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This game sold 500k copies - why didn't you know about it?
Talking to Hydroneer's creator. Also: your Steam wishlists in context!
[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.]
Welcome back to the GameDiscoverCo newsletter, fellow game discovery astronauts. Can you believe it’s almost July, btw? We’re kicking it off a bit early with a 25% off GameDiscoverCo Plus deal for the next two weeks, for anyone not supporting us with a paid sub yet.
Oh, and a big shout-out to the many new readers who arrived when big YouTuber SkillUp shouted us out in the intro to his ‘25 of the best indies to put on your radar in 2022’ video - summing up his Next Fest picks. (It’s also a good video to peruse!)
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Hydroneer & the ‘new breed’ of successful PC games
So, I was perusing a recently created GameDiscoverCo Plus chart, ‘monthly most-reviewed Steam games’, to answer a question I often have: what are the games that we aren’t paying much attention to that are also big, evergreen Steam sellers?
And I found what I think is a great example: Foulball Hangover’s Hydroneer. This mining and base-building first-person sandbox game has a whopping 12,000 Steam reviews since its May 2020 debut. And it hit around 2,000 reviews (top 100!) last month, thanks to a big upgrade with split-screen multiplayer.
You probably haven’t heard of this game, right? (Fine, I know a few of you have.) But: it has no Metacritic presence to speak of, people don’t talk about it on editorial sites, or likely in the Twitter or other social media circles you may hang out in. And it’s still massive. (That’s a great example of the filter bubble you currently live in.)
So I contacted creator Max Hayon for an interview. And he confirmed to me that, as the first game he made after leaving university in the UK, it’s sold 500,000 units on Steam (a 40x ‘reviews to sales’ ratio). Incredibly impressive. And here’s what we think Max did right, with commentary from our chat:
The game’s concept was 100% a hook-first one.
Max says: “I sought to make a game by myself which had a relatively attainable scope for a one-man team. I wanted to try and capture the feeling you get when playing Minecraft and finding diamonds or rare materials.” So - turning dirt into valuable resources is a great start.
But he also added all kinds of ability to build complex hydro-powered machines for digging and transporting, and it’s all done by you running around in first-person: “having every item permanently [exist] in the world with no clunky UI system is really interesting.. every tool you own has to be carefully looked after.”
The streamer/YouTuber ecosystem has been key to the game’s success.
Max explains that, close to launch: “I did some research into marketing video games with $0 budget and I found that the best strategy was to contact YouTubers/streamers and see if they’d be interested in checking it out.
I sent out about 30 emails. I had a few responses, the first being a Russian content creator, PlayAtHome with around 100k subs at the time. I was delighted that he wanted to create a video about my game. And for an audience of 100,000 people to see it?!
That’s something that my dev vlogs could never achieve (we’re talking about 300 views per video on them at this time). After this, some of the other responses to my emails came in! Blitz and Drae both picked up the game (with around 1.5m–2m subs each) which completely blew the game up… I went from a thousand Steam wishlists to about 60,000 on the release date.”
And if you look on YouTube now, you’ll see an ecosystem of creators using Hydroneer to make outlandish mining machines, using all kinds of creative shenanigans. Max mentions: “I get a lot of comments from [streamers] saying their videos perform exceptionally well compared to other titles.” That’s the way to get featured more!
Adding (the best possible) multiplayer has helped surge demand…
It’s been a standing joke at GameDiscoverCo that ‘add co-op multiplayer’ is the best way to make a popular game a lot more popular. (Also see: Project Zomboid’s post-multiplayer surge.) And Hydroneer also added multiplayer last month with great results, albeit in a way that wasn’t the devs’ first choice.
Max explains: “We had big plans for it, a year’s worth of work was spent trying to get true multiplayer in the game. Unfortunately our plans did not come to fruition, due to some pretty big issues with physics.”
Hydroneer has a lot of moving items in the game & “replicating these across a network was extremely laggy and completely stunted development.” The team tried Bullet & UE4’s PhysX and UE5’s Chaos, but “all of these failed for one reason or another.” This was rough for Max & the Hydroneer team, since they’d already promised multiplayer.
But luckily, Max and Hydroneer dev ItchyBeard started playing Dysmantle. Max explains: “They use Steam Remote Play for their multiplayer… I was pleasantly surprised with the performance, and decided it would be our plan B. Splitscreen isn’t ideal and has some drawbacks - but getting multiplayer into the game was important to me.” And players too!
(It’s worth noting that Hydroneer also has modding, both via the official Bridgepour Wiki and also via Steam Workshop - with better support after the recent 2.0 update to the game. So this is additionally helping with growth and interest.)
Conclusion - where did it go so right?
What lessons should we all take from such a robust success? We know these stories are often outliers, but there’s a couple of things we’d particularly point to:
A younger creator who’d grown up with games like Minecraft, and understands the power of sandbox games to be open, complex, deep experiences. (There’s plenty of precedence for these games being monster hits - also see SatisFactory.)
A streamer ecosystem that covets well-created games like this for the entertaining content they can create in them. Hydroneer is a hit, in some part, because Hydroneer videos perform well with YouTuber viewers.
The ability to ship a game in progress and keep iterating on it. Max notes: “I’ve seen a lot of people get stuck on creating an overly complex foundation for a game to sit on. I think its important to understand what your minimum viable product is, create that, then expand from there.”
Gloomwood’s great Steam performance, in context
Over the weekend, New Blood’s Dave Oshry was kind enough to Tweet the recent Steam wishlist spike (and overall count) for unreleased retro ‘stealth horror FPS’ Gloomwood. As can be seen, it has 156,000 outstanding wishlists, adding 30,000 in the last two weeks.
The short-term trends here are interesting as well - PC Gaming Show led to a 7k one-day increase, and a demo in Next Fest kept the wishlists going. But we also wanted to talk about bigger context for the overall number of wishlists the game has.
Specifically, Gloomwood is ranked #90 on the Steam unreleased game wishlist ranking with 156,000. And according to the ‘top Steam unreleased game followers’ chart we compile for GameDiscoverCo Plus, it’s #126, with 13,500 followers. (That’s an 11.5x ‘followers to wishlists’ ratio, fairly close to the 10x-ish median that we surveyed.)
Anyhow, the point of this is that we can use ‘followers x10 = wishlists’ to give you all super-rough context on how your games’ wishlists stack up against all the other unreleased games on Steam. It goes like this - using our follower rankings as a guide:
The top two unreleased games on Steam may have >2 million wishlists, and the top twelve >1 million. And the top 30 games - 0.4% out of 8,400 unreleased titles on Steam - might have more than 500,000 wishlists.
Going further down, the top 50 games may be >300k, the top 80 >200k, and then the top 175 (2%) - including Gloomwood - may have >100k wishlists. The top 350 may be >50k, top 550 >30k, top 750 (9%) could be >20k wishlists, and the top 1,200 games (14% of all unreleased Steam games) may have >10k wishlists.
This is great context to understand where your game sits, right, even if very roughed-out? Here’s a graph showing that breakdown:
Addendum: how about games released in ‘any given month’?
But of course, a lot of these titles, especially the big ones, ‘sit’ in unreleased games to accumulate wishlists. So some final math: around 800-1,000 unreleased Steam games debut monthly. But many are tiny titles with almost no wishlists that appear and release almost instantly.
If we apply the ‘all’ percentages to ‘May 2022’ - did 14% of May’s Steam releases have >10k wishlists at launch? According to our data, nope - it was 60 games, or 5% of the month’s debuts. So you were one of 3 games per weekday launching with >10k wishlists, if you came out in May 2022.
Just grabbing two more milestones, roughly 40 games came out in May 2022 with >20k Steam wishlists, and about 15 games with >50k Steam wishlists. Hopefully that gives you some better context as to how ‘special’ you are - or aren’t - in the month you release.
[BTW: the ‘top wishlists’ Steam chart is not 100% how many total wishlists you’ve received. It’s majority that, but also affected by wishlist velocity. So games adding wishlists swiftly can chart higher. And games with lots of wishlists, but adding literally zero may not appear at all.]
The game discovery news round-up..
OK, we need to try to wrap this all up before hitting the ‘too big for Gmail’ limit. So let’s check out the notable game discovery and platform updates since the middle of last week:
This mixed review of the PlayStation Plus revamp from Eurogamer says it “opts for the car boot sale approach to catalogue gaming” - that’s somewhere close to ‘flea market’, U.S. readers. But PlayStation owners in India are still excited about the roll-out… oh, and the latest Sony TV ad for PS+ is incredibly high-concept.
Were you in the latest Steam Next Fest with your game demo? Chris Z wants your anonymous wishlist & download stats to crunch numbers and see what happened versus previous festivals - please hand it over immediately.
There’s a playlist of free Microsoft XFest videos up on YouTube. It’s worth checking if you’re an Xbox ecosystem-eer, highlights include the ability to query if a user has a Game Pass sub, a talk on providing the right metadata “to better enable discovery across Xbox experiences”, and more.
Game-adjacent microlinks: the Metaverse Standards Forum now exists, includes Meta & Microsoft but not Apple or Google; Tencent is creating a unit dedicated to building out its XR offerings; Apple’s Tim Cook did a little AR headset tease in an interview, hah.
After talking blockchain a bit too much, Kickstarter ran into some PR issues - now there’s a new advisory council, including Stray Fawn’s Philomena Schwab from the video game space, who says: “It’s Kickstarter’s responsibility to curate and surface smaller projects… I went into [the council] with the confidence that they will listen because I believe they want to do the best for their users.”
A recent editorial by ex-Edge editor Nathan Brown comments on Game Pass, PS+ and other sub services: “With so much choice before us, we are forever conscious that maybe the game we’re playing isn’t the one; that maybe a better use of our time is a few button presses away. It is not just that choice exists. Rather it is that we are actively and endlessly being presented with it.” It’s a mindset shift.
Almost concluding the ‘first Axie Infinity went way up, then way down’ story arc, this RestOfWorld profile of the ‘play to earn’ game’s last year explains in human terms the story of “in-game turmoil and a record-breaking hack” for the former “poster-child for the booming crypto-gaming industry.”
Microlinks: a great postmortem for cute dog photography game Pupperazzi notes it was “financially successful [but] without GamePass, it wouldn’t have been”; viewership numbers are up again on Twitch & friends, with slot machine streaming (!) getting big; the Disco:MTL game discoverability summit is back, with lots of speakers we’d recommend.
Finally, here’s a little ‘tech programmer’ humor that can easily be ported into the game dev joke of your choice. (The original video is by ‘The Q’ on YouTube, btw.)
[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.]