Discover more from The GameDiscoverCo newsletter
How Fruit Ninja's creator got YouTube virality for his new PC game
Also: Steam's stance on AI sources for games, and lots of other 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 week which is a little quieter for Americans - thanks to July 4th being dunked into the middle of it - but just as busy for all of our international audience. So: newsletters as normal on Mon & Wed (free!) and Fri (paid!)
This time out, we’re starting by looking at a really interesting case study - a notable creator using longform YouTube ‘I made this!’ videos to test out his gameplay prototype ideas. So let’s get to it…
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Fruit Ninja's creator goes big on YouTube - how?
We’ve been a fan of Fruit Ninja & Jetpack Joyride designer Luke Muscat for a few years now. He’s had an intriguing biz history - as CCO at Fruit Ninja creator Halfbrick, and then as head of design at Snap(chat)’s games studio.
Now Luke is trying a ‘solo indie dev’ thing. And what’s fascinating is that, rather than TikTok or big announce trailers, he’s decided to use YouTube as his primary method of testing & rolling out his game ideas. So… is it working?
Well his YT channel has now picked up almost 100k subscribers in a fairly short period of time, and had two breakout videos, the first (above) for his upcoming Steam ‘underwater roguelike’ game Feed The Deep. Here’s the YouTube stats for that, which is themed around turning a phobia (underwater cave diving) into a video game:
And you can see the effect (of both videos, since the Fruit Ninja video in late May led to further interest) - on his Steam wishlists for Feed The Deep, as follows:
All this visibility is from the YouTube videos - plus any slight Steam visibility boosts as a a result of the page traffic. (Not bad for a game that is quietly playtesting right now, and hasn’t done any video game press or streamer outreach yet!)
So there’s obviously something cool going on here. But what? GameDiscoverCo chatted to Luke a few weeks back, and here’s some of the conclusions we came to:
He’s naturally talented at longer-form (YouTube) storytelling: Luke told us: “I like doing long form videos… the reasons I thought I could make it work [were because] I feel like I have a big advantage, having done so many GDC talks and other conference talks. I feel like I understand that format.’” It’s true - Luke’s ‘prototype that was banned from Halfbrick’ GDC talk was a big attendee favorite when I helped run the show, and also has >130k YouTube views, far above the channel median.
YouTube’s algorithm rewards video engagement, especially on longer videos: we’d generally seen YouTube as an adversarial environment for devs. But as it moves away from ‘channels’ and towards recommendations, it’s possible to break out without lots of channel subs. As Luke says: “all of your impressions are coming from somewhere inside the algorithm” mainly ‘play next’ style recommendations. Although this “makes it difficult to build a consistent… long term strategy”.
Feed The Deep’s ‘algorithm win’ plays on fear, a classic human response: when I asked Luke why he thought the game & his video got interest versus some of his other (genius) ideas, like Sir Truck (‘Vampire Survivors… with cars”), he pointed to the fear angle. Specifically: when he sent Feed The Deep screenshots to friends, they said: “Oh, what are you diving for? That looks scary.” And the YouTube video mirrors and explains that existential dread - also a part of recent hits like Dredge.
So Luke is now working on continuing Feed The Deep - which was originally one of a series of prototypes he was ‘timeboxing’ 100 hours to make, also including super-clever ‘revolver casino duel’ title Luck Of The Draw, which he also made a video for.
I admit, I’m a fanboy - I love all Luke’s games. But his approach in agile prototyping & early showcasing is a fascinating one. He knows that many indies will take an idea and hone it for a long time, but says: “the idea to me of releasing something after four or five years of working on it, and realizing that no one gives a shit is terrifying to me.”
Hence his vow to himself: “I was just gonna keep on making prototypes until something stuck”. And, at least in terms of YouTube views - and early Steam wishlist gains - Feed The Deep certainly has.
Luke freely admits that this approach is still - he chuckles -“so flawed”, because: “It's like ‘Oh, you've got a better [YouTube] thumbnail on your diving game and a better title’. And then it gets driven into like a crazy, exponentially increasing, reward system of an algorithm.”
But, as he says: “I still think that it is not as flawed as putting my head down and working on something for five years and hoping anyone gets it.” And if there’s any lesson here for us, it’s probably - you can have lots of ideas for your next game, not just one.
So why not try to float them out there - if they are bite-sized enough to swiftly explain and prototype - and see what happens? Seem to be working for Luke…
How Steam treats games w/AI-generated assets!
This is a discovery-adjacent topic, for sure. But since I was the one to break the story on Twitter last week, with a Tweet that now has >4.2 million views, including a Retweet from ‘not unaccustomed to dystopian subjects*’ Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker.. we should talk about it, right? (*Also former Edge magazine prank caller!)
The news, in case you missed it? “Valve has been quietly banning newly submitted Steam games using AI-created art assets - if submitters can't prove they have rights for the assets used to train the algorithms.” And indie dev Jake Birkett passed along another example of Valve’s feedback which included ‘text assets’ in addition to art, intriguingly.
The reason this blew up so big, of course, is both a) the feverish VC and tech narrative that AI will revolutionize things, and b) the fact that a large tech platform is talking about AI when rejecting (or considering rejecting!) third party-created media.
This isn’t just an issue for Valve. On Amazon’s Kindle platform, there’s a lot of ChatGPT-related chatter around AI being used to make books. So platform holders are already wrestling with this quandary.
However, what probably differentiates Valve is that it’s been willing to directly reference AI & asset rights when talking to submitters. (Others might just handwave on ‘copyright infringement’, when rejecting.) This goes hand in hand with the general platform transparency it aims for - but can also cause a furore.
As for what Valve really thinks? It put out a clarifying statement to press last week, as follows: “We are continuing to learn about AI, the ways it can be used in game development, and how to factor it in to our process for reviewing games submitted for distribution on Steam. Our priority, as always, is to try to ship as many of the titles we receive as we can.
The introduction of AI can sometimes make it harder to show a developer has sufficient rights in using AI to create assets, including images, text, and music. In particular, there is some legal uncertainty relating to data used to train AI models. It is the developer's responsibility to make sure they have the appropriate rights to ship their game.
We know it is a constantly evolving tech, and our goal is not to discourage the use of it on Steam; instead, we're working through how to integrate it into our already-existing review policies. Stated plainly, our review process is a reflection of current copyright law and policies, not an added layer of our opinion. As these laws and policies evolve over time, so will our process.
We welcome and encourage innovation, and AI technology is bound to create new and exciting experiences in gaming. While developers can use these AI technologies in their work with appropriate commercial licenses, they can not infringe on existing copyrights.”
So maybe this is less of an NFT situation. Valve head honcho Gabe Newell said specifically, after banning the tech from Steam in late 2021: “The people in the [crypto/NFT] space… tend to be involved in a lot of criminal activity and a lot of sketchy behaviours. So it's much more about the actors than it is about the underlying technology.”
You do get the sense that Valve - which takes a very rationalist approach to Steam as a platform - think that a lot of current games using AI art lazily are probably not of great quality, and possibly rip off their art (unintentionally, even!) from third parties.
But you don’t get the idea that they are telling generative AI to take its ball and go home, as they did with NFTs as a movement. If you can make a game using generative AI assets you have the rights for, then Valve is true neutral on it.
But as Unity saw last week, with goose memes about its first party AI datasets, and a removal of a third-party tool which downloaded other people’s Sketchfab models while claiming it had ‘AI-ed up’ a great 3D asset for you, this whole area is a) hiigh on the hype curve, and b) bordering snake oil salesman territory as a result of it.
So if you’re the dominant PC game platform because people trust you - as Valve is? No reason not to be a bit careful about this. Although it does create (potentially significant!) uncertainty for devs planning to use generative AI in more creative ways.
The game discovery news round-up..
Let’s finish up today by taking a look at some of the notable platform and discovery news that has surfaced since last Wednesday, as follows:
JB Oger came out swinging on the subject of demos, looking into EEDAR’s 2010s console research around ‘games with no demos’ selling better, and finding the research company itself agreeing: “Big games with high anticipation & high marketing don't need demos anyway.” (We’re in favor of demos, if well tailored, you may recall.)
An interesting tidbit from the Microsoft x Activision FTC hearing that had escaped us? Xbox CFO Tim Stuart said that in FY 2021: “Minecraft made 4x more revenue on the Nintendo Switch than it does Xbox. The game also made 2x as much revenue on PlayStation than it did on Xbox.” (No details on PC or mobile, sadly.)
HowToMarketAGame has done a good overview of the success of lo-fi Steam FPS BattleBit Remastered, re-iterating how non-’overnight success’ it really was: “the team started a LONG LONG LONG time ago. Battlebit was announced in Steam Greenlight over 6 and a half years ago.”
Ubisoft is setting up for a ‘real’ PC blockchain game launch, and Jon Jordan rounded up the history of its efforts, while explaining: “Being developed to launch on the Oasys blockchain out of Japan, Champions Tactics: Grimoria Chronicles will be a PC-based collection PVP RPG, and that’s pretty much as much as we currently know.”
Huh - some Xbox slides from a Brazilian ID@Xbox presentation have some interesting top-line numbers: “21 million+ - Xbox Series X|S owners; 79 million - Combined Xbox One & Xbox Series X|S numbers; 48% of Series S players are new to Xbox.” Oh, and 15.6 million monthly active ‘Xbox app’ users on PC, up 20% YoY (above), with 248.6 million “active gaming PCs”.
One possible barrier to ‘pure’ VR games on Apple’s upcoming Vision Pro, which is way more AR-focused? The tech “could stop mid-game and display the outside world if users move too far away from their starting point”, and: “Once a person moves more than one meter away from the starting point, the [Vision Pro] automatically makes all displayed content transparent.” Hm!
We noted this a few days back, but Steam put out an official explanation of how EU regulations demand it show ‘previous lowest price’ to “customers in France, Poland, Belgium, and seven other EU countries” under certain (rare, but you’ll see it most during quarterly ‘big quarterly Steam sale’!) circumstances.
YouTube just put out a big ‘trends and culture’ report, although it’s heavily slanted towards features and roadmap. Still, this intriguing stat is relevant to game showcase co-streams: “54% of people surveyed say they would prefer to watch creators breaking down a major event rather than the event itself (e.g., Oscars, Grammys).”
Why doesn’t PlayStation have Roblox? It’s on Xbox, after all. This came up in tesimony from Sony’s Jim Ryan during the FTC Microsoft trial, and he said: “We have been conservative for too long, and now we are currently engaging with people at Roblox. We hope that the situation will change.” (Roblox: the Wild West, now just with BB guns?)
Microlinks: Amazon’s Prime Gaming giveaways for July include Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?! and in-game content for Honkai: Star Rail & FIFA 23; Steam’s listed the top 100 games played on Steam Deck so far in 2023 as part of Summer Sale; why “playing [the Lanebreak game] on the Peloton Tread turned me into an immersive fitness believer.”
Finally, with Diablo IV currently doing ‘very well’ in the CRPG space, we thought it was funny to note this print ad for Black Isle’s classic Icewind Dale I grabbed for the Video Game History Foundation’s social media feed, and a quote the marketeers used:
Yup, even all the way back in the year 2000, ‘Diablo-phobia’ (existential worry, for devs releasing at the same time as Blizzard’s classic franchise) was real. Maybe Activision Blizzard should set up a hotline for that…
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an 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.]