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Badge-farming might be behind some big Steam Next Fest demo player numbers

Min-maxers one, Terra Nil

Yesterday I wrote about eco-strategy game Terra Nil’s demo, which went gangbusters during last week’s Steam Next Fest and shot up into the top 50 most played games on Valve’s storefront. Well, turns out that might be at least partly down to a practice called badge-farming. That’s according to industry pundit Simon Carless’ latest GameDiscoverCo newsletter, anyway.

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Looking at SteamDB, the Terra Nil demo peaked at 96,520 concurrent players around 6pm BST on June 14th, climbing from 10,260 at 4pm BST. It then very rapidly dropped back down to 11,675 by 9pm that day. Until very early last Saturday morning, when numbers rose again to 23,637 at midnight, player counts didn’t rise higher than 8,737 on June 15th at 8pm BST. Player counts peaked again at 30,042 at 10am BST on Saturday, and then fell more steadily over the past few days to hover around 11,000. It's a big wobbly line that goes up quickly and back down just as quick, basically.

What’s happening here? Is it weird, or just an immediate flurry of interest after Steam Next Fest began last week? Carless rightly points out that Valve incentivised this Next Fest by offering badges, which levelled up higher the more demos any individual account holder played during the week. Badge XP maxed out after 10 demos but some people were playing hundreds of demos, even more than a thousand in some cases. Players were using third-party apps such as Archi’s Steam Farm to level their Next Fest badge automatically without having the games installed, or even the Steam client open.

Carless expands on the badge-farming explanation using the example of another demo from Next Fest beginning with Terra: Pavonis Interactive’s alien conspiracy 4X Terra Invicta. Stats show that 489,000 individual account holders played Terra Invicta’s demo, but around 250,000 of those did so for less than ten minutes. That seems more than a little odd. Carless advises devs not to be too chuffed if their game’s demo saw a lot more interest than they would’ve expected, putting it down to Valve’s gamification of Steam and the resulting shenanigans by some players to make numbers go up.

Terra Nil - A bear emerges from a rejuvenated forest near a renewable power source.
Sometimes it's difficult to see the wood for the trees.

This might mean that fewer people than appeared played Terra Nil’s demo over the course of Next Fest, but I had a fun time with it nonetheless. It does seem to be generating a fair bit of buzz among denizens of Twitter too, and I don’t think the badge-farming hypothesis can explain that away. I see the sharp increase in concurrent players last Tuesday as probable badge-farming, but the second peak over the weekend followed by a shallower tail-off seems more like legit interest in the demo. We’ll have to see whether the game goes down as well when it’s eventually released.

Speaking of which, Terra Nil doesn’t have a release date yet. You can still play the demo on Steam for yourself, if you’re environmentally minded.

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