If you go to read the Steam charts this week, you'll be sure of a big surprise: the best-selling game was little-known, stone age city-builder Dawn Of Man. It had no publisher, its two-person developer was known only for the somewhat under-the-radar colony sim Planetbase, and it hadn't enjoyed prior coverage from any of the largest sites or streamers. Hell, its official trailer has only accrued 57,000 views since being uploaded in December 2018.
But there it was, a $20 strategy-management game about collecting sticks and randy goats, outselling Plunkbat, GTA 5 and DMC 5.
How could such a thing happen, in an age where breakout hits increasingly only seem to come from massive companies?
According to Madruga Works' programmer and designer Martiño Figueroa (formerly of Criterion), Dawn Of Man's rampantly successful launch came as a surprise to the two-person developer. "We spend zero money on marketing, as we are a very small studio. So our usual strategy is to have a showable version of the game about 2-3 months before launch and send pre-release keys to press and YouTubers."
Which I can corroborate. Madruga sent a beta key to RPS back in December 2018, which unfortunately didn't rise to the top of our overflowing review code tombola at the time, but the concept caught other attention. "This time around a few fairly large YouTubers made content about the game."
The major player there appears to be smooth-voiced Swede Keralis, whose first Dawn Of Man beta video, shared with his 1.8m subscribers, racked up almost a million views.
Keralis released around a dozen subsequent Dawn Of Man videos, with views ranging from 400k to 60k - in total, 3.4 million.
Throw in around half a million total views apiece from the likes of Dreagast, Raptor and Russia's Antik, about 250K from the UK's Skye Storme, and a large number of sub-10,000 view videos from smaller streamers, and the cumulative reach to like-minded players last December became substantial, despite the lack of anyone truly massive.
Reckons Figueroa, this in turn "helped us accumulate a large number of Wishlists on Steam, which we believe was the biggest factor in this." And, as many developers have celebrated or lamented, once a new game is gaining steam on Steam, it gets more and more time on the front page - so this looks like the snowball effect in action. DOM's 2000 Steam reviews also average out at 'very positive', which likely became another factor in perpetuating sales.
There was, apparently, no other masterplan. "We had reasonable hopes that things could go well," Figueroa tells me, "as we managed to generate more visibility than with Planetbase, but you never expect things to go like this."
Arguably another factor is that Dawn Of Man was a full release, whereas many other bijou building games spend months or even years in early access first - look, for example, to the contemporaneous Foundation, which I enjoyed even more than Dawn Of Man, but didn't hit anywhere near as big.
For all Dawn Of Man's strengths, certain elements of it, particularly a tailing off of new toys and challenges in the later stages of a game, do give it a slightly unfinished feel. Madruga's Figueroa claims there wasn't much dilemma about whether to label it a full release or not, however. "We were reasonably happy with the state of the game when we released it, although these things are always very hard to gauge, when you've been working on something for several years."
The moderate success of Dawn Of Man predecessor Planetbase also meant that, financially, Madruga was in a position to go straight to a full release (excepting December's closed beta). "We have a positive view of Early Access in general. However, it also has its drawbacks. Once you make your unfinished game public, it becomes a lot more expensive to update it, as every version has to be stable and properly tested, which can add time to the development."
He does acknowledge that here's more they could have done: "it's true that the later eras don't have as much content as the beginning of the game, we intend to remedy this through updates in the coming months."
Figueroa pledges that Madruga will keep updating DOM "for a year at least", and are playing close attention to player feedback. "We also want to release more content for the game in terms of new structures, techs etc, especially in the late game."
This is good news for long-term play - I greatly enjoyed my time with DOM, but I do now feel I've seen everything it has to offer. Even so, I'm delighted to see a true breakout hit in an era when to look up on the Steam top ten is generally to look into the mouth of madness.