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Wartales: how did it sell 600k copies on Steam?
Also: following up on the 'cold start problem', and lots of discovery news.
[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.]
Funny timing on this newsletter, since it’ll be going out directly before the big pre-’not E3’ PlayStation Showcase happens. (You can follow news on that - which will largely be game, not platform-specific, we wager - via sources like The Verge.)
Also, a reminder: please fill out our anonymous survey on your unreleased Steam games’ ‘follower to wishlist’ ratio. We have 44 responses so far, and are looking for 80-100, so we have a little way to go. (The survey closes at the end of next week.)
[PSA: get actionable info & talk to your peers via a GameDiscoverCo Plus paid subscription. This includes an exclusive Friday PC/console game trend analysis newsletter, a big Steam ‘Hype’ & performance chart back-end, eBooks, a member-only Discord & more.]
Wartales: analyzing its impressive Steam success
For many, I feel like Shiro’s Wartales is one of those ‘games you’ve sorta heard of’. For context, it’s a deep, party-based medieval RPG with turn-based combat and lots of skill trees & resource management. But I do think it’s off some people’s radars.
When we heard the news that it had hit 600,000 units sold since its Dec. 2021 Early Access launch - and that its 1.0 version on Steam attracted 100,000 DAU on April 16th - our interest was piqued. (Particularly since it’s a $35 USD game that has never been more than 25% off.)
So we reached out to Shiro and chatted to the title’s game director, Quentin Lapeyre. Unfortunately, Shiro couldn’t give us any extra data, so.. we decided to not run a story on the game? Nah, just kidding, we created our own data instead. (Including a brand new method of analysis you won’t have seen before, ‘Affinity’.) Here’s some takeaways:
Wartales thrives by creating a narrative framework for player stories: you don’t get 35% of your Steam reviewers playing for 100 hours+ (above) if you haven’t created a compelling, playable title that can withstand multiple playthroughs.
The title’s director Lapeyre described it as “a game that empowers players to forge their own unique experience. With the freedom to play within their own rules, the game's narrative system acts as a backdrop that provides a framework, lore, and identity, while leaving the story writing to the players themselves.”
It’s certainly not the only title to do this. Games like Rimworld or Wildermyth also accomplished the same effect in different subgenres. But it requires a less ‘fixed story’- led, more systems-first approach to story. (Which not all devs are suited for.)
Wartales’ ‘Affinity’ shows a popular subgenre the game fits into: it’s difficult to be an expert in all game genres. Which is why GameDiscoverCo has invented a new way of looking at Steam games, ‘affinity multiplier’, which shows adjacent titles more clearly.
We’re a) looking at public Steam profile data and b) anonymizing it, to work out how much more likely owners of Wartales are to play certain games, compared to ‘the median Steam player’. And this more clearly reveals Wartales’ subgenre of titles.
We’d already seen Battle Brothers - an v.popular (500k+ sales?) but underdiscussed medieval turn-based tactical RPG - mentioned in Wartales’ Steam reviews. And it turns out to be Wartales’ #3 game by ‘affinity multiplier’. (In other words, a Wartales player is 68x more likely to play it than the median Steam player.)
But there are other party-based exploration RPG comparatives here that we wouldn’t have thought of - including Expeditions: Rome (100x more likely) and King Arthur: Knight’s Tale (99x more likely). These are epic-length games that have also performed pretty well. So this is a fertile - if underappreciated - subgenre.
[Many thanks to Tomek of GamingAnalytics.info and Steve Stopps of Excalibur for helping us perfect, and sparking the precise idea for ‘affinity multiplier’, respectively.]
Wartales executed well on an Early Access to 1.0 transition: we talk a lot about being attentive to the community, and a glance at Wartales’ Steam news page shows very clear community updates and roadmaps through its EA period.
Quintin told me that the team carefully balanced larger ‘major updates’ like The Great Gosenburg (a whole new kingdom!) and co-op (important reach extender!), alongside a series of smaller community updates, as the team “listened to our players, took their feedback into consideration, and then worked to correct and improve the game.”
So when the title reached 1.0, it was already well-established as a great game - and got a handy 1.0 boost. Now it has 90% Positive reviews and 1 million wishlists, according to Shiro. And with only around 15 core devs, it’s likely a fairly profitable endeavor.
Finishing off, some bonus info from my chat with game director Quentin Lapeyre: originally “the game drew inspiration from Northgard and placed greater emphasis on management components.” (Even further back, it was “supposed to be a card game!”)
But the team realized that a nomadic mercenary group didn’t mesh well with “the desire to settle down and establish roots”, hence the shift in the Battle Brothers direction, with “unique systems, such as camp rituals, [created] from scratch.” Good move!
Follow-up: the ‘cold start problem’ - does AI help?
We had a lot of very good feedback to last Wednesday’s piece on multiplayer games and ‘the cold start problem’. And in fact, as a result I’m shortly catching up with a16z’s Andrew Chen, who wrote the original book it was based on.
But there are some solutions here that can be specific to games! So we wanted to encapsulate these via an email from veteran dev Jarrad ‘Farbs’ Woods, who said: “I figured since Card Hunter is still running 100+ multiplayer games a day, despite very few updates over the past 10 years, I ought to spill our secrets.” Do go on, Farbs?
“The first one is [AI] bots. It's... not a huge secret. Fortnite obviously does this, as do many .IO games, some of which apparently aren't really multiplayer at all. The thing we discovered with CH is you don't have to be subtle about it or try to deceive your players. Our bots are super obvious and nobody minds. It's still a way to play the game, and it means we can offer a maximum matchmaking time.
The second is medium and long term goals. CH gives guaranteed rare loot for your 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 11th wins each day, and epic loot for your 20th. So quite a few players pop in to win one game a day, some stay for a couple more - and occasionally some have a run at the 20…
We set those two elements live during the beta and overnight our multiplayer scene went from a wasteland with a weak weekly ‘battle the devs’ event to a packed lobby. And ten years later, it still as a pulse.”
Indeed, bots was something we neglected to talk about during the original write-up, despite them being prominent in games like Marvel Snap. Some styles of game are far more suited to them than others, though. (Turn-based titles or low-skill, ‘lots of players’ realtime games work better than highskill realtime games?) Two more tidbits:
James Tan of Digital Confectioners (Depth, Dread Hunger) added: “Understanding player flow is important. If you have 100 players and you're a game where death means players can flow into another match quickly, 100 players can be sustainable. But if you lock all 100 players for a long period of time, you need more players to keep the game alive. This is why modern battle royales have shifted to shorter and shorter play sessions.”
Tim Conkling on our Plus Discord added: “Another way to reduce your required ‘atomic network’ size is to focus on async multiplayer. My last game, Antihero, is an async PvP game. If it were synchronous multiplayer only it would be long dead - but instead it continues to have new multiplayer accounts created every day, 6 years after its small release.”
The game discovery news round-up..
And as we finish up the free newsletters for the week (Plus subs get a Friday one, of course!), let’s take a final look around all the discovery news for the week:
ICO’s Footprints media monitoring service looked at what online outlets have been talking about last week (above). And boy, it was still a lot of the new Legend Of Zelda. (But the new Mortal Kombat reboot’s obnoxiously gory reveal trailer also rose above the crowd.)
A note arrived in a wax-sealed envelope from Steam HQ: “As you plan out the rest of your 2023 promotional calendar [Steam dev-only link], here is your friendly reminder that all games MUST have a game trailer uploaded and visible on the store page in order to be eligible for an invite.”
We’ll be covering the bulk of Sony’s new biz meeting graphs & analysis on Monday. But one notable tidbit for now: PSVR2’s early sales beat the original, as PlayStation’s PS5-connected VR device sold around 600,000 units in its first six weeks on sale. (It’s the momentum post-’early adopter’ that also matters, though.)
Social media platforms evolve and grow. And since TikTok has been a key for video game social media, we recommend you read this longform piece on ‘TikTok’s new growth patterns’, which notes:“Of accounts with over 50 million followers, 20 out of 21 hit that threshold prior to summer 2020”, and says that videos with over 10 million views have halved, year on year.
Microlinks: Xbox releases transparency report on content moderation, with “more than 7.51M proactive enforcements against inauthentic accounts”; you can now use your PlayStation controller to navigate & launch games in the iOS/Android PlayStation app; Intellivision Amico’s planned console business model seems to be not very well.
Apple things: the company put up nominations for the Apple Design Awards, with a bunch of games - Diablo Immortal, Railbound, Hindsight - included; the company’s 2022 App Store transparency report [.PDF] has some eye-opening stats: 657 million weekly App Store visitors, 37 million registered App Store developers.
We spotted this free Final Fantasy IV IAP for PlayStation Plus subs, and a Plus Discord user (AndyHat) tells me that “a bunch of F2P games get regular PS+ packs (Smite, Bleach: Brave Souls, 3on3 FreeStyle, World of Tanks, etc).” Huh. Sony... does a bad job of explaining and highlighting these PS+ perks in one place, right?
One of our game discovery .PPT presentations references Kevin Kelly’s ‘1000 True Fans’ theory, saying it’s good to get ‘superfans’. So it was intriguing to read Chris Z’s take on why the precise theory doesn’t work for indie games. (“The peculiarities of the marketplace, the consumers, and the product, make it nearly impossible for small scale production to work.”)
Kurt Indovina of GameSpot posted an interesting video ‘op-ed’ on Game Pass, with some concrete games called out (Ghostwire: Tokyo and Hi-Fi Rush), as he “debates whether or not the effect Game Pass has had on his gaming habits have been good or bad - because he thinks it's a little bit of both.”
Diverse microlinks: five video game accessibility success stories of 2023 so far; how games can stamp out content/social interactions that lead to extremism; inside generative fiction tool Sudowrite’s AI system for writing entire novels (!)
Finally, Rust & Garry’s Mod creator Garry Newman posted this ever-acerbic take on Twitter: “Every year I go back and re-read these takes on Steam's release [Ed: NSFW-ish GIF alert] - something really satisfying about people being so certain and so wrong..”
[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.]