In the process of developing our own commercial project, one of the things that we’ve done is look at how current games have performed. Because Route 59 is focused mainly on visual novels, we tend to restrict our search to other visual novels, and a few games that exist within the niche of “experimental narrative games” (a phrase which we’ve used to refer to games like Gone Home, To the Moon, and Kentucky Route Zero, to name a few).
In case it’s not obvious why we do this, we select these options mainly because we think that they represent the potential audience for our game. Visual novels are already a bit of a niche, so other visual novels on Steam make for a relatively easy comparison point. In our case, we sometimes go a little bit outside the visual novel mold in several ways (we’re using 3D graphics in Unity), so we include the “experimental narrative games” niche to widen our search to people who might be looking for something a bit unusual that doesn’t cleanly fall into any existing category.
Winged Cloud’s “Sakura” franchise is an interesting set of data points to reference, in large part because they offer many data points for us to look at. (They’ve released more than 10 games since Sakura Spirit debuted in July of 2014.)
The intent of this post is mostly to expose our (and my) own internal process for looking at information, so this is more of a “thinking out loud” kind of post, rather than a “provide useful conclusions” kind of post. Notably, I’m not attempting to be a journalist here. This is the kind of mental exercise that we often do for our own benefit within the team, and this post is mainly intended to illustrate how those mental exercises are done. In this context, we don’t really have any responsibility to readers, and we aren’t trying to report a “story”; we’re just trying to spend an afternoon of our own time to come up with some conclusions that may or may not be useful to us at the end of the day, and most conclusions come from our own intuition, rather than consulting experts.
Here’s the data that we have to look at:
|Title||Release date||Owners (Steam Spy)|
|Sakura Spirit||2014-07-09||322,350 ± 15,660|
|Sakura Angels||2015-01-16||142,447 ± 10,413|
|Sakura Fantasy: Chapter 1||2015-05-29||64,550 ± 7,010|
|Sakura Beach||2015-08-14||61,960 ± 6,868|
|Sakura Swim Club||2015-09-11||77,101 ± 7,661|
|Sakura Beach 2||2015-11-06||53,592 ± 6,387|
|Sakura Santa||2015-12-21||30,880 ± 4,849|
|Sakura Dungeon||2016-06-03||41,638 ± 5,630|
|Sakura Shine Girls||2016-08-26||8,965 ± 2,612|
|Sakura Space||2016-09-02||10,758 ± 2,862|
|Sakura Nova||2016-10-05||10,360 ± 2,808|
We’re not privy to all of the numbers that Winged Cloud might have (for example, we don’t know how many titles were sold at full price vs those sold at a discount during Steam sales), but this is what’s available publicly via Steam Spy. Numbers from Steam Spy come with their own list of caveats (and for visitors from the future, this is a look at numbers as of January 2017), but if we’re looking for general trends, this is a good place for us to start.
The most immediate thing we can see is that installments in the series seem to have sold progressively less over time. The first two games in the series are the highest-selling, and the three newest games have lower sales numbers than their predecessors by a fairly substantial margin.
This could partly be due to the “long tail” effect, which results from older games simply being sold for longer. For example, Sakura Nova, the newest game in the series, has been available for 3 months, whereas Sakura Spirit has been available for 30 months. Another cause of the “long tail” effect is that each installment within a series tends to do “advertising” for earlier installments in the series. This is common in book publishing, for example: when book 2 of a series comes out, more people become aware of the franchise, giving them a reason to go hunt down book 1. In the case of the Twilight books, even though the series has gained popularity over time, the first book in the series still has the highest lifetime sales.
However, this goes against what we tend to observe within the game industry. The first installment of a book series might tend to sell more copies than books two and three, but when it comes to AAA video games, we tend to see an escalation in the number of games sold as a series goes on. Obviously, there are exceptions and dips from year to year (sometimes, a new Pokemon game or Call of Duty title will do worse than the one released year), but AAA game franchises tend to sell more copies of their newest installment as the series goes on, not less. AAA games aren’t a perfect comparison point, but in terms of the way that people purchase and consume products, Winged Cloud seems to have more in common with Activision than Stephenie Meyer. (You can’t buy the Twilight books on Steam.)
Going back to the numbers, we can see at least one significant inflection point. Namely, there’s a point between late 2015 and August of 2016 that the Sakura franchise went from selling ~50,000+ copies per installment to selling closer to ~10,000 copies per installment. Sakura Dungeon is a bit of an anomaly that seems to buck the trend a bit, but Sakura Dungeon is also the most dissimilar from the rest of the series, since it’s more mechanics-heavy (it’s a dungeon crawler, rather than being “just” a visual novel), and it’s also sold at a higher price point (currently $20, when most previous and subsequent installments were closer to the $10 mark).
If we ignore Sakura Dungeon (since we mostly care about visual novels for purposes of this analysis), we can see that this time gap between late 2015 and August 2016 actually represents the biggest time gap between releases (since Sakura Fantasy, Winged Cloud has only gone about 2-3 months between releases), meaning that any dropoff during this period is going to be more pronounced than it might be otherwise. If Winged Cloud had been releasing a steady stream of games during the first half of 2016, the dropoff might have been more gradual, rather than looking like a substantial plummet from ~30,000 (Sakura Santa) to ~10,000 (Sakura Shine Girls).
What happened during that time gap? Well, for one thing, Steam got a lot more crowded. As we learned from Steam Spy in November of 2016, games released in the first 11 months of 2016 accounted for 38% of all games on Steam.
38% of all Steam games were released in 2016 pic.twitter.com/JiX2pt6JhB
— Steam Spy (@Steam_Spy) November 30, 2016
It’s likely that this is the biggest cause of Winged Cloud’s gradual descent in sales. In July of 2014, Steam’s offerings within the visual novel category were rather meager, and the process for getting approved via Greenlight was rather fraught. (To provide one example to put things into perspective a bit, Cinders was originally released in June 2012, but didn’t get a Steam release until May of 2014.)
That said, it feels only fair to mention that the numbers we’re looking at in this post only take into account Steam sales, and Winged Cloud’s games have been on offer outside of Steam. For example, the games are also sold via Denpasoft, and for a few months their games were also published by MangaGamer. That being said, it seems highly unlikely that sales from any non-Steam sources significantly outweigh the Steam sales figures.
What can we conclude from this? Conclusively, I’m not sure that I can say much, but intuitively, it seems like being Winged Cloud in 2017 is a lot harder than being Winged Cloud in 2014. Put in more direct terms, if you want to achieve the same success today that Winged Cloud achieved in 2014, imitating Winged Cloud today may not be the best way to do it.
All of this is also largely ignoring the fact that Winged Cloud is now making a significant amount of revenue from Patreon (over $14,000 per month as of January 2017), though it seems worth pointing out that Winged Cloud’s Patreon revenues over the course of a single year are likely lower than the lifetime sales for their debut release Sakura Spirit (it’s hard to sell 300,000+ copies of a game and not walk away with a substantial amount of revenue).