Sorry for the rather clickbaity title! This will actually be a rather dry and boring dissection of why our game hasn’t done as well as similar games, and ideas for doing better. Academia : School Simulator (henceforth known as Academia) has been out since September 2017 and has done pretty well for Squeaky Wheel. It recently went past the 50000 unit mark and was making a decent profit, at least until the dreaded Steam Algocalypse of October 2018, from which it never truly recovered. We do have some savings built up and we’re more or less breaking even every month. Being on that knife’s edge of profitability does keep me up though, and I’ve recently started wondering, why hasn’t Academia been quite as successful as other, very similar games? I decided to do a deep dive and compare notes with some other trusted indie developers. These are the results.
PS: I want to make it clear that we realize how lucky we are to be one of the few devs that are even surviving relatively comfortably. I’m just thinking of this an experiment, ie all things being equal why would one game do worse?
The games to be compared are:
- Academia : School Simulator
- Sim Airport
- Airport CEO
- Another Brick In the Mall ( henceforth know as ABITM)
We are comparing these games because they are the most directly comparable to Academia in these ways:
- Graphics: All of them have a graphical lineage from Prison Architect (for which I was the artist), with some variation.
- Team Size: Relatively similar team sizes
- Marketing : Similar marketing output, which is to say that aside from doing their own marketing, none of these games have really gotten big marketing pushes.
- Originality : These games are building off a relatively established framework. Obviously they are unique in their own ways, but they are different mostly in theme, not gameplay.
- Launch Timing : These games came out within one year of each other, so for the most part the timing argument can be said to be neutral (ie one game does not have a huge advantage over the other due to being first).
- Early Access : All these games are currently in Early Access.
- Quality : I am coming in with the assumption that all these games are of relatively equal quality. That is to say one of these games is not clearly superior to the others at first glance.
We are excluding the following games from this comparison :
- Prison Architect
Prison Architect can be said to have reintroduced the business sim genre to the world when it came out, and was wildly successful for a variety of reasons. We cannot compare to that. Rimworld, while having similar graphics, is essentially a storytelling game similar to Dwarf Fortress, making it a massively different game. Both games also came out much earlier, which means they have the benefit of not dealing with any “sim fatigue” that may be creeping in. In short, these super successful game are not a good comparison to Academia.
Assumed Units Sold
The goal of this exercise is to figure out why Academia hasn’t quite sold the same amount of units as these other very similar games. We will not be measuring actual units sold, but merely comparing the number of reviews and using that as a proxy for units sold.
As of June 29, 2019, these are the numbers of reviews per game:
- Academia : 522
- Sim Airport : 1740
- Airport CEO : 1772
- ABITM : 982
Based on the above numbers we can say that very roughly, ABITM has sold twice as many units as Academia, and Airport CEO and Sim Airport have sold 3 times as many units as Academia.
- Academia : $20
- Sim Airport : $20
- Airport CEO : $16
- ABITM : $15
In terms of pricing the games are pretty close to each other. ABITM’s lower price point may have helped give it an edge over Academia, but it has sold less than both Sim Airport and Airport CEO, so lower pricing doesn’t seem to necessarily lead to more units sold.
- Academia : 8 Sep, 2017 avg. reviews/month to date = 24
- Sim Airport : 7 Mar, 2017 avg. reviews/month to date = 62
- Airport CEO : 29 Sep, 2017 avg. reviews/month to date = 81
- ABITM : 4 Nov, 2016 avg. reviews/month to date = 30
The most striking thing here is that Academia and Airport CEO launched at basically the same time, but given that amount of time Airport CEO averages 81 reviews a month and Academia averaged 24 views a month.
There has been a lot of talk about how important trailers are to a game’s launch. Mike Rose in particular has mentioned in one of rhe GDC talks (I can’t remember which one in particular) that a good launch trailer is key to success. So let’s compare the numbers between the launch trailers of each game on Youtube:
These are current numbers, as I’m not aware of any way to access historical data. There are some interesting comparisons to be made here.
Airport CEO had the most views at almost 3x the number of views of Sim Airport, however this did not translate to 3x more sales.
Academia had about 1.3x more views and ABITM had about 2x more views versus Sim Airport, but Sim Airport has outsold both Academia and ABITM
My conclusion is that while it is very important for your trailers to hit a certain mass (say above 20k views), after that a lot of other different things come into play when it comes to unit sales.
Sum of Top 5 Video Views on Youtube
While the launch trailer aims to measure initial impact and interest, this aims to measure long term interest in the game. I am aware that there is a better way to do this via Steamspy, but I currently do not have an account set up with them so this is a proxy. I will add the top 5 videos for each game based on viewer count and compare them.
- Academia : 9584000
- Sim Airport: 2240000
- Airport CEO: 1104000
- ABITM: 1577000
Academia is clearly the winner here, with an almost 5x lead over Sim Airport. Our sales data also shows that we unit sales peaked during the times when these major streamers (jacksepticeye, DanTFM etc.) played our games. It seems clear that despite having a good lead in terms of views, it hasn’t guaranteed that Academia would do better over the other games.
Theme Comparison and “Hookiness”
When we made the decision to do a school-themed game, the thought process was that it would be relatable since everyone has (in the economic class that can afford to play games for leisure) has been to school.
Clearly this was not a winning strategy, as it seems running a mall and running an airport (despite the fact that two games are duking it out) are still making more sales than a game about running a school.
While the power fantasy of running an airport or mall may stoke entrepreneurial dreams, running a school may not quite hit those same notes. It could be that there is a mismatch in theme and genre here, and that a school game might have worked best as an adventure game or even a visual novel, since this is where the story elements of running a school might shine.
I am not aware of the actual marketing spends of any of these companies. However I am on friendly terms with all of them, and as far as I can tell, none of them have made any real investments in marketing, whether it be purchasing ads or even showing up at conventions.
I know for a fact that the Sim Airport guy is very averse to going to conventions, he wasn’t particularly keen on going to GDC. He’s also mentioned he hasn’t done a lot marketing, adhering to the belief that people buy the game “because it’s good”
ABITM is a dev based somewhere in France who also doesn’t really do the convention circuit, although I’m not aware of any marketing or ad spends in his part.
The only time I heard of Airport CEO in media or conventions was when Jason Rohrer mentioned it in his talk at GDC.
As far as I know none of us are doing any major efforts in terms of marketing, ad spends, or conventions, and yet Academia has sold the least of the four games.
Youtube subscribers on company account
Another form of marketing is having your own Youtube account and pushing out videos. This is something that Prison Architect and Production Line have used to very good effect. Academia did this very well early on but we have lapsed.
Airport CEO has a very clear lead here, with Sim Airport coming a distant second. You could make the argument that community engagement through having a Youtube channel is a key thing we could be improving on.
As a counterpoint however ABITM has a meager 235 subscribers but has twice as many sales as Academia.
Another interesting point is that Airport CEO and Sim Airport have chosen to make channels out of their games, while Academia and ABITM are using their studio channels. There is a case to be made that a game having its own channel increases the chances that people will find it, and also helps with brand building for the game.
These are links to company or game websites with little analysis except to say that Sim Airport recently updated their website, while ABITM seems to be the simplest website of them all. None of the websites seem to convey any advantage to any of the games.
Review Score Percentage
Review score are a touchy subject when it comes to games on Steam. Steam reps will insist to their death that review scores have zero effect on their algorithm while indie developers like Cliffski will yell at you to get your total review scores percentage back up to 70% because it’s THAT IMPORTANT. This is like every other email I get from Cliffski.
When I first wrote this, the review scores were:
- Academia : 68%
- Sim Airport: 77%
- Airport CEO: 78%
- ABITM: 82%
Overall ABITM is in the lead here, but not by much. And despite this, both Airport games have easily outsold ABITM. So while Review Score must have some psychological effect on a player’s decision to buy a game or not, in this case there is no clear correlation.
Recently Academia’s total review score percentage hit 70% again, so it will be interesting to see if this has any effect on future sales.
One could argue that one of the games might be doing deeper discounts to pick up more units. During the 2019 Steam summer sale these were the discounts of each game:
- Academia : 25%
- Sim Airport: 40%
- Airport CEO: 30%
- ABITM: 40%
We assume that the Steam Summer Sale is the most recent and therefore the deepest discount for each of these games, since it would be very hard to try to discount to 75% to try to boost units but they go back up to 40% off. Once players know that it was discounted so deeply, it creates an anchoring effect, and they will simply wait for the game to go back down to 75% off.
Regardless, the differences in deepest discounts seem close enough that it seems safe to shrug this off as having any meaningful effect on sales.
Based on the varied feedback, it seems that Academias’ biggest issues when it comes to sales are a poor fit between theme and genre, An average trailer, and possibly less depth and retention than the other games.
There is very little we can do about the theme, although we could work that into the game more so that anyone who *wants* to feel like they are running a school really gets into the game. More depth will be added as time goes on, and once that’s done, a new trailer will hopefully entice people to try the game out.
This kind of comparison is really difficult unless there are vastly similar games to yours out there, however it has been useful for our team in clarifying what kind of mechanics we should focus on adding to the game in the near future. We hope it’s been helpful for you as well!
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