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What are your game's pre-release 'story beats'?
Nobody beats the biz.
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]
Welcome to another week of wondrous going-ons in the world of ‘apparently I’m making video games for a living, and now I have to get people to buy them’. Let’s see where we’re starting this time:
How ‘story beats’ fit into your game’s journey…
So I think I’ve printed the above equation of ours once before in the GameDiscoverCo newsletter. But recapping: your game needs to have a really good ‘hook’ in a good genre - and we think that’s more important than anything else. But you also need to talk about your game & promote it in the right way.
There’s a lot of good writing and videos about how to identify hooks. We particularly recommend Ryan Clark’s two-video series on the subject, though you can and should go way deeper. (We still think many publishers and devs spend insufficient time on early evaluations of game hook, based on data, evaluation and intuition.)
So let’s move on to talk about this ‘story beats’ idea, which is maybe discussed less. In the screenwriting community, they “are points of action that occur in a basic story.” For your in-development Steam or console game, we’d describe these as the 3 or 4 ‘big pre-release announcements’ that you actually expect to get wider press and notice.
At the same time, you’ll be making smaller announcements as you interact with the community on Discord - perhaps do some regular blog updates, even livestream work on the game. That’s the ‘nurture’ layer in the above equation. (BTW, I really like what The Riftbreaker does in this space - check out the game’s Steam news section for an idea of how busy they are with neat, but smaller stuff!)
Beats… beats… beats… beats!
But little of your ‘nurture’ work will get you wider press. So you need to identify those few things that you REALLY want to shout about and might realistically lead to a bigger splash. Here are the obvious story beats for your Steam game, and timing ranges we would advise for them:
INITIAL ANNOUNCE - press release, a trailer that includes gameplay, even if brief, and a full Steam page explaining all of the game’s features. Players need to be able to come to the page & decide to wishlist, even based on early info. Don’t tease with incomplete info/no video. (6-24 months before release - the earlier, the better.)
STEAM FESTIVAL APPEARANCE / DEMO - the concept of getting ‘regular players’ to try your game and give you development feedback is VITALLY important. It grows your fanbase, improves your game, and is also a key story beat. The Steam Festival is now the easiest and best way to do this. Caveat: Festivals are crowded, and there are alternatives for demo distribution or beta feedback! (3-9 months before release.)
RELEASE DATE ANNOUNCE - this is a really great chance to show new visuals on the game via a fresh trailer if you want, and remind people what the game is all about. It’s not as big of a promotional plus as the first two ‘beats’, it’s still a great thing to do. (4-8 weeks before release.)
GAME RELEASE - this folds into the ‘launch sizzle’ category in the above equation. But you definitely want an ‘available now’ announce with a trailer (can be an adapted version of ‘release date announce’, or brand new) and then as much streamer, press and social media blast with review keys as you can possibly manage. (0 days before release.)
Obviously, there’s no must-win formula for success here. Looking at Valheim’s approach, for example, they decided to run everything through Closed Betas instead of a Steam Festival public demo. This was great for refining gameplay in private, and they did more generic but still interesting monthly development updates for their ‘nurture’ phase. This still worked out fine, cos… great hook/genre & game quality & heritage?
Balancing your ‘beats’ and nurture - not always that easy?
Maybe the above explanation seems a bit simplistic. But in reality, I see plenty of complexities and issues around making it happen, especially when multiple parties (developer & PR company, developer & publisher, etc!) have to split up the work.
For example, what if the developer isn’t interested in doing the ‘nurture’ updates or doesn’t have time (or just thinks the publisher/PR company should be doing it?) and so there’s little community interaction? Or if the promotion starts very late?
Or what if a lot of smaller nurture-style updates are sent out as ‘press releases’ by a promotional partner, but aren’t connected back to the game’s player community in a meaningful fashion? (Just two of the problems I’ve been made aware of.)
Thinking carefully about who does what, or which of these you concentrate on if you self-publish, is vital to your game’s success. So hope this thought experiment helped you to reconsider it!
(And, before we forget: post-release story beats! Having them is a massive plus, so think about how/if you can do updates, DLC, and all that good stuff. The games that are doing well nowadays are increasingly those that have real, interesting post-release plans.)
The game discovery news round-up..
Time to look through the other news that’s piled up since our last free newsletter last Wednesday. It’s basically accumulating like snowfall, and so I have to get the plow out and redirect it in your direction, like so:
After you fall off that horse, you’ve got to get right back on again! Which is why Google Stadia is back promoting its upcoming line-up. This includes good-quality indie favorites from the Shantae series, big AAA games like FIFA 21, and even cult classics like Killer Queen Black. Overall, ‘more than 100’ titles are promised to debut on Stadia in 2021, despite the recent changes.
There’s a giant Twitter thread from NPD’s Mat Piscatella about the January U.S. retail (& some digital!) sales numbers for game hardware/software. Lotsa detail, but here’s the bit I thought was interesting: “Assassin's Creed: Valhalla was the 2nd best-selling game of January. When comparing each title's first 3 months of sales, Assassin's Creed: Valhalla is now the 2nd fastest selling Assassin's Creed franchise release in U.S. history, trailing only Assassin's Creed III.” Impressive stuff, Ubi!
A recent Tim Sweeney interview with CNN Business, as written up by MacRumors, notes that Epic "‘spent months’ developing and preparing its lawsuit against Apple… internally, Epic calls the lawsuit Project Liberty.” So a further indication of how ideological the Epic CEO considers the fight. Sweeney, again: open platforms are "the key to free markets and the future of computing". Passion and the courts don’t always mesh, but it’ll be fascinating to see what happens.
The folks at ‘branded influencer PC game store’ service Nexus.gg posted a blog about an interesting Door Kickers 2 promotion they just ran. Basically, a small discount for players, a Steam key sales cut to streamers and a bonus cash prize “garnered interest from creators who hadn’t yet played Door Kickers 2, and invigorated creators who had already played it to create new content covering it.” Perhaps this is a new non-Steam sale solution for a post-release story beat?
In other Epic news, the Epic Games Store finished its Spring Showcase, and the big announcements out of it were the Kingdom Hearts series finally coming to PC “exclusively” on the EGS. In addition four other titles, including Axiom Verge 2, are also coming “exclusively to the Epic Games Store.” Exclusive can sometimes mean timed exclusive - but I believe these games are permanently PC-exclusive on EGS? Interesting new move, which I think underlines that timed exclusives weren’t permanently moving users’ buying behavior across to EGS from Steam.
Interested in checking out the kind of games entered in the Independent Games Festival nowadays - over 500 this year? Holedown creator Grapefrukt revealed that he scraped every single public game trailer from the contest again this year into a YouTube playlist - 460 videos for a combined 14 hours of trailers. He adds: “The average duration is 1:49… 26 games have trailers elsewhere, another 18 do not have a trailer at all.” So go check ‘em out, since they’re all - abstractly - competition.
Two final reminders!
Rounding out here, since it looks like Valheim made it to 2 million sales already, wow. Did you know that if you’re not a paid GameDiscoverCo Plus subscriber, you missed the newsletter about Valheim’s success we sent out on Friday? Look, here’s a ‘call to action’ button designed to make you want to sign up:
And finally, just a heads up. Our new ‘Steam wishlist to follower’ survey, which has been running since last week, now has 95 responses (woo!) But we’d like to get it over the 100 response threshold.
So if you can help & have an unreleased Steam game, please fill in this simple survey now - we’ll leave it open ‘til the end of this week. Thanks in advance.
We’ll release the results in a couple of weeks. But one thing stands out so far - we definitely underestimated the ‘normal’ Steam range as 6-10 wishlists per follower for unreleased games - looks like it’s more like 6-12 or 13. More on this soon…
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]