Quantifying the Xmas day video game sales bump

How was it for you?

[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.]

And… we’re back in the room. Hope you all had a decent (enough, considering) holiday season and are happy to be back in the wide universe of video games for 2021. We’re entering a year where things can’t possibly go as badly as they did in 2020 for the world at large… can they?

While we go about finding out, here’s the first of this week’s GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletters. We’re starting out with a subject I never got to researching until now - what does Xmas Day mean for game sales nowadays?

When game devs open their (sales) presents…

So the history of video games and game consoles has often centered around our artform as Xmas presents. There they are, sitting under the Xmas tree to be unwrapped excitedly on December 25th! (This is much more pronounced than other media such as movies or music albums.)

After all, there’s a reason why E3 has historically been timed in June - so that retail buyers could evaluate and order physical games in time for the holiday season. And you still see vestiges of this in the release calendar. Many AAA games are timed for release between September and December for this reason.

But in this digital download-centric world, does the average dev in 2020 see his game sell better digitally on the holidays than other times of the year? I’ve been researching this! And it seems to vary by platform. Let’s start off by looking at PC games on Steam - here’s a portfolio of games and their combined Steam revenue in the past few weeks:

So the big issue with working out what’s happening on Steam is that Xmas Day is right in the middle of the Steam Winter Sale, when everyone’s games are selling super well anyhow, due to big discounts and promotions. It’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

But.. if you look at the curve of the Halloween Sale in late November vs. the Winter Sale, you can clearly see a spike in revenue on December 25th - up to about 60% more than the peak of the Halloween sale. Within that spike, individual games are hitting about 8 times base non-sale revenue. (But they would have hit 5x anyhow, due to sale!)

It does seem like the extra ‘bonus’ Xmas spike is related to Xmas presents and other holiday spending - there are more games gifted off wishlists (presumably from relatives & friends) on Xmas Day than almost any other day of the year that I can see, for example.

However, if you’re an older or more niche game that is less likely to be gifted or bought explicitly, you may not see any effect at all from Xmas Day on Steam. Here’s a game from the portfolio that saw a sales boost due to Winter Sale, but no Xmas Day boost, for example:

Moving on to other platforms, how about the Switch, PlayStation and Xbox consoles? These hardware devices much more likely to be left under the Xmas tree for excited little (and big) Santa-believers than gaming PCs, we suspect.

No graphs here, but asking around, it looks like the Nintendo Switch - which was the most easily available current-gen console this holiday anyhow - is the most obvious example of ‘Xmas boosts digital sales numbers temporarily’.

We’ve seen Xmas day sales numbers as high as 7 times a regular day’s sales, with the entire time between Xmas Day itself and the New Year hanging out at 2 to 3 times a regular day. It gradually drops down in the New Year, but there are plenty of new active Switch players for a few days, by the look of it.

But again, it depends on whether your particular game is front-and-center on people’s radars. Older/legacy titles seem to inch up to 1.5 to 2 times a regular day’s sales for just the 3 days around Xmas day, and that’s about it - they go back to normal almost straight away.

Similar story for PlayStation and Xbox, as far as we’ve heard, whether current or new-gen. Top titles on these platforms can see spikes of 5-7 times a regular day’s sales on Xmas Day, and a continued 2-3x bump way into New Year, whereas legacy/lower profile games seem less or even barely affected. And… now you know that Xmas is still a joyous time for many devs. (Ping us if your results don’t match up, though.)

A good publishing contract follow-up

Presuming you made it through your holiday email, you might have found our intriguing newsletter on Raw Fury and WhiteThorn Games’ release of their game publishing contracts - focusing on both contract language and % recoup/cut. It’s a super interesting discussion - wanted to present a couple of follow-ups:

Firstly, Simon Boxer (who was quizzing Raw Fury about their contract on Twitter at the time) put out a thread on how he ended up signing his game, roguelike card crawler Ring Of Pain, with Humble. And he’s gratifyingly transparent on the process. Extracting:

“We were 1.5 years into development with a solid 5-10 minute demo, which I couldn't have made without savings, freelancing and govt funding [from Film Victoria in Australia]…

We were a reasonable way into development, within a year from launch, and I had a pretty modest indie criteria for our ‘Ask’: ~US$200k to hire a small team (and myself!); Marketing assistance; Testing assistance; Relevant audience access would be a bonus.”

So that seems pretty straightforward. He goes on: “The deals I was offered were mostly around 40:60 in our favour (after recoup). A few had better rev share terms. One publisher offered 60:40 in their favour. I asked why their cut was so high and they said "It's negotiable. Some indies just accept it.” Hmm…

Anyhow, the game ended up signing with Humble Games, which was not that cheeky 60:40 publisher, lol. And Simon B ends up being very complimentary about Humble’s John Polson in the thread. (I’m also a Polson-fan!)

Simon B’s conclusion: “Ring Of Pain turned out to be a good investment for Humble and us, it wouldn't have been the same game without their support. Could we have found success without a partner? Who knows, but our needs were met and we're in a good place. (Plus they're a good crew).”

So this is the perfect example of a symbiotic publisher relationship where everyone feels like they’re pushing in the right direction, there was good publisher/developer fit, and also a good outcome for both parties. The game’s doing well based on that investment. (I know they don’t all go like that, but hey.)

It underscores that if, as a dev, you go in knowing what you want and have a strong knowledge of the kind of deals being offered, you’re in a much better place. (Read Simon B’s whole thread for stuff I missed!)

Secondly, the folks at WhiteThorn Games followed up & replied to us on Twitter with their ‘what do you get for your money?’ sheet that they show to prospective developers (reminder: the 10-25% rev share is gross, not net):

One of the questions about publishers is definitely ‘are they just giving you money, sending out a few press releases, and waiting for your game to be a hit?’ So I think WhiteThorn’s graphic disproves that in their case, haha.

(But you also have to ask if you want all of the things that they provide, to Simon Boxer’s point above. And what cost, if any, there is to you as a dev that your publisher is so ‘full service’. Anyhow, intriguing stuff.)

The game discovery news round-up..

OK, time to take us out of here in style, with a multitude of interesting platform and discovery links that have accumulated through the New Year.

Most of us were too busy sipping champagne* (*I had a glass and a half, it was crazy) to check in on what the heck was happening on the Internet. But… here’s what was:

  • Of course I’m starting out with Victoria Tran’s blog following her taking Among Us from 0 to 1 million Twitter followers in no time at all, which is actually NOT about that. It’s about the ethos behind the playfulness & realness that the account puts out. Lots of amazing stuff in here, but for high traffic social media accounts, I found this one super interesting: “Respond often, post infrequently… Instead of putting time into tons of content creation, I decided to instead invest time on getting 1 good tweet out, and supplement by responding to comments on it.”

  • I’m really trying to keep an eye on ‘game dev influencer YouTube’, because it’s a really weird but interesting place. And Jonas Tyroller’s ‘Is The Indie Game Dev Dream Real?’, interviewing Thomas Brush (Neversong), is the latest example. I think Jonas was genuinely trying to get to the bottom of the issue. Thomas is a weird combination of a talented dev who’s also very, uh, ‘influencer’-y and also sells his own ‘how to be a game dev’ course. Check it if you dare.

  • Did SteamDB always have a ‘total Steam follower chart’, listing follower numbers for every single game on Steam, including released games? Not sure, but they definitely do now. It’s interesting to see how the top titles compare to the top-grossing games of 2020 we’ve been looking at recently (and which we’ll be analyzing in a lot more detail for GameDiscoverCo Plus subscribers soon!)

  • I’m a fan of moving players up the value chain (with DLC, deluxe versions, judiciously done cosmetics.) But the far/bad side of that is shown in the ongoing loot box discussions, as showcased by the Gambling Health Alliance in the UK recently. “23% of 11 to 16-year-olds said they had paid money to open loot boxes, with 34% of all respondents saying they had first purchased them by the time they were 13.” EA & other publishers are belatedly poking at this, but with FIFA Ultimate Team now 27% of EA’s entire revenue (!!!!), it’s tricky to back out too far. Yikes.

  • Microlinks: rounding up some of the ‘best of’ round-ups, so you know who you’re competing with: Ars Technica’s top games of 2020 were a good read, as were TouchArcade’s on the iOS side - though their Patreon funding decline is super sad, if anyone can help ‘em out. And Polygon’s most anticipated games of 2021 - about half of which will fail to come out in 2021, but it’s fun to dream - are well worth a look.

Finally, ICO’s Thomas Bidaux was kind enough to track total Nintendo Switch releases for December 2020 vs. the previous year, and it really cranked up there:

As he says: “December 2020 was the 2nd busiest month in terms of new releases on the Nintendo Switch. In 2019, December was the quietest month. Change in the wisdom of seasonality for launching games during the holidays?” Or is it just the start of a bigger ramp-up? Guess we’ll see!

[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 now subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]