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October 19, 2020
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Nintendo Switch Game Sales: The Three Biggest Misconceptions

by Simon Carless on 06/30/20 10:29:00 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.
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[Hi, I’m ‘how people find your game’ expert Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, which you can subscribe to now, a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome to the latest in a series of research/analysis pieces about the Nintendo Switch, probably still the hottest console platform for small and medium-sized indies looking to launch on multiple platforms.

(A good indication of this? A game marketing/discovery Discord I recently joined has a ‘Steam’ channel, a ‘Switch’ channel, and then an ‘Other Stores’ channel. My words, not theirs, folks.)

In my most recent piece on the Switch about a month ago, I talked about some of the aggressive discounting and changed expectations on the platform. But it was more of a ‘what Nintendo might change on the eShop’ article.

So now I’m going to approach it from another angle. Simply - ‘what major misconceptions does the average developer have about the state of the Nintendo Switch market right now?

Using the eShop charts as ‘gospel’ for success

Look, there’s no two ways about it - the ‘14 days rolling sales based on # of units’ eShop chart methodology is better than ‘1 day rolling’, in that it stops games immediately shooting to the top of the charts when massively discounted. (They take a few days.)

But it really confuses things when games sell a gigantic amount of copies discounted. Why? Well, let’s say something sells 3,000-5,000 copies a day for 7 days at 95+% off, and then reverts to full price. How long would it take to disappear from the Top 30, just because X of its 14 days have LOTS of copies sold? I have an answer for that:

I’ve been told that those ‘90%+ off’ games don’t sell many copies at full price (as they move down the charts again). But for anyone idly checking the charts for those 10 days (players or devs!) to see what’s popular - you don’t get any context on the fact these games used to be 99c or less.

In fact, I’m sure a few people are making development decisions because they checked the chart AFTER a game stopped being discounted, and thought it was doing great at full price. In effect, the chart becomes a minefield of ‘used to be cheap, but nobody can tell’.

So if you’re looking for the winners on Switch, spend some time looking at the non-discounted games, or at the price history of certain games. (eShop Prices is pretty good for price history, but remember Europe and North America can be discounted different amounts at different times, sigh.)

And I may start working on a tool to better expose this information, since getting to ‘actual revenue success’ on Switch right now is a little bit painful. (The Bigosaur revenue-adjusted Switch charts are a great starting point, but would love to see more depth and more frequent updates.)

You heard great things about Switch game sales

Early on, Nintendo was keen to broadcast some very impressive sales numbers for indies on Switch - as they should! In April 2018, for example, they announced:

“Stardew Valley […] is heading for global sales of 1 million units after being released last October in the US and Europe, and then in Japan at the start of this year. And Overcooked: Special Edition, which was released last summer in Japan and other markets, has already sold over a half-million units.”

Other numbers have leaked out directly from devs - for example Dead Cells selling 100,000 copies in its first week in January 2019, or Moonlighter selling 150,000 copies on Switch out of its 500,000 total, as of April 2019.

I don’t think Nintendo officially allows you to release sales numbers for your games. (But I’m sure they don’t mind if they are largely positive. And no dev wants to be the person to put their hand up and say ‘actually, our game sold not so well on the Switch’.)

So… people haven’t. And with no publicly comparable data (not even player numbers), you may get a skewed impression. But here’s some things I suspect - things that have changed going into early 2020:

  • There were 40 games released for Switch last week, according to ICO’s Switch newsletter. I’m going to hazard a guess that 50% of them sold less than 1,000 copies in their first week.

  • Conversely, on the high end, perennially charting games like Stardew Valley are STILL selling 10,000 to 20,000 copies per week, even many months or years after coming out. And some other titles (Summer In Mara, for example!) are doing that well in their initial week.

  • The ‘long tail’ seems suboptimum for Switch games at regular price compared to, say, Steam. This is why people are resorting to extreme discounting - because they can’t really get many sales at all after the initial release hit, unless they discount. (This may be store discoverability-related, Switch player behavior-related, game suitability for the platform-related, or all of the above.)

So I’m guessing that 50%-70% of new Switch releases will gross less than $100,000 lifetime - at least before the severe discounts.

My overall point here: when Switch was less crowded, everyone would suggest ‘look, come on over and publish on the Switch, it’s where you make most of your money’. Some people are still saying that.

But those people often released their game in 2018 or early 2019, before the rush hit. But we have triple or quadruple the amount of games now available, some very high quality, with more extreme discounts. So I just don’t think that’s correct any more.

However, Switch is still a very useful platform as part of a multi-platform portfolio. Porting to it shouldn’t be that complex, if you use a mainstream game engine, and Nintendo has a friendly and helpful submission process.

So I see it more like ‘this is part of your strategy, as is publishing on other consoles, as is publishing on Steam’. Thus… don’t discount (haha!) your Switch plans, just have realistic expectations based on where the market is now.

Switch is great - but for premium games only?

I mainly hear people talking about paid premium games on Switch. One thing that’s been curiously under-discussed on Switch is the state of free to play games on the service.

Now, it’s true that you probably wouldn’t want to launch a Switch-exclusive F2P title (though Ninjala is currently one of those, haha!) But there are certain sort options in the Switch eShop which allow you to see charts ranked by total downloads of all games over the last 14 days, including free games.

Here’s the Game Discoverability Now!-compiled rundown for both North America and Europe (in this case, the Netherlands) for the middle of last week:

So as you can see, about half of the top 50 games in Europe ranked by total downloads are free to play games! Surprising, huh? And were you expecting some of these titles (WarFace, Asphalt 9) in the top 10 F2P games by download on Switch? Probably not, I’m guessing.

Of course, F2P downloads only convert to paying users in a fraction of cases (1.5%-5%? I don’t really know on Switch.) But then again, it’s possible a few of those players end up eventually end up spending hundreds of dollars or more.

So I wouldn’t say F2P is a ‘first port of call’, but if you already have a F2P game monetizing well on another console, and you think Nintendo would consider giving it a feature when you launch on Switch… it’s a little bit tempting, right?


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