Peglin, as a pachinko roguelike starring a cute goblin, is one of the 5,576 games released on Steam this year. And crucially, it’s a game that’s broken through the noise and become a surprise hit. It’s also a game that won the “best design” award at the Taipei Game Show, a Taiwanese game show that attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year. Peglin, however, is made just north of Seattle in Victoria, British Columbia by a very small group of people who never would’ve had the budget or inclination to fly to Taipei.
“It's a pandemic-built game,” said designer Dylan Gedig, in an interview with Waypoint recently, revealing Peglin was about making “something a little lighthearted for us and our friends to play test, to help make everything [about COVID-19] go by a little easier, a little smoother.”
The Taipei Game Show, like many events, is usually in-person, with developers setting up booths with laptops, hoping to attract the attention of busy attendees. But also like many events, the Taipei Game Show adopted a hybrid model during COVID-19, and thus held an online festival where developers who lived very, very far from Taipei could submit games.
The Taipei Game Show is not the reason Peglin has become a success, but it’s part of an evolving story where game developers hoping to become the latest breakout, like Vampire Survivors accomplished earlier this year, are seeking new ways to get eyeballs.
Again, six months into 2022, there have been 5,575 new games added to Steam. That’s more than 30 every day. You probably have not heard of, let alone played, most of them. That's the nature of an open platform like Steam, not to mention the ongoing accessibility of development tools, and the increasingly diverse and scattershot ways to climb sales charts.
“My goal with the game was that, if it crosses a threshold where we'll have enough wishlists to get us on the front page of Steam,” said Gedig. “I'll leave my job and make an actual go of it.”
Being on the front page of Steam is not a guarantee, but it really, really helps. On Steam, wishlists are a way for potential players to note their interest in a game, and get notified about its release. It’s a huge part of the secret sauce on Steam, because wishlists can be reliably projected into sales and influence Steam’s important “popular upcoming” tab.
“I surveyed game developers [about] how they get how they get wishlists,” said marketing consultant Chris Zukowski. “And the number one are these online festivals—the virtual, not the in-person ones. That's how streamers find games. Right now, the meta for how to get going is you get into these festivals, which gets you 3,000 wishlists, then you go to a streamer, they get you about 3,000 wishlists, and you just keep doing the cycle.”
Peglin passed that mythical threshold, which for Gedig was 8,000 wishlists, last August, because it meant Gedig could reasonably assume he wouldn’t “go broke making this game.” Gedig, once a full-time mobile developer with a hobby, now spends all his time on Peglin, with the game’s post-launch success allowing the rest of the team to now quit their jobs, too.
Loot River, the recent Tetris-inspired roguelike where players can shift pieces of the world around in real-time, tried to ride a similar wave to Peglin. The game received a decent amount of attention when it was announced, with its first trailer being viewed more than 500,000 times, and the developers later signed a deal to appear on Microsoft’s Game Pass service, which some studios use as a way to cover development costs ahead of release. It was even played by Iron Pineapple, one of the most popular Souls creators on YouTube.
But when Loot River came out in early May, the reaction was mixed at best.
“It’s been a wild time since Loot River was released,” said the developers in a Steam post, acknowledging the game’s issues. “To be honest, the launch didn’t go as well as we hoped.”
Being on Game Pass might be financially smart, streamers playing your game and being excited for it might bring you more attention, but it does not guarantee becoming a hit.
Unlike Peglin, Loot River did not arrive in early access, a period where players are more forgiving about a game’s weaknesses, as the developers work out the kinks. A game that arrives “finished” is likely to result in more players bouncing off and never coming back, if the game doesn’t feel right. In the same Steam post, the developer said they “playtested the game ourselves and with a small group of devoted supporters” but this was “a mistake.”
“We did a demo version [of Loot River] in late December with very positive feedback from both media and players which gave us confidence,” said Loot River designer Miro Straka. “We launched in the evening, so I read a bunch of reviews, like 8.5 from Game Informer, then saw that the game had positive reviews on Steam and just broke into top 10 global top sellers. I went to sleep rather happy. I was quite not ready for the morning.”
Straka theorized the fans who showed up to help test the game in the game’s Discord channel were already inclined to like (and be very good) at the game, which resulted in the developers tweaking in their direction, rather than the broader public. It was a disconnect.
“After three days of patches the reviews were getting positive,” said Straka. “We definitely could have done better here though and should have shipped with fewer bugs and issues. Knowing what I know now, Early Access might have been better, but like, we didn’t know this and made a decision that seemed correct at the time from the information we had.”
The result was waves of criticism—and more importantly, “negative” and “mixed” reviews on Steam—that the developers have been trying to combat with rapidfire patches that make changes big and small to gameplay balance, all in the hopes of turning the tide. In a later post, the developers explained how carefully they were tracking individual player reviews:
“For me, player reviews mark the success of such a title,” said Straka. “In the age of content creators, player reviews matter possibly as much (if not more so!) than media reviews. Player reviews tells us if we did a good job with such an experimental title.They also tell us if we should keep exploring these mechanics further, both in the updates for Loot River and in the hypothetical new games. It’s also important for the studio. Having a game that is well received by the audience makes it naturally easier to find funds for the next project, especially if that project doesn’t fit existing categories.”
And though the various paths for accruing attention to a game have become more varied, what remains tried-and-true is pitching people like myself and hoping they’ll write about it. Every day, dozens of emails arrive in my inbox with gameplay descriptions, trailer links, download codes, interview offers, and animated GIFs. Most of them I end up ignoring, not because I don’t want to write or cover them, but because I’m one person with limited time.
But also, a central tension for any games writer, no different than a streamer, is writing about what people will pay attention to. Writing an article that nobody clicks on might be personally fulfilling, both to the writer and the game creator, but less so when it comes to pleasing the algorithms that increasingly influence what many publications write about, fueling ad revenue. It is not a shock that endless articles were written about Elden Ring, because it was a hugely popular video game millions of people were Google’ing, guaranteeing a much higher floor of traffic for anyone dropping “Elden Ring” into their article, guide, or thinkpiece.
A recent tweet thread by designer Breogán Hackett, who also started the wonderful collection of nostalgic horror games called Haunted PS1, sharply criticized this approach:
“Articles, especially those that view games as art and give them the consideration they deserve can really help in terms of getting people to actually care about your game,” said Hackett in an interview with Waypoint. “I've worked on and been adjacent to a lot of promotional efforts as part of the Haunted PS1 and again and again I see people discovering these games and being amazed at the creativity and experimentation on show.”
“It's not the traffic you get from [traditional] press really—an article on a big press site isn't going to directly bring in 1000s of wishlists for your Steam page,” said Mike Rose, founder of video game publisher No More Robots (Descenders, Yes Your Grace), “but rather, if your game really takes off in the press, it leads to it just being spread around everywhere more.”
There’s a trickle down effect, too. One of No More Robots’ upcoming games, a cute RPG about helping spirits called Spirittea, was written up in many places. None of those articles resulted in meaningful traffic to Spirittea’s Steam page, and likely resulted in very little traffic for those publications, either. But articles in the press help justify a publisher like No More Robots investing in an experimental game, and sometimes leads to platform holders like Sony and Microsoft reaching out about future announcements, wanting to collaborate.
Of course, it’s not the responsibility of journalists and critics to facilitate these arrangements, even if it’s impossible to ignore the very real impact they all have on such marketing cycles.
On some level, argued Rose, what’s happening here is a definition of success.
“I think for gamers,” said Rose, “‘success’ is ‘it has loads of concurrent players on Steam,’ no matter the game. For the vast majority of devs, the actual answer is ‘the game is making us enough money to keep doing what we enjoy doing for a living.’ Obviously it scales at that point, but really, any dev who releases a game, and that game then keeps paying for that team to keep making more games—any dev will tell you, that's a success to them.”