You can find part one of this article series and all associated charts HERE.
eXplorminate is entering its fifth calendar year of existence, thus we now have four years of market data from our time to examine. It’s been a very exciting period for 4X. Some call it a Renaissance, others a Second Golden Age, but what we know for sure is that since 2012 when Endless Space 1 launched, there has been an explosion of productivity in our beloved genre. 2016 was absolutely a breakout year featuring the release three massive titles: Civilization VI, Stellaris, and Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars. They’ve gone on to sell more than four million copies combined. Could 2017 follow that up with another successful year?
In a word, no. The 4X market came crashing down with an 80% decline in new-game sales after a stunning high in 2016. With the fewest number of new titles launched since I began keeping records, 2017 was going to be at a certain disadvantage. However, the dearth of original titles cannot explain everything.
2017 most closely resembles 2015. Each year had one major title (Endless Space 2 and Galactic Civilizations III, respectively) and a slew of small studio offerings. Neither year was dominated by a single sub-genre of 4X. 2015 had five Space and four Fantasy. 2017 had three Space, two Fantasy, and one Historical excluding relaunches. And both years have relatively similar ownership totals. However, the most glaring difference is ES2 outsold GalCiv3 by almost 50%! That suggests that the indie developers struggled mightily this year.
At the end of my Statistical Examination Part 2 from last year, I stated that the data trends suggested indie games would have a bad year, and it turns out that prediction was correct. In 2015, indies/small studios comprised about 40% of the market share. In 2017, they made up just under 27%. One would think that with only one major title soaking up attention, the small studio games would have some room to perform well. It didn’t happen. Even when you compare raw numbers, “indies” in 2015 reached 151,000 people while 2017’s titles found their way into only 122,000 Steam libraries. So even with decreased competition and a massive increase in the number of active Steam users, these games had trouble cracking open people’s wallets.
Could it be that the reasons for the decline lie in game quality? In 2015, we had 5 Recommends, 1 Consider, 1 Beware, and 1 Avoid. We awarded games from 2017 with 2 Recommends, 2 Considers, and 1 Beware (reviews for Eador: Imperium and Oriental Empires are written but not yet published). That’s not a massive disparity. The average New Steam Score from 2015 is 62 and from 2017 is 80. That’s not very enlightening either. I think to better understand what’s going on with 2017, we need to look at some data from the other two previous years.
As mentioned, 2016 was a banner year for 4X market penetration. Civ6 and Stellaris will no doubt go down as among the best 4X games ever made. So, it would be easy to say that 2017 is suffering from a 2016 hangover. That’s true, to a certain extent. However, 2014 games are still pulling in very nice averages when it comes to monthly players. It’s not like those games ever really went away. Not to mention GalCiv3 and Thea: The Awakening garnered nearly 760 and 360 players respectively in their best months of 2017, which is pretty decent. 4X games have traditionally been played for years and years, and modern offerings (especially high quality ones) don’t seem to be different in that respect. Endless Legend, Age of Wonders 3, and Civilization: Beyond Earth are all 2014 games that broke over a thousand players per hour in their best months of 2017.
As a result, 2017 isn’t suffering from a one year hangover, but a multi-year situation in which some engaging games of very high quality have been released and are still widely played. Also, I think we can look outside the 4X genre for some illumination. Total War: Warhammer came out in 2016 and Total War: Warhammer 2 came out in 2017. Combined, they’ve sold over 2.5 MILLION copies on Steam. I think it would be naive to think that the TW series doesn’t pull from the same pool of players 4X games do, so I believe it’s reasonable to conclude that between the high number of quality 4X games already on the market and the new TW:W games, 2017’s performance was never going to match 2016’s.
What’s that going to mean for 2018? That’s hard for me to say at this point. So far, the major studios (Firaxis, Paradox, Amplitude, Wargaming, and Stardock) all seem pretty busy with games they have out, so it’s possible that there will be no major title coming this year. Consequently, one might think 2018 will be another chance for indies to shine, but will the Renaissance hangover still linger? Quite likely. Stellaris 2.0 seems likely to be released in the first half of the year and Civ6 is getting a major expansion. Brad promised a new expansion for GalCiv3, and we know Amplitude has something up its sleeve for ES2. It will be fascinating to see if 2017’s depressed sales are a long term trend or just a matter of timing and salesmanship.
I do want to take a moment to mention a game not listed in my 2017 Owners charts. It’s called Demise of Nations. This is a 4X game (the developer calls it a “4X Grand Strategy Game”) that’s free to play. Being FTP puts it in a different category from the other games. It comes with one map, but others are available for purchase. In-game purchases range from $4-20. Multiplayer games games cost five cents each to play. I don’t have any way to track purchases for even a rough comparison, so I chose to leave it out. SteamSpy reports that around 150,000 people have downloaded it on Steam so far and its peak concurrent players this past year was 137 (roughly on par with what Pandora: First Contact had). I’m not sure to what extent this game affected the market, but there you go.
Anyway, I’d also like to address Imperium Galactica I and II for a moment. I struggled with whether or not to include these game. They’re relaunches of the classic 90’s games with high res graphics. To my knowledge, there is no new content from the original, but this is the games’ first time being on Steam. Unlike the old MoO Games, THQ Nordic didn’t give out thousands and thousands of copies to people who who bought some some other game. As the purpose of this article series is to examine the market forces at work on Steam, I decided to ask the community for advice on whether or not to include them.
The result, was a an overall consensus that I should include the IG games. I included Distant Worlds: Universe and Pandora from 2014 for the same reasons. If you think including IG1 and IG2 was a mistake on my part or skews the data, let me know in the comments. I’m open to feedback. With that out of the way, the only thing I can point out regarding these games is that IG2 appears to have outsold Dawn of Andromeda. I don’t find that to be surprising or disturbing in any way. IG2 has way more brand recognition than DoA, so people will buy it purely on nostalgia.
The one small studio game that did have a good launch in 2017 was Oriental Empires. Reaching over 50k owners in the launch year is a solid accomplishment, and may in fact be the best any small studio game has done with a debut title since eXplorminate was founded in 2014. Certainly its appeal to the Chinese market helped, but I also feel that the game’s Total War pedigree and the fact that it’s not a Master of Orion clone contributed to its success.
At the end of last year, I wondered if Amplitude would run into “headwinds” for its ES2 launch. I mused that the Renaissance hangover might even affect a large studio game in 2017. I don’t think that was the case. SteamSpy data does not go back to 2014, but its earliest data from 2015 (late March) puts Endless Legend at around 300k owners. ES2 has about that many now, so its launch was comparable and perhaps a little better than EL’s. I don’t know how Amplitude feels about that, but it suggests to me that the big studios can still break through all the noise and sell a lot of copies.
Leaving 2017, let’s look at notable games from previous years. Thea and Warlock 2 both joined the 100k club. Sorcerer King: Rivals had a major uptick in ownership. This increase is quite remarkable in my mind since the game still has poor Steam ratings and almost zero prospects of a major expansion. Apparently Stardock’s deep discounting worked. Unlike GalCiv3, which I’ll talk about in a bit, SK:R’s spikes in players happened around the same time as the spike in owners. Both SK:R’s peak total players and peak average players occured in October.
Also, I’d like to note that the original Sorcerer King has been retired. Stardock no longer offers it for sale on Steam. Future iterations of this article will include SK, but any increase in ownership will simply be a more accurate count of owners rather than an increase in owners.
Stellaris crossed the million game mark and blew right on past Endless Legend without batting an eye. In fact, for two thirds of 2017, Stellaris was actually outselling Civ6! A hefty markdown of Firaxis’s title for the fall and Christmas sales, though, returned things to their previous state. I’ll be keen to see what happens as Stellaris moves more fully into its 2.0-ness with even more new DLC versus how many new people buy into Civ6 with its Rise and Fall expansion coming out in February. 2018 may end up being the year of the expansion.
2016 had another awesome year. Those games attracted around 2 million new owners! That pushes 2016 past 2014 for #1 in total ownership, which is quite amazing since ‘14 sports its own Civ title along with venerable games like EL, AoW3, and DW:U. By almost any measure, 2016 is the gold standard for the years covered in this article.
Back to 2015 for a moment. GalCiv3 had a really fantastic 2017 on Steam. A reduction of its regular price coupled with the well-received Crusade expansion more than doubled its ownership from 2016. It’s difficult to gauge how Stardock, and in particular Brad Wardell, feel about that. In one blog post and then another on a forum he discusses his dismay at Steam ratings and game sales.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s quite remarkable that a game like GalCiv3 that’s been on the market almost three years (not including its very lengthy Early Access period) was able to attract so many new players despite the heavy competition from Stellaris, ES 2, and a batch of indie Space games. The spike in owners corresponds almost exactly with Brad’s personal involvement in the title, so it’s reasonable to suggest he played a large part in its success this past year.
There is one curious thing about GalCiv3’s numbers, though. The Crusade expansion launched on May. In that month, the peak players topped out at 1580. June improved to 1747 but August bottomed out at 928. With a sudden swelling by 300,000 owners, I would have expected GalCiv’s playerbase to skyrocket as well. It didn’t. The highest peak came in January (2847) and the best month overall was in February (761). I suppose one could say that Crusade helped stop the bleeding, but the rapid increase of owners juxtaposed to a relatively flat amount of concurrent players just seems incongruous to me. At the moment, I’m not sure what to make of it.
Thea blitzed past the 100k owners mark back in January of 2017 and is now moving toward 200k. One wonders how the sequel (due to hit early access in 2018) will affect sales. Thea has had a terrific run, the best of any small studio game we track, but will a second title stall the first or only increase interest in it? It will be fascinating to see what happens as this year unfolds.
Galactic Inheritors also saw a sizable jump in owners on Steam. I don’t know to what that might be attributed. Perhaps it was included in bundles or given away in large quantities? It had some price promotions, sure, but nothing extraordinary. So, I’m not sure what to make of it. Should anyone out there have an idea why so many people have this game now, I’d appreciate a heads-up.
The rest of the games from 2015 show only meager increases in sales, which is what should be expected at this point. They averaged about a 20% gain in owners, and that’s with some pretty heavy discounting. Arcane Sorcery, for instance, was available for 76 cents at one point in 2017. That price suggests there is a limit on how much a deep discount will help a game’s sales if the quality of the product isn’t high enough.
That brings us to 2014. These games just keep chugging along. EL now has over 1.3 million owners on Steam. That’s a 39% increase in ownership and within reach of Civilization: Beyond Earth which saw less than a 10% gain in owners year-over-year. If both titles maintain their current growth rates, EL could conceivably pass CIV:BE by the end of 2018. That would be quite an accomplishment for the still relatively new studio of Amplitude.
Most of the rest of the games hovered between 15-20% growth. That’s similar to the 2015 games, but remember, these have been on the market longer and, more importantly, have been discounted less often and less steeply than the 2015 titles.
There is reason to be skeptical that this kind of sales growth can be sustained much longer. None of these games will get much, if any, new content in 2018, and new content is always the best driver of new owners. I can imagine there will be a steep drop-off in new ownership for the 2014 titles going forward. In fact, I think by the end of 2018 it’s likely we’ll be able to look at the games from that year to establish a baseline for the kind of sales growth quality games can expect to have once development finally ends.
Lords of the Black Sun will earn a special distinction this year. It is the first game I’ve tracked that has shown absolutely no growth in ownership from year to year. This is not at all surprising since it has an appalling Steam rating and barely ever gets mentioned anywhere except, perhaps, in this article I do each January.
I’d like to move on from 2014, but it just provides so many interesting data points. For instance, Civ:BE continues to hemorrhage players. From its high of 86k peak players 2014, it’s scored just over 2k in 2017. That’s a staggering 97% decline. Both EL and AoW3 passed it. EL, in fact, had a higher peak in 2017 than it did when in launched. That’s truly unusual, and an accomplishment no other game from that year can claim.
Tearing myself away from 2014 for a moment, I want to concentrate on a more recent trend. For the last two years, I’ve noticed a shift in small studio games published by someone other than the developer. Honestly, it’s been a miserable time for second tier publishers. Here is a list of games published by Iceberg, Matrix/Slitherine, and Lock ‘n Load over the last two years along with their current Steam owners:
In 2015, Iceberg published StarDrive 2. With over 80k owners on Steam, that represents its best offering post-Amplitude (Endless Legend was published by Iceberg but Amplitude has since been bought by Sega which now publishes their games). Matrix/Slitherine hasn’t had a major release since Distant Worlds: Universe. Of these publishers’ new games, only Oriental Empires can be said to have had anything resembling success.
Compare that to the self-published games from small studios during the same time period:
The sample sizes are way too small to draw any definitive conclusions right now, but it’s something I’ll be watching in subsequent years. Do publishers (especially small and midsize ones) provide enough benefit to small developers to offset the costs? We’ll see.
One thing I’m adding this year is a quick check on the all time rankings for owners and concurrent players. With all my data spread out in multiple charts, it can be difficult to assess where games rank against one another. There isn’t too much value in comparing games this way, but it is fun.
As I said, there isn’t much to be learned that hasn’t already been stated. Clearly, it’s good to have Sid Meier in your title. It’s also advantageous to have a large studio working on a game. 2014 is the oldest year, so we’d expect games from that year to be grouped toward the top. 2017 is the newest, so those games should be toward the bottom. For the most part, that’s true. The lone anomaly is how well the 2016 games stack up against everybody. There are three from 2016 in the top ten with SK:R knocking on the door. By contrast, 2015 only has two (GalCiv3 and Thea). With WoM, SK, and Star Ruler 2 all officially abandoned by their respective developers at this point, there’s little reason to believe any other game from that year will ever crack the top 10.
When looking at all time player peak, things get a tad more interesting. For most games, the peak comes shortly after launch. Since Steam has set new records for users in each of the last four years, one would expect the newest games to have a big advantage for concurrent users over the older games. However, just the opposite is true. Out of the top 20 games in peak players, seven launched in 2014. Five come from 2015, but 2016 and 2017 each only contribute four.
I chose to examine the top 20 instead of the top 10 to allow room for new games to make the cut-off. As more big games from big game studios come out, it gets more difficult for newer games from mid and small size studios to achieve those same numbers. Brand recognition and hype obviously play a part in how many people play a game. So by extending the list to 20, we get a better idea of where the new games fit in with the old games, and quite clearly, the new games are struggling.
So what does that indicate? I think there are several factors in play. First, I don’t think we can wholly attribute the result to a decline in interest in 4X. As mentioned, 2016 was a banner year in 4X sales and all those games (and most 4X games in general) had a relatively solid 2017. Second, and most likely the biggest factor, I’ve already mentioned how the popularity of 4X games launched over the last four years may have depressed interest in the 2017 offerings. The long term effects of EL, AoW3, GalCiv3, Stellaris, CivBE/Civ6, and are manifest once again. Third, it could just be that people are waiting longer to MoO:CTS purchase a new game when it comes out, and that’s something I’d like to examine more deeply.
Let’s again compare 2015 to 2017 since those two years had roughly similar sales numbers. StarDrive 2 and Oriental Empires are very close in launch-year ownership rates; however, SD2 had over FIVE TIMES the number of peak players. “Not fair!” you might exclaim. “SD2 was an established franchise and had a ready playerbase.” Fine. Let’s look at Thea. Thea sold about three-fifths as many copies on Steam as OE did in their respective launch years, yet it still had two and a half times as many peak players. And remember, OE benefited from two years’ worth of growth in the Steam customer base. Similarly ES2 sold 50% more copies than GalCiv3 but managed only 30% more peak players. The rest peaked out right near their 2015 counterparts (Stars in Shadow with SK and E:I with WoM).
This tells me that people might not be rushing out to buy new games right away like they used to. Like my good friend Oliver posited in his article All that Glitters is not Gold, quality is beginning to matter in the consciousness of gamers. In our forum thread about Endless Space 2, but are going to wait to play and/or buy it until the bugs get fixed and the promised launch content finally gets implemented.
That evidence is anecdotal, but I believe it’s still instructive. With launch day patches, emergency fixes, near-launch DLC, frequent price promotions, and inevitable expansions becoming the standard operating procedure for video game developers, companies are incentivizing players to wait. Consequently, I believe we’ll see fewer and fewer new games in the top 20 of all-time peak players despite the fact there are more people than ever able to buy them.
If people eventually do purchase the games, then it’s not a problem. However, if players’ attention is taken elsewhere (like to older games with more mature development cycles or a flashy new game that shows up later) then companies are going to have to get their act together on launch day. There’s no way to evaluate the long term effects of declining launch-year players right now. We’ll just have to wait to see if future data sets provide illumination.
Before moving on, I do want to point out one counter-example: Dominions 5. Despite garnering a modest 17k owners in 2017 (it launched in November), it still managed to break a 1000 concurrent players. That’s very impressive and bodes well for the game in 2018.
So let’s take a moment to sort all the games by genre, or sub-genre really. When we do, we get a breakdown that looks something like this:
Space has more games than all other sub-genres combined, and with 2018 bringing another 5-7 Space 4X titles to the market, it’s well poised to stay that way. Space’s dominance in the top 10 games by owners, though, is not quite as prolific. It’s tied with Fantasy at 4 games apiece.
If you break down the games into average sales per title per genre, you get a table that looks like this:
Caveats galore! Average sales don’t guarantee anything. Game quality matters. Originality matters. Some games have been on the market a long time, while others have not. Yadda-yadda-yadda. Ok. What can we learn? There aren’t enough titles in Historical, Sci-Fi, and Post-Apocalyptic to do any meaningful analysis, so toss them out for now. One might argue the same could be said for Fantasy, but we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. I’ll revisit this issue again next year.
Mean average tells us very little, IMHO, but median average is more instructive. The overall median owners for all of 4X sits almost at 55k. The median for fantasy is 55k. That means that Fantasy 4X sales generally reflect the broader 4X market. Half the games are in the top 50% of titles by owner and half aren’t. Space, however, struggles in this respect. Its median average is just 32k, which means that 10 out of the 18 titles launched since 2014 failed to crack the top 50%.
Fantasy and Space are tied for number of games above 100k sales as well as number of games with a million plus sales. So access to the higher ends of success seems equally attainable in both genres. However, Fantasy has zero games under 10k sales and Space has three (four if you discount the 10,000+ free copies of Apollo4X Digital Entertainment gave out). Thus it would seem that the odds of totally bombing with Space 4X are higher than Fantasy.
In an interview Oliver did with Brad Wardell in late 2017, Brad stated, “Outside of Endless Legend, the numbers for fantasy 4X just aren’t that promising. Is Endless Legend the outlier or the norm?” I get the sense that’s the common perception among developers, since we keep getting more and more announcements for new Space 4X games despite an ever-crowding field.
However, I don’t agree that the numbers support his assertion. Certainly, for a company the size of Stardock, 50k sales is unsustainable, and no doubt the disappointing launch of Sorcerer King factors into Brad’s thinking as well. But half the Fantasy games launched since 2014 beat the overall median average of owners and four out of the top ten most-owned 4X games on Steam from the same time period are Fantasy. The odds of at least a moderate amount of success just seem higher in that genre.
He also stated, “Fantasy games are a lot more expensive to make because of all the animation and organic models – so it takes even more sales to support them.” I can totally sympathize with that fact, and it may also be a contributing factor to the disparity between the two sub-genres. Cost is always a concern. We’ve seen some low-budget Fantasy 4X games such as AS, WoM, E:I, and Thea. Of those, only Thea could be called successful IMO. At the same time, we’ve seen some Space games with fairly good production values like Polaris Sector and Dawn of Andromeda struggle. One might even call MoO: CTS a disappointment as well.
My analysis as of now: if you can make a solid investment and develop a relatively competent game, your odds of achieving at least a moderate amount of sales is likely to be higher in Fantasy than it is in Space. Historical and Sci-Fi terrestrial games may also hold some promise, but there’s not yet enough data to say.
That’s all very interesting and may inform nascent developers on where to put their creative energies next. For the genres with fewer titles, the data is certainly skewed, but as we move forward, hopefully more titles will be added to them, so we can get a better understanding of the market appetite for games with those kinds of thematic elements. Thankfully, the upcoming year(s) promises us quite a buffet of different games in different genres.
Well, that covers most of the big changes over the last year, so what about the future? Well, for one thing, I’m going to work on formatting my tables better so they’re more uniform. Other than that, from the looks of things, the number of new 4X titles should pick up again. Predestination, Lord of Rigel, Warhammer 40k: Gladius, Thea 2: The Shattering, Driftland: The Magic Revival, Empires in Ruins, Interstellar Space: Genesis, Galaxial, Three Kingdoms, Gala Collider, Alliance of the Sacred Suns, Space Tyrant, Space Battle Core, and probably a few more are already in various stages of Alpha/Beta testing with plans to launch this coming year. That’s quite a diverse selection of games, but none come from one of the larger studios. As far as I know, there shouldn’t be something like an Endless game or Civ game sucking all the oxygen out of the market. I’m excited to find out what that will mean for the genre. Here’s to hoping that 2018 is a banner year for 4X!