Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Launching and promoting an early access game on steam, 2017.

Production Line, my latest game released on steam on May 18th 2017. Thats 77 days ago, and according to steam spy, its sold 13,055 copies. We had a prolonged alpha test off steam where we sold another 10,000 copies. The game currently retails at $15.99 but was cheaper during our pre-early access direct sales period. How do I feel about that, how did I do that, and how can I sustain this?

Firstly some perspective. assume I have earned on average $10 per copy, thats roughly $230,000 income from the game. Development costs are not high on an art & music basis, but they aren’t trivial either. I’m looking at a raw profit, before I get paid anything of about $150,000. Theoretically pretty good, although I worked a LONG time on the game before going public with it. it looks like I have earned roughly $38 an hour from developing the game so far.

A lot of this is ‘front-loaded’. Games can continue to sell well long after you finish development of them. Despite my pessimism shortly after its launch, Democracy 3 Africa has gone on to earn a reasonable profit (nothing earth-shattering, but a surprise nonetheless). Although there is a lot more to spend on PL (sound effects are barely in, more art is to come, also trading cards and a LOT more code support), I suspect there is more to earn too. So far the game has not been discounted a single time, not even at launch. Its final price may creep up above $15.99 towards the $20 mark, and we haven’t actually had our version 1.0 release yet.

So how to ‘keep up momentum’ and continue to stay afloat and profitable with the game?

Regular readers of my blog will know that I advertise, and do so fairly extensively (for an indie). I’ve advertised in many places, but my preference in 2017 is social media. I don’t do that much chasing of press any more, as press coverage seems only very weakly correlated with sales these days. I think what matters is eyeballs, eyeballs, eyeballs. A lot of new indies rely entirely on exposure through steam. That strategy is doomed. Dead. Passed-on. Ceased to be. Expired.

So far, Production Line has spent 17.84% of its revenue on marketing, or put another way 25.64% of profit. I believe this figure should be higher to get any sort of real awareness, and am currently trialling 8 different facebook ads to see which one has the best conversion rate to page likes before ramping up that spending. I’ve spent roughly 68% of my ad budget on facebook, 16% reddit, and the rest split between adwords and twitter.

The place where I am arguably being really slack is trade shows. I have a 2xPC booth coming up at EGX, and me and Jeff will be there handing out flyers. I have badges ordered, some PL stickers, and a silly yellow hat and jacket to wear so I stand out a bit. Its all a bit meek though. Really I should be appearing at other game shows too, but there aren’t many within the travel distance and date-range that I require, not that get any actual traffic, anyway. Appearing at a show can be expensive, I put the total cost, including hotels, travel, swag and booth at roughly £3,500.

So is any of this promo stuff worth it?

Very hard to tell. Conventional year 1990-2010 thinking was that its all about conversion rates and track-able sales. In 2017 I no longer think this is true. I think all that is desirable is awareness. There are a TON of games out there on GoG, Humble Store & Steam. The sales events can be big, and the store traffic enormous, but what matters is getting YOUR game noticed. In a sea of game logos, you want to be the one that gets clicked on, and thats much more likely if the logo or game name/image has been seen before.


Well actually its science. We have, hard-coded in our brains, a connection that says ‘familiarity == desirability’. Why? because basically if we have seen something before and we see it again, we know it didn’t try to kill us last time. Its a basic survival instinct. So what you need is people to see your game name, screenshots, video, logo, etc as often as possible, for the lowest cost. Making that work is tricky, not least because thousands of other people are trying to do the same thing. In a perfect market, all costs would level out exactly to match their effective impact, but we know that no market is perfect.

For example, is a view of my production trailer worth 10 ad impressions? or 50? Is it worth 10 at 10 seconds view until skip, and 50 at a full watch? This stuff is guesswork, we have no real idea, so we have to develop our own crude guesses. I once carried out a very exhaustive (and expensive) month of testing where I tried a whole bunch of ad media, and tracked conversions of all of them. I concluded that one media was vastly, vastly better than the others (facebook), but I now suspect it is not that simple. Facebook may be good at driving engagement in the short term, but I want long term name recognition, not just short term clicks and buys.

And that thinking brings us back to EGX and shows, and similar shenanigans. Is handing out a badge or leaflet to someone worth the same as a like on facebook? Are show-visitors more engaged online and more vital in terms of social network graphs for telling people about your game? I strongly suspect so, but there is little data or science on this. Unfortunately, as indies, we do not have the option of saturation marketing, where you spend ten million dollars and EVERYONE knows about the game. We know that works, we have to see if you can get 1% of the effect for $100k. I doubt that equation is linear, but does it skew in favour of size? Who knows.

And of course, this is why its so hard to effectively promote a game like Production Line. However, it can also be fascinating, and even fun.



13 thoughts on Launching and promoting an early access game on steam, 2017.

  1. Great writing as always. We are launching a game on September 1st, and the task of getting it noticed is a bit daunting. Specially when marketing budget is super tight. Nonetheless, it’s like you say, It’s a great challenge :)

  2. Hi, how did you managed to sustain interest after launch? I see that sales still climb 2 months after release. Is that coming from Facebook ads?

      1. That’s very impressive!
        A rough calculation shows you are paying 1.2 usd in adds per sale, ca. 5k per month.

        Do you think it will also work on a smaller scale?

          1. Alright, I will start boosting Facebook posts with 500GBP per month with narrowing of people, so USA, UK and Germany only, only Steam players and strategy games. Let’s see what kind of results it will give.

            You have mentioned eyeballs, eyeballs and eyeballs to increase familiarity – thus I assume likes and clicks will be the way to go. What should I be aiming for?

          1. I think he might be referring to my post :-)

            Nope, just a question about how to practically start with marketing of games.
            There is lots of bs, but not that much practical information with details and numbers like presented here.

            Cliff is very difficult to get a hold on otherwise, while he has awesome results with marketing (including Tesla car :-)


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