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Deep dive: turning around your game's reviews, post-launch
Chatting about Pathway's, uhh, pathway to great reviews.
[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.]
It’s mid-week madness over here at the GameDiscoverCo Newsletter. Once again, we’re running around with our heads cut off, yelling about ‘CCU’ and ‘SKUs’ - while normal people try to avoid eye contact and go about their daily business.
Fortunately, you’re some of the lucky initiates who understand the overly convoluted language of the game discovery clan. So let’s get going here. We start with an interview with a dev who’s worked hard to understand and change the player’s attitude to their game, post-launch.
[Heads up: two weeks left on our 22% off our Plus subscriptions deal we ‘cleverly’ instituted on 2/2/22. The upgrade includes an exclusive weekly Plus newsletter, an info-filled Discord, a data-exportable Steam Hype back-end, game discovery eBooks & more - support us via a sub!]
Pathway & post-launch expectation management
Something we’ve been fascinated by here at GameDiscoverCo? The concept that 90% of games have a ‘Hype’ problem (not enough people know about it.) But 10% of games have an ‘Expectation’ problem (people know about it, but what you deliver might not be 100% what they expected.)
And we were lucky enough to talk about this to Simon Bachmann of dev Robotality about his team’s Chucklefish-published title Pathway. The game is a fetching pixel art-based 2D title where you “unravel long-forgotten mysteries of the occult, raid ancient tombs and outwit your foes in turn-based squad combat!”
Pathway’s first month on sale on Steam back in April 2019 had about 350 Positive and 210 Negative reviews - a Mixed result that could become an anchor weighing down sales. But the team kept working on it, with only about 200 more Negative reviews during its LTD on Steam from the 1,100+ reviews since launch month, a way better percentage. (It also launched a Switch version last year.)
So we talked to Simon about a couple of things - both expectation management (why he thinks people didn’t get the correct impression of the game at launch), and what happened after that (the route to improving review scores & long tail sales!) Like so:
After the initial 2019 launch of Pathway, it seems like reviews were just 'OK', or a bit mixed. Do you have a strong feeling about why that was - did you release a bit too early, were people expecting different things from what you delivered, etc?
A: I think it was a mix of both: we knew that the game had some rough edges and elements we would have liked to have polished up before the release. But we were on a tight deadline due to our budget, so we had to move ahead and release the game.
We were not expecting that much negative feedback, though. In combination with some wrong expectation handling on our side, this led to an unfortunate combination.
We started out very strong - going right up to the top on Steam’s global charts. We also had a lot of media coverage and big streamers playing the game at launch. But soon, more and more negative reviews started coming in.
And when we finally hit a mixed overall review score sales started to take a dive. Of course, we took a very close look and tried to analyse what went wrong here. The result was quite clear:
The gameplay core loop was not as fun as we had hoped, and a lot of players complained that it felt like a grind.
Players expected a different game with more content than what we had. The game felt repetitive, even though it had a lot of content. Basically, we did not present it the best way possible and that combined with the feeling of having to grind… it felt like a chore. Content in general was just lacking a bit, and we had stretched it too thin.
A lot of players expected an FTL and X-Com mash-up in an Indiana Jones outfit. What we aimed for was a fast paced, approachable turn-based game instead. After seeing the media also use similar descriptions, we tried to change the way we communicated the game. But unfortunately, comparisons were still drawn.
Even though the story events had a lot of options, not many of the choices felt meaningful.
Some players experienced technical difficulties, as our game was built on a custom engine to support the visual style we’re going for.
Can you explain what plans you had for post-release content initially? Did they change after you saw the reception to the game?
We always planned to wait and see what the players enjoyed most, before deciding what we are going to do next. And we did have plans to have some more content after release.
Before we released the game we thought it would be in the form of new adventures. But after the initial feedback we decided to instead focus on making the existing content more meaningful and interesting. We reworked and rebalanced a lot of aspects of the game.
How did you keep the morale of the team high after a mixed launch? Were you sure you wanted to keep working on the game?
Well, that was a tough one obviously. Especially in the contrast of being the worldwide top seller on Steam and 24 hours later having mixed reviews and not selling many copies anymore…
So yea, that sucked. It helped a lot that we were all experienced in releasing games, and we knew that this was going to be the most stressful part. We just did not expect it to be *that* stressful. 😉 We eventually just hunkered down and started to fix the most obvious and easy to fix issues that came up. We started talking as a team to find out what we can do to improve the game long-term.
It also helped enormously that we had a partner in the form of Chucklefish. They were super supportive and helped us to navigate all this. Communication with the community was a challenge during these times, and we relied heavily on Chucklefish to help us with this.
So the first one or two months were a blur and we addressed a ton of smaller issues. Then we really began to deconstruct the whole game and rebuild parts from scratch. When we finally had a good idea of what we wanted to make, things came back into focus. We had a goal in sight and just worked towards it.
We also knew that if we managed to get the game back to a positive reception, we had a much, much better chance of making it commercially successful. We invested a big chunk of the initial revenue from Pathway back into the game and started working on multiple bigger updates that really improved the core of the game.
Could you identify the major game updates you ended up doing after launch, why you decided to do them in that order, and the general reception of them?
Our first major content update was “Adventures Wanted”. It introduced a new character system. We also nearly doubled the amount of content you could encounter, rebalanced a lot of things from the ground up. At this point we had a pretty fantastic community that was also invested in the game and helped us shape some of these aspects directly.
Besides adding hundreds of new events, we also touched every existing event and added new options to them to make them more interesting and actually interesting to play multiple times.
That update was the one that turned around the overall ratio of new reviews being mainly positive. We followed up with more updates that added a Hardcore mode, controller support and more. Around the time we released the Hardcore mode to the public we also finally reached an overall positive review score again.
This took a lot of time, as it’s nearly impossible to get people to change their review once they put one down. So you have to convince new players to play the game and rate it. It’s also difficult to drive awareness of these changes, as media aren’t as likely to cover news about such updates.
Winning the German Developer Award for “Best Story” at the end of 2019 right after we released the “Adventures Wanted” update generated a lot of positive feedback, and it was a very cool way for us to finish off a rather stressful year. 😊
Q: We see you added community language support relatively recently, and the game originally shipped in a few (but not all) of the major languages. Can you explain why you decided to do that?
A: This is an interesting one. We had always planned to only have support for the 5 initial languages, as they were the ones that reflected the player base from our previous game: English, German, French, Chinese and Japanese. At some point, fans started to translate the game into Italian and other languages without us prompting.
And let me tell you - Pathway is a monster to translate. There are over 150,000 words in this game. So, one player contacted us a year or so back and asked if it is okay for him to translate the game to Italian in his free time. We of course had nothing against that, and provided him with the tools he needed. After that, multiple other people started translating the game, so we made those tools available for them as well.
To our surprise, they actually finished translating the game and releasing them to the community. We thought about how to best help them get the translations to as many players as possible, without us having to patch them in game. We didn’t want to add the fan-made translations directly to Pathway, as this would have required proof-reading and testing resources we don’t have - not to speak of any potential legal hurdles.
So we decided to integrate Steam Workshop into Pathway, so that fans translating the game could share their work easily with other players. That way they also remain in full control over their own work. The decision was mainly to support our community who had dedicated a huge amount of their free time to translate a game they enjoyed playing. We felt like giving them a bit of a platform to share their work was the least we could do.
Do you think the improvement in positive review % after launch shows the success of your strategy of updating the time over time? Is it also that people now understood what to expect from the game based on all the other reviews - or both?
I think multiple things made this a [post-launch] ‘success story’, if you’d like to call it such. With the first big update, ‘Adventures Wanted’ we manage to create an objectively much better game that is just more fun to play than the initial release was.
Second, we put a lot of effort in managing player expectations: One thing we did for example was a second gameplay trailer we released with our first major update. It explains what Pathway is (and maybe more importantly what it is not), so players can decide if the game is for them without having to play it.
This goes back to the previous point: players expected X-Com style combat, but that just wasn’t our goal with the game. With this video we tried to clear those things up for players interested in the game.
I think in terms of marketing, making a big hype around a game is only one side of the story. Managing expectations on what the game actually is can be just as important if you want to have happy customers. In some ways we were quite successful in building up pre-launch hype, but overlooked the second part a bit. To sum up: I’d rather have one less customer than an unhappy one.
Which Steam games are winning the IAP battle?
We briefly mentioned this in last Friday’s Plus newsletter, but perhaps we should pause for a little more analysis. For a long time, we’ve been saying that the Steam global top-sellers chart is great for seeing individual SKUs of games. But it’d be great to see combined charts for real-time-ish Steam revenue, including DLC/IAP.
Well hilariously, Ryan Clark (Brace Yourself Games) wrote in to point out you CAN see Steam global top-sellers including IAP revenue (above), simply by ticking the ‘Games’ box in global top-sellers. Apparently that’s the version of the chart he was using in his late, lamented Clark Tank streams.
In our defense, a) that’s a pretty weird UI choice, and b) we found some other high-profile Steam watchers who weren’t aware of this, lol. Anyhow, now we can analyze this chart too. A couple of initial notes from it:
Lots of non-surprising F2P or ‘free + launch package’ games cluster near the top of the charts right now, such as Lost Ark, Apex Legends, Counter-Strike: GO and DOTA 2. But definitely interesting to see Yu-Gi-Oh! Master Duel so high, though. Its CCUs have been skyhigh, though - currently in the 70k-130k range on Steam, as high as 260k on launch. So it makes sense.
When you see DLC high up in the Steam chart, such as Crusader Kings III: Royal Court, currently #13 in the ‘app-specific’ ranking, you’ll sometimes see the full game a bit higher up in the ‘combined’ chart. (CK3 is #8 in that chart right now.) But that’s partly because 4 versions of Lost Ark in the app-specific ranking get merged down to 1 in combined. So not necessary a big change.
Other F2P titles which we saw in these Steam charts and were, like, ‘huh, I don’t think about this game as much as I should, but it’s still doing great’ include Warframe, Path Of Exile, War Thunder, Phantasy Star Online 2: New Genesis, Smite, and World Of Warships. Oh, and Brawhalla, which is outgrossing titles like Football Manager 2022 on the sly.
So there you go. Please feel free to use this chart to fantasize wildly about why you aren’t doing a high-grossing GaaS title. Or if you are, congratulations, you’re ‘one of them’. And it’s good to keep an eye on all of this info for context, right?
The game discovery news round-up..
Finishing up our free newsletters for this week - though Plus subscribers get that awesome game trends analysis newsletter on Friday - let’s delve into some of the biggest news in the space since Monday. And it’s a tad Microsoft-heavy, folks:
In wake of the proposed, to be U.S. FTC-investigated ActiBlizz acquisition, Microsoft is wandering over to Washington DC to explain why everything is ‘all cool, man’. Further explanation via this blog post where they re-pitch Windows being ‘not a bummer’ re: forcing use of particular stores and payment methods.
Two other notable things from that blog: firstly: “To be clear, Microsoft will continue to make Call of Duty and other popular Activision Blizzard titles available on PlayStation… beyond the existing agreement and into the future. We are also interested in taking similar steps to support Nintendo’s successful platform.” Minecraft isn’t Game Pass-exclusive, so why Call of Duty? There’s too much upside to limit.
Also, as MS correctly says: “Some may ask why today’s principles do not apply immediately and wholesale to the current Xbox console store.” Why, indeed? Apparently because: “Gaming consoles, specifically, are sold to gamers at a loss to establish a robust and viable ecosystem for game developers. The costs are recovered later through revenue earned in the dedicated console store.” So there.
As Netflix continues to ramp up its ‘mobile exclusive versions of PC/console titles playable only with a Netflix logon’ strategy, Riot Forge’s Hextech Mayhem: A League Of Legends Story (above), maybe the most high-profile title to date, finally launched last week. There’s 100,000+ installs on Google Play already, but looks like the controls are not very mobile-friendly - thus 2.5 stars/5 average.
Good to see the ESRB ratings board announcing its new family gaming guide, though it’s more of a souped-up interactive infographic than a voluminous effort. At the end, it links to the Family Video Game Database, which is a third party, much larger-scale and well curated effort that we’ve mentioned before.
Witness this BBC article, ‘Microsoft's mega-deal worries small video game makers’, talking to Tanya Short, Jake Simpson & others about ‘that thing’: “some of those developers are deeply concerned… that if the.. Game Pass subscription service, increasingly becomes the only means through which many people access games, small studios could be left competing for funding and promotion via that platform.” (A number of interviewees are folks who have games on Game Pass, btw.)
The folks who made well-received space based tactical roguelite Crying Suns had a look at their revenue received via discounts: “Before launching… on Steam, I had in mind that around 50% of our revenues would be generated on sale. Well, not far [off]: 57% of Crying Suns units were sold with a discount. These units represent 46% of Crying Suns revenues on Steam.” How does this compare with you all?
Twitter cognoscenti member Shinobi602 did an interesting thread on “a summary profile list of over TWO DOZEN mostly independent studios creating new AAA games.” I’d noticed this in part too - but it’s fascinating to see a fuller reckoning of how much money is sloshing around in funding larger-scale IP, often with ex-BioWare, Naughty Dog, and other AAA crew on board.
To counteract some of the Game Pass suspicion re: largescale business model shifts, here’s some positivity: “Game Pass really made me appreciate indie games more than ever before. I discovered some real gems these last couple of years, and I think the honest reality is that I likely wouldn't have checked many of them out without being included in the service.”
Microlinks: This thread on interesting YouTubers with <100k subs is worth browsing to understand the ecosystem; Intellivision’s Amico hardware is doing more crowdfunding, amidst money woes; Twitch is deprecating an API so that “‘games/top’ no longer returns viewer numbers for games”, boo.
Finally, it seems like Wordle-related fun & drama was all over social media in recent weeks. So enjoyed this Tweet from Paul Kilduff-Taylor (Mode 7 Games) on the subject:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new 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.]