How The Long Dark scaled to 10 million players - and what's next
Also: PlayStation's results, and a whole heap of other discovery 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.]
And we’re back, since it’s Wednesday, video game discovery fans. And as Elon Musk and the Musk-ettes try to
ruin ‘streamline & enhance’ Twitter, we’re still - fortunately - coming to you via the old-fashioned but dependable medium of email. Phew.
Also: a timely announcement for November: we’re doing a 30% off deal for new GameDiscoverCo Plus subscribers for the next few days. We’ve always tried to make the price accessible to everyone, and ‘$100 a year’ ain’t bad, right?
With Plus, you get a) an extra weekly newsletter (example!) that goes deep on specific games & trends, b) a Steam data back end (video!) with ‘Hype’ for all unreleased games c) a low-volume, high-agreeability GameDiscoverCo Plus Discord. Sign up here…
The Long Dark: the road to 10 million players…
So, we featured a Steam news announce from ‘survive in the Canadian wilderness’ title The Long Dark recently. And we’re returning to dive into more detail - especially since its creators at Hinterland announced 10 million LTD* players & 1 million MAU** for the game. (*Lifetime to date, **Monthly Active Users.)
Breaking this down briefly, Hinterland revealed that the LTD split was:
Steam (paid since Sept. 2014): 4,000,000
Xbox (paid since Aug. 2017): 750,000; Xbox Game Pass (subscription, since Apr. 2020): 2,000,000;
PlayStation (paid, since Aug. 2017): 500,000; PlayStation+/PSNow (subscription, since Apr. 2021): 1,300,000
Switch (paid, since Sept. 2020): 68,000; WeGame (paid, since Dec. 2017): 125,000; Epic Games Store (combo paid + give-away since Dec. 2020): 1,500,000+.
GameDiscoverCo is passionate about bringing forward the discussion on ‘how do PC/console games get additional $ from players in a non-exploitative way?’ (Unless we want only megahits or subscription-supported titles to survive in the future, we may need to be a little less timid here.)
And Hinterland’s founder & creative director Raphael van Lierop is tackling that with his decision to add a paid ‘survival mode expansion DLC’, Tales From The Far Territory to The Long Dark, and split out a less expensive ‘Survival Edition’ of the game:
Of course, The Long Dark is kinda a megahit. But it’s also adding paid content to allow continued dev. And here’s what we learned from van Lierop about the game’s unique history and intriguing future:
Why The Long Dark sold so well over many years…
It’d be nice to know, right? Raphael identified three key reasons for the title’s long-term success, as follows:
Launching a game in Early Access in 2014 “at a point where that particular business model and genre were both really taking off” on Steam, and being the first Game Preview title on Xbox.
The game is very streamable: “The Survival Mode can be played for thousands of hours, and it is very systems-rich - which creates a wonderful opportunity for unexpected moments of tragedy or serendipity.”
The game spanned two console generations and “has been able to enjoy a second or third layer of monetization via the subscription services like Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation+”, while Steam sales kept growing. (There’s also been plenty of Chinese interest on both Steam and WeGame.)
He also had an interesting point on how the The Long Dark is differentiated: “We still seem to be one of the only survival games that is focused strictly on survival. Not combat, not zombies or other supernatural or sci-fi elements, not a heavy emphasis on base-building. We're disciplined and try to focus on the thing that makes our game unique: survival.”
If you add into that a deeper Story mode that’s now being (optionally) split out, the devs were essentially offering two games at once: “a permadeath survival sandbox, and a story-driven episodic survival narrative with great acting, rich characters, and compelling worldbuilding.” All of this, plus the game being great? That’s how success happens…
Why did The Long Dark’s buying structure change now?
As we outlined above, The Long Dark is both adding paid DLC, and splitting out a less expensive Survival Edition of the game. Why does that make sense, and why now?
Hinterland’s van Lierop notes that the Wintermute story mode episodes - which are each 8-10 hours long (!) & have complex cinematics and voice acting - have combined with Survival mode improvements, so: “we've faced a contradictory trend in the market: whereas most games become less expensive over time, we've become more expensive over time.”
As a result of the extra effort needed, The Long Dark’s price has gone from $19.99 to $34.99 over the past few years, which Raphael thinks is “a very fair price for the experience we are offering, but is just too high for people to take a chance on it if they aren't entirely sure.” Also: some players only want to play Survival Mode.
With this new announcement, prospective players “can jump into Survival for $19.99, and if they are interested in trying out the story mode, they can buy it as DLC. They can also upgrade the Survival Edition straight to the new Expansion Pass, bypassing the Wintermute [story] episodes.”
So this is about offering choice and a lower cost of entry, sure. But van Lierop also notes: “This SKU change is also partly a reflection of the increasingly subscription-focused world we find ourselves in. Having a ‘base’ product that can be upgraded via paid DLC aligns us better in services like Game Pass and PlayStation+, because it's healthier for us to put the entry-level game in those services and then let people upgrade further if they wish.”
How do you explain these changes to the game’s fanbase?
The final question we posted to van Lierop was on how make your fans understand why you might need to charge $ in the future, for new modes/updates. His thoughts:
Raphael suggests, and I agree: “I think it comes down to being transparent about our operations and motivations (which I try to do with my dev diaries), create the opportunity for respectful discussion, and then accept that for some players, spending anything is going to be too much. And that's OK too.”
He also adds that “educating players about the importance of healthy revenue” for an independent studio is important, since“in the era of massive studio consolidation and acquisitions every other week, Hinterland is trying to stand independently and remain in control of our own destiny”, and the player value has been good: “They've had a great experience for years for the money they spent on the game [and] Wintermute will be wrapped up next year.”
Regarding the Wintermute story mode, if you look at a minority of comments on the paid DLC announce, some did not like launching a paid expansion before the much-anticipated story mode is complete. But Hinterland obviously still plans to finish it for all existing players & OG Kickstarter backers. So we’d put that down to ‘not perfect timing’, rather than any abandonment of the player base.
And I appreciated van Lierop saying that both the playerbase of The Long Dark and the creators want the same thing - for the game to be healthy, “and for Hinterland to continue being independent - so that we can make it and other games in an ethical and sustainable way.”
Concluding? When looking through the Steam comments on this new announce, I found a particularly striking comment from one of those fans. And I wanted to reprint it to end. It’ll make you feel good about making games & trying new things, folks:
"My son told me if you can get an hour or two per dollar spent on a game, you got your monies worth… For my 20 or so bucks I spent several years ago, I’m pushing 800 hours of gameplay and wanting more. I’ve bought numerous games and liked them, but they don’t grab me like TLD. It’s a game that sucks you into its world like no other.
From being horribly lost in a blizzard, to holding my breath gazing over a ledge, it’s an experience that immerses me. I catch myself out in the real world seeing birds circling and immediately think there must be a carcass over there. All this is to say; enjoy it for the incredible game it is. Buy the DLC or don’t. As for me, 20 bucks for 3 more regions to explore plus extras is a deal."
PlayStation’s latest results: not a step forward…
Well, Sony’s latest quarterly results are upon us, and Derek Strickland grabbed the above slide from the full hour-long presentation as an indication of how relatively ‘meh’ the numbers were, with 1.9 million less PlayStation Plus subs in the quarter.
Sony - while not publishing its precise attach rate - is making its clear that it thinks its numbers will improve as more people get a PlayStation 5. (Evidence: the fact that the PS+ attach rate % for PS5 is 2.4x that of PS4, as of September 2022.) Other notes:
As noted on Twitter, overall PlayStation revenue was surprisingly good, since they “rose 12% to a Q2 record of ~$5.2 billion.” But read the fine print, and you’ll discover sales would have declined marginally if not for the big exchange rate shifts (yen weakening vs. the dollar!) in the quarter.
But PlayStation’s profits were down by nearly 50% to $305 million, due to costs related to the Bungie acquisition, increased dev budgets, and a lot of Sony’s expenses being in dollars - which played against them on this side of the P&L.
Other key metrics: “PlayStation 5 lifetime shipments reached 25 million after selling-in 3.3 million during the quarter ending September (same as last year's fiscal Q2). Compare that to PS4's 29.4 million thru its first 8 quarters.” But demand for PS5 is still strong, and Sony may finally be getting its hardware backlogs more under control.
We saw a few outlets reporting that Sony must be getting better revenue out of less PlayStation Plus subs (with more upgrades). That may or may not be true - the FX changes have muddied the picture, and I don’t think we can tell?
And let’s not forget that Sony paid hundred of millions for licenses for the titles in its Game Catalog, and may be struggling to recoup that $. (We re-heard that PlayStation may try ‘usage-based’ compensation for Game Catalog renewals - i.e. the Google Play Pass approach of devs getting paid for time played, not guaranteed advances.)
Finally, plz note this is in a post-COVID environment where Xbox is pushing Game Pass way harder than Sony is pushing PlayStation+, but won’t even publicly announce its latest sub numbers. The market isn’t in perma-growth mode, in other words.
And yes, maybe “more people are now going outdoors” is a possible issue for PlayStation, Sony CFO Hiroki Totoki. But since you own the rights* to Roy Ayers’ ‘70s jazz-funk classic ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’, you should be fine in balance, right?
[*Disappointingly, it looks like Universal, not Sony Music actually controls this song, via Polydor. But it wasn’t going to stop me making this joke after I thought of it - sorrynotsorry.]
The game discovery news round-up..
And as we strut casually off into the distance this week for you free subscribers, here’s some other things that have definitely happened, which you now know about:
The PlayStation VR2 is launching in February 2023 at $549, and there’s a $599 bundle that includes Horizon Call of the Mountain. The announce came alongside some other new game reveals, including The Dark Pictures: Switchback VR from Supermassive, a Crossfire VR title from Smilegate & more.
Continuing our Phil Spencer-watch, like he’s some kinda endangered animal, The Verge has spotted Xbox’s boss being super duper definitive about Call Of Duty, post Activision acquisition: “As long as there’s a PlayStation out there to ship to, our intent is that we continue to ship Call of Duty on PlayStation.”
The latest Victoria Tran (Among Us) magnum opus is on ‘creating constant [marketing] content with minimal pain (maybe)’, and goes deep into flowcharts for showcasing your game’s most fetching facets via social media. Also: “You do not have to fear what brings you joy. Share your enthusiasm with your audience.” Heck yes!
Microlinks: don’t forget the Day Of The Devs digital showcase on Nov. 3rd, ahead of a physical SF event; a third-party predicts that Meta sold approximately 471,000 Quest 2s in Q3; the Steam Deck UI is coming to Steam Big Picture mode; there’s a Valve video Q&A about Next Fest, with lots of Qs A-ed.
Shout-out to Naavik for this excellent overview of ‘metaverse in a box’ Rec Room done by their boy wonder David Taylor: “Rec Room’s creation suite is compelling enough that creators are excited to build, even if it remains a side gig in the short-term. The ~10 million MAUs suggest that this UGC platform is not just a flash in the pan.”
Look, there’s a new Steam multi-language search feature, since devs can now specify 100+ options: “For players that speak Indonesian, Slovak, Malay, Arabic, Hebrew, Serbian, Hindi, and any other language currently supported by Windows… you can now pick from a much expanded list when indicating your language preferences on Steam, and when searching for games.”
PC Game Pass is about to get a bunch more users, due to a team-up with Twitch: “From November 3rd to 11th, you’ll get 3 months of [PC Game Pass] with the purchase of 2 new Twitch subs and/or gift subs.” For new subs only, and comes with maximum ‘brands being ‘cute’ to each other in the Twitter replies’.
‘PSN is evolving’ news: after Spider-Man on PC added a (now working) ‘link to PSN’ option, the Steam version of Sackboy is positively encouraging it: “Link your Steam account to your PlayStation Network account, and while linked you can access this Bonus Costume and an associated emote for Sackboy: A Big Adventure on Steam.”
Esoteric microlinks: a book industry mega-merger got blocked by U.S. courts on antitrust grounds (what signifier for games?); how one unwilling illustrator found her art style turned into an AI model; Holoride is synchronizing VR games and videos to the motion of a car, weirdly.
Finally, I have no idea how to feel about this promo video for God Of War Ragnarok. This why you must watch it and also not know how to feel. Good day, Sir:
[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.]