Week 2 — Creating a viable game product

2021-09-29

This is week 2 of the module indie game startup, and let’s jump right in.

By the end of this week, we will be able to:

  • Estimate revenues of competitor games.
  • Identify unmet market needs.
  • Produce a Lean Canvas for a games business.
  • Optimise a game’s sale price.

Estimating revenues of competitor games

Estimating competitor revenue can be done to various degrees of accuracy depending on a few known variables. Also, my findings below only apply to Steam (2003), as I mainly develop PC games.

These numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt, as the market shifts every year. Also, consider or ask:

  • who made the game? (did they have a large existing audience?)
  • when did the game come out? (trends come and go)
  • can you execute as well as they did? (what was their budget? marketing?)
  • are players “monogamous” to this game in particular? (loyal) (Brace Yourself Games 2018)

More recently, the sections below have been pulled together into a more recent analysis, with the main take-away that it depends in which year a game was released (“How to Estimate Steam Video Game Sales?” n.d.).

Also, Simon Carless sums up the below methods in a couple of spreadsheets so you can just plug in your own numbers (Carless 2021):

When week 1 sales is known

Jake Birkett (2015) utilises the Boxleitner method: year one sales is equal to three times the week one sales. So, if week one sold 10 shillings, then year one would sell 30 shillings. Keep in mind that the range is more like 2-10x, rather than just 3 (Birkett 2018)

Simon Carless agrees with a 2-5x range (2020).

Mike Rose recommends we look at number of players, not owners, as not necessarily everyone plays the games they buy (GDC 2018).

A quote from a recent blog post on Steam expands the range a bit:

For reference, most recent games earning around $10,000 in the first two weeks earned between $20,000 and $60,000 over the course of 12 months following release.

(“Steam :: Steamworks Development :: Data Deep Dive: How Are New Releases on Steam Performing?” 2020)

Using reviews

Jake Birkett (2018) collected some data points from fellow indies, and plotted the review/sales ratios. The average from the entire dataset is 82x and the median is 77x, so if you see 10 reviews, expect ~800 sales (that’s 10 * ~80, for the uninitiated).

Using wishlists

Simon Carless (2020) reckons you get one sale for every 5 wishlists after polling and getting 50 datapoints from indie devs.

Using online tools

Identifying unmet market needs

Examples of identifying unmet needs in the gaming market:

  • there have been no new games in a particular genre for 20 years. Will those folks buy a new game?
  • a franchise is huge on console, but locked into that hardware. Can a new franchise with a similar aesthetic and gameplay compete on your platform?
  • a genre is popular on PC but has never been brought to mobile, perhaps due to difficulties adapting the complex control scheme. Can you innovate on the controls?
  • perhaps there’s a theme that gamers have never seen before, or a genre mashup, like a monochrome dating shooter set underwater. Can you introduce something to players that they didn’t know they liked?

Once you identify an under-served market, Eric Ries (2019) says that to find product-market fit, you start by producing an MVP which serves their need. Prototype!

Produce a Lean Canvas for a games business.

I present a WIP lean canvas for a game idea. Come back here in week 12 - it should be done and fine-tuned by then! (At the time of writing this, I still don’t really have a UVP.)

Optimise a game’s sale price.

Wlad Marhulets (2020) recommends the following:

  • Price it fairly.
  • If you think your game is low quality, don’t rush to sell it at too low a price.
  • Price high enough to still make profits at 75% discount.
  • See what your competitors are selling at. Adjust accordingly if you offer better or less value.

You can always monetise the game again later with DLC, or if your game becomes popular, license it, or sell merchandise.

Market analysis

Research one success and one failure

I research two indie game case studies / postmortems. I show one business that performed well financially, and one with disappointing sales numbers.

A success

Slime Rancher

The developer talks about it in a 2017 GDC talk (GDC 2018).

Some development and launch details:

  • 2 years dev time before early access release.
  • Development initially started by Popovich from his apartment, and his partner was brought in shortly after and they developed it in their own time for a year and a half (Klepek 2019).
  • Initial 2 person dev team, latterly 5.
  • Bootstrapped, and no crunch.
  • Released on PC, Mac, Linux, XBOX one.
  • $20 retail price.
  • 96% aggregate review score.
  • ~700K units sold at the time of the presentation (Jan 2018).
  • Top 100 Steam game of 2016.

Initial thoughts to success:

They knew that even if they had a great idea for a military shooter, they would never be able to compete with AAA. So they became experts in their own “calvinball”.

Take-away: know your limits, and focus on your strengths.

Calvinball

They weren’t going to build a “better mousetrap” (i.e. compete with Call Of Duty), but they also had a very thin chance of becoming the weird breakout hit that Katamari was, so they aimed for something in the middle, where they had a good mix of familiarity and weirdness.

They knew their limits. They skipped animations by making limbless slimes. They made open world, because scripting is hard.

Take-away: Slime Rancher is a weird concept played in a familiar way, wrapped in a familiar theme. 

Slime Rancher: neither too familiar nor unfamiliar

They did a bunch of prototyping, nailing down the “fun loops” (their fun core game loops), or the “90% loop”, which is what the gamer spends 90% of their time doing. Lean game design: work on the stuff that informs core gameplay.

The game was priced at $20 (even though this was negatively reviewed, and “should be $15”).

The game got really good Youtube coverage. They have no shows, no PR, so it’s just streamers playing the game. Their reasons the game worked on Youtube: the slimes have personalities and are fun to watch, action happens toward the camera, discovery-based learning makes audience observations feel rewarding, lots of unpredictable events keep it fresh, and customisation features make the videos unique.

Revenue Estimate: ~$25 million (“Video Game Industry Statistics and Facts. Games-Stats.com” n.d.)

The trailer on Steam says “over 3 million sold” so without discounts that would be 3m * $20, which is $60m!

A failure

I thought about searching for Kickstarters that didn’t reach funding goals, but the GDC failure workshops looked great.

The developer is Ty Tailor, and the game is Dualjoy.

All of the information below is taken from his Failure Workshop talk at the Independent Games Summit 2021 (he starts at 1:50) (“Independent Games Summit: Failure Workshop 2021” n.d.)

  • He spent $30K on music, before knowing what his game actually was.
  • He showed a broken game at GDC before having showed it to family/friends first.

Why it sucked:

  • unlike Guitar Hero, Rock Band, DDR (where player actions happen on the beats, which feels natural), Dualjoy fired enemy bullets on the beats, so by moving on the beats, you get killed.
  • Also, way too hard - you played with two thumb controllers, which is like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time (most folks couldn’t even beat the tutorial).
  • Most people did better when not listening to the music at all!

The fault? He didn’t heed “kill your darlings”. He was blinded by his want to create a “rhythm bullet hell” game, without doing all the boring work on tweaking it to be a success.

Take-aways: Prototype before making a full game. Playtest often. Kill your darlings!

The in-betweens

But you also have the boring stories in the middle. I went a step further and looked at those games that are neither successes nor failures, or the almost-failures that became successes later.

Jake Birkett talks about this in “How to Survive in Gamedev for Eleven Years Without a Hit” (GDC 2016).

However, the types of game he makes might be evergreen in a way, just like folks still today play the same Solitaire that shipped with Windows 95. Possibly also very niche.

Research for my own game

I love games like A Short Hike, Eastward, Lost Ember, Sable, A Hat In Time, Lake, and Haven Park.

I found games with similar tags that performed well sales-wise. All in this Google Doc.

A lot of these games are tagged Indie, which is the most popular tag on Steam (“Popular Tags on Steam” n.d.), so I feel it’s a bit meaningless to tag my own game as such, lest I drown in a sea of noise.

It was easy to find similarly-tagged games that failed, and I’m not sharing that particular write-up here, but they fail for reasons such as:

  • too high pricing (not good value compared to peers)
  • too low pricing (players presume it’s low value)
  • lack of marketing (no activity from the developer on social media, no press coverage, etc)
  • terrible store pages (first impressions last)
  • bad trailers (the gist of the game is badly communicated, or the video is terribly boring)
  • sometimes, it’s just a bad game (refunds)

I’d be interested to read about games which technically did well, but the developer had a bad deal with a publisher, and hence didn’t re-coup costs.

Bibliography

  1. “Steam Store.” 2003. Available at: https://store.steampowered.com/ [accessed 29 Sep 2021].
  2. “Steam :: Steamworks Development :: Data Deep Dive: How Are New Releases on Steam Performing?” 2020. Available at: https://store.steampowered.com/news/group/4145017/view/2117195691992645418 [accessed 29 Sep 2021].
  3. “How to Estimate Steam Video Game Sales?” n.d. Video Game Insights. Available at: https://vginsights.com [accessed 30 Sep 2021].
  4. “Popular Tags on Steam.” n.d. Available at: https://store.steampowered.com/tag/browse/#global_492 [accessed 30 Sep 2021].
  5. “Independent Games Summit: Failure Workshop 2021.” n.d. Available at: https://www-gdcvault-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/play/1027458/Independent-Games-Summit-Failure-Workshop [accessed 30 Sep 2021].
  6. “Video Game Industry Statistics and Facts. Games-Stats.com.” n.d. Available at: https://games-stats.com/ [accessed 30 Sep 2021].
  7. BIRKETT, Jake. 2018. “You Are Spending Too Long Making Your Game - YouTube.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmIFaAU0mJg [accessed 29 Sep 2021].
  8. BIRKETT, Jake. 2015. “Grey Alien Games » Blog Archive » How to Estimate How Many Sales a Steam Game Has Made.” Available at: https://greyaliengames.com/blog/how-to-estimate-how-many-sales-a-steam-game-has-made/ [accessed 29 Sep 2021].
  9. BIRKETT, Jake. 2018. “Grey Alien Games » Blog Archive » Using Steam Reviews to Estimate Sales.” Available at: https://greyaliengames.com/blog/using-steam-reviews-to-estimate-sales/ [accessed 29 Sep 2021].
  10. CARLESS, Simon. 2021. “Estimating Steam/Console Sales: Two Hot Methods!” Available at: https://newsletter.gamediscover.co/p/estimating-steamconsole-sales-two [accessed 30 Sep 2021].
  11. CARLESS, Simon. 2020. “Steam: the New ’Wishlists to First Week Sales’ Expectations.” Available at: https://newsletter.gamediscover.co/p/steam-the-new-wishlists-to-first [accessed 29 Sep 2021].
  12. KLEPEK, Patrick. 2019. “How ’Slime Rancher’ Made a Ton of Money And Stuck to 40-Hour Workweeks.” Available at: https://www.vice.com/en/article/d3ba3m/how-slime-rancher-made-a-ton-of-money-and-stuck-to-40-hour-workweeks [accessed 30 Sep 2021].
  13. MARHULETS, Wlad. 2020. Gamedev: 10 Steps to Making Your First Game Successful. 1st ed. Unfold Publishing.
  14. RIES, Eric. 2019. The Lean Startup: How Constant Innovation Creates Radically Successful Businesses. London: Penguin Business.
  15. BRACE YOURSELF GAMES. 2018. “How to Consistently Make Profitable Indie Games.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlAc5sBtGkc [accessed 29 Sep 2021].
  16. GDC. 2016. “How to Survive in Gamedev for Eleven Years Without a Hit.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JmwbYl6f11c [accessed 28 Oct 2020].
  17. GDC. 2018. “Slime Rancher: A Preemptive Postmortem.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyDOrNbvFN8 [accessed 30 Sep 2021].
  18. GDC. 2018. “Let’s Be Realistic: A Deep Dive into How Games Are Selling on Steam.” Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WycVOCbeKqQ [accessed 29 Sep 2021].

This post is part of my critical reflective journal and was written during week 2 of the module indie game startup.

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