In Part One, I reported just the facts about 4X games released within the lifespan of eXplorminate (2014 and on). In part 2, I’ll be offering my own analysis and observations. Before I jump into that, though, I do want to give a shout-out to SteamSpy.com, Steamcharts.com, and Metacritic. Without them, this kind of analysis wouldn’t be possible. I owe them a great deal of thanks for collecting the information used in this article.
In Part One, I separated the statistics for each year. Now I’ll compare them side-by-side. Here they are:
At a glance, it’s easy to see that, of the three years I’m examining, 2015 was a bad year for 4X sales by any measure. The top selling game (Galactic Civilizations III) with just over 300k copies on Steam, would only be the third-best seller in 2016, and GalCiv3 has had over a year and a half to rack up owners! It ranks 6th best overall since 2014. That sounds bad, but don’t let that fool you. Racking up over 300k sales is still a tremendous feat in the 4X genre. The vast majority of 4X games never hit 100k owners on Steam.
Digging a little deeper, we can see that the entire 2015 field was outsold by 2016’s second best selling game: Stellaris. So as far as market penetration goes, GalCiv3 performed admirably in what was clearly a down year overall for our genre. Stardock is right to be proud of what they accomplished with this game.
Since 2015 sales were so abysmal, one might be inclined to just write off the 2015 offerings as a whole after that paragraph, but looking past the obvious reveals something interesting. If we focus on indie games (for the purposes of this article, “indie” will mean “small studio”) we can see that 2015 actually outperformed 2016.
The small studios of 2016 have around 44705 new owners, while 2015’s indie games garnered 176305 new owners by the end of their launch year. If you discount about 20000 owners from Planar Conquest (since each owner of Worlds of Magic automatically got a free copy of PQ), then the difference is even more stark! The small studios of 2015 outsold their 2016 counterparts by around 400-700% depending on how you take PQ into account.
So while the bottom line numbers may make it seem that 2016 was a banner year and 2015 was a total dud, the success of 2016 was concentrated in the top three games while success in 2015 was more evenly spread out. To show how concentrated those sales were, in 2015 the top three selling games (GalCiv3 , StarDrive 2, Star Ruler 2) took about 73% of the new game sales, while the top three games of 2016 (Civilization VI, Stellaris, and Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars) accounted for about 98% of all 4X sales for new games. 98%!
What conclusions can we draw from that then? Well, first we can perhaps state the obvious: in a year when there are going to be three huge releases like MoO:CtS, Stellaris, and Civ6, it’s probably a bad idea to launch an indie title. Second, we may be able to speculate that we’re hitting a couple of saturation points for 4X games.
It wasn’t uncommon ten or twenty years ago for there to only be one or two 4X games released in an entire year. But in the last three years, we’ve had eight releases (2014), nine releases (2015), and nine releases (2016) for a total of 26 new 4X games. Among those six are two Civ games, Endless Legend, GalCiv III, and Stellaris. By any measure, those games are crammed full of content that could take hundreds of hours to fully explore. For fans used to playing a couple of games for years on end, the last three years have been like drinking from a geyser.
Here are how the games breakdown by genre and year covering all games released on Steam starting with 2014 (eXplorminate’s birth year):
- Stellaris (2016)
- Master of Orion (2016)
- Polaris Sector (2016)
- Stellar Monarch (2016)
- Falling Stars: War of Empires (2016)
- Galactic Civilizations III (2015)
- StarDrive 2 (2015)
- Star Ruler 2 (2015)
- Apollo 4X (2015)
- Galactic Inheritors (2015)
- Horizon (2014)
- Distant Worlds: Universe (2014)
- Lords of the Black Sun (2014)
- Planar Conquest (2016)
- Sorcerer King: Rivals (2016)
- Thea: The Awakening (2015)
- Sorcerer King (2015)
- Worlds of Magic (2015)
- Arcane Sorcery (2015)
- Age of Wonders III (2014)
- Endless Legend (2014)
- Warlock 2 (2014)
- Civilization VI (2016)
- Last Days of Old Earth (2016)
- Civilization: Beyond Earth (2014)
- Pandora: First Contact (2014)
Space, having 13 games, is by far and away the most saturated genre. Fantasy isn’t far behind with nine, but if you look at PQ and Sorcerer King: Rivals as just reskins of old games, that number drops to a more reasonable seven. Since half the indie games that came out in 2016 were space 4X games, it’s no wonder they struggled to gain sales traction.
Unfortunately for the 2016 space indies, 2017 looks to be filled with space games too: Endless Space 2, Predestination, Stars in Shadow, Dawn of Andromeda, and Children of the Galaxy, and who knows what else set to come out. The prospects for 2016 space games to pick up sales in their second year appears grim.
There is one other cause that might be contributing to the lack of small studio sales. 2016 was the first year in which Steam’s new refund policy was in full effect for the entirety of the year. I don’t have any data on how many games were sold and then returned, but I cannot dismiss the possibility that a certain percentage of games that were sold in previous years would have been returned if the refund policy were in effect at the time. Therefore, the numbers for 2016 may contain an un-measurable X factor related to refunds compared to those from 2014-2015. This makes me wonder if the future of the gaming market might forever be changed. Will games with low-budget UI’s, steep learning curves, and experimental designs be at at a severe disadvantage now? We’ll have to see what the numbers from 2017 say. 2015 might be the last year when small studios had an easy time picking up sales.
Speaking of 2015, the numbers here are a bit more encouraging for small studios for that year. Four games from 2015 doubled or almost doubled their new owners in 2016: Thea, Galactic Inheritors, A4X, and ArcSorc. Galactic Inheritors and ArcSorc were especially impressive in 2016, increasing their owners by 567% and 338%, respectively. A4X also had a large increase, but it must be said that A4X got there by giving away ten thousand copies for free. Thea – which moved into second place for owners among the 2015 games – also did a handy job of attracting new customers in its sophomore year, increasing its ownership by 212%. No doubt that is due in part to the fact it launched in late November, however. That doesn’t diminish Muha Games’ achievement. Thea outsold StarDrive 2 and Star Ruler 2 which were already established 4X franchises.
As for the sales GI and ArcSorc, I attribute their massive increases to the steep discounts they offered. For instance, at one point, ArcSorc could be had for less than $2 USD, so it’s reasonable to conclude that there is a market out there for really cheap 4X games. It could also mean that a price that low is enough to entice customers to buy it since there’s such a small risk involved. If they game sucks, so what? You’re out less money than it takes to get a combo meal at McDonalds. On the other hand, it may give some hope to the languishing 2016 indies: every game released since 2014 – including some really BAD games – has sold more than 15000 copies. If there is a floor for 4X sales, it would seem that 15k is it (if you have enough patience and offer discounts deep enough).
Sales/rate of new ownership for GalCiv3 declined by 44% year over year. There isn’t enough data available from previous years to judge whether that is a standard or an unusual amount. It will be interesting to compare that percentage to what happens to MoO:CTS, Stellaris, and Civ6 next year.
What other observations can we make? Well, 2016 is almost three-quarters of the way towards matching 2014’s current ownership numbers. That’s impressive. Both years have a Civ game launch, which I feel balances them against one another, even though Beyond Earth was poorly received. Similarly, Stellaris has more than 3/4 the owners of EL. Again, impressive. These sales figures may provide some fodder for those supposing we might be in a new golden age.
We can also see that over the course of several years, games with sub-par rating can still move a lot of copies. Horizon has a Steam score in the mid-50’s but still has about 87758 owners. Lords of the Black Sun, with an abysmal 22% positive rating, can claim approximately 27045 people who have it in their libraries. Competition was less fierce back in 2014, but moving that many games is an still an accomplishment. Neither studio has gone on to make a second game yet, which may be indicative that those numbers, while not entirely wretched, aren’t enough to sustain a studio long-term. However, it must be said that the lead developer from Arkavi studios is working on a second title due out in 2017: Dawn of Andromeda with Grey Wolf Entertainment. I’ve heard it said, though I can’t remember by whom, that if a studio can survive its first game, its second game is often a massive improvement. We certainly have high hopes that this will be the case for DoA.
Peak Players and Peak Average
Owners are one thing, but players are another. How many people are actually playing these 4X games as opposed to just collecting them? Steamcharts provides us with two very interesting sets of data: Peak Players (which is how many people were playing a single game on Steam, concurrently) and Monthly Average Players (which averages how many people played a game each hour throughout the course of a month). Let’s take Peak Players first. Here’s how each year looks side-by-side:
Civ6 is the big winner with a whopping 162314 concurrent players! The next best game was Stellaris with 68517. The only other games that managed five-digit player counts over the last three years were Civilization: Beyond Earth and Age of Wonders III. Endless Legend also reached that mark, but that was due to a free weekend for the game. I chose not to count that mark since it did not accurately reflect the game’s ownership base or any longer-term interest in the title.
If you notice, that means 2015 was (again) a disappointing year for new 4X games. GalCiv3 had the best mark that year at 6225 concurrent players. It was followed by SD2 (3571) and Thea (1691). Those are the only games of 2015 that broke a thousand. That sounds bad, but 2016 only had three games break 1000 peak players and 2014 only had four with a much more open field. 2015 also had zero games with less than a dozen Peak Players while 2016 had two (LDoOE, and Falling Stars). The lowest game for 2014 was the much-maligned Lords of the Black Sun that still racked up a peak of 135. That would be good enough to be ranked 7th in 2015 and 2016. Astounding! It would appear that each successive year from 2014 has been more difficult for small studio games.
There is one other important stat to note from this data set. Four games from 2014 and 2015 actually increased their numbers year over year. A4X, Inheritors, and ArcSorc increased their peaks, thanks largely to steep discounts and large giveaways. But so much more impressively, one game managed to increase its peak three years running: Endless Legend. It even bested Civ:BE this year in that category. The fact that EL has consistently attracted renewed interest each year is a spectacular feat. It shows that the DLC/Expansions coming out of Amplitude Studios have been top notch. I don’t expect any other game to have that kind of run. I think it also makes the case that if you don’t own EL yet, you should seriously consider getting the Emperor Edition.
Moving on to Peak Monthly Average Players, here’s how the years stack up against one another:
These results aren’t too dissimilar from the overall peaks. Civ6 reigns supreme again with Civ:BE and Stellaris coming in 2nd and 3rd as far as all time highs for monthly averages go. What is really striking is that 2016 had two games peak out at just one player per hour in a month, and Falling Stars only got there thanks to rounding. Its best monthly average was actually 0.6! Note that I’m only looking at data for games launched since 2014. I’m not examining older games that are still heavily played such as Civilization V or Endless Space.
The small studio 2015 games did slightly better in 2016. All but one still averaged double-digit players at their monthly peaks. Four games actually increased their averages: Thea, A4X, ArcSorc, and Inheritors. Of these, Thea is probably the most impressive because its original peak was already fairly decent (403). Again, I think this proves that good DLC will bring new players into a game after launch and incentivize old players to come back. Both of Thea’s (free) DLC’s were well received and had an impact on increasing the community around the game.
And just to round things off, we can find a couple interesting things about 2014, as well. First, EL managed to just eke out an increase in 2016 over 2015 by one 1 player. Also, 2014 has four games peaking out at over 100 players average per hour in a month (Civ:BE, EL, AoW3, and DW:U) which is VERY impressive given how many good 4X options there were for players to choose in 2016. I think the games of 2015 and 2016 will be hard pressed to match that mark next year if current trends continue.
Now if you average the launch year peak for all the games together in order to get a sense of how each year peaked as far as its best monthly average goes, you get 2016 in first with 12051 players per hour in a month. 2014 in second with 4396 players per hour, and 2015 bringing up the rear with 396.
One would naturally expect the most recent year to be the highest, so there’s no surprise there. The fact that 2015’s games garnered so few players each month is a little eyebrow raising. It is consistent, though, with the lack of owners that year has compared to the two years on either side of it, however. As a result, I wonder if games from 2015 will mostly be forgotten in 10 years. It’s hard to say now, but I hope I remember to come back to this article (if it’s still up) and find out!
In order to get a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the player community, though, let’s look at the impact major releases have on the other games that get launched in the same year. For the purposes of this section, a “major release” will be any game that hit 100k sales or more in its launch year, so games like Stellaris, GalCiv3, and Civ:BE.
If we take the peak average monthly players for non-major release games in 2016, we end up with 41 players per hour. In 2015, non-major games peaked at 209 players per hour in a month. 2014 comes in at 205. Wow! That really changes the perspective. 2015 wasn’t as bad as it first appeared, and the durability of the 2014 games once again shines. Maybe 2015 won’t be forgotten after all!
Let’s examine these years one by one, starting with the oldest games first. In 2014, we did have three “major” releases: Civ:BE, AoW3, and EL. However, Beyond Earth was probably considered a flop by 2K’s standards, and I think one could argue EL was a sleeper hit. EL’s peak monthly average for 2014 didn’t happen until December – three months after its release. Thus, I believe that the effect the big games had on little games in 2014 was muted. Additionally, Civ:BE didn’t launch until later in 2014 and couldn’t hold players’ attention (by December 2014 it lost 80% of its monthly player-base). EL took a while to get going, as evidenced by the fact it increased its total peak players each year since. Only AoW3 could have had any appreciable effect on smaller new games that year.
2015 had one big launch: GalCiv3. Thus, it’s not surprising that the non-major monthly average was so similar to 2014 (209 vs. 205 respectively). The eight other games had no trouble finding an audience. There were plenty of 4X gamers looking for something to do.
The real surprise is 2016. Knocking out Civ6, Stellaris, and nuMoO has an incredible effect on the average players! The small titles were left gasping for air last year as the big three sucked all the oxygen out of the market. The three major titles made it exceptionally difficult to have a surprise indie hit like Thea or give rise to a cult classic like DW:U. In fact, because the player base for the small studios of 2016 was so tiny, I think people in the future will be surprised to learn that nine 4X games came out that year. In the end, it may be the small studio games of 2016 that are forgotten, not the ones from 2015.
So with all that said, what conclusions can we draw? First, it would be too easy to say that it’s a bad idea to launch a game when three major titles hit the market. That’s already been noted. Likewise, we’ve already seen how just because there are three games that hit 100k sales doesn’t necessarily mean a small game is in trouble – 2014 is a counterexample to that theory. We can see that there can be extenuating circumstances (bad game quality, slow start) that can allow a small studio to build a fanbase. I think the real take-away is that the 2016 indie games suffered due to not just their three mass-market contemporaries but also from the fact that there are now a half-dozen hit games available.
As a result, I believe it’s going to get increasingly hard for small studios to compete in a marketplace that has multiple Civ games, Endless Legend, AoW3, and GalCiv3 as viable options for 4X gamers. And don’t forget, ES2 is coming out in 2017 and Thea will probably join the 100k club this year too. Also consider that EL, AoW3, Thea, and NuMoO are all available at relatively reasonable prices ($30 USD or less) and Stellaris, GalCiv3, and Civ:BE aren’t too pricy either ($40 USD apiece) considering most best-selling games in other genres often run about $60 USD at launch.
I believe there is a high probability that 2017 may turn into a bloodbath for small studios who cannot find a niche or make their games stand out. And it may not be the 2017 developers that bite the dust. I feel the studios from 2014, ‘15, and ‘16 will be the ones in the most trouble. The 4X market is crowded (a good thing for the consumer), but the diversity among the games is meager (a bad thing for the developer).
Since I brought it up at the end of the last section, now seems like a good time to talk about pricing. I wrote an article about pricing last year, and I want to further the conversation a little bit here. Below are the charts showing the minimum, maximum, and regular asking prices for each game during the year of 2016 (all prices show are in USD):
I’m not going to editorialize on these numbers too much. I’ll be interested in what happens down in the comments concerning price. Before I go any further, I must point out here that the data I use for prices in this section does not include bundles or other price promotions. All of the data is strictly what the listed price on Steam was throughout the past year. Other services such as GoG are also not included since I do not have access to reliable numbers from those services.
The biggest takeaway I have here is that it’s incredibly cheap to get into 4X gaming. For as little as $1.74 USD you can get a 4X game. For a scant $7.49 USD you can get Endless Legend, an e4X Game of the Year! That’s very reasonable, in my estimation.
The games from 2014 seem to have very stable prices. While they all had their sales (price promotions) and whatnot, their average prices were much higher than 2015’s. This could be in part due to their quality (DW:U and EL both earned eXemplaries from us, AoW3 Complete earned a Recommend) or due to the fact that they’ve been out so long they’ve found their price floor. It makes sense for publishers to reduce prices for their games after they’ve been out for a while in order to entice new customers but at some point, the discounting stops. The 2015 games, conversely, have gone through an aggressive markdown. I attribute that to the overall weak sales they experienced during their launch year. It will be interesting to watch 2016’s titles over the next 12 months. Which year will they follow?
Overall, regular prices ran $6.99 to $59.99 USD in 2016. That’s quite a range, when you think about it. I suppose that the biggest factor is whether people feel that a given 4X is worth the asking price… Which brings us to quality.
All of the data I’ve examined so far has been quantitative. This is the only section devoted to qualitative data. It’s easier to look at numbers, it’s harder to look at review scores. What makes a game good or bad really depends a lot on the player. There are folks who love games like Sorcerer King and Planar Conquest and folks who can’t stand Stellaris and Endless Legend. So who’s to say one game is really good or really bad? I don’t know, but I think we ought to take a look at what people have said anyway to see if the data has anything to teach us.
For this section, I collated data from Steam, Metacritic, and eXplorminate. As a reminder, the “Average” for each section is the mean average except for e4X review scores, which is the mode average.
Ignoring eXplorminate’s scores for the moment, one can see that the overall quality of 4X games being released seems to be generally improving year-to-year based on the various scores. That’s a positive sign for our genre, and it makes me think that the drop off in indie sales is more related to competition than to quality. The public seems happy with the small studio offerings from 2016.
2014 did have the highest average Metacritic score, just beating out 2016: 75 to 73. Those two years flipped places when it came to Metacritic users (69 to 70 respectively).
One interesting place to make comparisons with this data is a game’s Metacritic official score vs. the user score. The biggest divergence in those numbers Civ:BE. Its Metascore is 81, but its Metacritic User Score is 55 with its two Steam scores being 52. Clearly, the fans and the reviewers are not seeing eye to eye here. Other games with Metascore surprisingly higher than the user scores include GalCiv3, Civ6, and SD2. When reviewers get tagged as shills for big companies (fairly or unfairly), I believe this is part of the reason. In this group of games, only SD2 comes from a small studio. The rest are from two of the biggest in 4X. From this data, I conclude that reviewers (eXplorminate included) should take more care to be just as critical of big studio games as they are of small studio games. The fans don’t get fooled by the glitz and glamour – neither should we.
There are a few games with one or more use score that bested their Metacritic score. Stellaris, PQ, LDoOE, Thea, WoM, EL, AoW3, Pandora, and Horizon all had one or more user-based score higher than their Metacritc score. That’s not a bad batch of games to check out if you’re looking to build a wish list. It’s not perfect but acceptable in my mind. Of all those titles I just listed, Thea has the largest difference between its Metascore (73) and a user score (87). This may, again, be evidence that critics have a bias against small studios or poorly rate games that don’t obviously conform to their preconceived notions.
Moving to eXplorminate’s scores, we can see that over the last three years we’ve given out three eXemplary awards, six Recommends, seven Considers, four Bewares, and two Avoids. That makes for a nice bell curve, and in my estimation, generally reflects what’s happened in 4X over that past three years. There are a few games for which we don’t have scores. Older games like Pandora probably won’t get a score (although we did review its expansion), but I can tell you that reviews for the Stellar Monarch and Falling Stars are under way. LDoOE didn’t qualify as a 4X game for our purposes, but since Matrix/Slitherine has marketed the game as 4X, I decided to include it in the 2016 data set.
Why bother looking at review scores for games? For one, gamers use these to help determine whether or not to buy a game. As much as we might despise scoring for one reason or another, these numbers move the market. As such, I feel it’s important to take a look at them and make any observations that we can. Review scores are a delicate subject. Any time Steam changes the way it calculates them, there’s usually some kind of uproar. I acknowledge all of that, but at the same time, we can’t be afraid to look at the data that’s out there and see what it might have to tell us.
So for all that, what can we learn? Well, there are some great games out there. There are eight games that have an old and/or new Steam score of 80+. Ten games have a Metacritic Score of 75+. There’s plenty of good stuff to choose from now, and 2017 is sure to add a few more to that list. It’s hard for me to think of a time since the 90’s when so many decent (or better) games were readily available.
What I take away from all this data is that 4X is in the middle of a boom era, but there are some troubling signs. First, we’re seeing a burgeoning indie scene in our genre, which is awesome. There are so many new games are coming out right now. I’m not sure the 4X genre has ever been so blessed with so many different titles, even back in its heyday. Second, game quality as judged by the public seems to be improving year to year. That’s great! We’re getting more AND better games. However, from that abundance comes danger. With at least another six to nine titles coming out in the next year, the market risks fragmentation or oversaturation. 2017 will give us some definitive answers to the question of whether or not the 4X community can sustain so many developers at once.
2015 was a tough year overall, much tougher than 2014. 2016 was brutal specifically for small studios. Will 2017 see a total wipeout? Will even big studios like Amplitude run into some serious headwinds next year as the marketplace is flooded with another 20-30% increase in 4X games for sale? It’s very possible. Then again, without three behemoths crowding out the field, will we see a more balanced field of games with, perhaps, and uptick in fan engagement now that Wargaming, Paradox, Firaxis, and Amplitude have drawn so much attention to our genre? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out. Check in with us around this time next year to see!