I don’t have to tell you that competition on Steam is stiff. It is hard to differentiate yourself with so many other games coming out every year. Also Steam is a very winner-take-all marketplace where there is one clear winner in the genre and a whole bunch of also-rans.
Now the common advice in this situation is to “find your hook.” But that is very hard to figure out. But here is one trick that could work if the conditions are right…it isn’t for everyone… but hear me out…
One weird trick: Identify the one thing that the #1 game in your genre does that is annoying (or actually bad) and then talk about how your game doesn’t do that or improves upon that problem.
This marketing tactic is called “The Law Of The Opposite” as described in the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing.
Now it is hard to prove that you are better than the market leader, so instead you make it extremely clear how you are different and you position yourself to customers as the #1 alternative. As the authors describe it, you “find the strength of the leader and present customers with the opposite.”
Here is an example from a completely different industry: VODKA! In the US, the top brands of vodka are, ironically, all brewed in the United States. Seriously, Smirnoff Vodka has been made in the US since the 1930s, Wolfschmidt Vodka is made in Indiana. When the makers of Russia-based Stolichnaya Vodka realized this, they leaned hard into a marketing campaign that said “We are the only vodka made in Russia.” Here is an old school advertisement:
Similarly (also beverages for some reason) 7UP was a brand of soda that didn’t want to compete against Coke and Pepsi. 7UP definitely couldn’t beat Coke, and they didn’t want to engage in a bitter stalemate with Pepsi to be #2. So instead of fighting, they identified the problems with both Pepsi and Coke (and really all dark sodas) and went the opposite direction. They were the Uncola. Just look at the ad copy and you can see how they point out the problems with the leading brands: “Never too sweet” “Fresh” “Clean.”
The console wars
Any time there is a 3-way fight among Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, or Sega you always see the “law of the opposite” take place.
When PlayStation 1 released in 1994 they were battling incumbents like the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Sony smartly saw that Nintendo and Sega were spending tremendous resources fighting over the same age 6- age 14 demographic. So Sony did the opposite. The PlayStation was positioned as the console for the adults who grew out of gaming. Their target market was people age 19 – age 35. They were for dorm rooms and post-college apartments.
In a much later console generation, Microsoft’s XBOX 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 were fighting it out for dominance among graphics and hard core gamers. Nintendo responded to this by using the “law of the opposite” too when they released the Wii. Their strategy was to say “we don’t care about hard core gaming and cutting age graphics, we are the casual console that is approachable to everyone else.”
The advertisements were always families playing together. Nintendo’s Reggie Fils-Aimé got a lot of praise for his concept of the “blue ocean” Nintendo Wii strategy, but really he was just using the already well-established “law of the opposite.”
Examples on Steam
I was thinking about this “Law of the Opposites” when I saw this section of the Dysmantle Steam page about this game section:
Specifically note the copy of “You will never die of hunger” and “permanent upgrades.”
Now Dysmantle is a top-down Survival game. The biggest game (and inventor) of the sub-genre is Don’t Starve. These are not so subtle digs (or sub-tweets) at the leader.
Here is what is going on here. The developers of Dysmantle are very aware of the games in the Survival Sim genre and have specifically honed in on one tired trope (or anchor) of the genre: The frustrating starving mechanic where you lose all your progress. To differentiate themselves they said, “We are the survival game for people who are tired of this dumb starving mechanic.” It is a very smart tactic. Rather than fighting with Don’t Starve, they are turning around and going in the opposite direction to attract fans who are tired of survival games.
How to replicate this
So let’s say you are making a game in a very overcrowded genre. First, figure out what the potential problem with the leader and other games are. First, play a lot of the top games. Second, look at the reviews for all of them. Is there some game mechanic that fans seem to be tired of?
- Maybe they say they are tired of Metroidvanias and backtracking.
- Maybe it is city builders that start out slow
- Maybe it is crafting games with cumbersome inventory UI.
- Maybe it is RPGs with tiresome grinding.
Whatever that consistently problematic thing is, advertise that your game explicitly doesn’t do that.
You short description could be something like “The metroidvania for people who hate backtracking.”
Of course you have to have a good solution to this problem that is still fun and you have to make sure that your “fix” is your game’s unique selling proposition.
The reason it is so powerful is first you appeal to fans of the genre as seeming to truly understand a problem they have. You are the studio that is listening to the true fans.
You also present yourself as the next evolution in the genre. Every other game that releases that still has that tiresome game mechanic will feel dated except for yours.
Don’t be a jerk
There is a real danger in using this tactic that you come off as an asshole who is insulting the other developers. Don’t do that. This industry is so small that you will probably run into or have to work with those other studios at some point. Similarly, you are not in competition with them directly (read my explanation why in my post on economies of agglomeration). Personally, I think Dysmantle’s calling out of ”Never Starve” is a bit too on the nose.
Directly attacking the competition (especially if they are a fellow small indie) can come off as petty not unlike those dumb console wars of the 90s (even though I still think Sega sucks.)
So if you do plan to take an “opposite” approach, focus on the problems with mechanics you are improving upon, and not on the problems with the games that implement those mechanics.
Spend most of your effort on addressing player pain points and making them feel heard. Describe how players feel when are dealing with that mechanic. For example:
“You wander about, lost again in a dungeon where every hallway looks the same. You are constantly checking your mini map instead of actually running and exploring. When in our new Metroidvania, you will never have to backtrack because of our new easy-nav system. This is the best Metroidvania for players who are tired of playing Metroidvanias.”
Side note: that link to the book up above uses an affiliate link. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases