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Deep dive: how Astroneer made it to 8 million players
It's a long way up to space?
[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 to the working week, my friends and colleagues in ‘the game business’! And we’re excited to kick this one off with some transparent, public data. It’s provided as part of a special ‘three years after 1.0 launch’ celebration by System Era Softworks, for its space sandbox adventure Astroneer.
Also: we’re about to hit a big subscriber milestone here. So to get us over the line, which we’ll talk about when we get there, we’re doing a 30% off the first year of GameDiscoverCo Plus deal for the next 30 paid subs.
You get data-rich weekly game trend analysis via exclusive newsletters (what’s really selling and why?), a bunch of custom Steam/console charts to rank and data-export, two eBooks, a member-only Discord & more. Make like a frog, and go hop on it?
Analysis: looking at Astroneer’s lifetime sales?
So, the folks at System Era were kind enough to provide not one, but two round-up posts related to Astroneer’s ‘three years in 1.0’ anniversary. (The game originally debuted in Steam/Xbox Early Access in December 2016, btw. Then it got a full 1.0 release in February 2019 and a later PlayStation port - and very recent Switch version.)
Firstly, the ‘Astroneer by the numbers’ post from System Era’s Joe Tirado has a plethora of great stats, including a large and fun infographic for the GaaS title. Breaking this down even more digestibly:
The game has been purchased by nearly 4 million people since 2016. But it’s been played by over 8 million - thanks to its June 2019 inclusion and subsequent popularity on the Xbox Game Pass subscription service.
System Era also reveals total lifetime revenue for the game: $75.7 million USD, although, like Yacht Club’s comments, they make it clear that the often U.S.-based team isn’t all wearing money hats: “Astroneer’s success gave the original 5 person team the means to to build System Era into a 40 person powerhouse… most of you reading this already know, but our net profit number is much lower, factoring in the cut taken by platforms, taxes, and other business costs.”
Up to the Switch launch, the unique player count shows 68% on Xbox, followed by 28% on Steam and 4% on PlayStation. But if you look at sales per platform, 70% were on Steam, 20% on Xbox, and 9% on PlayStation. Makes sense - you can use the ‘nearly 4 million’ figure to work out precise sales, btw.
There’s an interesting (maybe slightly surprising?) U.S. tilt to purchasers: 36% of all buyers are in the U.S., and then 9% in China, 7% in Germany, 5% in Korea and the UK, and downward from there. But perhaps not that different to a lot of other titles with a similar genre and early start on Steam.
It’s great to see publicly stated that the company has a 10% profit share equally split among staff, in addition to normal salaries and benefits. When games outperform expectations, the upside should be shared in some way with the people making it happen - and not just public shareholders or owners.
There’s plenty of other interesting data in there. For example: 990,000 peak MAU (monthly active users), and 560,000 average MAU across the game’s (post-1.0!) operation, 21,000 peak CCU (concurrent users) across PC/console, and more.
Overall, the game has been run super-well as a ‘games as a service title’, with regular named patch updates. (Astroneer doesn’t have paid DLC, btw, but it does have in-game cosmetics you can buy with QBIT virtual currency, which have grossed $2.7 million lifetime to date.)
There’s also a lot of learnings from the separate marketing & comms postmortem that Joe wrote for GameDeveloper.com. Among them:
Message clarity: “After 1.0 launched, we focused on clarifying our message for the future of the game by being direct with what we were going to do (and, perhaps as importantly, what we weren’t) and why. Early Access was filled with lots of big dreams about what we could do, but it was time to be more disciplined.”
The platform store is king: “a huge focus for us as a team” were these core things: “Wishlists; Great key art and screenshots; Thoughtful trailers; A solid sales pitch; Careful platform tagging; Translating store pages to other languages; Having a well thought out plan for discounts; Launch visibility.”
Games are global, and your marketing/languages should be too: “That means if you aren’t translating to as many languages as you can, you are leaving out huge audience groups for your title… We also found success making content for specific regional audiences [like Lunar New Year.]”
Astroneer’s debut on Switch: what can we learn?
But one thing we did want to drill down on was Astroneer’s Nintendo Switch sales. The game debuted on January 13th, 2022 in digital form, though the physical Switch version only shipped in February.
So, the recent Yacht Club analysis seemed to imply that their game Cyber Shadow was named one of Nintendo’s top-selling ‘indie’ titles of 2021 “with around 40,000 Switch units sold”. This has led to people asking us - just how bad/good is the Switch market, even for big games being converted there?
System Era does say “we aren’t ready to talk about [Switch sales] yet” - but we are! One statistic that System Era does give us is that: “Astroneer launched on Nintendo Switch in January and sold over 220,000 units across all platforms in that same month.” We did check, and the Steam version of Astroneer amassed just over 1,700 Steam reviews during the month of January.
So if were to extrapolate from lifetime ‘% by platform’ - and guessing that Astroneer has a high ‘reviews to sales’ ratio - perhaps the Steam version sold 80,000-100,000 copies in January, and the non-Switch console versions another 30,000+ copies.
This means - warning, total guesstimate - that the Switch digital version could have sold around 75,000-100,000 units in its first 2 and a half weeks on sale. We are manually tracking Astroneer’s U.S. ranking on the U.S. Switch eShop for Plus subscribers, and have made a graph for you all showing its post-launch success:
So the game rapidly rose up to be the #2 third-party ‘recent’ Switch eShop title in the U.S. by download count - and stayed high for a while. It’s definitely a high end, impressive result for Astroneer. We’re guessing that 100k digital units a month is on the highest end of third-party Switch game sales. (Physical may add extra heft.)
(These eShop download charts are calculated by Nintendo using total sales over 14 days, by the way. So there’s always a ramp-up period that you wouldn’t see in Steam’s real-time charts.)
Unfortunately, we weren’t tracking the Switch eShop rankings for new games when Cyber Shadow came out, to compare ranking. But we do know that Shovel Knight: Pocket Dungeon sold just over 20,000 units in its first (calendar) month on Switch starting in December 2021. (And then slowed WAY down, as Switch releases seem to.)
Along the way, Pocket Dungeon maxed out at #12 on the ‘recent, third-party U.S eShop’ chart we make - the same one Astroneer got to #2 on. And only a handful of new Switch games get anywhere in this chart. So.. there’s some context, at least?
A hidden stat of use: Steam’s regional review %s!
We’ve been talking to people more recently about the value of understanding regional support for games on Steam - which is a highly internationalized marketplace, after all! A great place to do this is to look at the ‘reviews by language’ on already-released, competitive Steam games to your own.
And we wanted to re-highlight a couple of resources (one free, one paid) which can help with this:
Firstly, Kris Antoni of Coffee Talk creator Toge Productions has created the Steam Scout tool. Here’s the results for Coffee Talk itself. Just use the search bar or manually change the URL to the Steam ID of the game you’re looking for to see more. For example, here’s the one for Astroneer.
In addition, Tomek at GamingAnalytics.info is also providing this information as part of a wider suite of information about the game. This includes some well-calculated estimated owner numbers & wishlists for games. But it’s paid & you must sign up to the Patreon to access. (This site was historically used by Polish investors more than game publishers/devs, but is widening its data scope.)
Whatever tool you use to look at this view, the point is the same. Regional support for games can vary wildly on Steam, and just checking swiftly for ‘number of reviews’ on the Steam page doesn’t give you the full picture.
Most of the time when a game is overwhelmingly popular in a non-U.S. market, it’s going to be China. But occasionally it’s Korea or Japan. And the Top 5 countries can often differ in surprising ways. So keep a close eye on it.
(This also has a knock-on effect on revenue estimation, if the countries have cheaper game costs. China’s purchase price in yuan is at least 50% of the U.S. price, for example - and Steam refund rates in China are often double that of the West.)
The game discovery news round-up..
And that’s the meat of your newsletter for Monday. But we have some potatoes too, so we’d better forcefeed you those too. Let’s see how your greedy stomach holds up under the sheer pressure of information:
VGInsights had a piece called ‘Make more video games!’, which pushes back against the ‘too many people are making games’ editorials: “A lot of people making games is not the issue. Yes, you shouldn’t asset-flip another game in the hopes of making millions with it. However, there are so many reasons why you should make a game, even if it’s not a financial success.” More from me on this next time…
U.S. analyst firm NPD put out the U.S. hardware/select software charts for February 2022, via a long Twitter thread that was also summarized by VGC. Basically, Elden Ring’s launch was only bettered by Call Of Duty Vanguard in the last 12 months, Switch is still winning on hardware sales (in part since it’s actually got a few in stock!), though PS5 has the highest dollar sales in 2022.
New York magazine’s Vulture website ran this cute profile of Devolver Digital, including plenty of ‘conventional wisdom’-distancing. Example: this comment from Devolver’s Nigel Lowrie: “[Devolver] is not about ‘Here’s your portfolio. Do you have this slice or this genre covered?’ One of the things we ask ourselves the most is, Does anyone enjoy playing this? Yes, I know this game could be popular or successful, but does anyone enjoy playing it?” That’s… important.
GI.biz is reporting that “Russia appears to have altered its laws on [software] piracy in an effort to offset the effect of sanctions from Western nations issued in response to its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.” The situation is still fluid and unclear. But with international payment methods in Russia largely blocked, non-Russian companies should not be expecting revenue from the territory going forward.
Event microlinks: large German B2C & B2B game event Gamescom is back for 2022 in hybrid form from Aug. 24th-28th; the ID@Xbox Spring Showcase is being streamed on Twitch on March 16th; the E3-timed Wholesome Direct showcase is returning this June, and wants your game submissions.
The latest ‘more things happening with Steam Deck’ announce is that Steam Deck Windows drivers are now available. There’s quite a few current caveats: you can’t (yet) dual-boot between SteamOS and Windows, you can only install Windows 10 for now, and Valve (obviously) won’t give tech support help on Windows installs. Still, great to see this level of openness from a platformholder.
Some of the last vestiges of ‘doesn’t accept IARC ratings on consoles’ are finally going away. Specifically, for download-only games: “Sony Interactive Entertainment confirmed to us that the Japanese PlayStation Store now accepts IARC ratings in addition to the existing CERO ratings. The new operation started on March 9th.” You still need CERO ratings for physical releases there, though…
A little-known effect of many smaller Polish devs being publicly traded? They have to announce exact terms of publishing deals, as shown with Daedelic picking up publishing for Iron Wolf’s Destroyer: The U-Boat Hunter: “The value of the contract… is EUR 880,000 and [the dev] is entitled to a fixed remuneration of EUR 700,000. The remaining… EUR 180,000… will be invested by the Publisher in marketing and publishing activities.” And it’s a 50% post-recoup revenue split.
Sales milestones: Fireshine Games and Pugstorm announced that ‘Terraria meets Stardew Valley’-alike Core Keeper has sold 250k units in its debut week; Konami announced its online CCG Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel - a surprising smash on Steam - reached 20 million downloads across console, PC and mobile since its January launch; Goblinz revealed that its HoMM-ish strategy RPG Hero's Hour sold 100k copies in 1 week.
Finally, the U.S. political research company Echelon Insights surveyed more than 1,000 verified U.S. voters last month. And they asked them, among many other things… which video games they had ever played?
Here’s the results, which degenerate into a Wordle-related follow-ups, haha. And I think the company just picked the game names themselves, rather than allowing people to enter game names. But it’s still super interesting to see the percentages:
[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.]