise… Punishing Gameplay… Metagame Simplicity… Catastrophic Success.” Legit worth a read, even if you think the Fall Guys crew probably didn’t build the game in a ‘desperate to retain DAUs at all costs’ way.

  • Haven’t seen this mentioned much, so just throwing it out there - Epic relaunched its Support A Creator program at the beginning of December 2020, which allows streamers and influencers to get at least 5% referral revenue on Epic’s various services (Fortnite, Rocket League, Epic Games Store). For EGS: “Each game has a different revenue share for attributed sales set by the Developer, but all games have a minimum rate of 5%.” Anyone know if this is working well? It’s been discussed for Steam on the dev/creator side, but I don’t believe Valve is keen.

  • There’s a good piece by Patrick Klepek over at Vice discussing Ubisoft’s efforts to buy/play a game once and use it on multiple platforms, trying out the ‘play on Stadia, continue on Xbox’ cross-platform save for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. He concludes the piece: “Ubisoft is probably fine with giving away a game on multiple platforms in service of locking someone into a monthly subscription fee that, over time, is potentially worth a lot more than a one-time purchase.” Yep, we’ve been discussing this exact potential future a lot recently.

  • Mode 7 Games’ Paul Kilduff-Taylor said on Twitter that “over 20k people have tried the Fights in Tight Spaces Prologue… also a fair number of people have downloaded it but not played it.” The game is a clever tactical deckbuilding brawler. And I took note because at the time of that Tweet it had 237 reviews. So for free Steam prologues, that’s approximately 100 players per review? (Went and looked at the Family Man Prologue, and it had 98 reviews and 11,000 actual players - but 17,500 total downloads - if you’d like another data point.)

  • The UK’s Entertainment Retailers Association published digital/physical UK sales figures for the top AAA sellers of 2020, conventional game-wise (via ISFE), and FIFA 21 topped it, with 2 million sales. (Not bad out of a total UK population of 66 million.) Wonder what Animal Crossing’s sales were f’real - Nintendo didn’t provide digital sales to the charts, unfortunately.

  • As noted by The Verge“LG has announced that it’s bringing two of the leading cloud gaming services, Google Stadia and Nvidia’s GeForce Now, to its newest TVs later this year. Stadia is expected to be available in the second half of the year after the 2021 lineup of OLED, QNED, and NanoCell TVs start shipping — with GeForce Now coming sometime later.” Cloud gaming gets a bit more competitive if it’s just ‘in’ your TV, but LG’s total market share is only 12%, including older non-compatible TVs.

Finally, are you aware of just how well Nintendo Switch is selling in Japan, given the rest of the Japanese game market has largely shifted to mobile phones? It’s… pretty damn well:

If you look at the remaining Japanese console hardware figures for 2020, you’ll see that no other console shipped more than 550,000 units. Though the lack of availability of PlayStation 5 probably played into that a bit. Nonetheless, doubt it would have done a great deal more than it did. So.. keep looking at Japanese releases for those Switch games if they’re market appropriate, eh?

[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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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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