Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Steam’s discovery algorithm killed my sales

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

Firstly I want to be clear that I have had some measure of success on Steam and I’ve enjoyed going to Steam Dev Days and other events and talking to their reps who seem to be genuinely interested supporting indie developers. So this blog post is not about me hating on Steam, rather it’s to discuss a recent issue that has impacted my sales and the sales of many other indies too.

Here’s a huge Steamworks forum post about the issue (you have to be logged on as a developer to read it).

The October Discovery Bug

In early October Valve changed something in their discovery algorithm and introduced a bad bug which meant that Steam was only recommending some big name games instead of relevant games, oops!

Ongoing Discovery Issues

Valve fixed the October discovery bug quickly (within a week I think) but since then many indies have seen a big dip in their traffic from “Other Product Pages” and “Home Page”. Other product pages includes a sub-category of “Discovery Queue” and traffic from that source appears to have decreased significantly for me if I compare before and after the October bug.

Here’s a good week (click to enlarge the image):

And here’s a bad week (click to enlarge the image):

You can see that Other Product Pages has gone from being my top traffic source with 305 visits to a mediocre traffic source with only 91 visits.

This effect can also be seen on the traffic graphs in Steamworks (click image below to enlarge it). The orange line is “Other Product Pages”. I ran a weeklong sale at the start of Oct but straight after the sale finished the traffic from other product pages dropped and stayed low. The other two peaks are the Steam Halloween and Thanksgiving sales.

I can see the same drop in traffic for two of my other games and some devs have showed me charts with an even more severe drop.

Impact on Sales

I compared full price sales before and after the October bug (being careful to avoid weeklong sales and Steam sales) and my total units sold have halved. Revenue has dipped even more because our most expensive game has dropped to 36% of previous unit sales.

I’m not sure if this issue also affects traffic during a) discount sales and b) game launches because those are a lot harder to analyse like for like, but based on some data I’ve seen from other developers I’m suspicious that those things may also be impacted.

Has this issue affected all indies?

I’ve heard in private that some games are either not affected by this issue or have actually benefited from it with increased traffic! It stands to reason that if many devs are losing traffic, then that traffic must be going elsewhere. That said, a huge number of smaller indies have been hit hard by this issue, harder than me, with traffic and sales dropping to near zero in many cases.

Have I told Valve about it?

Like many indies who added games to Steam since Steam Greenlight I don’t have an official rep. However I did email a couple of reps who I got business cards from and they said they would look into it, but I haven’t heard from them since then.

Admittedly I should chase them up but I was waiting to see if the problem resolved itself, but it’s been ongoing for two months now. Other indies I know have emailed their reps but I haven’t heard anything positive yet.

Here’s the data I sent to Valve (click to enlarge) along with screenshots of the traffic graphs.

Theories

Fellow indie dev Danny Day has suggested that the discovery algorithm may have a historical data component to it and after the initial October bug the historical data got trashed and so the algorithm is not giving the same results as before.

October/November is also AAA release season and includes two Steam sales so it’s possible that our sales are impacted slightly, but that doesn’t explain the sudden huge drop off in discovery traffic that many indies are seeing.

Another possibility is just that Valve changed the algorithm to highlight different games and some devs have benefited and others have not.

It’s even possible that Valve shifted some kind of slider from “show a variety of indie games” further towards “show popular games that earn more money”. They are a corporation after all and corporations like to make money and they don’t have any real obligation to help out smaller indie teams. This particular point seems evident when taking into account the recent news that games grossing over $10M will receive a greater share of the revenue but struggling indies will not.

Also I’ve heard Valve say multiple times that they put the customer first (understandably) and so they probably believe whatever changes they make improve the experience for customers.

But I must stress that the above points are just theories, we haven’t heard anything official from Valve yet.

Selling Direct and Itch.io

So, should I double down on selling direct or use itch.io?

Well I’ve been selling direct since 2006, but sadly my direct sales are about 1% of my total revenue. I need distributors like Steam to survive. I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.

Btw, you can buy all my games direct from me here. I get 100% of the revenue minus a small processing fee, so it’s amazing and the best way you can support indies is to buy direct.

The second best way is to buy through itch.io because they only take a small fee (in fact developers can set it at a rate they think is fair). I haven’t put my games on itch.io yet because I’ve heard that sales on there are very low and I’ve been busy with potentially higher value tasks. However, I will try out Regency Solitaire on there soon and see how it gets on as I’d like to support the platform now more than ever.

More discussion

Check out these Twitter threads for more discussion with other devs who have also shared their data.

Conclusion

In the past I have felt positive about Steam, but these discovery changes and the recent revenue share changes that are only relevant to hugely successful games don’t make me feel particularly positive about the future of selling games on Steam. In fact I’d go as far as to say I’m worried.

Making indie games is my full time job and I’d really like it to continue for many years. I’ve had to adapt a lot over the years and it feels like another phase of adaption is fast approaching…

Did the last game you shipped cover its costs?

Sunday, November 25th, 2018

I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking game devs if their last game covered its costs including a nominal salary for themselves, and you can see the results in the above image. You might want to click on the link and read the Twitter thread because there were some interesting replies.

I then asked a follow up question to find out what people thought the main reason was that they didn’t make a profit, with examples such as:
- Spent too much
- Spent too long
- Platform crowded
- No one wanted game
- Game was bad
- Marketing failed

Flaws in the poll

The poll was just meant to be a casual poll for fun and so it may be flawed in the following ways, so please take it with a pinch of salt:
1) I should have added a “Just show me the results” option so that people didn’t pick something random just to see the results.
2) I could have requested that only full-time devs answer because many hobbyists answered and I suspect the results are likely to be different for hobbyists due to their potentially low costs. Still, the combined result is interesting.
3) I’m suspicious that many devs don’t really calculate their costs properly including a nominal salary for themselves and so may have chosen “break even” or “profit” when that’s not really true.
4) No time scales were specified such as launch month, or first year, or lifetime etc. I personally know that over many years a game can move from a loss into a decent profit.

Observations

Despite the possible flaws in the poll, it looks like just over a third (38%) of devs broke even or made a profit. This is actually WAY higher than I was expecting because – based on various discussions I’ve had with people over the years – I had a figure in mind of maybe 10% making a profit, and then only a much smaller percentage making a significant profit. Though admittedly the figure of 10% I had in mind was for full-time devs, so it’s possible that hobbyists are skewing the poll towards profit, or just that I was too pessimistic!

New indie devs might find the results shocking (62% of games making a loss) but I actually found them to be positive because I believe that I can make games that break even or make a profit in the future as I’ve done it many times before. Although my last game, Shadowhand, is the one that has made the biggest loss so far, simply because it took too long to make and therefore my nominal salary is huge. My current game, Ancient Enemy has a much more ambitious schedule and lower budget in an effort to break even sooner. We’ll find out if that worked in early 2019!

I also suspect that ongoing overcrowding of the market will contribute towards more games making a loss in the coming years unless more devs switch to lower budgets, faster dev cycles and maybe even higher prices! The race to the bottom of indie game prices has been a big concern of mine for years ever since I saw it happen to the casual download market in the late 2000s.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the poll. Let me know what you’d have chosen in the comments.

How to choose what game to make next

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2018

I just got back from a trip to Boston where I took part in several roundtable discussions with indies and Valve that were mostly about how to make games that have a chance of selling OK and related topics.

I wanted to summarise my thinking on this topic because despite the wealth of information out there I still see many indies (new and experienced) needlessly making the same mistakes.

As per usual, my blog post is assuming that you are running a business, or are thinking of doing so. I’m a full-time indie and so I write about what I know.

Games you want to make

This is why we all got into making games right? We love games, and we want to make games. Some of us keep it as a hobby and some of want to turn it into a part-time or full-time business.

I have a Google doc of game ideas that is 27 pages long. These aren’t even ideas I have sat down to think about, they are just random ideas that spawned over time. Each page has approx. 5 games on it. So it’s approaching 150 game ideas. I could probably think about another 100 in a day if I set my mind to it.

Ideas are not a problem. Filtering them to something viable is the challenge, and that’s where the Venn diagram above comes in.

Games you can make

Unless you are a genius with an infinite pool of money and time you probably have some constraints such as:
- Your technical capabilities
- Your budget
- Your time

These constraints should help you realise that making a AAA-quality MMO is not viable, and nor are a bunch of other things.

This is why I stick to 2D games with a short development cycle (mostly) that don’t cost too much too make. Watch my talk on this topic.

Add to that the fact that many people over-estimate their capabilities and under-estimate how long making a game will take, and you run into big problems.

So make sure you are very clear about what you can realistically achieve and err on the side of caution.

Games with a market

This is simple topic and also a complex topic :-)

Basically you must make sure your game has an audience that is big enough to generate the sales you need and that you can reach them (via marketing, community, virality etc. but that’s a whole other topic.)

However, if you choose an oversaturated market, the audience may be huge, but it will be very hard to stand out in that market unless you make a) a game with something special about it and b) one of the best examples of games in that market.

Conversely if you choose a niche market that is too small, you may not make enough sales to survive.

Also remember that unless you have a huge advertising budget, or get some kind of mega store featuring, or your marketing excels in some other way, that you will only reach a fraction of that market anyway. This is why you cannot base your projected sales on outliers in a market.

Anyway, do your research. Use SteamSpy, read postmortems, talk to indies, study the market until you have a good “feel” for what sort of games sell backed up by hard numbers. I do this all the time because it’s a constantly shifting landscape.

If you are a hobbyist dev or you don’t need to make money from your games, this greatly simplifies things and you can leave out this entire circle on the Venn diagram. Though you may still want to reach an audience for your game, depending on your motivation for making it.

Do the Math/Risk Analysis

Work out how long your game will take to make, what it’ll cost, and what sort of revenue your chosen game idea could realistically make in its market. Will you be able to breakeven or even, gasp, make a profit?

Can you get some funding to reduce your personal costs?

What happens if it takes too long or you run out of budget?

What happens if you don’t breakeven?

Conclusion

This blog post is intended to be a reminder for all current and potential indies rather than a deep dive into each topic. Also there are of course other considerations to take into account and those will alter depending on your personal circumstances.

Also please bear in mind that even if you select what is in theory the right game for you, there are absolutely no guarantees it will be a success.

However, I’m pretty sure that the above diagram is a good starting point in order to nudge you in the right direction. Good luck!

Anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments, thanks.