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Keys to indie game success: how to choose the right design

What do successful indie games have in common and how can developers choose a more successful design? In this article we will discuss some of the Keys to indie game success that any indie game developer can try as an overall strategy.

Keys to indie game success

The difficulty of getting visibility

In this industry, it’s hard to succeed without learning from others. But who should you learn from? We believe that the smartest thing to do is to learn from successful developers. Successful developers are less likely to attribute their success to luck every time they develop a new game. Only a small percentage of indie games break even. So what are the odds that developers like Jamie Cheng, Edmund McMillen, and Cliff Harris have multiple successful games? The likelihood of this being the case is probably low. There must be something other than luck involved here. So maybe it is these people (and many others) that you should research and listen to.

Keys to indie game success - Indie game developer
Keys to indie game success – Indie game developer- Photo by Darlene Alderson on

Just because someone has been successful many times doesn’t mean they know why. There may be something hidden in the person’s game process that is affecting their game. Study their game and look for patterns, but always take anything written, including this article, with a grain of salt. Regardless of who the author is.

When Good is just not enough.

The methods used by many beginners generally lead to a “good game.” It is common to look at a successful “Game X”, see all the possible mistakes, and decide to “Game X, but BETTER!” or “Game X, but IN SPACE!”. Some are also try the ideas arithemetics, if “Game X” is great and “Game Y” is fantastic, then if I do “Game X + Y” then the game will double in fun and attraction. This a dangerous approach where most of the game developers we know have somewhat fallen into. Don’t fall yourself into it.

To increase your chances of success, you need to make your game stand out. But how? Here’s how I go about developing a game.

  • Assess the quantity and quality of the game’s “hooks.”
  • Evaluate the marketability of similar games.
  • Consider how to describe and promote the game.

Each of these elements is explained below in the next sections.

Keys to indie game success - Game Player
Keys to indie game success – Game Player – Photo by Matilda Wormwood on

Game Hooks

Any game needs a hook – you want people to remember your game, talk about your game, write about your game, etc. For this to happen, you need to think of particular aspects of your game that can catch the attention of the player.

What is a gaming hook?

There isn´t a single definition but rather a group of different possibilities that have been used by game developers:

  • A hook is something new, something that makes your game unique.
  • It’s something that makes your game stand out in a crowded board game market.
  • In marketing, this is called the unique selling proposition.
  • Hooks are therefore used as a key element in marketing your game.
  • The goal is to get people interested in the game and get them to try it out.
  • And we want to get that message across as quickly as possible.
  • With an elevator pitch, the hook is used to explain what is special about your game.
  • After all, the hook is the interesting difference between you and your competitors.

In games, the hooks are often effective before the game is played. Hangers are interesting information that makes you want to try the game or talk about it.

For example, the game “Crypt of the Necrodancer” was able to become a hook due to the term “roguelike rhythm game” as it sounds so unlikely or crazy that it immediately grabbed people’s attention; A lot of people thought , “A roguelike that’s a rhythm game?” What an interesting Idea, I should try it!”
The game has other different set of game hooks, like:

  • The excellent music composition by a well-known composer. It has a soundtrack. Star power is the hook.
  • The graphics are pixelated, yet unique. Skeletons dancing and wiggling their hips are often commented on.
  • At conventions you have another hook – you can a lot of people trying to dance the game characters moves.

The more hooks you have and the more attractive each hook is, the more likely you are to catch player’s interest. It is therefore advisable to wait for a design that stands out on as many axes as possible. Ideally, every aspect of the project should be unique and attractive in some way. Gameplay, graphics, audio, name, story, development team, everything.

So the question that you should be trying to answer for your own game should be, What’s your hook like?

To answer it, you need to review all the different elements in your game and try to answer the question “how strong is this hook?” The more you will do this exercise the better you will become in defining the correct hooks for your game. If your game is still far from allowing this exercise then, you can practice by analyzing the hook of a newly launched game’s and following the subsequent sales results to check if your instincts were correct, and you’ll get a feel for it.

Market Analysis

When game developers hears or reads the word market or marketing, they usually become very stressed out. But, no need to panic. Market analysis doesn’t have to be a nightmare! It’s all about playing games in the genre you like and think about who will probably playing them and for what reasons.

Keys to indie game success - Marketing
Keys to indie game success – Marketing Analytics – Photo by PhotoMIX Company on

Here is a simple checklist that we will apply in our games and maximize your Keys to indie game success:

  1. Find 10-20 games that you think are most similar to your game. Even though it’s hard to find similar games, you can look at the “most similar” games. Play them all, examine their hooks, and look at their sales results. Importantly, include games that don’t sell well. Try to get a feel for these games and come up with an explanation for why each game sold or didn’t sell. If you don’t have confidence in explaining why your game was a success or why it wasn’t, then you don’t have confidence in your game’s potential. If so, you may need to practice analyzing your hooks.
  2. Look at the size and composition of the market. Are there enough fans for these types of games to generate the sales numbers needed to survive? Are the top-selling games generating sufficient revenue? If not, you could be in trouble, or you could get lucky and be the first to popularize the genre or discover a new one – that’s how mega-hits are created, but don’t count on that happening to you.
  3. Analyze the kind of competition you would be up against. Sure, the MOBA market is huge, but do you really want to take users away from LoL or DOTA? To beat the giants, you would have to offer a very good gaming experience, one that you would be willing to abandon your friends who play LoL or DOTA for. Do you think it is within your reach? In contrast, there are many genres of indie games where individual games are played for 5-20 hours and then players move on. If you can provide a unique new experience in a genre they like, maybe that player will move on to your next game.

Entering the monogamous gambling market can be dangerous. It’s much safer to court monogamous players who love numerous games. So be wise in the taking the decision about the type of game you will be trying to make.

Keys to indie game success - Sales Perfomance
Keys to indie game success – Sales Performance – Photo by Lukas on

Calculating Sales performances

When analyzing a game’s sales performance (via SteamSpy, for example), don’t simply multiply the number of owners by the game’s price to estimate total sales.

If a game has been on sale for some time, there is always a significant discount somewhere, and it may even be offered in a somekind of bundle that will distort the sales volume. Do your homework, Google and sites like can tell you how much a game has bee discounted and if it was included in bundles.

Take these factors into consideration when creating your offer.

If the market is big and there are a lot of players, you may be able to make a profit even if the hook is weak.


Most game developers hate game promotion!” And most of them will say: “I want to make games, not sell them.” But if game design and advertising were compatible, the difficulty would be greatly reduced.

If you have a game with a hook, you have to think about how to communicate to your players that hook in the trailer or in the digital store text. If the game’s hook is not conveyed well in either of them, then you are basically only relying on people to play the game, experience the hook, and spread the word about the game through their own enthusiasm and delegating that capacity to your players. If they are unable to experience the game’s hook then the game won’t spread and you find yourself facing a failure.

The industry’s biggest hits certainly spread by word of mouth because they are probably coming from very well know indies, or because they a very powerful ( and invisible) marketing campaign, but for the real game developer, it’s unwise to base your promotional strategy on indie hits virality.

The importance of festivals, awards, and the press is often downplayed by developers these days. I disagree. Sure, the awards and reviews themselves aren’t an important factor in sales, but many people need to hear about your game from a variety of sources before they watch a trailer or buy your game. Quotes from praise and reviews are also very useful to use on store pages and trailers. They can give viewers the impression that the game will be well received. If the movie has all those awards and great reviews, I might as well watch the whole trailer. And you can show a great hook while making the viewer feel good.

Game Trailers

Speaking of trailers: After the main game itself, trailers are the most important tool. Don’t put off planning your trailer until the last minute. Trailers are important and should be given enough time and attention. Don’t let the trailer become an afterthought after you’ve struggled to get to launch.

When you release your game on Steam or consoles, your trailer will be the first thing people see. If you do a poor job of communicating how great your game is, it will hurt your sales. If your trailer doesn’t communicate, it doesn’t matter how great your game is. Here are a few things you can do when planning for a good trailer.

  • Start early. When you’re creating a design for your game, think about what kind of trailer it could be. If you can’t think of an effective way to express the hook of that design in a trailer, it may not be the right design.
  • Keep it short We see a lot of indie trailers that are longer than two minutes. They should show the most exciting and thrilling parts of the game as quickly as possible and then stop. Preferably less than a minute. If the excitement wears off, people may stop watching. You don’t have to show them all the features of the game. You don’t have to show them all the features of the game! Show them some great things and then stop to make them want to know more.
  • Take Action People don’t want to see your company logo. They want to learn about the game. If you want to include your logo, IMO you should do it last.
  • It’s wise to show quotes from reviews and praise at the beginning, so viewers know they should pay attention to this trailer. But even then, keep it to a few seconds. The worst trailers are those that bore the viewer and make them stop watching.
  • Also, think carefully about the music. In general, players want to be energized, not put to sleep. (Unless you have a clever plan with slow music).
  • Be creative. As a game developer, you must be a creative person, right? Use that creativity to design a unique pendant with your own hang tag.
  • Hire a professional. Trailers are important to sell your game, so it makes sense to hire someone who can really make your trailer shine.

The value of ideas

They say game ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s true, most ideas are a dime a dozen, but what if you had a design that

  • Has a great hook.
  • Has marketability.
  • Is easy to promote.
  • Is something you’re excited about; and
  • You have the skills and resources to create it.

If you do, you’ll have something that might have some potential. Always remember, the hardest part is not only developing the game but also getting it right. Being a talented game developer is certainly a prerequisite for success, but it’s not enough.

The general rule of thumb, says that 80% of the game development process is set in the 20% of the game production process. Off course, coming up with a design idea that meets all of the criteria is difficult but we you have to be able to make it excellent. Because if not, the other other rule of thumb is that 99% of the time you will fail. In the indie world, the technical barriers have been disappearing and more and more games are being released every day, which makes it no longer a technical competition, but rather a creative competition.

Some general recommendations

Be honest with yourself when evaluating your hooks and comparing them to other games’ designs – is your core concept as appealing as Shovel Knight, Braid, Darkest Dungeon’s, or as brilliant as Hyper Light Drifter? Is there art, music, and atmosphere there?

Games like these are a good benchmark and can help you put your own designs in perspective. Of course, you don’t have to be as good or better than these games, but if your own designs resemble them, it would be wise to return to the starting point.

It is very important to analyze the viability of an idea before starting to develop a game. To some people, this method may seem tactless or lead to a “soulless” game.

But this method doesn’t mean that you will be making games that you don’t want to make. But rather make games that you will like to make and that will be profitable. The key to indie game success is blending your passion on making games with making sure that the games will be attractive and discoverable by players. If you are able to blend both perspectives, then you will be able to be in top 1% of successful game developers and leverage your capacity to make great games for years to come. If not, then you will be probably ending up in the great cementerry of indie game developers.

This is only a view and it doesn’t mean that it is 100% correct, there are many people in the world who create 100% of what they love without worrying about profitability and marketability, and they deserve all the respect.

But, if you want to rule out from the equation the luck factor, then you shouldn’t start developing games until you are sure that the design meets all the above discussed criterias.

Developing a game takes a lot of energy, time and money. If you choose the wrong idea, a lot of these critical resources will be wasted and will get you probably dead as a game developer.It is far less costly to wait another month while you search for new ideas and inspiration that will match your passion and your reason as to make sure that you have the most possibilities to have a great and profitable game..

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