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July 21, 2019
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Marketing an upcoming Steam game

by Burak Tezateser on 06/04/19 10:39:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

We released our first game on Steam back in 2014 and it was a release disaster on so many levels. The market and platform were both pretty different at that time and we made lots of mistakes. Being on the front page was the most important thing and the main carousel was curated. I assume there was a decision making process for the curators somewhat similar to the algorithm used in today's Steam but it was still quite different.

In order not to experience the same failures again, in our upcoming Early Access game we develop together with Way Down Deep, I have been studying about games marketing in general and on Steam specifically. This article is an attempt to wrapping up all the things I learned during the last 3-4 months about the topic. I'm not an expert on this area and you should learn from more experienced marketing people and seek professional help if necessary for further info about the topic. But I believe this article is a cool beginner's guide to build your first marketing plan.

I have to thank Ali Emek from Logic Artists, Ibrahim Yildirim from Pera Games, Raymond Doerr developer of Rise to Ruins, Tomer Barkan from Suncrash and all the other helpful developers from the Game Marketeers Discord server for sharing their data and leading me through this post. Also all the people I'm sharing their articles and videos on this post, you are the real MVP :)

 

STEAM METRICS FOR UPCOMING GAMES

Once you set up your store page on Steam and make it public, Steam starts giving you impressions on various parts of the platform and some of these impressions turn into visits, some of those visits turn into wishlists and some of those wishlists will turn into sales later on. 

You can find "Store & Steam Platform Traffic Platform Tab" under Marketing & Visibility part of your app admin page. You can see how many impressions and visits you get to your store page each day. Furthermore, you can also link a Google Analytics account to your store page to check some further data. 

You can also check the amount of wishlists your game has on your financial info section of your Steamworks account. 

You can't check other games wishlist amount but there is a quick estimation method by checking their followers on their community groups. (It is at the right hand side of any games store page). The amount of wishlist for an upcoming game is usually between 4 to 6 times higher than their followers count.

As of today the numbers for Circadian City are:
- 4500 wishlists
- 882 followers on Steam
- 220 Discord members

- 350 alpha testers

We will mainly focus on how to increase your impressions, your CTR (visits/impression) and wishlist/visit ratio.

To understand how important the wishlists are you can read this extremely helpful article about wishlist conversion on launch

I had the urge to confirm this wishlist conversion rate from the developers I know and I saw even further rates than mentioned in this article. It seems reasonable to expect a first week sales of 40-60% of your total wishlists by then. Therefore increasing the wishlists are extremely important.

 

TIPS ABOUT STEAM ALGORITHM

We the mortal developers can only understand the results of the powerful dark magic used in here. But there are a few things worthy of remembering.

"If you can source some external traffic to your store page, this increases your impressions internally on Steam as well."

There are a few alternate logical explanations why the algorithm might be working this way but it's not important. What is important is the result. Steam is obviously leveraging your PR or paid ads efforts you do to bring traffic to their platform. I confirmed this from other developer friends.

I am not talking about direct search used on Steam here. You might at first think that it is normal when a player sees an ad on Facebook and go to their Steam profile on their own and type the name of the game. I am talking about recommendation feed appearances, or discovery queues. 

 

"Your day-7 sales coming from wishlists will be around 1/5 of your total day-7 sales."

I need to confirm this further but according to the wishlist conversion article, this is very common. This greatly increases the value of each wishlist during your upcoming state. This means that Steam is giving you more visibility in the store the more you make sales which sounds normal for any reasonable business.

"Your day-7 sales defines your MMR that affects your visibility on Steam for a very long time"

The term MMR is a made up term in this video. He goes on further to suggest that you should invest your whole earning in the first week back in the marketing of your game. This is based on the assumption that Steam gives you a visibility score looking at how good your sales are. Which makes sense again for any reasonable business. But they do it on the first week only. This might need further confirmation.

According to this article your day-7 sales are 1/5 of your year-1 sales. Which sounds common and further justifying the previous paragraph.

"If you can make 50.000 wishlist prior to launch Steam might feature you during your launch week."

Obviously this isn't about the algorithm and it's similar to the way how the old Steam worked. We need further confirmation about this rumor but I had reliable sources saying a Steam rep mentioned this to them. 

If this is true, it gives another reason to keep piling up wishlists whatever the cost. 

All of the above show us that marketing is extremely important for a Steam game and if you still think Steam user score is the only thing defining a player's purchase decision I suggest you to watch this video: Know your market: Making Indie Games That Sell and quoting the speaker:

 


Have you heard this before? "If your game didn't sell well you just need to make better game next time."

Quality certainly does matter, but if you think game quality is the only factor or even the dominant factor in the game success, it is the fallacy of believing that the world is fair and just.

Let us try to understand how we can achieve enough wishlists by going down the funnel.

 

MARKETING ESSENTIALS

I will try to categorize the actions needed in our marketing plan according to the awareness levels of potential players. There is a marketing model called AIDA that would help us doing so. From the Wikipedia page:

  • Attention – The consumer becomes aware of a category, product or brand (usually through advertising)
  • Interest – The consumer becomes interested by learning about brand benefits & how the brand fits with lifestyle
  • Desire – The consumer develops a favorable disposition towards the brand
  • Action – The consumer forms a purchase intention, shops around, engages in trial or makes a purchase

According to this model, we are trying to push players to the bottom. We need different marketing channels, tools, assets and a communication plan for each level.

There is a great GDC talk about e-mail marketing, building the strategy on top of this model. The talk favors e-mail marketing compared to other methods and it seems viable. I've never tried this before but it convinced me to open a Mailchimp account and start some mailing lists. 

 

PHASE 1: ATTENTION

Attention phase in AIDA model is the discovery phase as the more broadly used term in games marketing. Since the indie apocalypse, there are too many games out there and discovery is harder than ever.

Fortunately we have tons of channels to help us in discovery. Social media, influencers, Steam itself and word of mouth. Opening your Steam page as early as possible definitely helps a lot in early discovery. 

 

Internal Actions (Inside Steam) for the Attention Phase:

We opened our Steam page way earlier than we had some kind of an alpha footage from the game. We just had a character walking around in town and some mockups for the UI. Still with a page like that, we managed to have around 1000 visitors daily to our Steam page and around 80 of them are converting to wishlists. 

Tagging your game properly:

Steam itself gives an explanation about this on this page. Before I tagged Circadian City, for the first few weeks the page was open we had around 400 visitors per day. It quickly jumped to 1000 right after tagging. 

Try to find good selling games similar to yours and tag your game with the same tags if possible. I'm not telling to mislead the players here. Just play along, I used "retro" and "cute" tags just to have some similar tags to best selling games of the genre. Our game has a retro and cute feeling but normally I wouldn't tag the game like that. On the other hand I didn't use agriculture or fishing just to attract attention. 

Screenshots and Description:

On the Steam platform, the header image of your game is usually the first image a player sees about your game. First contact is quite important. I heard of games (not the big AAA titles, commercial indie studios) spending 25.000 USD for a key art of the game.

Although Steam reduced the frequency of upcoming games being shown on the platform, there are still a lot of places you can appear. Discovery queues, at the bottom of other product pages, similar to games you've played at the bottom of front page (I haven't seen any upcoming game on this part but somehow we receive traffic from this section according to traffic breakdown, I don't know how it happens)

Some marketing people suggest making an A/B test to your visuals to test the CTR (click through rates) 

Add some keywords:

Steam users can use the search function to find games. This is usually the case when you have some external communication. They see the an influencer talk about your game somewhere and the next day they type the name of the game to Steam search. It is quite common that they can't remember the name exactly. Help them find it by adding as much related and mispelled keywords as you can. It is done in the partner site under edit store page > basic info.

Community group and developer homepage

Having a community group and leading discussions is very important for later stages (leading to desire) in the AIDA model but people can find about your game while searching for special interest community groups as well. 

Your other games' pages:

If you published another game on Steam you should put a special announcement section about your new upcoming game on your store page directing some traffic from there. 

 

External Actions (Outside Steam) for the Attention Phase:

Steam's internal traffic won't be enough to reach your goals usually. You need to find gamers on other platforms and bring them to your Steam page. As I mentioned before, this will help increasing your internal traffic as well. 

Social Media:

Having a daily communication on a few social media can be lucrative to gain some discovery. Twitter and Facebook are the most common ones. Yet it is kind of difficult to reach your audience without using paid ads. For organic reach Twitter can be more effective. Yet on Facebook, you reach your friends only when you launch a page without using ads.

On the paid side, Facebook ads are told to have a high ROI for games. 

Unfortunately we don't have attribution marketing data from the ads we give outside of Steam, therefore we don't know the wishlist/visit or sales/wishlist rate of the people coming from external ads. I will assume that these rates are similar within or outside of Steam regardless of cohorts. We will target people that liked other similar Steam games or Steam itself in general to avoid showing our ads to totally unrelated people. 

Let us calculate quickly our allowed CPC (cost per clicks) for each ad campaign. I assumed 3 different scenarios for each game. By net revenue we should think of the amount we would get paid after subtracting the Steam cut and taxes. 

Remember that this ad will bring some additional internal visibility and this is not shown in this. Furthermore all we are trying to do is to become breakeven at the end of day-7.

Here is a very nice article made for board games but it translates perfectly into digital game as well.

Other than Facebook and Twitter there are several places where organic reach is possible. I have seen posts made by the developer of the game reaching more than 100 K views on places such as Reddit or Imgur. These platforms seem to have a narrow window for self promo, if executed carefully, they can be very reliable for discovery.

Here is a nice little doc about a success story shared by Adrian from Rokapublish. You can reach him on his Twitter to learn more about it.

And here is a hidden gem for Reddit posts 

 

PR:

Traditional game media and influencers on Youtube/Twitch are quite important for a game's discovery. There is a whole industry built on PR only, helping developers reach the editors and streamers. We are still indecisive about working with a PR company. 

Here is the Pixel Prospector's guideline for indie game marketing / PR. They are currently renewing their website so the link might not work but you can find it yourself hopefully.

The most important asset for the traditional game media is the game's video. Without an exciting gameplay video it's almost impossible to be covered. 

Many PR experts point at the gameplay trailer as the single most important marketing asset. Here is a nice PR talk focusing on video

I have seen cases where a short teaser by an indie dev sent to a YouTube editor and that video featuring around 10 games had more than a million views, generating 100K of visitors to the store page of the developer. Converting that visits to day-7 sales with our most humble scenario ($10 game, 5% wishlist, 30& wishlist conversion) makes $15K in expected net revenues.

When going to traditional media or content creators I don't know if talking them directly or using a PR agency is more effective. PR people definitely know the timing, wording and the necessary asset to contact the influencers. On the other hand, being personal is more valuable. Maybe we should combine both.

This video I mentioned before, makes an interesting benchmark and says if you should release the video 3 weeks before the launch date and if you can't get 100K views on it don't release the game (or you already failed).

What we have in mind is to create a short teaser (15-20 sec) of the game and use it on the store and give it to a few selected media editors 3-4 months prior to launch to have a more interesting store page and then going for a better and longer video 3 weeks before launch. I would like to hear your comments about this.

Total Biscuit's guideline about how to contact a content creator.

Events:

Going to game events might help you get discovered but I'm not really sure it pays back considering the travel and accommodation costs. We did go to GDC, Pax East, EGX Rezzed and Amaze on a single trip. Our goal was to get some alpha testers and receive feedback for our early prototype. I can say GDC and Pax East paid off slightly and I'm unsure about the rest.

Here is a nice video focusing on showcasing an indie game during those events.

 

PHASE 2: INTEREST

If everything went well during your first contact with your audience now it's the time for them to want to know more about your game. 

Most likely, they come to your store page and starts checking it out at this phase. Therefore the layout of your store page and your video (again) are the lead roles in this phase. I am going to mention this e-mail marketing video again as it explains very clearly the mindset of your potential players. Altough I agree with the presenter of this talk I must add following you on Steam or adding people on your Discord server can be the alternative goals of this phase. Chris argues that you don't own this platforms but you have 100% control over your e-mail list. That's true but I am willing to take that risk.

In our store page we have two call to actions: Join our Discord and join the newsletter.

I listened to the candy theory in that talk and we're mentioning that we are giving an exclusive item for those who join our newsletter.

Layout of the Store Page:

Stranded Sails store page is one of the example store page design to show how it should be designed. It has nice and crisp key art as the header and some other crisp art for the updates section. They have their call to actions. Explanatory gifs and screenshots.

The mindset of the player should be "ok I'm intrigued, I will allow you to tell me more about the game" just like the guy deciding it's cool to listen to you after you gave him an elevator pitch. "Ok tell me more about the game".

Interested players make the most of your wishlist. Unfortunately you won't be able to contact with most of them unless you're launching your game or making a discount. Giving them some options to follow the game and go to the desire phase is necessary.

Gameplay Trailer:

This is the only marketing asset I want to talk specifically on. The trailer seems to be as valuable as the game itself. I am convinced that we need a professional working on this and we should make tons of A/B testing.

It should reflect the feeling of the game, create some suspense and use every frame effectively. 

Here is a short guideline to prepare your trailer

Followers on Social Media:

Some of your potential players doesn't even come to your store page and prefers to like your social media page. This is definitely a good sign as they are open to further communication from you. You might want to remind your social media followers your store page / discord server and e-mail list without once in a while without boring them too much. 

 

PHASE 3: DESIRE

If people showed an interest up until this point, I believe it's time for an warm, honest, open and deep conversation with them. I try to view every member of our Discord server as part of our team already. I ask their feedbacks on so many things, I discuss and make jokes sometimes. People joining your e-mail list or discord aren't looking for cold corporate emails or press releases. They want communication on personal level and want to dig in to the game.

When we first opened our Discord server. People started to join, we almost had 100 people in our server but nobody was talking. Then I listened to this great talk from Mike Rose  and that weekend I installed Mee6 and Dyno bots to Discord. I created a game where people would earn ranks as long as they talk (with Mee6) and each rank they will be allowed to chose one personality trait (with Dyno) like if they're introvert or extrovert. At the end of 5 ranks they will be allowed to combine these personality traits into an ultimate personality type. 

Nothing happened for the first 24 hours. I said "oh well, this didn't work." and the next day, people started to talk to each other and to us and within a few hours there were more messages in the server than the first few weeks. Currently our Discord is a very friendly place and it's more active than servers with 10 times more users. Thank you Mike!

We are trying to implement new layers for players that want to be closer to the game and production.

Having an alpha tester community, a mod community and turning the whole production into an open development process are within our plans. I believe this type of communication circles creates engaged players that act like evangelists to your game. Also, this is beyond marketing, it feels pretty awesome to be surrounded with people admiring your creation and wanting to be part of it. 

Kickstarter creates a layer like this one but I'm still unsure if it creates more hype or causes the hype of the game falling short after the Kickstarter.

PHASE 4: ACTION

This phase starts the minute you launch your game. We need to make a call to action to all previous layers to start buying and playing the game.

I am pretty unexperienced about this phase (if we don't count our previous launch 5 years ago) but I believe people playing your game on day 1 is even more important than people buying it.

All we are trying to do is to build a hype until our release date. We will make the PR attack 3 weeks before the launch and we will distribute game keys to streamers a few days prior to launch. 

We want all the related streamers on Twitch to be playing the game. We will contact them using this little website. This is in order to reach a wider amount of streamers but I have already done my homework and started to contact streamers on Twitch by now. Subscribing or following the key streamers early on and making them part of our alpha tester community was part of our initial marketing plan.

 

FINAL WORDS:

I have a google drive folder for marketing where I keep the mailing lists, my guidelines (most of them are in this article by now), useful links and I keep a log to see the effects of each action (when I change the description of the game and try to understand if it had an affect on daily visit numbers).

I also have a dedicated calendar for the communication plan of the game. 

Unfortunately marketing this game is only a side task for me. I need to be working with the rest of the team as the lead designer of the game. But I also think that the lead designer is the guy who should be leading the marketing of the game and connecting with influencers and players directly. 

If you have any suggestions feel free to talk about them. If you have any questions, I'm sure there are people better equipped to answer them but I will do my best.

 

 


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