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What Makes an Indie Hit?: How to Choose the Right Design

What do successful indie games have in common, and how can developers select designs that are more likely to lead to successful games? Ryan Clark outlines the methods he has used effectively in his career so far.

Ryan Clark, Blogger

September 17, 2015

18 Min Read

Who the hell are you, and how are you qualified to tell me anything?

In this industry it's difficult to go far without learning from others. But from whom should we learn? I think it is wisest to study developers who have been repeatedly successful. Each time a developer creates another successful game, it becomes less and less likely that their repeated successes have been due to luck. Only a minuscule fraction of indie games break even, so what are the odds of developers like Jamie Cheng, Edmund McMillen, and Cliff Harris stringing together a number of successful games? The odds are low. There must be something other than luck at work! So perhaps these folks (and many others like them!) are the ones you should be studying and listening to.

(A quick aside: Just because someone has been repeatedly successful doesn't necessarily mean that they KNOW why they've been successful. It could be something subconscious that affects the way that they make games. Study their games and look for patterns, for sure, but always take any written article, including this one, with a grain of salt! No matter who the author is.)

So who the hell am I? I do not claim to be a big shot, but I've made a living in this industry since going independent full time in 2004. I've created 10 games in that span, and 8 have been profitable or break-even. 3 have grossed more than $1M, including Crypt of the NecroDancer, which has earned even more. It's possible that I have just been lucky, I admit, but I hope not!

I have an explicit method that I use when selecting which game designs to move forward with, and I will describe that method in this article.

Good Isn't Good Enough

A "good game" is usually not enough, and I think the method used by many newcomers will generally produce "good games". It's common to take a look at a successful "game X", see various flaws in it, and decide to make "game X but BETTER!" or "game X but IN SPACE!" I must admit, my first indie game was basically "game X but better"! Don't fall into that trap.

To improve the likelihood of success your game needs to stand out. But how? Here are the steps I take for any given game design:

  • Evaluate the quantity and quality of the game's "hooks"

  • Evaluate the viability of the market for similar games

  • Consider how you can describe and promote the game

We will discuss each of these factors below.


If you want people to remember your game, to talk about your game, to write articles about your game, etc, it needs to have a hook. Preferably multiple hooks! In music, a hook is a short riff or melody or phrase that really grabs the listener and gets stuck in their head. For example, the riff at the start of Queen's "Under Pressure" was such a great hook that it was later re-used as the hook for "Ice Ice Baby".

Sorry, couldn't resist including this epic mashup.
If you like FLCL or Evangelion, check it out.

In games a hook is similar, but game hooks often take effect BEFORE the game is even played. The hook is some interesting bit of information about the game that compels people to try it, or to discuss it. By way of illustration I'll describe some hooks from Crypt of the NecroDancer, since the design fortunately provided quite a few:

  • The game's name is a pun. Some people hate puns, and some love them, but at the very least the name is memorable. Rock Paper Shotgun said, "Crypt of the Necrodancer is called Crypt of the Necrodancer, which already makes it incontrovertibly the greatest game of all time"

  • The core game mechanic is a hook. The term "roguelike rhythm game" sounds impossible or crazy, which immediately gets people interested. Ben Kuchera said, "A roguelike that's a rhythm game? Jesus Christ, FINALLY!"

  • The game has an excellent (hooky!) soundtrack by a well known composer. Star power is a hook. (And our singing shopkeeper is also a fan favorite and gets people talking.)

  • The art, while it is pixel art, has personality. People often comment on the hip thrusting dancing skeletons.

  • We even had a hook at conventions like PAX: You can play the game with a dance mat. This is unusual, so the dance mats at our booths always drew large crowds, and the crowds in turn got the attention of any members of the press who might have been passing by.

  • In my opinion we have good, catchy trailers. More on trailers below!

Not all hooks are created equal, of course. I think NecroDancer's core mechanic and excellent music are its most powerful hooks, and the others are significantly lesser. But the more hooks you have, and the more compelling each hook is, the greater your chance of snagging a given person's interest. So I think it makes sense to wait for a design that stands out along as many axes as possible. Ideally you want every facet of your project to be unique and compelling in some way: Gameplay, art, audio, name, story, dev team, everything.

How do your hooks measure up?

(NecroDancer promo art created by Chris Bourassa, of Darkest Dungeon fame!)

You will need to become adept at evaluating hooks. A great way to do this is to examine the hooks of other successful (and unsuccessful) games. Let's take a look at Darkest Dungeon's hooks:

  • The design, with its exploration of what it would REALLY feel like to be in a terrifying dungeon, is perfect. Everyone immediately agrees: "You're right! It would be horrifying! This is the first TRUE dungeon crawler…"

  • The gritty art style is some seriously masterful work, and is perfectly suited to the game and to Steam's audience.

  • The narrator's voice is ASTOUNDINGLY good.

  • The soundtrack was created by an actual rock star.

  • Again, the trailers themselves are hooky and compelling.

My analysis of Darkest Dungeon's hooks led me to believe that it was going to be a big hit. Its hooks felt significantly more compelling than NecroDancer's, and it didn't have NecroDancer's genre confusion (discussed below). Before the launch, Tyler and Chris were not sure how well it was going to do. (Everyone feels like this, pre-launch!) I told them that my gut feel was that it'd double NecroDancer's results. You can see on SteamSpy that I was right.

Sure, a question like, "How STRONG are these hooks?" can only be answered subjectively, but if you practice analyzing the hooks of newly launched games (and then look at their sales results afterward to see if your instincts were right), you will begin to develop a feel for it.

Market Analysis

Don't panic! Analyzing a market is not boring drudge work! You get to play games for fun, and presumably you'll be doing it in a genre you enjoy. This is one of my favourite phases of game development :)

First, find the 10 or 20 games that you think are closest, design-wise, to your game. (If it's hard to find similar games, you should still take a look at the "closest" games you can find.) Play all of them, examine their hooks, and look at their sales results. Importantly, you WANT to include games that have sold poorly! Get a feel for these games, and come up with explanations for why each game sold as well or as poorly as it did. If you are not confident in being able to explain why the hits hit and why the others did not, you shouldn't be confident about your game's chances either. If that's the case, you likely need more practice analyzing hooks, IMO.

Second, take a look at the size and composition of the market. Are there enough fans of this type of game to generate the sales results you need to survive? Has even the highest grossing game produced enough revenue? If not, you may be in trouble, or perhaps you will get lucky and be the first to popularize the genre (or to discover a new genre). This is how megahits like Minecraft occur, but I would not rely on that happening to you!

Last, take a look at the type of competition you are up against. Sure, the MOBA market is gigantic, but are you really going to steal users from LoL and DOTA? Those games retain their players for years on end. To defeat LoL and DOTA you need to come up with an experience that is SO MUCH BETTER that people are willing to abandon their LoL and DOTA-playing friends to get it. Do you think you can do that? By contrast, there are a variety of indie genres where individual games are played for 5 to 20 hours, and then players move on. If you can give them a unique new experience in the genre they enjoy, those players may move on to your game next.

(Spread the love around, gamers!)

It is dangerous to enter a market where gamers are monogamous with their game of choice. It's far safer to woo those polyamorous gamers who love numerous games.

A few asides:

  • When analyzing the sales results of a given game (via SteamSpy or some other tool), do not simply multiply the number of owners by the price of the game to estimate gross sales. If the game has been out for a while, it will certainly have been offered at a steep discount at some point, and it may even have been offered in a PWYW bundle or two. Do your homework. Google (and sites like steamdb.info) can tell you how deeply a game has been discounted, and whether or not it has been in any bundles. Take these factors into account when producing your estimates.

  • If a market is large and contains polyamorous gamers, your game may be profitable even with weaker hooks. (If there are more biting fish out there, your hook is more likely to snag one.) Conversely, if a market is small or contains monogamous gamers, your game had better have some astoundingly delicious hooks.

  • How do you analyze the market for a "mash up" game, like NecroDancer? With much trepidation. You will want to analyze both markets (in NecroDancer's case, I analyzed both rhythm games and roguelike games) and then attempt to estimate how much they OVERLAP. The overlap is your actual target market. Lucky for me, the roguelike and rhythm genres do have some overlap. But beware: With a mash up game you will really excite fans that love both genres, but you will also immediately EXCLUDE anyone who hates either of the two genres. The effect is that you will have an easier time reaching some minimum level of sales (if you can reach the excited gamers who live in that overlap) but you will also limit your max audience size (due to some gamers' dislike of one or the other of the genres). For this reason, I was confident that NecroDancer would be profitable, but I was not confident that it would be a hit. Darkest Dungeon, mentioned above, does not have the "genre confusion" that NecroDancer has, and as such has a wider target audience.


(Promoting your game doesn't have to feel like this!)

I've heard numerous indie devs say, "I hate promoting my game! I want to MAKE games, not flog them." I can certainly understand that frustration, but I also think that when game design and promotion go hand in hand, the task becomes much less onerous.

Assuming you now have a hooky game idea in mind, you need to plan how to communicate those hooks via your trailers and store page text blurbs. If the game's hooks do not translate well to trailers and text descriptions, you will be relying on people playing the game, experiencing the hooks, and then spreading awareness of the game via their own enthusiasm. (And if THEY can't even put your game into words, their attempts to spread awareness may fall flat.) Some of the industry's biggest hits (like Minecraft) spread primarily through word of mouth, sure, but basing your promotion strategy on Minecraft-level virality is unwise.

If you are unsure of the strength of your game's hooks, test them! With NecroDancer we did this by putting out a very early teaser trailer, and by demoing at PAX. Despite being a VERY early version of the game, our teaser trailer gathered quite a few views and was covered fairly widely by the press. That gave me the confidence to spend some savings to demo at PAX. At PAX we also had a great reaction from fans, but I would caution you against listening to what fans (or friends) actually SAY. No matter how good or bad the game is, they will likely say, "I had fun!" Instead, you should pay attention to what people DO. Are they actually having fun when they play?  (You need to become adept at reading body language.)  Are they crowding around your booth? Are they coming back repeatedly? Are they literally taking out their wallets and throwing them at you?

It is common these days for devs to downplay the importance of festivals, awards, and even of press. I disagree. Sure, accolades and reviews themselves may not drive mountains of sales, but most people need to hear about your game from numerous sources before they'll actually watch a trailer or buy the game. Also, accolades and review quotes are very helpful for use on your store page and in your trailers. I believe that they encourage viewers to give your game the benefit of the doubt. "If it has all of these awards and great reviews, I guess I'll at least watch the whole trailer." They help you start off on the right foot, and they put viewers in a good frame of mind while your trailer drives home your awesome hooks.


Speaking of trailers, I think that, after the game itself, your trailers are by far your most important tool. Do not leave trailer planning to the last minute! Trailers are vital, and should have ample time and attention paid to them. Don't make your trailer an afterthought at the end of an exhausting push towards launch.

When you launch a game on Steam or console, your trailer will be the first thing people see. If it does a poor job of conveying the awesomeness of your game, your sales will suffer — it doesn't matter how awesome your game ACTUALLY is if the trailer doesn't communicate it! Here are some of the things I do when planning a trailer:

  • Start early. When you first come up with the design of the game, think about what a potential trailer could be like. If you can't think of an effective way to express the design's hooks in a trailer, it may not be the right design.

  • Keep it short! I see so many indie trailers that last for 2+ minutes. I think you should show the most exciting and hooky parts of your game, as fast as possible, and then stop. Preferably 1 minute or less. Do not let the excitement level drop — people may stop watching. You do not need to show them every feature in the game! You want to show them some awesome things and then stop, leaving them wanting to know more.

  • Get to the action! People do not want to see your company logo. They want to learn about the game. If you want to include your logo, you should do it at the end, IMO.

  • I think that showing review quotes and accolades at the start is smart, as they let viewers know that this is a trailer that they should pay attention to. But even still, you want to keep it to just a few seconds. The worst thing your trailer can do is bore the viewer such that they stop watching.

  • Think hard about your music. In general, you want to leave the player energized, not sleepy. (Unless you have a clever plan for your slow music.)

  • Be creative. As a game designer, you must be a creative person, right? Use some of that creativity to craft a unique trailer that has hooks of its own.

  • Hire a professional to help you. Since trailers are such a vital part of the sales pitch for your game, I think it makes sense to hire someone who can really make your trailer shine. We always work with Marlon Wiebe (as have many other indies) and I cannot recommend him highly enough!

Take a look at our NecroDancer Early Access trailer, above. I think it was our best trailer, and I believe that it achieves all of the goals listed above.

Dime a Dozen?

People say that game ideas are a dime a dozen. I agree that MOST ideas are a dime a dozen, but if you come up with a design that:

  • Has great hooks,

  • Has a viable market,

  • Will be easy to promote,

  • Is something that you are excited to make, and

  • Is something that you have the skills and resources to make,

then you have something far more valuable than 1/12th of a Canadian dime. The hardest part, IMO, is not making the game. (Being a talented game developer is a prerequisite for success, sure, but it is far from sufficient.) The hardest part is coming up with a design idea that actually satisfies all of these conditions. 99% of ideas will fall short. In the indie space, the technological barriers have melted away. We are no longer competing technologically, we are competing creatively, which is awesome!

Misc Points I Couldn't Fit Into Any Of The Other Sections

  • Be honest with yourself when evaluating your hooks, and compare your design to the designs of other games. Is your core concept as compelling as the concepts of Papers Please or Darkest Dungeon? Is your art/music/feel as amazing as that of Hyper Light Drifter? Games like these serve as great measuring sticks, and will help to put your own design into perspective. You don't need to equal or surpass these games of course, but if your design is nowhere close, it's probably wise to return to the drawing board.

  • Yes, I actually try to analyze the revenue potential of a game idea before I create that game. To some, this may seem crass, or it might appear that it could result in "soulless" games. I understand that concern, but just because I use this method does not mean that I'll be creating games that I'm loathe to make. I just need to come up with SO MANY designs that I eventually stumble across one that ignites my passion while still having a solid revenue potential. I'm aware that there are many folks out there who make 100% what they want with no concern for revenue, and I respect that. But with a wife and 2 kids, I am somewhat more risk averse :) So I come up with many ideas, and I evaluate them until I find just the right one.

  • I would advise that you don't start working on a game until you are reasonably confident that it is a design that meets the criteria listed above. Making a game will cost you a lot of energy, time, and money. If you choose the wrong idea, much of that will be wasted. Waiting another month while you seek new inspiration and new ideas is far less costly, IMO.


At last, we are done! Hopefully I didn't come off as some know-it-all jerk, as:

1. I am actually pretty nice,
2. I am painfully aware that I don't know it all, and
3. I know that there are many other paths to indie success.

But if you choose to follow the same road as I have, I think that these ideas will be helpful for you.  I know how difficult it is to succeed as a new indie dev, and I am aware of the advantages that I have due to experience, connections, and reputation.  These articles are my attempt to give back, and to perhaps level the playing field ever so slightly.  I hope they help!

Good luck out there.


Enjoyed the article? Awesome! There are more articles to come, so drop me a follow on Twitter to stay up to date.

To the right is a picture of my big bald head. If you recognize me at a conference or convention, feel free to say hi!

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