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Strategies for having a commercially successful game

Making a good game is never enough.

There has long been a myth that if you were able to get your indie title on Steam, you’d be successful and make a lot of money. Now, don’t get me wrong – indie titles do traditionally sell better on Steam than they do elsewhere (although better than next to nothing may still be next to nothing) but being on Steam is no guarantee of success. As Valve lowers their barrier to entry, it’s going to become more and more difficult for individual games to get noticed and find financial success. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to discuss some of the various strategies developers can take to improve their chances of being noticed (which is essential to having a commercially successful game – no one’s buying games they’ve never heard of).

The Cynical Strategy – Clone a popular game and try to ride its coattails. Alternatively, use manipulative psychology to coerce people into paying more for your game than they originally intended. I disapprove of this strategy so let’s move on.

The Price Strategy - Price your game lower than the competition and attract buyers looking for a bargain. This was a very useful strategy a few years ago but now there’s a glut of cheap & free games on the market so a low price is no longer much of a talking price. However, this strategy is still very useful when used in the form of publicized short-term sales.

The Brute Force Strategy - Spend tons of money on marketing so that people can’t help but hear about your game. Alternatively, have or gain the rights to a super popular IP.

The Quality Strategy - Make a game that’s better than the competition in one or more ways. Here’s where I think a lot of indie developers stumble. It’s not enough to make a game that’s “good for an indie.” It’s not even enough to make a game that’s just plain good. If you’re trying to use quality to gain attention, your game needs to be AMAZING.

The Niche Strategy - Find a niche that is underserved and serve it. The important thing here is that just finding an unpopular genre isn’t going to do you any good – some genres are unpopular for a reason. The key is finding a genre or subgenre that has a fanbase that feels neglected. In short, find a genre where demand exceeds supply. For us, we’ve found the turn-based RPG genre to be a good fit – big companies are all focused on Action/RPGs and RPG hybrids these days, and there aren’t many indie devs making high quality RPGs so there’s not much competition. Alternatively, this approach can be taken to platforms as well (which is why launch titles on new systems often do better than they would have otherwise).

The Creative Strategy - Make a game that doesn’t really fit into existing genres so that you essentially have no competition (until clones arise). This is a gamble as wildly creative games often fail to take off, but it can pay off greatly if your game catches the public’s imagination. Minecraft is a great example of this strategy. More recently, Papers, Please managed to pull this off – a depressing, story-focused bureaucracy simulator hardly sounds like a bestseller, but it got people talking and ended up selling really well. Alternatively, you can use the creative strategy to a lesser extent by having a unique gimmick in your game.

Of course, you get even better chances of success when you combine strategies. Take Telltale for example. They’ve found great success in recent years by combining the niche strategy (visual novels with light puzzle solving) with the brute force strategy (popular IPs like The Walking Dead). There are higher quality visual novel/puzzle games out there (Ghost Trick, Ace Attorney, 999/VLR), but through the use of high profile IPs, Telltale has managed to find much more success than other strategies to the genre. In fact, they have probably even managed to increase the audience for these kinds of games.

If you look at our most successful game – Cthulhu Saves the World – you can see that it uses almost all of these strategies to various degrees:
Brute Force – Popular IP in the form of Cthulhu (which happens to be public domain so we could use it)
Price – $3 (back in 2010-2011 on home consoles & PC before the freemium wave had really reached its peak)
Niche – Turn-based console-style RPG
Creative – Eldritchian horror as farce
Quality – Well, I happen to think it’s a really good game. :)

The indie game field is just going to get more and more competitive as time goes on. It’s not enough to just make a good game; you need to have a strategy if you don’t want to get lost in the crowd.

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