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How does your game boost its 'long tail'?
It's about what happens after you release it, too!
[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.]
In this newsletter, we’ve been very fixated on getting enough followers/wishlists that your game launches strongly. And that is extremely important! But you need to keep it going, and the amount of copies your game sells long-term can vary radically.
For example, did you know that Teardown, pictured below, which launched in October 2020 in Early Access, already has 15,000 Steam reviews? That’s probably half a million copies+ sold! Have you seen ‘your circle of game players’ talking about it a bunch recently? I personally haven’t, but it’s maybe selling a thousand copies a day, if you look at its review stats.
But it’s one of those titles that just continues to sell, even after leaving the overall Steam Top 10. So... how do you get to be one of those games?
Maintaining sales longevity after your game’s release?
So we think there’s a couple of things you can do to maintain your sales after your Steam launch. One is glaringly obvious, but we’re going to highlight it anyhow - make a good game! (Or at least, make a game which positively manages the expectations of the people who are planning to buy and play it. Make sure you promote a clear pre-release understanding of what the game is, and then execute on that understanding.)
We did some research on this for our GameDiscoverCo Plus subscribers recently (psst, sign up!), and the below graph is an edited highlight. We checked back on games that had launched decently - high Steam Hype scores - in December 2020 and their number of reviews after 1 week and 2 months on sale:
We discovered that those with higher review scores just added more reviews (and therefore sales - reviews x20-x60 is likely sales number!) over time. Although Empire Of Sin (43% positive Steam reviews) only added 35% more reviews from its admittedly hefty debut, Creeper World 4 (96% positive!) added 110% more.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, and we speculate that 80% (the ‘Very Positive’ threshold) is the point below which people start second-guessing buying the game on Steam. Being above 95% (Overwhelmingly Positive with >500 reviews) is a good bonus, but not something to fuss about too much.
So this is a little ‘duh, good game sells better’. But the effect seems material. We can discuss correlation/causation at length, but a) good word of mouth leads to better reviews, and b) when players visit your page and see a high-sky review score, they’re more motivated to buy.
(BTW, the above Steam games hadn’t improved their one-week review score positivity by more than 5% after two months. Unless you can add a LOT more reviews at a better percentage, it’s very difficult to shift perceptions. We see this a bit on Apple Arcade when devs patch and reset their review count - 90% of the time it ends out the same rough rating.)
So now I’ve impressed you all with ‘make a good game to get better sales’, let’s try some other ways that we think you can maintain interest in a game after launch:
Make a game that YouTubers/Twitch streamers will keep playing!
Not a surprise, but I decided to look up Teardown on YouTube. And I discovered that YouTubers are now modding Among Us crewmates into the game, among many other crazy sandbox experiments. This below video was published just 2 days ago, and has 165k views already:
Probably not a mash-up the Teardown devs originally intended. But if you can open the door to user-generated content and player creativity in your game, all kinds of interesting things can happen.
What we’ve seen with Descenders and my buddies at No More Robots is that it’s not necessarily one YouTube video or Twitch stream that takes a game over the top. It’s a multiple streamer interest trickledown, where you give them an opportunity to either a) be creative or b) flex their personality, solo or with their friends (co-op rules!)
This may not be applicable to your game. But I would stand by this statement: the majority of games that are selling very well, months or years after release, somehow allow new content that unlocks streamer creativity & brings in potential new players. A lot of answers to ‘whoa, how is that game selling so well?’ are YouTube or Twitch (or Tiktok!)-related.
Retain or grow CCUs with replayability & loyalty
So maybe you’re not a sandbox UGC-style game, you’re a regular ol’ game. Besides making a high quality title to improve your game’s tail, what else can you possibly do? Well, you can try to retain players!
As it happens, ex-BioWare & Supercell dev Andreas Papathanasis tagged me on Twitter in a thread talking about this, with regard to his mobile/Steam free-to-play space strategy title Hades’ Star - his Steam CCUs graphed above in blue.
And he noted: “Retention is often ignored among indie devs. If you think retention doesn't apply to you because you have a paid game, you are wrong. Keeping players engaged long term is your best marketing tool (that thing we like to complain is too hard to do).”
Now, you do get different retention metrics with free to play games, where the barrier to entry is low and you need to retain to progressively monetize. (And I’m hoping Andreas can expound on some of his comments for a later newsletter.)
But the general point is true. If you can regularly update your game (via DLC, updates, social-centric gameplay and discourse with your community), and provide something new for the player to do regularly, they will come back and be more engaged. Ultimately, this is about replayability again.
For some resolutely non-replayable games, the CCU metric is just odd. For example, I just looked up the Steam CCU of What Remains of Edith Finch, haha (it’s 30 people, and has been a maximum of 329 ever, despite the game selling between 500k and 1 million units on Steam!)
But replayable, updateable games often just have a better long tail because there’s more to talk about. So please bear this in mind.
Put your game in a sale!
Finally, it’s no secret that game sales (‘this great game is X% off now’!) work. Even if your game is shorter, single-player, and not designed for retention, people will have wishlisted it - and may be looking out for it in sales.
So just go read the whole other column I wrote about this last month. But as we noted at the time: “We do think that some game makers don’t spend enough time being 100% methodical about discount timings and amounts. And we do believe judicious discounting is possibly the most powerful post-launch discovery tool for your games.”
And that’s all of the ways you can sell better after you launch. Absolutely all of them! (There may be some more, ping us if you’ve seen some you think work great.)
The game discovery news round-up..
We have a bunch of other notable news to round up for Wednesday’s GameDiscoverCo newsletter. But let’s just get a few of the obvious and time-sensitive game discovery news items out of the way now:
As noted by SteamDB, and important for anyone planning a demo of their unreleased Steam game for a little later this year: “The Steam Game Festival: Summer Edition 2021 will run from June 16th to June 22th.” Reminder: you can only be in this Festival if you haven’t been in other ones, here’s the submission info, deadline in April.
An interesting alternative to charging one-off for DLC, if you have a truly gigantic amount - Paradox has an 'Expansion Subscription' for Crusader Kings II, as seen on its Steam page, that will cost $4.99 and renew every 30 days. “Subscribers will gain access to every single piece of Crusader Kings II DLC, including expansion packs, portraits, clothing, music packs, and more.”
We’re sure you spotted the Nintendo Direct that ran late last week. If you didn’t, please read the press release coming out of it. We noted: more free-to-play games coming to Switch (Apex Legends, that Zynga-helmed Star Wars: Hunters), some signature AA titles (Outer Wilds, Tales From The Borderlands) making it across - and overall slightly more large company third-party interest than normal.
Funny timing, but the long, well-researched ‘Is Xbox Game Pass too good to be true?’ debuted on Eurogamer just after our column discussing this very issue (in abstract!) As the piece says: “When new, structural changes happen fast, people get a little uneasy, and when they also happen to be weirdly good value for money, they get very uneasy.” Conclusion: for everybody currently involved, Game Pass works.
As I noted on the GameDiscoverCo Twitter account (are you following us?), you can get 1 month of EA Play on Steam for $1 right now, and a similar deal on PlayStation 4/5: “More game sub discounting to get subscribers in the door. (A 1-year EA Play Steam sub is only $29.99 in the U.S. also.)” Side note: the upsell of searching for a TV show/movie and having it listed as part of a subscription for ‘cheap’ is why Amazon VOD channels do well. And we’re now seeing the same in games.
Microlinks: Apple wants lots of Valve info to explain why Epic’s antitrust arguments aren’t the best, Valve pushing back; interesting piece on if the game biz lived up to its Black Lives Matters promises (kudos to the publishers actively working on this, btw); Floppy Knights recaps its Steam Festival performance - 3,402 players, and 3,300 more wishlists.
Finally, just to underscore how complex it can be funding a game, the folks who made Crying Suns were kind enough to provide a time-based breakdown of the funding specific for their game I previously linked to. Game dev funding is just… not that easy to juggle, sometimes:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]