As a small independent publishing label in a rapidly changing market we find ourselves constantly trying to assess and re-assess the best way to approach each game we’re working on and how bexst to help the development teams we work with.
A regular topic we discuss internally is Early Access - whether it makes sense, how to go about it and what the implications of choosing that model are. We’ve launched two games through Early Access but as we approached our next game, Screencheat, we had a lot of discussion about whether to take the Early Access route again or something else. In the end we chose something else - specifically an almost opposite approach of offering a free but limited time beta. In this article we’d like to share the thought process that went into that decision as well as the results of the beta and the lessons we’ve taken away from it.
Screencheat is a split-screen shooter for PC, Mac and Linux and is inspired by the act of looking at your opponents’ section of the screen in a split-screen game like Goldeneye or Mario Kart in order to gain an advantage. Developed by indie studio, Samurai Punk, Screencheat plays on this idea by making it the core of the game. You see: in Screencheat all the players are invisible and the only way to find and shoot each other is to look at the other players’ screens.
Developed originally as part of this year’s Global Game Jam, we noticed the potential in the game and teamed up with its developer, Samurai Punk, to work on a fleshed out commercial version. It will release on Steam, Humble and other digital stores on October 21st, 2014.
In developing the marketing strategy for the game we knew we were going to need to get it into quite a lot of players’ hands for testing, especially since the team were adding online multiplayer. We also wanted to build a strong community for the game before launch so that there were lots of players in servers on launch.
Screencheat seems like a good fit for Early Access - it’s well suited to iterative development, it needs players to help balance and polish the game before launch and it has lots of potential to drop regular updates. However, we had a number of concerns rising from our Early Access experiences with our other two games that lead us to consider and ultimately adopt a different path.
Each of the two games we have in Early Access had some unique challenges and benefits to deal with but consistent with both was a sense that we were using up marketing ammunition for the Early Access period that might have been better used at another time. As development schedules stretched out, we were in danger of having to go dark and pull back marketing or using up too much of the marketing gas too soon.
One of the things that myself and fellow Surprise Attack Director Travis Plane learnt working at THQ was that games have their two biggest spikes of interest around the announcement and the launch. These tend to be dramatically bigger than any other spike of interest along the way and a key mantra in the THQ global marketing team was “dropping bombs not bullets”. In other words, gather your assets and information and focus on generating a small number of big spikes of interest between announcement and launch rather than a constant stream of activity. Most importantly of all, make sure your announcement or first marketing push is really strong as well as your release since they are the ones that matter most.
A challenge with Early Access is that it can use up a lot of your marketing ammo before launch whilst simultaneously negatively impacting your “real” launch since the game has already technically been made available and it’s more of an iterative 1.0 release than something really “new”. The flip side is that for some games, Early Access can provide a fantastic way to avoid the need for “big bombs” and can facilitate marathon build ups to launch. Good examples would be Prison Architect or Kerbal Space Program.
With our game Vertiginous Golf we wanted to follow a drip feed, community-driven development approach to build more of a grass-roots groundswell but with Screencheat we wanted to shrink the length of the campaign, focus on a few major marketing bombs rather than a drip feed and to ensure that the full release felt like a true launch. We felt that going down the Early Access path was going to be a hindrance to this strategy.
Community > Money
On the Early Access side of the argument a major factor to consider was the revenue potential of selling the game early. We were confident of having a really solid Early Access build that would be worth paying for and we were also confident in being able to update the game regularly through to launch as well as hitting a release date before the end of 2014.
So in essence, we felt confident in the commercial proposition of an Early Access release for Screencheat. As a small independent publishing label working with a small independent developer, cash flow is pretty high on the priority list so turning down that revenue potential was a big deal.
Ultimately, however, we felt that it was more important to build a strong community for the game and maximise the number of players helping to test and balance the game. If we put a price tag on access, we would restrict the player-base. With online multiplayer such as big part of the game, empty servers would be a real problem so the player base was critical. Added to this, we felt the game had good potential to go viral with players bringing in their friends and we knew that would be far more likely to happen if there was no barrier to entry of a price tag.
Free as in Free Beer
Having determined not to go for Early Access, our path was instead to launch a free, time-limited beta of the game where anyone could get access and play.
We would use Steam as the platform for the beta but in order to build the community we tied access to the beta to registrations on the Screencheat community website, itself part of our wider community site that supports all our games.
In this way, we would drive traffic to the site and capture email details, enabling us to communicate with our player base during the beta and afterwards. This would also have a long term benefit for our other games by helping us grow our label database.
Our community site also has its own forums and we wanted to drive the community to engage in these forums. Although Steam forums are awesome, our ambitions for the game go beyond Steam and beyond PC so it was important for us to build a community beyond Steam.
Anyone registering on the site during the beta was emailed not one but four keys for the beta. This was designed to encourage people to share the game in social media and to counter the potential of low server counts - if you could organise to jump on with friends it would matter much less if there were fewer public games going.
The beta ran for one month from August 4 to September 3, after which access to the beta would only be available if you pre-ordered the full game. In order to help raise visibility to the game we decided to launch that pre-order on the same day as the beta. This meant the game had a page on Steam as well as Steam forums and that players could also leave user reviews there.
We had zero expectations in terms of sales during the beta but hoped that some people would pre-order the game to keep playing during the six or seven weeks from the end of the beta until the full launch of the game.
Our objectives for the beta were:
- More than 10,000 players to play the game
- Generate substantial signups to the community site, we were hoping for 15k
- Generate substantial coverage for the game from media and YouTubers
Through these we hoped to set the game up for a strong launch in October of this year.
Reveal + Beta: One Two Punch
In order to follow our bombs not bullets approach we decided to hold off on announcing the game or other public marketing activity until the beta. The plan was to drop the announcement, reveal trailer and beta news all at once, enabling players to jump into the beta the moment they heard about the game.
In the end this approach was slightly compromised when the game leaked a week early and was picked up by Kotaku and Eurogamer. Our team scrambled to pull the reveal forwards and we announced the game the day after the leak with the beta starting a few days later.
By combining the two events into one we were able to deliver on our strategy and the quick reaction in pulling forwards our launch meant we still secured major press coverage across many more sites in the first week including Rock Paper Shotgun, IGN, Gamespot, GameTrailers, Destructoid and more.
Since it was a beta and we wanted as many people playing as possible, we were extremely free and easy with beta codes, sending out batches to our database of media and YouTubers, everyone receiving a set of four codes.
By making the beta free, we also found lots of media and YouTubers covering the game that were not already on our list since there was no barrier to getting a code. Bizarrely we actually still received a large number of requests for codes despite the fact they could just get them by registering for the beta on the website.
During the beta we had decided to keep the content tight for the launch and then add additional content during the month in order to keep people coming back to play again and give more content for YouTubers to cover in multiple videos.
The beta launched with two maps, two modes and four weapons. Two weeks in we added another mode, another map and another weapon. We specifically chose to hold back one of the coolest weapons for this drop - a modified car engine that shoots out giant laser balls - and a very different map. Towards the end of the beta and to coincide with PAX Prime we dropped another of the more bizarre weapons into the game - the Hobby Horse.
These updates definitely did their job, inspiring new spikes in coverage and videos and interest from players. In retrospect the second update should perhaps have been a little larger in scope but with the whole dev team heading to PAX Prime we had underestimated the impact that would have on the development during the beta.
Another benefit we found of being a beta and not Early Access was that players understood the work in progress nature of the game and had different expectations in terms of the bugs and scope of updates.
By the Numbers
During the beta we collected and tracked all sorts of data so that we could use it as a learning experience. Primary of these were the registrations to the website, number of keys distributed and number of players of course.
Codes and Players
Firstly, we had an incredible number of registrations to the website with 22,893 people signing up during the course of the beta. This far exceeded our expectations and has given us an excellent database to build on for Screencheat and other games.
With each person getting four codes, a total of 91,572 codes were sent out to people registering on the site with a further 4,800 distributed to media and YouTubers. For beta registrants, codes were sent out in batches via email using Mailchimp, which allowed us to track open rates. 56% of the emails with keys were opened whilst the open rate for the update newsletter emails was 39.5%. We were really happy with this as a %, although if we were to do a beta again we would most likely give the codes to users on the website itself with email as a backup as many people did not understand they had to wait to receive their code by email, no matter how many times it was explained on the site or in the forums. We also lost nearly half the potential players due to unopened emails with their keys.
All those codes translated to 12,707 registered and activated copies of the beta on Steam. This beat our target player count by 27% but it was a surprise to us that the majority of people who registered for a key never activated them. An important learning for us from this is that you definitely need to be free and easy when distributing codes for a beta since many people that sign up will end up dropping off before they even activate the code.
We also wanted to understand where these users were coming from so were tracking the Google Analytics data for both the Steam page and the website every day.During the course of the beta we had almost 70k visits to the Screencheat website and 150k visits to the Screencheat Steam page.
Drilling down into where the traffic was coming from, we were surprised to see that a significant number of the top sources of traffic for the website were Russian. VK.com, a Russian social network, was one of the largest. Also in the top 25 sources were articles on Russian website, Miped.ru and Rustorka.com and many other russian sites. Russians, it would turn out, were also the largest location for traffic by far.
When we dug into this we found that at least one of the Russian sites had erroneously reported that players would get a full free copy of the game and not a beta code and so this might explain the fervour of the Russian gaming community. Incidentally, this influx of Russian players also highlighted something for us to take away - we had not localised any of the marketing materials or instructions on the website and this resulted in additional load on our community support team including an eventually hilarious tendency for commenters in any thread or post on the website to start asking for a key. Aside from anything else, it really bumped up the priority of Russian localisation and we hope to have that ready for launch or soon after now.
The most significant source was an article that PC Gamer ran on the 25th of August. This was combined with a Reddit post that made it to the front page of r/games and a big YouTuber - Star - who posted a video that day. This combination drove the visits to the Steam page to 18k in a single day as well as taking our daily visits to the website from around 1k up to 4k. Digging in further, we believe that it was mostly the PC Gamer piece that was the most impactful as we had other similarly large YouTube videos later and quite a few other reddit posts that trended but nothing came close to the traffic from that day. This shows how a single piece of coverage can sometimes have a huge impact on your campaign, even amongst plenty of other coverage.
Another notable source of traffic were sites such as whoisgamingnow.com and steamgifts.com. These were much larger than major media outlets such as Kotaku or IGN. We put the exposure on these sites down heavily to the strategy of giving extra keys. Players were using these sites to share codes with strangers and that was generating substantial traffic from players to our website. Definitely a win for the multiple codes plan.
Notably YouTube and Twitch were not that high up in the list of referrers, despite many significant let’s play videos and streams hitting during the beta. It’s hard to know if this is a result of traffic not being identified correctly, however, as we definitely saw daily increases of traffic when big videos hit.
One of the biggest lessons we took away from this data, however, was how important it had been to have the Steam page live. With nearly twice as much traffic as the website, despite all our links and activity directing people to the website, the Steam page had a massive boost to the exposure of the game during the beta.
The main things we took away from looking at the traffic data were:
Big media coverage does drive traffic - the biggest spike in traffic came from an article from PC Gamer - but doesn’t always show as a direct source of traffic in the data.
YouTube is under-represented as a source of identified traffic and it’s hard to pinpoint specific outcomes from the YouTube coverage we received.
Beyond media there are other places like Steam Gifts that fly under the radar but can drive significant traffic to your site and store page. We hadn’t targeted them directly for the beta but will know better next time.
Strong coverage in other languages can drive substantial traffic and users but you need to be ready for that.
Reddit is a very strong driver of traffic but not something you can control as it has to be organic. The more activity you have going on with community, YouTubers and other sources the more likely you are to have organice posts on Reddit from gamers.
Let's PlayA big part of the marketing support for the beta was engagement of the YouTube community. We knew we could not rely on big games sites covering the game since it is such a crowded market and once the news of the beta starting was gone we didn’t have many reasons to go back to media. YouTubers, on the other hand, are less time sensitive to “news” and had more potential to cover the beta multiple times as we rolled out more content.
One thing we’ve seen in tracking the YouTube community is that they really like to make videos with other YouTubers as groups so we were hoping that the multiplayer aspect of the game would encourage these groups to adopt the game.
We were not disappointed in the reaction we received from the YouTube community and in total around 400 videos were made during the beta totally 1.4million views.
A few major YouTubers and Streamers such as the DERP crew, YOGSCAST, Northern Lion, Game Grumps and Star picked it up whilst GameSpot ran an hour long stream and GameTrailers streamed it twice as well as a 20 minute dissection of their experience and thoughts on the game.
Some interesting stats that came out of analysing the data on the videos but the really big takeaway is that the YouTube views were so incredibly weighted towards the biggest videos.
Here’s a chart of the top 50 videos and their relative size. The largest videos are on the left and they are arranged in declining order to the right.
Note - when combined, the top 50 represented 99% of the 1.4million views that the total 400+ videos received. In fact, when you factor in that several YouTubers ran multiple videos and that in some cases, each member of a group would post their own video of the same session, you can see that the top 10 sources of videos (individuals or groups) accounted for 91% of the views.
One possible action from this finding is to focus your time and free codes with larger YouTubers only and not to worry too much about giving out codes to the smaller ones. Certainly the impact on the view count total would not be that significant if you remove the other 300 odd video makers beyond the top 20.
However, our sense before and after this exercise is that it’s a good idea to support the smaller members of the YouTube community because that helps contribute to a groundswell. Smaller video makers shared their experiences on social media and the YouTube community talk to each other a lot so to maximise your chances of getting the larger groups and video makers on board, it’s worth supporting all of those interested in your game. Just make sure you go in expecting that most of your exposure is going to come from those big ones and don’t stress too much about giving away a code and seeing the resulting video get 8 views.
The other key thing from this exercise for us was that the multiplayer angle worked extremely well and we also found that the game was surprisingly strong in this format. We’d been concerned with the fact that it is hard to show pure gameplay of Screencheat since it’s confusing for watchers to understand what is going on and which areas of the screen to watch. The Let’s Play and Twitch formats totally conquered this problem by adding genuine commentary and exhibiting the fun and chaos that defines the Screencheat experience. This is something we are taking on in our planning for future trailers showing off the game.
Show me the Money
As mentioned above, our expectation going into the beta was that we would sell very few copies during the beta. We’d essentially made peace with the idea of abandoning pre-launch salesin favour of maximising community and player base for polish and testing.
The only incentive we were offering to players to pre-order was a 33% discount on the final launch price but with the beta being free and no time pressure to take advantage of that discount yet, we were really not expecting much in the way of sales. There would be a bigger incentive at the end of the beta when players would need to pre-order to keep playing but for now - we expected players to jump into the beta and hold on to their cash.
So it was a pleasant surprise to find that more than 1,000 people pre-ordered the game during the beta. Even more surprising to us was that there was barely any cross-over between the players in the beta and the people buying the game - only 4% of the purchasers had actually installed the beta before buying, which meant many people were hearing about the game, coming to the Steam page and choosing to put down their money before they had played it, despite the fact that the page was covered in messages about joining the free beta. This also meant that we still had a large number of potential customers left to convert from the beta participants.
This was a great validation for us of both the game and also the importance of letting people pay you for your game as soon as you are comfortable guaranteeing a release. Having the game live on Steam during the beta was one of the most important lessons for us.
Since the beta has ended we’ve continued to have a steady level of pre-sales through Steam as well as through our Humble Widget and the Humble Store. Again, this was largely unexpected so has been a bonus in terms of bringing some revenue forwards for us, and more importantly, the developer.
One key piece of data we’re looking forwards to seeing with the full launch is how the pre-sale number translates into full sales at launch as, when combined with wish list volume, this will give a good indication of expectations for sales as we approach future games.
There were definitely some major learnings along the way where we could improve things next time including the need to automate the code distribution process as much as possible, consider localisation of information and materials even when the game is in English only and also to try to specifically target the websites around Steam such as steamgifts.
We would definitely use registration for our own database as the access point to the beta again as that was a great long term win for us in growing the numbers there. However, we would potentially focus the forums on Steam next time rather than split our attention across two locations
By offering players a way to buy the game during the beta we achieved unexpected sales and we would definitely want to make sure purchase options are available in the future. Next time we would make the purchasing clearer on our own site and put more attention on that, knowing that the potential for sales during a free beta is much higher than we original thought.
Steam as a channel for player acquisition and exposure was also a bigger factor than we had imagined, capturing more people than the game’s website and having healthy forums. Having the page live had so many benefits including those listed above as well as other things such as having many positive user reviews already on the page before launch and the game now appearing in many curator lists, despite not having launched yet. We would see it as key requirement for any future betas we run.
Overall, we feel very confident we made the right choice to avoid Early Access for Screencheat. This exercise confirmed our feelings that Early Access really suits a long, drip-feed approach where the evolving nature of the game is fundamental to the way the game is developed and experienced and the arrival of version 1.0 is not that big a deal. For games that don’t fit that model we’re much more likely to avoid Early Access in future. We were also very pleased with the outcomes so far of making the beta free and holding back our marketing to the last few months before release. Hopefully this will pay dividends when the game launches on October 21st.