Hello! A quick update today to let people know I’m still alive and also explain a minor delay we’ve taken on.
But first, a topic interesting to me: comparing indie hype to reality.
As I’ve mentioned before on this site, Steam Spy is a pretty accurate site for sales figures. It’s not perfect, and it’s not data directly from Steam, so it can’t account for refunds, free weekends, comparing full price sales to deep discounts, and so on, but it is accurate enough for relative comparisons.
This post is mostly interested in which games have been genuine hits, and which ones have not, and some of these are pretty surprising.
Click below to read more.
Here’s some examples of games that got huge press, tons of hype and critical acclaim:
Superhot (released 1.5 months ago): 177k copies at $25
The Witness (maker of Braid, released 3 months ago): 98k copies at $40
Firewatch (released 2 months ago): 240k at $20
SOMA (maker of Amnesia, released 7 months ago): 132k copies at $30
Volume (maker of Thomas Was Alone, released 7 months ago) 56k copies at $20
Hyper Light Drifter (released 1 week ago): 87k copies at $20
And here’s some games that (before release) you’d never heard of:
Undertale (released ~7 months ago): 1.4m copies at $10
Stardew Valley (released 2 weeks ago): 911k copies at $15
Factorio (released 1 month ago): 300k copies at $20
Enter the Gungeon (released 1 week ago): 109k copies at $14
The Long Dark (released 7 months ago): 600k copies at $20
Banished (released 2 years ago, still in the top 100 on Steam): 1.4m copies at $20
Risk of Rain (released 3 years ago): 1.3m copies at $10
So what’s interesting about this? Let’s be clear, selling 100,000 copies of a game for $10 or up is fantastic, especially for indie. And in the case of something like The Witness, at $40 you have to take into account that 100,000 copies is functionally the same as 400k copies of a $10 game.
But the biggest thing that strikes me is there’s no clear correlation between hype, press coverage and sales. Not only did all the games in the first category get tons of press, it was almost all glowing praise, and these games were made by known developers with experience and name recognition (except for HLD).
The interesting thing about the second category is that none of these games had any of the advantages of the first category. Undertale was out several days before anyone noticed, and even then the news stories didn’t say “Undertale: Greatest Game of this Generation”, they mostly said “You should try this quirky retro game” before really taking off with the player base. Meanwhile, games like Superhot did get hyperbole, such as “Revolutionizing the First Person Shooter” before it even came out, but it didn’t make nearly the same impact.
What to take away from this?
It seems as though your hits and misses are entirely up to the whims of the public and nobody knows whether a game will take off or not. Youtubers, Kotaku, game shows and IGF awards will help you sell more than 5,000 copies, but it’s hard to say how much more, and previously making a hit game seems to have little to no influence on your next game’s success. And how many of the above games had publishers?
Another interesting point is that most of the games in the first category were made by a team of people with prior experience. Most of the games in the second category were first-time games made by tiny teams or a single person with very little experience. The basic conclusion: players just care about the game. It’s an idea that I’ve seen a lot of developers really poo-pooing lately, that you can’t just release a good game on Steam anymore and succeed. Or is the truth that you can’t just release a mediocre game on Steam anymore? Whether Killers is a good game or a mediocre game remains to be seen, and well, seems to be up to the players.
The genre appears to have almost nothing to do with sales, and neither does pixel art vs fully immersive 3D. Almost every game on this list is different, and that may be a hint in itself: as much as we’re told about risk aversion, players do want to have new experiences. They may not need it to be strange and revolutionary, but they do want it to be fresh. Not a single sequel on this list.
It’s easy to argue that as more people make games the market is getting more competitive, and the less room there is for individual developers, but I’m not sure the reality of successful games supports that. Who would have guessed Factorio would be a bigger hit than the Witness, or that Stardew Valley would blow away a game with as much hype as Superhot? And while 87,000 copies of Hyper Light Drifter in one week is absolutely nothing to sneeze at, they were quickly lapped by Enter the Gungeon which came out of nowhere, and is sitting above Ubisoft’s The Division on the top sellers list right now.
In fact, more than half of the games in the top 20 on Steam are currently indie titles. Not exactly an apocalypse.
edit: one week after writing this, a detailed analysis of indie sales and trends came out on SteamSpy. In it, the breakdown showed that the median lifetime sales on indie games has dropped from 30k to 20k copies, and that the median number of copies sold in April 2016 compared to April 2015 is about half, while the number of games available is significantly more. Check out the full write-up here. But the most important data shown was that if you’re in the top sales list you can do great on Steam! Maybe even better than before. But if you’re not in that top percent… prepare to suck it.
“Indiepocalypse” implies the end of indie, but what we’re really seeing is the opposite. There’s way too many choices for a gamer to play and even AAA with enormous budgets and marketing can’t compete with the sheer volume of releases each month. “Indiepocalypse” is misleading and doesn’t represent the real issue.
As a side note, here’s some wild speculation: there’s almost no bar to making games anymore. Literally anyone with a PC can do it. But I personally feel like what we’re going to see is a whole lot of developers trying their luck and finding out they can’t live on 20,000 copies at a time, and the number of developers will drop again. Just a guess on my part.
All of this doesn’t imply that press and hype is meaningless. You can find plenty of examples like Rocket League or No Man’s Sky where press has undoubtedly played a huge role. This gist: games can succeed on Steam with or without hype before release. They can even far outsell their hyped counterparts. For now, the game’s not rigged.
Before I wrap this up, I just want to point out that I’m not dogging anyone’s work or favorite game. Some of my favorite games are financial failures. I’m looking at the actual trends and drawing some conclusions from the data. And I’m not a genius with figures and trends. My conclusions are just guesses based on paying close attention to the industry.
Disagree with those? It’s cool, let me know why in the comments.
What about Killers and Thieves?
I’ve been giving the game to various playtesters in the last month or two. It’s always the most humbling experience, combining the realization that you’ve still got a lot of work to do with pants-shitting terror when somebody just doesn’t get it, and now you’re worried that you’ve wasted the last few years of your life.
More specifically though, the best advice I’ve gotten is that while all the systems are there, the content might not be enough to sustain a release, even in early access. As a result, I’ve taken an extra month or two to add more content. What this means for you is that when the game releases it should have about 5-6 hours of playable story instead of 2-3, and I imagine most of you will be fine with that change.
Looking forward to getting it in your hands soon enough!