Steam's end of year bonanza gets 'experimental'

Were you helped out by the new categories?

[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.]

Just the one more GameDiscoverCo newsletter in 2020 - because it turns out people are buying LOTS of games and things are happening, even in this whole ‘holiday period’ thing.

We’ll be back properly next week (and we did run out of time to do the first GameDiscoverCo Plus AMA newsletter, but look for that in the first week of Jan 2021!) So let’s go look at stuff, starting with innovations in the Steam Winter sale:

Steam sale gets faceted subpages!

It may not have escaped your notice that the Steam Winter Sale is on right now! During this time, looks like most of your Steam games or game portfolios are making 5-8x their regular daily revenue. (And even more units than that, since prices are reduced.) So this sale is a couple of months revenue in one big pop….

And it’s good to see that Valve is also trying new things to deepen discovery in the sale. Alongside the Winter Sale this year they’ve unveiled faceted browsing, a new way to explore sales on Steam. (It’s listed as a Steam Labs experiment/project, but is already rolled out to everyone in this sale.)

As the Steam team notes: “As part of this year’s Autumn Sale we introduced over a dozen genre- and theme-specific sale pages to help players browse and discover our most popular games on discount during the event. We found these themed pages drove more game store page visits during the sale than all but one other Steam store point of discovery – the grid of featured games at the top of the home page. Given the popularity of these themed pages, we’ve introduced more of them in this year’s Winter Sale, and we’ve added some smarts so we’re able to now list them based on their likely relevance to you.”

So there’s two things going on here. Firstly, each of these bigger subpages (of which there are 20 in this sale, I think, from ‘Story-Rich’ through ‘Horror’ & beyond) have an infinite-scroll set of ‘Featured Titles’, which are ranked based on some kind of algorithm looking at revenue/review popularity. There’s also ‘Recommended For You’ personalized picks at the top of each of these subpages.

(I did discover during researching this article that Monopoly Plus was in the ‘Horror’ section of the sale. But that’s because some hilarious Steam user tagged it ‘Psychological Horror’, which is at least 50% true! Overall, it seems to work very well.)

And then there’s faceted browsing, which “…lets you tell Steam what you’re looking for as you browse, by quickly filtering titles along a variety of axes such as visual style, theme, mood, player support, and more. Concepts can be selected across categories to serve as quick AND search operations, while concepts can be selected within categories to serve as quick OR search operations.”

This seems neat, too - I’d be interested to know how much people use it, because I don’t know that all of the tags you can filter by are ones that I would naturally apply when looking for a game. But many certainly are.

And again, the point is - more choice, more ways to browse, less of the ‘your game is either featured or it isn’t’ binary which occurs in most sales. You can check out the Steam user feedback so far in this forum - and maybe you should go add your own!

Mobile games, misleading ads & ethics

So, I was served this mobile ad for Evony: The King’s Return on Twitter the other day, and I think it’s worth weighing in again on this ridiculous paid discovery hack.

My comment was: “I see the ‘people might be intimidated by a complex-looking strategy game, let’s advertise it with a cute puzzle game’ trend is still in effect for F2P mobile games… They may have this puzzle-y stuff actually in there as an initial mini-game but it’s not how Evony plays at alllll.” (Actually, Evony is a complex strategy game, which ironically was known for its ‘sexy MMO ads’ back a decade ago, sigh. So they’re still at the ‘ad hacking’.)

And this mobile game ad trend isn’t limited to Evony. It used to be that games would show completely unrelated stories/gameplay that didn’t exist. But now, companies like Playrix (Gardenscapes) started actually integrating the puzzle ad mini-games into the game itself - they “have essentially de-faked the fake ads by implementing these playable ads into their games.”

And this is what Evony is doing too - or at least, including semi-related puzzle mini-games. A prominent review on Google Play right now says: “The puzzles get you on this game but then after a dozen or so puzzles this game becomes something totally different.” And here’s another: “Downloaded it because it advertised it to be a puzzle game. Doesn't tell you it's actually a war type game with a few puzzles thrown in. Doesn't tell you when someone attacks you until it's over, and the monster's levels are ridiculously hard..”

So yep, this is the actual, ‘real’ game (video, including both mini-games and normal gameplay), which the latter reviewer actually started playing:

The icing on the cake for me is this article about why the misleading mobile game ads are actually working. And it’s.. not great: “To break out and signal to Facebook to serve its ad to a different audience (Resource Management, Hidden Object, Story Adventure) who would also enjoy the game but need to discover it, [mobile publishers] needed to somehow tell the optimization algorithms to focus on that audience. They did so by creating creatives for such types of games.”

So I understand that making paid mobile ads that partly or wholly misrepresent the game makes business sense. It encourages some otherwise disinterested people to spend money in the game long-term, despite the fake pitch.

So it is - apparently - a discovery win for some major mobile game companies. And doubtless revenue-positive when done right. But this is precisely why the paid ad-centric nature of mobile gaming encourages less-than-ethical behavior. You have to keep ratcheting up the tactics to compete (because paid ads drive revenue, and you need high ROI).

And I’m just talking about acquisition tactics here - not retention and revenue maximization through monetization design, which is a whole different ball of wax when taken to the extreme. Not saying that F2P companies are ‘evil’ - plenty of good, interesting game design & reasonable business still happening there - but… heads up?

The game discovery news round-up..

And that’s pretty much it for the year. Except these interesting and relevant links from the world of game discovery, of course, which should tide you over until this newsletter returns in the first week of January:

  • Steam has published its ‘best of the year’ lists, which actually include true rankings by total revenue for the year for all games, new releases for their first two weeks, VR games, Early Access graduates, and a chart of most played games! Fascinating data here - we’ll do a deep-dive analysis on these for GameDiscoverCo Plus in the New Year, but feel free to peruse at your leisure.

  • David Wehle (The First Tree) has a little update on iOS vs Android sales for The First Tree, following his earlier transparency on Week 1 revenue: “Some of you were asking for a 1 month follow up on mobile launch for The First Tree. It's looking like an 11:1 [revenue] difference between iOS and Android. No features yet on Google Play from what I can tell... I can't overstate how helpful the Apple feature was, especially since the game has just left the New Games We Love section, and daily sales have dropped by 80%.” Premium mobile sales are incremental, for sure, but can be handy!

  • SteamDB’s rating algorithm has decided its own take on the top new/Steam 1.0 releases of 2020 - it’s a mixture of number of reviews and positive ratings, and the top entries are as follows: “1. Hades - 97.45% 2. Factorio - 97.41% 3. Half-Life: Alyx - 96.81% 4. Helltaker - 96.57% 5. The Henry Stickmin Collection - 96.51%.” Interesting - also neat that Townscaper made it into the Top 10. (There’s a full list of ratings here.)

  • There’s been even more iOS game removals in China, due to the great majority of titles not having the correct Chinese game license, and Apple gradually cracking down: “Apple had 272,000 games in its China App Store last year, according to Sensor Tower, a company that tracks app business globally. For 2020, it has found at least 94,000 removals from the China store, far exceeding the 25,000 game apps taken down last year.”

  • Relatedly, Chundi Zhang from Ampere Analysis just noted on Twitter: “Steam China announces it will provide game teasers via "Steam Labs" at Perfect World Esports Carnival on Jan 16-17, 2021. Perfect World is Valve's licensing partner to operate DOTA 2 and CS:GO in China… It is a signal that the new Steam storefront is coming soon in China after 2 years development, which also raises players' concerns about the current international version of Steam is facing censorship or even being replaced in China.” The saga continues!

  • Some useful reminders from Chris Zukowski about things you could (or should!) do before the end of the Steam Winter sale: “Tell them it is still on sale (even though you did when the sale started).. Take the pulse of your marketing channels.. Give one final reminder with 24 hours to go.. Cross Promote Your Next Game.. Remind existing followers to review your game.” Granular marketing actions are important, folks.

[Happy holidays! 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.]