I think there is a real hole in the Steam Marketplace for a different type of game that I found with Vampire Survivors. For years games have been moving up in quality and value. In this 2021 report more games are releasing in the $5 to $20 range. In fact in the last 5 years there has never been as high a percentage of games costing $10 – $40 as in 2021.
With that movement upwards it has created an opportunity for very fun and addicting but very low cost bargain games.
In this article I want to argue that dipping your toe in (but not fully committing to) the super-discounted and fast-action genre of games could be worth tens of thousands of dollars or even millions.
The case study
Back in December 17, 2021 a little game was released named Vampire Survivor. The Steam “coming soon” page was up for just over 2 weeks (the minimum requirement by Valve). When it launched it probably had about 90 wishlists..
Vampire Survivors didn’t even reach 10 reviews within the first month.
Then 3 weeks after January 6th SplatterCatGaming found it
And then SplatterCats’s friend Northernlion found it
And then he played it on his stream multiple times. And the follower chart did this.
The game is now sitting at 15,587 reviews. If we go off a 30X Boxleiter number, and note that the game hasn’t gone on sale since it got noticed by streamers, we can estimate that it has earned $1.5 Million in just over 1 month.
The game uses asset store pixel art from multiple developers. It seems to violate every bit of advice about games marketing on Steam. Let’s take a look at what’s going on here.
The emergence of a sub-genre
At the start of Northern Lion’s first play of Vampire Survivors he said “Its also kinda similar to SNKRX.” SNKRX is a similar wave-based top down, game with simple visuals that costs less than $5.
There is also Nickervision / Adamvision Games which had a pretty good run earning the developer a comfortable (but not life changing) income by selling quick addicting games for less than $5. Nickervisions success was written about here. Here is one Nickervision’s best selling games: Bit Blaster XL
There are some basic similarities behind all of these games:
- Simplistic arcade-style core gameplay loop (run and shoot)
- Doesn’t require much tutorialization
- No story
- VERY addicting gameplay
- A modernized meta-progression mechanism steeped in rogue-lite sensibility such as runs, upgrades, randomness, randomized buffs, high difficulty, permadeath.
- Simplistic 2D pixelart graphics
- CHEAP price (never more than $5)
- Top notch quality and gamefeel (will talk about this in a minute)
- Lots of achievements
I don’t think there is a title for games in this genre yet. But they are kind of like mobile Hyper Casual games. In this sub genre there are super simplistic games that are churned out, burn hot, and then go out of fashion. Read more about hyper-casual here.
Hyper Casual type games don’t do well on Steam because they are typically 1 button click or simple swipe inputs. The Steam audience likes more hardcore games. The hyper comes from the fact that they are SOOOOO simplified and don’t require tutorialization. They are casual because you can just idly play them while in line at the grocery store or binge watching Netflix shows. They are background noise mind occupiers.
So if on Steam “casual” is a bad word maybe we change that. What about Hyper Hardcore Arcade. Or maybe Hyper Arcade? Or maybe Hyper Hardcore. I don’t like any of these but I don’t have time to come up with a better term so let’s just call them Hyper Hardcore.
I call the Steam variation of this genre Hyper Hardcore because they have the similar stripped down tutorialization and simplified gameplay but are very exciting. They require complete concentration and skill. On the surface they have simple inputs but after each round they have a deep meta progression full of upgrades and perma-buffs. So it is simple but at the same time deep. Each round might take 1 min to 15 minutes but the overall game is played for hours as players are improving their external skills and unlocking achievements and purchasing perma-buffs.
For example Vampire Survivor has tons of achievements and unlockables. See this Collection menu:
There is also this meta-progression where you can update all these attributes. To get them all would take HOURS of gameplay.
Hyper Hardcore are DEEP games.
Steam LOVES deep games.
Why this works
Now you might be saying “Chris!?! I thought you said small rapid release games don’t work!” “Pixelart just doesn’t sell!” Here is my blog post about how small rapid-release games don’t sell.
That article is still correct and I still think Hyper Hardcore games can sell. You cannot make quick games that you churn out once a month and then move on to the next. You can’t “flood the zone” with a ton of quick turnaround games. Rapid-release games are usually pretty simplistic because they were churned out in 1 month. Those rapid-release games usually lack deeper meta-progression, deeper external skill and strategy.
Vampire Survivors is not a game that was just churned out in a month. The first build was posted on itch.io on March 31st, 2021 which is 9 months before the Steam release.
I know the Vampire Survivors pixel art looks cheap and would make you think it is low quality – but this is a really well crafted game. There are no glaring game stopping bugs, there is an attention to detail in the game design, there are no quality of life issues that plague many first games.
The game design and pacing is top notch. This is a seriously well crafted game. Plus the developer is updating the game frequently. I mean the guy patched it on December 24th despite it having fewer than 10 reviews at the time! He has also patched the game at least once a week since the launch. This is a developer that cares about his game.
When I was at GDC 2019 I actually met with the solo developer behind Adamvision / Nickervision games who makes these Hyper Hardcore games and I asked him about why he thinks his games do so well. He said that many people try his strategy and make some simple games that are really cheap in price and cheap in production quality. They are quick trash games and the developers don’t continue to patch them. They don’t engage with their community. They just churn them out and because they think the cheap price means the audience has low expectations.
That isn’t the case at all. The buyers of Hyper Hardcore care A LOT about quality. They expect it.
I think a perfect corollary to this is Ryanair, the discount airline in Europe. On Ryanair, the base air fare rate to fly anywhere in Europe is SUPER cheap. But the amenities on Ryanair are super bare. Look at the following picture, you see all those pictures on the seat back? They save money by not having printed safety cards and they just paint them on the back of the seat. There are ads on the back of the seat pull out tray. They nickel and dime you for tiny things like carrying additional luggage. It is like riding a city bus that flies.
Now you might be thinking that you would never fly Ryanair because if they are cheaping out on service they must be cheaping out on Safety too. BUT THEY DONT!
Ryanair actually has the best safety record of any airline EVER. There has never been a single fatality on any Ryanair flight.
Oh so they must be late all the time then? NOPE! They are actually the most punctual airline in Europe. See this:
Basically Ryanair has figured out that the only thing people really, truly, care about is getting from one spot to the next safely and cheaply. People complain about the lack of amenities but in reality, passengers actually care more about the price. That is why Ryanair focuses EVERYTHING they have on those things: getting people to where they need to go safely, cheaply, and on time. To hell with everything else.
What does this have to do with these Hyper Hardcore games?
Whether the developers realize this or not when they are making these games, Steam shoppers just want cheap games that are really deep and ridiculously fun. Beautiful graphics be damned! Story and character be damned! Gameplay is king! Just like an airline can’t scrimp on safety, these games cannot scrimp on gameplay, gamefeel, and quality. Hyper Hardcore games cannot be janky, cannot be buggy, cannot have bad framerate. They cannot be shallow. They are the purest of video games.
But what about the cheap price?
So if you are like me and you did the math. You saw
And you thought “what if the developer just charged $10 like everyone else is supposed to!”
But here is the thing. I don’t think this game would have worked at $10. This game has to be $3. The developer would not have sold as many copies in such a short period of time.
I know a lot of developers who have released high-quality games in the $10 – $20 price range and when they get streamed by some top tier influencers, they don’t actually sell that many copies. Sure they earn a bunch of wishlists but those shoppers are waiting for that game to go on sale. The shoppers wait, and wait and then one day they get the “on sale” alert and they ask “why did I wishlist this game again?” and delete it.
However, if you watch the Northernlion and Splattercat streams you can hear it in their voice:
“This game is $3! Go get it”Streamers who are excited
and everyone watching was like “aw hell why not?”
They wanted to be part of the excitement. Why wait? The game is now an impulse buy. The same thing happened with Among Us. Cheap price. Everyone is having fun. Just buy it. Don’t wait on it.
The discount price strategy
In the US we have a mid-market store called Target. At the very front of every store is a little section full of kitschy but cute decorative items and silly nonbranded toys that you find in party gift bags. Everything is about $1. It’s crazy busy there and the shoppers are frantic because they know everything they pick up will be cheap.
Because of this, those shoppers don’t shop carefully. They don’t evaluate the quality, they don’t have to run a cost benefit analysis, they don’t look it up on Amazon to see if they can get it cheaper there. It is an impulse buy. They just say “looks cute, it’s going in the cart!”
These Hyper Hardcore games are like the trinkets at Target. You see a game that looks fun, streamers are playing it, and costs $3. Why wishlist? let’s just buy it!
A game that looks like Vampire Survivors looks like a $3 game. Now you might say, “but why not make the graphics just a bit better and then charge $10?”
And this is the trap.
To get to a $10 game you need to add voice acting, the menus need to look better and have cool transitions, the animations have more frames of animation, you probably need to add cut scenes, and dialog, and branching narratives. Everything has to get better. When it was a $3 game your focus was on “fun” but now that you are trying to reach the $10 price point your attention gets side tracked and you spend just as much time thinking about “surface level” stuff like how to get lip syncing working on your 3D model. Scope creep kicks in and your fun game is now a multi-year multimillion dollar project.
Your price is your marketing
Let me show you graphically what I mean by this. Now this section is not from hard core data that I have. This is just my hypothesis which is why I just drew this in MS Paint.
When you set the price for your game and think about how much you can earn from Streamers you might assume it is a nice linear relationship like this. Every dollar you increase the price of your game means you earn more dollars from Streamers.
But I don’t think this is actually happening. I actually think selling a $10 game via Streamers is harder. If you have a $10-$15 game you are like a discount version of a $30 game. There isn’t that much “hype” around your game. Also this might be your first game you have released commercially so you and your company doesn’t have as much prestige. So when they stream your $10 game the streamer is like “ya this is alright, definitely keep an eye on this one, maybe it will go on sale.” They aren’t thrilled about it. You can feel it. But then when a $3 game comes around and the streamer is like “JUST BUY THIS ITS $3!!! IT IS SO FUN! WHO CARES!”
Granted a $3 game has to sell a TON more copies than a $30 game, but I bet more than 4x as many people buy the $3 game than the $10 game which makes a big difference.
So again in my nonscientific graph here based on no hard core data, my hypothesis is you can actually make more money from Streamers when your game is cheaper. There is this kind of “uncanny valley” when your game is not a prestigious $30 – $40 game and not an impulse buy at $3. At the $10-$25 level gamers start wishlisting, and thinking about your game instead of instinctually buying it.
It lacks “hype.”
So my hypothetical “mid tier indie game” valley revenue chart looks like this.
A popular streamer playing your game your $3 can earn you more money faster than the same streamer playing your $15 game.
Note that this is just my hand waving hypothesis. I have no data on this. That is why I drew it in MS PAINT.
Basic point here is it just feels like it’s easier to sell a game when a streamer plays it when it is cheap.
A lack of good sub $5 games
There is actually a gap in the $5 Hyper Hardcore market. There aren’t that many games that do this. Remember there are some VERY important aspects to being a Hyper Hardcore game:
Hyper Hardcore requirements:
- Cheap price (sub $5)
- REALLY good game feel
- REALLY fun gameplay
- REALLY deep gameplay
- Well supported by the developer
- Graphics can be simple, don’t matter as much
- No story, no dialog, no cutscenes
I don’t think many games on Steam meet all these requirements.
You might say what about sokpop collective? They are cheap, look nice?
Personally I think those games are SOOO cool looking. They are so stylistic. I actually played a bit of Simland and thought it was cool mix of god games and card games. However, I think those games are missing the key things that are required for Hyper Hardcore.
For purposes of this argument I am going to give a grade to them on these aspects that relate to Hyper Hardcore. NOTE I don’t think they are trying to make Hyper Hardcore games and this is not a value judgement on the sokpop games. I am just evaluating them relative to Hyper Hardcore genre.
- Cheap price (sub $5) – Grade A+: they are the right price.
- REALLY good quality in game feel – Grade D: Sokpop is focusing on making games quickly and they rarely patch them. Some of their games have game crashing bugs or gameplay rules that prevent progression and the team moves on to the next game without fixing them. See the reviews I included below that say “not tested.” You will also see reviews that say “[need to] smooth down the rough edges.”
- REALLY fun gameplay – Grade C: Some of the games are neat and clever but they don’t have that arcade sensibility where you just want to play 1 more round. sokpop games usually leave you with a sense of “oh that was a clever neat idea” but not “I NEED TO PLAY THIS AGAIN!”
- REALLY deep gameplay – Grade D: Many of the sokpop games lack depth because they are made in a month or two. You can actually see that in the player reviews I linked below. Many players say “simplistic” “too limited” “did not keep my attention for long”
- Well supported by the developer – Grade F – I don’t think these games are patched after initial launch.
- Graphics can be simple, dont matter as much – Grade A+ I actually think the Sokpop games are beautiful. They have a great aesthetic sensibility.
Now, I handed out a bunch of D, C, and an F. I am so sorry. I don’t think sokpop sucks. I think they are super interesting developers. But the reason they have not had a major explosive hit like Vampire Survivors despite releasing dozens of interesting games is because they just aren’t making stuff that appeal to fans of Hyper Hardcore games. NOT that is their goal. I want to be clear that I don’t think Sokpop is trying that. They seem to be trying to make some really unique gameplay experiences and interesting Art. They are innovating in what games mean and how they are made. They are making games that allow them to keep making what fuels their passion. So they get straight As for that and they should keep on that if they want.
But if you are looking at this Hyper Hardcore genre and only looking at the price and saying “Ya but sokpop is making sub $5 games and this didn’t happen to them.” Realize that the price isn’t the only reason why a game takes off.
How to replicate this
Let’s go back to the retail analogy and the dollar section at Target. Low price, discount retail works by selling low margin products at high volume. To be profitable in this space basically you must sell a ton to make up the difference. It is a brutal strategy. I think that is why Ryanair is so safe and so on-time. They have to run absolutely perfect operations in order to ensure they are making just enough profit on each airplane seat they sell. If they are NOT efficient, at their volume, they will lose money.
To reach volume on Steam at $3 you will have to go viral because of a Streamer. The Steam algorithm prioritizes games that earn a lot and so for a $3 game you have to sell a TON of copies.
I don’t think anyone should base a whole company based on Hyper Hardcore games. “Going Viral” is an incredibly risky all-or-nothing strategy. It is risky within the already risky video games industry.
But I could see trying to make a Hyper Hardcore games after you recently released a bigger $10-$30 game as a sort of mental break. Here is how I would do it assuming you have an already released game:
Bucket 3 months to do this. Here are the basics.
Month 1 and 2:
- Steam page goes up
- Take a super simple arcade concept (think back to the 80s or flash games era). It must be easy to understand within the first 5 seconds of play.
- Remember bulletproof gameplay and game feel is the most important thing. Focus EVERYTHING on fun. Framerate must be high, controls must be tight. No jank. Everything else like cutscenes, cool looking menus, complex graphical effects, voice acting must be removed.
- Take the progression system and upgrade menus from your $30+ game and bolt them onto this arcade game.
- Add deep progression and skill advancement.
- Tweak the numbers so that progression and gameplay increase at an exponential rate to increase excitement.
- Implement all the core Steam features such as remappable controls, achievements, multiple screen resolutions. For a running list of these things check out this article I wrote on what Steam features you need to add to avoid bad reviews
- Your target should be that it takes players 5-10 hours to unlock all characters / weapons / levels / achievements / upgrades.
- Time your development to appear in 1 Steam Next Fest before launch. For a demo, just take your full game and add a 5 minute timer which will stop the game and says “Demo over, wishlist the full game which will be launching soon.”
- Pull the demo from your store page after the festival is over.
- Release the game and reach out to as many streamers as you can. Post on Reddit. Post on Tiktok.
- Support the game intensely for 1 month. Do 1 patch per week. Listen to player feedback. Hard core fans really matter. Keep them happy.
- Take stock!
- Did it hit? Are the numbers improving? Are there any streamers who are playing it multiple times on Stream? If no, move on to your next game.
- If it does hit, keep supporting it and keep marketing it.
But the hardest part of making a Hyper Hardcore game is the discipline. You MUST keep scope in check. You must constantly remind yourself that you are making a $3 game. I can totally understand if a studio in the middle of developing a $3 hyper hardcore game says “this is feeling really good, what if we just spent 1 more month doing a graphics pass and bolt on a story and charge $10 for this instead?”
You just stepped out of Hyper Hardcore and landed in the “I will wishlist and buy it on sale valley.”
Also, don’t think you can take a jam game and just put it out there for $3. You really have to polish the game to make it feel good. You also have to think about the late game metaprogression. Players want deep gameplay that they can play for hours.
This is why it is so difficult to find these type of games on Steam. It is so tempting to add just a bit more and sell it at a higher price.
It has to meet all those core requirements of a Hyper Hardcore otherwise this doesn’t work.
A great way to learn game design and production
If you can stay disciplined, I think trying to make Hyper Hardcore games is an excellent way to learn how to make games. I find a lot of indies who came from AAA or are great in visuals will make these beautiful games but they get poor reviews at launch when the gameplay isn’t as good as how it looks. Learning how to make fun gameplay with great gamefeel is INCREDIBLY hard. But with Hyper Hardcore there is no hiding behind good graphics. Your gameplay takes center stage and you learn real fast how to do it right.
It is actually very similar to the Flash games scene where fast, interesting gameplay was the determining factor.
Kris Antoni of Toge games wrote up a great blog post about how making lots of quick, gameplay-first titles on the flash portals helped them build a bigger studio that could branch out into additional genres. A key takeaway is that you keep rolling the games forward so each game becomes more complex. See the section titled Lesson 6: Turn Your Milestones Into Steppingstones.
Streamers are hungry for these types of games
There was this key moment at the end of Splattercat’s first video on Vampire Survivors where he basically admitted that he is tired of $10-$30 Steam games.
“This is a cool title that surprised me, I don’t get surprised a ton anymore, you churn through a lot of games every year but the magic gets old quick…. But at the end of the day [Vampire Survivors] corners the point of a video game which is to be fun and to provide escapism…”Splattercat
I heard what Splattercat said and it made me think that there really is a hole in the market for cheap but fast-paced arcade-games on Steam.
In the 80s and 90s it was coin-op arcade games. In the 2000s it was flash games. There was a brief period in the 2010s there were $1-$3 games before it became dominated by F2P and hyper casual games. There just isn’t a place to find cheap really quick dose adrenaline-inducing games anymore.
I still think the safest bet in this industry is to make deep games in the $15-$40 price range within popular genres (for more info on those popular indie game genres see this post). However, it can be good for your studio’s portfolio to occasionally produce arcade-style games like Vampire Survivors. If you have a gap in your release schedule or you have some people on your team in-between projects, try to make a Hyper Hardcore game. But please, don’t churn out a cheap, low quality game. It has to be simple yet deep and high quality.
Hyper Hardcore games to try
Again, it is really hard to find real examples in this genre because they are hard to make. Here are games that I think fall into this category:
- Terry Cavanagh Super Hexagaon (no internal meta progression, but 100% external progression)
- Ding Dong XL
- Bit Blaster XL
- Vampire Survivors
- Post Void
- Open Hexagon (A +1 of Super Hexagon which apparently Terry Cavanagh is ok with)
- Super Crate Box (yaya this is free and old but if they released today and added roguelite meta progression they could totally do it.)
Not Quite Hyper Hardcore but worth mentioning
- Islanders ($5 cost, very high production value, just slower pace so technically not Hyper Hardcore)
- Binding of Isaac – Yes this game got remade for a lot more than $5 but this is the original from a long time ago when the market was different. Also this game dips into more of the longer play style instead of the Score attack style of Hyper Hardcore.
- Among Us – This is a multiplayer game which is VERY hard to do. Don’t try to make a multiplayer game. But I think the Sub $5 price was why it took off back in 2020. If it was a $10 the network effects of having a bunch of people playing it would not have worked.