For the past few years, there has been one metric on Steam that indie developers and marketers alike have talked about to considerable lengths, and that’s wishlist numbers. Often seen as a key signifier as to a game’s projected launch sales, wishlist numbers have increasingly been thought of as the easiest way to judge player buying intention in what is an unpredictable market.

There has been some shift on that recently though with Steam’s Discoverability update making the follow button more relevant. On the surface, following a game offers similar benefits to wishlisting which makes you wonder why Steam chooses to include both options. Furthermore, marketers seem to be offering mixed advice as to which one indie devs should be focused on increasing. In this post, we take a look at both and break down their pros and cons so you can be better informed on the shifting landscape of the Steam marketplace.

Wish Upon a Steam

It’s easy to see why wishlisting has been seen as the most important metric for developers and marketing specialist looking to release games on Steam. It comes with a range of useful benefits that can help boost any game’s overall sales. For a start, the player will be notified when the game launches via email or the Steam mobile app if they’re signed in on their phone. The same goes for every time the game is put on sale – they’ll get an email or mobile notification. This often acts as an easy way for players to track the price of games they are interested in, boosting sales during promotional periods for developers.

A player’s friends will also be able to see it on their wishlist and choose to purchase it for them as a gift, which is another level of great visibility. Also, players’ wishlists are always there at the top of the store page, reminding them of the games they like the look of but haven’t bought.

As marketing research data has shown, it’s also a great way to judge how well your game might sell within its first year, though this is an inexact science. From speaking to developers and working on various campaigns, most developers can expect to see around 10% of players who have wishlisted the game make a purchase shortly after launch, increasing to around 50% of your launch-day wishlists by the end of your first year on sale. But this does vary from game to game and genre to genre, and is almost always impacted by how much post-launch marketing you commit to. Grey Alien Games developer Jake Berkett’s Gamasutra blog is full of useful information about wishlists.

Wishlists also have a background function of playing heavily into Steam’s discovery algorithms. While it can seem like Steam re-writes these on an almost weekly basis, and is very protective of its methodologies lest developers start gaming the system, it is commonly understood that Steam uses a game’s wishlist numbers as one of its metrics to track the potential commercial value of a game – and a game with higher wishlist numbers are more likely to gain good visibility around the store in the run-up to and at the time of its launch.

Follow the Leader

The ability to follow a game was updated in Steam’s Discoverability patch September 2019 along with a host of other features aimed at getting smaller indie games more visibility. Just as wishlists help to increase a game’s visibility, getting people to follow your game now makes it more likely to pop up on the new ‘Steam Labs Recommendations’ area. This gives you more visibility to your core audience – according to Steam, that is.

By following a game you are essentially put into a group, one that functions similar to how all groups work on Steam. Players will see your community updates and official announcements in their community activity feed.

Now, players won’t get an email when your game launches but they will see the update in their activity feed on Steam, assuming one is published to announce the launch. Again, the same could be said of sales. That means, potentially, by a player following instead of wishlisting, they’re getting more consistent updates while they are on Steam. In theory this might lead to a higher conversion rate – but it’s early days, and you have to question how much attention players are paying to their activity feed even with notifications.

And of course, similarly to wishlist numbers, you can get a good indication of potential sales. Grey Alien Games’ Jake Birkett also shared a simple formula for this which he goes into more depth on in a Twitter post.

Conclusion

On the surface, this seems like a comparison of automation versus manual engagement. Followers only see updates you put out whereas people who wishlist automatically get emails and notifications from Steam.

Both have value but yet very few developers and marketers alike directly request people to follow a game, that tends to happen more organically. In fact, in an effort to build wishlist numbers you’ll naturally gain followers, as broken down in Jake Birkett Twitter posts – generally, wishlists = followers X5.

With that in mind, we’re of the opinion that it’s currently more sensible to drive wishlists so players can be directly contacted by Steam when your game launches and when it’s on sale. By doing so, you’ll pick up a number of dedicated followers who want to see more updates about the game’s progress beyond its release. But as the follower functionality evolves, this may change – and for especially community-focused developers, the follower functionality may have more benefits.

Ultimately, to achieve either of these things you’ll have to get people on your Steam page and looking at your game to begin with. Things may have slightly improved with regards to discoverability on Steam recently but there are still thousands of games releasing every year and players won’t see all their pages.

That’s why it’s vital for PC game developers to create a robust marketing plan early, that aims to get people on their pages and wishlisting or following in the run-up to launch – whether that be funnelling traffic from potential players reading news stories or watching YouTube videos to your Steam page or reworking your Steam page presentation and marketing materials to appeal to the right crowd.