Hello! I'm Tom. I'm a game designer, writer, and programmer on Gunpoint, Heat Signature, and Tactical Breach Wizards. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here are the videos I make on YouTube, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
Talking to people at GDC and Rezzed, especially people just starting in game dev, made me realise I’ve accumulated a load of non-obvious knowledge about how Steam works and how best to use it. Info like this tends to get passed around between established devs, at events and in closed circles, but newer devs and those excluded from these groups don’t get access to it.
Everything marked ‘info’ was either learned by me first hand, or told to me by Valve at events with the express purpose of getting this kind of info out to developers, without request of confidentiality. I say this because I do also get told things confidentially – none of that is in here.
Getting people to wishlist your game on Steam before launch is the most effective way I know of making your game sell better when it comes out. When Heat Signature launched, 33,000 people had wishlisted it. One month after launch, the number of wishlisters who’d bought the game was 30,000. Some of those may have wishlisted it during that month, of course, but it’s still a good ratio.
People who’ve wishlisted your game get an e-mail from Steam when it’s released, and each time it goes on sale, until they buy it or take it off. This is even better than them signing up to your mailing list, because a) mails from small, new or less established mailing lists generally go straight to spam, and b) it’s free. At this point it costs me $220 to e-mail the Suspicious Developments mailing list. (I still do that too)
Advice: get a store page up as early as possible
Heat Signature had a store page for 1.5 years before launch, and my best guess is this was the biggest (marketing) factor in its success. The fact that the game took longer than expected – which happens to most of us – ended up giving it longer to build interest in a way that meaningfully converted to sales. That was only true because its store page was up so early.
It’s only too early for a store page if:
With Wizards, six months ago I was still undecided on things like ‘do units act simultaneously’, and I think building excitement then could have led to disappointment if that changed. Once that was figured out, we focused on making a few interactions feel good and have interesting results, made a trailer and put up a store page. From now on, any effort I put into showing off the game feels like it’s reducing the chance it will fail, and raising the ceiling on how well it could do.
What tags people add to your game affect when it shows up in various places, most notably on other games’ pages, in the ‘more like this’ box. How many people applied each tag matters, and as the game’s developer, you have a secret super power to boost this. If you’re logged into Steam with the account you use for Steamworks, when you go to your own game’s store page and add a tag, it counts extra – the official docs don’t give a figure, but I think I heard you count as 50 people.
I don’t think it’s worth trying to game this system, but check the Steamworks docs page on tags for more details – there’s very specific stuff on which tags count and how they’re weighted, which may influence which ones you want to boost. I’ve heard wildly varying results from this from devs, some say it gave them a huge boost to store traffic. I think I recall it helping for Gunpoint but less so for Heat Signature. It’ll vary a lot per game, because it depends on how popular games similar to yours are, how similar yours is to theirs, and how many others are more similar.
This is bad. Steam is generally great for beta testing, since everyone has it and it auto-patches. But even if you set up a separate beta package, and generate keys just for that package, when testers redeem the key, the game is removed from their wishlist. When the beta’s over, you can remove the app from the package or revoke the keys, but neither method puts the game back on their wishlist. We lost a huge chunk of our wishlisters for Heat Sig this way.
Advice: set up a separate app
To avoid this, I now create a separate app for beta testing. If you don’t have a complimentary app credit, you use the Contact Steamworks Support option in Steamworks to ask for one – at their roundtables with devs, Valve often stress that this really does go to a human who will try to help.
This is straight from Valve, confirmed twice. User review % has no effect on when or where the Steam store promotes your game, unless it’s ‘mostly negative’ or worse. That’s not to say it won’t affect sales, of course: if I see something’s ‘mixed’ I at least scroll down to find out why. Steam also surfaces your user review rating in many places other than your store page, so while it won’t affect when it gets shown, it might affect how many people click through.
Still, not worth stressing over dropping from ‘overwhelmingly positive’ to ‘very’.
You can hide your game’s release date or replace it with a phrase like ‘When it’s done’, but you do have to set one. And it matters. It will determine when your game shows in the Coming Soon section of the store, and on the date you set, a load of third party services will announce your game has been released – eg Twitter accounts that tweet every new game.
I was alarmed to learn Heat Sig had come out, months before we’d finished it. Luckily it hadn’t actually released, we’d just hit the arbitrary date I’d typed in when we didn’t have a date. But it led to a bunch of people being pissed off and disappointed after our fake surprise launch.
Advice: tell Steam your game is coming out in 3019
That means: if the Steam store notices a lot of traffic coming in to a game’s store page, it will start to feature that game more prominently on Steam itself too.
Advice: maximise external interest in your Steam page on launch day
Obviously you’re probably trying to maximise this anyway, but for me this means I specifically promote our Steam page above all else. Getting a few % more of the revenue on another storefront is small fry compared to getting more prominently featured on Steam, where 95% of our sales are going to come from either way. It also means it’s worth asking press and streamers to hold their coverage til launch day, so it hits all at once.
Advice: don’t do pre-orders
Pre-orders spread out your launch sales out over some preceding period, leading to a smaller spike on launch day and less favour from the algorithms.
I didn’t do pre-orders for Heat Signature, and we hit #1 in the charts on launch day, but I noticed only 3% of our store traffic came from people clicking it in the top sellers list. Nice enough, but not a game changer. So I asked Valve if maybe it wasn’t that important to have a big spike of sales on your launch day specifically? They said it still is, because it will determine how much the store promotes you. Having the same number of sales spread out over a week of pre-orders beforehand will lead to being featured less. Intensity matters.
Advice: think carefully about Early Access
Not saying don’t do it, but this is a reason to think twice. If it effectively gives you two smaller launches, you’d fare worse with the algorithms. I still see two situations where Early Access is probably worth it:
The latter is the route that Dead Cells, Subnautica and Slay the Spire all took, to a level of success way beyond any of my games. I saw talks by the devs of all three at GDC, and all three said the extremely frequent and consistent updates were the key to making this work. Some also said it made the game take dramatically longer than it would have otherwise. For my part, I think having a publicly committed deadline every week or fortnight would break me.
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[…] Steam Quirks For Developers (Tom Francis / Pentadact – ARTICLE) “Talking to people at GDC and Rezzed, especially people just starting in game dev, made me realise I’ve accumulated a load of non-obvious knowledge about how Steam works and how best to use it. Info like this tends to get passed around between established devs, at events and in closed circles, but newer devs and those excluded from these groups don’t get access to it.” […]