Analysis: how a solo dev 'gladiator sim' hit big on PC
Also: the mobile UA biz's 2022 highlights & lots more!
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]
Welcome back, kind readers, and it’s… 2023 already? Hope you had a great break, and are ready to get back to it. (If ‘it’ is defined as ‘reading extremely long email newsletters from the folks at GameDiscoverCo!’ Which it is.)
We have big plans for the year here - and we already have the first three or four newsletters mapped out. So let’s start out by looking behind the scenes on a long in-development solo game whose launch on PC/Steam went… great!
[For the New Year: please support our work via a GameDiscoverCo Plus paid subscription. This includes an exclusive Friday PC/console game trend analysis newsletter, a big Steam ‘Hype’ & performance chart back-end, eBooks, an informative member-only Discord & more.]
‘We Who Are About To Die’: lessons from a great PC launch?
You may have noticed we do a fair amount of ‘solo creator makes good!’ success stories here. There’s two reasons for this: firstly, solo devs find it easier to be transparent. But secondly, I think many people underestimate the potency of tiny-creator games.
The democratization of tools means that great-looking games you might think were made by 10-20 devs can be made by just one core creator. And nowhere did we have a better example in late 2022 than Jordy Lakiere’s “brutal sandbox of sand, death, and [gladiator] mayhem” We Who Are About To Die.
The game debuted on Steam Early Access on Nov. 14th & has the 15th-most lifetime reviews (2,450 so far!) of the 1,000+ games debuting that month, according to our Plus data. Jordy told us the game sold 10,000 units in just the first 24 hours. It’s had big YouTuber pickup, and I see BaronVonGames is doing a video series for it right now.
So what can we learn from this title - which looks like it’ll sell hundreds of thousands of units over its lifetime? Here’s some insights from the game’s core development:
Evolving the game’s design was key: the game took seven years (!), though Jordy was teaching as a concept artist part-time during it, and “started as an exploration of Mount & Blade's combat mechanics”, before pivoting from multiplayer MOBA to single-player permadeath roguelite arena, keeping the ‘gladiator’ theme.
A lot of thought went into scope/’hook’: Jordy notes that gladiators were a “very under-represented theme”, and “some career management with bespoke, limited arenas to explore the combat mechanics in” allows for a smaller, simple game loop. The roguelite element also has “huge synergy” with the gladiator/permadeath angle.
Designing for influencers paid off: the gladiator “who tries to attain glory or dies trying” performs with YouTubers like NorthernLion particularly well, and Jordy admits “I did anticipate this a bit - who doesn't want to watch blood sports? Especially with real stakes? Is their favorite streamer going to lose their character?”
The dev doubled down on ‘emotional stakes’: loved what Jordy told me here: “The game tugs at your emotions. It plays with frustration, skill, random goofiness and physics. People are often shouting or giggling - it’s a great time to watch (even personally!) The camera is also angled down as if you're an audience member watching the game.”
The more I talked to Lakiere about this, the more I realized that ‘designing for discovery readability’ was something he practices. For example: “The disconnection of the camera from the directional input means it's a lot easier to digest than most skill based melee combat games - they are harder to watch with the camera swinging wildly.”
But how did a solo dev get the game to look - and play - so well? We’re more used to ‘programmer art’-adjacent small team hits like RimWorld in the Steam ecosystem. Here’s what went right for this game:
It’s a rare ‘artist learns programming’ success: Jordy notes: “The vast majority of my time was spent learning to program and programming the game (at the same time)… I certainly don't recommend taking a physics based melee combat game with complex career management as your first project, haha!” True dat.
The game is super-smart about art efficiency: “Art is my wheelhouse, so I managed to go hard and keep speeding up workflows... There’s a lot of cutting corners, being 'lazy' intelligently, and focusing on what really matters. For example, many of the models are very low quality & many textures are re-used in ways that would upset a real 3D artist. But I spent tons of time on materials, post-process, composition and lighting.”
Asset store purchases were actually kept to a minimum: there’s nothing wrong with using these intelligently, but: “I barely used any external assets (bought from marketplace) and handmade nearly everything. Part of me just wanted this project to be my 'art' and genuinely mine/hand-made. I only got one set of Roman environmental 3D asset packs, when I just thought they were a perfect fit and quite affordable.”
So that’s how we ended up with a top-quality solo developed title. Interestingly, Jordy adds: “Lots of people over the years recommended I hide the fact that [the game is] solo-developed. But using this as a hook, and also setting the tone in terms of quality & scope (e.g. to expect bugs etc) really really helped, I think.”
Finally, Jordy provided us a wealth of data and screenshots on how the game grew its wishlists and blew up on launch. Here’s the data highlights:
The game’s interest swelled closer to Steam launch: Jordy says “Next Fest last June went quite well for me… and it got me up to 21k [Steam wishlists]. It also increased my baseline (mostly from demo coverage and word of mouth), so I grew 'relatively fast' to 35k the week before launch. Then, viral posts in launch week and Popular Upcoming shot me to 57k wishlists at launch.” There were 182k outstanding wishlists in early Dec, btw.
Regional interest is North America-centric so far: this is partly due to no localization for the game yet. (We recommend trying to jam one in before release - but sometimes there’s no time/$ for it!) 54% of the $ was from the U.S. as of early December, 7% from the U.K. & Canada, and 5% from Australia and Germany.
We Who Are About To Die actually has above average refunds: around 16% refund, though Jordy notes he expected it, since the game “really kicks your ass and then kicks you while you are down some more, and the learning curve is more of a learning wall.” Most refund messages are “either about difficulty/jankiness (how the combat feels when not used to it) or just bugs preventing play (eg. widescreen issues etc).”
Misc other cool stats: the game has 6 hours 48 minutes average playtime, and 3 hours 9 minute median (v. good); his Steam CTR for week 1 was 12.37%, and the game got 13.37 million impressions on Steam and 1.65 million Steam page visits; the game got 4-6k wishlists/day while on Popular Upcoming just before release.
A bonus interesting point: you can come back from a slowing organic wishlist rate, as this game did. After June 2022’s Next Fest, it was averaging 100 wishlists per day with nothing going on. But it dipped all the way to 15 wl/day before picking up again for launch.
Anyhow, thanks to Jordy for sharing all of this intensely practical data. What I find fascinating here is that one human can do so much. (It’s somewhat rare, but not vanishingly so - Walt Destler’s Cosmoteer is another recent example.) And remember, everyone making games competes against competent solo devs…
Wha happened in mobile game discovery in 2022?
We at GameDiscoverCo are experts at PC and console game discovery, yes. Mobile, not so much. Which is why we’re still loving Matej Lancaric’s long, complex but rewarding analyses of paid user acquisition on mobile, capped by his 2022 round-up.
These are worth wading into - despite the complexity of the acronyms - for all. PC & console games are not going ‘full mobile’ from a paid discovery & monetization point of view - but they’re certainly slipping in that direction. Some key takeaways:
User acquisition diversification on mobile is key: “If you put all your eggs in one UA basket, you are playing a very dangerous game.” He suggests you should diversify after hitting $20k/month on one channel, and recommends, from high to low priority for ad networks: “Meta; Google Ads; Unity; TikTok; Applovin; Ironsource.”
A cheap & effective new mobile UA source? That’d be TikTok: Matej notes - “I know it’s pretty annoying not to be able to target every country, but when you have your account manager, you are good to go. [And] the performance is so freaking good. I can see 4x lower CPIs on TikTok when compared to other channels (mainly Facebook) and the quality is even better.”
Profitable UA is only possible if your game monetizes: as Matej says - “People still think scaling the game is only a marketing team’s job…. [but] scaling a game is not only a function of a killer user acquisition operation. It is also a function of an LTV [life-time value].” It’s over-simplified, but for example, “If your LTV is $5, you can run profitable campaigns until you hit $4.5 CPI [cost per install].”
Anyhow, there’s lots more in the full piece. And I’m learning a lot about the main discovery engine for mobile (spending lots of money!) along the way. It can be a different and slightly cut-throat, but knowing is half of the battle here.
[The above video from Kyle Anderson is a little old, and largely pre-dates the ‘actually integrating the mini-games from ads into the game itself’ trend, but is still interesting.]
The game discovery news round-up..
Time to finish things off for this first GameDiscoverCo email of the New Year And some notable discovery & platform news did crop up over the holidays, as follows:
The Chinese government finally approved a set of ‘foreign’ game titles, including Valorant & Pokemon Unite - plus more domestic approvals - a further thawing of government pressure on firms like Tencent. “Other imported games approved include CD Projekt’s ‘Gwent: The Witcher Card Game’ and Klei’s ‘Don’t Starve’.”
Before everyone retired for the holidays on the Microsoft x Activision deal: Activision’s corp EVP Lulu Cheng Meservey went on the attack on Twitter: “Antitrust law exists to protect consumers, not competitors. The FTC is doing the opposite with their baseless, ideologically-driven suit to stop the Microsoft / Activision Blizzard deal.” And the UK’s CMA said that the 2,000+ public responses to Xbox’s Activision deal were mostly (75%) supportive of the merger.
Game trailers are important! Which is why we loved Derek Lieu’s ‘favorite game trailers of 2022’ rundown, which splits things up intro a bunch of categories like Best Idealized Gameplay, Best Multiplayer Capture, Best Cinematic Single Player Trailers, and lots more…
Those with a Steam account noticed, but Steam Replay is Valve’s version of Spotify Wrapped, etc. As DigitalTrends explains: “Steam Replay shows your hours played, your most played games, the achievements you’ve unlocked, and much more.” You can keep it private, share just with friends, or show everyone - good stuff.
Wondered what happened to early AR headset pioneer Magic Leap? Well: “During the course of its recent funding rounds, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, Public Investment Fund (PIF) took a stake of more than 50pc in the business, giving it overall majority control.” And - focused more on B2B users - it’s looking for more funding.
The crew at SteamDB have an interesting rating algorithm to work out the ‘best-reviewed but also popular’ games of the year, and here it is for 2022’s titles. Vampire Survivors, Stray, the PC conversion of God Of War and Powerwash Sim top the chart, but there’s plenty of other interesting titles up near the top!
At the end of last year, Meta’s head of Reality Labs Andrew Bosworth put out a look back/look ahead to 2023. What’s interesting? Zero mention of the word ‘metaverse’, much emphasis on “foundational pieces of technology” in the VR/AR space, & core biz reassurance: “about 80% of Meta’s overall investments support the core business, with the other 20% going toward Reality Labs.”
One big Xbox Game Pass hit (and pretty big on PC, even at $60) in the latter part of December was Justin Roiland/Squanch’s critically divisive/very ‘loud’ FPS High On Life, which was “Xbox Game Pass’ biggest launch of 2022, the biggest 3rd party Game Pass launch of all time, and the biggest release of a single player-only game in the service’s history.” (Based on the # of hours played in the first five days of release.)
Valve posted its December Steam video Q&A replay on YouTube, in which “members of the Steam Business Team answer developers' questions about registering for and getting the most out of Steam Next Fest.” Some useful tidbits in there, and if you registered in time, the next Nest Fest (!) starts on February 6th.
Microlinks: a rare interview with Apple Arcade’s management, citing users “wanting more casual titles”; an expose on “Roblox's teenager hackers, the system that enables them, and their victims”; the majority (61%) of non VR users are not interested in trying it in the next 12 months.
Finally, we’re suckers for ‘alternative takes on retro console software’ here. So Cat Graffam using Mario Paint to recreate a Goya masterpiece? Get over here, you:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]