Creating a massive hit is every developer’s hope, but it happens far too rarely to be a goal for the majority of indie developers.
Successful indies, instead, find ways to thrive without ever rising into the top ranks of the app stores. “You probably don't know my games, and I make a pretty good living,” indie developer Folmer Kelly said at a recent PocketGamer conference. Instead of gunning to be the new Rovio, it’s more realistic for devs to aim for the space between runaway success and dismal failure, a niche that lets them do what they love: make games. Asking the right questions can help devs find that place.
What are people looking for?
A niche, no matter how small, grows from the seed of a demand. Developers should ask themselves if their game is actually something people want by checking every public signal available: Google Adwords or Google Trends, for instance, or browsing the top 500 games on App Annie for inspiration or competitive research. The “sweet spot” of a niche can sometimes be found in genres of a game or an app that are only found outside of the top 100 rankings -- never rising high enough to attract the attention of the largest developers.
Are you targeting the right people?
Find out who’s more likely to play -- and more importantly, spend -- in a potential niche by looking at the competitors’ marketing. Hop onto their social media pages and get a feel for their demographic by checking their list of followers, as well as who engages with their content. You can also examine YouTube channels that have covered competitive games -- often, streamers know their audience as well or even better than developers do.
How is it different from other games in its space?
Clones and re-skins aren’t just boring to develop, they’re also poor business, due to the high acquisition costs required just to rise above the other clones in your niche. Formulate a unique value proposition for your game -- whether that’s a new monetization method or a different take on an established mechanic in the genre. Otherwise, you’re just wasting resources.
How much time will the game take to make?
Not all niches are suited to all developers. Genres like RPGs, strategy, or any multiplayer game are known for sinking companies that can’t accurately estimate the time and resources needed to ship the game. “I see so many people betting everything on one game; there’s a huge chance it will fail. Keep it small and with quick turnaround,” said Vladimir Roth of Qwiboo in an interview with Chartboost.
Lastly, do you love it?
A steady revenue stream is usually what people think about when they hear sustainability. But if you don’t think your game is fun, your customers won’t either. Match-3 may look like an overcrowded genre, but if you actually love making them, you may well rise above the average. Similarly, if you have a clear idea of how to make a game in an unknown genre -- your groundbreaking sheep civilization simulator or black comedy soap opera narrative game -- it may well be worth the bet. “A great way to not make money is to make something you don’t believe in. Make your game. Be confident,” says indie developer Rami Ismail of Vlambeer, in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz.
It’s becoming harder and harder to break into the games industry as an independent developer. But by asking yourself the right questions when first starting out, you’ll greatly increase your chances of success.