Steam Demo Festival Aftermath — Was it worth it?

I submitted my game to the Steam Next Fest festival where basically Steam does this mini-E3 thing where upcoming games get their demos showcased for a week. The festival is pretty much like getting on a sale on Steam as it’s heavily advertised and since only a certain amount (600) decided to submit their game (you can only do it once, and you need to be releasing soon), it was a great way to get exposure of the FOMO variety and more importantly: wishlists. Even at their worst wishlists can convert to sales and it’s at least a good way to track interest.

I decided to relay my experience during this demo festival to inform other devs how it went as I had a pretty rocky road leading up to the event but in the end it turned out really well for me. This is going to be a long post so sit tight.

Preparing for the event

So I had about 2–3 months notice about the festival, suffice to say I was quite busy during that time with life stuff but considering I had a bunch of content done for the game I figured cutting down the game to a nice vertical slice would be short and easy. However adding in stuff like customizable controls took quite a bit of time and I didn’t have the chance to add in remapping controllers (only keyboard) but I did not see too many players remap the controls so the fest was just a good way to deadline the “boring” feature stuff and get it out of the way.

I uh, barely had the build a day before the festival started. Approval usually takes 2–3 work days and this was on a sunday. Needless to say I was freaking out because I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t have a demo build out (it wasn’t super clear). When submitting for approval I put in a note that I was submitting to the Next Fest and the Steam rep expedited my process and I got one of the approvals within hours on a Monday morning. The good thing about Steam is that you always have a human to talk to and ask questions. However I did get my store presence rejected over a really dumb mistake I made.

Steam lets you convert your existing logos to the demo with the green strip. If it covers the title of your game it gets rejected. I would have been approved on time if not for this mistake, this cost me 2 hours woops.

Within an hour or so after fixing it I was quickly approved. Another thing to note was just relearning how to upload to Steam. It isn’t quite as simple as uploading to itch or whatever, but there was an option for lower than 2 GB games to just upload a zip file and point to what exe Steam needed to open for the game to work. However it made me realize that I should really just beta test the game on Steam, even if your game isn’t out you can still upload test builds and ask for beta keys. Updating the game is super easy and fast and your testers don’t have to click anything (other than making sure Steam is updated).

Being two hours late

So it’s monday and everything got approved a little time after the event starts. It also took another hour for my game to show up anywhere in the tags or the carousel. This was pretty stressful! But eventually the game started showing up and I could rest easy. Basically you reallllllllllllllllllllllllllllly want to have the game ready 5ish days before the festival starts (and not on a weekend) but you know how deadlines can be. If you don’t make it well… actually nothing bad will happen, you might only miss out on some initial exposure but it’s hard to know what exactly I missed out on without a time machine.

Suffice to say I did a lot of things super late, but the festival is also super forgiving. It’s not the end of the world. It seems like the game will just unhide itself once you get fully approved and you release your demo. Also note that the planned date that you set isn’t necessarily when it actually releases, if you get approved you can launch the demo any time (even before the event). It was all worth it in the end because…

Number go up

I woke up on Tuesday morning with astonishing wishlist numbers. This was more than any spike in wishlists I’ve ever gotten and there was still a whole week left. Usually when I get a spike it lasts for a day but the festival kept bumping the wishlists up. After the 3rd day it quieted down. Now I generally expected this, but seeing is believing. Due to the limitations of the event (such as Valve wanting you to release in 6 months) it really acts as a final boost or last resort power up to get some momentum before finally launching. It’s super recommended that you go to the demo festival late towards the end of development or if you have a sizable amount of wishlists. People report having their wishlists doubled after the event and as of this writing that looks to be the case.

Wishlists gained

There’s a way to actually check how you compare towards other games. Check the tab that ranks every game based on their wishlist count, if you click and scroll a lot you can basically see how you place compared to other games. I was in the top half of the list which was pretty good for tracking how well I was doing. There’s a trick to checking how many wishlists people have (check the game on steamdb click charts and then look at the current follower count, multiply that by 10). So there’s a lot of marketing research to be gained by being able to see what other upcoming games are doing. If a game similar to you in genre/production value is doing better gains than you then maybe you’re underperforming marketing wise. I don’t have a direct competitor game aside from one that has a way higher budget than mine (that I’m aware of) so I’m unsure of my performance, but my general goal is 5,000 and I’m at 4,000 after this event. Honestly though it isn’t always about the giant spikes but the slow organic traffic you accumulate which I plan to improve in the coming weeks leading up to launch. The spikes only really account for barely half of my current wishlists (and that’s the Steam demo festival mostly). On top of that these spikes wouldn’t have happened had I not been doing the social media grind (daily growth is fuel and going viral are random hitch hikers you meet along the way, it’s hard to know what’s out there but you won’t know unless you go out there). So it’s really worth getting your steam page out there early and marketing your game properly to get the wishlist machine going.

Cumulative wishlists (Purple is the current, the rift between blue shows the wishlist deletes)

Discovery and feedback

One thing to note about the Steam fest is that not just new people will be playing your game but people who have already wishlisted your game, they’ll see your game at the very top if it has a demo in the festival (two people have told me this). It’s a good thing to keep in mind the different ways this concentrated festival makes non-wishlist holders and wishlist holders react. With 700+ people that actually clicked play on the game, 300+ people played longer than 30 minutes and 1400 wishlists gained it’s fair to say that the majority thought the game looked good enough to bookmark it for later without having time to play it.

Most of the gains came from within Steam. There weren’t that many visitors from twitter (probably returning people) but it didn’t convert to downloads or wishlists as much. Steam is really just like youtube, the discovery rate is wild yet localized and you will perform better as you gain more wishlists (how exactly it works is a mystery just like YT’s algo).

Localization and Opportunities

Part of show biz is just showing up. I got a lot of feedback and DMs but more importantly people that wanted to work with me (and a potential face-to-face meeting with a sizeable publisher). One such person was Morgen who not only offered to translate the game into Russian but the demo as well. Since people are more likely to play games translated in their language (Russia is like 2nd place in my page hits) I wanted to widen the net so to speak while the festival was going on. In a mere two days Morgen had everything translated and I caught a lot of bugs with my string conversion system. Morgen not only played my demo but was familiar with my influences (Blame! fan). I also found out due to the way I coded the language file, you could update the text while the game was playing since each time it loads the text it reads whatever’s stored in (lazily a text file anyone can open up with a notepad). This made QA super fast and I learned a lot about localization software in such a short period of time.

This chart shows how many Russian speaking users checked out my gamepage, Feb 26 is when I released the russian translation of the demo and made a version of the russian steam page (warning: you’ll be converting a lot of logos). Immediately back to almost peak results. This was a good experiment to do especially during the festival, I’m not sure it’d be evident on the slow days. There are no language filters that I can find in the demo festival (but there is on Steam), so having a translated version of the logo will stand out. If you want more interest: localize your game.

Edit: I’ve come back with more wishlist data, even though Russian wishlists gained during the event is 4 times lower than North America the relative gain is 800% than it was before, this is based off of two days

TLDR takeaways

What I would have done differently

-I should have simply gotten my demo done 5 days ahead of time, just like every other deadline I have missed in life. Easy right?

-Steam festival or no, launch or no, game ready or no just get a private test build up and running on Steam ASAP, it’ll make life easier

-I wish I had organized my capsule images a little better in neat PSDs and proper titles

-I would have gotten a pre-recorded livestream up a lot sooner though I don’t know what difference it makes other than page retention. Having said that, I didn’t even know you could livestream at any time and not just scheduled.

-I should have plastered my call to action a lot more (Wishlist Now!) and twitter handle in the title screen, maybe even open up your browser when clicked on)

-On top of that I should have linked my thread where I asked people to submit feedback directly in the game title screen (people might just forget, or not know there’s a forum)

-Even more on top of that I might have benefited from opening my discord to all to join. I manage a private discord I’ve been super neglecting mainly cause I just wanted to focus on the game + didn’t want to be overwhelmed. I relied on the Steam provided forum instead.

-Was probably super out of reach but I really should have looked into stat tracking with the Steam API. It would have not only prepared me for achievements but also helped me know what non-vocal players were actually doing and how far they actually got. All I have are just playtimes.

-Announcements! There’s two different kinds of ways to announce stuff as if it were a blog. This whole time I was announcing on my dang steam developer page like a clown when instead I could have been broadcasting stuff to 400 followers (engagement seems to be better than my 900 twitter followers). When you get down to it: Steam is its own social media. Yet it’s a labyrinth to find where everything is and what they’re for.

What went right

-Based on testimonials, the cover art is the number one reason people were drawn to my game. It’s really worth it to hire a good artist to do a nice appealing illustration

-Cutting controller remapping to save time for the demo was probably a good call as not many people used the keyboard re-configuring feature anyway but it was just a chance to get it out of the way.

-Being late didn’t seem to set me back as people aren’t exactly in a rat race to download the demos (2nd day was the highest exposure actually). In the end I did get my 200%ish wishlist boost everyone talked about (hmmm… but could it have been more?)

-While I didn’t have it on the title screen, having my Wishlist call to action at the end of the demo reminded twitch streamers on what to do after finishing my game.

-The demo was really short, only 20–30 minutes. I ended it on a hook (new enemy type runs across the screen before going to the end screen door). I think that was the right call as I didn’t want the game to overstay its welcome

-Putting up a thread where people could post feedback was really good, I would hotfix the game with any easy to do requests like analog stick support. People like it when you communicate back and engage/discuss.

-Responding to every DM, which had led to the game being translated. The Russian translator Morgen seemed like just a fan in his opening message. So you never know when someone could be a potential collaborator or publisher.

-My robust localization system let the translator change text while they were playing any version of the game since the game doesn’t pull text from itself but rather a separate file they could modify.

-Aside from translating the game into Russian, not doing any major features to the demo and just fixing on hotfixes and crashes.

-Searching my game name on twitter/twitch with quotations would show people talking about games they’ve downloaded. Generally a lot of people will just download a bunch at once and list what they’ll be playing on a stream or just generally recommend what they’ve liked.

Festival Conclusion

So demo festivals as of this writing are definitely worth doing. BUT do them only when you think you’ve reached your peak on wishlists and you’re pretty sure you’re going to release soon. Think of it like a score multiplier, you’d obviously wait until the last moment to grab the powerup so you can maximize your gains. Wishlists aren’t the end all be all, but they’re a good way to track interest in your game. Having said all this I’d say the volume turn out was still pretty low compared to other games. I’m happy with getting to 5k and getting the game out with some amount of interest (it’s better than nothing). Overall it’s probably best to not scale up or omega-polish the game going forward, people that like it really enjoyed it, I’m not going to be pivoting the game anymore to brand new core mechanics or bold direction and just focus on content.

I’m reminded of a really good article by Derek Yu that speaks to the feedback cycle. I’ve been through everything he’s mentioned in the past week. I decided to extend the demo for a week because I really crave more feedback even if it won’t be as frequent as the festival.

Parting Advice

My parting advice to developers using Steam: get your gamepage up early. Do not launch right away, there’s a benefit to a long enough development cycle (esp if you’re making a gosh darn RPG) as I’ve had people since 2019 still hanging onto their wishlist. That doesn’t mean delaying your game is good, but people don’t forget! People can’t get your game if they don’t know about it. This sounds like simple advice but I see a lot of people ignore it. The demo festival will just be wasted if you don’t bother with long term growth.

Stay tuned for my post mortem where I’ll likely talk about the sales and how this all ends up going down. For now I’m going to finally play Elden Ring.

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Maker of several games, https://shweep.itch.io/

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Shweep

Maker of several games, https://shweep.itch.io/

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