Archive for the ‘Industry News’ 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…

Grey Alien Games now has its own Dev Page on Steam

Friday, June 29th, 2018

Grey Alien Games now has a dedicated Developer Homepage on Steam. You can follow us here and find out about all our games easily in one location.

This is a response to Steam’s recent launch (in beta) of Publisher and Developer Homepages. The new pages mean Steam users can follow individual developers and publishers, and are automatically notified when they release new games, while studios can better showcase their games.

Latvian gamedev conference

Friday, April 13th, 2018

When my husband and business partner Jake Birkett is invited to speak at a game development conference in Latvia, my interest is piqued. I realise that my knowledge of the games business in this part of the world is extremely limited, and of course I want to find out more.

Thanks to generous sponsorship from GameInsight, the one day event in Latvia’s capital, Riga, is free to attend, and attracts over 100 game industry professionals and students.

What about Latvia?
Latvia is a little country with big ambition. This small Baltic nation has a population of fewer than two million and an interesting cultural mix, partly as a result of historical rule by neighbours such as Sweden, Russia and Poland. Even so, Latvia has retained its own Baltic identity and language.

The Latvian Game Association (LSIA) was founded in 2014, although some of its members had been active since 2007. Its remit is to promote the development of the Latvian game industry and mutual cooperation between game developers, in addition to education. The industry also gets support from sources such as the Latvian Agency of Investment (LIA).

Getting started
Riga is famous for its nightlife and so some of the speakers were out late sampling the local beers and karaoke scene. Our hosts from Gamedev.lv are generous with their time and have the event well organized.

Imants Zarembo kicks off with his recent experience of getting a game on Steam and working with a publisher. Zarembo works at Soaphog Game Studio, a team of eight that spent around four years developing roguelike dungeon crawler Rezrog, which won the Latvian “game of the year” award back in January.

One of his key takeaways is to throw out early prototypes: “we made practically all the mistakes we could make,” he admits, “we kept building on the same base.” He also advises other devs: “be serious about your marketing.” The publisher experience still boosted the project and facilitated localization: despite various twists and turns taken by the business, the game has broken even.

PR and marketing advice

There is no shortage of great PR and marketing advice on hand, like the excellent PR primer for gamedevs by Agnieszka Szóstak, founder of PR Outreach based in Warsaw, Poland, complete with a launch timeline.

Further marketing advice is on hand from 11 Bit Studios’ senior writer, Pawel Miechowski, based on the strategy deployed for standout pacifist game, This War of Mine.

Miechowski has over 20 years’ experience, and goes into detail on how to create a “brand book” for your game title, the significance of selling emotion to create a marketing impact, and the importance of a consistency through all communications.

His strategy paid off in terms of garnering considerable coverage from the mainstream press, he says. The takeaway? Set the marketing tone from the very start of your project and don’t be afraid to market only to a specific audience: “If you try to make a game for everyone, it’s going to be a game for no-one,” he concludes.

A tale of two studios
Next Brjann Sigurgiersson (Image & Form Games) and Jake Birkett (Grey Alien Games) offer contrasting talks on game studio survival and strategy. Sigurgiersson describes using the same game world and intellectual property (IP) and switching genres to create a series of games, as Image & Form has done successfully with its Steamworld games.

The company increased the price of its later games, such as Steamworld Dig 2 and says the advantages include reusing the same tech, creating for the same, engaged community and continuing to iterate.

The downside of making a game series? “If you aren’t careful then it can be boring, your skills don’t evolve much and it feels like creative suicide,” says Sigurgiersson. “You could be restricting your consumer base.” However as a business model incorporating self-publishing and a growing studio in Sweden, it works well for his team. “Strong IP is key – life is too short to make bad games,” he concludes.

Birkett’s talk drills down into the revenue per hour for indies as a key metric when judging the success of a project. Using data harvested from a large number of other developers as well as from Grey Alien Games’ recent projects such as Shadowhand and Regency Solitaire, he shows that there is considerable risk for many indie developers in over-long development times, and also shows how to estimate future sales on Steam based on the first week of sales. (There is also a version of this talk on YouTube.)

The takeaway is that remaining light and agile and keeping project turnover brisk is a sensible strategy in the current market.

Ari Pulkinen then treats conference attendees to a talk on branding through music, followed by a retrospective on a significant career in concept art by Bjorn Hurri. The final, high-energy talk is by Riga-born Anatolijs Ropotovs, CEO at GameInsight, with almost 20 years of game industry experience.

Leaving on a high note

Ropotovs started out operated his own gaming community site, then went on to develop games and user experience on various platforms, including social city-building games and current mobile mega-hit, Guns of Boom. He manages large teams and has many millions of players.

The key advice from his talk was that it’s OK to fail. Keep innovating and moving forward because anything is possible.

I’d go again
It’s an invigorating message for the developers gathered in Riga. The quality of projects in the prize gamejam is high, and as we spill out to the local bar the talk is animated and the ideas continue to flow.

The afterparty in full swing

For many, the next stop is a similar event in Tallinn in neighbouring Estonia, and after that, Casual Connect in London.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this event in future…I have learned a lot, met some great people and have also caught some of their energy and enthusiasm, which leaves me brimming with ideas and ready to dive in to work when I get back home.

by Helen Carmichael

A bonus picture of Jake REALLY enjoying the Latvian dumplings