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Desynced: how an 'automation x RTS' hybrid found a Steam audience
Also: some interesting Game Pass 'hours played' data & lots of news.
[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 to a brand new week, folks - hope you had a great weekend. We’re raring to go, with free newsletters going out today (Monday) and Wednesday, and our Plus-exclusive game trends analysis debuting on Friday, as per normal.
And we start out with a look at a game that characterizes many of the games doing ‘well’ (tens of thousands of units sold, Week 1) on Steam nowadays. It’s not necessarily casual or approachable - but it is deep, complex & sale-able to a hungry submarket..
[Don’t forget: our upgraded Plus data suite soft-launched, and you can subscribe to Plus now to get full access to it, weekly PC/console sales research, an exclusive Discord, three detailed game discovery eBooks - & lots more. We’ll yell a lot more about it in due course…]
Desynced: automation meets RTS meets Steam hit
As you know, we like to look around, and love spotting games that we weren’t paying total attention to, but have launched well on Steam. One of those very titles is Stage Games & Forklift Interactive’s Desynced, a “blend of strategy, automation & exploration”, or as a top Steam reviewer says: “it’s Factorio with an RTS presentation… fun stuff.”
What’s more, when we look at ‘current CCU’ (as of Thursday, Sept. 7th) across all 200+ Steam games released on the week of August 14th, 2023 as our GameDiscoverCo Plus interactive data set allows you to do, Desynced is at an impressive #7 (see below, with our unofficial ‘units sold’ estimates.) So it really does have staying power as a game:
A good start, and the game is still in Early Access - and has a good chance to go bigger over time and at 1.0. We quizzed Andrei Podoprigora at new publisher Forklift about why they picked up the game, and things that made a difference to its Hype:
Desynced fitted with Forklift’s ‘replayable’ ethos: the publisher specifically targets “complex, endlessly replayable, systemic games”, and signed Desynced a few weeks before it made a good impression in February’s Steam Next Fest. Next Fest accounted for much early interest, but YouTuber interest boosted it pre-release.
Automation games are complex to make (and undersupplied?): Andrei agreed that “you must be crazy about this genre to make a game in it”, because it’s difficult, being “heavy on game design and programming… it won’t be carried by a good story or great visuals.” He also called out a trend - which we’re seeing too - for more genre hybrids - “mixes between automation and other genres”, of which this is one.
The genre’s complexity is both a blessing and a curse: he noted - “Creating custom behaviors for bots and buildings in an Unreal Blueprints-like editor is totally optional, but players… can spend dozens of hours creating and debugging one intricate behavior.” But “the game’s complexity is very high, which can turn one away at the beginning.” Still, average time played for Desynced is nearly 16 hours (excellent!), 7% of players have got >50 hours in the game, and 1% >100 hours.
Strategy YouTubers were pretty vital to the game’s success: Andrei adds: “Getting a few ‘champion’ creators in the early stages of the game’s marketing cycle is extremely important. We were lucky with Nilaus, who liked the game and played the demo to create his first series of videos. During our early player surveys, he was one of the most cited sources for ‘How did you learn about the game?’ He ended up creating more than a dozen more videos for the EA launch, and we even made a custom mod for him to put the logo on the base.”
The folks at Forklift were also kind enough to annotate the Steam follower graph for the game with some of the key pre-release milestones. (The game launched with about 12,500 Steam followers, ranking it in the top 200 for all unreleased Steam games.)
Forklift officially confirmed that Desynced ended up selling “20k+ units in the first 3 days”, and that traditional strategy-heavy countries like the U.S. (28% of units), Germany (20% of units), China (10% of units), and the UK (6% of units), plus Canada and France (3.5% of units) are some of the top players of the game.
Forklift and Stage Games also spent some significant time adjusting the tutorial system and UI/UX based on player feedback, a key possible failing point on games like this. In the end, they managed to get the review score stabilized at Very Positive (86%), which is a very credible start for an Early Access game.
Concluding: this is the kind of sales expectation we should all have for medium sized hits on Steam nowadays. With 30k+ units now in Early Access, Desynced may end up selling low hundreds of thousands of units after its 1.0 release. (Especially given how discounts may ‘juice’ the player base.) It’s a good debut for a new publisher.
How Game Pass players compare on Xbox vs. PC?
You might think we’re out of documents to comb over from the ‘FTC vs. Xbox’ lawsuit over Microsoft buying Activision Blizzard. (With the preliminary injunction denied, the U.S. FTC withdrew its lawsuit in July, and the UK CMA objections to the deal look likely to get quashed by next month.)
But we wanted to revisit one last document entered into the public record during the lawsuit as evidence - a April 2021 example of Xbox’s quarterly pipeline review (Google Drive link) for possible acquisitions in the video game space.
Outlets like GWO covered this in June, noting top Xbox prospects: “People Can Fly (Bulletstorm); Housemarque (Returnal) - eventually acquired by Sony; Remedy (Control, Alan Wake, Max Payne); 11 bit studios (Frostpunk, The War of Mine); IO (Hitman); Larian (Divinity, Baldur’s Gate III); Bungie (Destiny) - eventually acquired by Sony; Supergiant (Hades, Bastion); Paradox (Stellaris, Crusader Kings); SEGA (Sonic, Yakuza, Total War).”
It’s very interesting to see Xbox’s internal strategy & views on gaps (above) - with PC and mobile-specific game content particularly mentioned. (We talked about Xbox’s push into these platforms when analyzing recent Phil Spencer interviews at ‘Not-E3’.)
But we wanted to pull out and highlight a rare stat in the presentation data. It’s ‘# of Game Pass hours played’ during the last 6 months up to April 2021, on both Game Pass console and Game Pass PC, for select games from acquisition targets:
Obviously, this info is now almost two and a half years out of date. No doubt both Xbox and PC Game Pass has grown since then. But there’s some takeaways here:
When measuring ‘hours played’, GaaS titles unsurprisingly come out on top: Remedy’s excellent Control got added to Game Pass in January 2021, and racked up 5.25 million hours played on console GP (and about 15% of those hours on PC Game Pass.) But Dead By Daylight (25.5 million) and Destiny 2 (95.8 million) outperformed those hours by 5x and 19x respectively.
‘Xbox GP → PC GP ratios’ looked to be 10-15% for ‘big’ AAA titles: we don’t have Destiny 2 cross-stats because it didn’t launch on PC Game Pass until October 2021. But Dead By Daylight and Football Manager 2021’s stats indicate that PC Game Pass players have racked up about 10% of the hours of Xbox Game Pass players. (Some PC-adjacent indies like 11 Bit’s games have smaller Xbox GP totals, but 30-50% of the total in PCGP hours.)
Since we can’t see unique player numbers, some games look outsized: Paradox’s titles in particular have impressive hourly 6-month totals, with Crusader Kings III’s 6.4 million hours a stand-out. This game launched ‘Day 1’ for PC Game Pass in September 2020, and may have average play times in the 100 hours range on Steam. Even so, GameDiscoverCo estimates that around 500,000 PC GP players tried the title in those 6 months - one of the very highest PCGP-only unique totals.
Let’s not forget, incidentally, that some of these ‘console vs. PC’ hours may have been played by the very same players. Given that Xbox Game Pass Ultimate allows it, they might either jump back and forth between playing on Xbox and PC, or just choose - or were forced to - play certain types of games on PC.
Concluding: this data is exciting to poke at, because there’s no way to see what platform a player is enjoying a game on (console, PC, or cloud?) within the externally-facing Xbox network itself. It’s not a perfect view - but it’s an interesting, unseen one.
The game discovery news round-up..
There really has been a lot of platform and discovery news since earlier last week. So it’s our privilege to sum it up for you in around ten bullet-points, as follows:
ICYMI: sounds like Switch 2 tech demos were shown behind closed doors at Gamescom, according to reporting by Eurogamer and by VGC: “One ‘Switch 2’ demo is understood to have been an improved version of the Switch launch title Zelda: Breath of the Wild… Another VGC source claimed that Nintendo showcased Epic’s impressive The Matrix Awakens Unreal Engine 5 tech demo.” 2024 launch ahoy?
Always interesting to see PlayStation’s official ‘top downloads of August 2023’ list, confirming good PS5 launches for Armored Core VI and Texas Chain Saw Massacre - and Madden NFL 24 in the U.S. on PS5/PS4, of course. (Rockstar’s PS4 update/remaster of 2010’s Red Dead Redemption also charted nicely in both the U.S. and Europe.)
Roblox’s RDC dev conference (announces & video) had fascinating transparency into game revenue stats (above): “The average developer for the Top 10 Earning games on Roblox is making $27M, #100 Creator is making $950,000 per year, and #1000 is making $60k per year.” The company also confirmed PlayStation (in October) and Quest roll-outs for Roblox, alongside 65 million DAU - here’s more on Roblox’s plans, which include generative AI for level creation, via GameDeveloper.com.
Upcoming Steam sale/Next Fest dates for your calendar? According to Valve, looks like the major sales are Autumn (Nov 21-28th, 2023), Winter (Dec. 21, 2023 to Jan 4, 2024) and Spring (March 14th-21st, 2024), and the upcoming Next Fests are Oct 9th-16th, 2023 (for which reg. closed a while back), and Feb 5th-12, 2024 (reg. opening in due course!)
After their E3 2023 partnership failed to get off the ground, U.S. trade group the ESA and event organizer ReedPop are ‘parting ways’: “The ESA has also informed the Los Angeles Convention Center, which is the traditional home of E3, that it will not be putting a show on there in 2024… GamesIndustry.biz understands that the trade body is also working on a complete reinvention of the E3 show for 2025.” Good, uh, luck!
YouTube stuff: as TikTok’s primacy means creators are cross-posting short form videos more often, Tubefilter asks: “[YouTube] Shorts are on the rise. Is YouTube’s long-form content “dying out” as a result?” And YouTube is now testing ‘Playables’: “games that can be played directly on YouTube on both desktop and mobile devices.”
DevOps tool company Perforce released a ‘2023 state of game development report’ which seems to heavily sample AAA devs (57% of respondents use Unreal Engine, and only 18% use Unity), but still has some interesting takeaways - 90% of people replying are working on a PC game, vs. 61% a console one, for example.
Valve has announced extra PlayStation controller metadata upcoming on Steam: “The Steam store and desktop client will soon be able to help players find games that support [PlayStation] DualSense or DualShock controllers. If your game supports either of these devices, you can now enter that information in the Steamworks 'edit store' section for your app.”
But why new PlayStation controller info now? Interesting ‘PC x gamepad’ trends are surfaced further down Valve’s same post: “Since 2017, Steam has seen over 87 Million users play at least once using a controller”, with 69% using Xbox controllers - PlayStation, Switch Pro and other third-party controllers are the rest. But: “In 2018, PlayStation controllers comprised about 11% of controller sessions… today, we now see 27% of controller sessions being played with PlayStation controllers.”
Microlinks: Epic boss Tim Sweeney says Epic Games Store is open to devs using generative AI; upcoming Xbox Game Pass debuts in September include hotly awaited Souls-like Lies Of P; the AAA and/or ‘indie’ titles which got the most media ‘hype’ during Gamescom 2023.
Finally, do you love the Xbox 360 so much that you.. want to build one, brick by brick? That’s what MEGA and Xbox now let you do, with a “fully buildable, light-up console and controller. The console opens to reveal a disc drive (and other Easter eggs); place the Halo 3-themed disc inside to activate the motherboard.” That’s some fan service:
[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.]