What makes an indie game successful?

In my article ‘How much money do indie games make?’ I showed that over 50% of indie games never make more than $4,000 on Steam while the top 2,000 or so indie games (c. 9% of indie games on Steam) make over $200,000 in gross revenue. That’s still a lot of games that succeed and do well. So what makes an indie game successful? In this article I’m going to explore what makes the top games stand out and succeed while so many others fail. More specifically, I’m looking at the top 500 selling indie games on Steam and how they approach graphics, game-play, genre choice, pricing and marketing.

Graphics & design are a minimum requirement

The first thing we see on Steam page is screenshots and videos of the game. The obvious differentiator of AAA games and indie games is the complex, realistic graphics of the mega-budget AAA games. That’s not to say indie games have to look bad. Indeed, looking at the top indie 500 games, they all look refined. Some of them, like Space Engineers, look beautiful and complex. Space Engineers However, not all of them have complex and realistic graphics. In fact, they are often very simple, like Kingdoms and Castles. Minecraft might be a more popular example of the same phenomenon. Kingdoms and Castles Even these visually simple games come across as refined and thought through. They tend to stand out and look fun and professional. Therefore, I see graphics and design as something you need to have a minimum standard in, but doesn’t necessarily give you an advantage from that point onward. In fact, there are many visually stunning, but not as successful indie games out there. The other success driver from graphics is the appeal through marketing. Looking at the Kingdoms and Castles example above, the colourful and unique look of the game immediately captures the players’ attention. This helps the marketing posts get shared and seen. I’ve written a long article on marketing tips for indie game developers that explores this further.

Gameplay & story matters, but only up to a point

This section is a catch-all for all elements of the actual gameplay – Game mechanics, story, characters, how well it runs on lower specs and bugs or lack of them. As with graphics, the top games demonstrate a minimum standard. They are mostly refined, bug free and seamless experiences. However, they are not necessarily complex masterpieces with Oscar-worthy storylines. Take Game Dev Tycoon, for example, that is in its essence a very simple, yet engaging tycoon game. Game Dev Tycoon

Top games are better rated

To summarise the above two concepts, I’ve looked at game ratings for the top 500 indie games to see if the user experience has been superior to other indie games and how it compares to AAA games. The average rating on Steam is around 72-73% positive. For AAA games, that goes up to 79%. However, for the top indie games, the average rating shoots up to an incredible 87% positive ratings. Ratings Comparison This is to an extent driven by the fact that top games get a cult following and good indie games are more likely to get people to rate them well than the good big corporate produced games. However, it also shows that having a good game is essential for success. This rating captures the combined effect of graphics and gameplay, but it’s worth remembering that high ratings does not mean high quality high investment realistic graphics. It means having refined, unique and consistent themes in both gameplay and graphics. The second point these ratings demonstrate is having something unique in the game. Almost all of the top 500 games have innovated in some area – whether it’s in design, graphics or gameplay. For example, Castle Crashers is one of the highest rated Steam games and demonstrates the point well. Its graphics are simple, yet fun and thought through. The gameplay is engaging and intuitive. As a result, it’s achieved 96% positive ratings. Castle Crashers

Some genres are more successful than others

When looking at the genre mix for top games, some genres stand out. Top 500 games are more likely to be simulations, RPG or action games. As genres with mass appeal, this makes sense. Furthermore, these genres don’t necessarily require years of development and incredible graphics. Racing and sports games are less likely to break into the top 500 as indie games are competing with ultra-realistic mega-budget AAA franchises. Indies have to play to their strengths in order to succeed and that means picking genres where players appreciate the creativity, innovation and story rather than graphics.

Low prices don’t lead to success

A widely spread idea among indie developers is that a lower price leads to more sales. I wanted to explore what the top indie games have done with their pricing. Looking at all indie games, the average price is $7.1 per game (excluding free to play games). That’s less than half of average AA and AAA games which are $17.3 and $20.4 respectively. Top 500 indie games are priced at $15.4, much closer to the AA and AAA pricing. You don’t have to charge less just because you’re an indie game or you’re less known as a developer. Don’t use lower pricing as a tool to attract players (unless you do it through discounting). Price your game to match the quality of the game. I explain why low prices don’t lead to higher revenue in my article ‘Should developers charge more for indie games?Pricing Comparison

Accessibility is important

Top indie games reach a wide audience. A big part of that is marketing, however, they also improve their reach with being accessible to more platforms and in more languages. Only 30% of indie games are accessible on both PC and Mac. That increases to 62% for the top 500 games! Macs have a 17% market share for desktop devices. They’re not known to be gaming platforms, but, on the other hand, having a mac version of your game means you have access to another 17% of the potential players AND have less competition because they can’t play many other games. Indie games are typically translated into c. 3 languages. The most popular languages are English, German and French. Top 500 indie games have been, on average, translated into 8 languages. Expanding from the top 3 languages into the top 8 and including Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese and Polish means you’re accessing another 2.1bn native speakers on top of the existing c. 600m. Not only are you accessing the audience that can’t speak English, you’re improving the chances of someone buying your game that does speak English, but prefers to play in their native tongue. Level Up Translation has a great blog that goes into detail in the importance of translation and they also provide translation services for your games.

If you’re doing one thing right, make it marketing

Success of the game is literally measured by the number of people playing it. And people won’t play it unless they know about it. A good game promotes itself is a popular and misunderstood concept among indie developers. All of the top 500 games benefited from strong word of mouth and they did indeed ‘sell themselves’. However, to get to the point of word of mouth having a boosting effect, they needed to get the initial boost elsewhere. They all had great marketing strategies that led to a large existing community which then boosted the sales further through word of mouth. For example, Firewatch saw incredible success in 2014 despite being in the challenging story driven single player game segment. They had eye-catching visuals and a trailer that left you with a sense of mystery and wanting for more. It was because of this marketing that they got all the media attention and follow-up word of mouth advertising. Firewatch Another great example is This War of Mine that built a community of over 30,000 people with active social media, trailers, events, promo assets and PR. They managed to break even in 2 days because they had such a strong following even before launching the game. These are the guys who decided to upload the game to Pirate Bay for free to tackle piracy and ended up getting loads of free media from it. That was on top of their initial success though, not a driver of all of the success. This war of mine

How can devs learn from previous success stories to make games great again?

As with everything, luck plays some role with indie game success. As with everything, unsuccessful people blame it on the lack of luck. In reality, there are concrete steps indie developers can take to make their games successful. I’ve summarised the key learnings from best-selling games below:
  • Make your game visually engaging, but keep it simple.
  • Have something unique about your game – whether it’s game mechanics, story or visuals, you need something to sell your game with.
  • Don’t make a big game, make a refined game. Whatever you make, make it look seamless, bug-free and finished.
  • Make a game in a sub-genre that people like, but isn’t too crowded. 2D platformers don’t have mass appeal. Battle Royale might be too crowded. Find the right balance and spend time on researching the market. Video Game Insights’ free analytics tools are specifically designed to help indie developers with this.
  • Make your game accessible. Spend some money on translation and make it available to as many platforms as possible (unless you get a great exclusivity deal).
  • Spend a lot of time on marketing and community building. Ultimately, this is the key to success. Everything else is a waste of time if you don’t nail this. None of the top selling indie games did it without a great marketing strategy.

Thanks for reading our article What makes an indie game successful? For more interesting articles on the indie games industry, check out the links below. 






This Article was written by: Harry Cole

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