How to build one-off narrative games & still succeed on Steam/console...

It's not wrong - it's just more difficult.

[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.]

Welcome to the second GameDiscoverCo free newsletter of the week, new and old readers alike. We’re kicking off by going against our own advice (yay), and talking about how your game can do well, without picking the hottest game genres of that day, week, month or year…

Make it great - routes to narrative game success?

Obviously, if you read last week’s newsletter on how to differentiate your game for success, you’ll know that we’re fans of deep, strategic, replayable games with simulation, sandbox, or crafting aspects. At least on Steam, these seem to give you a better chance of higher sales in today’s market.

But maybe those aren’t the kind of games you want to make. Perhaps you want to make narrative-led games that are designed to be played once, and aren’t systemic, Games As a Service-y things? And you still can! It’s more difficult to sell 50-100,000 copies with this type of game, but you can absolutely do it.

So I wanted to drill down some best case scenarios, and how you get there, revenue-wise. And we’ll be using three examples:

Adios (Mischief)

This newly launched title is “a cinematic first-person game about sticking to a complicated decision.” It’s a stylish title with noir overtones where you play a pig farmer in Kansas, created by some of the same folks behind cult indie horror title Paratopic.

Adios was only #25 on our subscriber-only Steam Hype chart for the week’s upcoming titles when it launched. It had only 420 Steam followers and wishlist ranked #950 for Steam unreleased games - not amazing.

But the title is already at 183 Very Positive reviews - 97% positivity, in fact, even though the game is $17.99 and a couple of hours long. This is way above the average post-launch review performance with those follower numbers, and exactly how you need to fight your way to success. (You need enthusiastic fans who can evangelize & vouch for the experience being worthwhile.)

Alba: A Wildlife Adventure (ustwo games)

When we originally wrote about this game - one of my favorites in the last 12 months - for our paid subscribers, I noted: “this [narrative-first] pastoral chillout wildlife/collecting game from ustwo games (Monument Valley) was only announced on November 11th. I presume this was because it’s an Apple Arcade-funded title, so there were some PR restrictions. (On the plus side, that’s the dev budget taken care of!)

By its December 11th [2020] launch on Steam, it had only accumulated 169 Hype points - but its velocity was decent, since it was already #505 on the Steam unreleased wishlists chart by launch, from a standing start. And pleasantly enough, it got 266 reviews in the first 7 days, 98% of them positive.”

Well, even more pleasantly, the game is now at 846 Overwhelmingly Positive reviews on Steam. In our view, it’s been helped by developer heritage, buzz/word of mouth in general, quality, plus availability to a wider audience via Apple Arcade. (Some of those who want to check it out, but don’t have/want AA will buy the Steam version.)

Wandersong (Greg Lobanov & friends)

We wanted to mention this title - an adorable 2D musical adventure - because we devoted a free newsletter to it last year. It had a slow debut - the game had 71 reviews (albeit Very Positive!) three weeks after release.

But good news - the game now has 1,059 Overwhelmingly Positive reviews. In the related article, Greg shared his (no Y axis) Steam revenue numbers, noting: “What seemed like a scary and quiet launch turned out to be the beginning of a slower, different kind of success altogether… I guess I’d chalk it up to good word of mouth.” (The game got on Xbox Game Pass after release, too.)

So I guess what we’re saying here is - make a great game and create amazing long-term buzz to have a better ‘long tail’ for sales! Doesn’t that sound like the dumbest, most obvious thing ever? Let’s add a little nuance:

  • If you’re making a game in a hot Steam subgenre (city builder, let’s say), you can build up a ‘head of steam’ in terms of pre-release interest. Your job is then to convert and convince those already-excited players, and hold their interest with new features and enhancements.

  • With many single-play narrative games, players aren’t that convinced - until they’ve heard from other people or reviewers who’ve played the game. Why? There’s no standout game mechanics to ‘sell’ them on the concept up front. And there’s lower perceived value in terms of dollars per hour.

So - if you’re not in a subscription service where players can just try the game, a common future for games of this type - you need to get an outstanding score (>90% Positive?) and major buzz for people to jump in to your one-off narrative game.

That will boost your long tail and Week 1: Year 1 revenue ratios, and lead to a long-term sustainable product. In our view, this is trickier than pre-selling a game on deep, strategic/replayable features, but still possible.

Finally, one complicating factor: these ‘word of mouth’-centric games tend to get a whole lot of enthusiastic reviewers. Which means that we may not be comparing apples to apples, when we’re estimating actual sales numbers.

For example, in the case of Adios, co-creator DocSquiddy mentioned on Twitter today that the game is over halfway to its 5,000-unit stretch goal (‘Big head mode’, haha) in less than a week. The title launched on Steam, Itch, and Xbox - so we’re guesstimating 3,000+ sales, with 60-70% of them on Steam.

That’s 183 reviews across est. 2,500 sales on Steam, which is basically 14 sales per review. This is somewhat below the 20-60 sales/review range that we generally expect. So what we’re saying here is - great word of mouth can make your game look great on Steam. But third-party observers should probably apply a grain of salt to normal sales estimate methods, since there will just be more reviews for these fan-fave games.

Steam’s Game Festivals become Steam Next Fest

This breaking news is somewhat less ‘exclusive’ to this newsletter, now that Valve officially launched the change and emailed everyone about it. (Look, we totally knew about it ahead of time.) But for anyone who didn’t see, the official missive explains:

“Steam Next Fest (previously known as the Steam Game Festival) returns on June 16th, 2021… We've renamed the event to more directly communicate its focus: Steam Next Fest is a multi-day celebration of upcoming games. Fans can try demos, chat with developers, watch livestreams, and learn about upcoming games on Steam.”

And there are two smart enhancements, too: “This time around, we're expanding the opportunities available to participating games, in the form of event trailers and a Press Preview… From those who grant permission, the Steam team will select titles to be featured in our promotional trailers for the event [and there will be] a Press Preview a week ahead of the festival to give journalists and influencers a peek at the demos that will be available.”

We’re big fans of holding events multiple times and iterating on them (heck, did that with Game Developers Conference for 15+ years!) And gradual improvement via dev/player feedback works for platform features like festivals, in the same way it improves in-development video games! Also, the name is way less confusing now. Soo… submit your unreleased Steam game by April 14th to get Fest-ed up.

The game discovery news round-up..

Still plugging away here, and it’s a few miles until we sleep, news-wise. So let’s bring you the rest of the new info on what game platforms are up to. There’s news in here from Xbox, the Apple vs. Epic trial, and lots more besides.

(BTW, our next free newsletter is on Monday. But we’ll be doing our Friday newsletter exclusively for Plus subscribers, analyzing the latest game-specific Steam launches and Hype scores, should you desire?)

  • As the Xbox Insider Twitter account announced: “Xbox Insiders in Alpha Skip Ahead & Alpha today - we are flighting some new features. Multiplayer in Free-to-play games, Looking 4 Groups and Party Chat on Xbox no longer requires an Xbox Live Gold membership, as we flight and test these service changes ahead of general availability.” So that swiftly announced change after the Gold price backlash - probably planned anyhow - will be going ahead soon. Should be good for F2P Xbox titles, if nothing else?

  • This write-up of Victoria Tran’s GDC Showcase talk is valuable in its honesty, since the Among Us community lead looks at failure holistically. She’s discussing game marketing, but the concept applies anywhere: “There's a natural fear response we feel when something goes awry, but Tran says is important to work through that emotion and realize that failing does not label you a failure. Instead, break the failure at hand down: What is the problem? What am I doing/not doing to contribute? What will I do differently to help solve the problem? How will I be accountable for the result?”

  • Microlinks Pt.1: Chris Zukowski has a very helpful ‘How To Make A Steam Page’ video tutorial with best practices (free, email registration required); the continuing global computer chipset shortages are still delaying PS5 and Xbox’s installed-based growth; and what’s a good number of followers for your still-to-debut Kickstarter? (Thomas Bidaux knows.)

  • Quick update on the Epic vs. Apple platform anti-monopoly trial, which looks to really be happening. (This is a rarity, when most of these things are settled ahead of a judge.) The Apple witness list is full of people you never see without lotsa PR handlers, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, Fellow Phil Schiller, and SVP of Software Engineering Craig Federighi. Epic is calling “‌Epic Games‌ CEO Tim Sweeney and other Epic employees… executives from Facebook, Microsoft, Nvidia, plus iTunes chief Eddy Cue and former iOS software chief Scott Forstal.” *popcorn.gif*

  • Valve has announced the Top 20 new Steam games for February 2021, and has an interesting new way of showcasing the games, highlighting some of the common features like Early Access titles or games with puzzle mechanics. Also, the display layout of the games with clickable video, movie poster-style thumbnail and tags alongside other info - see above - is newish & neat. (Will we see this format in more places going forward?)

  • Microlinks Pt.2: Microsoft is rebranding Xbox Live to Xbox network, further detangling some of its naming-related soup in the ‘play online’ space; the 24th annual DICE Awards finalists are named, with smaller-studio titles like Kentucky Route Zero and Hades fully alongside Last Of Us/Ghost Of Tsushima-sized behemoths; GamingAnalytics.info is another Steam scraping/analysis database site we keep meaning to mention.

[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.]