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Slay The Princess: how did this horror game go viral?
Also: some intriguing trends in most-streamed games.
[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.]
Well, it’s an ‘interesting’ time to be in PC/console games? The floodgates of content have opened, some scaled game businesses are (sadly!) cutting back, and AI uncertainty has arrived, as Xbox is partnering with InWorld AI “to build AI game dialogue & narrative tools at scale.”
So it’s intriguing, following the profile of Rusty Lake last week, that today’s lead story on a ‘tiny team’ success involves a game with a ton of resolutely non-AI created narrative & voice acting - which is doing great! So, let’s discuss Slay The Princess…
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Slay The Princess: how this creepy tale flourished..
We’ve been tracking Slay The Princess ($18), a black & white hand-drawn visual novel from the creators of Scarlet Hollow, for a while now - and were impressed to see it surge to as high as 1,700 Steam CCU (concurrent users), shortly after its October 23rd launch.
Luckily, Tony Howard-Arias of dev Black Tabby Games subs to GameDiscoverCo Plus, so we Discord DM-ed with him in detail. So: firstly, Black Tabby is a husband and wife studio with his spouse Abby: “We co-write our games, she does all of the art, and then I handle the programming, game design, and business/community management.”
Slay The Princess also uses freelance composers and sound engineers, and voice actors (“Jonathan Sims and Nichole Goodnight, who are both pretty well-known in the horror podcast space”), plus additional animation help. But the dev team is, well… very lean.
So it’s even more impressive that Slay The Princess launched with 112,000 Steam wishlists, and has managed to rack up 70,000 units sold in just 2 weeks, with almost 3,000 Overwhelmingly Positive reviews on Steam. (That’s a low ‘reviews to sales’ multiplier - because everyone is raving about the game!) Here’s the top-line data:
What’s going on here? This is exceptional performance, especially for the visual novel segment, which is filled with a multitude of lower-grossing titles (many adult-adjacent.) How did this go down? Some thoughts:
The creepy, horror-adjacent subject matter is striking a chord: The ‘save the princess’ meme is king in video games. So the ‘hook’ here - that you might have to slay said princess, instead - is a genuinely good one. (The art, with red blood on monochrome backgrounds, feeds even further into this.)
Slay The Princess goes a step further, asset-wise than your average VN: Howard-Arias points out that although many VNs are ‘text in front of one backdrop’, in Slay The Princess, “background art is directly drawn from your character’s perspective”, with 3,300 unique art assets, and a lot of custom sprite work for interactions. (Plus full voice-over, of course!)
The game’s structure isn’t much like a traditional visual novel: it’s polite not to ‘spoiler’ the game - and we won’t. But this certainly isn’t a prolonged ‘play the game once through, and that’s it’ type of VN. Tony tells us: “I think one of the most powerful things about our games in terms of marketing is the extreme lengths we go to in terms of really exploring how far we can take branching narratives.” And it’s true.
Another great point Howard-Arias makes re: the game’s branching narrative innovation: “We avoid the biggest pitfall of narrative games, where a ‘Let’s Play’ is pretty much just a movie that we don’t get any revenue from.” A narrative title where watching a streamer doesn’t replicate playing the game? Sounds like a good idea to us…
So that’s our view on the game’s attractions. For us, it’s managed to transcend the subgenre - it’s more of a ‘memorable horror game’ that’s sketched out with text and illustrations, than a trad visual novel. And that’s incredibly smart.
Tony actually wrote >10 pages of answers to our questions about Slay The Princess, and it’s all great material, so here’s the full interview (Google Drive link), if you want to check it out. But let’s try to pick some highlights, starting with pre-launch wishlists:
There are 3+ pages of detailed goodness in the full interview document, so just go read that if you’d like more specifics. But here were two or three things that stood out:
Slay The Princess announced with a 1.5 hour demo & streamer outreach: What a good starting point! Tony says: “We’d reached out to a couple of YouTubers we’d worked with in the past - namely Gab Smolders and Alpha Beta Gamer - and gave them early access to the demo with an embargo that lined up with when we were going to announce the game.” And you can see the result in the swift start, above.
PAX East exhibiting worked for them, despite little Steam featuring: although the Steam page for PAX East 2023 wasn’t featured on-platform, the show still worked for Black Tabby: “Coordinating with YouTube accounts [on a new demo embargo] meant this was suddenly on a lot of people’s radars again… The press really liked the demo at PAX - we got a lot of glowing coverage and even took home a couple ‘Best In Show’ awards.”
Don’t underestimate the ‘foreign-language Twitch or YouTube influencer’ effect: one big spike later in the campaign “came from a large German streamer, GronkH, playing our demo and uploading his VODs to YouTube. Germany shot from our 10th most wishlisted country to our second within a week.” And good news - many German players “don’t really seem to care if you’re localized to German or not.”
Other notable pieces of insight or data from the game’s launch? Here we go:
Slay The Princess had remarkably swift turnaround for its size: according to the devs: “The idea was originally conceived in May of 2022, and it took us about 7 months of full time work to develop it.” (The team were working on a chapter for its other ‘horror narrative’ project Scarlet Hollow while also developing this game. Wow.)
Launching ‘English-language only’ lost them some sales: in surveying language needs via non-English Steam pages: “Chinese and Japanese players practically required localizations to play, whereas localizations were ‘nice to have’ for European players, and helpful to South American players. This data is accurately reflected [in terms of wishlist conversion] in our launch.” Localizing 150k words ain’t cheap, tho!
The dev’s other title - Scarlet Hollow - is a slog to market in comparison: the multi-episode horror title - which may eventually take 5 years (!) to finish making is just harder to sell: “So much of my time was spent doing whatever I could to get people to buy our Early Access Episodic Horror Visual Novel which is a set of six words that, broken down individually, are all very hard to sell. The combination is so difficult.” Whereas for Slay The Princess: “That core hook is… extremely easy to share.”
But there’s good news there, too! Scarlet Hollow sold 6,600 copies - 20% of its lifetime sales - since Slay The Princess came out, thanks to fans wanting to check out other Black Tabby games. It was also helped by a Steam Daily Deal timed to STP’s launch:
So there you go. In order to reinvigorate your existing episodic game, you just need to, uh, make a whole other 150,000 word, multi-thousand art asset game in 7 months - while still working on the OG title. It’s easy! Fin.
[And congrats again to the Black Tabby team. Standing out in today’s market is no mean feat, and their understanding of game discovery complexities clearly helped out a lot.]
Streaming games: October trends, probed in detail
We’re 100% interested in which PC & console (and other platform!) games excel on streaming services like Twitch. So we’re delighted to present a look at October 2023’s top titles, in association with livestreaming analytics platform Stream Hatchet.
The platform grabs data from all of: “Twitch, YouTube Live Gaming, Facebook Live, AfreecaTV, Kick, Steam, NaverTV, Trovo, Rooter, Nonolive, Openrec, Loco, Mildom, DLive, VK, KakaoTV, Mixer, Garena LIVE, Booyah.” And here’s the Top 100 most-streamed games in October 2023 (Google Drive doc), with a month-on-month comparison.
We love seeing this much data - and will make it a regular feature, if they’ll let us! Let’s drill down on some of the interesting trends here:
The top games are a) massive and b) relatively static every month: since we deal with Steam a lot, you may forget how big League Of Legends (#1) is. Hint: 179 million hours per month is huge! GTA V (#2), Valorant (#5), EA Sports FC/FIFA (#6), Minecraft (#7) and World Of Warcraft (#9) are also all reliably in the Top 10.
Big titles like Dota 2, Counter-Strike & ARK made moves in October: Dota 2 (#3) doubled to 92 million hours in October thanks to The International 2023, Counter Strike (#4) was 3.2x September due to the Counter-Strike 2 client rolling out, and ARK: Survival Evolved hit 16.5x its September numbers - 41 million hours - likely due to streamers categorizing ARK: Survival Ascended (the ‘remaster’) as it.
New games in October were led by Spider-Man 2 & Lords Of The Fallen: the PS5 exclusive Spider-Man 2 hit #25 and 14.6 million hours streamed, closely followed by Lords Of The Fallen (#26, 14.2 million hours.) Other notables? Cities: Skylines II (8 million hours), Assassin’s Creed Mirage (7.8 million hours), Super Mario Bros. Wonder (7.1 million hours), and Alan Wake II (6 million hours).
We also added annotations to the Top 100 where we spotted something. So you can see that fruit-based puzzler sensation Suika Game was up 6.3x & hit 23.6 million hours after Western release on Switch. Also: Diablo IV was up 14x to 13.7 million hours following Steam release & a big new ‘season’. (You get the idea.)
The only limitations on extrapolating popularity from these charts? First, it’s more technically difficult to stream from a console - or mobile device - so PC games are advantaged. (It’s actually impressive to see Spider-Man 2 chart so high, given that.)
Secondly, these charts are - of course - tracking YouTube Live Gaming, but not regular on-demand YouTube videos. (You’d see titles like Minecraft even higher up, if those were taken into account - but ‘streaming’ is a different submarket from ‘videos’.)
Any straight-out surprises on the list? Besides Suika Game, we’d single out Backpack Battles, an “inventory management auto battler” which hit 6 million hours watched in October & is coming to Steam in 2024. (We hadn’t heard of it - but it may get huger?)
The game discovery news round-up..
Well, after all of the above, let’s settle down to finish off today’s newsletter with a look at the top platform and discovery links, as follows:
Nintendo’s traditional holiday Switch hardware bundles include a Switch OLED model with Super Smash Bros Ultimate for $350 in the U.S. - and Switch Lite Animal Crossing ($199) and regular Switch x Mario Kart 8 ($299), too. Having 3 different hardware configurations is good for hitting different price points, huh?
Transcend Fund’s Sikander Chahal has “a collection of... thoughts and resources I’ve found insightful and helpful” for game startups, including an ‘early stage gaming VC 101’ section, good blogs, articles, podcast episodes, investor lists & more.
Xbox has been doing full-screen OS ads for first-party titles recently, including CoD: Modern Warfare III. Some media don’t dig it, and The Verge has one reason why: “What I found particularly irritating about the Starfield, Forza, and now Call of Duty ones is that these pop-ups appeared even if I had the game preordered or preinstalled on my console.” (More contextual ads needed?)
Top-grossing mobile games worldwide in October 2023? According to MobileGamer.biz & Appmagic, that’d be Honor Of Kings, Monopoly Go, and Royal Match, with top mobile downloads headed by Real Car Driving (?!), Roblox, Subway Surfers, and the hybridcasual breakthrough My Perfect Hotel.
One way for Meta to get its Horizon Worlds metaverse space on Quest more popular? As UploadVR notes, right now it’s ‘just’ making the UIs similar & promoting Worlds locations, but eventually, perhaps, maybe: “Meta could have Horizon Worlds running when no other immersive app is instead of Horizon Home. You'd be in your Horizon Worlds home as soon as you leave passthrough.”
We’ve talked about the Google Play Games beta before. But we now spotted more influencer videos (& Google ads) about Clash Of Clans being playable on PC, via that same Android => PC service. Intriguing. (Oh, and Epic is taking on Google in court over platform monopolies, starting this week.)
Digital Foundry takes a look at Nvidia’s T239 ‘advanced mobile processor’, rumored to be the chipset powering Nintendo’s follow-up to the Switch, and is… a bit surprised: “Based on everything I've learned about T239 over the months, I think my biggest surprise is how ambitious the hardware is… Could this be the most forward-looking hardware design from Nintendo since the GameCube?”
In a savvy callback, Fortnite brought back its original launch map for its latest season, and the results speak for themselves: “Yesterday was the biggest day in Fortnite’s history with over 44.7 million players jumping in and 102 million hours of play.” (Fortnite.gg has player count tripling or more to as high as 6.17m CCU.)
Apple Arcade’s 2023 holiday season line-up got revealed, with Disney Dreamlight Valley Arcade Edition, Football Manager 2024 Touch, Sonic Dream Team, and Puzzle & Dragons Story the ‘made specially for AA’ standouts, and breakout hits Hello Kitty Island Adventure & NBA 2K24 Arcade Edition launching updates.
Microlinks: Unity confirms its runtime fee isn’t in effect if you’re on an older version of the engine; SteamVR Beta added an in-OS Theater Screen for non-VR game playing instead of the old standalone app; Take This has mental health advice & tips if you’re affected by game biz layoffs (or know those who are).
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]