The Anatomy of a Steam Weekend Deal & Publisher Sale
Tanya X. Short is the Captain of Kitfox Games and game designer of Boyfriend Dungeon, Moon Hunters, Shattered Planet, and more. She also heads up Kitfox publishing, and co-edited two textbooks on procedural design in games.
We had a publisher sale and weekend deal. Sales were up, but lower than expected. Visibility was high for some titles and not others. Dwarf Fortress continued to skew all our perceptions.
tl;dr: Publisher Sales (even when highlighted on the front page of Steam) maybe primarily invite sales from existing customers who recognize your logo or key art, rather than finding entirely new players. Here in 2023 we have more customers than ever before, so that’s good, but not AS good as “normal” marketing events might have led us to expect.
From May 4–11, Kitfox celebrated its approaching 10th(!!) anniversary of operation with a special publisher sale on Steam. This consisted of:
- a special custom “event” sale page
- all of our released Steam games on simultaneous discount, some at more discount than ever before
- special Steam broadcasts with developers of our upcoming games
- (bonus) a Weekend Deal, placed by Valve on the front of the Steam Store
At the moment the sale launched, Kitfox had:
- 14 studio members, including 2 remaining founders
- 9 released games in its Steam catalog (4 developed, 5 published)
- 2 announced upcoming games
- ~10,000 Steam followers and ~40k Twitter followers
What is a Weekend Deal?
A Weekend Deal is a particular promotional spot on the Steam storefront, curated by Valve. The following weekend, there were actually 2 simultaneous publisher weekend/weekend deal combos occurring, for Annapurna and Team17. I guess May is a popular time for this type of promotion.
But for our particular event, in what was probably a nice stroke of luck, a Spongebob bundle was the main other weekend deal. We also used a few of our “update visibility tokens”, for titles that had them remaining, to help reach even more cross-Steam eyeballs.
How did you get the deal at all?
2022 was our first entry into the official Publisher promo activities, invited when we had crossed some kind of threshold that remains unclear to me. My impression was that we were invited due to some combination of, in possible order of priority:
- total number of games released
- ongoing wishlists and sales
- total historical sales
We called our first publisher sale (in 2022) a “Kitfox Festival”, because our main attraction Dwarf Fortress wasn’t technically on sale at all, since it hadn’t released yet. We felt Festival was a better word to describe the main attraction of the page, but this year we could say Sale was more accurate.
In fact, our 2022 Publisher Sale was our best-performing Steam sale event up until that point, in terms of wishlists and units, and the revenue was also significantly higher than normal weeklong and seasonal sales, or basically anything other than launching Boyfriend Dungeon.
This year there were 3 major differences:
- Dwarf Fortress had released and was available for sale, 10% off (i.e. not high enough to trigger an email to wishlisters)
- we’d also announced Six Ages 2 and released its demo (our first demo in some years)
- In 2022 we had a “Friends of Kitfox” carousel with other indies we wanted to highlight in our Festival. This year, that was explicitly banned by the Steam Publisher Sale guidelines. We did feature Caves of Qud as a slightly mysterious cross-promotion, but only within our existing themed carousels.
We went into it hoping to at least do as well as last year.
So How’d it Go?
How many should you expect from a promotion like this? Did it go well or poorly? Well, it depends how you look at it!
When you look at the overall graph, it looks like our normal ho-hum weeklong sale in March (nothing noteworthy about it) was significantly better in terms of sales, with a revenue peak twice as high, which was a bit disappointing at first:
Except when you, use the 2022 publisher sale as a baseline, this one did… incredibly!
Our 2023 publisher sale sold roughly the same number of total units as last year, but resulting in literally 3.5x more dollars, and almost 150% more wishlists total. Dwarf Fortress was obviously a big factor as our highest-priced game and only at 10% discount, so each unit sold was “worth” significantly more.
My ideal outcome for this kind of event would be tons of units sold, but a close second is converting as many wishlists into sales as possible. Getting more wishlists (for a released game) is actually kind of a downer!
For a game that’s been released, every wishlist is a lost sale. It’s better than nothing, but it means a customer decided not to buy it and instead basically pressed the “make it cheaper” button.
So somehow the following are all true:
- we had lower visibility and wishlists than last year’s Publisher Sale, despite more prominent Steam featuring
- we sold more units and made more money than last year’s
You might be wondering why I haven’t shown the overall graph of sales and units for the whole year this far, with all 3 events included. And here’s why:
I don’t know, folks. Every time you step into the river, it’s a different river. Every event is different. Every game is different. We’re in a post-Dwarf Fortress world, so our numbers are all skewed.
My theory is twofold:
- the cross-promotion we accidentally stumbled into via the Friends of Kitfox carousel in 2022 was actually worth more to us, in terms of reaching new customers in our audience, than a front-page Weekend Deal featuring. We primarily saw clickthrough from people who would already somewhat recognize our logo, which would imply…
- Dwarf Fortress customers = the main audience activated by the promotion, and therefore they primarily bought our other games, instead of a 2nd copy of Dwarf Fortress.
At this point Dwarf Fortress has outsold all of our other totals combined, so obviously they are the majority of our playerbase, by headcount alone. Unless we find a way to activate people who haven’t bought Dwarf Fortress (whether wishlisted or simply not-yet-discovered), this kind of outcome is almost inevitable. It seems that, within the new restrictions, a branded Publisher event is more about upselling than about conquering new territories.
It’s possible you could work against this dynamic by making your key art instead highlighting your games EVEN MORE than your publisher brand, but maybe Valve wouldn’t be interested in that. I don’t know.
My next task will be to try and conjure up a Friends of Kitfox style cross-promotion with more thematic value to Valve, since apparently a game being made by my friend isn’t compelling to the average Steam user for some reason.