The success of Switch has led to a sea change in the way Nintendo approaches digital sales. While deep discounts on first-party titles are unlikely to materialise any time soon, it's now relatively common to see the company's big-name evergreen games with 1/3 off their normal price. Other companies discount their games much more aggressively, and it's possible to pick up huge AAA releases from big publishers for very reasonable prices just a few months after release.
For smaller developers, however, Switch eShop has turned into the Wild West when it comes to sales. It's not uncommon to see games discounted by up to 99%, selling for mere pennies, or even for free. How publishers and developers hope to benefit from making such little profit is puzzling, especially when the game doesn't contain in-app purchases or DLC add-ons. Can the visability provided by selling your game for a single cent really make a dent in your sales numbers?
"The goal for the discount is to get into the top selling charts as that’s where a LOT of organic sales and visibility comes from," SMG Studio's CEO Ashley Ringrose tells us via email. "The steeper the discount, the greater chance you have to get there."
SMG has been on Nintendo's digital storefront since the early days and has steadily built a library of games on the console including Super One More Jump, OTTT and most recently co-op removals 'sim' Moving Out. It's also three years exactly since the excellent co-op puzzler Death Squared debuted on Switch and Ringrose has been tracking its sales successes and failures and how they correlate with discounts since the beginning, all with the conscious goal of experimenting.
"What if I do the same percentage off three times in a row in quick succession? What does deep discounting do for the ‘tail’ end of sales? Does going on sale affect other platform sales?"
"There was no strategy other than to try and learn," he continues. "That’s why we even did a 10% off sale. For instance: I wondered if the percentage off was less relevant and it was JUST the exposure on the sales section that drives the increase." In his experience, such a small discount isn't worth the trouble. "Don’t do 10% off. Hardly anyone noticed or bought it."
Over the last three years, Ringrose has used the game to test theories and find the best approach to sales. "Other tests were trying to debunk myths or assumptions from myself and other devs about how sales work. What if I do the same percentage off three times in a row in quick succession? What does deep discounting do for the ‘tail’ end of sales? Does going on sale affect other platform sales? I have thoughts on these but no definitive answers, as each test doesn’t factor in stuff like the state of the world, other games and sales on at the time, etc. As someone who likes robust data, most of the stuff you get back has so many asterisks next to them it’s hard to form solid conclusions."
That being said, the graph above provides some fascinating data points to analyse. It appears that being available for ‘free’ on other platforms apparently didn’t affect the game's Switch sales. In fact, if anything, it may have slightly increased sales on Switch over time.
"We’re on Xbox Game Pass now and I think [the increase is] because not everyone has an Xbox (with Game Pass), but many people have a friend who does. So they are having a good time playing our game and tell their friends. You get more coverage and mentions organically now as more people have access to the game."
Death Squared launched elsewhere before arriving on Switch on 13th July 2017. The game's primary coloured characters and local multiplayer focus immediately felt at home on the console, though, and good sales gave it (and the team) a much-needed shot in the arm.
Switch saved Death Squared from obscurity and financial failure.
"Switch saved Death Squared from obscurity and financial failure. That boost from Switch not only made sure the game made a profit but also gave us continued reason to keep talking about it and supporting the game to drive sales on other platforms. It also gave us more confidence to continue in the console space that lead to Moving Out. It wasn’t just the Switch sales but the new coverage and reviews of the game. We launched in 2017 just between Breath of the Wild (and the Switch launch) and Horizon Zero Dawn and just got ignored at launch."
Things were looking particularly grim at the start of that year. "I remember going through with the team on a 2017+ plan and this was less than two months until release. And I said Well, we don’t know if we’ll do more console games because it depends on how Death Squared goes. Then after the initial launch happened I was like Ohh I don’t think we’re suited for console/PC dev at all. This is not good, but we had the meeting with Nintendo and slated for a July release. I still wonder what would have happened if we were a launch title (because we would have been ready). Ahh to dream."
To date, Death Squared has sold close to 300,000 copies across all platforms "with Switch being over 60% of those". Breaking the 150K barrier on Switch is a significant acheievement and Ringrose still plans to honour a promise to make the game free if it hits 250K Switch copies sold.
Beyond discounting, we wondered if there were any other tools available to increase visibility and help draw attention on the eShop, whether through getting highlighted by Nintendo, being made Game of the Day, switching thumbnails, icons, and other methods.
"I’ve tried to be active on Reddit as much as I can or trying to find new 'content marketing' ways to talk about the game on social. Getting Highlights and Game of the Day is all out of our hands. With so many great games on the eShop now it’s hard to expect a 3-year-old game to get featured. I do look to see if there’s a 'Games you can play with the whole family' feature.
"What we haven’t had time for is more updates. We did a free one in January 2019 but it hardly shifted the sales up. It did fix some issues and we added a colour-blind mode so those are good features to have."
Of course, if there are peaks, there must be troughs, too, and we wonder what a bad sales week looks like. Is ‘zero copies sold’ something Ringrose occasionally sees? "We’ve had some 0 days in certain regions but luckily haven’t dropped. In fact 3 years on we’re still going OK. On a good week (even 2+ years on) we’ll sell more on Switch than we did opening week on Steam! But that’s also because we did so badly on Steam’s launch. I still remember seeing the stats that we had sold just 2 copies in Latvia after 6 months."
"I never got in touch with them. It would have been an amazing story. We’ve since sold 45 copies in Latvia so they must have told their friends!"
Ringrose has also been a vocal advocate of releasing demos if possible, something the SMG had at launch with Moving Out and which the team added for Death Squared as soon as they could. "It wasn’t a huge boost in sales but it did seem to increase the daily average. We did this six months after release (as it had tweaked story and had to go through certification again) so it was a good test to see what happens.
I think the demo works well in our case as we’re not a 'beautiful game' so we have to rely on people having fun with it.
"I think the demo works well in our case as we’re not a 'beautiful game' so we have to rely on people having fun with it. So people hear good things and the demo gives us a way past their 'I dunno…' barrier. So I credit a lot of the ongoing sales to this demo. And I've tried to tell other devs to join the demo club! But there’s plenty of reasons NOT to do a demo also from a risk factor for the devs. So I can understand."
Although the demo seems to have had a positive effect on sales, the content update for the game didn’t really move the needle. Will this affect how and when SMG approaches updating games in the future?
"A little. It’s why we didn’t do ANOTHER update after this for the last year. I know we said 'FINAL FREE UPDATE' but it would have been funny to say 'FINAL FINAL FREE UPDATE'. We’re lucky to have multiple titles to work on. As the team had RISK, Moving Out and No Way Home there wasn’t enough time to keep updating Death Squared. Plus any 'big' ideas we had we’d rather save for a sequel."
As publishers struggle to be seen on the increasingly bloated eShop, there has been a sharp increase in games getting discounted in the extreme. Some publishers are experimenting with rolling promos or launching free for a limited time if you own certain other titles. What are Ringrose's views on these strategies? Does he think they’re effective ways to grow sales in the long term?
"We’re just as guilty with the deeper discounting now," he admits. "I think that Rolling Promos sale is interesting as again it’s something new. I’m not sure why giving away the games is a good idea though. But again maybe word of mouth is the end goal. I do think that a one cent game is silly. There should be a minimum floor to the price."
Despite being relatively late starters in the digital sales arena compared to other platforms, Nintendo apparently gives devs more freedom than the competition over how their games are discounted.
"What I do like [...] is having the control over our sales. Other platforms restrict this MUCH more heavily to the point if you’re not in control you have to apply to go on sale as it’s an editorial decision. This is very tough. As a dev you realise that even with all these people who have played your game you have a limited channels to talk to them. It’s even harder when you launch a new game and there’s no 'easy' way to tell existing players about that new game on most of the game stores."
Death Squared is still more than holding its own against the rest of SMG's Switch software lineup. "Death Squared is doing better than our other titles on the Switch (not including Moving Out) even though it’s older and more expensive. But it’s also the only title on so many platforms and Xbox Game Pass and the recent [Remote Play Together] update to Steam that allows online multiplayer [...] is fuelling a late resurgence."
People buy what they want, when they want to play it, or when they see a good deal. Someone says 'Hey you should play this game it’s great' they’ll go get it. Most won't pull up a site and study the historical sales data
As we stated at the top, after over 36 months of experimentation, Ringrose is convinced that minor discounts don't do much, especially following a deeper discount (as borne out by his data) - that is unless you're a massive breakout indie smash like Cuphead or Untitled Goose Game.
"Oh I think 10% in general is a no go. It’s just too small of a discount for anyone to care about. My current theory is 95% of people don’t pay close attention to a games previous sale price (this would increase the more popular a game is but I think it’d max out at 90%). People buy what they want, when they want to play it, or when they see a good deal. Someone says 'Hey you should play this game it’s great' they’ll go get it. Most won't pull up a site and study the historical sales data and tell their friend 'Ok I’ll play this in the next 30-65 days as I feel we’re close to a highest discount ever trend'. Some DO though!"
On the whole, Ringrose seems upbeat and energised by his findings, no doubt buoyed by the warm critical reception to SMG's dual co-op jewels. However, Death Squared's success was hard-won and there are several things he would change given the opportunity to start afresh with the game and its marketing. He mentioned in a previous conversation wishing that the name didn't mention ‘death’.
"Oh yeah I still regret the name," he confirms. "And that 'alcohol reference' on the ESRB rating. The biggest barrier I think was the art/visuals. People just react so differently to a 'beautiful' game. Sadly the gameplay can be much more shallow if the game looks gorgeous but it also fuels all the marketing, the gifs, etc. Our game shined when people played it but that is the biggest barrier.
"So, if [given a] fresh start I would have focused more effort on bringing the art to a 'WOW it’s beautiful' level, a more universal name, and the extra time for online multiplayer. Oh, and removed the one line that references 'ethanol' so I didn’t have that alcohol reference."
In this day and age, however, constant updates and rolling content drops mean that games are constantly evolving, ever-changing beasts that can be near-unrecognisable a year after launch. "In fact, that is one thought I’ve been tossing around for a while is what would happen if I just commissioned new art and re-released the game with a new name," Ringrose muses. "Like a marketing remaster! Or if I just make it an update. But that’s easier said than done and we’re better off putting that energy into a sequel or a NEW game."
So, while three years of collecting data and experiementing has yielded some fascinating results, there remain many unclear factors for indie devs when it comes to successfully strategising your way through the eShop sales gauntlet. Anything from a mistimed promo to a poorly thought-out title could prove the difference between making or breaking your game. While having 'death' in the title might put parents off buying it for their kids, in the course of conversing with Ashley for this piece we found ourselves accidentally typing 'Death Stranding' an embarrassing number of times. Perhaps it's our lockdown fogginess still in effect, but that repeated mistake on our part may not be a bad thing for SMG.
"Haha I wonder if that has helped our SEO in the stores?" Ringrose ponders. "People start typing and see us…".
Our thanks to Ashley for his time. Death Squared is obviously available on Switch eShop; Death Stranding is not.