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Analysis: why are so few indies jazzed about console game sales?

GameDiscoverCo's Simon Carless looks into why indie developers aren't making more hay about how console versions of their games are selling.
[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.]

Something that we’ve always found it tricky to report on - trend-wise - for GameDiscoverCo is sales on the big three game console families (Xbox, PlayStation, Switch). You’ll tend to see ‘milestone’ sales numbers, but that’s about it. And console manufacturers discourage transparency on sales.

But here’s a trend we feel confident enough about to highlight. We no longer hear indie game devs - or even decent-sized publishers - say they’re excited about their console game unit sales. Even when we talk to people who had a decent-sized hit on PC, and then ported to console, we tend to hear ‘oh, we made back our porting costs, and it’s nice bonus money’.

It’s rarely much better than that. (And some are surprised about how swiftly the launch ‘tails off’ into extremely incremental sales.) There’s actually a hint towards poor long console tail in this recent interview with NIS’ president, where he notes: “We're noticing that rather than the dramatic initial spurt we see on consoles, PC sales are steadier… From a business standpoint, we are very thankful for such steady sales numbers.”

Anyhow, let’s be a tiny bit more specific on numbers, and then try to puzzle out trends causing this. Below is yesterday’s ranking of Nintendo Switch’s third-party ‘recent’ paid games in the U.S. eShop, which we capture twice weekly & analyze for GameDiscoverCo Plus members:

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This is just one regional view of Switch (this ranking is 14-day units for games in last 3 months, chart #s are tracking download numbers including F2P.) And it’s interesting to see which fragment of the 30 to 45 Switch games released weekly (!) make it into these rarified heights. So here’s what we’ll say:

  • If you make it into the Top 200 of all Switch downloads on launch, we estimate you’re selling at least 10-20,000 copies of your game in the initial ‘rush’, which tends to tail off to <50 copies per day, a month or so after launch (and from there, sometimes down to single digits.)
  • Getting into the Top 100, you might start hitting 25,000+ copies before it starts slowing down. But only a small minority of titles are hitting 50,000+ units sold in the first push, before they slow down and you have to start discounting semi-aggressively.
  • Many ‘average’ Switch launches that didn’t make these charts are selling high hundreds (ugh) or low thousands of copies (ugh?) before they run out of juice. This is due to multiple reasons we’ll discuss in a second.

Just to be clear - we’re not Nintendo-bashing here. We see similar trends on both Xbox (where there’s proven data in the form of Car Mechanic Simulator selling 10% of its PC launch in the same timeframe), and on PlayStation, which has historically been slow-ish on sales to indies, especially compared to Switch in its heyday. But what’s up? Some ideas:

  • ‘No backwards compatibility’ isn’t a thing - having to build up a catalog of games for your new console from scratch, because you couldn’t play your old games? A massive revenue driver! If you had any Switch game out in the 2018 timeframe, you could sell 1-2,000 copies per month at full price, just by being on the store, partly due to lots of hardware sales and a lack of titles to buy. The trend, clearly, is away from this, looking at PS4/PS5 and especially Xbox.
  • Game Pass-ification of platforms - when you have a lot of games to choose from - increasingly in the future via a subscription - then you’re less likely to buy new games. This is just because of the amount of dashboard space and publicity devoted to the games featured in subscription services on some platforms. (Now, you may spend more money in IAP/DLC on games that have upsell and a base version in the subscription package, but that’s a different thing.)
  • GaaS-ification of top games on platforms - on platforms like Xbox and PlayStation, top titles like Destiny 2 or GTA Online are designed to lock you in and keep you coming back to play again and again. There’s often additional monetization that pays for that extra dev cost. This further decreases the oxygen to fuel brand-new premium titles - not least because these games are good.
  • Discovery issues on console stores - the Switch and PlayStation stores in particular are quite poor for personalization and recommendations. And the Xbox store is pretty good (though not as good as Steam), but in general is heavily playing up Game Pass games, as you would expect with the company’s business model shift. Still good for you if your title is in Game Pass, of course.
  • Less ease/community around buying games - this is just a natural downside of consoles. It’s a single click from watching a YouTube video of a game on your PC or mobile device to going to its Steam page and then wishlisting or buying it, vs. ‘boot up the Switch, search’, etc. It’s also a bit more difficult to keep updating players on what’s going on and make them feel like part of a community on the console itself. (UIs can be very clunky.)
  • Supply/demand issues in general - as we’ve established, there’s a lot more games coming out on these consoles, especially Switch, and none of the old games are getting delisted. (Just put on sale more often!) For Xbox and PlayStation, it’s more difficult to discount. But the discovery issues on old games are still real. (A lot of non-AAA games that sell well on PlayStation/Xbox do so because people see YouTube videos/streams and then search specifically for them, we think.)

mehification2.jpeg

So… what’s the point of this slightly abstract trends rant? Because everyone has different budgets, there’s no single conclusion. (For some, selling 20,000 copies at full price on Switch is a big deal! For others, it’s a rounding error in an abject failure.)

I guess what I’d take away is: everyone making premium (paid, one-off) games should pay more attention to PC game success trends. Steam seems to be the most vibrant global platform for that type of game right now. The era of ‘well, we messed up on PC, but our console versions saved us’ is disappearing for medium or high-budget games, especially since the Switch catalog got so big.

And rather than riding the ‘premium only’ revenue trolley straight down the tracks, unyieldingly into disaster (pictured, above), we should all be keeping a careful eye on:

  • ways you can fairly find extra monetization for games, if players love them and play them for a long time. (DLC, IAP, expansions, etc.)
  • ways to work with subscription services to better guarantee revenue in exchange for a one-off payment (the road to dominance of this model is slow, but it’s starting now.)

Neither of these is clean and easy. But we suspect both are the future for non-tiny indies or those who aren’t funded by publishers balancing risk across a portfolio - especially on console.

[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, eBook and a Discord, plus interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and more besides.]

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