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Deep dive: how Thronefall went 'minimal' to hit 300k sales
Also: lots of discovery news, of course.
[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 our midweek newsletter - and thanks for all the comments on the Steam revenue data from Monday’s newsletter, which has gotten quite a bit of interest. (Much respect to Strahinja @ Gamalytic for crunching numbers for us to reprint!)
This particular newsletter goes deep on a game we mentioned in passing then. It’s an example of a recent Steam trend of titles that are stripped-down, less expensive to buy, but still potent. (Vampire Survivors & friends are another obvious example.)
[REMINDER: our upgraded Plus game data suite is here - you can subscribe to Plus now to get full access to it, weekly PC/console sales research, an exclusive Discord, six (!) detailed game discovery eBooks - & lots more. Check out this newsletter for details on new features.]
Thronefall: how minimal build/defense hit it big…
One of the most interesting things about the current PC/console game market is - you can release any sized game you like, at any price point you like. And GrizzlyGames’ Thronefall, which debuted in early August 2023 and costs $7, is a great example of this.
This title, which was made by popular ‘game dev YouTuber’ Jonas Tyroller (177k YT subs!) and Paul Schnepf, is a deliberately ‘super-tight gameplay loop’ title with minimalist art where you build your base during the day, and then defend it every night.
According to data direct from the devs, this approach has really worked out for them! The game has sold 315,000 units on Steam already, with a return rate of 6.9% and gross revenue of slightly more than $1.5 million USD.
And, according to GameDiscoverCo Plus estimates on Steam games debuting in August 2023, it ranks #4 out of all games in ‘copies sold’ - albeit at a lower price point than many:
Why go super-minimal? Talking to GameDeveloper.com about Thronefall, Paul Schnepf said: “Getting older and caught in the usual swamp of work and responsibilities, we realized we don’t have the 100 hours to sink into the next super-complex game anymore. We felt there was a need for wholesome and deep, but also less time-consuming, experiences.”
(BTW, it’s interesting Schnepf also talks about “slowly layering complexity onto your existing systems” in this interview. This concept of starting out accessible - and adding depth incrementally - is also very prevalent in ‘hybridcasual’ mobile games right now.)
We reached out to GrizzlyGames, and they were kind enough to answer our questions and provide real-life Steam data on Thronefall’s success. Here’s LTD users & playtime:
So as you can see, what’s eye-opening here is that despite being minimal and cheaper, people play this game quite a lot. (More than 35% of Thronefall players have played for at least 5 hours, despite it only being out for a couple of months.)
But why go this barebones with your approach to PC game releases? Paul Schnepf told us: “Making tiny things is the only way to finish anything when you work with 1-3 person teams. Of course we could try to grow our company, but the flexibility and speed of decision-making small team sizes provide you with is actually something we value a lot.”
There are big disadvantages to making something that doesn’t immediately stand out from a ‘perceived depth’ point of view, though. A lot of cheaper, smaller games just don’t make it past the ‘why should I pay any money for this at all?’ smell test.
One thing that helps here is Jonas Tyroller’s YouTube following - his video on the early making of the game now has 79k views. Schnepf says they “received a lot of the early players from the devlog Jonas had posted”, but it was releasing a demo during June 2022’s Steam Next Fest - with YouTuber pickup - that created the big interest spike.
Indeed, we quantified this in our write-up of that Next Fest, where we found Thronefall to be #15 ‘most followers added’ (+2,043) of the 1,000-ish games highlighted in that Fest, as well as the demo having the 11th highest CCU (860) for the festival.
Here’s the lifetime Steam wishlists for Thronefall. You can see it take off like a rocket in June - and also see what the wishlists have been doing, post-release:
As for why the game did so well on release, Schnepf notes that it was “a mix of everything - small and big influencers as well as some more traditional press outlets”, shouting-out Future Friends for their work doing outreach, and big Twitch streamers like Sodapoppin’ for playing the game when it came out.
BTW, were you doing the math(s) on gross revenue per unit & wondering why it was a bit lower (315k units, $1.5-ish million, just under $5 per copy)? It’s impressive sales from the ‘gray’ Chinese market, unofficially buying games on Steam global, that is responsible for that, since their price is about 45% of the U.S. price:
We were immediately curious re: what happened there, and Schnepf said honestly: “we were a bit surprised by the China numbers as well.” There was no dedicated outreach in China, though the game does have a Simplified Chinese localization - which required some improvement, btw, though players were fortunately patient with the devs on it.
(This is another lesson in why it’s always worth doing Simplified Chinese localization for your games. Social deception game Dread Hunger is another title that we documented blowing up in China, despite no outreach beyond loc.)
Finally, what’s also interesting from a long-term planning PoV? Thronefall doesn’t have to cost $7 for ever. Schnepf reminds us that this is a Steam Early Access release. So it’ll be getting free updates, ideally every 1-2 months, but “the game’s price will increase a bit when leaving Early Access.” So yield can increase over time.
As always, it’s difficult to know how to conclude case studies like that. When asked for lessons, Schnepf smartly notes: “Not getting finished is always the biggest threat to any project.” This is why GrizzlyGames have been pursuing these short, sharp projects that gradually introduce depth, and allow for repeated, but short play session times.
But we also look at the charts, and not many games like this do this well. Plus, if you’re charging a third of what you could for a ‘regular’ indie game, they really have to perform in order to make decent money (depending on how bootstrapped you are!)
All we can say is: we’re seeing more of these sub <$10, gameplay-first premium titles on Steam recently, and the top ones sell because… players like accessible but deep, fun gameplay! As one of the top-rated Steam user reviews of Thronefall says: “So many $70 AAA games out there that don't even come close to touching how much fun this game is.”
The game discovery news round-up..
That was quite a lot. So let’s get straight on with all kinds of notable discovery news that we spotted since Monday, as follows:
Always interesting to see charts of ‘regular online media of PC/console games’ coverage, thanks to Footprints.gg’s weekly round-ups. And this time, it’s EA Sports FC 24 and Counter-Strike 2 (as well as Cyberpunk’s Phantom Liberty expansion!) invading the ‘Starfield, Baldur’s Gate 3 & Spider-Man 2’ nexus.
Just after discussing ‘Fortnite as a platform’, here’s Fortnite planning to introduce IARC age ratings for all of its first and third-party levels: “The IARC questionnaire will be available in the Creator Portal starting October 16… unrated islands will be delisted on November 14.” (Roblox has its own younger-skewed ratings, btw.)
Steam just put up its latest Next Fest Q&A video, and it has chapter headings in the description, but you can also read Pikminiman’s overview in the comments. Apparently, Valve said “around 1200-1400 games are expected for October edition”, and noted that “visibility for games is mostly randomized, with some wishlisting-based rankings on the front page.” (Those are the ones you wanna get!)
In ‘Apple cares about high-end games’ news, interesting to read from this interview with Capcom that the previous MacOS port of Resident Evil Village made the high-end new iOS version (using the M2 chip) way easier. It seems like the iOS version may cost $60, so it’s not going to smash it. But it’s indicative of Apple interest.
Some mop-up from Meta’s Quest event last week - there’s a bunch of new monetization and ‘developer success’ features for Quest 2/3 rolling out, including app and DLC price A/B testing, per-country pricing, a button in the system menu to submit user feedback with screenshots/videos without leaving the game, app version rollback & lots more! (H/T to Liam from ArcadeXR for passing this along.)
How do you work on the game trailer before you work on the game? Derek Lieu has an intriguing view on this: “One of the biggest advantages to making a trailer at the prototyping stage is setting a target to create a goal and align your team members. Check out this "Tone Video" for Supergiant Games' Transistor. There's no gameplay, just setting, genre, story, characters, themes, and vibes.” More within…
Remember that SteamScout tool which shows you reviews per country for Steam games? Well, V2 just launched, thanks to Toge Productions’ Kris Antoni, and you can download results as a .CSV file and compare multiple games. (Here’s how you permalink to specific games, btw.)
We were just talking about ‘the rise of hybridcasual’ on mobile in the lead article, and here’s a truly mammoth overview of some leading games (Dreamdale, Mob Control, Pocket Champs) in that space. It’s a lot to wade through, but it showcases where growth in F2P mobile seems to be right now, so it’s worth it.
Which games were played most on Steam Deck in September 2023? We have an answer for that, per Valve, and there are some notable new entries (Sea Of Stars) nestling alongside some old favorites (Brotato, Elden Ring) and just plain-ol’ big titles (Starfield, Baldur’s Gate 3.)
Microlinks: we dug Victoria Tran’s write-up on community accessibility while learning to play League Of Legends; Amazon Prime Gaming’s October giveaways include Ghostwire Tokyo, Devil May Cry 5 (on Luna), and Diablo IV IAP; Apple fights to preserve major App Store loophole in China (could be a big issue for foreign game companies!)
Finally, we’re still wild about the game documentary makers at Noclip. And after a fan suggested they do a documentary of 2006’s bizarre physical-only Burger King Xbox advergames (c’mon, Sneak King!), they jumped right in, with these amazing results:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]