Hello there! With my indie client Stormland, we’re experimenting a new technique I deeply believe in! It’s basically a Soft Launch for PC Games. You publish the game on a quiet platform, take a look at some metrics, then go full speed on Steam! Let’s see why it’s interesting.
Stormland is a survival management game in open alpha on Itch.io. People can buy and play the game for the retail price beforehand. It’s not on Steam. It’s a choice, for several reasons: Steam Reviews, Game Improvement & Optimizations, Marketing Optimization, Community Building.
Disclaimer: I will praise a lot Itch.io in this blog post because it has awesome features. But it clearly lacks the amount of user and discovery mechanics of Steam. This is not a sponsored article.
Steam Reviews: Surviving the storm
Steam Reviews can be pretty harsh and point out to non-friendly opinions about your game. It’s normal: random people buy and criticize your game, without knowing you at all.
That’s why putting a price on an open alpha that anyone can buy is a good idea. You won’t be the one handling keys to everyone, while people get something for free. They will pay for it and tell you the truth about your game.
That said, people on itch.io tend to be much kinder and if you do very little marketing, you won’t have this much data to rely on.
Game Improvement: Strengthen before the blizzard
Earlier this year, I helped to release Double Kick Heroes on Steam. The game crashed a lot on launch, even after we pushed a beta to many users. This is because we lacked some time to do testing, and maybe also because we had too much “high end, compliant” players on the beta. They had good PC specs, complain very few because they were kind with us.
But while developing your game, you need harsh feedback. You need people who will shout to you when the game sucks or is crashing. You need streamers that will play the game the worst fucking way possible and make you facepalm. You need the worst part of publishing a game to improve it. You need the urge to optimize the game in front of the quantity of reports.
Also, Itch.io has the Butler feature (https://itch.io/docs/butler/) that help you push versions really easily, synced with their app. They are quite the only platform where you can get a full build easy pipeline without Steam.
Game developers tend to believe Steam will give them a huge push and a pat in the back when their game gets released. It’s an illusion for indies and releasing your game sooner on Itch.io actually pushes the idea that YOU AND ONLY YOURSELF have the power to drive sales and marketing to your game. Yes Steam will give you leverage over time.
Being put in the mental state where you have to face marketing yourself can be revealing for some people. You don’t like social media? You don’t like press outreach? You never watch Twitch? Then why those people will want to try your game? Now the game can be bought, you are the main drive for sales.
Also, if you’re interested in Facebook ads or ads in general, Itch.io is much more friendly towards advertisers because you can optimize.
Did I mention Itch.io lets you choose the platform revenue share? For ads this is a HUGE deal! You can now optimize and get a better ROI on ads (Getting 10% platform part instead of 30% is huge).
Community Building & Pipeline
This is not super specific to early alpha on Itch but pushing your game earlier with beta and stuff is always helpful. Building a community of people who enjoy the game and can give you feedback is really cool.
The main quality here is Community Pipeline. This is the idea that your game is continuously updated, and you have to build a calendar of feature that will keep them engaged in the game. It’s based on the “Games as service” design philosophy. Indie game devs are progressively adopting this. It’s a good way to keep a community engaged and playing the game.
Let’s sum up!
Advantages of soft launching on Itch.io:
- Help you make an “always playable” state of the game
- Allow you to make optimized ads funnels
- Few metrics, but qualitative if you find the right players who will give feedback
- You have more leverage on marketing and your action directly impact sales
- Fewer revenue share from the distribution platform
- Toughen up the game through random people criticizing it and complaining
Disadvantages of soft launching:
- Not fit for narrative games
- More stress to keep up with the “Games As Service” new calendar
- Can demoralize you for the low amount of sales it’s triggering on its own
- Buyers might not buy it again on Steam
I hope this trick inspire you to do new stuff. Remember that game marketing IS creative, so you have to innovate every time you work on a new game!