Tales From Discoverabilityland: March 2020
Into the eye of the storm we go...
[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Now!, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]
And we’re back, as the world gets a little bit odder every day, with some notable game discoverability updates for the month of March. I’ve been busy with, uhh, GDC and then ‘virtual GDC’ (check out the Day Of The Devs Direct & the IGF/Game Developers Choice Awards for the fruits of our labor there!)
But I have accumulated quite a few links, announcements, and suchlike - so let’s spool them out, starting… now:
Steam’s Interactive Recommender - A Lab Graduation!
As you may recall, I’ve been a fan of Steam’s discoverability advances in recent months. They’ve been rolling out a number of their Steam Labs experiments into the actual full Steam interface/website.
The latest of these is the Steam interactive recommender, which - reminder, “uses a machine learning model that is trained based on the playtime histories of millions of Steam users. It's not directly affected by tags or reviews—it instead learns about the games on Steam by looking at what users actually play.”
It is now part of the Steam store itself. It’s appearing in a couple of notable places, particularly on the front page in a dedicated bar with mini-icons:
This should be a good - if incremental - booster for some games. The Valve crew also note: “We're also starting to apply the underlying model in other parts of the Steam store… for example, when viewing the page for a particular game, you may sometimes see "Players like you love this game" shown as a reason why the game is relevant to you.”
This is particularly interesting because it may also help to evolve the sometimes criticized ‘similar games’ picks at the bottom of game pages. These seem to default to popular/obvious games quite often. (But then again, maybe those games are popular and well-reviewed for a reason!)
Also worth noting on Steam - they just published their top-selling games of February, including a spotlight & mini-interviews with a couple of developers “whose first releases didn't make a top 20 list, but have found their way on to this month’s charts with a subsequent release”. Elsewhere, there’s also been some notable search updates, including infinite scroll & a lot more fine control over price, language, tags & games you ‘already know’.
(Is it just me, or is Steam doing more work on platform discoverability than every other platform combined?)
Meanwhile, over at the Epic Store…
They’ve added wishlists! (This isn’t meant to be a ‘ha ha Epic Store’ punchline, though their platform updates do seem to be a little velocity-light. But wishlists are SUPER important to Steam, so it’s great that Epic now has them.)
The Epic folks comment, as part of this: “To start, we'll be adding filtering and smart searching of items you've added to your wishlist. In future iterations, we plan to add email notifications when your wishlisted titles are discounted, or change status (such as a launch, or becoming available for pre-purchase).”
The latter option is what gives Steam wishlists their true power, so it’s good to see this is planned. And Epic continues to accrue goodwill with gamers through their free game giveaways. (I went to the Epic Games Store Subreddit, & discovered Epic has given away $1,936.12 of video games so far with their weekly giveaways.)
I was going to add some musings here on how the Epic Store is actually doing, but just randomly discovered this well thought-out PC Gamer article which does similar. From a gamer sentiment point of view, Tyle Wilde suggests, after much initial anti-Epic rhetoric on exclusives:
“Epic has achieved its goal of softening sentiments around non-Steam releases. It hasn't hurt that so many other companies have deepened their use of proprietary launchers, normalizing the idea that in 2020 being a PC gamer means opening four or five programs to access your whole library.”
From a developer perspective, given how Epic pays (generously for timed exclusivity, generously to feature your title as a free game, higher % cut!), the Epic Store is still a no-brainer - if they want to feature your game. And games can do just great on Epic & then go on to do great on Steam (see: Supergiant’s Hades, & most likely Coffee Stain’s Satisfactory soon, if we’re going by current Steam wishlist ranking.)
The only caveat is if you had a niche title that Epic still pays well for, but doesn’t really do that well on the Epic Store sales-wise, for whatever reason (there’s starting to be quite a few games on it!).
Financially, you’ve still banked your Epic advance, which is generally given against future sales. But you might feel - in retrospect - like a Steam launch would have created more natural buzz. Perhaps just due to a more responsive and larger overall audience on Steam, more real-time charts? (My view is that it probably wouldn’t have! But you can’t A/B test reality, eh?)
Nintendo goes.. Indie World!
I (hey, it’s me!) noted on Twitter that Nintendo “is now proactively signing timed console [Switch] exclusives for indies (something they've never really done before, right?)” You might have seen the video showcase this week with lots of lovely Switch indie titles which prompted this comment.
This seems to be Nintendo’s attempt to highlight & reward indies making interesting games on Switch. They’re doing it in what is now an incredibly crowded market - 3,214 Switch games available in North America alone. Not quite Steam release frequency, but it’s probably breaking all social distancing rules.
Having promotion & exclusivity is a good natural move for both devs & Nintendo, especially with lower Week 1 Switch game sales than ever (high hundos or low thous?). This is true even for most ‘good quality’ titles - the store is still feeling a bit ‘desperation discount’-centric to me, given how deeper discounts can surface overlooked games.
(I’m not sure whether money is changing hands for these timed exclusives, though. Is Nintendo paying devs for this, or just promising lots of promotion? Answers on a non NDA-busting postcard/email, please…)
Other fragments of goodness…
Here’s some other discoverability-related notables to end out this compendium:
The witty Dan Marshall shared a Tweet re: how a Twitter post around his new adventure/platform hybrid Lair of the Clockwork God “went "viral" ish yesterday. It certainly went round Twitter better than any other time in its history, and I thought it would be interesting to share some data on how this impacted sales.” (Spoiler: irritatingly negligible, like sales results from almost all Twitter mentions.)
Our buddy Chris Zukowski made a guest blog post in association with GuesSTEAMator author Richie de Wit with lots of screenshots and examples from the new tool, which “aims to give game developers a better understanding of the business proposition of creating a game.”
Basically, you fill in possible budget, list competitor games that have already launched on Steam, and GuesSTEAMator gives you ballpark sales & profitability for your game. (An interesting and practical idea - just don’t pick all the leading games in the genre you’re competing in, lol.)
Finally, I’m planning a separate newsletter on this with some additional (behind-the-scenes) wishlist data soon. But Mike Rose from indie pub No More Robots (whom I advise/skulk around with!) launched Yes, Your Grace with the Brave At Night team & it’s done RATHER WELL.
His Twitter thread revealed the game grossed $600,000 on Steam in the opening weekend and had 80,000 wishlists at launch. Which is… a result. Mike lists some other reasons he thinks it did well in that thread. I’ll try to embellish/build upon those at a later date.
And that’s your lot, for now. I’ll have some exciting news around this newsletter over the next few weeks, in terms of it getting bigger and better. But in the meantime - keep safe, and keep watching the graphs.