If the last year has taught the games industry anything, it’s that you never know what could be the Next Big Thing. Who could have ever anticipated that a 2-year-old obscure indie game about betrayal aboard a spaceship, namely Among Us, or a 100 person battle royale that sees contestants flail through escalating chaos called Fall Guys, would go on to sell millions of copies and become some of the top streamed games on Twitch?
Right now, as you’re reading this I’m sure the latest surprise hit or hottest new genre is dominating the conversation in the industry and taking over the Steam charts.
For indie developers, and, in fact, all developers, you can’t help but look at these breakout successes as great opportunities. What better indication is there of what game you should design next than millions of players sinking hours of their time into [insert hit genre here!]?
As the battle royale trend hopefully taught the industry though, too much of a good thing is indeed bad; especially for those looking to capitalise on the rapidly shifting trends of video games. So how should you take advantage of trends as an indie developer, and is there ever a right time to jump on the hype train of a genre trend?
Fads Fade Fast
There’s a reason a lot of the larger developers within the games industry stick to the tried and tested successes of proven genres. Hence why Activision Blizzard releases a new Call of Duty every year and EA another FIFA. First Person Shooters and sports games are long-established and popular genres. In fact, it’s rare to see a big publisher take a risk on something new, that’s typically the realm of indie developers and modders.
This was never more evident than with the battle royale trend. Many big developers only entered the fray once games like Player Unknown Battlegrounds and previous mods had forged the way. A lot of the development community tried to jump on this trend after the fact and found out the hard way that doesn’t work despite what some might say.
I’m sure Cliff Bleszinski changed his attitude on this following the failure of Radical Heights, but there are many more examples of attempts to ‘cash in’ on a craze. Indie developers have to be much savvier than this as they don’t have the marketing budgets or huge resources available to the other elements of the industry.
Before it was cool
There’s a key distinction to be made between jumping on a fad or attempting to cash in on a genre trend and preemptively analysing genre popularity to design games intended to fill audience niches.
Indie publisher No More Robots knew this when they signed downhill mountain biking game, Descenders. They clearly identified a niche in the market that wasn’t being fulfilled. They didn’t jump on a fad, they found a hole in what players wanted and filled it. In fact, so successfully that other similar titles have now released trying to capitalise on the market Descenders identified.
Proactive Not Reactive
This really is the key when it comes to navigating genre trends. Video games move too fast to just consider what is popular now and react to it. There was battle royale games coming out 2 years after the success of Player Unknown Battlegrounds. The fad is already either won by a dominant force *cough* Fortnite *cough* by that time, or worse, over altogether.
Development cycles are too lengthy to be reactive to genre trends, at least for PC and consoles. You might have a better chance on mobile. Smart developers wouldn’t risk that though, they’d analyse what players want and work towards meeting that need.
Valheim is a good example of this, they took a highly popular genre on PC, tweaked it based on what they saw players wanted and found huge success on Steam.
The numbers Mason! What do they mean?
Of course, this level of predictive analysis is no easy process, but a great place to start is Steam data and researching genre tags to look at what is consistently getting engagement before it becomes a trend.
On top of that, spend time where your intended audience does, whether that be on social media, forums or Discord servers and consider what players would like to see in the future. Scour over community feedback on storefronts and you’ll begin to see what it may be that players want.
That’s at least one approach to game development. You could also just make the game you want and hope that passion resonates with players. Either way, proactive research is the place to start when considering genre trends – data will always allow you to make more informed decisions, whether your intention is to capitalise on an underserved niche or make the game you’ve always dreamed of.