One of the more common questions we get asked by indie game developers is: “How many wishes, or wishlists, does my indie game need in order to be successful on Steam?”
The answer to this question is more complex than it may initially seem, and depends in large part on what each individual developer means by “success”. Success to a solo developer working on a passion project in their spare time, might look quite different to success for a larger studio with staff to pay and overheads to cover.
Still, there are some common threads we can pick through. Understanding how wishlist additions lead to success on the platform means understanding a little about how Steam’s mysterious discovery algorithm works: a closely guarded secret, but one we’ve been working hard to uncover. So, read on to learn a little about this algorithm, and what that means for how to think about your game’s wishlist figures.
What is Steam’s discovery algorithm?
Like many modern online storefronts, Steam relies heavily on an algorithm to determine which products to show to whom, where, and how often. In short, Steam shows games to people who it thinks are the most likely buy them, and prioritises them based on which it believes will make everyone the most money.
Once a game has been released, one of the main metrics Steam’s algorithm uses is the number of people who have bought the game within a given time period: lots of sales in a short space of time and the game will become more visible, while fewer sales over a longer period of time will deprioritise your game in the discovery rankings.
But what about before a game has been released? This is where ‘pre-sale metrics’ come into play. Pre-sale metrics are KPIs (key performance indicators) that Steam uses to predict how interested people will be in buying a game once it has been released. And while there are lots of factors that go into the discovery algorithm at this stage (tagging and related content, click-through rates, and more), the two big metrics to pay attention to are the quantity of visits to your store page, and the number and rate of people who add your game to their wishlist.
Put simply, the more traffic and wishlist additions you can drive in the shortest space of time, the more likely your game is to start showing up in more places on Steam – and as you get into your all-important launch week, the more likely you are to start appearing on the holy grail: the Steam front page.
How many wishlists does my indie game need?
The short answer is: as many as possible. The longer answer is more complicated and will come down to each individual developer’s needs and desires.
Perhaps the most helpful way to answer this question is to look at different ‘wishlist milestones’ that it’s worth being aware of. Note that these aren’t hard-and-fast numbers. To make the front page in a quiet week you might need fewer wishlists, while in a very busy peak season week you might need more. These are ballpark figures, useful for benchmarking, but not set in stone.
Below 1,000 net wishlists – With fewer than 1,000 net wishlists (that is, the number of people who have added your game to their wishlist, minus the number of people who have removed it), your game is likely to draw very little on-site visibility and almost all of your store page traffic will need to be driven manually from external sources, such as via your social media channels or from getting press coverage. The good news is that doing exactly that is what will start to inch your wishlist figure up toward the first milestone you need to be aiming for.
2,000 – 4,000 net wishlists – Somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 wishlists tends to be the figure required to start appearing, slowly but surely, around the Steam store. This might be in players’ Discovery Queues, higher up in tag search results, or in the ‘More Like This’ box on other games’ pages. If you go into your launch week with this number of wishlists, you’re likely to need a hefty dose of luck to make the front page (or demonstrate significant velocity – i.e. most of those wishlists came in the days leading up to release – as Steam’s algorithm appears to have a recency bias when it comes to this sort of thing). However, reach this milestone before launch, and you’ll likely find that your organic store page traffic begins to tick up, and your wishlists begin to rise accordingly.
7,000 – 12,000 net wishlists – This should be a major milestone target for most indie developers with commercial ambitions for their indie game. At somewhere between 7,000 and 12,000 wishlists, it becomes likely (although not certain) that your game will appear in the ‘Popular Upcoming’ box on Steam’s front page when you hit the week before your launch. This is a significant milestone, as being on the Steam front page means you’ll suddenly be getting many times the number of organic impressions and visits you’ve been getting previously. Developers sometimes find that they can achieve an extra 1,000 to 3,000 wishlists every single day that they sit in Popular Upcoming, without doing anything at all. And the more daily wishlist additions you get during this time, the longer you’ll stay in Popular Upcoming, and the higher your chances of appearing in ‘New and Trending’ when your game releases on the store.
25,000 – 50,000 net wishlists – At this point, you’re likely to be going into your launch with significant momentum. Steam likes momentum. Momentum suggests to Steam that it might make a lot of money out of your game, if it shows it often enough to the right people. And so, at somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 net wishlists by launch day, you stand a reasonable chance of not only appearing on Steam’s front page, but in the Featured carousel right at the top. At this point you are going to be among the first games that relevant audience members see when they launch Steam, giving you visibility to potentially millions of target customers. Indie games don’t make the carousel every day; the ones that do tend to be quite successful indeed.
75,000 – 100,000+ net wishlists – If you manage to achieve this number of wishlists prior to launch, then keep an eye on your emails. This is the point at which real human beings at Steam are likely to start taking an interest, and reaching out to you to see if there’s anything they can do to support your launch.
How do wishlists translate to sales?
There’s no hard-and-fast rule that determines how wishlists relate to sales. This is because they’re just one of many metrics that are going to influence the discovery algorithm and conversion rates once your game is available to buy. Having a passionate and engaged community who is ready to buy and review your game on day one, for example, has been shown to drive the discovery algorithm and player interest significantly regardless of how many people were on your wishlist beforehand.
That said, we can speak in broad terms. On average, you can expect your week-one sales figures to be roughly equivalent to 10-20% of your launch-day net wishlist number. So, if you launch with 10,000 wishlists, you can expect to sell between 1,000 and 2,000 copies of your game within the first seven days.
And you can very roughly presume that the number of copies you’ll sell in your first year will be roughly the same as the number of people who had added your game to their wishlist prior to the day of release. So if you go into the launch of your $20 game with 50,000 net wishlist additions, then less tax and Steam’s cut you could realistically expect to earn more than half-a-million dollars in the next 12 months.
Again, this can vary quite substantially – you might find that your wishlists convert at a lower rate, or conversely that you manage to go viral three days in and smash those targets – so use this as a loose benchmarking measure, rather than staking your entire commercial success on it. But if you firmly believe that your title is of a high quality and has a competitive advantage in the market, it is worth taking a calculated risk on marketing investment to give you the best chance of visibility and success on release.
My game doesn’t have enough wishlists! What should I do?
First of all, provided that you’re not releasing tomorrow, don’t panic. Marketing can be a long game, and the most gruelling and grindy work comes early in the process. Those first couple of thousand wishlist additions can be a nightmare to get, as you slog away at social media every day and relentlessly email journalists, hoping that someone will eventually bite.
The slog is real, but it’s important. It only needs to take one or two breakthroughs, and/or a hefty dose of persistence, to start inching toward some of those magic numbers above. As a general rule, the more wishlist additions you get, the easier your next round of wishlist additions will be to attain. As the discovery algorithm kicks in, it can create something of a snowball effect: your game is shown to more people, leading to more wishlist additions, leading to more visibility, and so on and so forth.
The most important thing for any developer with commercial ambitions is to have a clearly mapped out marketing strategy with relevant KPIs, which means – if you’re targeting Steam – driving store page traffic and wishlists should be a vital objective and you should be measuring your results against this constantly. You also need to ensure you’re allowing the right amount of time on Steam before launch. Go live with a Coming Soon page that isn’t ready, and you risk losing out on early wishlists and having a negative impact on discovery. But leave it too late and you won’t have enough time to build up the required momentum. 6-12 months before release tends to be a good time to launch your Steam page and begin your marketing efforts in earnest.
But if you’ve already done this and you’re still struggling to build momentum, what are some things to try? Here’s what we’ve found reliably drives wishlist additions.
Impress the press – Court the gaming media with an awesome, impactful trailer or preview build, accompanying a key piece of news (such as a release date announcement). A few well-timed articles on major games websites can result in hundreds of wishlist additions in just a day or two. Be mindful that you’re unlikely to achieve major press attention with your first PR campaign: allow time to court smaller sites and writers before you build up to the bigger guys, and make sure you’re putting exceptional quality assets in front of them.
Create compelling social content – If you manage to generate significant social media attention, then this could yield some good wishlist additions. Consider how to really appeal to your target audience on channels like Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, Imgur and more. Note that “pure promotional” content is unlikely to have a great deal of impact on wishlists; think about what is your personal story, and how you can show your potential fans something that will really wow them, and convince them to hit that ‘wishlist’ button.
Exhibit at events – After a couple of years away from conventions and expos, it can be easy to think in-person events are no longer relevant – however, many developers have shown that these can be very useful for driving wishlists. When you’re there to meet your potential players face-to-face, you can ask them to wishlist the game there and then on their phone – perhaps in exchange for some goodies or an exclusive demo download code? Even if not, consider asking them to sign up for a mailing list or community platform where you can continue to engage them and ask them to wishlist at a later date.
Run digital advertising campaigns – Many indies are suspicious of paid advertising efforts, but the reality is that, done right, they can present a reliable and repeatable way of driving wishlists. There are many ad platforms to choose from, but some are better than others: I would avoid Google and Twitter ads for driving wishlists, for example. But the Meta network and Reddit both allow for surprisingly granular targeting, as well as cost-capping to ensure you always know the maximum you’ll pay for a click. Figure out what percentage of new visitors go on to wishlist your game, and you can arrive at a fairly reliable estimate of how much you’ll need to spend each month to arrive at your total wishlist goal. It can, however, be easy to throw money away via this method if you haven’t got the right targeting and optimisation options set up, so consider consulting a professional if this route interests you and you’ve no prior experience.
But I don’t have a big enough marketing budget to drive the wishlists I need!
The reality is that good marketing takes time, effort, and often money. And all marketing represents a risk. Effective marketing campaigns are one part great product, one part great strategy, one part great execution, and one part sheer luck. If even one of these isn’t in your favour, there’s a chance your investment will count for nothing.
Unfortunately, if you have serious commercial ambitions as an indie game developer, then taking calculated commercial risks is something you’ll need to get used to. This is why we often advise new start-up developers to start with a small project than only requires a humble quantity of sales to break even. Developers can dip their toes into the marketing world with relatively low stakes, learn and hopefully make a bit of money from the project, then go again in the future with something more substantial.
If you truly believe your game has the potential to be the next big thing, but you don’t have the time or money required to drive the right visibility on Steam, then you may need to look at securing investment or loans to cover your up-front costs, signing with a publisher, or otherwise reducing your own expectations for your current project and planning for how you can build on it in the future. Still, there are ways to deliver effective marketing campaigns without breaking the bank – in fact, that’s what we specialise in. So be sure to get in touch if you’d like to find out more!