Three years after the Indiepocalypse was proclaimed here on Gamasutra, it’s indeed a new world for game devs. Each year over 50,000 games are released. About 8,000 of those went live on Steam last year.
With the volume of games being released, marketing has also changed. Except for the AAA world, traditional PR is meaningless. Being featured on a consumer blog or magazine is nice to have, but nothing in comparison with being featured by a big YouTube or Twitch streamer. It’s not that traditional media doesn’t have an audience anymore. Rather, the expansion of gaming into a $150 billion industry, reaching a couple billion new players around the world, has found a much larger percentage of that newer audience watching favorite streamers rather than reading an article.
Every indie who does well on YouTube or Twitch — and “doing well” means getting millions of views — tends to be really good at something. This article is an attempt to break down six of the most common tactics: multiplayer features,
Games like Golf It! are the proof that traditional blog and magazine PR aren’t needed for success anymore. You’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of articles about this mini-golf game. Check this out:
480 million lifetime views for Golf It! (since Feb. 2017)
A game that has barely been noticed by traditional media has nearly half a billion views on YouTube and Twitch. That’s because there’s not a lot to say about the game, from a critic’s standpoint. But there’s a lot of fun to be had in watching groups of people play it: basically, the the same formula that makes Fortnite a hit.
Of course, a lot of multiplayer games don’t get nearly as many views as Golf It!. The specifics of its success also correspond pretty well with what makes Fortnite tick:
- High dexterity or mastery (leading to a hole in one or head shot) is rewarded by the game, and thus interesting to watch
- Luck can achieve the same impressive moments, but extreme luck (good or bad) remains uncommon enough to be interesting in compilation videos
- “Weird” stage design with plenty of secrets and discoverable details
- Bright, colorful art in a friendly, humorous style — which helps players have the same attitude
Single-player games can do well on Twitch and YouTube, too. But when they do, it’s usually because of strategic depth. Just look at Slay the Spire, an indie card game that’s still in Early Access on Steam.
50 million lifetime views for Slay the Spire (since Nov. 2017)
Slay the Spire is a deckbuilding, roguelike dungeon crawler that creates strategy on a lot of levels: enemies are randomly laid out, maps are procedurally generated, the tougher monsters tend to call for specific deck-building, and in case players win, they’re rewarded with a score that shows off achievements like killing bosses without any health loss.
One feature of Slay the Spire that helps lead players to video — and also to evangelizing to friends — is the daily leaderboard. It’s not exactly multiplayer; you just see the scores achieved by others on the daily challenges. The highest scores are impossible to achieve without specific strategies. I’ve personally put over 40 hours into the game, enough to realize that to improve much further, I need to watch more skilled players show and explain how they play.
The community discussion takes place in a lot of places, of course: on Steam discussion boards, forums, and Reddit, for instance. But when you want to see actual examples, YouTube is the destination. Deck building and tactics videos are the most popular content for the game.
Over six million people tuned in to watch a handful of streamers — PewDiePie, Markiplier, and jacksepticeye — join together in a single video to scream over Bennett Foddy’s Getting Over It. In China, a streamer shrieks as the “No Leg Hammer” guy (one of the nicknames local Chinese players have fondly given the game) falls off a wall he has been trying to traverse for hours. Schadenfreude transcends cultural and language barriers.
330 million lifetime views for Getting Over It since Oct. 2017
Games are released every day that offer tough challenges but don’t blow up on Twitch or YouTube. Foddy posits that it has something to do with how games like Getting Over It harken back to a simpler time in games. “There's nothing particularly interesting about getting to the end of Galaga. But once people started having games you would finish, there frequently becomes a set of expectations about needing to finish them. And when you've got that, there's a guilt people feel, or a sense of dissatisfaction, if they stop playing halfway through. That's a type of pressure I feel myself when I'm playing single-player games, and that's part of what's sort of objectionable about really, really difficult single-player games. You've invested in getting to the end, and when you reach a point where you can't continue, there's something sort of abortive about that. And I do think my games avoid that, for the most part,” he said in an interview with Games Industry.
So how can other developers find the balance between a difficulty that hooks players, and a difficulty that has them rage quitting forever? To answer that question, we can look at another game that made waves when it first released on Steam nearly 10 years ago: Super Meat Boy.
Unlike Getting Over It, Super Meat Boy’s success wasn’t largely because of streamers. Twitch didn’t exist, YouTube wasn’t particularly large, and PewDiePie’s first video had gone live just two months before Super Meat Boy’s release.
But SMB followed a similar formula to Getting Over It: the game never lets the player take a break, and they get rewarded for surpassing certain thresholds. Foddy’s often humorous metacommentary about the game is its own prize, while Super Meat Boy has a replay system that becomes a highlight reel of all the player’s valiant attempts before ultimately succeeding over a level. SMB’s devs, like Foddy, also had the penchant for self-marketing—both doing numerous video interviews on YouTube about the game’s development, as well as going on interviews with publications ranging from The Atlantic to smaller, more niche outlets like IndieGames.com. This self-promotion helps video creators get interested in the game and create more content.
Game developers have always loved the idea of user-generated content. Yet only a handful of players actually follow through. Roblox, for instance, has 60 million players, yet only 2 million creators. In other words, UGC is similar to in-app purchases, with only 1-5 percent of the playerbase participating.
So before the advent of streaming, few UGC-based games survived. Metaplace, for example, was a big deal around its 2009 launch. The game was essentially a UGC massively-multiplayer game, which seemed like the thing to be at the time. A year later, it shut down, having realized that few players outside of a dedicated core actually wanted to create content. Minecraft, also released in 2009 and featuring more traditional gameplay, only truly took off once YouTube grew large enough.
But pure UGC games have become powerful with the advent of video. Today, Minecraft perpetually ranks in YouTube’s top five games, and gets watched by an average of 200,000 people at any given time. Even major developers like Nintendo have ventured back into UGC. Super Mario Maker, which was released in 2015, got many more views than other Mario games.
1.8 billion lifetime views for Super Mario Maker since 2015
UGC is particularly good for indies these days because of game creation platforms like Unity. Most devs are now creating better tools for themselves to use — which translates well to tools for modders and content creators.
The current standout is Raft, an open-world, survival game. In Raft, players build a base on a floating hunk of wood using detritus and debris from the ocean. The near limitless customization options are likely too much for casual players to use to the fullest extent — but it’s great for YouTube. The most popular videos revolve around building quirky bases, like a massive fort built around a small island, or a small shrine of shark heads that commemorate skirmishes against the predators.
58 million lifetime views for Raft since Apr. 2018
Strong community/Frequent updates
Stardew Valley is the best in nostalgic farming simulation available today, to the point that it’s even more popular than legacy franchises in the genre like Harvest Moon.
The game’s development is far from an overnight process. Indie developer Eric Barone worked 10 hours daily for over four years before it became the highly polished, content rich blockbuster success story it is today. Even after selling millions of copies, Barone is still churning out updates — everything from cutscenes that give the story greater depth, to a new gameplay features like multiplayer mode.
240 million lifetime views for Stardew Valley since Feb. 2016
This category of games that do well with streamers could just as well be called working really hard. Games in this group don’t necessarily do well because they’re amusing, or strategic, or have multiplayer — they do well because their developers work for years to polish a perfect gem, and work yet again to build a community around it.
Other games follow the same path: Path of Exile, despite being less established than competitor Diablo 3, outranked Blizzard’s RPG in views last April because of an update that introduced 200 new creatures to the game. Terraria, another nostalgic-looking pixel art game, was also smart about doing frequent updates that add new depth to the game. Streamers favor these sorts of games because it makes their job easy, too: when developers release something new, views go up.
Finally, we come to eSports: a category rarely graced by indies, though not for lack of trying. TowerFall, for instance, was compared to Super Smash Bros. The game had its own tournaments — briefly — and was heavily played at the Indie Olympics in San Francisco two years ago. But today it’s only the 3146th most streamed game on Twitch. What kept TowerFall from fully succeeding? Probably a lack of online play, which not only hampered the eSports aspect, but also kept streamers from being too interested.
(As many as 8 players could string up bows in Towerfall. Image from Rock, Paper, Shotgun)
370 million lifetime views for Rocket League since July 2015
If not for Rocket League, we might not believe indies could succeed in eSports at all. It’s still not easy: Rocket League developer Psyonix had previous experience making car-based bash-’em-up games. Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars, which the developer published in 2008, is in many ways the same game, although with less polish.
<Above: The difference in polish between an eSport and a regular game. Image from GaminGHD>
The difference between an obscure and an eSports hit? The community and the buzz they generated on Reddit, which put the game on streamers’ radar. "Reddit was absolutely massive for us. The PS4 subreddit picked our game up during the beta and that's what blew us really wide, we think. The GIFs took over,” recalls senior VP of game development, Corey Davis.
This suggests that eSports actually have a complicated relationship with streaming video. Indie eSports games won’t start out, on day 1, with viewership. On the other hand, without people recording gameplay, the great moments won’t get distilled down and shared to platforms like Reddit; and users who have seen enough memes will inevitably want to go watch longer videos. So far, we have very few examples of successful indie eSports, and their growth looks like a complicated, organic process.
Most of the games mentioned above have hundreds of millions of views spread across Twitch and YouTube. It should be clear that for an indie, it’s not necessary to break into 9 figure viewerships. Out of our database on Harpeview, which has over 10,000 games that regularly get views on either major video service, any given day will see hundreds of games achieve enough views to impact their marketing. Game streaming is a deep and wide river, with plenty of room.
What is important is to recognize that certain types of content work well for getting views. In the console-driven industry before 2010 — before YouTube and Twitch mattered at all — a completely different type of content was required to get the attention of traditional press editors: a game had to be unique, interesting and challenging enough to satisfy people whose whole career was game criticism. Today the qualifiers have simply changed: even if a game isn’t innovative or boundary breaking, it will get viewed by potential fans and buyers if it gives players a chance to show off their knowledge, creativity or just plain luck.