Many indie games come out every day, but most do not see widespread commercial success. Is it just a matter of luck? I don’t think so. Luck may play some part, but here are some common reasons I’ve observed as to why many indie games don’t find the success that their creators desire.
1 – Weak or non-existent art style. A lot of indie developers think that they can get by with programmer art but you honestly can’t. If you don’t put the effort into making your game look good, why should I believe that you put the effort or have the skill to make the rest of the game worth playing? And remember, even a mediocre art style is better than no art style.
2 – Too much time in development. Let’s look at a couple extremes. On the one hand, you have a game that you made in under 24 hours. On the other hand, you have a game that you painstakingly worked on for 10 years. Which one are you going to need to be more successful to be pleased with the project? I’m going to say the 10 year one. Whereas with the single-day project, you’d probably be happy with a few “Cool game!” comments, the ten-year project is going to probably need to bring in major money and widespread acclaim for you to feel that it was worth your while. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap – don’t spend more time on a project than you can reasonably expect the project to give back.
3 – Wrong platform. We’ve seen this ourselves – on XBLIG, our games sold in the tens of thousands. Once we switched to the PC, our games started selling in the hundreds of thousands.
4 – No unique selling point. This is a big one. I’ve seen many indie developers spend months on a project that ends up being pretty good, but otherwise not noteworthy. People don’t buy pretty good games. They buy amazing games or they buy games that are unique in some way. Find at least one thing to make your game unique. And no, your elaborate fantasy backstory isn’t a unique selling point – it’s just an aid for insomniacs.
5 – Poorly thought out price. I’ve seen plenty of games that looked kind of interesting but I was scared off of buying them due to a $20+ price tag. Face it, competition is fierce out there. I’m not spending $20 on an indie game unless it’s downright amazing and feels like it was made just for me. For that matter, I’m not spending $10 on an indie game unless it’s really good; there’s just so many other options for my money out there. And on the other hand, I’ve seen some indie games fail for the opposite reason – they price their game at $1 or free without figuring out how exactly that’s going to end up making them money.
6 – Steep learning curve. Many developers enjoy playing very difficult, hardcore games. There is nothing wrong with making hardcore games. You can even find great success with hardcore games as games like Dark Souls show. However, making a hardcore game does not excuse you from things like making a good tutorial, an intuitive user interface, and easy-to-understand controls. If you look at the success that Edmund McMillen (Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy) has seen, a large part of his success has been due to his teams’ skill at making hardcore genres (roguelike, punisher platformer) more accessible.
7 – No marketing strategy. Yeah, if you’re an indie team, you probably have little to no money to spend on advertising. So what? Effective marketing can be done without spending a cent extra. Come up with a catchy name for your game? That’s marketing. Create some interesting features that help your game stand out from the crowd? That’s marketing. And beyond the act of making your game in a way as to make it easy to market, you should be showing off your game as soon as you have something worth showing off and talking to everyone you can find about it. Big budget game studios often spend as much or money on marketing as they do in actual creating their games – since you don’t have the money to do that, the least you can do is spend some of your time.
8 – Lack of polish. After spending all the time to actually make a game, make sure to take a little to time at the end to polish off the rough edges, double-check for bugs, smooth out the difficulty curve, and the like. The difference between a good game and a truly great game is frequently in the small details.