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Why New Players Matter to Indie Developers
A follow up to my piece about the new player's experience. We're now talking indie teams, and why no matter how niche or small the genre, everyone should always be thinking about new players for their games.
May 26, 2020
6 Min Read
The last decade was a major time for indie developers and development in the game industry. The very thought of being able to make a living on game development outside of a major studio has become a reality and opened the door for thousands of smaller studios worldwide. With that newfound access also means that indie developers are now facing the same concerns and challenges the major studios have in terms of selling their game.
I want to talk about a lesson that major studios have learned and that indies are still struggling with—Getting new players interested in their games.
Discovering New Fans
A few months ago I did a piece talking about the new player’s experience, this time, we’re going to focus on what it means for an indie developer.
Indie development is not underground any more thanks to digital stores and YouTuber and streamer culture. It’s never been easier for someone to show off a game they like, and you never know the impact that can have on your game sales.
This also means the spotlight is now on games when it comes to issues or problems. You and your friends may love your game, but that doesn’t mean anything with regards to the greater market. I have seen games that had positive impressions locally, to only be blindsided by complaints and problems when the game was made available for sale.
Indie developers are now being put into the same position that massive studios are in when it comes to the consumer and making sure their game is approachable. I have lost count at this point of the number of indie games released with the following:
No in-game menus
No control rebinding
No instructions or tutorials
No attempt at hiding or repurposing stock assets
There is a simple explanation for this, and we’re going to play devil’s advocate to explain it.
In a perfect world there would be no problems with production or funding for any videogame, but for many indie developers, we know that’s not the case. It is already a challenge to make a videogame, let alone polishing it to perfection. Many indie developers know that their game is not going to be a mass-market success—it could be the genre, the implementation, or the concept in general.
If you know that your game is already a niche experience, that means there is already a finite number of potential customers who would buy your game. As we all know from marketing 100: If you can keep costs down, you’ll earn more revenue. Speaking with veteran game developer Jeff Vogel, we talked about what it means to survive in the industry when working with a niche genre.
For indie developers making 2D platformers, they know their audience is well acquainted with platformer design, and there’s no need to explain that space bar or “A” would be the jump button. For smaller teams, it would be financially damaging to spend extra months doing further playtesting or trying to attract nonfans to your game.
The best games we’ve seen approach unique designs from an approach-ability standpoint
We’ve spoken before about how there is no such thing as the “perfect game” - something that will appeal to everyone.
Great videogames come from focusing on a specific core gameplay loop and style of play. If you’re making an experimental strategy game, there is no reason for you to put in elements to cater to action fans, or casual match 3 players.
With all that said, we’re now going to talk about why the new player’s experience matters even to the most niche of designs and how it can help you grow as a designer.
Streamlining Made Simple
Here’s a dirty little secret when it comes to success. Complexity and difficulty are not as important as making an approachable game. Despite harden and entrenched fanbases, there are genres out there (I’m sure you can name them) who have not managed to grow because of how hard it is to play them.
There is a simple reason why more people know the name “Sid Meier’s Civilization” than they do “Europa Universalis”, the Civ series has grown to try and be as approachable as possible. That means listening to not only your fans when it comes to what they want but also the problems and difficulties new players have with the game.
User Interface and User Experience design are critically important aspects when it comes to game development, and are often the failing points from indie developers. There is a lot to unpack about UI and UX design that we do not have space here to get into.
Being able to display and explain your game systems in a way that’s easy for a layman to follow may sound counterintuitive, but having the understanding of the pain points in your design and how to fix them will make you a better designer. I’ve said many times that there are foundational elements to good game design, both universal and genre-specific, for developers to learn. In fact, making your game more UX friendly can also affect your fans, as there are most likely issues they’ve come to just accept that they would be happy if they were gone. And lastly, good quality of life features and improved UX design really do elevate a videogame and make it more appealing to play.
Therefore, I often suggest that developers play poorly reviewed takes on a genre to see what those developers missed from a UX and gameplay perspective. There is a big difference between someone who is not a fan of a genre and someone who is not a fan of your take on a genre.
The New Fan’s Experience
For our final point, we return to everyone’s favorite phrase: Playtesting. If you are at all concerned with earning money from your videogame, then you are going to need people to playtest your game. Fans, newcomers, and everyone in between; the more people the better.
Regardless of your genre or style of design, you should never ignore new players if you’re attempting to grow as a developer. Only listening to your fans leads to the echo chamber effect, and more importantly, it hurts your ability to design a videogame.
There are plenty of developers out there who wonder why their game didn’t take off despite enjoying the game. When I get my hands on those titles, I can oftentimes see within five minutes basic flaws and design issues that would drive anyone new away from the game.
If you’re not learning and improving as a developer, then you’re not growing your fanbase and reach. I do not believe there is such a thing as a niche only genre, but niche examples of a genre.
For you reading this, can you think of takes on otherwise impenetrable genres that managed to do a good job with their design?
If you enjoyed my post, consider joining the Game-Wisdom discord channel open to everyone.
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About the Author(s)
For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three.
With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."
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