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Dynamics of Steam as a Sales Platform
by Burak Tezateser on 07/17/14 04:46:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Visibility is everything. It’s so much more important than anything that you can sacrifice everything else to gain more visibility on the front page, but it’s not easy. In that sense, it’s much more important than if you have a good game, good scores, optimum price, good promo materials, and awareness. But all these work to increase your chance of visibility on the front page. It seems.

I am the founder and the producer of Nowhere Studios and we released our first game Monochroma on Steam more than a month ago.  Monochroma is a physics based platformer focused on a silent narrative. A method which is rarely used in movies and almost never used in games that tells a deep story. We wanted to make players think about the consumer society and our story questions the responsibilities of an individual to the people around them and to the society using a dystopian setting in which robots are sold as a merchandise. As visuals was our most important weapon to deliver our message, visuals and the story have been iterated a million of times during the development. We gave references to tons of movies, books and games. We are quite happy with the final product in that sense.

We've been developing Monochroma since 2011 with a core team of 8 people and there have been
 around 30 contributors joining in and leaving in 3 years. Total budget of the game was around $750 k spent mostly for the developers salaries. We also had some marketing budget to pay for the PR agencies, attend GDC San Francisco two times, GDC Europe and GameX. 

The game have been received extremely well in previews but it had terrible scores after the release mainly because of technical flaws that we fixed most of it in two weeks after the release. We still have some minor optimization problems but not enough to overshadow the overall quality of the game from my perspective and regarding the feedbacks I'm gathering. 

Whatever the reason, we couldn't make any sales. I blame market visibility.

Those who would like to know more about our detailed sales report can contact me through e-mail. But on this article, having discussed with other developers and analyzed day by day our own data, I’m going to suggest some best practices and try to develop an overall strategy to adapt to the market conditions. Because the current structure on Steam forces devs to become a bestseller to survive. If you don’t have that potential you can’t sell anything.

I’m telling this because I’m upset we only got one hour of visibility on the front page and not in the main capsule, just the featured part below that, after burning 3 years of development. We even lost the visibility on the new releases section in two days. But I’m not writing this to complain. I just want to warn you if you had something else in mind. In the first place, we chose PC as a platform because it was less riskier than mobile. But Steam also became a hit-driven marketplace and you should act accordingly.

Here is an article worth reading (you might want to read the comments as well) on Kotaku.

Cynical Brit discussed the topic from both the dev and player perspective as well.

Steam Documentation on Visibility

I am pasting the part below from the documentation on Steam. You can skip if you already read it. I don’t know if I’m allowed to post but I haven’t seen any warning against sharing.

“As a baseline, your product will get 1 Million views on the home page when released fully. Here's how it works:

As soon as your product releases, it is added to a pool of titles that have also just released.

Each time a logged-in Steam user visits the Steam Store home page, the system selects three titles from that pool to appear in the 'Featured PC Games' section (or Mac or Linux, as appropriate for your title).

When your title is rendered in this way, it counts as a view.

Your product will get roughly 1 Million views in this way. The length of time that takes may vary, depending on how many other products have just released and how much traffic there is on the front page of the Store at that time.

You will get data about the number of views your item gets and how many users click on your product in this area.

After The First Million Views

If your product proves to sell well during the first million views, it will continue to be featured in that space for more views. The formula used to determine these additional views will change as we tune the system.

If your product is doing really well, it may get bumped up into the Main capsule on the front page. These titles are currently hand-picked as we try to determine what customers are most interested in buying and playing.”

In other words, if your game can’t beat other games in sales during the first hour, you will be destined to rot in the depths of the platform.

Conversion to Clicks

This seems one of the things that seem to determine if you’re doing good or bad on your launch. This is how it looks from our end:

This means during that heaven like 74 minutes 1048202 Steam users saw our name and we received 2628 visitors to our sales page. Well, this was the peak moment of our sales and it goes down from that point.

Visibility is far more important than any marketing you could think of doing or at least you're capable of as an indie. But in the same time, Steam also counts your total sales during that time, so some marketing budget could help you to drive more traffic to your sales page and stay on the featured part. We thought about this as well and we were trying to combine our marketing efforts with our release hour. But because of the fact that we were inexperienced with the backend tools of Steam we couldn’t set the game live for the first 2 hours of our planned launch. The marketing started and it has been directed to our pre-purchase page that didn’t help a lot.

Sales Conversion

Steam doesn’t give you the data for your page visitors but you can embed google analytics easily to your sales page. Here is how it looks for us for the last 40 days.

The peak day is May 28 with a 27,000 visitors (around half of them are unique). Remember we had 2600 from the featured section during the first hour. The rest came from our marketing efforts, recently released section and social media.

Once you exit the recently released section and if you’re not being featured, you almost don’t have any means of getting traffic while browsing the Steam Client. Tags might be an exemption here but they are not being used so often. Still, on day 40 the percentage of incoming traffic didn’t change a lot.

A possible guide to success

Most of the entertainment business is considered hit-driven, therefore any advice from an experienced salesman from books, movies, music industries might work better than mine. But I’m going to share the things I noticed so far.

Game Genre

First of all don’t push your niche too far. We targeted puzzle platformer gamers with an interest to dystopian movies and literature. We tried a silent narrative and telling our story with hidden references and music. Ok, that’s very nice if you’re targeting a small community that will become huge fans of your game but in a marketplace like Steam a game like this won’t help you to keep the business up as your main goal should be to hold on to the front page. How does a procedural zombie survival sound?

Pricing

We tried a brave pricing strategy. The perceived price range for puzzle platformers is between $10- 15  but we gave Monochroma a price tag of $20. We thought we had more content than other platformers so it makes sense to put a little higher price. But it was wrong, first of all, we didn’t have any proof that the game is worth $20. Now that we have some good reviews from users it might be acceptable but it doesn’t work for the first hour of sales that everything is condensed to. 

A price skimming theory might work best if you don’t have a visibility problem. First you sell to the ones who have a strong demand for your product and later on you lower your value and you sell to those who seem to be more indifferent to your product. At the end you sell your game to everyone with the maximum amount they can give to and you make the maximum profit. But if you’re trying to stay featured on a market like Steam, price skimming doesn’t work. Lower your price close to 0 if you can. At least if you’re not sure you’ll be featured.

Metascore

In a year Steam saw more releases than the combined amount of previous years, Metacritic Score became more important than anything else in the first hand. We had a very low metascore of 55. It was the fault of not testing the game enough and not targeting the ideal reviewers. I wrote something on that topic before, you can read it if you’re interested in Monochroma specifically: http://monochromagame.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/monochroma-reviews-and-game-update-for-june-12/ . Unfortunately updates doesn’t help you to increase your review scores, now we removed the metascore from our sales page but that doesn’t help much. If you’re not Goat Simulator, or a big publisher game, you’re nothing but your score for most of the players.

Your goal shouldn’t be to be covered as much as possible. It should be to get the highest score possible. Get reviews from 3-4 reviewers that you think they’ll like your game and also think about creating a banner campaign on their websites, secure some good reviews and release your game. Even huge sites doesn’t create a big impact on sales than becoming featured on the main capsule, not even close.

We have been covered on over 1000 websites including Gamespot, IGN, Destructoid, Rock Paper Shotgun until our launch. Yet the review from Gamespot which was one of the first ones to review the game gave it a score of “4/10”. A review from a big site have a leading role for the following reviews as well. To avoid this some publishers are sending their games to some reviewers that they know to get a good initial score.  Gamespot gave it a negative score mainly because of the controls. With our first two updates we covered most of the issues in that article but even after that we were seeing the same problems spotted in decent reviews. (For example the floating box problem is the most obvious one, we fixed the movement of the boxes on liquids as told in the Gamespot article but still some reviewers were mentioning the issue.) Maybe they played an old version of the game but it’s more likely they didn’t even play the game and made a mixture of previous reviews.

Release Date

Pick a date when the market isn’t flooded with other titles. It’s known that April-June and September-December are times that people purchase the most games and usually big titles are being released in these dates. Hopefully most of them announce their release dates early so you can pick a date to avoid their existence. If you’re sure you’ll get featured you can pick the hot seasons as a release date for %20-30 boost in sales but being featured or not is a matter of life and death on the other hand.

Monochroma has been released on the same week with Wolfenstein, Watch Dogs and Among The Sleep.

Conclusion

Steam just became a very difficult market. If you’re not an indie darling you won’t be making any sales. This increases the risk exposure of mid-sized indies tremendously. If you’re developing a game without any actual costs (aka a student game, or maybe you’re just one guy) you might want to risk it but if you’re not you have to be pretty sure that you’re going to get featured on the main capsule at least for a week.  

I believe Steam has to do something to revert the situation as it will hurt them in the long run. But if the market is going to stay like this, we the developers should position ourselves accordingly.

Monochroma could have been easily featured in the old days of Steam but the current system doesn't allow it. Steam is offering an “update visibility” chance for developers who didn’t break through in their first try. You receive 500k views on the front page and you have 5 shots of update visibility. We haven’t used that option yet and I might share our experiences about it later on.


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