Comparing space oranges and zero-G apples: A deep dive into Everspace's Steam launch
Rockfish CEO Michael Schade busts some myths around Steam Early Access, wishlists, pricing, Game Pass, and more
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Finding ways to accurately measure success is an ever-moving and sometimes difficult task in itself for studio leaders – but today, I'm able to present a look into two data sets that show changes in Steam feature performance over time and how wishlist value (while still desired) very much depends on Early Access versus 1.0 launch.
Coming in hot off our studio's best launch to date, I wanted to share thoughts and comparisons on our two similar and successful announce-to-launch campaigns for Rockfish Games' flagship titles, Everspace and Everspace 2.
Space games are a niche and don't sell… Or do they? From the recent single-dev surprise Spacebourne 2, No Man's Sky, Elite Dangerous, Eve Online, Stellaris, the X series, Homeworld 3, Star Citizen, to the much-anticipated AAA space-RPG blockbuster Starfield, it looks like there's been a real renaissance of space games within the last decade, and we think our space combat series Everspace plays an important role here, too.
In fact, Rockfish's influence might go back even further as our team was also behind space combat games Galaxy on Fire 1 & 2. Thanks to a massive fanbase following us when we started our new studio, Rockfish Games, we had a wildly successful Kickstarter for the first Everspace, which then became a Steam Early Access Platinum Graduate of 2017 and has sold close to three million units (including DLC) on PC and console.
Thanks to the game's commercial success with roguelike fans, we were able to base the sequel on a much bigger and, to many space game enthusiasts, more appealing vision. The team's internal pitch for Everspace 2 was Freelancer meets Diablo with Descent vibes. Three iconic classics with huge potential as a unique genre mix, but we, too, had ambitious plans and wanted to conquer our own niche within an arguably niche genre.
Now, while both titles had different starting conditions since many things have changed on Steam, we've done a lot similarly – most importantly, we demonstrated a compelling prototype to the public, proved our case to the community but also to ourselves on Kickstarter, and worked together with our community during Early Access with several major content update before hitting version 1.0.
Throughout it all, we focused on running space-laser-focused and KPI-driven campaigns on social media and exclusively worked with content creators who were genuinely interested in checking out the game without getting paid.
Everspace in Early Access
Thanks to a strong Steam Greenlight campaign with 95% positive votes – those were the days – and a massive Kickstarter with close to 11,000 backers, the first Everspace launched with solid momentum into Steam Early Access in September 2016.
We sold 19,000 copies during launch week with a lead price of $29.99. The 1-Day wishlist conversion rate was 10.7%, and 7-Day was 15.1%, with 18,000 notifications sent. Our debut title earned 93% positive reviews until ratings took a beating due to technical issues from later VR and HOTAS implementation in combination with a special-hardware audience being hard to please, plus extreme expectations from hardcore space sim fans wanting a different game than the one we were making.
Space games are a niche and don't sell… Or do they?
Steam store page traffic during launch week was substantial thanks to the game being featured for two days on the front page carousel, showing 8.1 million impressions with a healthy 9.84% CTR leading close to 800,000 store page visits in Steam's backend. Deducting 6,574 activations and purchases from wishlists from total sales and dividing by store page traffic during launch week resulted in a store page sales conversion of 1.58%.
The first two-week-long Winter Sale shortly after launch went… sort of well. While we saw another 2 million impressions on the store with a staggering 28% CTR leading to 561,000 store page visits, store page sales conversion was quite low at 0.34%, indicating that users new to the game didn't see great value (yet).
However, 3,276 purchases from 178,424 notifications sent resulted in a much better 7-Day conversion of 1.8%. Overall, the first Everspace generated $1.67 million revenue on Steam from 65,000 copies sold during nine months of Early Access.
As Everspace launched in full on PC, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Switch, as well as debuting on Google Stadia and Amazon Luna, it provided enough runway for our team to develop the game we'd always wanted to make, the space-faring, looter-shooter action RPG Everspace 2.
Everspace 2 in Early Access
Fast forward to January 2021, and we've just launched Everspace 2 in Steam Early Access with way more momentum, but also on a platform that has changed quite a lot. Thanks to a much longer pre-launch campaign, and another successful Kickstarter, albeit with fewer backers (8,000), Everspace 2 launched with 226,000 wishlists, 16 times more than its predecessor.
Thanks to this, the title qualified for the global Steam store pop-up, plus notifications were sent to all owners of the predecessor on Steam, 750,000 at the time. If that wasn't enough, the sequel was also featured on the store page carousel during the entire launch week, leading to over 66 million impressions. In combination with 92% positive reviews, Everspace 2 became the global #1 top seller on Steam that month.
Now, with so much more traffic, a lower CTR was to be expected, but 3.63% is not too shabby, and certainly, no complaints about the 61,000 copies sold (320% better performance than our first game) at a hefty $39.99 lead price during launch week, busting the myth that games in Early Access should be cheap.
No complaints about the 61,000 copies sold at a hefty $39.99 lead price during launch week, busting the myth that games in Early Access should be cheap
In fact, I'd argue the exact opposite if devs don't want to leave money on the table. Purchases and activations from wishlists were "only" at 496% (32,000 copies), which can be explained because of the higher price point of the sequel, and some 70,000 wishlist additions being added from Steam fests, which seem to be generally less effective.
The 7-Day wishlist conversion was also lower at 8.9% (60% of the predecessor), confirming that wishlists are much less effective than they used to be, at least during Early Access.
Steam's store page conversion rate was at 1,2% and thus lower (76%) than for the predecessor, which makes sense when looking at the 33% higher price point of Everspace 2. Peak active players were at 384% (3,072 vs. 801), nice!
Seeing $2.378.074 Steam revenue for the Early Access launch week was a huge relief after going all-in with a much bigger team of some 25 mouths to feed – after pushing back the Early Access launch three times, we could not have held on any longer, and we were safe now! Or were we?
Again, real Early Access launch 7-Day and lifetime sales data pulled directly from Steam as of April 20, 2023.
To predict if we'd be able to sustain a much longer Early Access period – we planned 18 instead of nine months – we looked at the 28-days baseline performance after the dust from the launch had settled. Store page impressions were at 431%, probably thanks to a much larger Steam user base and the sequel having a stronger momentum organically. However, the click-through rate was much lower at 3.39% instead of 11.28%. There must be more to it than just a higher price point.
In fact, the CTR from external traffic was at 172%, so the higher price was probably not an issue, while ditching the linear rogue-lite formula in favor of a semi-open world space action RPG with looter-shooter mechanics was definitely a good move. Still, sales were at 129% with revenue at 181% thanks to the higher price. But our team was now twice as strong and salaries for a veteran team had gone up quite a bit, so we had to rely on running several sales during Early Access to keep the lights on.
Steam does a much better job now of getting the right users to our store page
No reason to be concerned, sales performed fantastically in the past, plus we were now making a space combat/exploration game appealing to a much broader audience, so we thought we would still be fine…
Well, looking at the performance of the first seasonal sale of Everspace 2 during Early Access was quite shocking. While the title received a whopping 30.4 million impressions on Steam's front page (15x times higher compared to the predecessor's first seasonal sale), the CTR dropped from 28.2% down to a mere 2.67% – that's 9% of what we were used to.
CTR from external traffic was at 112%, so our marketing efforts were still as effective as before. We assumed that the extremely low seasonal sale CTR on the store had to be due to way more games being promoted thanks to all the new genres and sub-genres that Valve introduced in 2021.
Thankfully, activations and purchases from wishlists were still at 283%, with a slightly lower 7-Day conversion rate (1.2% vs. 1.8%) from 567,000 notifications sent (318%), generating 6,924 sales (211%) at 20% off, leading to $507,000 Steam revenue (403%) thanks to the higher price point (cheap games FTW, myth busted again).
However, Steam does a much better job now of getting the right users to our store page as the sales conversion rate went up from 0.34% to 5.13%. In other words, Steam users are now 15 times more likely to buy Everspace 2 when coming to our store page from within the platform, which is a massive improvement!
The Game Pass deal did not hurt our performance on Steam when comparing two almost identical sales beats
Overall, Everspace 2 generated $7.59 million Steam qualified revenue from 224,000 copies sold during 27 months of Early Access and was a great success for our fully self-funded studio. In combination with a massive PC Game Pass deal with Microsoft as well as significant revenues from the predecessor on PC and console, plus various cloud gaming licensing deals, we were able to make an even bigger game and work together with our community on a very polished launch build for the v1.0 release much longer than planned.
Bonus insight: the Game Pass deal did not hurt our performance on Steam when comparing two almost identical sales beats – releasing a major content update synced with a 20% sale – a few weeks before and after Everspace 2 launched on the Microsoft Store. Take it with a grain of salt, but the slight decline in performance is in-line with similar beats even further before and after adding Everspace 2 to Game Pass. If anything, baseline sales even increased a few months later.
Everspace 2 v1.0 launch week
Over the course of Early Access, we lost 5% in positive reviews due to VR enthusiasts being disappointed that we won't support their favorite platform in Everspace 2 and some fans of hardcore space sims were not happy with our more accessible approach.
Other negative reviews came from us doubling down on fast-paced action, RPG and looter elements, and adding (even more) puzzle mechanics in the game.
Still, on April 6, Everspace 2 launched into v1.0 with 87% positive reviews on Steam and an 83 aggregate score on both Metacritic and Opencritic, thanks to a very solid review build we sent to media and content creators three weeks prior.
I also strongly believe that having a time-unlimited, always up-to-date demo throughout Early Access helped tremendously to manage expectations and reduce the number of negative reviews, especially from pilots with HOTAS setup who could customize button and flight axis mapping to their liking before making an educated purchase decision.
I strongly believe that having a time-unlimited, always up-to-date demo throughout Early Access helped tremendously to manage expectations
For the v1.0 launch, Everspace 2 received a lot of Steam love again: another global pop-up message, a 48h Early Access page takeover, and featuring in the front page carousel throughout the entire week generated 23.4 million impressions, a 246% increase over the predecessor's 1.0 release. The lower CTR of 2.46% vs. 4.63% (53%) is probably rooted in the increased price of $49.99 despite a 10% launch discount.
Surprisingly, we received only a few complaints about the price, with our community immediately jumping in on the Steam forums and social media, stating that the game was worth its price tag..
Sales during launch week were solid. We sold twice as many Everspace 2 copies (42,059) during launch week compared to the predecessor (20,445). Interestingly, the 7-Day wishlist conversion was identical at 2.0%, with 592,344 notifications (255%) sent. It seems that for a 1.0 release, wishlists are as powerful as they used to be, phew!
Thanks to the higher lead price, Steam revenue in our first week was $1,834,339 (362%), which again proves that it is ok to ask for a high(er) price for a AA product if the quality and scope are there and properly communicated to the target audience. In fact, we had 2x sales and 3.5x revenue in our forecast, confirming our overall business case that tripling our investment in Everspace 2 was a good idea.
It remains to be seen if this performance continues during seasonal and scheduled sales, but sitting at 700,000 wishlists with lots of coming sale events to burn through, plus the upcoming console release on Xbox and PlayStation, lets us sleep well at night.
Another major relief was that the Game Pass deal didn't hamper our v1.0 launch on Steam. On the contrary, another round of marketing support from Microsoft for Everspace 2's upcoming v1.0 release helped boost interest from media and gamers alike earlier this year, while the only major spike of Game Pass users came from the game releasing in Game Preview in October 2021.
It seems that for a 1.0 release, wishlists are as powerful as they used to be
So, all in all, we've achieved everything that we aimed for with the PC launch of Everspace 2. As a team, we didn't screw up development, delivered on nearly all our promises, and our self-publishing plan with twelve major beats beginning from the announcement at Gamescom in 2019 to the v1.0 release on PC was a major success, with every marketing dollar spent on highly targeted social ads wisely. It's been a long ride, and with the PC launch done, the team and I have had a moment to catch our breath. That said, there's more to come.
With this successful launch, we'll be able to continue living the indie dream and keep making exciting space action RPGs for PC and console old-school style without anyone breathing down our neck to incorporate online functionality, microtransactions, or whatever the latest fancy new monetization scheme might be into a classic-style single-player game, which is exactly what our fans want us to keep making. I couldn't ask for more.
Michael Schade is CEO and co-founder of Rockfish Games. He is a serial entrepreneur, marketing & PR expert, and seasoned speaker with over 30 years of experience in the CGI/video games industry.
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