[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.]
Back for the second time this week, kind GameDiscoverCo newsletter subscribers. This will be our last free newsletter until next Tuesday, due to the U.S. holiday on Monday. So please drink in all the data while you can, and remain strong ‘til then!
One final reminder - the ‘new user’ pricing of our GameDiscoverCo Plus sub goes up to $19/month or $190/year - for new users only - after the end of Friday, timed with a big upgrade of our Plus data back-end, soft-launching tomorrow. We’ll showcase its features more in a week or two, but jump in early for Day 1 access.
Why do some great games fail to get big reach?
Bear with us, because this is a complex, existential question that gets to the root of success with PC and console games. But we were chatting with Iceberg Interactive CEO Erik Schreuder recently, after we explored the success of Strange Horticulture, the company’s breakout 2022 hit. It’s now sold >300k on Steam and >100k on Switch.
Erik was kind enough to give us insight into Doomblade, an interesting-looking Metroidvania (above) from Muro Studios that debuted in May 2023 on Steam. This is clearly a game that players enjoy - it’s 90% Positive rated from its 96 Steam reviews. Yet it’s sold <5,000 units in total - a disappointment for the Iceberg team.
The frustration? Erik notes that the game “had only 20k Steam wishlists on release, despite many pushes (paid influencers, trade shows, ads, PR, public demos, etc) Despite having a Metacritic of 83 and Steam user rating of 90+% positive, it just has little traffic or traction.”
Doomblade’s wishlist journey over time!
So what gives? This is particularly frustrating for publishers such as Iceberg who do a good job of hitting all of the marketing ‘beats’ for a game like Doomblade, and ship a good game, but see it sell 1% of the units of another of their titles.
Let’s try to diagnose the ‘problem’. And the first thing we thought to look at was the game’s genre. Is ‘Metroidvania’ actually a dangerous genre to make games in? (Full disclosure: we still advise our clients that we think it’s worth doing games in this subgenre!)
When asked this, Erik makes a good point: “The genre has major hit franchises on PC like Hollow Knight, Ori, Dead Cells, Blasphemous that dominate the Metroidvania “top seller” section on Steam. These hits may lead to more devs starting dev projects on Metroidvanias, in turn leading to overcrowding.”
What data do we have to prove or disprove this idea? Well, our GameDiscoverCo Plus data set looks at the top unreleased Metroidvania games on Steam - and their ‘Hype’ score, based on Steam followers, wishlist ranking, etc. Here’s the Hype graph for Metroidvanias vs. another big Steam tag, city builders:
What this shows us is that Metroidvania isn’t significantly busier in direct comparison, but it does look more ‘top-heavy’ in terms of interest. (FYI, there are 635 unreleased games tagged Metroidvania on Steam, versus 527 tagged City Builder. )
And if we also told you that we had to leave Hollow Knight: Silksong out of the above graph because it has almost 10x the Hype of any other Metroidvania, you might say - OK, perhaps Metroidvanias on PC are somewhat top-heavy compared to other tags.
Still, we don’t think this is the main issue. (But we do think looking at the ‘shape’ of interest curves for genres is something we all need to do more in the future.) Erik and I also threw out some other possible reasons for the game’s slow debut:
- Possible clash with a Metroidvania Humble bundle, including a lot of top titles - Hollow Knight, Blasphemous, Bloodstained, etc.
- Some big competitors around launch for large-scale media attention: Diablo IV, Street Fighter VI, etc.
- I wondered if “the visual style (bright/glow-y) played against Doomblade with the core Steam audience at all? (Because they love 'grimdark' titles?)” Possible, but debatable..
So what can we take away from this? According to GameDiscoverCo data, Doomblade converted its pre-release interest below average - we have it at a 0.07 ‘Hype to first week reviews’ conversion, compared to a 0.15 median - but not spectacularly off. (It would only have done 7-8k units LTD with better conversion.)
We’re left with two things. Firstly, the fact that existing older top Metroidvanias are a) cheaper for players to try, due to post-launch discounts, and b) high quality & often improving over time.
Here - from our about-to-launch Plus revamp - are the top-CCU Metroidvanias (Top 12 Steam tags) on Steam today, with release date and player/gross revenue estimates:
Thx to our data fellow at Gamalytic for new $ estimates!
As you can see, plenty of older titles in here. But if they seem old to you, they’re new to many Steam players! Blasphemous is owned by 1.19% of the entire Steam audience. And even Dead Cells is owned by ‘just’ 4.04% of Steam users. (71% own Counter-Strike: GO & 45% own DOTA 2, by comparison.) These older games absolutely compete against your new ones, and are often 50-75% off…
So that’s one major thing. The other, we think, is about unreliable end results, and goes against the famous (disputedly sourced) quote: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” And right now, all premium PC/console publishers launching new games are doing a similar thing with each game launch, but with 100x variance in a game’s final sales.
This is maddening, and frustrating, and leaves big holes in everyone’s financial planning. But it’s the new normal! And here’s all we can say about it, for publishers:
- Examine the ‘things you normally do’ for correlation/causation: perhaps paid B2C exhibiting at shows has poor ROI? Perhaps paid influencers only work in a small minority of cases? Re-check your inorganic reach presumptions.
- Be prepared for the ‘new normal’ to be starkly less than you would like: most games don’t sell amazingly - even good ones - because there are lots of games out there. It’s simply a supply/demand issue.
- Expect exceptional performers to be based on organic excitement: you can seed this by finding the right influencers to give the game to. But ultimately, it’s about finding that ‘special something’ that’s both charming & under-served to players.
- Perhaps a solution is to retain people in a game, not move them to new ones?: this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen massive companies like EA and Take-Two gradually release less games & monetize existing ones. But if you have players, you’re already ahead of most of us…
It’s not an either/or situation. We’re big believers in data, and understanding personas and markets of players, and slanting your portfolio to areas that might appeal. You can’t spreadsheet your way to success, though - it’s also about great A&R and taste!
And ultimately as a publisher, you’re balancing cost and portfolio, and finding the Strange Horticultures (cozy, under-served alchemy-adjacent crafting, big!) that hopefully pay for multiple Doomblades (well-crafted Metroidvania with unique control scheme, not big, but we prob wouldn’t have guessed that before signing it...)
If you’re publishing lots of games, it’s ultimately a fishing expedition. If you’ve baited your hook right, in the right genres and with the right costs, you’ll come out ahead. But along the way, you can expect more ‘great game, didn’t get enough reach’ situations than you would ever want to have, sadly for both you and the devs…
The game discovery news round-up..
Footprints.gg’s weekly ‘top games in media’ charts headed by that darn Starfield!
OK, after that lengthy PhD thesis, let’s have a look at the rest of the discovery and platform news for the week, headed by some PlayStation Plus moves:
- Buried in the second half of the PlayStation Plus game announcement for September (yep, Saints Row!) is Sony increasing its yearly PlayStation Plus sub prices for new & renewing subscribers. It takes Essential from $60 USD to $80, Extra from $100 to $135, and Premium from $120 to $160.
- Initial reaction? It’s a 33% average increase. But you may recall us saying that yearly PS+ subs were over-discounted compared to monthly & quarterly on initial rollout. So I guess that, uhh, fixes that? Yield increases were expected, but this is larger than expected. (In comparison, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is $15/month - so effectively $180 per year.)
- When were the Top 100 CCU games on Steam released, and how many of them ‘free to play’? GameDiscoverCo Plus Discord subscriber Michael from Behaviour Interactive was kind enough to model this recently - thanks for sharing. (Only 13 of the Top 100 were released in 2023 when he pulled the data, btw.)
- Xbox has removed the 14-day $1 Game Pass Ultimate trial, a few days before its flagship 2023 holiday season title Starfield launches. As IGN says: “it’s an unsurprising move, given the high-profile and commercially crucial imminent launch of Starfield.” (It’ll be back, like Arnie.)
- Here’s a neat interview with Diablo’s GM Rod Fergusson on what massive-scale ‘games as a service’ feels like, as a dev: “For a team to keep pace with players, firstly it must be bigger, and secondly you have to build it in a way that’s sustainable. We have an odd-season team and an even-season team, and then we even have a group focused just on what’s going on in the game right now. And we have an expansion team.”
- Amazon’s Luna cloud-gaming service is still battling on, and is now “coming to certain LG televisions. This will enable users to stream games directly on their TV, without a console.” This still seems like a fractional usage case - Game Pass has similar deals with Samsung TVs & others, for example. But as more people replace their TVs over time, who knows?
- HowToMarketAGame took on the Steam Discovery Queue, looking at a pre-release DQ-related spike for Whisker Squadron: Survivor, and suggesting: “DQ is used by a lot of people who are very important because they buy a lot of games. The super buyers on Steam use DQ, and that is who you want to market it to.”
- There’s some useful new high-level Circana data on the U.S. game biz, v.relevant to earlier PS+ talk: “Subscription spending has plateaued. US consumer spending on video game subscription services* has settled in at around $400 million per month after having first reached that level in November of 2021.” (*We asked: it’s PS+, Game Pass, individual PC game subs like World Of Warcraft, FFIV, and cloud subs, and not Apple Arcade..)
- More giant Steam data dumps? Well, if you insist, Reddit, since indie devs Alex and Lev updated their massive spreadsheet with Steam tags, trends, and more in it, adding: “Total number of Steam game pages is 87,728 already! Looks like it will break 100k in 2024.”
- Microlinks: Game Pass recently came to GeForce NOW for select games via a Microsoft Store integration; Qualcomm announced a “Snapdragon G Series handheld gaming [chip] portfolio”, though third-parties need to build attractive Steam Deck-a-likes still; Microsoft is sadly sunsetting availability of the Azure Kinect developer kit, for those who like flailing their arms at depth-sensing cameras.
[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.]