I was having a browse through Steam on Tuesday, August 1st, checking out the new releases section. It caught my attention just how many game releases there had been, both on that day, the day before, and stretching back weeks. The summer drought is now non-existent unless you live and die for AAA gaming. Out of interest, I totted up the number of new releases on that day. 74. That’s more games in a day than were released in the entire year on Steam in 2006.
In short, there have never been more games vying for our attention. We did a feature last year on whether there were too many games on Steam, and for the consumer, the answer is probably no. Why on earth would you want fewer games? You’d like the ones you’d actually be interested in to be more discoverable, sure, but there’s no harm in having more options. For the indie developers though, and even the lower-budget publishers, a store awash with games makes it very difficult to get your game noticed by the gaming public.
When it comes to indies, just being noticed is the biggest problem. It’s tragic just how many incredible games are probably floating around the darkest recesses of Steam, unknown to all but the 23 people who felt inclined to leave a positive review. The runaway successes are the freak outliers, not the other way around, broad to fore thanks to a combination of being great games, launching with impeccable, and just being noticed. Having the popular zeitgeist around your game is incredibly important. If people are talking about it, they’re buying it.
Find a quiet release period
So just when is the best time for an indie developer to release a game on Steam? The common sense answer we’d all probably give is around about now when the AAA releases have dried up for the summer. Gamers always want games, and sites always want something to write about. It’s perfect. Only, everyone has clearly got the same idea. Rather than avoid the competition, these releases have actually thrown themselves into the deep end, up against their fellow indies competing for a target market that already has a demonstrable interest in indie games. In a nutshell, don’t do it. The best time to release an indie game is when as few other possible games are launching. The trick here is to play it by ear, study the market and identify when the least enticing games are going on sale. It’s not a perfect science, but just simply avoiding as many other games as possible will at least keep you on the front page of the Steam store as long as humanly possible.
Ride the wave
The opposite solution is to ride the wave. The AAA rush is precisely then because it’s when gamers are most willing and most able to part with their cash. Not being a AAA release doesn’t necessarily mean your game is going to be drowned out. Many indie game fans aren’t sat around waiting for Call of Duty: World at War 8, they’re on the lookout for the next indie gem. Launching in the September to November period also provides a great opportunity to shift copies before a Steam sale, and then be poised to take advantage of discounts.
The other obvious time to avoid launching a game is right before, during, or just after, a Steam sale. For the duration of the sale, any newly launched games will be invisible. Avoid the sales like the plague.
Look outside of the Steam bubble
At the moment, the immense number of Steam users and the immense number of games being released make it a tough market. Devs putting all their eggs into a Steam-shaped basket is bad news. Get it on every store possible. There is heaps more visibility to be found on the likes of GOG.com, itch.io, etc. Their audiences are far smaller, but they already have a vested interest in smaller budget games.
Secondary to this - if you’re working a game for PC, just do everything you can to have a Nintendo Switch dev kit too. Nintendo’s console is still fledgeling, and there’s a market of only roughly 5 million users. But their thirst for games is real. Street Fighter II recently sold 450,000 copies at $40. It’s well over 20 years old. A little known Japanese budget game called Kamiko, which can be completed in under an hour, recently passed 110,000 sales. It’s the sort of game that would pass invisibly under the weight of Steam releases, but there’s only three or four other game release a week, it helps immeasurably at standing out. The knock on effect to Switch users talking about it is it’s cross-promotion for any PC version.
At the end of the day, there sadly is no cut and dry answer, and a fair bit of luck is going to be involved in any game becoming a success. I know we’ve got a few aspiring game developers among the GD community, when do you think the best time is to launch an indie game? Are you more inclined to buy indie titles when there are fewer AAA releases, or will you just buy whatever catches your eye? Let us know in the comments below!