On the first of October 2021, solo-developer-studio Two Star games posted an announcement trailer for their horror game Choo-Choo Charles (CCC) The trailer, the corresponding tweet, and the tiktok video went thermo-nuclear and Choo-Choo Charles earned over 85,000 wishlists and becoming the #131 most wishlisted upcoming game on Steam by the 16th of October.
I have seen games “go viral” but I have never seen a result like this. The developer shared this story and numbers on the official How To Market A Game Discord. You should give him a follow here on Twitter.
In this week’s blog I am going to walk you through a beat-by-beat explanation of the campaign, why I think it happened, and what you can learn from it to apply this to your game.
Wait what happened?
Gavin (The developer behind Two Star) first announced the game on September 17th with the following tweet.
There was no call to action because the Steam page wasn’t published yet. Note that the tweet didn’t have any pictures of Choo-Choo Charles yet. It only got 4,000 impressions at the time (the developer told me that since going viral the tweet stats have since doubled). Not bad but nothing out of the ordinary. Then he posted another CTA-less tweet here
A few more retweets and a bit more visibility but not much.
Then, on September 23rd Gavin published the Steam page here. It was live for about a week and earned about 500 wishlists which is typical for new games because Steam gives you some free visibility when you first post your page.
Then he published his trailer and all hell broke loose.
This trailer was posted on his YouTube channel. Gavin does post some really great game-dev related content there (this one is my favorite) and he has amassed a following of about 8,000 subscribers.
At the same time Gavin shared the trailer on his Twitter account. He did the smart thing of breaking the tweet into two parts. Supposedly the Twitter algorithm penalizes you for linking off to points external – notice that the first tweet actually has the trailer embedded into it rather than linking off to the youtube trailer.
The second tweet was posted immediately after the first as a reply and contains the call to action (CTA) which contains a link to the steam page. This is common practice and is supposedly the best way to work around the Twitter algorithms penalty for “external link penalty.”
Gavin also posted the trailer on r/indiegaming
Earning a combined 4,000+ upvotes.
The tweet and the youtube video went viral and shared everywhere. IGN reuploaded it. Gamespot did too. Gavin estimates that the trailers have been viewed over 20 million times across all the reuploads.
On October 1st, Choo-Choo Charles earned 14,000 wishlists.
Most of this was completely self propelled organic .
The wishlists slowed a bit but were at the 10,000 a day rate.
5 days later Gavin posted the trailer on Tiktok. That went viral too and earned 1.5 Million Views.
Gavin didn’t delay posting to tiktok for strategic reasons, he just had some technical issues getting it uploaded and so many other people were posting his trailer for him that he just waited.
On Tiktok day CCC earned 11,000 wishlists. It is hard to determine how many of those wishlists are directly from the TikTok vs the natural cycle from all the other activity he got.
Since then, press and social coverage continued and Choo-choo Charles is currently sitting at 91,738 wishlists and 5799 followers.
Here is his wishlist chart for the last 2 weeks (annotations by Gavin)
Now you are probably a developer working hard to market and sell your game looking at this and considering shutting the whole thing down saying who cares nothing matters? “I too have tweeted my trailer and sent it out and this didn’t happen.”
Take a breath and remember that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Yes, earning 90K wishlists in a 2 week period is very rare but there are lots of things we can learn from this even if you are not making a horror game. Understanding how the algorithm and industry works can help you with your own games (even if you are not going to get this many wishlists).
In the following analysis I want to show you that it isn’t all luck. Gavin and Two Star Games have done a number of smart things that primed him for this success.
Here is how it happened:
Product Product Product
There are 4Ps to marketing:
- Product (Type of game)
- Price (How much you charge for your game)
- Place (Steam)
- Promotion (Tweeting, TikTok, Youtube)
Too often indies focus on promotion as the reason for success or failure. What time should I tweet? Should I be on TikTok? What are good sub reddits? None of that really matters compared to the type of game you make and what it looks like. Probably a good 80-90% of your game’s success depends on the type of game you make aka PRODUCT!
Choo-Choo Charles is the perfect product for a viral moment.
Gavin and his game have uncovered this weird undercurrent of terror we have about Thomas the Train and Spider legs. Gavin said he was specifically inspired by Tom Coben’s viral video:
My tip, look at what the internet is already interested in and sharing. What art styles? What moods? Themes? Fears?
Other reasons this product is perfectly primed to go viral:
- This game is 3D and looks great. Gavin said that he did most of the art but the trees, rocks, and other basic assets come from the Unreal Engine Marketplace. ART MATTERS.
- Horror games are a very viable genre. Many shoppers on steam like horror games and small indie-scale games can earn quite a bit. Look at games like Five Nights at Freddies, Lunch Lady, and Poppy Playtime
- There is a very specific horror sub-genre of “getting chased by your childhood memories contorted to be evil.”
- It is funny and makes you want to share it with your friends.
Basically Gavin didn’t invent this thing out of nowhere. He tied together several trends and built on top of them. Gamers are not looking for something 100% original, they are looking for something that mixes and remixes what they already like.
For more information on this see my article on “Anchors”
Capsule and Genre
But having the right product in the right genre isn’t enough, you must be able to quickly convey to others what type of game you have.
The Choo-choo Charles capsule is a master class in genre expression. Let’s look at it in all its glory:
Gavin hired (and highly recommends) this artist that specializes in horror art (link).
The reason it works so well is if you look at the top-selling childhood-monster-chasing-you-horror games they all feature the monster’s face right up front, simple, dark background, and then bold font. Choo-Choo Charles nails it.
Look at these:
This isn’t his “Dream Game”
The press loves to write articles about indies who “came out of nowhere” and “this is their first game” and are “under 30″ and also “suffered for their art.” It gives the impression that if your first game isn’t a hit that caused an existential crisis, you will never be successful.
But that isn’t the case at all. Gavin has released several small scale horror games. None of them went viral like CCC, but they were popular enough for him to build a bit of a fan base and learn how to make games.
Gavin is fully conscious of this as well. He created this great video called My first horror game was TERRIBLE.
My advice is start small, fail fast. You learn so fast from releasing games. Don’t work on your masterpiece dream game MMO for at first.
You must build up to success like this. It rarely happens on your first game, and if it does, that typically happens without you fully understanding why leaving you scared of releasing a second one.
So if you see CCC’s success and it makes you want to quit and start over, don’t. Just finish up your current game, start another one, finish it. Then make another. Repeat that as fast as you can until you learn how to make and release games.
For more information see: You will release a game in 2021
Network with fellow indies
Gavin thinks that one of the main reasons why his tweet went viral was because it was retweeted early on by fellow indie horror game developer Airdorf (who has over 37K twitter followers).
Airdorf knew Gavin because he had seen and praised Gavin’s previous game My Beautiful Paper Smile. Gavin also runs a podcast where he interviews fellow indies and had Airdorf on his show for 1 episode.
It is vital that you network with other indies. Find and reach out to other indies making games similar to you. Build a relationship with them on places other than twitter. Work together to promote each other’s stuff. Don’t just ask for RTs without helping them first. Think of ways to help them first (such as inviting them on your podcast to promote their work).
Also RELEASE GAMES! Remember that Airdorf’s introduction only started after Gavin had released a game. So many indies start but never finish their games that you automatically become more interesting and worth networking with because you proved that you are an indie that actually releases games.
So get that first game out and use it as your business card.
The trailer is awesome
Study this trailer. It immediately conveys everything you need to know about the game. Here is a second by second breakdown of how the trailer works:
- 0 seconds – We see this is a 3D FPS style game without a gun in your hand.
- 3 seconds – We see the enemy
- 5 to 8 seconds (depending on how good your eyes are) – we see what the game’s central gameplay hook is (navigating by train)
- 11 seconds – We see the game’s primary player verb (shooting from a turret)
- 20 seconds – We see additional context such as how we navigate using maps and the scale of the world.
Some trailers don’t even get past their studio logo and “in a world” intro text by 20 seconds! STUDY THIS TRAILER!
The remainder of the trailer shows bigger and bigger gameplay loops such as upgrading your train and talking to NPCs.
The trailer also ends with a nice clear call to action “Wishlist now.”
One slight issue I have is that it doesn’t have a Steam icon but really are there any other platforms at this point?
Gavin made his own trailer because he followed the advice by Trailer Superstar Derek Lieu. Listen to him!
Press follows success and are not the cause of it
Gavin did not reach out to any press in the promotion of his trailer. The only active promotion he did was on Twitter, Youtube, Tiktok, Reddit. Those blew up and then the press came looking to him for interviews and coverage.
Gavin shared with me how much the press coverage helped. As you can see Kotaku was the biggest driver of Youtube views. PC Gamer, and Eurogamer were close behind.
Similarly IGN and Gamespot republished the trailer on their youtube channels to earn millions of views.
Press is the result of, not the cause of initial traffic.
Steam is the biggest source of traffic
At Steam business Q&A events, the folks at Valve always give this super vague advice that is basically “bring your own audience and we will reward you for it.”
But in the following chart you can actually see it in action.
This Impressions chart is going to take some explaining. Don’t get scared. Impressions Over Time is the number of times shoppers saw the CCCs capsule. October 1st was when CCC went viral on social media. So you see a huge spike in traffic (the white line). But if you look closely on Oct 3 there is a little green line that peaks (I labeled that “Steam Discovery Boost”). Basically Steam saw a huge influx of traffic and matched it by showing the game more frequently in the Discovery Queue.
The following impage is the Discovery Queue and it is the number 1 way steam shoppers find and wishlist new games. Valve only puts the best games in here because it is such valuable real estate. If you have never tried it, go over to steam and scroll down and find the Discovery Queue button. Try it and see how it works.
Never underestimate the Discovery Queue. It is the best kept secret in Steam visibility. I actually think that the Discovery Queue is the main reason CCC got 90K wishlists.
The viral traffic was just the initial spark that lit the Discovery Queue bomb. In the following chart you will see the CCC’s page view traffic sources over the two week period.
As you can see, the Discovery Queue is the number one source of page views. Not Twitter, Not Tiktok, Not Youtbe. This is this little widget that not many developers pay much attention to.
Note that widgets like “More Like This” “Recommendation Feed” also helped push the game but they were not as dominant as the Discovery Queue.
So basically if Steam notices a bunch of good traffic to your page, they say “ooooh, this is a good game” and a few days later they show your game even more.
Valve is vague on the specifics of the algorithm. I am not sure if it is raw traffic numbers or they watch for a conversion ratio of traffic to wishlists. But basically if you bring traffic, they match it with customers who really really like your game’s genre?.
How do they know who to send? Tags. You must tag your game well. For more information on that see these blog posts:
My least favorite explanation for why games had success is “They got lucky and went viral.” That is such a lazy explanation.
Here is the more nuanced explanation of how it works and how you can at least get close to numbers like these.
- Release a lot games quickly to build your reputation, amass a fan base, and learn what shoppers actually care about. Note: your early games don’t have to sell well. In fact they probably wont make much money.
- Network with fellow game developers of your chosen genre.
- Use your knowledge of the taste profile of your genre’s fans to make a game that is attractive and interesting to them. Also helps if you look at other internet trends and memes to see what people are sharing. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP. YOUR GAME MUST BE GOOD AND INTERESTING1!!
- Accurately tag your game (see Step 8 below)
- Make marketing materials such as capsules and trailers that accurately and concisely explain your game and its genre.
- Use your professional contacts to help you share and amplify your game on social media.
- Wait for press to come to you.
- Use that traffic from social traffic to tickle the Steam algorithm so that it shows your game more to people who are predisposed to your game in widgets like the Discovery Queue and “More Like This.” Proper tags let Steam know who to show it to.