As I’ve been analyzing videogame successes and failures as of late, I’ve been trying to figure out a way to understand what leads to game companies succeeding and why others fail regardless of past success. What I’ve come to realize is that “success” as a developer has no set standard: every studio is different. One company would kill for 100 sales on Steam; someone else may need at least 20K for their game to be called a success. As I thought about it more, success as a game developer can be boiled down to two points, and where many indie developers tend to fail to differentiate the two and why this is a dangerous mindset.
Game development is not like other mediums when it comes to the cost of production. Every game’s design, company, and process tends to be different. Not only that but having a veteran developer of multiple projects vs. someone just starting out can have a huge impact on the development pipeline. What that means is trying to figure out if a game financially succeeded from the outside is next to impossible.
There are fans who will say that if a game sold 500,000 copies at $2 apiece, then those developers are now millionaires; never considering the development costs, labor, and marketing that went into it. Your goal as a game developer first and foremost is to be able to earn a profit on the game you’re making. If you are bringing in more money than you’re losing, you are doing something right. However, there are a lot of developers who stop at that metric and fail to see beyond it for what is the next measure of success.
Growing a Studio
Financial success is very important for the short term, but if you want your company to continue growing and afford you job security, you need to understand studio success. Being successful in the market means that you have built up a fanbase who are willing to support you; guaranteeing X number of eyes on whatever you have next. While financial success is often tied to studio success, THEY ARE NOT ALWAYS ONE IN THE SAME. I have seen many indie developers on Twitter who puff themselves up because their game earned them money, or that it managed to hit 1,000 reviews.
Continued success in the game industry is not something a lot of people like to talk about. I have personally seen many studios who have had major successes - critically amazing games - go out of business one to two games later. Without a market for your games and your studio, you are unfortunately not growing as a company, and worse: you’re not understanding how people respond to your game. There are developers who once again refuse to listen to any criticism because they only look at the revenue success of their game, not the studio. These are often the developers who get stuck in the echo chamber effect thinking that everything they do is perfect because their small fanbase never says anything bad.
What I’m about to type may be one of the most depressing things you will hear as an indie developer, but it needs to be said. I don’t care how much money your game has made, in today’s market, if you want your game to be considered a studio success, and as a goal for your company, you want a game to have a minimum of 5,000 reviews and rated positive. And honestly, that’s me on the generous side, as I feel that number should be boosted to 10K reviews now.
What often separates a developer from being a one-time success to those that become a long-running company is being able to bring in, retain, and grow a loyal fanbase. Now, there are always going to be outliers and games that got lucky, but the studios that do things right and continue to succeed know the importance of quality and having a healthy fanbase.
With 5,000 reviews, that means that there are at least 5,000 people who care enough about your game to leave a review to support you. As another point, this means that several times more people bought and played your game (most people who buy a game will not leave a review regardless of how they felt), which is important for revenue. Five thousand is a healthy number of potential fans for your next project regardless of what that may be. This also proves that the people who bought your game are willing to support you as a studio, as opposed to just that single game concept. As I said earlier, financial success is a part of studio success, but at the end of the day, if you want to succeed long-term, you need to think about the growth of your company.
The reason comes from an earlier post I wrote about successful games. As a developer, you want as huge of a pool of fans that you can have looking at your game, and only needing a fraction of them to buy it to succeed. For developers who don’t have a market for themselves, they’ll need every one of those few hundred (or even few thousand) fans to buy their game in order for it to be a success, and there’s little chance that trying to go big with a project will work out for them; I’ll explain why in the next section.
Therefore when I examine the success of a studio, I see how every one of their games has done, not only their breakout hit. Considering how established indie development is and how the price and quality of games have gone up, therefore I think going forward the metric of success should be at least 10K reviews. Right now, some of you are getting ready to leave me angry comments asking, “what’s the big deal? Why should I care about having a huge fanbase if I’m earning a profit?”
Part of any successful business is understanding what you did right and wrong and learning from those points going forward. In another piece I spoke about game design analysis, and I discussed the common reasons developers still fail despite having a great game. Having a huge fanbase and market for your game gives you a leg up on whatever your next project is. The higher the better, as that means you ultimately did something right with your game design.
For many developers who do have one title that blows up for them, but still doesn’t attract a huge fanbase, they often don’t think about what they did wrong. What ends up happening is that from that first big success, they start hemorrhaging fans. If they try to go beyond their first game and end up with fewer fans and support, that usually is the start of financial problems for that company. They’re not thinking about ways to improve or grow but think that as long as they’re earning money that there’s nothing wrong. The true goal is that each game made by your company should be increasing the number of fans, not decreasing it. A good example would be Kitfox Games who have grown in terms of the games they’ve made and their reach over the last decade.
When I look at major successes and their follow-ups, with rare exception, I see the same trendâ€Š—â€ŠTheir first game is a huge, and often a surprising hit, and then the fanbase dips considerably and doesn’t recover. The common reason is that the studio chooses not to improve, and just tries to make the same game with minor differences or doubles down and go bigger without the fanbase to support it.
If you don’t believe me, here are some numbers from successful horror franchises that blew up that I looked at in my fourth book “Game Design Deep Dive Horror.”
Amnesia the Dark Descent was the first indie horror game to become famous for removing combat and has a respectable 14K reviews on steam at this time. By the time the series hit its third major release with Amnesia Rebirth, that number of reviews have dropped to around 4.1K. Five Nights at Freddy’s is arguably one of the biggest indie successes in terms of pop culture reach, and the first game has a great score of around 20K reviews. However, the series has lost a considerable number with each new entry, and now averages around 4–6K reviews. Outlast, another major horror game had an outstanding first outing with 45K reviews, for its sequel, it is now down to 21k.
Fandom will often conflate what success is for a game. About a month ago, the game that YouTubers couldn’t stop talking about was At Dead of Night, which has been played by many large channels. You would think that with all that buzz that the game has an amazing reach, but right now it hasn’t even broken 1K reviews on Steam. For studios with long-running franchises or multiple games, you do not want to see your fanbase (and interest) dip with each new game.
Going Over the Numbers
There are so many elements that go into deciding what to do when designing and releasing a game. With how much the indie space has grown over the past decade, the potential is there for indie studios to go big and be rewarded for it. However, that also means that indies aren’t being viewed as the “scrappy underdog” anymore. If you want to succeed, people expect quality, and they expect you to grow. Your goal as a game developer is to not only grow your design and ability to make games, but your fanbase as well, without it, you’re not going to have a fanbase to support bigger and more ambitious ideas. Moreover, a larger fanbase also means more people will buy your game and allow studios to weather any kind of financial storms easier.
Despite any success, there are still developers who just make the same game with minute differences and are surprised why they’re not growing. Being able to sit down and understand what you did right and wrong is a skill worth its weight in gold. Not many people can say to themselves, “this is what I did wrong, and I need to improve going forward.”
Last year I spoke about the problems that plagued Bioware with Anthem and why there is no such thing as studio magic. There is a reason why companies like Nintendo, Valve, and Blizzard are held in high regard for the quality of their game design, and it’s not because of magical powers. These companies are about trying new things with their game designs and not just remaking the same game with better graphics. They understand what elements work and don’t work about their designs and use that when it comes to iterating.
I want to talk about what this means for developers who have survived on having a small and loyal fanbase. At the beginning of this piece, I said that the main goal is to be bringing in enough money to continue developing games. If you can continue doing that, then you are already better off than most indie developers. What I’m talking about is reaching a point in terms of understanding your design and improving it, and having enough people support you that you have a safety net as a game developer. Companies like Klei Entertainment have had massive successes with Don’t Starve and Oxygen Not Included, and just okay ones with Invisible Inc and Hot Lava. Having those studio successes affords them the ability to experiment and know that one failed or below-average game isn’t a studio ender. Once again, you don’t need to take my word for this, you can see just how many indie developers with great games have gone out of business or quietly disappeared over the last decade either due to one failed project or just not having enough support to keep going.
For my final point, I want to alleviate some of the doom and gloom of this post. If your first, second, or even your tenth game doesn’t break 5,000 reviews, don’t consider that as a reason to give up. The 5,000 reviews is a long-term goal, not something you should expect out of your first game. For me, it’s the same as trying to hit 10,000 subscribers on YouTube. It took me a long time to hit 1,000, and then I went to 5,000, and now I’m on track to hit 10K, but none of that happened immediately. If each game you make brings in more fans than the last, then you know you’re on the right track. As I always say, there is nothing standard or guaranteed when it comes to game development, but what I’ve seen time and time again is that the developers who do last understand that you want to do everything to guarantee the success of your game and the success of your studio.
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