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Super early to really dive into this, and very much relying on half data.. so apologies in advance for any inaccuracies. Saw a couple of devs dismissing the importance of this change over any others, and wanted to throw some half formed thoughts down about why I think they’ve gotten it wrong ;)
Note: This is really intended for folks who’ve not had their breakout hit on Steam yet. If anyone else with a big selling pretentious platformer is reading this, it’s likely not massively useful to you. First, you’ve already seen a lot of what I’m talking about, second, you’re probably a big enough name, or your game is, that this change won’t have such a big effect on you.
Sales on steam = (times your game is made visible to customers on steam + number of times your game is made visible elsewhere) * conversion rate
That simple. Seriously. Well, it’s not.. all the variables change over time.. but basically.. anything that scales up the numbers on the right makes the number on the left bigger.
THE OLD WAY
Time was, your job as an indie PR was simple: Make someone at Steam like your game. This could be achieved in many ways, traditional PR, reviews, previews, trailers, endorsements, getting friends to email them on your behalf in a slightly nepotistic manner (you know who you are, and thanks). Getting on steam came with a week or two on the front page (visibility) and if your game had a shot at an audience and was well presented on the store (conversion) you’d sell well. Youtubers and websites could help boost this by talking about your game elsewhere, but frankly, a tiny number of those people could shift the numbers too much, because Steam’s frontpage got _all_ the views. If you weren’t Notch, or a big name youtuber (and I mean, top 5) you didn’t have a massive influence here.
This is why a bunch of folk in this period got rich with good games. Good, slightly weird, probably narratively focused games were popular with Valve, which meant most of the work to make the game a success was done the second it went up. The big and obvious problem? Lots of folk got left outside, which made some indies uncomfortable because we felt we were profiting from a gated store, and likely made Valve a bit uncomfortable, because they were turning away small profits from the multitudes (and also, they are nice folk who probably wanted to help more devs make a living).
THE WAY YESTERDAY
And so, the floodgates were opened. Slowly at first, with the greenlight process, but a couple of years on, most stuff is making it on (some stuff gets backed up, and that sucks). This had an interesting effect on the equation above: There were way more games competing for any place on the front page (visibility) and a general drop in quality of the often rushed store pages (conversion). The end result? Indie promotion went back to being about the press and youtubers.. without them, your game was unlikely to find an audience, you needed to get those elsewhere numbers way, way up to match what was lost from not getting that week on the front page.
So we saw a rise in the popularity of roguelikes, first person horror and the very silly. This doesn’t necessarily indicate that all players stopped liking the old genres, just that the equation was thrown off.. less players in = less sales. The genres that did well were those that courted outside presenters to do coverage.. preferably lots of coverage, 100 episode let’s plays. Indie games started to have to consider how to make endless or at the very least, long content (hello Volume’s level editor) in order to get those outside links up. Crucially, Valve tracks how good conversion is on a game to guide how much they promote it, meaning that the import of external links grew even more (folks clicking a link from a video already know what the game they are going to is, and may have already decided to purchase.. meaning their conversion will be higher than those browsing the front page).. so youtube darlings look like surer things.
The side effect? Name a big narrative driven indie game from the last year that’s done good business. Name a quirky, ugly as hell indie game that’s done well without courting youtubers? We installed about 20 people as our taste makers, and they were largely guided by what makes for good video content. Not that that’s wrong, but it certainly had an effect on how games were made. I’ve joked that indie devs stopped being David Beckham, and became the guy who designs David Beckham’s football boots.
THE WAY TODAY
So, today, Valve messed with the equation. So much so that I’m not going to try and write it out. Short version: You can subscribe to curators. This lets you look at their recommendations, which is cool, but more importantly, it applies influence to your front page.. you are effectively subscribing to have third parties influence what shows up to you when browsing.
This is interesting because it conflates the external voices of youtubers and press with the sheer volume of traffic hitting the front page. It means that the big curators (who will likely, for the time being at least, be ‘name’ commentators from elsewhere) get to influence your shopping experience, directly. It’s not a case of ‘I wonder what Northernlion thought of that game on my front page’.. it’s a case of ‘why am I not seeing that game on the front page? Did Northernlion not like it?’
That’s an exaggeration.. I’m sure one dude not digging a game will not nuke it from visibility, but cumulatively, folks are going to be opting in to have other people’s tastes change their view of what is available. I’m interested in how that works behind the scenes. Right now, folks who own TWA are more likely to see Volume on the steam store when it comes out than those who don’t.. TWA is already on a few big curator’s lists.. does that mean their subscribers will get shown Volume more? I don’t know.. I know that a big sales bump last year coincided with TWA being deemed by Valve’s algorithm to be ‘another game you might like’ to the massively successful Antichamber.. I shook Mr Bruce’s hand next time I saw him for that.
Make no mistake. This new system is not a meritocracy.. arguably such a thing can’t exist with this many games being released each week. Instead, as a dev, you need to work out ways to push up visibility. Here are some suggestions:
- Have an already massively successful game. Yeah. It sucks. This new system will likely make the already successful more successful. If you are in this position, congratulations. If not, I’m sorry, and I hope the next points are useful
- Get your game in front of curators now. Get review builds to every big curator as long before release as you can. Get them on side (embargo them, obviously) so that they are ready to talk about your game, and hopefully add it to their lists, on launch day.. concentration of support seems to be super important to this new system
- If you have less successful games already on Steam, it may well be to your benefit to try and build up their popularity again. Getting them onto curated lists will likely have a knock on effect. This is one of the big reasons I keep porting TWA.. every copy of TWA sold or given away is an advert for Volume. If you have something good but a bit dusty on Steam, it may be worth trying to think of ways you can make it relevant again.
- Don’t forget online press. It’d be easy to use this as an argument for ‘the press is dead, just email youtubers’. That’s short sighted. The press may serve a smaller niche than the big youtubers, but that niche likely contains every curator we’re talking about. I imagine every youtuber is reading the crap out of previews and pre release coverage, just to find the cool upcoming stuff to talk about, not to mention the normal folk who are likely going to be your game’s most hardcore fans. Stay on top of this stuff. The audience is smaller, but it’s likely more densely packed with tastemakers and potential fans.
- Be a curator. If you have a decent twitter following, mailing list or whatever, maybe it’d be a good idea to become a curator? Doing so gives you some influence over every subscriber’s shop front, provide a valued bit of curation to users, and in exchange, they’ll let you bump your game onto their store when it releases.
- Don’t pay anyone to be curated. Some dick will try and start charging small amounts to get placement. If someone does this, they’re not going to be trusted for long, and you likely want to save your money and time.
That’s it really. Very loose early thoughts.. sure the issue will gain complexity as time goes on :) FWIW, I think this could be a super consumer friendly change. I’m interested in seeing if it helps quirky awesome stuff to be seen or not, but yeah, a system I’ve been hoping for for some time.