Direct sales launch: 3 years ago VS now

We’re an interesting case. Even though I wish we weren’t.

 

If you’re not familiar with our work, three and a half years ago we’ve released Cinders. A fairytale visual novel, which became quite successful for such a niche genre, earning over $200k (still growing thanks to the Steam long tail).

 

Just a few days ago, we’ve launched a similar narrative game, Solstice.

 

 

I like experiments, so we went the same route as with Cinders: direct-only at first, with Steam launch only after some time has passed, allowing me to compare launch day data to see what exactly has changed in these three years.

 

So for all those indies wishing it would be possible to do A/B testing of the same game released in different times, we’re as close as it gets.

 

Spoiler alert: the results are not very optimistic.

 

 

Website Traffic:


 

Here’ the big one. This is our website traffic on the day of Cinders release:

 

Cinders day 1 traffic

 

And the same thing for Solstice:

 

Solstice day 1 traffic

 

There’s a noticeable difference, but both numbers are nothing special and come mostly from social networks — about what you’d expect from a relatively unknown indie game’s soft launch.

 

But consider this: when Cinders came out, we were a new indie studio that just released its first title. No track record to speak of, no significant social medial following, no established fan base.

 

Solstice launch was by a different MoaCube. One that already released a successful and well-received game, made proper press contacts and garnered some following. And yet, despite us having three times the amount of social network followers, the traffic we generated was over three times smaller.

 

How come? Well, I’m no expert on social networks, but I have some experience:

 

Reddit used to be a great way for small indies to tell the world about their game, but anti self-promotion rules cut it short. We did get some attention on niche subreddits like r/visualnovels and r/gaymers (our game has a gay protagonist) a few days after the launch, but it’s a small thing.

 

Facebook, well, if you’ve been using it, you already know it sucks. Unpaid fanpage posts hardly show to anyone, and paid ones are pretty ineffective. We’ve actually got some traction on our announcement, but it was mostly my real life friends’ stream of congratulations (thanks, guys!).

 

Twitter is the biggest disappointment. In Cinders’ times, I’ve had less than 1k followers, mostly other indies. Today the number is 2.6k and includes actual players, the press, and a few internet personalities. My announcement tweet did pretty well with over 20k organic impressions but the result is still only half the visits of Cinders launch.

 

Interestingly enough, despite the much lower traffic, initial sales have been comparable to Cinders, which I find quite encouraging. I think that’s where having an actual fan base that waits for your game truly shines. Still, it’s going down fast, while Cinders managed to keep high sales for several days due to a steady traffic influx and press coverage.

 

Speaking of which…

 

 

Press Coverage


 

Oh, this is going to be a short one. Here’s a compilation of all the articles that appeared on Solstice launch day:

 

Actual photo of Solstice early press coverage

Yup…

 

And again, before you go “Well, yeah, it’s a super-niche game after all”, remember that so was Cinders and it actually got covered pretty well, giving it some initial traction and legitimizing its existence.

 

You know what else got some nice and enthusiastic coverage? Solstice, when we first announced it. The press quotes on the game’s site come from various previews and “games to look for” lists, as there were quite a few of those. Same outlets didn’t even post a news about the launch, despite us reaching to most of them before the release.

 

I’m not that surprised, to be honest. Video game journalism is in a difficult spot right now, fighting an uphill battle against social media, user reviews, and the general overflow of new titles. Some cool sites we relied on simply died out or are in zombie mode, and the largest ones stopped covering new indie game launches, officially or not.

 

Additional depressing food for thought: Cinders got covered mostly by female journalist, as they seemed much more open to playing something different. When I updated my press list for Solstice launch, I realized that exactly 0% of my female journo contacts have remained in the industry. (And before you ask — the dudes are still there). Ouch!

 

 

Conclusion:


 

I don’t like or want to toot the doom’n’gloom horn and announce the coming of indie apocalypse, like many of my peers did in recent months. Especially not so soon after a release. This is not a postmortem nor failure study.

 

I’m in indie games for 10 years now, and I know well that the market is in constant motion. It’s natural, and you simply have to learn to adapt. I did this experiment to check what exactly has changed in in those last few years, and it appears that — well — quite a lot!

 

Mostly, as I already suspected analyzing our day-to-day numbers, it seems that your game doesn’t exists unless it’s on Steam.

 

Cinders direct sales

Guess which year it came out on Steam

 

I admit I don’t like it. If a somewhat established indie, with a clearly defined audience and some following, can’t generate enough traffic to live from direct sales alone, this means we’re no longer independent developers, we’re Steam developers.

 

Steam’s discoverability algorithms are quite ruthless and prone to butterfly effect, and the system’s so massive that it can’t be affected externally (at least not on indie scale). To maximize your chances, you have to carefully target your games for the specific Steam trends and audience.

 

I worked on casual games for three years, and observed the same thing happen with the rise of the BigFish Games portal. As it converted more and more players to its customers, direct sales died out and it became all about hitting that BigFish’s Top-10 bracket. PC casual evolved from coming up with a cool-but-simple mechanic to making one of those Hidden Object Puzzle Adventures that sell on BFG. It was largely the reason why my last employer Codeminion decided to disband despite financial success.

 

I don’t think things are as bad with Steam, as it’s much more cleverly ran, and its audience’s tastes are wider. But it’s time to accept that their monopoly is almost absolute in the world of indie PC gaming, and it affects us creatively too. I for one know that you won’t see another visual novel from us soon. And while I still wanted to take a break due to genre fatigue, I’d prefer it to be at my own terms.

 

 

I’ll definitely write more once Solstice arrives on our friendly neighborhood monopolist, and hopefully it’ll be more uplifting. We aimed for an April release, but may push it sooner, depending on how things go.

 

If you want to know how we’re doing in the mean time, consider adding me on twitter.

 

 

EDIT: This article had more views in a few hours than our game during its entire launch day!

  1. alex dante wrote a comment on: February 15, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    For me, the biggest reason I use Steam over buying directly from developers is that it reduces the number of online entities that have my credit card details.

  2. Chentzilla wrote a comment on: February 15, 2016 at 4:11 pm

    What about GOG?

  3. E S wrote a comment on: February 15, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    What are your thoughts about gog.com? I much prefer it to steam. I just discovered you through rockpapershotgun’s mention of this article.

  4. yonyonyon wrote a comment on: February 15, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    What about Kickstarter backers? Like, I didn’t buy the game, because I backed it. Could it affect the sales?

  5. Thomas Lines wrote a comment on: February 15, 2016 at 6:02 pm

    I’ve been waiting for Solstice to come out for nearly a year now, so I’m a little sad that my methods of following you failed to let me know on Friday 🙁 I ended up finding out through Rps. I guess Facebook really does suck and twitter isn’t much better.

    The reason I’d prefer to buy your game through Steam (or GOG or maybe even Humble Bundle) is, you’re a small company and I think that maybe ten years into the future if I wanted to redownload and play your game (something I do do) it might not still be available. Steam probably will be and there’ll be a massive news story letting me know if it isn’t. Also I’m more likely to forget I own your game if it’s not stored in a central library. I kept considering preordering but these were the concerns which made me hesitate.

  6. TimeLoss wrote a comment on: February 15, 2016 at 6:08 pm

    GOG only prefers certain types of games on their marketplace, ones which they believe fit their own little ecosystem (or games that they just personally like). Besides Long Live the Queen (which arguably isn’t really a visual novel) there are no visual novels on GOG. I do not think MoaCube could get on GOG even if they did submit Solstice.

  7. TeeGee wrote a comment on: February 15, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    GOG are based in Poland just as we are, so we actually talked to them (and uhh… drunk-danced together) on numerous occasions. They’re not interested in VNs for now. If it ever changes, I’ll be sure to put our stuff, there as I love the service.

    YONYONYON, no idea, we’ve never done Kickstarter.

    THOMAS, sure, I can understand that, as it’s the same for me as well. But pretty much all indies (us included) offer a Steam key with direct purchases, so it’s not really a big issue.

  8. Thomas wrote a comment on: February 16, 2016 at 12:47 am

    Bought Solstice tonight and now knowing about the Steam key thing I’ll seek out direct payments a lot more in the future, it’s better financially for you right?

    Can’t wait to start playing 🙂

  9. TeeGee wrote a comment on: February 16, 2016 at 2:57 am

    Thanks! Have fun!
     

    And yes, sales made through our website mean almost twice as much money for us.

  10. E S wrote a comment on: February 16, 2016 at 3:42 am

    That is interesting to hear about gog. I am reading it fairly frequently nowadays. I don’t quite understand why they are so stingy. They have no problem accepting a lot of crap onto their site, so it makes no sense to me!

  11. 9of9 wrote a comment on: February 16, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    I have to admit I’m rather surprised at the lack of coverage! As someone who picked up Cinders when it came out on Steam on a whim, thoroughly enjoyed it, and has been eagerly anticipating the release of Solstice ever since, I was surprised when I only found out it had been released once RPS ran this story on their blog. Though I’m not the sort to subscribe to lots of newsletters (and abhor Twitter), it never occurred to me I’d miss the release of Solstice, since I figured it would be bound to come up on one of the many gaming blogs I follow the moment the release date gets announced!

  12. yonyonyon wrote a comment on: February 16, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Ah, damn. I pre-ordered it. I’m mixing games now.

  13. Lia wrote a comment on: February 17, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    Thank you for this article. Definitely enlightening.

    I loved Cinders and, to be honest, I didn’t even hear about Solstice until “a friend told me that he read on Rock Paper Shotgun that…”
    Well. I have to admit I didn’t really look for information either, and true that, more and more games get lost nowadays in the incredible amount of new games coming out.
    (Which is sad.)

    So, first: glad to see that Solstice is out, and heading to buy it as soon as I’m done with this comment.

    Second: I saw many comments about GOG, which is indeed a really good platform to buy games, and it seems a lot better (?) for games dev too.
    But I found no mentions about itch.io, which allows to keep a library (like GOG or Steam) without having a filter on what kind of games you may post. Not sure it’s the perfect platform for your games (as it may get flooded with jam games, for example), but I’d still be curious to hear about what you think of it. It seemed a rather good compromise to me, although it’s not as well-known.

    Anyway, thank you again for writing all of this, and I’ll be following more closely from now on! Best wishes 🙂

    (and off to buy now.)

  14. Phoon Bucgene wrote a comment on: February 25, 2016 at 11:01 am

    Hi Moacube,

    Firstly, I LOVED Cinders!

    Just a feedback. The sole reason I buy games only from Steam because of the different currency regional price. Let me illustrate:

    Cinders is USD19.99 in America, but it is RM38 in Malaysia. If we do a direct conversion, USD19.99 = RM84.

    That leaves me not much choice but to buy in Steam only. Even though I really would like to buy Solstice on launch but I do not want to fork out more than double the price to pay.