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Tips On Making Indie Games That Sell

Let's take a look at Erik Johnson's 2018 GDC talk on selling indie games and learn how to create an appealing and profitable game.

In 2018 at GDC Conference Infinite Monkeys Entertainment's Erik Johnson analyzed trends in the Steam marketplace and explored how the game Erik worked on, Life Goes On, failed to match the market. This financial failure taught Erik a valuable lesson on selling indie games. In short, there are many factors that contribute to a game's financial success, in today's market it is not enough to create a good game, which is clearly shown by Erik's Life Goes On which has 96% positive reviews. So, let's learn more about these factors.

The talk is opened by Erik's story about working on Life Goes On. Life Goes On is a puzzle-platformer game where you have to sacrifice your knights and use their dead bodies to solve puzzles. The game was released on Steam in 2014 and in 2016 it received a major content expansion and a PS4 release.

During the development stage, Erik and the team thought that this game will be a definite success. The game received plenty of media coverage and won several rewards back in the day. Unfortunately, these things did not help much, and neither the initial release nor the 2016 follow-up ever lived up to the team's expectations. To understand the game's failure, Erik developed an "obsession" with market analysis and learned a lot of new things. This obsession resulted in a lot of data analysis Erik made. 

The first lesson Erik learned is that it is not wise to create games just for the sake of the revenue. "If you're making games to get rich, you're probably in the wrong industry, comments Erik." Despite that, the games should be looked at from a business perspective if one plans to sell the game. 

The second lesson Erike learned is that it is important to understand what people want. The greatness of the game and its promotion are very important factors, but they don't account for market fit which is also very important. Erik admits that the team never thought about the game from this perspective, the game was very interesting to work on from a game design perspective but not much thought was given about whether the final product will make the buyers actually get the game.

Please note that Erik's analysis is only applicable to indie games on Steam because of such factors as Steam Direct and a growing Chinese audience.

Erik goes on to explain what tools and techniques can be used by indie developers to better understand a game's commercial potential. Tools such as Steam Spy, a service that scraps Steam and creates a statistical estimate of how many people have a game in their Steam Library. But one has to be aware because having a game in a Steam Library ≠ buying a game because of bundles, giveaways, free weekends, etc. 

The other thing that is surprisingly useful is Steam Reviews because it shows the number of reviews by buyers versus other sources and that gives you a lot of insight into how well a game is actually sold. 

Using a technique known as the Boxleiter Method it is possible to roughly estimate the number of people who bought the game and played it. 

The next thing Erik touches upon is a game's quality. Quality does matter, there is no doubt about it but turns out that it is neither the only factor nor the dominant factor in a game's success. In 2016 Life Goes On's quality was significantly improved but it didn't help to increase the game's sales numbers. 

Erik proves that point by using GTA V and PUBG as examples. Both games are commercially successful but have mixed reviews while Life Goes On has 96% positive reviews and failed commercially. 

But even still, quality plays a huge role. According to Erik's graphs above, there is some correlation between the game's quality and revenue. So, if you make a better game you will trend towards making more money, but it is not guaranteed. 

The next big thing Erik discusses is the genre and what types of games are viable these days. Spoiler alert: puzzle-platformers are not one of them. The market has shifted dramatically since the days when games like Fez and Limbo defined what indie success was. Since 2014, there have been very few breakthrough puzzle-platformers, Inside and Never Alone being exceptions that prove the rule. 

The graph above shows a median estimated value for different genres of games. 1 unit in this graph is defined by a median estimated value of a standard puzzle-platformer. Action RPGs are 24 times more profitable than puzzle-platformers. The graph clearly shows that different genres have dramatically different market responses. 

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The next very important thing is game visuals. Despite the common opinion that visuals are not that important for indie games, usually, these games have low poly or pixel art and are loved for the story and characters, not for AAA graphics. What is important, however, is that visuals should be unique. According to Erik, Life Goes On's visuals seemed too basic and generic for many people, there was no distinctiveness in them, an important factor in whether a game's promotional trailer interests potential buyers or not.

The other thing that contributes a lot to a game's success is its tone. According to Erik's graphs, the more mature a game is, the more revenue it will bring. People are more interested in serious and dark games, games about war and sacrifice, Lovecraftian horror games, you get the idea. In today's market, family-friendly content is very hard to sell, and it is clearly shown on the graphs below:

However, Erik reminds that the stats are based on Steam sales and the tags can be very different depending on the platform.

The next important thing Erik talks about is playtime. The graph provided clearly shows that the longer a player can enjoy the game, the more revenue it brings. Partly, this is why genres like action RPG and FPS, which are both replayable and can fit a lot of content within themselves, are way more popular than puzzle-platformers that show all they've got during one playthrough.

The big vertical cluster that you can see in the graph is the games that have a lot of players but seemingly low sales. The absolute majority of these games are those that have Steam Trading Cards. This shows evidence that some games are exploited by players that use the Steam Trading Card system to their advantage. One way or another, this vertical line can be disregarded as it doesn't tell us anything useful, other than the fact that Valve should do something about their cards.

YouTube and Twitch are huge for indie visibility as these platforms create a win-win situation, content creators have something to show their viewers and game developers get a lot of free advertisement.

Erik makes a point that not all games benefit equally from streaming. According to Erik, short games like puzzle-platformers can actually be hurt by streams and let's plays because once you see the completion of the game there is no new content for gamers to consume, thus making the buying of the game unnecessary. Highly-replayable Crypt of the Necrodancer benefited a lot from PewDiePie's video while Life Goes On's let's play by Jacksepticeye created a bump in revenue of 500$.

This clearly indicates that puzzle-platformers do not benefit much from this game developer-content creator symbiosis. 

Another important factor is the community of a game. Can a game be modded? Is there a level editor? Does it have a multiplayer? All these things contribute a lot to the overall popularity of a game. According to Erik's graph that can be seen above, games with a "Moddable" tag are 140 times more profitable than puzzle-platformers. Level Editor might not look that huge in the chart but it is still twice as profitable.

The factors that Erik reviewed are not the only contributors to market success, these are only those ones that can be backed up by data. Of course, one can subvert every expectation and create a colorful, family-friendly puzzle-platformer, but given today's market, the chances of this happening are very slim.

One might think that Erik only thinks about bestseller games that can be horrible but still bring the developers millions of dollars and this is not what the indiedev is all about. "Indie games should have a niche audience," someone might say. Erik had anticipated such criticism and tacked about finding a niche as well.  

Erik claims that your niche should be viable and your target audience actually exists and wants a new puzzle-platformer. 

In the afterword, Erik says that one shouldn't try to clone those games that are already successful. What one should do is choose a game design with factors that correlate with success and make something unique based on that. Check out other games with ideas similar to yours, learn about their successes and failures, study the market and what is in demand right now, pick your selling platform.

We hope that all these factors will help aspiring indie creators to make something new, truly unique, and commercially successful, but if not, you should never forget – life goes on, it is never too late to try again.

You can watch the full talk by clicking this link or ask Erik about market strategies by visiting Erik's Twitter.

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