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On January 30th, I launched my first-ever Steam page for a small horror game I've been working on, called Dark Lessons. Here's a breakdown of what worked and what could've gone better.

Robert Seidel

February 21, 2024

15 Min Read

On January 30th, I launched my first-ever Steam page for a small horror game I've been working on, called Dark Lessons. Here's a breakdown of what worked and what could've gone better.

tl;dr:

  • I narrowly missed my target of at least 150 wishlists in two weeks

  • Posting a press release turned out to be a surprisingly good decision and indirectly accounted for 1/3 of all wishlists

  • Building a small community on Twitter and running a little pre-launch campaign there went well

  • I did alright on Reddit but probably could have done quite a bit better

  • My game probably just doesn't look exciting enough yet for a wider audience

Background

I'm developing my game as a hobby besides a (normally) full-time job and family life as the father of two boys. On the one hand, this means my available time is very limited. On the other hand, I have the luxury that my game does not need to succeed as a commercial product. While I would not mind that at all, my main motivator is that I find gamedev to be fun — often more fun than playing. My scope is accordingly small, with me aiming for a play time between one and two hours, and I rely heavily on purchased assets.

Nonetheless, I wanted to do a real development and marketing cycle for this game to see how I could reach players and how well it would be received. In order to prepare for my launch, I followed Chris Zukowski’s “Wishlist & Visibility Masterclass”. I find Chris to be awfully likable and helpful. As far as time allowed, I tried to follow his advice to a tee.

Timeline preceding launch

3.5 months lie between conceiving my game idea and my Steam page launch. I'm a web developer by vocation, so programming isn't new to me, but I only started learning Godot last September and started working on my game Mid-October. I made some small mini games 20 years ago as a high school student and dabbled with Unity a few years ago, but had no further experience apart from that. I created my Steam page in the second half of December with the help of Chris’s course and then spent January preparing the marketing-side of the launch. In January, I was put on reduced work hours in my day job due to a difficult economy, so I was able to spend a bit more time marketing my game than anticipated.


Numbers

Chris has analyzed the wishlists collected by indie studios within the first two weeks after Steam launch and how well they ended up doing after release. Based on this, he identifies four visibility tiers: “Underperforming” (25 to 148 wishlists), “Natural visibility” (150 to 269 wishlists), “Great hook / great marketing” (270 to 965 wishlist) and “Top tier” (1,000 to 18,000 wishlists). I had hoped to land somewhere in the second tier with at least 150 wishlists.

I fell short by just 2, earning 148 wishlists within the first 14 days. With 72 wishlists after the first day and 128 wishlists at the end of the first week, I was quite confident that I would reach my target. The drop in the second week was big enough for things to not work out, though. I refrained from setting up fake Steam accounts or "coercing" relatives into wishlisting, by the way, to get an honest benchmark.

Here's a breakdown of wishlists by marketing channels. Note that these are estimates based on the relative link click-through rates of each channel or other available data:

• Press (in combination with Twitter, see explanation below): 45
• Twitter: 40
• Reddit: 35
• Organic Steam wishlists: 15
• Mailing list: 10
• Discord: 3

wishlist_graph.png

What worked

Press (with a little help from Twitter):

The biggest positive surprise for me was that some press picked up my announcement. As a first-time solo dev with a game that uses very recognizable assets, I didn't bother sending my press release to the big gaming websites (one aspect in which I deviated from Chris’s advice). One exception was RockPaperShotgun, who of course did not cover the game.

However, I did send my press release with a link to my press kit to a few smaller outlets. Notably, the gaming journalist of horror news page Bloody Disgusting wrote a really nice article. I also sent my release to and this was a game changer:

Japanese gaming site GameSpark picked up the announcement, including a wishlist button in their article. A Japanese VTuber with a very active community posted about the article on Twitter, their post generating more engagement than my own announce tweet. I only found out about this by searching for my game’s name on Twitter the day after the announce (another piece of advice by Chris), and started commenting on the VTuber’s post. I also scrambled to get a Japanese translation of my Steam page ready within the next week.

More than a third of my wishlists now come from Japan, which I did not anticipate at all, and this trend still continues with organic wishlists now.


(the platform formerly known as) Twitter:

With my first Twitter post being from October 31st, I had three months to build a community there, posting images and gifs of my work in progress. I engaged with fellow devs and streamers in my genre as well as "indie game support" accounts, and some of them started liking my posts and following me. A third group joining my community were voice over artists. By the time I launched the Steam page, I had 245 followers. As Chris suggested, I did a countdown to my page launch in the preceding week to build some excitement.

I'd been afraid of Twitter being rather toxic, but I have to say that the people who have interacted with me there are the nicest and most encouraging you could imagine.

My announce post on Twitter got 11k impressions and 116 likes and was retweeted 59 times. About half of these retweets were by followers I had asked whether they would be willing to share my post in the weeks before. Chris suggests focusing on people with at least 1,000 followers, but with my community still being quite small, I also asked smaller content creators if I thought they were a good match. Almost everyone I asked agreed, and with the exception of one, everyone followed through. The Steam link in my announce post was clicked 75 times, which I am quite happy with. Equally important, my Twitter community grew by around 30 followers as a direct result of my announce post. Among those were some bigger Streamers than I had previously been in contact with and even the game designer on a well-known AAA-horror game franchise.

That being said, on announce day, things on Twitter went slower than they could have gone. Just a couple of days earlier, I got lucky and had my most successful post yet with a gif of my game that got people engaged. That post organically got a lot more engagement despite having less retweets, with more likes than I had followers at that time. I assume that the algorithm does penalize posts with links, but I also think that the announce trailer in the tweet was not ideal (more on this later).

It is also interesting to note that, unless the conversion rate from Reddit is even lower than I am assuming, I got only about half as many wishlists from Twitter as retweets (not to mention likes).

Reddit (sort of)

Chris’s statistics show Reddit as a major potential source of wishlists, but he also points out how difficult Reddit is as a platform for (non-paid) self-promo. I got active in a number of Subreddits, most notably r/gaming. Throughout January, I placed several posts there (and elsewhere) that were not related at all to my game. More importantly, I tried to meaningfully comment on at least one other post each day, since r/gaming values members that participate by commenting.

I made sure not to place any self-promo posts anywhere well before announce day, prepared my announce Reddit post in advance and posted it on r/gaming after sending my announce tweet. I braced myself for the post potentially being taken down immediately to curb expectations.

It had a good runtime of 5 hours, after which it was marked as deleted without a reason or comment by the mods. During this time, it got 79k impressions, 55 upvotes and a few encouraging comments. Since I did not expect it to last as long, I was happy with the result, but looking back, I would do a few things differently. First of all, I did not previously reach out to the mods to ask whether the post would be okay and thus ensure that it would not be deleted. I also added the direct link to my Steam page in the post, which was probably a bit too much self-promo for the mods there. A safer strategy is to not add the link in the post but then provide it once people ask where to find the game. I wish I would have watched a couple videos more ahead of time in Chris’s course, because he does have two Reddit videos where he goes into these things, albeit not related to the Steam page launch.

Two days after release, I posted my game in smaller subreddits where self-promo is not as frowned upon, namely r/IndieGaming, r/indiegames and r/gamedevscreens. The Sunday after release, I finally posted to the Indie Sunday event in r/Games, where I got another 28k impressions but only 6 upvotes, with a very mixed upvote rate. I only stumbled upon the event on accident (again, watching Chris’s videos ahead of time would have helped), so I did not prepare a post for this, and I think my first version of the post was poorly written and turned people off. This post brought at the very most 5 wishlists.

Based on Steam data, Reddit was the single biggest identifiable source of external traffic to my Steam page with around 190 visits in the first two weeks, followed closely by Twitter with a bit less than that. However, the conversion rate from Reddit seems to be lower than that from Twitter, perhaps because many of my Twitter followers are (a) very much into my genre and (b) already had a relationship with me.

I should point out another advantage of my Reddit activity (or really almost all of my marketing activity on the other channels), though: Even when posting non-self-promo posts, I got a ton of valuable input for my game’s development. E.g., I would post in r/horrorgaming asking what people were tired of seeing in horror games, and I could use that feedback in my game. Even on TikTok, which I have listed here as “didn’t work”, I got very helpful feedback on how to improve the look of my inventory.

Mailing list

Following Chris’s advice, I set up a mailing list at the end of November, and sent out my first newsletter December 30th. I also sent a mail one week and one day before the Steam page launch, one mail on launch day as well as one a week after the launch, with the latter two mails containing a “wishlist” button leading to the Steam page.

Not a lot of people will sign up for newsletters these days, but as Chris points out, those who do have a very good wishlist and purchase conversion rate. At Steam page launch, I only had 20 subscribers, and a couple of those were even personal friends of mine. On the plus side, though, the open rate on all of my mails has been a consistent 60%, and more than half of my subscribers clicked that “wishlist” button in the mails. Considering that most of my newsletter subscribers also follow me on Twitter and some might have clicked the Steam link on Twitter instead of my newsletter, I would consider this a success, even if on a very small scale.

Discord

I don’t have a Discord server yet (at least none that I ever advertise), but on launch day, I went through the self-promo channels of the Discord servers that I am a member of and posted about the announce. In two of them, I got a little bit of friendly feedback. I don’t think that I got more than three wishlists out of this, but since it was pretty low effort, it was worth it.


What didn’t work

TikTok

Early December, I tried getting into TikTok by uploading one video for every day of one week. The result wasn’t great. It seems that if you don’t have material that goes viral and don’t have a big follower base already, you can expect between 200 and 400 impressions per video. Considering the amount of work that goes into editing even a very short clip, this just didn't seem to be worth it for me at the time, especially since you can’t directly add a link to your profile or posts below 1,000 followers. If I would’ve had more time before launch or if I weren’t completely solo, I would’ve tried another week-long TikTok push leading up to the Steam launch. With my limited resources, though, it just didn't make the cut.

What could have gone better

I won’t lie: With my game being in a popular genre, with all the things I did and all the support I got from my little community, I thought my Steam launch would do a little bit better than it ended up doing. In hindsight, however, there are things that clearly could have been better and that I think explain my below average performance.

Trailer and screenshots are too "meh"

The biggest factor in my launch underperforming is probably that my marketing material just doesn’t look all that exciting for the target audience yet.

On the one hand, for a first-time solo dev, the overall production quality of my Steam page seems solid to me, and the trailer is the best I could have done at the time. I think it has a decent interplay of visuals, audio and cuts. People have told me that the trailer did a good job conveying the atmosphere of the game. The small selection of screenshots shows a bit of variety, and I use animated gifs for the “About the Game” part that match the genre.

Yet, with me just having started to learn Godot in September and just learning Blender right now, I’m relying heavily on bought assets that are very recognizable for many gamers. In the horror genre, either ultra-realistic graphics or a smudgy low-poly, low-resolution style reminiscent of PS1 horror games seem to do well. My game does use low-poly style, but the assets look almost cute, and I haven't done enough to either make the style grittier or make it clearer that the game might consciously be playing with a contrast here (think Doki Doki Literature Club!). While I think the premise of my game is good, there is simply not enough in the trailer and screenshots yet that makes it stand out. The trailer is also a bit slow, and there’s a lack of contrast in the dark sections of the trailer and the screenshots that doesn’t do them any favors on certain screens – which I didn’t test enough prior to launch.

My work here is to try to add a more unique touch to the visuals, improving graphics using shaders, modifying what the characters look like and overall just present more exciting gameplay in the next marketing round.


Not enough press outreach

The great effect of the GameSpark article showed me that I should've better prepared my press outreach, seek out more potential outlets to contact and overall just believed in my own game a bit more instead of being shy about contacting bigger sites. While there's no guarantee that a single other gaming site would have featured my game, the extra effort involved would've been small, and the potential gains are huge.

Conclusion

My first two weeks on Steam brought some great surprises and a few disappointments. While I narrowly missed my target of collecting 150 wishlists, I now have a good first benchmark and was able to use the launch as an opportunity to learn how I need to improve marketing and development.

With the result being this close, 150 wishlists are most of all a psychological marker: Had my Twitter community been just a little bit bigger or my material just a bit more polished at the time of the launch, I might have easily gotten the two extra wishlists. Conversely, had GameSpark not picked up my press release, which was an absolute coincidence, wishlist count would have been closer to 100, and I would have — irrationally — been a sad dev indeed. Finally, had I not followed any of Chris's suggestions and just posted a bit to Twitter, I’d very likely be closer to 20 wishlists after two weeks, completely going under between the dozens of titles that are announced every day.

Overall, I’m happy with the result. I think that it reflects where my game is at right now, and it also shows me a path going forward.

If you'd like to stay in touch, you can follow me on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TallTideGames

Behind Tall Tide Games is Robert Seidel, a German solo developer working on Dark Lessons as his passion project besides a day job in web development and being the proud dad of two boys. In his professional career, he has been fortunate to have made many diverse experiences, from studying Philosophy and English Literature at university to working first as a translator and now in IT. Throughout these stations in life, his fascination for wondering and playing has remained, and all of these experiences now inform his game development process. Dark Lessons is his first commercial game, developed in Godot.

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