[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Weekly, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]
This week, it’s time for some advice for game platform stores, rather than actual developers. Which you might think cuts down the intended audience for this piece to, uh, about 7 or 8 companies! (But actually, it’s got important info for you regular devs, too.)
So here’s the thesis. Although Steam is much-maligned for its discovery mechanisms -and I think it could do better curated features for promising games - it does a lot of things right by allowing ANY game to flow up the discovery tree.
For example, its ‘New & Trending’ front page (below) uses a threshold on the number of sales/reviews to pop your game into a prominently featured spot in real-time, no matter who you are. And it’ll stay there for a good while.
On Steam, you can even sell enough copies to make it into the big ‘Featured & Recommended’ section at the top of the page automagically, I believe - without Valve intervention.
And of course, its ‘Top Selling’ chart is real-time for each geographical location and updates very swiftly (every few minutes). And you can also see Global Top-Selling separately to regional!
Anyhow, the point is - this whole Steam ecosystem lends itself decently to launching a game and having it ‘break out’ on public store pages, especially with pre-release wishlisting added in. And Steam’s user base is excited to try new games from new creators. (Not saying Steam doesn’t have existential supply/demand issues, like many stores, and that it doesn’t still select games for special treatment.)
That’s Steam. But let’s talk about some of the other stores out there and what they do.
Nintendo Switch - I’ll do a deeper dive into Switch discoverability in due course. But the Switch has a very prominent ‘top-selling games’ chart as part of its (fairly sparse!) top-level store navigation.
This is great, because this levels the playing field. If you can get in the top games, people will notice you and you’ll sell more games. (Although there has been some minor manipulation of this via over-discounting - we’ll also talk about in that separate piece.)
But the ‘top games’ chart doesn’t have multiple pages to scroll through. You can just see the Top 30 or so, which is a real shame, because they tend to be 20 of ‘the usual suspects’ or Nintendo stalwarts, plus 10 games you’re intrigued to see in there. Why not a Top 100 or even Top 200?
And Switch also doesn’t have any kind of ‘Top New Games’ chart. This should be ‘games that came out in the last 30 days that have sold more than X copies, or have reached a certain sales velocity at a certain point’. And I really think they should add it.
But I do think Nintendo has done the best job for ‘natural from-scratch store discoverability’ of any console store. That may just be because they’re minimalist in their approach to store feature, and don’t have the third party relationships to keep up that Sony and Microsoft do. It could still improve, though.
Microsoft Xbox - probably another half-notch down in terms of natural discoverability for new games not by ‘big devs/pubs’. This is because the Xbox dashboard has a LOT of things to promote, including Mixer (which gets a whole tab), Xbox Game Pass (which also gets a tab, naturally), and then TV and movie purchases and discounts.
In addition, there’s quite a lot of featured store spots that tend to get taken by big discounted/featured AAA games or movies. The front page of the store actually DOES have a ‘Summer Spotlight’ for indies right now, but the other ‘above the fold’ featured panes went to Apex Legends, the Godzilla movie, a Lego video game sale & Fortnite.
(On these console stores, there’s less algorithmic chances to pop into front page features like Steam. This is partly because Xbox and PlayStation have a lot of pre-existing relationships with large publishers who expect them to promote their games.)
When you do get to the front page of the store, best-selling games (which I’ve clicked through on below) are one of the top options. Though you do have to scroll to the right and click to open the submenu up and see all the games.
When you get in there - yep, this is likely a real-time-ish chart, and you can keep scrolling down for ever, which is great!
But despite all the filters above, you can’t sort by ‘Top new’ or otherwise have a ‘games released in the last X amount of time’ as an option. And since you’re already 3+ actions deep (multiple-tab across to Store page, click to enter store, click to see all paid games), the value of this promotion is probably lower vs. Switch (where you just tab down to Best Selling.)
So this is all decent, especially if you’re Gang Beasts or No Man’s Sky or someone who can be a big chart hitter. But if you’re launching a new game on Xbox and you can’t get it into best-selling charts quickly, it’ll be on the front page of the store for as long as it takes 6 other Xbox games to be released, even if it’s selling in a promising fashion. (Hint: that’s not very long.) Then you won’t see it again unless it gets a LONG way up best-selling.
Sure, there are some different special categories that happen to hit the store front page. But some of them are a little random, like ‘latest titles in Game Preview’. (Not that No More Robots is complaining in this case, since Descenders benefited from that for months, but… ‘Top New Games’ should probably be one of the categories too!)
Sony PlayStation - if anything, the PlayStation Store is even more cluttered and full of complex and overlapping options. For panes/tabs on the Store page, there’s What’s Hot, Deals, Popular, Just For You, then two rotating custom panes (currently Celebrate Summer.. and Death Stranding), _then_ PS Plus and PS VR, and then Games.
Most of these have editorially featured big/medium icons for them. You’ll need to scroll to the right for two or three pages in order to click through and see a full list (in this case, the Games / New Games submenu is shown below!)
I’ll also note that the top-selling games for PlayStation is labeled as being ‘for the last 7 days’ - so maybe they get manually entered every week? (Or in some way aggregated over a longer period of time!)
Either way, these PlayStation best-selling charts are in no way updated in real-time like Steam, so if a game comes out and it’s capturing a surge of attention, you wouldn’t know it based on the PlayStation Store. Which is a shame, I think.
(Related - there are no ‘Top New Games’ at all. You can either look at the best-selling titles, which may include games that have been out for years, or trudge through a mass of ‘all new’ titles. Whyyy?)
For both Xbox and PlayStation, getting into an ‘editorially featured’ bucket, aka ‘you have a good enough business relationship for them to feature you’ - looks fairly important.
But it’s rough for your average game when massive publishers - who may have 20+ years history with the console, back from when it was only retail games - are pushing to be prominently featured.
This is what Nick Suttner meant when he gave his GDC talk ‘Platforms Are People Too: The Importance Of Finding Your Champion’. (Which curiously has a bunch of downvotes on YouTube, maybe because people don’t want to acknowledge that the real world works like this sometimes!)
In any case, it’s not that PlayStation (or Xbox, or even Switch with its ‘Featured’ tab) don’t care about the average game, it’s just that they have a LOT of stakeholders to make happy.
And they haven’t come from the engineer-led Steam mindset - pop up ‘hot new’ games in real time, feature them if they do very well. Rather, the ethos is coming from the traditional retail-first model where there are formal publisher relationships to preserve, and the store isn’t meant to surface games ‘on its own’. (I think it should.)
A couple of bonus mini-comments:
Epic Games Store - ha ha. (They are famously ‘lean’ right now, but I hope they do some of this when they start rolling out more store features!)
Apple & Google Play Stores - there are scrollable ‘top X games’ lists in paid and free categories, if not an algorithmic ‘top new games’ list. (And overall, they do a lot of good editorial curation, though free to play dominates. And organic reach is massively down because of the continued rise of ‘pay to acquire via video ads’, unfortunately. It’s a whole different beast.)
A final, and important thought for game developers. All this helps, but you shouldn’t be relying on a storefront to sell copies of your game. In a previous era of game discoverability, maybe - but that’s just not the case nowadays.
You should already have a robust set of fans before you launch your game, because featuring or chart inclusion will help to take you over the top, but if demand isn’t there to start with, then you’re not going to get in those charts.
After all, it’s possible that we are all reading this the wrong way around - that sales actually aren’t majority affected by store placement, and we just want access to these charts to see what is happening under the surface anyway.
But besides the thirst for sales stat knowledge, I think more agile real-time charts would genuinely help games break out on almost all of these platforms. So let’s do it, game platforms! That’s all.
Speak to you next week,