[Hi, I’m Simon Carless, and you’re reading the Game Discoverability Now! newsletter, a regular look at how people find - and buy - your video games. Or don’t.]
Since I know a lot of Game Discoverability Now! readers love a bunch of good statistics, that’s (largely!) what I’ve been providing you to date.
But I have opinions, too - as you would expect, given I’ve been involved in the Independent Games Festival since 2005, & co-founded the Indie Games Summit at GDC. And I also helped Mike Rose set up indie game publisher No More Robots (Yes, Your Grace, Descenders, Hypnospace Outlaw, Not Tonight) a coupla years back, of course.
Mike can take the vast majority of the credit for the consistency of success for No More Robots games on Steam. (And it’s pretty darn consistent for the modestly budgeted titles NMR publishes. All games have been Very or Overwhelmingly Positive-ly Steam user reviewed, and have grossed at least 6 figures - or 7 figures, in a couple of cases.)
I’m more of a consigliere & advisor than the lead A&R person. But we’ve looked at tens or hundreds of games for possible publishing. I do believe I’ve learned a few things along the way.
So, in a jocular list-type fashion, here are the top five ‘sins’ that I see from many of today’s indie games. Each of these sins negatively affects your game’s attractiveness and therefore saleability to game publishers (if you want one!) & the game-playing public (if you don’t!)
You’re trying to compete in a genre you don’t have business playing in.
This may seem like a harsh statement. But some styles of game have a super-high barrier to entry. Let’s say you decided to make a third-person fantasy hack and slash adventure, not unlike Darksiders III.
With this style of 3D action game with sophisticated character models and animation, gamers are going to compare you to Darksiders, or (Kratos forbid!) God Of War. Even if you’re a tiny indie, they’re not going to cut you any slack compared to $10-$50 million dev budget productions - either from a visual polish or gameplay point of view.
So… just think carefully about your competitors & the quality bar. You may be setting yourself up for poor comparisons. (This is also true for genres like survival horror.)
Your game is too simple (or too simple-looking) for today’s market.
This depends a little on what you’re planning to do. But if you want to make a game that allows you to be self-sustaining as a dev in the higher-GDP Western countries, you probably need to charge at least USD $19.99 for it. ($14.99 if you must, but I don’t agree with that price point.)
So people need to believe, by looking at footage or screenshots & descriptions, that the game is playable for at least 5-10 hours and ideally longer. People won’t pay that much for games that ‘look’ short or trivial, gameplay-wise. Whether they are actually short/trivial or not!
Again, there’s plenty of subjectivity here. And sorry for picking on you for the screenshot, The Adventures Of Spunk Dodgers and Splat. Though you are 99c and a mobile conversion, so you probably don’t mind.
You’ve chosen a style or genre of game that just doesn’t sell that well.
There’s a bunch of data out there on how genres or game features sell nowadays. You really should be paying attention to Steam tags & other trends as you think about what type of game you’re making.
One particular red flag is creating an additional ‘barrier to entry’ for regular Steam users (especially local multiplayer, but also online multiplayer if you’re a paid game, or needing VR hardware.) All of these limit possible users or success.
Paid online multiplayer-centric games are surprisingly difficult, because you have to get over a simultaneous player minimum that convinces people that your game isn’t ‘dead’.
And that number is quite high, no matter how well your game demo-ed at shows, or with your friends. (That’s sad, because Tubetastic: World Splashfest - pictured - is an amazing pitch for a game. It’s multiplayer Toobin’ with guns!)
The other kind of restrictor can be genre-based. For example, ‘pure’ puzzle games. I love them, but they just don’t seem to sell at $15+ on Steam except in outlying examples.
Even great puzzle titles like CROSSNIQ+ have only sold single digit thousands of copies at $8 or less each. That’s just one example. Look at all of them carefully, and remember that genre overlaps can mean you have some popular elements & some very unpopular.
Your game doesn’t look visually competitive.
This is, obviously, hideously subjective. But, no matter whether it’s in 2D or 3D (or 4D!), there’s a minimum level of quality for UI, animation and art that you need to pass in order for someone to be interested to play your game.
I can’t tell you what that bar is. But in addition to getting people to play early versions of your game, I recommend trying to get your friends & fellow devs to give you honest feedback on: ‘Does this game look good, visually?’ You’re competing against, for example, Industries Of Titan. Be a little scared.
There are all kinds of issues - from overly drab palettes to janky-looking fonts - that can really turn people off your game visually. And gamers will see it in motion, way before they play it. So get independent opinions.
[Image via this blog post on level-based programmer art. Programmer art is just fine for prototyping, but be careful it doesn’t leak into your game.]
You have no mechanism to stand out in the genre you’ve picked.
This one is probably the most controversial, & there’s a serious double-edged sword here. Exhibit A: the example pictured above (Iratus: Lord Of The Dead) is an example of a Darkest Dungeon-style game/’clone’ which has actually done very well.
But I think of it like this. If you’re part of a broad genre that is crowded (like, say, Metroidvania) and you don’t have an original setting or standout graphics or a new gameplay twist, then… that could be a problem.
In these broad pools, there’s a lot of competitors, including the games that influenced you in the first place. (People still find and buy those games for the first time, today!) So evaluate yourself against all of those elements.
On the other hand, games that are ‘a bit like standout hit game but go in a different direction’ can do well. (The example from No More Robots would be Not Tonight, which has Papers, Please-inspired gameplay in a different setting & progression. That familarity really helped the game with both players and streamers.)
Conclusion - Break All The Rules!
There are certainly games that break these rules and still do well. And overanalysis can lead to decision paralysis - or being overly cynical in the game you make.
Particularly with regards to the No More Robots-published games, I think Mike Rose would say that it’s ‘gut feel’ - more than tedious numbercrunching - that has led to success. All of the pictured NMR games broke some of the above rules along the way.
For example, Jay Tholen & friends’ Hypnospace Outlaw is very clearly a niche genre* - ‘90s Web browser simulator. But it still has >1,000 Steam reviews, thanks to its humor, attention to detail & perfectly pitched aesthetic. (*Rule broken.)
The just-launched Yes, Your Grace from Brave At Night (nearly 3,000 Steam reviews) doesn’t necessarily have a clear mechanism to stand out in its genre*. Yet it does have outstanding pixel art & isn’t in a very widely copied or competitive genre - kingdom simulator slash visual novel. (*Rule broken.)
And the first NMR release, Ragesquid’s Descenders (around 2,300 Steam reviews), featured a tiny dev team playing in the ‘3D procedurally generated action sports game’ genre, one it arguably didn’t have business competing in*. Yet it seemed to be a very under-populated genre, partly because AAA studios stopped making those types of games. (*Rule broken.)
In conclusion: being a little counter-intuitive can really work out sometimes! Just make sure you understand what paradigms you’re deliberately going against, and why.