Key Features of Successful Indie Video Games

Thanks partly to the rise of distribution platforms such as Steam, Origin and GOG, indie video games have made an enormous and highly successful comeback in recent years. Today, there are many indie games being released that trump many of the big-budget AAA franchises, and the trend is showing no signs of slowing down.

The indie game industry has also seen the revival of many popular genres that big-name developers have eschewed in recent years, such as real-time strategy and survival- and crafting-based games. There’s also been an unprecedented revival of nostalgia-driven titles, such as pixel-graphics hits like Stardew Valley, FTL Faster than Light and Undertale. At the same time, there are titles such as Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust which can easily stand up against the best-known AAA titles.

So what makes an indie video game so successful? If you’re thinking about or already in the process of developing a game, you’ll need to know what makes games like those mentioned above so successful:

#1. Replayability and Content

People buy video games because they want to be entertained, preferably for as long as possible. As such, a video game that offers just a few hours of playtime, as is the case with many AAA titles, is not likely to look like a very good investment. Even the many casual indie titles tend to offer exceptional replay value to the extent that players can easily get dozens or even hundreds of hours out of them. In fact, replay value is often even more important than content itself, particularly from the developer’s perspective. After all, it’s cheaper and easier just to make one game with less content but excellent replay value that to keep releasing new content. Nonetheless, a compromise between both factors tends to work best, with many of the most successful titles providing lots of content and excellent replay value.

#2. Frequent Updates

Most indie game developers release their games to the general public before they are actually complete. Enormously popular platforms such as Steam’s Early Access, for example, allow players to become actively involved in the development of new titles. Approached in the right way, Early Access is a win-win for everyone. Players get to be empowered by having a say in the development of the game while developers can help fund their projects by selling pre-release versions of their titles. On the other hand, it is imperative that developers releasing Early Access titles release frequent updates and are shown to be actively working on their projects at all times. As such, Early Access is a major commitment since, if your player base starts thinking you’ve lost interest in the project, your business has already failed.

#3. No Pay-to-Win

In the mind of any serious gamer, pay-to-win (or freemium) is an abomination and by far the most obnoxious trend in the industry. While freemium is often associated with mobile games, it’s also making an increasingly large impact in the PC and console gaming industry. Once popular franchises, such as Age of Empires and The Settlers have now become browser- or mobile-based games with stacks of content and progression locked, or almost locked, behind payment gateways. Unfortunately, the pay-to-win genre is popular, but one of its largest audiences is, extremely controversially, children ‘borrowing’ their parents’ credit cards and racking up huge bills for next to nothing. However, serious gamers and older consumers are more likely to turn to indie titles because they generally don’t use the freemium model.

#4. Occasional Freebies

There’s a fine line between paid DLCs and freemium. While most people expect to pay for full-scale expansion packs, indie developers should tread carefully when offering paid DLCs, making sure that they offer enough content to actually be worth paying for. Major developer Bethesda Softworks failed spectacularly to follow this rule when they released the infamous Horse Armour DLC for Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, charging $2.50 for it in the process. What they didn’t seem to realise was that there were thousands of fan-made mods adding just about every type of content available all for free. As an indie developer, there are few better ways to earn the respect of your target audience and build and improve your reputation than by offering the occasional freebie. It also shows that you are still serious about your past projects.

#5. A Trending Idea

With thousands of games available on Steam alone, easily the most important factor of all is to have an idea that sells in a highly competitive marketplace. You don’t necessarily need to have a revolutionary new idea (although it’s great if you do), but you definitely want to capitalize on trending niches. For example, recent years have seen a huge gap in the real-time strategy genre insofar as AAA developers are concerned, hence the highly successful comeback among indie developers. Retro-style pixel graphics, platformers, 4X strategy, roguelike and 2.5D games, genres that have been largely abandoned by the big developers for many years now, have also seen major success in the indie gaming industry. One only has to take a look at the top-rated indie titles on Steam to see that what works in the world of indie games tends to be very different to what works in the realm of AAA titles.

Final Words

The success of many indie titles is ultimately down to passion. AAA developers are often purely motivated by money to the extent that they really don’t care much about making great games that will be remembered for years to come. By contrast, indie developers are usually gamers themselves who want to share their ideas with others while also making a healthy profit in the first place. In other words, indie game development is a form of art like any other. Just as no one is likely to enjoy a novel written by someone who had no interest in writing it in the first place, few people are going to enjoy a video game that doesn’t show itself to be a true labor of love.