Lessons learned from first game launch on Steam
I messed up a lot of things when releasing a game (Danger Crew) for the first time on Steam. This post is for any developer that is about to press the RELEASE button in Steamworks. Yes, it’s an actual button you press on the big day!
For context, my friend Glenn and I are a two person indie team with zero experience of putting anything on Steam. Some of these lessons were natural learn-as-you-go things, some were straight up silly mistakes, and others were just random things that happen when you have a store page on Steam.
Rapid fire style - here we go!
Test your depots like a real customer
You create buckets called depots within Steamworks. The PC version of your game is its own depot, the Mac version is its own depot, etc. You then define packages which specify the depots included in a purchase. In our case, buying the game grants access to both PC and Mac downloads… both depots.
We received a terrifying email a few hours after launching that the Mac version was not working. After buying and downloading the game, players were receiving an “executable not found” error. The download was blank. We effectively sold them an empty directory.
It turned out I hadn’t set up the production package correctly… an error that slipped by because both of our personal Steam accounts were specified as developers on the game. Developers get their own package - I set ours up over a month before launch day. I forgot I even did that! Everything seemed totally fine from our own accounts. PC users were unaffected because our “first” depot was automatically included in the production package.
Advice: buy your own game on a fresh Steam account (or have a friend do it) right after going live. Make sure the game opens correctly on all of your supported platforms. We were able to troubleshoot by making my wife a new Steam account and buying the game from there.
We also had a pre-release press key stop working on Mac. It was fine before launch day, but then the package started throwing the missing executable error when we went live. I still don’t know why.
Lots of people will ask you for Steam keys.
By Steam key, I mean a special kind of text code that a person can plop into Steam to download your game for free. It’s really common for game developers to send out free keys to press people, reviewers, etc.
Our game had basically no following before launch. (More on that later.) We were very surpised to receive a LOT of emails in the days surrounding launch from streamers, curators, and strangers who wanted a free key to play and review our game. People scrape Steam to find new releases.
At first, we were like “HECK YEAH! PLAY THE GAME!” and gave out keys like Oprah. I mean, we built this game for people to play and enjoy. After the initial flattery passes, it’s pretty easy to just automatically give keys to anybody who asks.
Then we started noticing some tricksters trying to pull some crafty shit. Emailing us from email addresses that looked like big name YouTubers and streamers but with very subtle character differences in the username or email address. Pirated versions were showing up on Twitter. We identified many of these people through lists of known Steam scammers compiled by fellow game developers. It’s not a good feeling when people try to steal from you, even if you don’t care that much about sales. We’re now putting way more rigor into researching requesters before sending out a key.
It’s good and fine to give out some keys, just make sure you vet who’s getting them - even while drinking the launch day koolaid.
People will reach out to you to promote your game, too.
There’s another flavor of emails you’ll start to receive: people who want to help market your game.
I always forget how big Steam is. It turns out there are many dedicated businesses that want to help promote and optimize your game for Steam’s algorithms. Some of these are super legit companies with successful track records on many indie games. Others are that special “Internet-marketing” flavor sketchy. As much as I wanted to believe their promises of making Danger Crew a smash hit overnight, we passed on the offers.
Don’t get me wrong, marketing is a BIG BIG BIG part of a Steam release. We are indeed considering working with a few of these companies for future releases. I can’t tell you if it’s worth the investment or not, because I honestly don’t know yet. If you’re in the market for this kind of thing, consider researching potential partners ahead of time and having a budget ready.
Make sure your game is set up on Twitch with box art.
This doesn’t really have anything to do with Steam, I guess, but it’s something you’ll want to have ready for launch. I’m including this section because I totally dropped the ball on taking care of this early - it was a full week after launch before we had our game seem legit on Twitch. Don’t be like me!
First, game results on Twitch propogate from a website called Giant Bomb - it’s a giant open wiki of every video game ever. You’ll need to add your game to Giant Bomb. They have a nice and easy form, but make sure you read their guidelines before posting your game. They don’t like when you copy & paste your Steam descriptions… even though you agonized over every word. The moderators will not accept your post if you don’t have a neutral voice, so do some research on other games on the site and submit as early as you can. (I used Gunpoint and Darkest Dungeon as references) It took two or three business days to hear back from moderators on Giant Bomb. People are busy!
After you’re on Giant Bomb, you’ll need to claim your game through Twitch’s developer program. You log in with your usual Twitch account through the developer site. They vet you and make sure you’re a real business or person (like Steam did) which takes a few business days. After that, you can request ownership of your game (takes another few business days) which allows you to upload your box art on Twitch.
If you don’t get set up on Twitch, people looking for the game on Twitch get a default mystery, less-than-reassuring, avatar box art next to your game. This doesn’t feel good to streamers looking for your game on Twitch.
Finally, the big one: Don’t slack on incremental promotion
I mentioned our game had almost no following before launch. This is why. It’s by far the most common and classic mistake of launching anything. Everybody warns you about it, but I fell for it anyway.
We always talked about “The Game” and “The Community” as two different arms of the project during development. “The Game”, building the dang thing, always won over our time because it felt more tangible to work on and it was way more in our comfort zone to just hunker down and code things.
“The Community” arm was our effort of talking about Danger Crew in public. Showing screenshots, tweeting about development progress, writing blog posts about what we were building, etc. We’re just bad at that - that little voice of self-doubt that all maker-types have gets the best of us and decide not to share things.
Granted, we have full time [non-gamedev] jobs - we told ourselves that it had to come down to one or the other, but really you have to do both.
We didn’t really try hard to spread the word about our game until a few weeks before launch… pretty much when we already had a release date lined up on Steam. We only had a trailer live for 2 or 3 weeks. We did a pretty good job for our time frame, especially considering starting with nothing, but our launch would have been way better if we had been casually promoting the whole time. I’m going to be way more vocal about whatever I’m working on with the next project.
Advice: Take the time to send out a Tweet or two about your game every few days. Even if it’s just one of those quick developer win feelings - like squashing a bug or implementing a nice animation. Self promotion can feel gross, but remember that it doesn’t necessarily come off that way to other people. Be genuine and share what you’re doing. You’ll end up doing it anyway at the last minute! There are no silver bullets - we have to fight for every single person that lays eyeballs on our work.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading this post! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter!
I’ll be writing a lot more on this site about other lessons learned through Danger Crew, future projects, and other life things.
One more time, here’s Danger Crew on Steam