One thing I think about a lot when I check out today’s mammoth crop of video games is this. How did people decide the concept (& therefore broad genre) behind their game?
The reason this is particularly relevant in 2019 is that we’re coming out of an era (‘Early Digital Discoverability’) where indie games were considered to be - just by existing - original and innovative.
To the jaded consumer, they could be pitched as the ultimate form of self-expression. It was a world where marketing people & focus groups (arguably) had ‘excess input’ into what retail games were. But now: ‘Just make the kind of game you want to make’. Personal creativity reigned supreme, and devs got rich, too!
Obviously, I’m not going to stop anyone from making the kind of game they want to make, here in 2019. And the low barrier to entry means that, no matter how abstruse or different, you can make a game that reflects your passions.
But let’s say you’ve put $20,000 into it, or $200,000 dollars, or $2 million dollars. And you still want your money - or your investors’ money - back. You should probably look at how crowded that genre/game feature is, how games using that feature are selling, and how excited the general public is about that genre.
In addition to my GDC/Gamasutra work, I get to see A&R decisions for No More Robots from an advisory perspective. So here’s my general conclusions, grouped into ‘NOT’ and ‘HOT’:
NOT: Local multiplayer-centric games
There’s a classic gotcha here, which is - if you demo with your friends or publicly at PAX-style shows, local multiplayer games end up looking like a surefire hit.
However, those demos don’t reflect how most people play on their PC and console (alone!). People will rarely pay for games that rely on all their buddies turning up at the same time. And actually…
NOT: Multiplayer-centric games
I’d actually go one further, and say that multiplayer-centric games are incredibly difficult to pull off nowadays. The main reason for this is that you need a pretty large amount of simultaneous uniques (maybe 250-500 for most games) to have people not yell in forums/Reddit that ‘the game is dead’. And you need a lot of content updates for people to not get bored with the game.
Of course, immediately people start posting that the game is dead, nobody else buys it, and the game ACTUALLY becomes dead. So your ability to sell copies for a period of years from people ‘happening upon the title’ is significantly affected by negative reviews.
It’s not impossible to build a multiplayer hit, especially if you’re starting out as free-to-play. But it’s a ‘triple backflip’ level of difficulty, vs. a somersault for most single-player centric games.
NOT: Shorter games
Nowadays, people often have all kinds of subscription services to try out games from, which means they can dip in and out of titles, and I do think they’re getting pickier on length.
This isn’t a problem if you want to sell your game at a $10 USD price point or less on PC/console. But if your game is less than 5 hours long, it’s very difficult to sell a mass of copies at what I consider is the ‘best’ dev-centric pricing for games ($20USD to $30USD).
Otherwise you’ll get a lot of debatable complaints about length in reviews. Heck, even Minit’s reviews on Steam have some rants re: time to complete, and it’s $10. (This rule is obviously a bit different on premium mobile, but watch for another newsletter about premium mobile!) Again - plenty of beautiful, amazing shorter games, I’m just talking about likelihood of higher revenues.
NOT: Side-scrolling platformers
I feel like this is a Braid & Super Meat Boy hangover, but the amount of ‘side-scrolling platformers with a twist’ I see being put out there is almost overwhelming. There’s a fair amount of ‘masocore’-style titles too that are incredibly difficult, but tricky to differentiate.
A scan of the top Steam games reveals that titles like Cuphead, Bloodstained, Celeste, and Hollow Knight have legitimately broken through to be big hits. And if you’re going for platformer as a genre, a Metroidvania with outstanding pixel art is the best subgenre to push into.
And I think (without any procgen elements) the genre is considered low takeaway and therefore low value by many game players. It’s also low barrier to entry and fairly easy to create. I wouldn’t go there, personally. You can, of course.
HOT: Games with procedural generation/roguelite elements
You may think that you’ve read far too much about all these damn procedurally generated games like Binding Of Isaac, Streets Of Rogue, etc. So the Rogue-like/Rogue-lite genre must be played out, right?
Well, not really - if you look at recently released titles in the Rogue-like genre, the volume isn’t too scary, and the average number of Steam reviews seems higher than many other subgenres you can look at. There’s perceived depth and replayability with randomness. That means people are more likely to buy the game at a higher price point.
Plus, I think many devs value carefully handcrafted levels vs. carefully randomized levels as a ‘higher level of art’. Which can be counterintuitive to what players want to pay for. So that’s weird.
And of course, you can apply procedural generation/randomness to other genres too - as No More Robots titles like Descenders have for mountain biking (!) and Nowhere Prophet for single-player deckbuilding game. There are pluses and minuses to adding such computer-created randomness. But it still makes you stand out.
HOT: Games with in-depth simulation or strategy elements
This is another extension of ‘people like buying games that have perceived depth, because they think they will play them for longer, and get more value from them’. I’m not saying that people who buy these games always play them for longer. But they feel like they are more likely to. And that’s half the battle.
So if you look to games like Bomber Crew or the less well-known and decently selling Overcrowd (a commuter simulator!), you can see that these are the kind of titles that can demand a $20-$30 USD price point with ease. It helps that they are a little trickier to make and sometimes text-heavy, which raises the barrier to entry for development vs. Unity Asset Store reskins.
One issue with this genre is that conversions to console are sometimes tricky (or just a bit unplayable, because they’re so menu-heavy). So you’re tending to lean more heavily on the PC side of things at that point.
Nonetheless - if I was making any game from scratch in today’s market and looking for a more reliable ROI, I’d look at the success of publishers like Paradox Interactiveclosely. You could think about how I could do similarly deep work on a smaller scale, or take a ‘lite strategy’ approach that’s easier to port to console.
HOT: Games that have an inherited audience in an underserved market
I may eventually do a standalone piece on this. But pent-up, sometimes unconscious demand from subgenres that are not well-covered on today’s computers/consoles can create massive hits.
Some examples I’d like to highlight: Cities Skylines is a great game. But it definitely hit big in part because of a bizarre lack of ‘straight’ citybuilders in the market and on Steam, after SimCity ground to a halt (and EA didn’t even publish its 2013 SimCity on Steam, actually.)
So there’s a supply/demand issue there. If you can identify those AND make a great game, then you’re in wonderful shape. (Oddly, with one or two exceptions, I still think the city-builder genre is under-served right now!)
Then there’s the genre that went out of fashion, but people didn’t know they wanted to play until a new one turned up. I would definitely classify Stardew Valley as one of those titles. It intelligently mashed up the Harvest Moon/Animal Crossing microgenre with some of the depth of Minecraft, at a time where Harvest Moon-style games were massively underrepresented on PC. And we’re still seeing that niche as a great one even today (see the success of My Time At Portia.)
One final semi-accidental example - when No More Robots signed post-Brexit pub simulator Not Tonight, they were aware that the gameplay was inspired by Lucas Pope’s excellent Papers, Please - if in a completely different setting. They thought that might be good (as long as people felt it wasn’t a ‘bad ripoff’), but weren’t really sure.
In fact, there were a lot of big streamers who did entertaining video series on Papers, Please, and their fans really wanted more of the same. So ‘Papers, Please-style games’ was an under-served market - and the Jacksepticeye videos on Not Tonight were the biggest sales bump NMR have ever seen from a single streamer.
So again, people played something, and they want more of that thing. Don’t make that game in an overly calculating way, but maybe there’s a game you can make that could take hints from a neglected subgenre.
HOT: Games that are different & visually attractive
A lot of the tips around what’s ‘hot’ have focused on games or genres that already exist. But you don’t have to make a game that’s exactly like another game for it to be successful. You just have to draw people in.
A good example of a recent mid-level success is Eastshade, a game where you’re a painter and explore a lush landscape. This is not really an existing genre - maybe a WAY scaled-back Skyrim. But it works because it intrigues and also has great art, which makes you excited to pick up. (I think The Witness is another good example of ‘great art, intriguing gameplay’ that hit its big cos it was slightly undefinable.)
But as you’re sneaking up on AAA levels of production, you have to be careful, because you will tend to get compared to those games. Even ambitious triple-I indie titles like The Blackout Club are doing OK but struggling a little, because it’s possible they’re getting mentally compared by players to Destiny 2-style experiences.
And immediately you get too close to games-as-a-service AAA games, especially if you’re in the multiplayer-only space, you’ll be outspent x100 by the dominant titles on content updates.
Actually, Risk Of Rain 2 is one of the games to most intelligently split the difference in recent years - a graphically attractive but stylized experience that doesn’t try to ape AAA production values, emphasizes the gentler side of multiplayer (co-op) but doesn’t require it, and includes rogue-lite elements.
What a perfect blend! (Although maybe the gameplay isn’t that ‘different’… but that’s fine!)
[This article was originally published as part of the Game Discoverability Weekly newsletter, which you can subscribe to now.]