We need to take wishlist quality more seriously

But how?

[Hi, I’m ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

When you’re in development on a game - whether you’re a small indie dev or a larger publisher - how do you know whether it’s going to do well or not? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, recently, since it’s a key part of discoverability.

Here are the key signifiers that I personally trust (for a game launching on both PC and console), in descending order:

  • How many ‘committed’ Steam wishlists does it have?

  • What streamer (YouTube & Twitch) interest has the game had?

  • How busy are the communities (Discord/Steam forums) for the game?

These won’t be everyone’s three key metrics. There are plenty of wildcards too (like - are you in a platform-holder showcase? Are you launching on a subscription platform?) But if you can regularly check in on the above items, you can pull levers and orient your external push to ensure you meet expectations for the game.

For this newsletter, I wanted to concentrate on defining ‘committed’ Steam wishlists. I’m starting to feel like I don’t understand wishlist quality, thanks to various platform and marketing changes. And I think it might be leading people astray.

How can you evaluate wishlist quality?

I wrote a whole column a couple of months back on Steam wishlist conversions, based on the pioneering work from Jake Birkett, who has a Patreon for more insights.

Jake’s initial research on his game Ancient Enemy saw ‘wishlist launch month’ and ‘month before release’ spiking up - and most other months convert between 7% and 13%. Makes sense. And I believe that Ancient Enemy wasn’t featured in any major pre-release sales or demos.

So this is going to be a good baseline for a well made, semi-niche game. And most of these wishlists are likely to be what I call ‘committed’. People saw something about the game, navigated to the page, read about it, and then wishlisted it. (By the way, the game got 0.47 sales per wishlist in its first week on Steam - pretty good!)

But more recently, games are adding a lot of wishlists via some kind of other process. And it’s sometimes a LOT of wishlists. I think people are treating these in their mind as somewhat ‘equal’ to committed wishlists, when they’re not.

A straw man for wishlist conversion by type

Unfortunately, we all lack concrete data on this problem. But here’s what’s in my head for a good quality game, comparing it to Jake’s conversion rates:

  • ‘Committed’ - people found your game naturally - 12% conversion.

  • A big streamer played your game pre-launch - 10% conversion.

  • You were featured in a Steam showcase pre-release - 5% conversion.

  • You were in a Steam Games Festival with your game - 5% conversion.

  • You’re on the Popular Upcoming page - 5% conversion.

  • You did a standalone Steam ‘prologue’ - 4% conversion.

You’re going to have some - or even all - of these types of wishlists in your total. But what I’m saying here is I believe some wishlists are ‘worth’ as much as 3x others in terms of conversions.

For example, people often use Festivals and sales for ‘bookmarking’ style wishlists. So they end up keeping tabs on a whole bunch of games, especially if they downloaded the demo of a title or it just looked interesting.

(Relatedly: many demo-related wishlists are not ‘I tried the demo, it was great, I wishlisted’, they are ‘I am going to try the demo so I should wishlist the main game for later’, in terms of player intent.)

And if your game has a standalone Prologue (such as Against The Moon) it’s possible that even more people will do a ‘reminder’ wishlist on the main Steam item, since the demo is listed separately.

Conclusion - still get those wishlists!

Nonetheless, I think ALL wishlists are important. Especially further after release, since wishlisters will keep getting emails from Steam. So maybe you can convert a more casual wishlist at 50% off! You still want to try to accumulate as many as possible.

But I see great articles like Chris Zukowski’s on the Steam Summer Festival’s effect on wishlists, noting that the average number of added Summer Festival wishlists was 3,200. Great data, Yet if you’re looking at wishlists non-granularly, you might draw some dangerous conclusions.

For example, you would say that ‘must’ be another 1,600 sales in the game’s first week, and another 5,000 in the first year. Just from being in the Summer Festival! So.. no. I think you should start looking at those type of wishlists differently, at least mentally. And we should all treat Steam wishlists less like a monolithic number.

A Call For Data!

Rounding this out, I’d like to ask for data! Did your game launch after being in a pre-launch Steam game festival, showcase, or feature? It requires some manual work, but I’d love to have you work out post-launch wishlist conversions (by total and percentage) per month, and share it with me privately or us as a whole.

Yes Your Grace’s Alina Cebula had some startlingly varied results when regarding YYG’s monthly conversions by percentage. She was kind enough to explain her methodology - which I confirmed with Jake was the same as his - in this handy PDF. (Can/did anyone automate this, btw? It’d be super helpful!)

Anyhow, perhaps you can show that you launched a demo in X month and it spiked your wishlists by 5x. But then your post-launch wishlist conversions for that month went down by 3x… that’s the type of info we’re looking for. Then we can all understand what some of these bigger wishlist fluctuations truly might mean to the success of our games.

Take care,
Simon.