Steam Deck: what you should know about discovery
It's fairly simple - at least, so far.
[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.]
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The Steam Deck & discovery: the run-down
As noted on Monday, we’re not doing a grand hardware review of Valve’s new Steam Deck portable, which we’ve had on hand for a couple of weeks now. Lots of good impressions exist - such as The Verge’s comprehensive piece, GameDeveloper.com’s analysis getting into battery life/performance, and Ars Technica’s in-depth poking at the hardware, for example.
FWIW, we think the handheld is a great first step into ‘portable PC that plays your Steam library’ territory. It feels a lot like a PC (it has a fan, it gets mildly warm), and its battery is a little short compared to Switch on larger, more complex games. But it’s a clever, unexpected turn from Valve that shows much promise for the future.
Anyhow, what we are going to do is a ‘here’s what you, a game dev/publisher should know about it’ view. Here are the major points that we took away from an early look at the hardware and OS:
‘Great On Deck’ is a key flag to get for good discovery on the platform:
Maybe this isn’t surprising. But as you can see in the above pic, your game’s Steam Deck Library boots up into a default that has ‘Great On Deck’ (‘Verified’) games appearing in the first tab. So you really want that ‘perfect’ rating from Steam to get discovered, right now.
Just to remind everyone, the choices of verification on Steam are as follows: Verified (“The game works great on Steam Deck, right out of the box.”), Playable (“The game may require some manual tweaking by the user to play*. *E.g. requiring user to manually select a community controller config, needing to use the touchscreen to navigate a launcher, etc.”), Unsupported (“The game is currently not functional on Steam Deck”), and Unknown (“We haven't checked this game for compatibility yet.”)
In his longform Ars Technica review, Sam Machkovech makes an interesting extra point, btw: Sonic Generations is labeled ‘Great On Deck’, and he says “it is most certainly not great on Deck. This game's PC port is famously unoptimized, and whether you leave the Deck in 60 fps mode or turn on its 30 fps cap, the game will frequently dip into the 10–20 fps range. The Steam Deck doesn't warn you about this.”
To be clear, ‘Verified’ and ‘Great On Deck’ are the same thing, and are intended to be a compatibility comment, not a ‘game quality’ comment. The word ‘great’ could be misconstrued if read standalone. In fact, Valve’s Greg Coomer told Axios: “Valve, as an entity that cordons off a special section of the store that is something that's editorialized by us as games that are good, No, we're still not really interested in doing that.”
Of course, Steam can’t improve the performance of a game that’s not a great PC port anyhow. So, as many more titles are verified, ‘Great On Deck’ won’t be made up of 100% good quality titles - as it accidentally is now, due to prioritizing top-sellers. It’ll just be games that work on the portable. (But you’ll still see high-performing games further up non-Library sections. So… it’ll probably come out in the wash?)
This isn’t a ‘games early to the platform win!’ setup, like other launches:
If you’ve been around the industry for a while, you’ll know that games that launch early on new platforms often reap outsized rewards. I always love mentioning Super Monkey Ball for iPhone, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies in 2008 at $10 each, simply by being a key title in the launch window.
But for Steam Deck, you’re inheriting your existing Steam library when you boot the device for the first time. And you’ve already bought all of those games. So it’s not like early Switch, early PlayStation 5*, or early Quest 2*, where low supply and high demand created an opportunity for much higher sales. (*OK, these platforms had some games from previous generations on them too. But people still wanted the upgraded hotness.)
Especially with the limited amount of hardware units shipping, you’re not going to get a gigantic sales boost from Steam Deck now or in the next few months. However, there’s definitely some advantage to being rated ‘Great On Deck’. Specifically, the Steam store itself on Deck defaults to a version of the new Great On Deck store page (see above.)
And right now there’s only just over 500 titles listed as ‘Great On Deck’, as can be seen from this SteamDB Instant Search. These are the early titles that may get incremental purchases from Steam Deck buyers looking to pick up new games. But again - players have an existing library, so there’s no massive land rush.
Rating & re-rating Steam Deck compatibility is a long-term problem
The trickiest area for discovery right now is how Valve intends to deal with verification - and re-verification - for Steam Deck compatibility. The underlying OS and Proton is changing a lot. So even already-rated incompatible titles are getting fixed, for one reason or another.
For example, Ghost Of A Tale is one of the ‘Unsupported’ Deck titles, but one early Steam Deck player claims that it’s working fine right now. (I also know of another title rated ‘unsupported’ where the dev worked directly with Valve. I believe it now works, but is still listed as Unsupported.)
Then, of course, you have Valve turning on a ‘please test my Deck game’ button for a few select devs, in addition to “prioritizing the titles heuristically, based on playtime and interest from Deck reservation holders.” This is great. But as I understand it, the majority of devs - including some who got a Steam Deck to test their game on - don’t have access to this button.
The existing Steam Deck ‘verified’ scheme, which is discussed in some detail in this Wired article, does include specific details for unsupported games. And Steam’s Lawrence Yang notes of the scheme: “Even if a game is marked as Playable instead of Verified, that doesn’t mean you should skip right past it.” So it’s not black and white.
But the question is what the platform should do next - especially given a small minority of games have been rated. And quite a few of the unsupported ones are in the process of fixing things, and will want re-rating. It does feel like Valve needs some help from somewhere, unless they have the internal/contracted might to deal with it.
Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech made an interesting suggestion: “The Steam Deck could benefit from a community database that summarizes how every game performs.” Given how user-contributed tags work on Steam, I do wonder if a crowdsourced rating, in the style of ProtonDB, could work. It could include both a game’s Deck rating and extra elements like performance.
But that could also break down over time, given that there will be new iterations of the hardware - possibly both first-party and third-party. And maybe even some opportunities for trolling or misuse. (What’s the ‘Deck compatibility’ equivalent of a review bomb, and does Steam want to find out?)
In any case, I don’t think devs who haven’t had their title Deck rated are missing out on mucho sales. This is due to the Steam ecosystem being extended with Deck, not created anew. But it’ll be necessary to see a long-term solution to verification, as the Decks available grow from tens of thousands to millions (one would presume!) over the next year or more. (And the Steam catalog grows by 1,000 games per month.)
Next Fest: what’s the greatest from the latest?
Even if you didn’t have a game in the February 2022 Steam Next Fest, it’s worth looking at the kind of games topping the various charts in the promotion, which has just ended.
Our newly hired Data & Ops Co-ordinator (woo!) Al/Morwull was kind enough to put together a Google Drive document with easily clickable versions of all three major charts, as of the last day of the Fest. (Some of these charts changed daily. So don’t be surprised if you saw other titles in different positions earlier in the Fest.)
Just as a reminder, the three categories are the default, Popular Upcoming (“Upcoming games sorted by trending or recent wishlist counts”), Most Wishlisted Upcoming Games (“Upcoming games sorted by total (all-time) wishlist counts”), and a newer chart, Daily Active Demo Players (“Games sorted by their demo’s daily user count - using recent daily active data.”)
Some conclusions we reached when checking around the various games doing well:
It really feels like a PC-centric set of titles: For example, Ixion (high up all 3 charts!) is a space station city-builder survival title with some intriguing exploration elements. Not the kind of title that you would naturally play on consoles, right? (Though it may also turn up there eventually.)
Online co-op is another big draw: 2D topdown pixel game Core Keeper has you looking to “mine, build, fight, craft and farm” with up to 8 players at once - and the first Steam trailer clearly shows four people playing the game on stream. That feeling of having fun with friends can be a big deal!
Twists on the formula really help: we’ve mentioned The Wandering Village before. And Stray Fawn’s Philomena Schwab tells me the game picked up 110k demo downloads & 100k new wishlists in the last few days, with 60-70k wishlists from the Fest itself, and the rest from influencers. And just as ‘generic medieval citybuilder’ might underperform, “I built an ENTIRE CITY on this creature's BACK” can… overperform! It’s the hook, dummy.
(Almost) everything in here feels like it can be continuously updated: continuing the move towards Games As A Service, I don’t see much in the top demo countdown which is obviously ‘one-off narrative title from start to finish’. There’s a few titles like the Pokemon-esque Coromon which could launch ‘complete’ and not need constant updates, if it really wanted to. But in general, these titles are built to be built upon. Which is correct for today’s market.
Those were our conclusions, at least. And I guess you can make the argument that games performing well in Next Fest may not be a true reflection of the total universe of games doing well on Steam. (Some types of titles could be less suited for demos.)
But… I think in general it’s one of the best indications of where the market is going on Steam that I’ve seen. So pay attention out there…
The game discovery news round-up..
And in ‘good news, things happened since Monday’ news… good news, things happened since Monday! Here’s some of the highlights that we spotted, so you can catch up swiftly without reading like a zillion other individual articles:
Amazon’s Luna cloud gaming service just rolled out a whole new phase of expansion, opening to everyone in the mainland U.S. and adding Amazon Prime-related perks: “Through a unique offer, Amazon Prime members can now play a rotating selection of games for free on Luna through a dedicated channel.” There’s also a new Retro Channel ($4.99 a month - Capcom, SNK, Atari games & more) and a Jackbox Games channel ($4.99 a month, all Jackbox titles!) Oh, and “You can now try Luna on Fire TV using just an iPhone or Android phone as the controller.”
As the ‘Netflix x games’ Katamari-style ball rolls downhill and gathers speed, video game companies are starting to get stuck to it. The latest acquisition in what can only be a continuing series is Helsinki’s Next Games, the creator of Stranger Things: Puzzle Tales (above) on mobile and multiple Walking Dead mobile games - purchased for a relatively reasonable 65 million Euros.
For those still musing the ‘crypto x games - gud or no bueno?’ question, Patrick Klepek at Vice has put together a piece that suggests conventional game companies ‘crossing over’ into the NFT/Play To Earn space just isn’t a good look: “Across the board, developers Waypoint talked to described internal turmoil and disapproval over what’s seen as dollar signs guiding executive-level decisions that seem to add little to the already wildly popular medium, and if anything, present a threat to how and why games are currently made.”
The folks at influencer/social media firm Disobey announced on Twitter: “Streamers & IndieGame Devs: Trying to plan out the year & no idea where to start? We made a 2022 Games & Events Planner featuring [many] announced games, key dates & gaming events! Hopefully, this makes your planning a bit easier.” Hey, that’s pretty helpful.
Following up our ‘state of VR games’ survey results, a source claims that if your Meta App Lab game gets 500+ user reviews that average 4.0 user rating or above, you’re likely to get immediately accepted into the ‘full’ Meta Quest store. Possibly this already happened to some games? Anyhow, that’s what we heard.
Polygon has done an in-depth feature on the rise of Tencent in games, as the Chinese tech giant continues to invest heavily in the PC/console space: “Its acquisitions of foreign gaming studios, as well as the expanding repertoire of Tencent Games & its internal corporate groups, make Tencent a powerful force internationally.”
Buried in this in-depth analysis of F2P veteran Puzzle & Dragons’ history was this notable part about UGC - the new Switch version of the game has an “Edit/[Custom] Mode, which enables the player to craft their own Puzzle & Dragons dungeon all the way from choosing the enemy monsters to selecting the background music. The self-crafted dungeons can be played by other players as well.” Yes, even gem-matching dungeon crawlers are letting players make content nowadays.
Microlinks: we’ve been tracking mobile hit Retro Bowl’s success on Switch recently, and it looks like TikTok may have helped it break out; very nerdy portable console Playdate rolled out its full SDK; Itch-like digital music marketplace Bandcamp has been bought by Epic Games, and that’s… just a thing that happened?
Finally, ICO Partners looked at the article-based coverage for Elden Ring during its recent launch week, and attractively compared it to various other titles launching in the past few months. And yep, gonna say it’s been a big kahuna:
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new 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.]