Indie game Steam tags – what are the trends in 2023?

Indie game Steam tags – what are the trends in 2023?

The number of games being released on Steam each year continues to rise, leading to an increasingly saturated market in which indie game developers must compete. But from simply scanning the market alone, it can be difficult to see not just which genres and styles of games are the most crowded, but also how things are trending, and what sort of market you’re likely to be launching into by the time you’re ready to release your game.

If you’re a commercially-minded game developer, it’s increasingly important to factor market trends into the very design of the game itself – to ensure that you’ll be delivering a product that is desirable and marketable to a large enough target audience.

We decided to run some analysis on different Steam tags to see if we could pick up any trends and predict how different genres and styles of games might trend going forward. For the purpose of this analysis, we wanted to look at not just whether different tags are rising or falling in popularity, but the degree to which this is the case. As such, we decided to analyse growth rates – that is, the amount of change in how many new games are released each year with a given tag. In the below charts, 0 means the same number of relevant games was released one year to the next; a 2 means the number of relevant new releases is growing faster than a 1, and a -2 means the number of relevant new releases is falling faster than a -1.

Remember – 0 doesn’t mean the same number of relevant games is available between one year and the next. It just means that there weren’t more new games released one year than the previous year – i.e. the growth rate was stable.

OK, that out of the way, what did we find?

There was a big old surge of indie-relevant tags in 2020

Likely a combination of factors here. Certainly, a lot of people took the time during lockdown to learn Unity and ship a little game, but the number of games simply tagged ‘indie’ didn’t surge during this timeframe, and the overall number of games released on Steam increased, but not by a noticeably huge amount. My guess is that A) certain types of games were easier or quicker or cheaper to make as a lockdown project, leading to a surge in certain genres and styles, and B) 2020 is around the time we marketers all started talking about the Steam discovery algorithm and the importance of good tagging, so maybe, just maybe, a few developers started listening to us. Whatever the cause, you’ll notice a bump in many of the graphs below.

There was a surge in the use of ‘narrative-related’ tags

Here is why I think there might be something in the idea that people just started getting better at tagging around this time. I can think of no particular reason why – for example – the pandemic would have resulted in ‘realistic’ games being more popular among devs than horror games.

In any case, in the above chart we can see that it was indeed games tagged ‘realistic’ that surged the most out of our sample size, with ‘horror’ experiencing a brief bump but otherwise maintaining a fairly consistent growth rate. Notably, ‘romance’ games were already growing quite rapidly from 2019 and experienced a longer period of increased growth than other narrative genres, although fairly consistently we’re now seeing growth rates settle back down to their pre-pandemic norms and broadly in line with the overall growth rate of new releases on Steam.

A change of the guard in indie game stalwart genres?

Platformers and puzzle games have long been the stalwarts of newcomer indie devs, in part because they lend themselves well to short development cycles and simple art styles. These markets were becoming increasingly saturated even before the pandemic, and it’s pretty clear to see from the chart below that, during the pandemic, these genres surged along with other ‘indie-popular’ genres like point-and-click adventures and roguelikes – especially compared with less indie-specific genres like strategy games and RPGs, which grew at a broadly unchanged rate.

What’s interesting is that this seems to have been changing over the past year or two. Platformers and point-and-click adventures are clearly plateauing in terms of the number of new games being released each year. Meanwhile, we anticipate that the number of new puzzle games being released in 2023 will be smaller than in 2022 – the first time this will have been the case since the launch of the Steam Greenlight service (remember that?) in 2012.

Curiously, the surge in newly released roguelikes – which had already begun before the great-stay-indoors of 2020 – shows no particular signs of slowing any time soon. This presents a quandary for indie developers: do we risk jumping on the bandwagon while the momentum is up, in the knowledge that the market could become rapidly saturated by the time the game is released?

Is 2023 the year in which ‘wholesomeness’ is getting old?

We selected another random subset of Steam tags, which don’t neatly fit into either the ‘narrative’ or ‘gameplay’ genre tags. These span a spread of mechanical and more thematic tags, and the broadness of this approach leads to a predictably messy graph – but there are a couple of things I think are worth noting.

First of all, singleplayer games surging more than multiplayer games during the pandemic seems counterintuitive from a marketing perspective – given that we were all stuck at home and craving human connection. However, this probably speaks to the difficulty indies face in shipping successful multiplayer titles. From technical issues to server costs, to the challenges of reaching a large enough audience to generate community momentum, perhaps it simply remains safer for most indies to ship solo experiences.

Despite being quite heavily associated with the indie game scene, the ‘hard-as-nails’ games don’t seem to be growing that much, and haven’t been during our entire data set – for the past five or six years, roughly the same number of ‘difficult’ games has been released each and every year.

This can’t, however, be said for ‘wholesome games’, which saw a demonstrably huge surge in popularity from the late twenty-teens. I’d argue that wholesome gaming has become something of a movement in and of itself – rejecting the hyper-masculine past of the games sector, and prioritising laid-back fun over violence and challenge. 2022 was a record year not only for the number of wholesome game releases, but also the growth of that number – with the number of new ‘wholesome’ games released in 2022 being more than double that of the previous year. But what’s this we see in 2023? So far, surprisingly few games with this tag have been released – and extrapolated outwards, it may be that we see fewer wholesome titles in 2023 than in 2022.

Okay… so what does all this mean for my indie game?

In isolation, perhaps not much. What the above data shows us is how the trends of different genres and styles are changing on Steam over time.

But in combination with other data, it can tell us something about how the market might change and about the sorts of commercial opportunities you may have.

For example, a genre whose release growth rate is spiking might suggest an especially crowded space ahead, if the size of the relevant target audience isn’t growing at the same rate.

Conversely, a genre that is falling in popularity among developers, but maintaining its popularity among its target audience, may present new opportunities in the future as more people are choosing from a smaller pool of new releases.

As with all of marketing, data can help us to understand both the minutiae and the bigger picture – but you should always be data-led rather than data-driven. Use of this sort of data can help to draw our attention to opportunities or risks that we wouldn’t otherwise have noticed, but it’s always a good idea to give it a rational sense-check before acting on it.

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