Today I thought I’d write up a little case study on tagging games on itch.io with some examples, namely Crimson Waves on the Emerald Sea.
CWES is a Victorian-esque vampire visual novel that has always been an odd spot for me to market. CWES has a gay romance, but only between one of the protags and his adult counterpart and isn’t the focus; it’s a fully linear visual novel with no choices; it’s got hints of mystery, drama, and action, but at 2~ hours long it isn’t fully any of those; etc. It has received all positive reviews on Steam & itch.io but getting people to try it has been a challenge to say the least!
Compared to my previous games, CWES’ engagement on itch.io has been abysmal- but we’re not going to fully dissect that here today. Instead, we’re here to look at store pages!
Setting up store pages to encourage passive engagement is one of the best & smartest ways to market. Why waste hours making a few tweets when your store page isn’t appealing? If people aren’t being directed to it passively, then pushing people to it can be a waste of time.
Okay, let’s take a step back. By “passive views”, I mean the people casually browsing Steam & itch.io looking for their next game to play. Some of them want to find your game but don’t know it exists. How do we help them find it?
The most obvious is thumbnails. They’re the bread and butter of marketing in the digital age, as it’s the very first impression people will get of your project. Getting it right is a science. This is where things like A & B Testing, where you test multiple thumbnails with different audiences to see which performs best, comes into play.
But, let’s consider that your thumbnail is already great- I’d like to think the CWES thumbnail is rather eye-catching. What now?
If thumbnails are the bread and butter of digital storefronts, then tags are the knife (I don’t know, just go with this analogy). Tags tell the storefronts if certain projects are more likely to fit the tastes of people, but they’re also very helpful to search by!
If you’ve ever used itch.io, you’ve probably searched via tag before. It’s one of the easiest ways to find anything on itch.io and definitely one of the best ways to gain passive views on itch.io.
You can only have 10 tags per game on itch.io- please, try to use all of them! There’s hundreds of active tags on itch.io, so find 10 that best fit your game. Here’s what I’ve put for mine:
A Pinch of Magic tags:
Anime, Boys’ Love, Cute, Dating Sim, Fantasy, Gay, LGBT, Otome, Yaoi, Yuri
Asterism: Time & Space tags:
Anime, Boys’ Love, Cute, Gay, LGBT, Male protagonist, Romance, Short, Story Rich, Yaoi
Crimson Waves on the Emerald Sea tags:
Anime, Kinetic Novel, LGBT, Male protagonist, Mystery, Short, Story Rich, Vampire, victorian
Tip: Curious what other people have tagged their game? You can find out more in the More Information section, right above the Downloads section on their game page!
I’ll be sharing & tweaking the tags for A Pinch of Magic and Asterism: Time & Space as well. APOM is my biggest hitter on itch.io and the Asterism side story is the closest to CWES, as it’s also a free, short, and linear visual novel with boys love elements.
So, let’s look at the referrals for CWES and A:TS (I’ve already posted APOM’s above).
Let’s first compare the referrals before we analyze the tags. Note that the referrals on itch.io in the screenshots are the top referrals, not all of them.
The most notable thing to take away is how strong the yaoi tag is on itch.io. For both APOM and A:TS, it’s the highest referral. CWES has an openly gay relationship, but the game doesn’t fit typical yaoi tropes- the main one being, it’s not a dating sim or focused on the romance.
The gay tag is also the second highest tag on APOM and A:TS, but CWES doesn’t have the tag (whoops!).
Several of the high referrals are tags combined with further filters such as the visual novel genre, platforms, and more.
Every tag has a different amount of games attached to it. It’s common sense that a lot more games are tagged “2D” than “yuri” or “vampire“. But just how much is this variety?
I went through and wrote down the total number of games per tag for over 30 different visual novel-adjacent tags (don’t worry, itch.io displays the game count on each, I didn’t count them by hand). You can view all the tags on itch.io right here for yourself.
|Tag on itch.io||Games|
|slice of life||1,299|
keep in mind that these are the tag counts as of August 4th, 2022. tags with under 100 games aren’t considered actual tags, but you can still search them.
That’s a lot of numbers, but what do they actually mean?
For one, the 2D and singleplayer tags are way overcrowded. This means that they’re doing absolutely nothing for your game unless it is already getting thousands of views. Tagging your game with either of these is pretty much a waste, unless your game is already doing well.
Any large tag (10,000+) is going to be a struggle to use unless your game already stands out. For most of us, a tag as crowded as the short tag is completely useless unless your game goes viral.
As you can see in this screenshot, there’s only 4 spots at the very top of each tag that rotates frequently (on a regular laptop screen size). You can scroll to see the rest of the games, but there’s only 4 that immediately hit the eyes of new players.
Meanwhile tags like yaoi, boys love, and yuri are much less saturated, with less than 250 games in each. It’s a lot easier to get to the top of these tags because of the low amount of games.
There are also tags like renpy (keep in mind there is metadata on itch.io where you can list your engine as Ren’Py) and kinetic novel, but I have reasons to believe these are tags players don’t use. Would you search for a visual novel using the tag “renpy”, or would you use the genre option “visual novel”? Probably the later.
Now that we have an idea of how crowded (and undercrowded) some tags are, let’s compare them to my existing tags.
I went through each of the tags on my 3 aforementioned games and compared them to the referrals, to see which tags were making a visible difference in views.
A Pinch of Magic
|Tags with Referrals||Tags without Referrals|
As you can see, most of the tags for A Pinch of Magic were visible on the referrals page! This doesn’t mean that cute, fantasy, and anime weren’t garnering any views, but rather that the other tags were getting more views for the game. APOM is pretty high up on the anime and fantasy tag pages, so I’ve opted to keep them.
APOM had 42 referrals from the boys love tag in the past month. This is the second smallest tag that it has (first being yuri), but I think it could be doing better. To test this, I swapped boys love for the romance tag. The boys love tag has 197 games in the tag, which is very few, while the romance tag has 3,534 games to contend with. Why did I swap it?
Being at the top of small tags is what you want, but once your game can hold its own with passive views you want to increase it’s awareness. Because APOM is already high up on several tags, it should contend well in a larger tag like romance. Also, players who are looking for boys love might find it through the yaoi, gay, or LGBT tags (remember, the yaoi and gay tags have the highest referrals for APOM).
This is just a theory, so I’ll have to check back on it in a week or so before I see any results.
Asterism: Time & Space
|Tags with Referrals||Tags without Referrals|
Asterism: Time & Space has 4 tags that didn’t appear on the referrals page. Again, they could still be getting some views from those tags, but not very many.
The anime and male protagonist tags are good fits for the game, but short and story rich are clearly not after this research. The short tag has over 48k games with the tag and story rich has almost 10k. A:T&S was getting hits from the much larger cute tag (which has almost 17k games), but this is just a better-fitting tag for the game.
Remember, tag referrals means that someone browsing that tag saw your game and decided to click on it. People viewing the story rich tag scrolled past A:T&S while people viewing the cute tag did not, despite it most likely being further down the list.
I decided to swap the short tag for the comedy tag and the story rich tag for the slice of life tag. These tags are smaller and more descriptive.
Crimson Waves on the Emerald Sea
|Tags with Referrals||Tags without Referrals|
|story rich||kinetic novel|
Finally, we arrive at Crimson Waves on the Emerald Sea. As you can see, over half of the tags aren’t bringing in any views! If you notice this on your game, it’s time to sit down and research some new tags. For this last game, let’s go through each of these tags.
The vampire tag is a must. The plot is all about vampires, after all. There are 676 other games tagged as vampire, but CWES is rather high on this list, at the 7th row. If we check the referrals, it was the highest referral (aside from my own profile page) with the added filter of visual novel. If we add this genre filter, then there are only 114 other games and CWES is on row 4.
The story rich tag is surprisingly decent for CWES, despite it being veeery far down on the list on the tag page.
The victorian tag isn’t actually a tag on itch.io but still something people search for. There’s 53 other games with the tag and CWES is on the top row. Again, this is a must have as it’s a perfect descriptor for the game.
The male protagonist tag is an alright tag. It only has a handful of view referrals, but the tag is very undercrowded with 557 total games. CWES sits on row 7 of this tag, but I might consider swapping it in the future. The thumbnail currently features Lucie, the female main character. This tag might work out better for me if I swap the thumbnail for one of the male leads.
Now, let’s look at the tags that didn’t get any referrals.
The anime tag surprisingly didn’t have any referrals. I say surprisingly namely because the thumbnail is very anime! The tag has over 3.7k games in it though, and given CWES low view count it’s definitely low on the list.
The kinetic novel tag didn’t have any referrals either. For those unaware, a kinetic novel is a term coined by the Japanese visual novel studio Key for linear or mostly linear visual novels. I have a feeling this term is falling out of fashion in the West, but there isn’t a linear tag (but there is a Nonlinear tag).
The LGBT tag didn’t bring any referrals which is sad, given that it’s the only queer tag I attributed to the project and definitely fits. Most of my other games (even several years old ones) are higher on the LGBT tag than CWES. I could swap this out for the LGBTQIA or queer tags.
The mystery tag is very big with 5.7k+ other games with the tag. CWES is definitely not getting to the top of this any time soon.
The short tag shows I didn’t do much research into the tags before applying them. It has 48k+ games in the tag! It’s definitely getting swapped out.
First off, I added the gay tag. The game features an openly gay lead, so this is a fitting tag.
Next, I went through the list and swapped out kinetic novel and short. Kinetic novel is a very small tag with less than 500 views, but I don’t think it’s helping CWES. I swapped it for the narrative tag. This tag is much larger with almost 8k games, but we’ll see how it does.
I swapped out the short tag for fantasy. The fantasy tag has a third of the games as the short tag and is more refined to this game.
CWES isn’t a predominately romance game, so typical tags like romance or dating sim don’t fit it. This does make marketing is a bit more difficult, but not impossible. I’ve found most of my players became interested in it from the Victorian vampire aspects.
Tags are a wonderful way to get passive views on your games. Today I showed you parts of how the tagging system on itch.io works and how you can make it work better for yourself. I also listed out the amount of games per tag- while this number will go up each day, the general relation between them will stay mostly consistent (yaoi tag having fewer games than the gay tag, the gay tag having fewer games than the LGBT tag, etc.).
Marketing is all about research. You come up with a hypothesis like “I think the fantasy tag will do better for my game than the cute tag”. You test this hypothesis out. And then you check the results and draw conclusions. I hope these tag swaps will be helpful for my games, but it will most likely be several weeks before I notice the changes. itch.io updates the tags immediately, but referrals take time to come in.
I hope this write up gives you some insight into tagging games on itch.io and how to determine which tags might be hurting your visibility! As usual, if you have any questions you can reach me in my marketing channel in Devtalk, the 2nd largest visual novel developer Discord server. You can also view all of my games on itch.io on my studio page, Crystal Game Works.