When demos can radically expand your game's discoverability

But also... many don't help much at all!

[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 this week’s first GameDiscoverCo newsletter! We’re back in your general area, listening to the 25th anniversary re-release of Goldie’s Timeless album, feeling a little bit ancient, and musing upon the fundamental nature of things. Which brings us to today’s specialist subject…

(BTW, if you’re not subscribed to GameDiscoverCo Plus, you missed last Friday’s sub-exclusive newsletter and data dump - where we discovered Cozy Grove is doing great on Switch, pinpointed NieR Replicant as this week’s Steam smash, & explored First Class Trouble as a rare streamer-driven Steam hit. It’s only $12-ish a month, if you sign up for the year!)

Steam demos/prologues and your game loop

We actually wrote a pretty detailed column about game demos and prologues back in January, for anyone who remembers it! We analyzed a whole bunch of Steam prologues to compare their performance with the final game’s performance.

At the time, we showed that demo/prologue success can vary massively, just like final game success can vary. And we believe strongly that demos of overly ‘shallow’ games - or ill-considered demos which give away too much of the final game - can be a net negative.

But we also said that “we think the short, sharp playable demo/prologue - in both content and duration of availability - is the best bet. But.. this isn’t always the case, and the devs of The Riftbreaker, which has had a super popular prologue, would disagree with us.”

And since that column, we’ve seen other examples of breakout Steam titles where the demo really helped. So we wanted to better define the exception - when you should leave your demo up for longer - here. This is, in our view, if you have a demo with a standout (but short!) gameplay loop, where players don’t get bored of the demo and can play it many times, yet still want to buy the full version.

The most obvious recent example of this is Devolver’s Loop Hero. When the publisher asked how many hours people had put into the demo in late February, answers ranged from 2-7 hours (more ‘normal’), to, uhhh, 160 hours (!), for one response. That’s pretty crazy, and was a big reason for its sales breakout on launch.

The Loop Hero demo debuted in this year’s first Steam Festival (called Steam NextFest going forward!), and ended up spawning hit Northernlion videos like ‘Checking out 2021’s Hottest Demo’. So obviously, the hype was real here, because the title has a killer - and brief - gameplay loop. (Although Devolver did take down the demo a few weeks before the game came out, in this case.)

But doubling down on this ‘your game has a great, short replayable demo and people still want more’ concept, Paweł Lekki of The Riftbreaker creator EXOR Studios was kind enough to share some data from his studio’s base-building survival action-RPG title. It has both a free demo and a standalone Prologue version which are permanently available. And also seems to be ‘winning’ - the game is #23 of all 5,000 unreleased Steam titles in terms of wishlists.

Paweł comments of the demo/prologue: “They are physically identical, but exist on Steam as separate apps at the same time for increased visibility and technical reasons for the festivals. Right now we have 170,000 + 245,000 downloads of each respectively -> 415,000 total downloads. The demo is designed to be a 30 minute sample of the game. However some players tend to play it a lot more...”

So here’s the complete stats from the Steam back end for the Prologue. It has 3,300 reviews, so about 52 reviews per user - within the ranges for regular Steam games. The bottom axis uses time increments of 10 minutes, btw:

And here’s the play time stats for the demo, which are - as you might expect - similar. And also very impressive. BTW, both demo and prologue are translated into 9 other languages, which also helps:

What’s interesting here, as Paweł notes: “I took a dive into the playtime stats for each and it looks like there is a large group of players that play the demo for more than 200 minutes.” And some people a LOT more, apparently - if you believe this playtime number:

Anyhow, there’s 22,500 of these ‘long players’ for the Prologue, and 12,000 for the demo respectively, adding up to 34,500 super hardcore fans. The devs add: “We have seen this manifest in the form of a thriving modding scene for our demo on our Discord server (yes, people are making mods for the demo to extend the experience). I think that demos can be a great way to build up and nurture a community of super fans.”

So, in some ways this is almost like an Early Access version of the game before it even launches. And if well harnessed, can really help discoverability. It only works with certain types of game, of course. But perhaps you should also be thinking of making that type of game?

To end, the Riftbreaker devs noted: “Our next step is to add UTM tracking links into the wishlist buttons that we have built into the demo/prologue. We have an average of ~500 daily active users in the past 7 days for the demo, so this should be enough to provide some interesting data samples.” That’ll be interesting to see, too.

The game discovery news round-up..

And after that graph-festooned first section, it’s time to get to a second section, featuring… yet more graphs. But also a whole bunch of useful information about platforms, festivals, and ways to get your game seen:

  • What’s going on around E3 and not-E3 this year, ‘virtual press event’-wise? This Kotaku article attempts to round up some of the major confirmed showcases so far in the summer months, from the Wholesome Direct stream through Summer Game Fest/E3 events, Ubisoft Forward, the PC Gaming Show, PAX Online, (virtual) GDC & more. More detail to come here, but a good overview!

  • There’s a big milestone coming up for cloud gaming: Xbox is opening up a ‘public’ beta for Xbox Cloud Gaming: “We’ll begin sending out invites to select Xbox Game Pass Ultimate members to start testing [via] Windows 10 PCs and Apple phones and tablets via web browsers. We’re launching xbox.com/play where invitees can play over 100 Xbox Game Pass titles through Edge, Google Chrome, or Safari.” You can use a controller or touch controls - the latter custom-configured for 50 of the titles.

  • Microlinks: Superjoost points out re: Apple that “the upgrade to its Arcade service to include a bunch more titles and improve its value proposition required Apple to change its policies”; interesting to see a Stellaris DLC land at second place in the latest Steam weekly revenue charts; the Before Your Eyes devs get some Steam reviewer pushback for ‘short game’ reasons.

  • Regarding the ‘busy’ release schedule for Nintendo Switch, this latest TouchArcade round-up of Switch debuts and sales literally has the author saying: “I am very, very tired. I know I said I would go over what was in the Indie World Showcase today, but that was before hundreds of sales dropped and several additional games hopped onto the schedule.” Well… the platform is getting packed. But Steam has been unsummarizable for years, so maybe Switch is just finally getting to that stage?

  • Third-party cross platform mod platform Mod.io recently hit 500,000 unique daily users, as founder Scott Reismanis says, “thanks to the v1 launch of Totally Accurate Battle Simulator on April 1st. Amazing creator community this game has, with over 3,000 pieces of content submitted daily!” Interesting to see the range of titles and number of downloads for each on Mod.io - the front end is fairly transparent!

  • Sony has ended up backpedaling on closing the PlayStation Store on PS3 and PS Vita, due to outcry over access to digital games that would be ‘lost’ as a result. Sony’s Jim Ryan: “We see now that many of you are incredibly passionate about being able to continue purchasing classic games on PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future.”

  • Core, the platform that hopes to help creators build games and players experience them “…has launched for free in early access. It’s available exclusively on the Epic Games Store and already includes over 20,000 free playable games across a wide variety of genres including team-based multiplayer shooters, RPGs, and side-scrollers.” Keep a close eye on this in an ‘adult Roblox’ stylee - Sullygnome’s Twitch stats for it look fairly decent, right now.

  • Microlinks Pt. 2: so, Google Stadia “…isn't perfect. But for plenty of players, it's enough”; latest NPD U.S. game hardware (& select software!) monthly results, with spending at $5.6 billion, 18% higher when compared to a year ago; why Facebook is embracing subscriptions for Oculus VR titles.

Finally, Logan ‘Indie Wolverine’ Williams picked up Lars Doucet’s data from GameDataCrunch to create this very helpful graph of historical pricing on Steam games:

As Lars comments in his Twitter thread on the data: “This chart tells you nothing about performance, but it does indicate that there hasn't been a collapse in prices of games on Steam.” Rather than a pricing race to the bottom, it looks like just… more games in general?

[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.]