'How does Steam choose which games to recommend to players?' is a question often asked by developers, and Valve's Alden Kroll cannot offer an answer.
But he does want to help developers find success on Steam, and for that reason made the specific Steam tools developers can use for pre-release marketing the focus of his talk at the GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit at PAX Dev.
Steam, he said, is not an ad platform, but it is built to work like one; with games appearing to players who are most likely to want to buy them via a system based on factors like set personal preferences, past games played or wishlisted, what their friends are playing, and what curators or developers they follow.
But in order for those games to show up in user recommendations at all, a number of factors need to be in place: Steam needs to have enough info about a game, that info needs to be accurate and interesting, and all of that is boosted as more people discover a given game. This means that bringing an audience from other channels to Steam will then increase the audience that game is shown to on Steam itself.
With that in mind, Kroll offered these nine tools developers should use on Steam to help with their pre-release marketing for a game:
1. Track your traffic
Steam already has built-in tools to let developers and publishers track where their games are already appearing on Steam, both in the store itself as well as in the client and within the community.
"List your game as soon as you have screenshots and a description of your game. You can use this as a way to start engaging with players"
Those tools can be fairly specific, with Kroll giving the example of showing traffic coming not just from the front page of Steam, but specifically what location on the front page. This allows developers to consider where their games are showing up, and how many people clicked on their game from which location. Frequent referencing of the traffic breakdown can give developers an idea of what their brand impressions look like and how well they're working, allowing them to either tweak things if necessary, or amplify certain aspects that seem to be working well.
2. Coming Soon page
When should you list your game on Steam? According to Kroll, the sooner, the better.
"Put this up as soon as you have screenshots and a description of your game," he said. "You can use this as a way to start engaging with players."
He added that listing a game quickly also means immediate access to the Community Hub; a place where you can chat with your audience directly, get feedback, and see what questions are being asked about the game. It also gives potential audiences a place to land if they search for the name of your game after hearing about it elsewhere.
3. Call to action
Being able to present calls to action is another benefit of listing games on Steam early, Kroll said. Once you have the page set up, you can ask your audience to take actions that relate to that page that then build your audience during pre-release.
"You're probably already asking people to subscribe to your YouTube channel, or follow you on Twitter," he said. "But also [ask them to] wishlist your game on Steam."
Kroll added that, while there are other important calls to action you can make, such as asking players to sign up for betas or to enter emails into websites for future communication, wishlisting is key. Wishlisting a game automatically gets emails sent to players interested in your game for Early Access releases, full releases, discounts, and more. It's an instant, easy way to keep your game in the forefront of people's minds.
Plus, "when you have a big update in your game, we'll make sure that shows up on the homepage of people who wishlisted your game."
4. Tagging your game
Tags communicate to players what your game is -- the genre, themes, style, and mechanics. Having accurate tags, both general and specific, will help you reach an audience who will be interested.
"The more narrow tags are the ones that help correlate your game more strongly with other games"
"It's what our recommendation engine currently uses to correlate your game with other games and recommend it to the right players," Kroll says. "The more narrow tags are the ones that help correlate your game more strongly with other games, so players who play other games that are tagged similar to yours are going to get recommended your game."
One useful tip Kroll offers is to look at other, similar games already on Steam, see what tags they use, and replicate them on your game if they fit. Of course, don't apply tags that don't make sense, or you'll end up with confused or frustrated customers.
5. Preparing for a global market
Steam is an international marketplace. Players find games in their local languages and pay for them in their local currencies through local payment methods. Kroll recommended that, regardless of your game's scope, localization should be on your mind during pre-release.
Even if you don't have the budget for full localizations, it's important to consider how you can make your game to accessible to players in other countries.
"Your game gets recommended to players who can understand it," Kroll says. "If you don't translate a game into Korean, generally Steam is not going to recommend that game to Korean players, because we have pretty high confidence that they're not going to be able to understand that game."
Steam users are able to set primary and secondary languages, all of which are taken into account in Steam's recommendations. However, Kroll notes that while traditional Western European languages have often been the retail standards for localization, those customers are more likely to also speak English as a secondary language.
Therefore, if you have limited localization dollars, it's good to prioritize languages such as Simplified Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, as customers with those as their primary languages are less likely to speak English as a second language.
It can also be good to research regional tastes in games, as lists across Steam are localized for the trends of that region. For example, sim games are popular in France and Germany, and RPGs are popular in East Asia. Knowing these tastes can help you target localization investments.
6. Steam keys
Kroll's advice on Steam keys is simple: use them.
They're free, so Kroll recommends using their flexibility for a variety of audience-building activities, such as selling a game through your own site, through other retail sites, or for betas for press and influencers.
"If you don't translate a game into Korean, generally Steam is not going to recommend that game to Korean players"
7. Steam Curators
Steam Curators are the human curation element of Steam, allowing players to follow influencers and see their recommended games.
Kroll recommends researching curators who frequently recommend games similar to yours, and then send them copies of your game through Steam to encourage them to play (and hopefully recommend) it to their audience. You can view their past recommendations to determine if your game is a good fit for a particular curator, or search for tags a curator typically recommends to see if they like games similar to yours.
8. Running a beta
Just like with Steam keys, Kroll's advice for running a beta is fairly cut and dry: if you're able to, do one.
Betas build audiences and allow developers to collect valuable feedback. There are multiple options for running betas on Steam that developers can tailor to their games, including running either a closed or open beta, revoking access at the end of the beta, allowing it to continue, and so forth.
9. Developer home pages
If you're planning on releasing more than one game on Steam, Kroll said, it's time to set up a brand home page for you as a developer or studio to allow your audience to follow you across multiple titles.
This is key for establishing a long-term audience, as those who follow your page will get email notifications every time you release a new game, as well as see your games recommended and updates you post.
On release day
Ideally, by the time you reach release day for your game, you've built up an audience on Steam already via wishlists and your developer pages, Kroll said. So when you hit the launch button, they'll all be notified. It also means your game can appear in new places on the Steam storefront, such as lists of new releases and in Steam's "queue" discovery feature.
While Kroll said there are a number of other things you can do to promote your game post-launch, he emphasised the importance of publishing updates to your game's page after release. This is already possible, of course, but Kroll showed off a preview of a new announcements page coming soon to Steam that has a different, "richer" display for games that are sharing updates. This will be part of a larger update to the Steam library, though he did not offer details as to what that update would be.
Finally, Kroll urged developers to use the Steamworks contact form to reach out to Valve with any questions they have about marketing, releasing, or otherwise publishing a game on Steam.