Tales From Discoverabilityland: February 2020

Some more quick hits from the firehose

[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Now!, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]

Hey, all! Turns out that I’m accumulating enough interesting & relevant game discoverability tidbits to do a monthly update - ‘here’s some fun stuff I found on the Internet, and my comments on them’.

So this is the second one of these compendium newsletters - here’s the first one. Let’s get it started!

Steam Labs & machine learning to help pick existing games to play?

Funnily enough, I was just talking at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas with other attendees about game discoverability - and their impression that platform companies had underinvested in it.

Well, I think that’s true for a lot of the ‘big guys’ like Sony & Microsoft whose game featuring is still primarily - though not solely - led by commercial concerns (do we own the studio in question? do we have a pre-existing retail relationship with them? Are we pushing a subscription service? Is their game a big hit already?) And Nintendo ain’t that sophisticated yet.

But that leaves Steam, and they’ve rolled out a new Steam Labs experiment, ‘Play Next’, which intriguingly works on titles that you already own. As they explain:

“Problem: You have a bunch of unplayed games in your Steam library, and you can't decide what to play next. Solution: Our machine learning system helps you to choose, by suggesting the games it thinks you'll enjoy most, among games you already own.

The Play Next experiment uses the same underlying technology that powers the Interactive Recommender, and applies it to your existing Steam library. Up to three selections are shown at a time. If the first set doesn't quite grab your attention, you can cycle through to see other suggestions (when available).”

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Steam has made big strides in discoverability over the past year or so. It’s one of the fairest systems out there for ‘make the right kind of game, & you can have a hit!’

Of course, you still have overwhelming numbers of games out there. But I particularly like this innovation because - sure, it’s post-purchase. But if people feel like they are managing their backlog of already-purchased games better, they may be more inclined to buy more.

Even more numbercrunching on the state of Steam!

One cool thing that happened recently is that Jake Birkett (Shadowhand/Regency Solitaire), probably one of the prime discoverability numbercrunchers, got hold of Sergio Garces’ amazing stats dump on Steam in 2019, and made some interesting observations based on it.

Wanted to particularly highlight these two Tweets:

So, wow, 30,000 games on Steam now? That’s… quite a few. The Twitter replies on this thread were also interesting, with Charles Goatley noting, in relation to the scarily diminishing median revenue: “25% of 499 games released in 2013 is 124. But 5% of 8384 in 2019 is 419. That's 3x more games being "hits" in 2019 than in 2013.”

So maybe that might make some of you feel a little bit better? But my favorite response was from RimWorld (smash hit, folks!) dev Tynan Sylvester, who sagely noted:

“It used to be that people were mostly prevented from succeeding by gatekeepers like Steam. Now they're fail[ing] because customers just aren't interested in their work. The second one is more psychologically challenging, but not necessarily worse.”

I feel like that’s… probably true.

Is it worth doing a demo for your game on Steam?

My No More Robots compatriot Mike Rose wrote an interesting Twitter thread about the demo for Yes, Your Grace which NMR put out just before the holidays. Click through and read on for the full details:

But if I was to TL;DR to you, I would say here’s Mike’s best attempt at a takeaway: “I learnt that demos [may] heavily reduce the number of people who wishlist your game, which seems detrimental... But then, maybe people who play the demo are more likely to buy it? I didn't learn anything, did I”

But he concluded that he would not try a similar experiment - free Steam demo on the game’s main page - again, because it was definitely not a clear win, statistically.

The general takeaway here is - it’s not even possible to A/B test this type of thing, unlike in some other areas of F2P games or websites. And Yes, Your Grace already had buzz before this experiment - its now up to #75-ish in most wishlisted pre-release games now. So difficult to split out the demo effects from all the other variables.

But Mike did note an interesting (not necessarily Valve-endorsed) trend of making a separate game entry for a free prologue to your game - as done by Backbone - and then trying to get people to hop across to the other app to additionally wishlist your game there.

I think this CAN work, but also is a bit of a hack and will probably only work for some VERY specific types of game. We’ll see! (It’s good - and fair - that Valve doesn’t explicitly prevent this, though.)

Bonus links!

To finish out, here’s some other neat things you might have missed:

- Daniel Sanchez-Crespo, who has had a decent success in Early Access with Killsquad, wrote a good Twitter thread about lessons learned from his first foray onto Steam Early Access. (His studio previously worked closely with Sony for a number of years.)

- For anyone who loves fetishizing Steam traffic breakdowns to work out where your players come from, Lottie Bevan has a super-detailed breakdown of post-launch traffic sources for Cultist Simulator that you should probably read.

- I know, this newsletter talks too much about Steam and not enough about other platforms. So here’s an interesting tidbit from Ars Technica about how one particular Google Stadia ‘free’ game for Stadia Pro seems to be faring. (Not great, but it’s very, very early days for Stadia, and the dev presumably got paid a lump sum anyway for inclusion.)

- Lastly, I enjoyed this Chris Zukowski article on actually talking to your customers, one on one. There’s an argument you can also or additionally do this well via surveys & Discord. But the general sentiment is correct - you need to identify (& size!) your player base and engage them, both pre and post-release.

Until next time - take care,
Simon.

What 'Dragons Love Tacos' taught me about game discoverability

Dragons love... diapers

[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Now!, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]

It’s always good to take inspiration from other creative mediums, folks. And right now, my kid is a little bit obsessed with Adam Rubin & Daniel Salmieri’s (adorable) story book Dragons Love Tacos.

I thought it might be an excellent starting point to examine why some things break out - and how you can stand out better with your game.

So let’s break this down. What can we learn about Dragons Love Tacos that you can apply to your video game?

- Firstly, make the concept ‘pop’.

Dragons Love Tacos works, as an idea, because the front cover perfectly encapsulates why you might love the book. Dragons are cool. Tacos are yummy. But these things are not - generally - seen together. It’s absurd AND silly.

Now, I fully admit that I’m a big fan of the meme - the concept of a replicating idea. The meme phrase is more often used with wacky Internet pictures or GIFs, but it’s clear that a number of popular video games have memetic ideas.

I’m also aware that Dragons Love Tacos is a book made for four year olds, and not grown men & women. But the point is - the idea ‘pops’. When I look at the cover, I think - yep, this book is going to be fun, and goofy. It passes the two-second ‘immediate reaction’ test.

So that would be a good question for you. Does your game pass the two-second test? If somebody sees the name and a screenshot, do they get a ‘feeling’ - and what is that feeling?

[Fan art purchase-able via HolyHandGrenade.]

Some example of games that I do feel like pass the two-second test in a particularly meme-heavy conceptual way:

- Untitled Goose Game - probably the poster goose for this, recently, of course. But it has the gameplay and stealth mechanics to back it up. Nonetheless - ‘you are an evil goose’ is a clear standout immediate conceptual win.

- Last Man Sitting - from KevKev, who is a conceptual meme machine - he’s now making Pigeon Simulator for Bossa Studios. A bunch of hitmen are sitting in swivel chairs and they move around with the recoil on their shotguns as they try to shoot each other. Works visually, too!

- Speaking Simulator - you have to manually move an alien’s tongue to get him to speak like a human. Think of Edgar in Men In Black, but looking a bit more like Sid Meier for some reason (is that a coincidence?) Silliness and physics/physical manipulation are a particular hallmark of meme-worthy games.

- But beware: high concept may lead to low depth.

So yes, I’m a big fan of using absurdity to your advantage. But I think too much novelty and absurdity, and people may think that your game doesn’t have enough depth.

And in some cases they may be right! Some of the most meme-ish games of yore like You Have To Burn The Rope (Flash player required, folks!) were deliberately tiny for a conceptual reason.

How do you guard against the idea that these types of games can lack replayability? If your idea can be understood and encapsulated in just a couple of seconds, then where’s the tenth hour of gameplay coming from?

Often, a visual idea that is absurd doesn’t twin well with a gameplay idea that is unique and replayable, in other words. (I am a sucker for hook-first things because I get distracted quickly and easily.)

Let’s explore this a little bit more.

Even the games that are memeworthy because they do have differentiated or somehow ‘surprise’ gameplay - for example Frog Fractions (which has a Steam remaster coming soon, yay!) eventually run into replayability issues because you only get the surprise factor…. once.

And in this odd case, you can’t understand the hook in two seconds, because the concept being shown to you is not the 'true’ concept of the game, haha.

(Which is a whole other subgenre of discoverability, the ‘I can’t explain it to you but you really have to play it’ school. This can be a good subgenre to get into, but VERY tricky to get right.)

Anyhow, in Dragons Love Tacos’ defense, dragons loving tacos is not the entire theme & point of the book. There’s a twist involving, well, dangerously spicy salsa - see below.

So, much like Untitled Goose Game has some well thought-out gameplay that makes use of the goose, Dragons Love Tacos has a well-considered plot which fleshes out - at least as much as a children’s book should - the dragon taco universe.

And it’s not solely about being memeworthy. Chris Zukowski has written persuasively about your game’s ‘anchor’ being as or more important than your ‘hook’.

Which is to say, there may be key elements of the genre your potential players identify you with, and you need to have those for players to be reassured enough to buy your game. It’s the ‘solid backing’ to the initial rush of ‘whoa, that sounds really cool’.

There’s also what I might consider a ‘delayed hook’, or perhaps, in record industry parlance, a ‘grower’. So you look at the game’s name and screenshots or video and go ‘huh, you know, this looks sorta neat’.

And then you look for a little bit longer and start to understand that it perhaps has depth, or neat features, or some cute animations, and you start slowly falling in love with it. The delayed hook fades into the anchor. And then…. you buy it!

Instant hook, delayed hook, anchor - why not all three?

So I think we’ve identified three elements here. Instant hook can come out the gate incredibly strongly, but then fall down later on lack of replayability.

Delayed hook - which I often see in ‘oh, this game DOES look really cool after a bit’ titles like Noita - bleeds into anchor & requires that you capture people’s attention for long enough for them to pay attention into the delayed hook.

And then anchor is… the genre and feature underpinnings that give players the implicit permission in their own brains to buy the game. The ‘I know this will be worth the money I pay for it’ backing.

But here’s the bottom line. The sheer amount of games I see coming out which are ‘X genre with decent graphics and no particularly novel themes or hooks’ is - in general - insane. And it generally doesn’t fly in 2020.

I feel like a lot of those games aren’t thinking - at all - about some of these issues. Are you solely relying on your anchors to draw people in? Or are you not fully aware what is ‘hook-y’ or not in your market?

Hooks of any kind are obviously a hideously subjective concept, at least before the game launches. But what do people think when they look at your game the first time? (You can even mock up some logos & screenshots and ask your friends, separately of having your own opinions on it.)

Some of this may start to sound dangerously close to *spits on ground* market research, of course. And I’m not suggesting you can reverse engineer genius. But still, just step back and think about this a bit. And ask some people. People will give you opinions! (Which you can evaluate and filter accordingly.)

And look, in the end - dragons love tacos. But don’t feed them the spicy salsa! It gives them… tummy troubles.

Until next time,
Simon.

Tales From Discoverabilityland: Jan. 2020

A sampling of follow-ups, data, and other goodness.

[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Now!, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]

Hi again! It’s been a little while since the last newsletter, and I do have some juicy exclusive Steam stats to share in the NEXT newsletter. But I have a whole bunch of follow-ups and interesting links for this one.

So it’ll be a smorgasbord* - let’s go for it! (*My almost 4-year-old son has been watching a LOT of Swedish Chef clips on YouTube recently, I think it’s rubbing off.)

Even more Steam graph number crunching

Following the excellent work of Danny Weinbaum which I interpreted in my last newsletter, dev Sergio Garces has built upon it in a Gamasutra blog post, with even more excellent/whizzy graphs and data about how games are doing on Steam.

There’s so much to look at that you should sample it yourself. But a couple I wanted to highlight in particular.

Firstly, Sergio did confirm - unsurprisingly - that, even though there are more players and buyers on Steam, the median revenue for each game is trending down over time as Steam saturates.

(The below graph uses a logarithmic scale, so the drops are a little bit more severe than the slow downslope might imply!)

Secondly, Sergio did 1-year and 5-year revenue estimates for all Steam games (!!!), based on reviews & other extrapolated goodness.

The Google Drive document with all of that in is here - I checked it for a couple of games that I know revenues for, and it was pretty decent! YMMV, of course. Nonetheless, it’s impressive and useful.

Steam tags - an additional point of view!

After the last newsletter, I got a note from the ever analytical Jake Birkett, who pointed out something I really wasn’t considering:

“Something I was thinking about is that of course, games normally have multiple tags. So you can have many tags, but maybe the wrong one. I'll use my own game Shadowhand as an example [these are the % of games with that tag that grossed over $200,000]:

- turn-based combat 21%
- historical 27%
- pirates 18% (the game is really about a highwaywoman, but does feature a smuggler and people look "pirate-y" because of the setting)
- female protagonist 17%
- atmospheric 15%
- card game 8%
- visual novel 7%
- RPG 6%
- strategy 5%
- puzzle 5%
- adventure 5%
- mouse only 4% (a bit too broad)
- indie 3% (but essentially, it's meaningless)
- casual 2% (Steam has always been bad for casual games)
- solitaire 0%

So there are some fairly strong tags, but also some weaker ones (perhaps because they are quite generic e.g. puzzle, adventure). And then there's the real kicker: solitaire 0%.

I wonder if there's some maths you can do on tags to come up with a number to predict success, but then if you have a tag that is 0% if that totally messes things up. Or it could be the hook that makes the game unique.”

I agree that I hadn’t considered that there can be ‘best case scenario’ and ‘worst case scenario’ tags, and all games have a lot of user-created tags. So definitely something to think about!

[Side note: Sergio Garces also made a Steam single tag visualizer as part of his Steam data megacrunch that’s pretty darn good.]

Steam market research - via tags!

OK, one final info trove, before your brains explode and you revert to protoplasmic ‘big data’ organisms.

Leha Games has made an amazing ‘Steam marketing research tool’, based on Danny Weinbaum’s data, which allows you to plug in multiple tags, game names, exclude certain tags and revenue, and even publisher names.

You can then get estimated revenue, average revenue per tag, and all kinds of things. Again, bear in mind that the revenue numbers are ballpark-y - but I think they’re ballpark-y enough (within 2x) to get a GENERAL idea of what’s going on.

For example, as shown below, here’s what you get if you just select the ‘Lovecraftian’ tag:

Anyhow you can do sooo many more neat complex things using this, and the associated Steam tag browser. Please have lots of fun, and thanks to our fellow datanauts for putting these together.

Miscellaneous other neat links.

Finishing off, here’s a few notable links or tidbits I thought you might dig. Thanks to those who referred me to them:

- Here’s an update/clarification to the semi-hidden Steam top wishlists list which is VERY interesting to look through. Having now paid more attention to it (because the No More Robots-published Yes, Your Grace is wandering up towards the Top 50), it turns out this list is simply ‘total # of wishlists for unreleased games’.

We’re pretty darn sure about this. So no complex rotating two-week ‘wishlist additions’, as I tried to speculate before, just ranking by total. (That’s why everything is fairly static on it.)

- Always interesting to see post-release case studies on hobbyist-made Steam games, and here’s a good one on Reddit, for Brother Brother. The game had 157 wishlists when it launched, and has sold under 100 copies (grossing $185) in its first two months on sale. Yes, this happens on Steam. But judging by the postmortem, the dev still had fun!

- Arnold at Tiny Touch Tales (Card Thief, Card Crawl, Miracle Merchant, etc) has been ever-transparent and released his 2019 dev retrospective with revenue. Notable: “2019 was the second year in a row where I did not release anything new. In regards to that I was aware that my sales would drop off quite a bit since my newest game Miracle Merchant is as of August 2019 already 2 years old. But another warm surprise: my old games still sell like hot cakes.” (His games grossed $110,000 on iOS and Android during the year. They are pretty good and in a popular mobile genre, so.. that’s still heartwarming, right!)

- Enjoyed this Bennett Foddy Twitter thread about why Metacritic just doesn’t even ‘touch’ some of the most popular Steam games nowadays. This is something that I’ve seen trip up a few older-school folks in the game biz.

Click on the first Tweet below for the full thread, but here’s a couple of notable parts to it:

- Finally, here’s a YouTube video about ‘releasing a game on Steam with no marketing’. It’s interesting, because the creator shows his post-launch sales, which are underwhelming (to him), & suggests that with more marketing it would have sold better.

Well, potentially - but the game itself seems like it’s a bit of a novelty intentionally, so it’s not completely clear that no marketing is the issue.

Maybe it’s just that the game isn’t the kind that sells well on Steam. Either way - it’s interesting to hear post-launch justifications. (The title sold similarly to Brother Brother, it looks like…)

Well, that was a whooole lot of roundup notes in the end. Thanks for sticking with me! Another newsletter will be wandering along soon…

Take care,
Simon.

Analyzing the top Steam tags

A meta-meta-analysis

[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Now!, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]

It’s a New Year, and so Game Discoverability Now! has returned for 2020, with a slightly odd but useful thing - a meta-analysis.

You may have seen me link this piece already. But back in November, Eastshade (great game, btw!) creator Danny Weinbaum published an amazing blog post back in November on Gamasutra which did a lot of insane number-crunching for Steam average revenues, tags, and more.

There’s actually SO much good stuff in there - like, 8 Game Discoverability Now! blogs in one, with coder-quality data crunching (something I’m unable to provide, haha.)

But I wanted to concentrate on his tag project. It estimates revenue for Steam games with particular tags, but ALSO ranks tags by the % of games in that tag that grossed more than $200,000 lifetime. It’s a really clever way to look at things.

As Danny notes:

“The idea for this project actually popped into my head while browsing the tags on SteamSpy. I noticed the median revenues per tag did not line up with what I intuitively felt to be true about certain genres. Some tags had very high median revenues which I felt were low demand genres, and others had low median revenues which I felt should be relatively hot.

It occurred to me that the median did not tell the whole story. For instance if a certain genre is particularly boom or bust, let's say 40% make mountains of money and 60% flop with less than 5k in revenue, the median would show a very low figure.

Yet that genre I feel would be extremely viable for a career indie developer, because a high effort developer is not competing with the bottom 60% (I would say a high effort developer is really only competing with the top 10% of games on Steam, the rest will not rank well enough for visibility).

The average is an even worse figure to look at, because a few mega-hits can throw it off considerably. I think % of games over $ revenue is a great stat because it shows you exactly what benchmark of games you have to compete with.”

So the particular tab/data you should be looking at here is this one - for ‘tags since 2017’ on Steam, ranked by % of games that grossed over $200k in Danny’s view. (As we know, using number of reviews to estimate sales isn’t incredibly accurate. But it’s accurate enough to have discussions like this!)

So what I wanted to do was comment on the tags that stood out to me - and actually might be something you’d want to target when making games.

As Danny notes, the top tag on the separate ‘all-time tags’ list is, uhh, Batman. And you probably won’t be using that theme unless you have a license from DC or are feeling VERY optimistic about how copyright works in 2020.

But here’s some things I took away from the list. (Remember, these tags are created by Steam users in an often haphazard manner):

- There are particular tagged microgenres that sell well - but only because competition is EXTREMELY limited. Examples near the top of the genre list would include: wrestling, motorbike, baseball, submarine.

Would I suggest you made a submarine sim from scratch because of this? Perhaps not, partly because some of those genres have complex mechanics. In addition, players who are used to these types of microgenres demand specific things that you may not be aware of if you don’t play them a lot.

In addition, many of these subgenres require more complex 3D art assets, which can be expensive to create. But nonetheless, it’s super interesting to see what pops to the top of the list.

- Particular tags hint at types of gameplay that resonate. I’m particularly looking at crafting here, which has 686 entries in the tag - and according to Danny’s estimates, 32% of them grossing more than $500,000. That’s impressive!

But clearly this isn’t as easy as ‘make a crafting game’. All kinds of games have crafting elements in them (and by crafting, I’m presuming the Steam taggers mean ‘you can combine in-game items to make more complex items’.)

You generally need to have a deeper, more complex game - sometimes open-world and freeform - to have crafting be meaningful. And look - not coincidentally, open world is another of the gameplay genres/tags that has a lot of entries and sells well.

And yes… making open world 3D games with crafting can be expensive. So again, some of this feels like ‘more expensively created games with higher-end features sell better’.

But crafting can also be applied to lower-budget games, and would be one of my top picks for things to consider when making a game from scratch.

- Some genres do way better than others. If I look at tags I consider to be ‘genres’, at the very top are things like CRPG (high cost to dev & lots of content needed, but high reward!) and interestingly Hack And Slash (which at second glance looks like a very haphazardly tagged set of games. So maybe not much to see here.)

Scrolling a little further down, it’s the deeper, more complex genres that make stronger showings. These include 4X, but also City Builder (my top tip for ‘you should build a game in this genre now!’) and Grand Strategy (which is basically ‘every Paradox game ever’.)

Nonetheless, there is definitely a recurring theme that games need to be special to stand out on Steam. Sometimes it’s complexity/deepness - or perceived deepness - that really helps.

(Side note: I’m ignoring MMORPG as a tag because I presume most of you aren’t going to make MMOs, and also Immersive Sim because that ‘genre’ has some REALLY eclectic games tagged in it.)

- Of course, some of the biggest genres are frighteningly crowded. Let’s talk Platformer, for example. It has 1166 games tagged, of which 7% have grossed more than $200k gross lifetime and 4% more than $500k lifetime. (Also remember that there’s a lot more platformers than that, many of which didn’t even make it to the ‘can anyone be bothered to tag me?’)

FPS is a bit more pleasant, actually. There’s 655 games tagged, and 21% grossed more than $200k and 14% more than $500k. But then again, do you think you can make a first-person shooter that you can stand behind for less than $500k? (In many higher-GDP countries, this would be tricky, to say the least.)

And Side Scroller is in between the two, with 463 games tagged, 12% of which grossed more than $200k and 5% more than $500k. (I would personally not make a game in any of those genres if commercial success was paramount. Well, maybe FPS. Possibly.)

- Nobody knows anything/nobody learned anything new here. Fine, not totally true. But at some point, all this data just degenerates into a mass of noise, *cackles and hides under his desk*.

Sure, games that are more complex make more money. So sure, games that have features like mods - which imply they are successful enough to hang around long enough for a modding scene to develop - look like they do better. That’s just… all super obvious.

However, there’s also some hints in here that previous ‘hot tips’ either weren’t true, or have become untrue recently. For example, I’ve been tipping people to use Rogue-like/RNG elements in their game for some time. But the tag data for Rogue-lite seems to show 414 titles, of which 15% grossed more than $200k and 9% more than $500k.

That’s significantly worse than FPS, although better than Platformer or Side Scroller. (So maybe the Gold Rush is in full progress with that particular gameplay element.)

And oh my gosh, there’s so much more fascinating stuff in here, just browsing around. For example, it looks like Lovecraftian is a great tag/theme to get on your game, if you can even work out which Old Gods to summon to do so. (While I’m here, why aren’t there more urban vampire-themed games? It’s a SUPER hot genre in other media…)

And apparently, Isometric is the hottest perspective, tag-wise - probably because it intersects with a bunch of hot RPG and strategy games. Anyway, I could go on and on, and I won’t, because you can read the document as well as I.

But hope you enjoyed my brief conclusions from it, and thanks again to Danny for putting it together! And now we’re back for the New Year, we have two more pieces coming up soon, including more of that lovely Steam data. More soon!

Take care,
Simon

iOS/Android/Steam sales case study: Golf Peaks

More numbers for y'all!

[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading Game Discoverability Now!, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t. You may know me from helping to run GDC & the Independent Games Festival, and advising indie publisher No More Robots, or from my other newsletter Video Game Deep Cuts.]

We’re back, with the fruits of my long-ago call for stats (in which I just found some submissions I’d missed - sorry if that was one of you, I just pinged you if so.)

In this particular newsletter, Luke Spierewka of Afterburn was kind enough to provide full stats for iOS, Android and Steam for his team’s title Golf Peaks. It initially launched in November 2018 on iOS & Steam - though Android and Switch launched in March 2019, & we’re not including Nintendo Switch stats here cos of *Nintendo confidentiality things*.

Created in a relatively low-cost development environment and with a short dev time, this neat-looking mobile first title is “a tiny puzzle game where you climb mountains by playing golf”. It has done well enough overall to allow the dev team to continue making games!

Here’s the stats and some brief commentary on the title. It generally costs $3/UKP3 on iOS and Android, and $5/UKP4 on Steam (and $5/UKP 4.50 on Switch, which we’re not covering here). These notes are followed by an email Q&A with the developer!

Apple iOS sales/stats

Interesting to see how North America-centric the sales were on iOS. Here’s a more detailed breakdown from the dev about what caused each of the sales/revenue spikes for the slick, well-designed title. (Click the image if you want to zoom in!)

What’s particularly notable in this annotated graphic for me is how much iOS store features & version updates map to sales spikes - fairly reliably, it turns out.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, but getting on the right side of Apple’s editorial team who pick/feature games on iOS really matters. This is especially true since paid ads don’t really work/scale for premium games.

(The timing around the Switch/Android versions launching, and also The Verge article about the Switch version, makes it difficult to work out which helped which in that big March sales spike. But I’m sure they all helped! I also noticed that reviews of the Switch version of the game like at Destructoid referenced the iOS version, so I bet that helped too - just spillover discoverability in general.)

Android sales/stats

Here’s the sales on Android via Google Play, which total up about 55% of the iOS sales in terms of units - at a similar price point, despite launching 4 months later:

Again, notable that the U.S. and Canada combined are more than 50% of sales for the game. (Though that’s actually less than iOS, where North America was 64% of sales!)

Either way, here’s some annotations of the early sales spikes:

Once again, seems like features and the occasional high-profile website article help out the best. There’s also a big Android spike in August 2019, which was due to a version update, but more importantly more Google Play editorial store featuring at the same time.

Luke noted they’ve been pretty happy with Android sales, given general reports that Android premium games sell significantly worse than iOS - those store features matter, folks.

Steam sales/stats

Golf Peaks is clearly less suited to Steam, due to it being designed for a cellphone screen, and sold notably less than iOS or Android on Steam. But it’s interesting to see the results of it being converted to PC and Mac:

One thing to note here is that the game has 60 Steam reviews and has sold 2,250 copies. So the ratio is 1 review per 37.5 purchases - actually a fairly high amount of reviews for that modest sales number.

The general rule of thumb is 30x to 150x - though I’ve also heard 30x to 50x for newer games, since the ratio seems to be changing over time.

So looks like this game has a wishlist balance of around 3,600, and has actually had 1,000 copies bought from wishlist, which is pretty impressive in terms of it being a ‘hyperniche’ title.

Which is to say - not many casual wishlisters! If you wishlisted it, you REALLY wanted to buy it. Other ‘wishlist bought to wishlist balance’ ratios I’ve seen for medium games are more in the 1:5 to 1:7 area, so 1:3.6 is quite low. Not sure whether this is ‘good’ or not, it’s just a thing. (Haha!)

Overall, Golf Peaks on Steam launched on 300 wishlists and is now at 3,000. That’s actually way better than the Bad Logic Studios games we profiled, although those were a little more hobbyist centric.

Again, looking at other medium-sized games I have access to stats for, it seems like eventually making it to 10x your initial wishlists on launch isn’t unreasonable, if you have a ‘Very Positive’-reviewed game that people dig. (But there are other games that only make it to about 3x or 4x - I think perhaps because they get mixed reviews or have other issues.)

Just for fun, here’s regions and countries for Steam sales for Golf Peaks. Nothing incredibly standout in here, except perhaps Korea being the #2 country - maybe crossover from some iOS features, or similar?

As noted above, sadly we can’t see sales for the Nintendo Switch version. But I’m going to guess that it did at least as well as Android and potentially as well as iOS, based on… zero data on my end! (Sorry folks, the all-seeing-eye doesn’t see all.)

Developer Q&A: Luke Spierewka of Afterburn

Here’s the email chat I had with Luke about his team’s experiences making the game and general marketing/expectations - hope you find it illuminating!

How many developers worked on this game for how long - and were you happy with the general financial results and units sold for it?

We had 3 people through most of the development which lasted roughly 5 months (from June to November 2018), and then spent additional time (until March 2019) adding free content updates, patches, and working on the Android/Switch versions. 

Our personal goal for Golf Peaks was creating a tiny, polished experience that would reflect the values that we care about, while also being an opportunity to learn how different storefronts and platforms operate.

Because of that we were OK with the game not selling well... but to our surprise (and thanks to store featuring) we've managed to recoup our development costs within a month after launch.

A big part of that is probably related to the fact that living in Poland is pretty cheap - a 3-person full-time team located in other parts of the world might not have been satisfied with the numbers we got, but for us it was enough to start working on another, similarly scoped project.

The game seems to be fairly mobile-centric in terms of being bite-sized for play sessions. Was that a disadvantage for the Steam (or even Switch) versions, that you felt like it was difficult to charge more money?

We feel that the game's mobile-centric presentation might've turned off some PC players from trying it out, but we don't think it was a major issue on Switch due to its portability.

Our pricing structure was inspired by other mobile-first titles like Hidden Folks and Year Walk where the standalone version is more expensive, but so far we haven't received any major complaints regarding that difference.

How did you approach the 'discoverability' for it - did you think you would get featured on iOS or Android, for example, did you talk to platform holders?

When we were starting out, our friends in the local gamedev industry gave us a couple of pointers in regards to mobile featuring - what to expect, when to send in what info and the like.

We've had a tiny bit of back-and-forth with platform holders, but ultimately on both iOS and Android it came down to sending online questionnaires where you fill in info such as your game's name, target release/featuring date, submit screenshots and explain why your game stands out from the crowd.

As far as we know the majority of mobile devs have to go through these forms in one way or another, so having a solid (and great looking) game together with a reasonable pitch and release date seems to be the deciding factor in terms of receiving featuring.

You are one of those relatively rare 'premium mobile first' studios - how do you feel about that market now that Apple Arcade launched, do you think it's getting even MORE difficult to stand out? (Or is being a non-Apple Arcade premium title helpful for e.g. featuring?)

I'd describe our view on the market as "cautiously optimistic" - ever since Apple Arcade launched we've seen almost no impact on our long-tail sales and we hope it keeps being that way for regular premium titles.

At the same time, these payment models are still relatively new so we're carefully planning our next steps, since you never know whether the market shifts drastically in the coming months.

Do you think puzzle games are 'undervalued' in terms of the amount of money you can charge for them - and do you think anything can change that, if true?


I don't think they're undervalued, at least on mobile :)

What lessons did you learn from the release of Golf Peaks that you would like to pass along to our readers?

During development on Golf Peaks we've been tremendously lucky in multiple aspects - from the game's theme, mechanics, all the way to selecting our release date that miraculously didn't collide with any other big-name mobile titles.

However, the one thing that helped us capitalize on this luck was starting with the right foundation. From the very start we scoped this project to take up 3 months, knowing that our budget for this project allowed us to spend a maximum of 6 months working on it (because let's be honest - in this industry almost everybody delays their release once or twice to add extra polish).

This self-imposed limitation meant that we couldn't go wild with visuals or features, so everything that sounded super risky or challenging was left on the cutting floor as we focused only on the most important parts of the experience. 

I feel like this is especially important for new teams. If your "dream game" idea is something that would take you at least a year to finish, it's probably better to put it on hold for a while, start with something manageable and slowly work your way up to where you can tackle that big project.

What one thing would you do differently if you started Golf Peaks from scratch again?

I'd probably start promoting it sooner? During development I kept pushing away the game's announcement in order to get the visuals right before promoting it, but after release I felt like we could've started tweeting about it way earlier than we did.

How has the game sold on Switch relatively speaking, like 'better than other platforms', 'worse', or you really can't say?

We can't really say, but we're happy with the results and are currently working on the port of our second game :)

Conclusion

So what do we have here? A game that’s sold over 40,000 copies PLUS the Switch version (presumably another 5 figures at least!), which seems like a very creditable result!

But… almost all of those copies were sold at $3-$5 each. So after platform cut, taxes, and so on, you’re looking at revenue that many of you reading this at medium/large companies might not be able to make work.

(Again, another reminder of the fact that you can make games anywhere in the world, and salaries and life situations can differ massively.)

Yet overall, Luke & his team were very happy with the results, thanks to swift and disciplined completion of the title with a smaller team in a low cost-of-living country.

And there’s something to be said for multiple iOS and Android store features and tens of thousands of people playing your game, isn’t there? Happy customers, happy life.

So I think this can only be classed as a win for Luke & friends. And please, others, send me your stats in full and I’ll talk about them!

Take care,
Simon.

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