Why do some games just... keep selling?

On and on and Ariston.

[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.]

Last week, I was looking at the news that UK indie publisher Curve had bought For The King dev IronOak, and was a tiny bit surprised, since I haven’t been paying attention to that title (which was published by Curve originally). But then I checked the game’s Steam page, and uhh, 11,000 Steam reviews. When did that happen?!

(We can actually see how/when it happened via this handy Steam 250 / Club250 page - which shows how For The King has built reviews and used discounts over time. Some things just sneak up on us, if we’re not checking in regularly.)

In any case, this illuminates a phenomenon I wanted to talk about - sometimes games just keep selling. You can compare games that have 250 Steam reviews in their first week and come back a year later, and some have 500 and a few have 2-4,000. Why? It’s different per game, but here’s one take:

Game longevity & lessons from Descenders

So, my No More Robots compadre Mike Rose (reminder: I was the original investor in NMR, and still act as an advisor) did this excellent Twitter thread on Ragesquid/NMR’s procedural downhall biking game Descenders, on the occasion of its Switch launch.

And the game has now done great. As Mike notes, nearly 3.5 million people have played it across various platforms (including Xbox Game Pass, where it’s regularly in the Top 20 most-played games, outpunching games with 10-50 times as many devs.)

Mike has tried to lay out some of the things he felt has contributed to the game’s sustained success. And I thought it was worth laying it out and commenting on it:

1. Be different (duh!)

As Mike says: “In Summer 2017, I was talking with Ragesquid about how, in theory, their creating a game with a very specific niche, that essentially had zero other games like it, could surely lead to extreme long-term sales.”

For fun, I thought I’d search the No More Robots Discord around that time. I discovered myself saying something very similar: “def getting more excited about descenders, i guess the pitch is 'skate meets trials with procedural tracks' or something. still trying to work out how it fits with core steam users but the fact it's DIFFERENT and really gorgeous looking is a major good thing.”

It’s not always possible to devise such an explicit niche. But… if people want a certain type of game and they HAVE to buy yours - or they only have 5 games to choose from, not 500 - it’s an amazing place to be in.

(Related: I did discover I was trying to find someone to make a skateboarding game at that same time. Mike even later talked to Tony Hawk about it, since we’d identified a weird hole in action sports. This was before Skater XL and Session - and finally Tony Hawk again, lol - turned up to fill it.)

2. Constant updates, multiplayer, & mod support

Games as a service-style updates are vital nowadays, if you want to keep things going. Just look at how No Man’s Sky has been rockin’ it recently. As for Descenders, Mike says: “Since the game launched in Feb 2018, there have been around 20 or so content updates for the game. It's kept people coming back and recommending it to their friends throughout these three years.”

The game also added multiplayer in 2019 in a clever and ultimately positive way: “To be honest we weren't sure if this was even going to be good, or just feel awful and crowbarred in We ended up going with a Destiny / No Man's Sky style multiplayer (passively see other players in your game) and it went down incredibly well.”

Finally, another content bonanza helped: “We added mod support to the Steam version via Mod.io and player numbers on Steam exploded. Although mods aren't supported on console, it has allowed us to carry some of those mods over to console as "official" bike parks.” Some work needed in console conversion, but the modding community has been amazing.

3. Xbox Game Pass FTW!

Finally, there’s the ever-intriguing question of Game Pass. Mike jokes: “I know I never shut up about it, but Game Pass was a major turning point for the game Remember when PS Plus made Rocket League explode? Game Pass is doing (and continues to do) the same for Descenders, and we're currently exploring Series X stuff as a result.”

So yes, for certain types of games, Game Pass can be a massive win. Here’s the current Xbox Game Pass ‘most played games’ in descending order: Minecraft; Forza Horizon 4; Doom Eternal; Sea Of Thieves; Human Fall Flat; Forza Motorsport 7; Minecraft Dungeons; Mortal Kombat X; Halo: The Master Chief Collection; Descenders.

Descenders’ ranking is flat-out amazing, given the relative sizes/dev budgets of most of those games (except Human: Fall Flat, also an indie!) And there’s no way Descenders would have 36 million Tiktok hashtag views and this amount of interest on its PS4/Switch launch without Game Pass’ increased profile.

So, that’s definitely a best-case scenario. Actually, I did get into a Twitter microspat with NPD’s Mat Piscatella about this broad subject, after he said - fairly broadly - re: Take-Two’s skepticism over Game Pass: “Gaming is not zero sum. The more games, ways to play and business models there are the bigger the pie will get.”

I agree that Game Pass can work spectacularly for certain games - and I’ve seen the numbers. My reply to Mat tried to add some nuance: “It's been helpful for some, yes, especially if you make the kind of game that gets a big visibility boost via being on Game Pass. (I'm in the 'Game Pass is great for players & great value, but long-term disruptive to the model in ways we don't yet understand' camp.)”

For many traditional single-player indie/AA games, Game Pass and other similar subscription services are an amazing reach extender, and handy revenue boost. Many more people get to play your game, including those who would have never bought it standalone! But it’s not always a long-term sales amplifier for those games on other platforms. That’s rarer. (And great when it happens, as it 1000% has for Descenders.)

The game discovery news round-up..

Finally, where would we be without additional game platform/discovery news? Finishing this newsletter a little bit earlier, that’s where! But luckily for you all, we’ve dug out some good material to chew on:

  • As ‘gacha’-style mechanics invade AAA-aesthetic games - thanks to Genshin Impact - there’s some backlash brewing. YouTube creators are saying they’ll stop playing. Wired has a larger story on the faux-gambling Genshin Impact backlash in progress, including players spending thousands of dollars to try to win particular characters. Hmm.. try not to anger the legislative (or moral) gods?

  • As I was co-presenting a seminar with Victoria Tran this weekend, we were discussing ways to look at Steam stats. She mentioned the Augmented Steam Chrome plug-in, which for some unknown reason I a) do not use b) have never looked at closely. It has a bunch of super-useful extra info on price history, etc, though it’s designed more for players/dealfinders than it is devs.

  • I think coverage on the new PlayStation 5 Store is still embargoed. But in the meantime, info on PS4/PS5 back compatibility is out, and it’s been done very well. But - some UI issues in your Game Library: “Games that aren’t playable have a small prohibited symbol on them, and a label saying that they’re only “Playable on PS4.” Game demos and betas also carry the prohibited sign, but it’s not immediately clear that what you’re seeing is a beta or demo. Games that you’ve played from an Blu-ray Disc will also appear in your Game Library, though… show a padlock symbol because you’ll need to insert the discs in question to play them.” Hmm. (Console seems great, though!)

  • One more handy thing from Meteorfall: Krumit’s Tale dev Slothwerks. It’s this article on the localization of the game using the community translation tool Localizor, comparing this approach to pro translations, and divining actual sales differences. His conclusion: “Not translating Krumit’s Tale would’ve meant leaving a significant portion of the total sales on the table, especially in countries like China, Russia, and Japan.”

  • The latest weekly Steam charts are upon us, and the perennial multiplayer favorites Phasmophobia and Among Us are still atop the chart. Good to see voxel destruction sim Teardown zooming up the charts, though. And Baldur’s Gate 3 (pictured above) really has been a decent-sized big hit for Larian - it’s still in the Top 10 after a month.

  • Microlinks: Among Us clones are all over the place - even atop charts - in China; for fans of demos/Steam festivals, here’s Raycevick with a video on why he loved the Autumn Steam Festival, even vs. physical reveals/conferences; I forget about Steam Link on iOS/Android, for playing Steam games on smartphones across a local network, but it’s still updating and improving.

Finally, I actually made a PPT presentation for the first time in many years. (When you help run GDC, you just get to read/watch other people’s!) Along the way, I had to crystallize my view on ‘how people find your game’ down into one simple ‘quotient’. Here’s what I came up with:

For reference: Hook is, uhh, catchiness/natural ‘what do I think when I see this game for 5-10 seconds’ buzz; Story Beats are the main inflection points of your publicity campaign, e.g. gameplay trailer announce, Steam festival appearance; Nurture is working to grow your community via Discord, blogs, etc; Launch Sizzle is the time around game launch that you go wide, and tell everyone about your game.

Food for thought, mm? Until next time…

[This newsletter is handcrafted by GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? We’ll be launching a ‘Plus’ paid newsletter tier with lots of extra info/data - watch out for it soon.]