Behind the scenes #4 – Sales, distribution, piracy and marketing

In the last blog post we gave you in-depth insight into the release process of a game. This time we want to focus on sales and the importance of distribution channels like Steam or GOG. We will also talk about the effects of digital rights management (DRM) and piracy, an always hot and widely discussed topic.

As we explained last time, Train Fever is sold in two forms: Digitally via various platforms and retail as a physical box including a DVD and a Steam key. Typically the developer net revenue for a game sold digitally is much higher. For a low or mid-priced game like Train Fever it is about two to three times greater than retail. This can be easily explained by the fact that digitally sold games lack production, logistics, distribution and retail store costs.

If today a game should still be sold via retail at all became a controversial topic in the recent years. As a consequence of risking to miss out on a considerable amount of income, some publishers and developers stopped producing physical boxes at all or decided to sell them online only.

Anyway we decided to do so, as digital and retail serve two different target groups. Not selling box versions in stores could lose the casual customer who may buy the game due to store advertising, look for a present for somebody, or is just browsing for a new game to play. Not selling a box at all would cut out the noteworthy amount of old-school players which still likes to own a physical box and medium. Last but not least selling retail can also cover some additional distribution channels like Amazon.

While we sold about 30.000 box copies of the game, the majority – about 90.000 – of the sales were made in digital form so far. Steam is the most known platform for buying games online and with surpassing more than 125 million active users earlier this year it is of utmost importance for independent developers. Having a game featured on the Steam front page can generate millions of views and making it into the top seller list can boost sales even more dramatically. In the case of Train Fever sales via Steam account for about 90% of the generated revenue in digital form.

Games on Steam are discounted on a regular basis either within a special event, like the Summer Sale, or games are sold at a reduced price individually. This has a huge impact on the sales numbers. A thumb rule is that if a game is sold for a fourth of the regular price (-75%) sales are about 40 times higher. A common practice among Steam users is to put the game on ones wish list. Therefore even months after a game is released it still can sell a lot of copies, especially to customers waiting for a discount.

Steam follows a developer friendly policy and is therefore enjoying a good reputation among game creators. Steam also offers a lot of comfortable features for customers – like the easy access to the games library – but also comes with its downsides, one being the DRM. Steams DRM mechanism forces players to bind their bought game to their account, which can only be used with the Steam client software. A couple of players dislike Steam due to this circumstance.

One way to approach this is to sell games DRM-free via GOG. GOG in contrast to Steam allows buyers to download the game directly after the purchase from the website, install and use it without the need of a client, serial number or user account. The game is available for download to the customer for an unlimited amount of time.

A fraudulent buyer could violate the user agreement and illegally distribute his copy to other people. This is why some publishers argue that DRM is needed to fight piracy, some even implement always-online-mechanics to force players to use a server login when they want to play the game. However, in our opinion, selling a DRM-free version is more an opportunity than a problem because cracked Steam versions are available anyway. There is hardly any game which is not cracked immediately after release.

Our estimate is that in the first two months about 30% of the active players of Train Fever used a pirated version. Since then this figures dropped slightly. This estimate is based on the logs sent by the legal and pirated version of the game to our servers.

piracyActive players with illegal (red) and legal (green) copies of the game over the first weeks after release.

But the question remains: Would sales go up, if piracy could be avoided without having the downside of forcing honest customers into dealing with harsh DRM restrictions? We believe they would not, even if it is very tempting to think so. We are convinced that a malicious player will not automatically buy a game if it is not available in a cracked form anymore. Usually, for these players the price-performance ratio is not acceptable.

After the game was released on GOG, the figures did not change and still most of the illegal download sources remain to offer cracked Steam versions. This confirms that – in our case – selling a DRM-free version has no measureable impact on piracy (and therefore no negative influence on our revenue).

Improving the game over a long period of time and distributing it via different platforms is one possible method to counter piracy and make potential buyers aware of the game. Marketing the game, advertising and getting coverage in various media can also acquire new customers.

A lot of games magazines nowadays have their main presence online, but traditional press like print magazines still play an important role, especially in central Europe, which is the most important market of Train Fever. Investing in commercials is an established way to reach additional customers on top of having the game covered by magazines in the form of previews or reviews. However, one disadvantage of print commercials is that the effect cannot be directly measured (no live click or view numbers etc.).

heftAdvertisement in one of the traditional German print magazines: PC Games

Next to the traditional media outlets YouTubers and Streamers present an ever growing part of today’s game journalism. They often account for the majority of the coverage a typical indie game gets. A single YouTube channel video can get 100.000 views within days. Even content producers with a small number of subscribers are very interesting, because they have very loyal audiences which show a lot of interested in certain game genres. More than a year after the release still every week dozens of Train Fever videos are uploaded to YouTube and are viewed thousands of times.

On the other hand, YouTube videos – especially Let´s Plays – are still considered a threat to sales by some publishers and developers. They think people prefer watching a game over playing it themselves. This is definitely not true for Train Fever, as it is a very open game and can be played in many different ways. So viewers of this videos are more likely to be motivated to try the game themselves.

Our homepage is another way to advertise for the game. In the release month more than 100.000 people visited the homepage. Sending out press releases and newsletters as well as visiting trade fairs completes the package of possible marketing tools.

Having satisfied customers is of course the most important part of marketing. In general, gamers are very critical, especially players of simulation games. They check at lot of different sources before they consider buying a game. Therefore, using cheap marketing tricks and promising the perfect game is definitely not an option.

“The best marketing is a good game!“
~Basil, CEO

Making and releasing games is not easy. Selling games is yet another different story. Many aspects in regard to distribution have to be considered. The DRM questions as well as the different marketing options have to be carefully addressed in order to make a game a success for all parties. We would like to hear your opinion on our findings and figures. Let us know in the comments what you think! And of course we invite everybody to buy the game who owns a pirated version! 😉

18 thoughts on “Behind the scenes #4 – Sales, distribution, piracy and marketing

  1. Interesting article, especially the part regarding piracy and DRM.

    30% of piracy is much lower than I expected, especially accounting that this figure lowered over time (maybe even as a result of some pirates downloading the game just to see if it is fun and then deciding to buy a legitimate copy). I wonder if percentages are similar or much higher for other titles. Does anybody have some information about that ?

    I personally use Steam. Although I don’t really like my games to be bound to them (or to anybody else), I must say that it is really practical to have all games in a place and have the possibility to easily download, install and upgrade them from one single account. Besides that it offers great features like sales (I often wait for them to buy some second-level games that I would most likely not buy at full price) and Steam workshop (alas Train fever does not use it!).

    On the other hand I really dislike other always online DRM methods like UPLAY and Origin as they are really too slow and cumbersome.

  2. Fascinating post, rare that a dev would share raw info like this, so thank you very much for doing so. I was surprised at the 30% piracy mark..

    That seems high to me. Of course, I got out of that scene years ago after I adopted Steam and got a ‘real’ job. Just easier to pay and play than to deal with cracks, etc.

    Anyway, I picked up TF after searching online for a new train sim game, saw some forum posts, hit the website and bought it on Steam. As someone who grew up with boxes, Steam has remarkably changed the way the industry operates.

    And I agree with the above poster. I’ve actually swore I’ll never purchase another Origin game because of the way that company handles it’s DRM. It’s obtrusive and annoying.

  3. Well, about piracy, unfortunately I can say some part of russian players is a pirates. But we are dont help them with problems ahhahahah 😀

    If serious, I think the best way to reduce piracy is regional prices in Steam and, of course, updates. And modding + updates, when mods for newest version is not working in old version – this is works better of all 😀 At least for lazy pirates.

    Btw russian translate is done. 🙂

  4. I have to admit that I downloaded a copy of the game from some suspicious source but not because I’m cheap and want a free game but because I wanted to try before I buy. You can’t imagine how much I’ve researched about the system requirements, read about performance on the TF forum, and pondered whether I should just buy the game and hope that it works on my system. In the end I decided to not buy the game. I watched so many YouTube videos and was dreaming about how I would do things but I never bought the game.

    For whatever you plan next I would wish for a demo. That’s how I got hooked up to Transport Tycoon back in the days, by the way (you could play one year, and only with trains in that demo). A functioning demo would probably boost sales tremendously.

    • Making demo is a work too. Modern solution is a free weekend on Steam or money back feature.

      • Oh how cute of you. What if the game never receives the free weekend? What if you still didn’t save the money for the game? Modern solutions suck really bad.

  5. I am an old pirate user, and current proud owner of a digital copy. It is the first time I do this. The game seemed to me so good, such an affordable price, which made ​​me feel shabby playing it free. Consider that even piracy can become in marketing, at least in my case, that neither had steam account and I opened it JUST to gain this game. The quality and price are the best defense against piracy , and the proof is that my conscience forced me to pay voluntarily.

    Congratulations on your excellent work, continue improving the game.

  6. Talking about the Piracy, I am a proud owner of train fever. But I was scared that I might have to use a pirate version, because in the country where I live, international payment thru cards or PayPal is not possible. When I came to know that Train fever will be available on steam then I quickly purchased Farming World just to check that my Indian card works or not. Theb I came to lnow about a feature on steam and quickly reserved $50 for train fever. So thats mt confession: Train fever was my first legit copy.

  7. There are so many cheap and great games out there at the moment – i have more games than lifetime to play them. Still, my gaming career seems to be declining in this over-saturation. I spend more time collecting and searching than playing.

    Now people say this is because only because Steam is so accessible and HumbleBundles are cheap – but i kind of think… it might be the age of the gamer that also factorizes into this. People turn into collectors more and more – the older they get. I have observed this with many, and now i am seeing the starts in me. I must practice restraint in order to enjoy gaming again!

    And there’s my point – don’t go on sale too soon. Make your game worth something, patch it up, make it as perfect as you can endure, then go on sale MAYBE. Bring out a single extensive DLC, patch it up and move on to the development to a completely different game (to gather experience in other fields), but update your old title occasionally – treat the users with some extra content for free. This is what i have observed in good developers as a customer.

    Piracy will always be a problem and it is a shame – but game pirates are not as evil as you might think. While they are basically stealing from you, they mostly do so out of necessity caused by addiction (like junkies!!). Either they crack it – or they will never get to play it. But they will still advertise your game for their friends through mouth propaganda (if there still is such a thing nowadays). There is little you can do against it, going DRM-Free is a nice leap of faith that the paying customers appreciate, it will earn you kudos with them and simplify things on a technical level, but it’s not a necessity for most. There will always be piracy, it should always be frowned upon in one way or another – but always pledge for morality and never go on a revenge crusade.

    To me, there is no reason to pirate nowadays. I am afraid that the video-game market might collapse soon, as seen with the atari crisis – then again, it’s built very globally and may never see a decline.

    Good Luck with your future sales!

    • Same for me, I turned into a collector… more and more.
      I used cracked versions of games when I was young, but since at leat 15 years I always buy my games. I love to use steam, with all it disadvantages, but it allows me to browse through my games without the need to go to all the boxes in a shelf.
      Additional you can look into screenshots and videos to remember what a game is about, and you are always getting latest updates, workshop content, etc.

      Regarding steam sales activities…
      I believe you should participate in all sales activities. Many people just browse through the games which are on sale. Also on my whishlist I look only on that… sometimes just 10% discount pushes me to buy a game, just because I recognized the game only because of the discount.

      We, my wife and myself, also sale digital products, and each Sale boost the numbers.

      Regarding keeping Sales numbers up:
      Most important: You must maintain your products, add new DLCs, new Updates, something. Keep the product site (especially Steam, but not only) alive and updated frequently. For me, it is an important argument to buy or not buy an older game. If I can see, that the game is well supported by the developer, I also buy older games.

      Continue your good work.
      All the best and thanks for the insides…

      PS: I have a legal copy of the game.

  8. When I was younger, all the DOS games had cracks, even if it was a buddy writing down every possible solution to those silly copy protection questions and codewheels. People traded games all the time back and forth. That was mainly b/c back then we were kids in Jr. High School had no money to actually buy a lot of different games, so people shared the games they could afford to buy with their friends. This was also before everyone had internet. I’m not fond of DRM, and try to buy games on whenever possible. When Train Fever went on sale on, I immediately purchased it. I love it, but I wish there were more types of industries, and some AI competition. It could also use a shuffle feature for the music player. With that said, Thank you for seeing that DRM doesn’t effectively prevent piracy. I hope you continue to maintain Train Fever and to make your future titles available on

  9. As former pirate (from 80’s to Steam), I agree what you say about piracy. I’m really sure that from 1000 pirated copies maybe 20 has been sold if pirated version was not available. But pirated version could also boost legal sales.

    If game is good, people will tell to others about that game, then people who can see advantage on Steam (updates, etc) would buy game. Even players who pirated could buy legal version, just to support developers.

    Christian (commented before me), that he has turned into collector. I have noticed same from me, also I noticed several years ago that all pirates are really not “players” of games, they just collect many games because it is possible. I’m really sure that ‘collecting’ stuff is written into humans DNA (some like to collect music, stamps, games, programs). But all people has no money to do it.
    If you look ‘standard’ pirate, I’m quite sure that person probably does not have steady income, but mostly those are students.

    I have over 1500 games on my Steam account, 22 on uplay, about 100 on origin, about 50 on origin. I have bought hundreds of ‘bundles’ (humble bundle, etc). I have several hundreds of dual copies. I have even couple steam accounts so I could activate my secondary keys.

    And yet, I play only some of those games. I have several hundreds of games that I haven’t played at all. I wish I could, but I know for sure that I don’t.

    Best games are from developers who could understand their community. Loyal community will be really important asset that developers could have, those are players who will buy every DLC there is, they will provide new ideas how to evolve game to better. And they will tell all their friends that how great that game is.
    (But even they could get angry if they are ignored and “molested”.. Like what happened on Payday 2)

    I haven’t been playing Train Fever for long time, I was starting to replay it today. But I wanted to see what is situation (updates) in game now. It was delight to see that there has been updates, so developers has not forgotten this game, but it has future.
    Also I did noticed that steam reviews was ‘mixed’, but reason seems to be quite price. Also problem is that so many reflects this game to ‘transport tycoon’ which is not all off.

    I so much want to see this game to have future, probably as in Train Fever 2.

  10. At last a developer who make some sense of piracy and DRM. Only if the big gaming studios took notice of the indie devs. But of course they wont they will just make it harder to pirate games and then the hackers will decode it and the game will be pirated and so does the cycle continue.

    With Steam you can have DRM free games with out using the client once it is installed depending on the dev.

  11. I’d go one step further and say that reducing piracy would actually decrease sales. In the end, it’s actually a form of free advertising- if someone likes a game they downloaded, they’ll be more likely to want to own it. This is why DLC makes many of us less likely to buy a game, but trying a good game that we’ve borrowed from a friend will actually make us more likely to buy it, not less likely. I can’t even begin to list all the games that I would never have bothered buying if I couldn’t try them first.

    • But that works only on some games. If the pirated game works perfectly well, why buy it? When I think back, I saw little incentive in buying games which I could just copy from a friend’s (copy of a friend’s copy of…) Why would I “want to own it” when I already do?

      Now, I certainly won’t advocate ever stricter DRM. But I think that this view looks at the issue with very rose-tinted glasses.

      Borrowing a (bought) game from someone you know is something different. That’s not piracy. Yes, modern publishers want to prohibit lending and re-selling by binding games to accounts and similar measures, and they’re largely succeeding thanks to Steam. But it’s still not piracy. I see little reason why I should adopt that view.

      • “If the pirated game works perfectly well, why buy it? When I think back, I saw little incentive in buying games which I could just copy from a friend’s (copy of a friend’s copy of…) Why would I “want to own it” when I already do?”

        For the exact same reason that Kickstarter works. Some people (I admit, not all, it seems) are aware that it takes money to develop the next game.

  12. In my opinion, every developer needs to make it a priority to allow save games from pirated versions of the game to be integrated into a legit version. I say this because I have, from time to time, acquired a game, decided it was definitely worth the asking price, then realized I couldn’t move my save game/campaign/character or whatever, and then changed my mind about buying the game because of the hassle. Pirating games really is no hassle anymore, especially if you have access to a decent private tracker.

    Personally, I buy games when can afford to do so. When I can’t, I acquire them through other means. My own personal money situation is always up and down, and I suspect there are many that are in similar situations, and you’re right, we wouldn’t have bought the game if it wasn’t available through other means. When your financial situation is down to deciding between Train Fever and surgery (yep, I’m American), there’s really no decision, is there? And when you can play Train Fever AND get your surgery, instead of simply not playing Train Fever, then well, that’s what you’re going to do. When choosing between situation A, where I get to play the game and the developer makes no money, or situation B, where I DON’T get to play the game and the developer makes no money, and those are the only possible situations, I’m going to chose B, and it has nothing to do with entitlement or greed or anything else. It’s just being rational.

    Luckily, my own money situation has stabilized considerably, and I take pride in saying that I’ve been able to afford to buy quite a few games recently, mostly when on sale, and almost exclusively from independent developers. I bought Train Fever because I’ve been in love with Railroad Tycoon (most of them) from the original, which I played on a Tandy 1000 EX, and Train Fever seems to be the only game that is trying to continue that genre, which has so, so much promise in our current gaming age. To be honest, I haven’t even played Train Fever yet.

    I don’t remember if I bought it on sale. I think I did because it went on sale while I was still all about Rebel Galaxy. But at the sub $30 price point, I’m going to buy a game if I can afford it and I really want to play it. I’m not going to wait on a sale, though I will put things on my wishlist that I know I will eventually want to play, in hopes of getting them on sale before I really get the strong urge to give it a try. If the game is one that’s not so centered in my preferred genres (such as TF), but it still looks interesting, then that price point drops to about $20.

    All of that said, there are certain companies that I will not pay, period. EA is the big one, but Ubisoft is trying awfully hard to convince me to put them on that list. I’m not saying I won’t play their games, but I certainly wouldn’t pay much for them.

    Then there are some developers that I will buy at full price (again, when I can afford it), just because of how awesome I perceive them to be. Stardock is one of those, as is CD Projekt RED. Your views on DRM just might put you on that list as well, though I guess that depends on how much I actually enjoy Train Fever!

  13. Sorry for my English, because i write from depth of my mind and heart and i am not good in english language. But i hope that you understand what i am triing to say.

    I have a too long experience in games vs piracy.
    I´m think that piracy is not that hudge problem as some companies say.
    I fully understand some actions when some people steal/play ilegal copy game.
    Some have good reason some not.
    If there is discovered good game protection as like Starforce players cry and try boycot game.
    As i am older and see what games are maked and how most games have low quality im thinked this.

    Make game protection as online protection – that mean make account and need connect to server. It works on online games, but not games that played singleplayer.

    Piracy will be there from near gaming begining how raice players population.
    I say that Piracy is natural force and it is on development team how understand and coexistence with this problem.

    There is raising numbers when players buy game based on references and buyed rewievs. And those players are unhapy with purchase and like want money back. There isn´t time play – somoe find it on begin game play somoe after finish game.

    Loot people use pirated versions for try. But it is bad if there are people that say why i pay for game when i have easily pirated version and nothing pay. This is realy bad thik and i hate those people. And make piracy serious problem.

    I suggest example for this game and for all dew teams too:
    1) Use implement some internal game monitor for all people that have active internet conection. And monitor how many game copies are ilegal and how many are legal.
    It is realy good tool that say about your product how good it is in market and in eyes of players.
    But do nothing against pirated versions. Sometimes some dews use ingame bugs that are occur in ilegal version game but sometimes there come error and that bug is in legal version too.
    Any protections cost some extra money but Cracking teams able mostly realy quickly to evade and crack it.
    Any tryes to stop pirates or punishment is not working and not bring you more solded copies. That is most false argument. It make only tense on market.

    2) As i see market then realy good maked games not have any fear from pirates and most people buy their game and some buy later after ilegal version play.
    Make game and mainly good game need hard work. It is also sad in this hardly damaged gaming industry, that good game not mean every time selling success. :/ And loot good games are still stay away after marketing masage those “AAA” titles. :/

    3) Build and take much care on your comunity fans and if there are posibilities of moding then be help those moders. Make better forums for those moders and mods to be easily acessible and clearly find corect mods and see also good pictures and descriptions from these mods.
    For every dev teams must be priority care about their fans, make pools, listen their complains (not all but loot, i know that some complains and ideas are out of normal mind and not bring to game better)
    I´m still think that game fans if game is good never let developers drop down and help them in suporting their games.

    4) Paying player for your game is not only money for you, but it is also parthner for you and for future.
    If you bring him good game, fun, support, he might bring for you hard work a favor back later and for future.
    Like exanple – Larian studios and Divinity Original Sin or Witcher 3 and preorder numbers.

    About your game:

    Sometimes i see that somoe thing this game is awesome, but in my eyes is only lack of knowledge or poor demands.
    When i see gameplays and some mooded gameplays i wonder about many things.

    1) You have relatively good game engine, but im think not fully use posibilities for this game.
    2) I am fan of real railroads and seek game where i can have stations and stops like in real.
    I mean Post/Passenger stations only, cargo stations and mixed stations.
    I like if i able build in game station that have 6 pasenger tracks and 4 cargo. Or smal stations that have 5 tracks and one or two track for unload and load cargo that are blinded and only one way accessible.
    3) There is need more crossroads option like x on double layed track. And that able on relatively small place from 2 track connection at one side to station with 7 tracks and end 2 track and single track end example for city train trafic coverage or for cargo.
    4) I most like european traffic and mainly like have czech traffic, im think that czechs and germans are in trains most interested nation on the world. When i look on model trains.
    Im think why not set some small financial reward for moders if they make whole car parks you pay them for theyir work after you check if all is ok and you can implement to game. That small financial reward is only for purpose that they try start work harder and make those complete mods faster and realy finish them and not leave at half work.
    5) There i saw some terrain problems mainly in cities, i like see example when city is in hilly terrain, then able train station and track like higher and able build them in middle city and build street tunels under train tracks crossroads.
    6) This game look be an eye candy, and then why not implement front train or vehicle camera and also back and some side wide view from wagon example choose middle wagon as pasenger and watch ride in train that have many stations and ride from one side map to another.

    I still hope that you bring some of these ideas that i writed there and implement them in game. Than start work on example for Train fever 2. Or start work on Train fever 2 and bring more fun and candy eye for playrers and i am think you able be more success in sells that in Trainfever One.
    Or in my opinion implement/add in this version trainfever special patch or call it Train fever complete.
    And before implement speak with players, make voting pools and decide what and how implement additions into game and how many players agree or not agree. And when your work be done, then for all playres that already buyed your game then receive this for special small price and all other for full price as new game.

    When i look on Facebook Trainstation i never imagine that it can reach half million playrers.
    And that bring me things that there is still space for some good train game for facebook where you make free2play and players buy special currency or items in game.

    Good luck.

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