While looking over the questions they ask, I came across two which previously gave me pause:
- Current Sales Data on Released Platforms
- Links to Reviews
The first time I saw these was well before NEO Scavenger was released (probably even before it was started). I remember seeing those fields and feeling discouraged. How would I get the reviews to convince Valve my game would be worth it? And wouldn't answers to these questions present a sort of Catch 22? Granted, they're not required fields, but Steam had a reputation as a hard service to get indie games onto, so not having such data seemed like a major weakness.
Looking at them now, however, I'm actually feeling fairly confident. Apart from the recent increase in indie games on Steam, soft-launching my first game has given me data I can point to. For one thing, my payment provider (FastSpring) compiles sales data since the launch of the game, and Google Analytics can tell me how many unique visitors I've had.
Using these stats, I can tell a prospective distributor that NEO Scavenger has a 2.4% conversion rate. That is, 2-3 visitors out of every 100 buy the game. I'm not sure how that stacks up against other games, but I've heard that ~2% is actually a respectable number in the e-commerce world.
Furthermore, my obsessive tracking of magazine reviews and forum threads about NEO Scavenger seems to have paid off as well. Since NEO Scavenger's soft launch, I've kept links to every article mentioning NEO Scavenger, as well as every forum thread I can find. I gathered these links from referrer info in Google Analytics, Google Alerts on both "NEO Scavenger" and "Blue Bottle Games," and my own obsessive Google searches for instances of "NEO Scavenger" each day.
By now, I have a long list of articles where people talk about the game, and I can easily link to and quote them should a distributor ask.
Overall, this appears to be yet another benefit of "soft launching" one's game. In addition to the benefits of early adopters testing and helping to refine the game, and an early boost in funding, I can also quote relevant data for potential distributors.
Could it have backfired? I bet so. Had I released NEO Scavenger earlier, it may have been so broken that early reviews were negative, potentially marring NEO Scavenger's reputation on the market for a long time. So it's definitely not a one-size-fits-all endorsement.
On the other hand, being an indie carries a certain amount of leniency. I probably was treated less harshly than if I were a giant publisher pre-releasing a buggy and unfinished game.
Is it critical to have this data before submitting a game? Not necessarily. As mentioned above, it's not required to get onto Steam, and launching early has it's own perils.
However, I think tracking stats and product coverage is a valuable tool, whether "soft launching" or not. For example, I also found that 8.7% of visitors become members of the Blue Bottle Games site. This is an interesting number, since that means a whole 6% of visitors become members, but don't buy the game. Judging by the forum posts, I don't think all of this is for the ability to post comments either. So why else would visitors become members?
Probably this is a byproduct of the clunky purchase flow on the site, which requires the user be a member to see ordering info for the game. If I were to change it such that pricing info was available to non-members, how would that affect numbers? Would the member conversion rate go down? Would the purchase conversion rate go up? My gut instinct is that a combination of the two above would happen. Although, it's possible that people may actually feel more inclined to buy the game after completing a membership.
It would be an interesting experiment to try. If nothing else, it should increase transparency, and I'm all for that. And back to the main point, this is an experiment I could hardly explore without this data on hand.
Whatever method one uses for distribution, I suggest gathering as much data as possible. The tools are out there, and often free (several are linked to above), so the only thing barring their use is effort on the indie's part. Don't be lazy!