Navigating the digital launch

Launching a game, as every product launch, demands strategic planning and understanding, especially when preparing for a digital launch.

Visibility and Discoverability become more and more a challenge for developers and publishers. In this piece we shed light on key considerations and strategies that you must account for to ensure a successful digital release. The best game will end up without players (and revenues), if not discovered. So, the question of your distribution and sales strategy is as important as your game design and development.

Planning and Market Analysis
In the beginning, the most important part is your strategy. Whom do I want to reach? What is my budget (apart from the development costs)? Which platforms do I want to publish on? Do I work with a publisher, or do I self-publish? There are many questions that need to be answered. But often these questions are neglected, especially by small teams, with the result that promising titles might disappear in a platform or store Nirvana.

Discoverability is one of the major challenges nowadays. Also, you want to be able to control and maintain the perceived product value across the title’s lifecycle to avoid price erosion, so a distribution solution like ours can help here as it visualizes the whereabouts of the license keys visible. In the end, the goal should be to get the widest possible reach and visibility for your product and that rule needs to be followed by indies as well as triple-A studios.

Think beyond major platforms
Once the question of the product, platform, and distribution strategy has been answered, preparation should begin as early as possible. Especially if you want to offer the title across multiple platforms this already influences your development and resource requirements. From here onwards, sales figures of the title will be influenced by many factors, including reach, what sales channels you target and what level of accessibility (emerging markets) and discoverability (developed countries) those add. Especially with large retailers, setting up and agreeing on commercials, sales processes, etc. may take considerable time. Once implemented, this obviously comes with overhead and processes. Thats where our platform enters the stage. Bethesda, for example, who we worked with to distribute huge numbers of units for the recent launch of Starfield to third-party retailers across Europe, wanted to improve control over third-party distribution, which they were able to achieve by using our Smart Distribution Platform. 

Why supplying a wide range of retailers is important
Steam’s market share of first party PC Digital hovers around 70% with the remaining 30% being shared by GOG, Epic, GOG,… we could add hundreds if not thousands of mid- to small sized retailers here. However, looking at third-party makes sense as there is a large over-supply of titles and a lack of discoverability, especially if you don’t have the means of a triple-A marketing budget or the one or another indie hit. Getting a proper visibility on Steam has become increasingly difficult, comparable to what mobile game developers see on Apple or Google Play. You might have noticed already: Wishlists are not a guarantee for good sales anymore. 

You might have noticed already: Wishlists are not a guarantee for good sales anymore.

Being featured across gaming communities and third-party stores, such as Fanatical, Humble, Gamesplanet, and others increases visibility, giving your title the reach it deserves and allowing a different level of trusted interaction and recommendation. You will want to ensure that you interact with users where they are and feel comfortable discovering new content. This won’t require you to build or operate your own DRM, most developers use Steam keys to sell products via third parties, however this binds you to restrictions Valve decides to put in place. That obviously makes promotions on other sales channels difficult. Working with GOG or Epic can thus present a welcomed alternative and the ability to deliver keyless activations directly to the user through the channel of their choice allows for the best overall experience.

Steam itself sells billions of dollars’ worth of products to gamers every year, but so do third-party channels. In several countries these third-party channels will even outsell the platforms.

Identifying the right partners that might sell your game well
Depending on your title, the genre and target audience, it’s important to consider factors such as reach, discoverability, and accessibility. When we talk about emerging markets, local payment methods do indeed play a role. Credit cards or PayPal are not the first choice for most countries and Steam does not offer the appropriate set of options in many of them. Additional reach and discoverability will help interested gamers outside of markets to learn about and interact with your product and consider and acquire it yourself. Looking at the sales data across channels used to be a time-consuming, manual process, making it difficult to assign revenues to the country of the player. Bethesda’s Sales Team e.g., highlights how our platform empowers them to get real-time insight in global sales by their direct partners.

Adapting the product for regions and markets
Localization never hurts! Certain content does not work in the same way globally. In the past, for example, many Asian MMO publishers found that European customers were less willing to pay than their local markets or demand a different type of consumables or gaming experiences. If your product is not designed to appeal to a certain market, you probably won’t generate much revenue there, but visibility outside the major platforms is crucial regardless.

License Key Supplies: From physical model to transaction-based model
Usually, the distribution of license keys is mostly still following the model established for physical distribution models. This was the major motivation to start developing our smart distribution platform. To make digital distribution actually… digital.

As a rule, retailers request a certain number of keys and order additional keys from the publisher when demand is high. Again: The challenge is that Valve is much more restrictive with the allocation of keys to developers – precisely because they have no interest in these being sold via third-party channels. 

So first, you should move away from consignment sales and distribute on-demand to retailers. Nowadays we are talking primarily about digital products and sales. So finally, distribution should follow a transaction-based model. Allowing users to choose the best deal via their preferred channel and credit the title directly into their user library on the respective platform.

VaultN enables this in a highly automated, api-based manner as successfully applied by Bethesda during the launch of Starfield. For other developers and publishers that rely on Steam keys, this has the advantage of less keys being required to enable the same number of activations. This increases the number of sales opportunities across the board and might raise the willingness to receive even more keys from Steam itself. Pairing this with offering activations across other platforms, such as GOG or Epic helps to further reduce your dependency on the dominating platform.

Managing Distribution Post-Launch
Most Keys are required during pre-order and launch period, with peaks during seasonal or dedicated product promotions. Be prepared. Request sales forecasts or ideally commitments from distributors and retail partners, so you can order a suitable number of keys. If you organise your distribution to an on-demand model, more keys will be available for additional sales partners. In combination with additional platforms, you can reach a portion of “the other 30%”. VaultN e.g., enables developers to sell GOG entitlements on third-party stores without the intervention of an intermediate. This also can have, of course, a positive effect on margins in the end.

Want to learn more on how VaultN’s Smart Distribution Platform can help you managing third-party sales and grow revenue? Request a demo or have a conversation with us. We are happy to support.

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