There is no hyperbole that I can offer when I say that Valheim is a success. You can read stories like this one for that kind of info
However, I can offer you a deconstruction of their marketing efforts to help you learn how to get 1/10th of their success.
So here are 8 lessons
Lesson 1: This will not happen to you
There is no strategy on how to do this. You cannot plan this level of success. There is no marketing trick that can do this.
You can plan and strategize for a game to do moderately well, but there is no secret formula for how to get a game to be THIS successful. If there would be one of these games released every week. You just can’t plan for it so don’t expect it.
The best analogy I have for this kind of thing is that marketing is like lifting an object off the ground and then letting it go.
- If you do no marketing, no matter how good the product is, you never lift it off the ground.
- A bad or mediocre product is a rock. When you let it go it falls immediately. Doing extra marketing is almost worthless because no matter how much effort or money you put in, it will fall just as fast.
- A good product is like a feather. When you let it go it floats and dances in the air and stays aloft for a long time. You occasionally do some extra marketing which is like giving a gentle puff to the feather sending it sailing back into the air.
- Valheim is like a firework, you let it go and it shoots 1000x higher than you held it.
That is why no matter how good your marketing is, you need a good game. All you can do to replicate Valheim’s success is lift your game up to the same height and hope that you are holding a rocket and not a rock.
I actually don’t like writing about these games because studying these games don’t help most people. We just can’t replicate it. There are a magic set of circumstances that lead to THIS level of success. See also my marketing deconstruction for Among Us.
Never expect your game to do this well. No matter of expertise can do this. These are magical once-a-year events. You should plan for your game to do average to below average.
Lesson 2: This genre is very very popular
Valheim is the perfect type of game for the Steam audience. This game includes almost every genre and trope that Steam loves
- Fantasy / Medieval time period
- Dark / Metal color pallet and theming
- Deep, procedurally generated, endlessly repayable content
- Streamer friendly (see replayability)
A big reason why Valheim could grow its following as consistently as they did is because of their genre. I cannot emphasize this enough, the biggest way to improve your game’s marketing is to pick a genre that Steam loves. To see more about what genres the Steam audience favors see my blog post “What Genres are Players Looking For On Steam”
I asked Richard Svensson (the creator of the game) if they did any promotion to their page at this period. (We will get to whether those tweets helped in a bit)
- The genre you pick decides how well your game will sell.
- Let me repeat again, proper genre choice is the biggest decision in determining your game’s success.
- It is easier to market a game that your target platform loves.
- If your game organically earns 50 wishlists a day you have my permission not to do any additional marketing.
Lesson 3: Valheim didn’t come out of no where
The Valheim Steam page has been live for a long time – it was posted in October 2018. In fact, back then the game was named FEJD. Thankfully the game’s name was changed. They also had this really old and endearingly clunky logo with a handle-less axe.
Look here is an early tweet for screenshot Saturday
In the early days the game built up followers at a rate of about 5 per day. That is probably 35-50 wishlists per day. That is a very very good daily growth rate. Why the steady wishlist rate? I think it has to do with the genre. The Steam audience really loves Builders / Survival games.
When Valheim launched to Early Access at the beginning of February it had about 15,000 followers which are probably around 105,000-150,000 wishlists. That is a LOT of wishlists. This game didn’t come out of nowhere. There are very few indie games that launch with this many wishlists.
- Do not delay setting up your Steam page. A lot of people ask me if they should wait for better art or better trailers? No, don’t! These folks started with a different game name and very early art. Their first video is adorably simple and titled “Running on Logs” and is exactly what it sounds like.
- It takes a long time to build up thousands of wishlists. Be patient. Keep pushing for wishlists.
Lesson 4: Open Development with Very Frequent Betas
Valheim was developed in open for many years before it ever appeared on Steam.
The Valheim Alpha was developed mostly on itch.io. You can see two years ago they posted that the game has been released out of alpha. That announcement got 22 upvotes. That alpha release was posted to the Unity Reddit. Look at this exchange, isn’t it cute.
The first mention of a beta was in November 2019. In this blogpost, they said they were doing “other boring stuff to be done as we prepare to expand the Beta.” I think they were running some friends and family beta before that date.
Back in May 2020, they did another public beta. You can see their campaign asking for beta signups here:
BTW – Alpha Beta Gamer is a MUST contact if you are running a beta. That guy’s community is SO engaged. By looking at their follower counts I can see this announcement yielded about 40 additional followers (~400 wishlists) which was well above their average growth rate at this time.
As you can see from the alphabetagamer link, they hosted signups through Mailchimp. As we have discussed, that is a VERY Smart Lead Magnet. It is also smart to use email as your beta communication channel (not discord) because your clickthrough rates are higher and it is easier to target specific sub-groups and section up your beta.
Now Valheims open world, nearly endless replayability is perfectly matched to have multiple open betas like this. If you are making a visual novel this isn’t a viable promotional activity.
- If your game is an endless gameplay hobby game that open development favors, run continuous alpha / betas.
- Talk to AlphaBetaGamer if you are running a beta.
- Run a beta from an email list like Mailchimp.
- Do lots of betas.
Lesson 5: Getting a publisher helped but it is hard to see how exactly
In January 2020 they had a very vague blog post where they hinted that they signed a deal with a publisher.
At this point Valheim had about 5100 followers (~50,000 wishlists).
Six months later on June 13th, 2020 Valheim officially announced they were signed by Coffee Stain Studios and had a great trailer during the PC Gaming show. You can see the trailer here:
Simultaneously Valheim was featured in the Guerilla Collective promotion.
After this absolutely killer June 2020 chain of promotions, the daily follower counts increased from about 5 per day to a very aggressive 12.7 per day.
Coffee Stain is a perfect publisher for this game. Their previous game Satisfactory has a very similar fan base that can be cross-sold and they know how to promote them.
The benefit of a publisher is that it gets you into opportunities such as the PC Gaming Show. Coffee Stain’s pedigree also helped them with legitimacy.
However, I notice that Coffee Stain didn’t assign “Valheim” to their publisher franchise. This is a screenshot of the Satisfactory Steam page – if they had been added to Coffee Stain’s system correctly, Valheim should appear in my red circle as “More From Coffee Stain.” (shakes head)
- If you do have publisher make sure your game is linked under other games they publish. There should be a section called “more from <publisher name>.” It is a setting called “franchise.” Go make them fix it right now ok.
- Publishers can add legitimacy and increase the momentum of their game’s follower growth.
Lesson 6: Twitter Did Nothing For Them
Right now the Valheim twitter account has 58,400 Followers. However, the day before Valheim launched (February 2nd, 2021) the follower count was a paltry 1,706.
The creator of the game also had a modest following of only 1211 before launch.
The first tweet by the Valheim twitter account got 2 Retweets and only 8 likes. It is adorable how much Twitter ignored this game.
Despite regularly posting to #screenshotsaturday, the tweets rarely got more than a handful of likes and retweets:
- Don’t fret if your game is not doing well on Twitter. If you are consistently gaining a following where it matters (wishlists on Steam) don’t stress out.
- The Steam player base doesn’t really care about Twitter. Your game can do well despite it.
- Followers come from doing cool stuff outside of Twitter. Valheim gained its sizable Twitter following once they became popular.
Lesson 7: Streamers really helped
So no big surprise but Valheim is the perfect game for streaming: Gameplay is deep, highly replayable, you can’t spoil it, and you can invite friends and fans to play on your server. That is such a potent mix for modern influencer marketing.
It seems streamers really started covarying the game Feb 1st. I am not positive but I am pretty sure that the Valheim / Coffee Stain team started running a streamer campaign. Look at this Twitch coverage chart generated by SteamDB.
You can tell that early videos from those streamers were commissioned: They either mentioned they got a free key or they robotically read the marketing copy. See below:
HOWEVER, a few days after those videos, you can tell the streamers were smitten. They played organically. Jade PG who posted that wooden paid-for ad, has released an entire set of videos all about Valheim.
- If you have a game that is streamer friendly try to commission enough streamers to cover it to give you that initial boost.
- Things like private servers that streamers can share with their community go over well.
Summary of the strategy
Here is my outside perspective of what really mattered in the Valheim campaign
- Made a game that is exactly the type of game Steam loves.
- The developer put their game up on Steam early despite not finalizing on the game’s name or promotional art style.
- They ran many betas to build up a fan base and iterate on their feedback
- They achieved a high daily wishlists rate (probably because of the perfect product + market fit with the Steam audience)
- Did a big promotion + partnership with a publisher that specializes in games that are similar to Valheim
- They ran a pretty big streamer campaign in the last few days before launch to EA.
- The combination of the Streamer campaign and thousands and thousands of wishlists really launched this game like a rocket.
- A huge amount of luck to reach these levels of success.