If you commit yourself to a project that has low market potential, you’re setting yourself up for failure, at least in a business sense. If you try to replicate the success of a popular game, chances are you’ll create a soulless clone that nobody, including you, will be excited about. While I’m not going to tell you what game you should make, I will help you consider the factors that will likely influence the outcome of your decision. Are these factors set in stone? Of course not. Trends are always changing, and there are exceptions to every rule. You can still make a successful local multiplayer platformer for Steam. It’s just highly unlikely that it will succeed because this genre is among the least popular within the PC market. So, what factors should you take into account when making this important decision?
One of the most common mistakes made by first-time developers is underestimating the amount of time it takes to make games. You may be a fan of open-world RPG titles, but it’s a terrible idea to attempt to make one as your first project. Even if you settle for a small game, it will still take an enormous amount of time and effort to get it done. Be very careful when deciding on the scope of your game. Does it really need to have all the features you have in mind? Does it need to be online? Does it have to have a complex crafting system, or is this a feature that is not essential to your game idea? Don’t assume you can make a clone of your favorite triple-A game that had hundreds of people working on it for multiple years. It’s better to make a simple game that is highly polished than to quit a large project because it’s simply too big to finish. While there are many paths to success, there’s one thing that all popular games have in common: they all get finished.
Another common mistake made by first-time developers is trying to market their games way too late. You need to consider the marketability of your game as early as possible. Unless you have a large marketing budget, you have to rely on the organic reach on social media, the press, content creators, streamers, and word of mouth.
The most effective piece of marketing material is an animated GIF showcasing a few seconds of gameplay. GIFs are commonly shared on Twitter, and other social media. If they show something truly eye-catching, they can go viral. Unlike Twitter videos, GIFs begin playing automatically as they show up in the feed. As a result, they tend to attract the most attention. Twitter is also where the gaming press likes to hang out, so getting a lot of retweets on a GIF often leads to press coverage.
DARQ’s first coverage in Kotaku, IGN, and PC Gamer came from some of the GIFs that went viral. For this to happen, your game needs to be very visual. It doesn’t have to look like a triple-A title with high-resolution textures and detailed 3D graphics. But video games are a visual medium, and your core gameplay idea needs to be presentable and easy to understand in a GIF format. Is this a must? No, and as always, there are exceptions. However, using GIFs will give you a better chance at gaining exposure and establishing a following.
3. The hook and competitive advantage
“The hook” usually refers to a core mechanic that makes your game stand out from the rest. It’s often a mechanic that adds a new twist to an established genre. A good hook makes everybody say “wow” as soon as they see it. Ideally, it should have a novelty factor and be quick to understand. As an indie developer, you need it badly. If you decide to make another strategy game with nothing that differentiates it from other titles in the genre, it’s not going to have a broad audience.
Please understand that you’re not only competing with new releases. Most players are already engaged in playing their favorite titles. They also have backlogs of games they don’t have time to play. You have to give them a reason to play your game. Your game has to offer something that others don’t. For example, the hook of Braid is the ability to rewind time infinitely. That’s what separates it from other puzzle/platformer games. Super Hot’s hook is that time only moves when you move. Without that feature, it would’ve been just another first-person shooter. DARQ’s hook is the ability to walk on walls, ceilings, and manipulate the environment. Without its “hook,” it would have been just another puzzle game. Please note: all these examples are extremely visual and easy to understand within seconds.
Innovation always comes with the risk of limiting your potential audience, but it’s a risk you can afford to take. Since your budget is likely to be low, you don’t need to sell millions of copies to break even. Serving a smaller niche can still make your game profitable enough to make it a lucrative and sustainable business.
4. Core emotion
What is the core emotion you want your players to experience when playing your game? As a game designer, you need to know the answer to that question at the very start of your project. The emotion you’re trying to target should become the determining factor behind every decision you make from now on. Simplifying your idea to one emotion will help you answer a lot of questions: Is this art style right for my game? Does this music support the vision of my project? Why should we use a checkpoint system, or why shouldn’t we? Games that are built around a single emotion tend to feel immersive and consistent.
For example, Darkest Dungeon accomplishes this masterfully. Every aspect of this game works together to evoke the emotion of hopelessness. It’s not often that a game shows you the emotional toll of dungeon crawling. The overall mood is pessimistic and dark. The art design alone is enough to convey the game’s core emotion. It’s worn and somber, featuring hand-painted characters with an abundance of thick black lines and shadows. It helps support the idea of the psychological damage the heroes endure as a result of your greed-driven orders. Notice that after a successful mission, the comeback to town is accompanied by grim music. Battles feature quick two-frame animations that keep you on the edge of your seat. Instant attacks with no frames in between serve as a reminder of how quickly your party can get wiped out. The lack of checkpoints and permadeath during missions makes the stakes high, and your chances of making it through feel low.
It’s generally desirable for your game to be long, or better yet, infinite. With this in mind, you should find a way to extend the length of your game as much as possible. If you’re making a linear game, one way to do this would be lowering the bar when it comes to asset quality and detail, so that more content can be produced faster. You could also increase replayability by randomizing certain sections of the game, or using procedural generation so that each playthrough is unique.
Look at the list of the best-selling games on the storefronts you’re targeting. Should you try to mimic those trends? Not necessarily. After all, the trends change rapidly, and trying to chase them might not be a good strategy. However, being aware of what genres are unpopular and what makes them unpopular is important. After all, you don’t want to release a game that nobody wants to play. Ideally, you should choose a genre that not only fits into the parameters discussed earlier but also interests you as a consumer. Make a game that you want to make. Just make sure there’s an audience for it. For example, it’s a lot easier to make a tycoon game if you’ve been playing tycoon games all your life. You’ll naturally have more ideas that can make your creation truly unique and interesting to your target audience. It’s also a lot easier to keep your motivation levels high when you’re working on something that excites you.
7. Strengths and weaknesses
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is incredibly important when making a plan for your first game. Chances are, you will be doing most of the work on your first project, so your skillset needs to match the game you’re making. Are you good at art? Great—make a game that is extremely visual and requires little coding. Are you a good programmer? Fantastic—make a game with simple art but interesting game mechanics. Needless to say, you don’t have to do everything by yourself. You can complement your weaknesses by hiring contractors or forming partnerships with other developers.
8. Unique look
Your game doesn’t have to look hyper-realistic, but having a distinct art style is a significant advantage. It makes your game instantly recognizable among thousands of other generic-looking titles. Think of games that don’t necessarily look hyper-realistic but are visually distinct. You can’t help but picture them once you hear the title. Minecraft, Return of the Obra Dinn, Factorio, Thomas Was Alone, and Terraria are a few examples. As most games tend to look generic, being instantly recognizable from a visual standpoint will make marketing your title a lot easier.
9. Recognizable characters
Don’t be afraid to exaggerate features to create memorable and recognizable characters. A good character design prioritizes simplicity of shape with unique, recognizable features. The advantage of having a likable and recognizable protagonist is unparalleled.
Hope you enjoyed this list!
- If you want to keep an eye on more free gamedev tips & tricks, and behind-the-scenes of my development process, connect with me on Twitter.
- I have a book in which I share everything I’ve learned over the years while working on my first game DARQ (which became #42 Most Shared PC Game of 2019, according to Metacritic). If you’re looking to make a living making games and know very little about the subject, the book might be the right fit for you.