For the vast majority of indie developers working on a PC game, Steam will be your main delivery platform. But Steam itself can also be an indie game marketer’s best friend… if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to make it work for you.
40 million people log into Steam every single day. That’s far beyond the reach most indies could ever hope to get from social media, influencer channels, or the gaming press.
The problem is, most of those 40 million people will never see most of the games on Steam.
This blog post won’t get you in front of 40 million people. But hopefully it will give you a framework within which you can optimise your Steam page and increase your chances of being seen by – and appreciated by – a larger number of people within your target audience.
When to launch your Steam page
You should launch your Steam ‘Coming Soon’ page as soon as you’re confident you have enough compelling content to show, and that you’ll be able to keep showing new compelling content consistently between now and launch.
The absolute minimum amount of time you should leave between launching your page and launching your game is three months. Valve remain tight-lipped on the exact algorithms that determine how much visibility you’ll get on the store, but it seems very much like store page data from the three months prior to launch is a key determining factor in launch-week visibility.
But if you have something to show sooner, and you’ll be able to keep up momentum, then you should launch your page as early as possible. This is because, if you follow the guidance set out below, then simply having a store page available will get you in front of hundreds or thousands of people per day, without you having to do anything. And you’ll be amassing a wishlist over time, of interested potential players who will be automatically notified when your game is released.
But if you don’t update your page regularly, you’ll see those numbers and the ensuing engagement start to drop off. That’s why it’s important to think about what new content you can add – page updates, screenshots, trailers – over a period of time.
Which metrics to track
In the Steam back-end, you’ll have access to all sorts of different data pertaining to traffic and wishlists on your store page. Essentially, there are three key primary metrics, and two key secondary metrics, you’ll want to keep an eye on.
Your primary metrics are:
Impressions – How many people see your game anywhere on the store (including in ‘Discovery Queue’, ‘More Like This’, tag lists etc) on a daily or weekly basis?
Visits – How many people visit your store page on a daily or weekly basis?
Wishlist additions – How many people add your game to their wishlist on a daily or weekly basis?
And from these, you can calculate two key secondary metrics:
Impressions-to-visits ratio – Of the people who see your game crop up on Steam, what percentage click through to view your full store page?
Visits-to-wishlists ratio – Of the people who visit your store page, what percentage add your game to their wishlist?
Now we’re going to talk about how you can improve these metrics on an ongoing basis.
Getting more impressions
The single biggest thing you can do to get more impressions is to ensure you have at least 15 tags for your game.
The more tags you have, the more places you will be shown around Steam – on tag lists, yes, but also in people’s Discovery Queues and on other games’ More Like This sections.
Steam will look at your 15 most popular tags to determine where to place your game. Quite simply, a game with five tags will get fewer impressions than a game with 15 tags.
Improving your impressions-to-visits ratio
But simply having enough tags and getting those impressions is only one part of the battle. If people don’t click through when they see your game appear, you won’t get more visits. And if you don’t get more visits, you won’t get more wishlists, and the Steam robots will determine that nobody is interested in your game, and will slow down the rate at which it appears in the results.
Of course, you can drive visits from external sources, such as PR, social media and advertising. We’re not going to go into that today; suffice it to say, doing so is important. But for now, let’s focus on the on-store stuff.
Getting your tags right
This means setting the right tags, which is easier said than done. You might have a good sense of the obvious ones (if you’re making a multiplayer RPG, then the ‘multiplayer’ and ‘RPG’ tags are no-brainers). But what about the more granular tags?
There’s only one way to find out. Pick a set of tags, and run them for a couple of weeks. Then change them. Do the results get better or worse? Continue to optimise and refine your understanding of which tags work best on an ongoing basis.
You can add as many tags as you like to your store page from your developer account; other people can add tags too. It would appear that Steam uses your 15 most popular tags to ascertain where your game is shown – whose Discovery Queues, which games’ More Like This sections, etc. When you have a better understanding of which tags are the most important, get your followers to add those tags too, to ensure they stay as the most popular.
(There is also benefit to simply changing your tags occasionally: we have seen strong evidence that swapping in and out tags every so often can lead to a spike in both impressions and visits, so it’s a good habit to get into anyway.)
The small capsule image
The other important thing you can do to generate more on-store traffic to your page is to refine your small capsule image. This, too, is easier said than done.
Why? Because it’s about three pixels wide. (It’s not actually, but it’s very small.) You have an extremely small amount of visual real-estate to work with. And Steam insists that your small capsule image comprises mostly your game logo.
And yet, your small capsule image is the first thing almost everyone on Steam will see about your game. It is, along with your game’s name, the only thing people will have to go on in deciding whether or not to visit your store page. It’s vital.
Again, experiment with it. We’ve found that incorporating the face of a main character into the image tends to lead to a better click-through rate. That won’t work for everyone. But in general, you want to find a way to make that image stand out on the page; demand people’s attention; and in some small way, communicate precisely what your game is about. Think about colour schemes, think about your logo, think about the graphics you utilise, and what they say about your game. You have only 32 horizontal pixels – in the capsule’s smallest form – to convince players your game is worth a look.
Cycle through a few different versions over the course of a few weeks, and see which version gets you the best results.
Improving your visits-to-wishlists ratio
Great – you’ve sorted your tags out, and got people coming to your page. How can you get those people to add your game to their wishlist?
This is where your store page itself comes into play. And the good news is, you have almost unlimited real-estate to play with now.
The bad news is, you have almost unlimited real-estate to get right.
To my mind there are four major things to consider on your Steam page, and I’m going to list them here in descending order of importance, though in truth they are all important.
More specifically, the first ten seconds of your trailer.
Your trailer is the first thing most people will look at when they click through to your Steam page. But most people won’t watch more than a few seconds before deciding whether to stay on your page, or move to the next item on their Discovery Queue.
Make those ten seconds count. You want to show your game in its absolute best light within those ten seconds. It wants to scream quality. It wants to effectively communicate your biggest USPs. Do not waste your first ten seconds on a Star Wars-esque narrative exposition intro sequence, unless that is a fundamental component of your game.
Is your game a co-op game? Show the co-op play right away. Does it have an emotive character-driven story? Introduce me to the characters and their plight. Is it a game about exploration? Tempt me into the game’s world. Don’t waste time. Do it right away.
I come back to quality again. Whatever you show, make it good. Using a placeholder HUD? Hide it. Not perfected that character animation? Don’t show it. Show your absolute best bits. And yes, do consider tweaking your production schedule slightly to make sure you can show awesome stuff in your marketing materials.
Your short description
This is the 300-character snippet of text below your capsule image. In marketing speak, it is your elevator pitch: the thing you’d tell someone about your game if you only had one floor to travel in an elevator.
The specifics of what you write here will depend on what your game is about, and what its USPs are. If the game’s main hook is that it’s a game of multiple interlocking systems and mechanics, then you’ll want to illustrate those in this text. If your game is primarily about an eerie mystery, then you could opt to keep it light and subtle. (I remain incredibly chuffed with the offbeat and understated short description my colleague Lucy wrote for the game Discolored: “Locals whisper of a roadside diner that’s lost its color. You are sent to investigate.”)
The important thing here is that you need to say something fundamental about your game, to communicate its main draw instantaneously, in 300 characters or fewer.
Your main capsule image
The image that sits above your short description is another of the first things someone will see on your Steam page. You have a lot more space to play with here than with your small capsule, but many of the same principles apply. As with all of these things, it should immediately communicate something about your game.
Is it a sci-fi game? Then your capsule image should showcase that. Is it an action-packed shooter? Then the capsule should illustrate some action-packed shooting. If your game uses a pixel art style, you probably don’t want a high-def 3D render as your capsule image.
And again, quality is key. You are giving people their very first impression of your game. It wants to look slick, arresting, and inviting. It wants to breed trust in your potential player.
Your ‘About’ section
Here you get to have some fun. You’ve grabbed people with your trailer and short description; now let’s take them further down the page.
You have a lot more words to play with here, but it’s still important to make them count. What is the most important piece of information you want people to know about your game? Put that first, front and centre. And add more detail as you go.
It can be tempting to stick to the established formula of “one paragraph describing the game, then a list of bullet points setting out its key features”. That can work for some games. But you shouldn’t feel restricted by this, and there may be more creative and inviting ways to explain your game to people.
What about a series of short one-liners, accompanied by an animated gif showing that thing in action?
What about including pretty header images in the style of your game’s branding?
If Steam didn’t exist and we were all still living in the year 1997, this would be the back of your giant game box. What would you want to say on the back of your box, so that the curious shopper who’s picked it up will take it to the till and buy it? (Or, in this case, add it to their wishlist?)
Try, test, and try again
You won’t get all of these right on your first attempt. We don’t get all of these right on our first attempt.
Every game is different, and every target audience is different. Sometimes, something you’re sure will work turns out to be completely ineffective. And something you threw onto your store page in a fit of frustration turns out to double your ratios.
Data is your friend. Check your marketing and wishlist graphs. Every. Single. Day. Set aside time to tweak and change things every week or two. Watch the numbers. If something works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, be prepared to change it.
And of course, the heavy caveat to all of this is that Steam might change its algorithms at any given time, without warning. We might all wake up tomorrow and it turns out that the thing that gets your game visibility on Steam is that it has the word ‘delineate’ in its short description, and wishlists don’t count for anything any more. We are all the guinea pigs of our Valve overlords.
But follow the above advice, and you’ll probably see an uptick in your numbers on Steam.
Set your release date in the back-end! Even if you’re not ready to announce it yet (you can hide it from public view)! The closer you get to release, the more frequently you’ll start to appear around the store. But that only happens if you bloomin’ well tell Steam what your release date is in the first place.
Post frequent store page updates! Once people are on your wishlist, you want to keep them engaged. And encourage people to follow your page, as well as wishlisting your game, so that they see those updates and are reminded your game exists.
I haven’t mentioned screenshots. Screenshots are very important too. There’s just less to say about these than the other points. Make them good. Showcase your action. Experiment with the order in which they appear on your page, and see what happens to the data. The tiniest tweak may surprise you.
If you can avoid it, don’t give out tons of beta keys via your Steam page; when someone installs your game, even via the beta branch, it removes that game from their wishlist. You want more people on your wishlist list, not fewer. Consider distributing beta keys via an alternative platform, like Itch. If you must use Steam, pay your hundred bucks for a new Steam app, and use that to distribute keys, without setting up a separate store page.
Don’t lie on your Steam page. This goes without saying, but even major studios have fallen foul of this — promising a particular feature, then removing it from the game, and forgetting (sometimes a little too conveniently) to remove that feature from their game description. This will lead to review bombing. Manage people’s expectations, don’t be silly.
There are probably more tips. This blog post is already really long.