I had no experience marketing games before Cultist Simulator, so I taught myself with Gamasutra posts, Googling and YouTube videos. There’s loads of useful stuff out there about how to get your game to launch, but there’re slim pickings on what to do afterwards.
Here’s an attempt to bridge that gap. The below is a close look at Cultist‘s storepage traffic breakdown from Steamworks. I’ve taken snapshots of the game’s performance over the past two years and thought about what this tells me about post-launch marketing. I’ve restricted myself to speaking only about Steam to avoid data overload.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Cultist, here’s a cheat sheet:
- Niche, text-based, Lovecraftian card simulator by Alexis Kennedy, of Fallen London and Sunless Sea fame
- Critically divisive – you either love it or hate it
- Two-person dev team (plus freelancers)
- Launched on 31st May 2018
- Sold 50k copies in mth 1
- Released three DLCs, two new languages, several free content updates and a bundle edition in the following 1.5yrs
I’m not a data analyst, so you may draw different conclusions from the following numbers. Please leave me a comment at the bottom if you do!
Alexis and I talk a lot about keeping the balloon up: how selling your game post-launch is like continually batting a balloon up from a gradual downwards trend. The higher you bat it, the longer it takes to come back down. If you don’t keep batting it up, it will eventually end up on the floor. The floor, in case you missed it, is zero sales, and gravity in this metaphor is the decreasing relevancy and commercial viability of your game over the course of linear time.
Cultist‘s lifetime graph looks as you’d expect, with a few peaks rising out of an otherwise stable, low rate of daily units sold. The major peaks are all launch and seasonal sales, with a few secondary peaks from releasing new content (DLC, soundtrack and major languages). Nothing ground-breaking here, other than a few minor good blips from Steam events and high-profile streamer coverage.
FULL TRAFFIC BREAKDOWN
The key metrics here are impressions, visits and CTR. More on them below, but first a caveat! You’ll see on the anotated traffic images that there’s something helpfully called ‘(other pages)’ that’s always near the top of the list and/or CTR scale. By far the largest proportion of (other pages) is, apparently ‘(various features)’ with no further information available.
I’ve not commented on ‘(other pages)’, because honestly, I don’t understand it. I’m not sure what’s accounting for these numbers or what they mean, so… if you know, please share!
Now, here’s the data in its full glory. Click on each image (and then ‘View full size’) for a larger version.
I’ve annotated these with my major takeaways, but here’s a closer look at our major three metrics.
I erroneously used to think of impressions as ‘eyeballs’. In reality, they’re the number of times your stuff was displayed, regardless of how many people actually looked at it. The key thing is that these numbers are really big – the top of the marketing funnel – and they get smaller and smaller until they turn into actual unit sales. I find it useful to think of impressions as opportunities: it’s the largest possible number of times Cultist could have made contact with an eyeball, and therefore the largest possible number I could realistically hope to convert. The closer my number of visits match my impressions, the more people are seeing and being interested in Cultist Simulator. The closer my number of sales match my visits, the better my store page is at converting considerers to customers.
This is, of course, a crude oversimplification of what’s actually going on, but it helps me visualise how these metrics interact. Anyway, here are our top three performing impression-givers across Cultist‘s life:
|Impressions||Most recent week||Most recent month||Last six months||Lifetime|
|#1||Steam home page (219k)||Steam home page (13mil)||Steam home page (25mil)||Steam home page (99mil)|
|#2||‘Friend is in-game’ notifications (90k)||‘Friend is in-game’ notifications (478k)||‘Friend is in-game’ notifications (2mil)||Tag page (14mil)|
|#3||Recommendation feed (63k)||Recommendation feed (415k)||Tag page (2mil)||‘Specials – Full List’ (11mil)|
It’s a no-brainer that the Steam home page is the most significant impressions feed across the board. Steamworks proudly claims 94 million MAU and 1 trillion daily impressions, so… there’re a lot of impressions to go around.
‘Tag pages’ are tag-specific subpages which function much like the genre subpages and are in effect particularly focused mini-home pages, with featuring for recommendations, new and trending titles, etc. Cultist‘s data shows a pretty sharp divide between the Top Sellers and the New and Trending tag lists: these top two feature spots are by far the most significant areas of the page, and there’s a drop-off from 4mil impressions down to 189k with the remaining . This implies that these two lists are the main ones people look at, and that games featured in these lists make up a lot of that juicy feature carousel right at the top of the page.
‘Specials – Full List’ refers to the ‘the full page of search results’ when you click the ‘Browse more’ button at the top of the ‘Specials’ section on the home page. They get special front-page featuring, so it’s not surprising they give lots of impressions. But it probably also means that lots of people click through to browse current bargains, and is further proof how important sales are.
‘Friend is in-game’ notifications are a different story. Jason Rohrer talked brilliantly about the power of ‘infinite unique situation generators’ at GDC last year, arguing that the most important thing for an indie game to do is to keep people playing over a long period of time. The longer and more frequently people play, the higher their chances of converting one of their Steam friends to a customer via repeated ‘friend is in-game’ notifications. How much advertising has this provided the likes of Stardew Valley and Rimworld? And how much more convincing is it for a friend to recommend a game by playing it, than a paid marketer who has vested financial interest in getting you to buy their product? These notifications are a big, big opportunity.
The recommendation feed is that whole section at the bottom of the Steam home page with a variety of recommendations by tags, playtime, wishlist, curators and friends’ reviews. They’re not the high-profile recommendations you see in the top carousel, or the variety of other, more foregrounded features in the top half of the home page. They’re the nitty-gritty bits at the bottom for the jaded Steam browser who’s not yet seen anything that caught their eye. It’s still front page traffic, though, so it’s logical this ranks high on impressions. If there’s a moral here, it’s to use whatever you can (including Curator Connect!) to get your game appearing as many times as possible in different subsections here.
These are “unique page loads of your product’s store page”, though it’s important to remember they’re not unique people looking at your store page. Steam points out that “customers frequently return to a product page multiple times before deciding to make a purchase, so… [visits] convey the variety of places where customers are finding your product and clicking to learn more.” I looked at the top three visits in each instance below.
|Visits||Most recent week||Most recent month||Last six months||Lifetime|
|#1||Steam home page (3k)||Steam home page (42k)||Steam home page (178k)||Steam home page (1mil)|
|#2||‘Direct navigation’ (2k)||‘Direct navigation’ (14k)||‘Direct navigation’ (90k)||Other Product Pages (1mil)|
|#3||Direct search results (2k)||Search suggestions (12k)||Search suggestions (64k)||External website (484k)|
I’ve already discussed Steam’s home page above, so I’ll move straight on to ‘Other Product Pages’. Steam defines this as “traffic from another product page or visibility that takes place on another product page within the Steam store”, and breaks this section down into things like ‘More Like This’, ‘Bundle Contents Preview’ and ‘Similar Recent Apps’, among many others. This seems to be ‘general traffic from generally being a thing on Steam’ and as such is hard to capitalise on specifically. Make sure you have good Steam tags, I guess?!
External websites cover everything from Google to the various social sites (in our case, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, in that order) but also include links from games press sites like RPS and Kotaku. This tells me that we’re doing something right outside of Steam to get significant visits from other hits on the net.
‘Direct navigation’, according to Steam, “represents hits in the browser where [they] could not determine the origin. This may be a link that was clicked in an app on the user’s PC, a website that sets rel=”noreferrer” on links, a bookmark, or other navigation not accounted for in External Website. Many sites set rel=”noreferrer” on user-supplied links, including Reddit, Twitch, Discord, and many others”. This is a big 🤷♀️ from me.
Search suggestions specifically mean “the results that appear immediately below the search field in the upper-right corner of the Steam store when you start entering a search term”. As with external websites, the fact that this ranks highly in our Steam traffic tells me we’re doing something right outside of Steam to get people searching for Cultist in the first place. Hooray!
Direct search results means “the full page of search results that you see once you’ve entered a search term into either of the search fields in the Steam store”. For example, people searching for ‘cards’ will probably see Cultist in the results page. It’s an alternative focused results page to the tag or genre pages, and again, it makes sense that someone looking for something specific enough to bring up Cultist in the list of results has a high chance of convincing ’em to click through to our store page.
I’ve one last, very important thing to say about these visit stats, from a post-launch marketing POV. Look at the percentage of new visitors:
- 1wk: 86% of visits (17,326 out of a total 20,164) were from people who didn’t own Cultist Simulator. Those aren’t 17,326 individual people, but it’s still a huge number of new eyes which could be converted to customers. Most people looking at Cultist are new people.
- 1mth: 89% of visits (137,825 out of a total 155,044) were from non-owners.
- 6mths: 92% of visits (625,952 out of a total 682,458) were from non-owners.
This shows a huge amount of potential interest in Cultist that I’m not capitalising on. This is very positive – it’d be a pretty poor-selling product if 86-92% of views were from people who’d already given me their money. It shows that even if your game’s doing well, there’s SO MANY MORE PEOPLE you could be selling it to, whether through a more convincing store page, tempting sales, better marketing outside of Steam or additional localisation. The key thing is that if you’re an indie developer, there are always more people out there who might buy your game.
Click-Through Rates tell me when something’s resonating with the people seeing it. Showing an image of a spider to me, an arachnophobe, is not going to make me click on it. Showing that same image to r/spiderbro will get lots of clicks, because you’ve matched content to a relevant, interested audience. I looked into everything with a double-figure CTR next to it, because my (basic) understanding of CTR tells me that double-figure conversion is on the high side of what you should expect.
|CTR||Most recent week||Most recent month||Last six months||Lifetime|
|#1||Microtrailers (55%)||Community hub (33%)||Community hub (38%)||Genre Page (51%)|
|#2||Community hub (35%)||Search suggestions (21%)||Search suggestions (34%)||Package Page (48%)|
|#3||‘Recommendations – Main’ (25%)||Microtrailers (18%)||‘Recommendations – Main’ (20%)||Search suggestions (34%)|
Genre pages – the links under the ‘Browse by genre’ header in the Steam home page sidebar – make sense as our highest overall CTR, because people are likely to be matched with relevant content by browsing games like Cultist Simulator before they see Cultist Simulator. The ‘Genre pages’ traffic breakdown includes featured segments on genre pages like the Top Sellers List, Daily Deal and New and Trending list, so it’s a bit like an extremely focused Steam home page. High traffic and high conversion. Yay!
The ‘Package Page’ section comprises the ‘More Like This’ section on another game’s store page and something just called ‘Package Page’ which I don’t understand. I also don’t understand how this plays with the ‘More Like This’ section included in the ‘Other Product Pages’ above that gave us a lot of visits, so leave a comment if you do! 99% of our Package Page traffic comes from the More Like This section here, so again, it makes sense that people browsing similar games to yours are going to convert well. If they like other Lovecraftian text-based simulation games, they’re probably gonna like Cultist as well.
I’ve already discussed search suggestions above, but here’s one CTR-specific thought to add. People are specifically searching for your game in Steam, so this absolutely should convert well unless you’re doing something horribly wrong on your store page. I suspect conversion rate is lower over time than the genre pages or ‘More Like This’ section because people are quite likely to wishlist after hearing about a game if it’s not currently on sale. Genre pages are most likely to send traffic to your store page if you’re on sale, because that’s when you’re likely to get those extra feature slots at the top of the page. That’s my two cents, anyway.
The community hub is the player-centric section behind every game’s store page, comprising your Steam forums, screenshots, artwork, broadcasts… Most people engaging in your community are likely to have already bought the game or be right on the tipping point of doing so, so it makes sense that already invested customers would click around the store page again for additional info / DLC purchases / whatever. What’s interesting about our figures is that people seem to browse the community hub primarily to check reviews, then to check out Steam broadcasts, and finally to check out videos, in that order. Maybe I should focus more on video content than I’ve previously done.
‘Recommendations – Main’ is a hodgepodge of different channels, including things like ‘Recommended – Recently Viewed’, ‘Popular Games from Random Genres’ and ‘Friend Recommendations’. I assume this is part of the pool Steam draws on for that ultra-high-value ‘Featured & Recommended’ section at the top of the home page. It’s interesting that there are actually two recently viewed recommendations tracked here: ‘Recommended – Recently Viewed’ and ‘Recommended – More Recently Viewed’. This implies that Steam repeatedly and increasingly shows customers a game the more often they’ve viewed its store page.
Finally, and most unexpectedly, come microtrailers! I had literally never even looked into Steam Labs’ six-second automatically generated microtrailers prior to checking these numbers, so I’d never have expected them to appear on any high-performing lists for us. The community hub breakdown already told me people are particularly interested in gameplay videos for Cultist, so it tracks that microtrailers would be unusually good at convincing people to click through to our store page. You have to go looking for microtrailers to see them, but once you do you get a host of really interesting and in-depth filters (‘Mood’, ‘Time Flow’, ‘Challenge Type’, ‘Visual Style’…) which are likely to match people quickly with games they haven’t heard about but are liable to like. Very interesting indeed.
(Fun fact: if you search by the ‘Lovecraftian’ microtrailer tag, Cultist is currently wedged between Lust for Darkness and Lobotomy Corporation. Cosy.)
One more thought on CTR, more generally. Here’s Cultist‘s overall CTR breakdown:
|Most recent week||Most recent month||Last six months||Lifetime|
The last month has been Christmas, and we’ve been on holiday, so our usual bustle of social media and general noise has been quieter than usual. This accounts for the lower than average CTR of the last month, and it’s nice to see that something we’re doing has kicked CTR back up again in the last week, now we’ve announced new stuff like our podcast and BOOK OF HOURS and have restarted social media. Phew!
The only CTR figures I’ve seen recently are Victoria Tran’s from her Kitfox marketing write-up. So share yours if you can, so we can all get a better sense of numbers to aim for.
ONE FINAL THING: VISIBILITY ROUNDS
Visibility Rounds are dedicated space on the front page of Steam and on the ‘Recently Updated’ page to highlight significant updates.
- They last for 30 days.
- You automatically get five per game, but can earn more.
- They only appear on the front page to customers that already have your game in their library or wishlist. This means impressions / clicks can wildly differ between games, due to how many customers and wishlisters you have.
- They appear to everyone on the ‘Recently Updated’ page.
- They don’t show on the front page during major seasonal sales.
- They’re randomly selected from a pool of other active Visibility Rounds and refreshed each time a customer views the home page.
It’s interesting to see that we’ve ~tripled our original views in our last two rounds. It’s also interesting that we’ve dropped CTR at the same time. What I think this tells me is our wishlist and playerbase increased dramatically from Feb – May 2019, which makes sense bearing in mind:
- we launched a successful mobile port in April
- we were also nominated for two BAFTAs in April, which came with a spike in visibility / hype
- we released two further bits of DLC and a premium bundle in May
However, this also tells me that we’ve been flagging less and less compelling content over time. This also makes sense because:
- VR1 highlighted our first DLC, The Dancer, which converted well with an audience which was still buzzed about Cultist but had run out of new content to play.
- VR2 highlighted a big free update + our soundtrack release, which was potentially relevant to every single owner of the game.
- VR3 highlighted two more DLCs (The Priest and The Ghoul), though by this point Cultist had been out a year and we had higher numbers of wishlisters. This meant we converted fewer existing customers and showed irrelevant content to some people (DLC to people who didn’t yet own the base game).
- VR4 announced Chinese localisation, which wasn’t relevant to anyone unless you spoke Chinese.
Similar to the vital importance of your initial MMR (see Lauren Clinnick and Matt Trobbiani on MMR here), this data implies that success breeds success. We can put out increasingly less interesting content and still see more people click through, even though CTR went down, because we’re continually growing an audience of wishlisters on Steam after a successful launch. This isn’t a recommended strategy – I’m going to try an be more interesting in 2020! – but it’s significant. And this is before you get into those ‘earned’ Visibility Rounds, which I believe are awarded at Steam’s discretion based on generated revenue.
My final takeaway here is that Chinese loc on its own gave almost the same visibility boost as two entirely new bits of DLC and an entire Anthology Edition bundle. So happy goddamn Year of the Rat, China!
These numbers support a bunch of received knowledge: post-launch sales are vital for keeping your game selling; front-page featuring on Steam is priceless; localising your game into Chinese is a very sensible thing to do.
But there are some takeaways here that I didn’t expect:
- Genre pages and tag pages are vital. If you don’t manage to end up on the front page of Steam, they’re your second chance at the impressions hosepipe, and the barrier to entry to appear on them – how much you have to sell – is much, much lower than for the front page. You can also expect excellent conversion from a filtered, specific audience. So make damn sure you’re in the right genre with the right tags.
- ‘Friend is in-game’ notifications are big. By compelling users to return to your game again and again – whether by addictive game loops, DLC, in-game events or something else – you can turn your userbase into an army of marketers. Your customers are more numerous and better at selling your game than you and your marketing team will ever be.
- Anything you can do to up your chances of appearing in one of the many ‘recommended’ slots is huge. Selling lots of copies and making lots of money are the quickest ways to appear, but smaller things – like Curator Connect recommendations, friends’ recommendations and, again, good tags – are excellent avenues to pursue.
- Microtrailers are a thing you should properly think about! WHO KNEW?!
- It is not enough to expect Steam to sell your game for you. If you play the system right it can give you huge, huge numbers of potential customers, but use your analytics to prove your marketing outside of Steam is actually sending users usefully to your store page. If it’s not, fix it.
- The next time you hear anyone say they’ve tapped out their audience, kick them in the shins. No indie has ever tapped their entire potential audience. We simply do not have the money or resources.
- Visibility rounds can give you a great steer on where you’re going right and where you’re leaving some of your audience behind. Also, don’t schedule them over Christmas. 😱
Let me know your thoughts on anything in the above, and if you drew any different conclusions to me! If you’re interested in more data, we’ve a collection of blogs and data dumps here.