In today’s blog I want to show you how a few indies found an interesting way to get past the typical “first game funk” and actually launch a game quickly and make some real, sustainable money from it. 

I want to introduce you to the “fast follow.” 

Sometimes a game becomes a viral hit. It is a magical thing, it is a rare thing, and amazing to watch. A fast follow is a quickly-produced follow-up game made by a competitor to try and capture the ambient success of that viral hit game. A fast-follow is not a clone, but shares about 70% of the same DNA of that hit game.

A fast follow game rarely earns more than the original (the rare example is Fortnite). This primarily has to do with market forces like the first mover advantage. However, just because a fast-follow game does not earn as much as the original, it does not mean that it is a failure. In today’s blog I want to show you how a few developers have earned a significant income by creating fast-follows. 

Examples of fast follow success

In the past few years a number of super short, graphically simple games priced around $3 have become incredibly popular with streamers and Steam shoppers. This marketplace is underserved and ripe for innovation. Yes, this is a technique that might be considered uncouth but I want to make you at least consider it as a viable option as a gateway into becoming a sustainable developer. 

20 MInutes Till Dawn

Steam link: 20 Minutes Till Dawn

Price: $2.99

Revenue: $500,000 in its first week (pre steam cut)

Last week I wrote about the success and marketing behind 20 Minutes Till Dawn. The TL;DR is that the developer spent years working on a big, complex RPG Tactics game but was feeling burnt out. So they took a break from it and spent 2 months making a variation of Vampire Survivors called 20 Minutes Till Dawn. It went on to make over $500,000 in 1 week.

Nomad Survival

Steam Link: Nomad Survival

Price: $2.99

Revenue: $99,699 (pre steam cut)

One look at the title and the first screenshot and it is obvious the inspiration behind this game. Nomad Survival is from the developer The Fox Knocks (aka Fox) and it is his first game. It was released after a 4 month development period and has made almost $100,000 gross in two months. Here is a screenshot his game’s revenue:

I asked Fox what his experience was post launch

“I started working on NS [Nomad Survival] when VS [Vampire Survivors] had less than 1k reviews and thought it’d be fun to work on. Once I finished it after my 4 month dev cycle, I was accused of riding VS’s hype, even though when I started working on Nomad Survival, VS didn’t have huge hype.”

“Because the dev time of making these ideas a reality is mere days or a couple weeks and not months, it’s hard to feel depressed about developing.”

“I’m hoping I’ll have a bit of an edge by having a following through Nomad Survival. In fact, I’d argue that’s a big reason for any aspiring game dev to get into the fad. It’ll do nothing but help you when it comes time to make a game you may be more aligned with.

I interact with my community a lot on the Steam Discussion boards, Discord, and I stop by frequently when people are streaming it on Twitch, I leave comments on many people who have made YouTube videos. I’m hoping I can build trust so that I’m at an advantage on the 2nd go around.”

The developer behind Nomad Survival learned a lot about marketing and game dev from this first title and it earned him a pretty good income for 4 months of work. The money and the experience will help him make his second game. 

Golfing Over It with Alva Majo

Steam Link: Game Golfing Over it with Alva Majo
Price: $4.99

Revenue: $391,000 (pre steam cut)

Golfing Over It Was made by youtuber Alva Majo. It is clearly a satire of the hit game Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy but instead of a guy with a hammer climbing a mountain, you are golfing.

Alva Majo shared his sales numbers with me:

Alva Majo did a number of very interesting youtube videos on the creation and marketing of the game. They are in Spanish but you can use google auto-captioning for real time translation.

Why you shouldn’t dismiss “fast follows” 

Everyone spends waaay too long on their first game. It isn’t good. People get burnt out. They make dumb decisions because it is their first game and because they invested so much time and money into it that every decision has a much bigger and riskier impact. When developers spend years developing a game, the amount of money they must earn to break even is so much greater than what is possible for a first release. It is basically impossible. It rarely happens.

It is so rare that most developers must fold up their studio after their first game. Look at this graph. It shows that 75% of game companies release 1 and only 1 game.

Indies put so much pressure on their first game that the expectations far outstrip any possible outcome. It is not sustainable. 

But there is an alternative.

Why fast follows make sense

Your first game is incredibly hard to make. You have low skills in almost every area required to make a game. You probably don’t have much of a support community of developers you know who have been in your situation. You also don’t have any industry connections. 

It is breathtaking how little a game can earn on Steam. You can spend years on something and have it earn less than $1000 lifetime. I have seen games released by very competent publishers make less (and cost more) than these fast follow games. There is a reason why only 25% of developers go on to make a second game. 

I want you to make and release more than 1 game. I want you to have a career doing what you love full time. This “fast follow” method seems to be a promising way to reduce the huge amount of risk in the system. 

Why? Here are some reasons

The core game loop has been proven to be fun – If you are building off a proven hit, you know that people find the foundation of the game fun. You don’t have to go through endless playtests and scramble through the fog of game design hoping that what you are working on will find an audience.  

The game is scoped for you – Scope creep isn’t a thing if you are improving on a hit because you know what the audience expects. You know how many levels, how many upgrades etc are expected. 

The marketing is easier – If you go watch the youtubers play Nomad Survival or 20 Minutes Till Dawn you can hear them say stuff like “this game is like Vampire Survivors so I am really excited to check it out.” The influencers know what to expect. They don’t have to listen to your elevator pitch. They can just look at a screenshot and say “oh it is like that thing I like but more of it.”

The development time is short – Even though a fast follow is less risky this is no guarantee that you will succeed. But, because development times are shorter, the “failure” isn’t as devastating. You can quickly move on to the next game.    

There is motivation to finish – To succeed at fast follow you have to be….well…fast. The hype around a fad genre can fade so there is a true external motivation to push your game out.     

There is less emotional investment – Part of the reason I think indies spend WAAAAAY too long making their first game is because this is THEIR FIRST GAME. It is usually their DREAM GAME that they always wanted to make. To release that game is to put their dreams and themselves up to criticism from an uncaring mass of anonymous haters. It is more emotionally comfortable to continue polishing for 1 more month than it is to release that passion project. However, a “fast follow” is more transactional. It is not necessarily your “dream game” but rather a whim or a lark. If it fails, who cares, you weren’t that invested in it anyway.

My rules of an ethical fast follow

I know it sounds like a fine line between “fast follow” and a “clone” or a “rip-off.” So here are some rules I would follow:

Rule 1) Do not deceive people into thinking they are buying the original game. Do not call your game “Vimpire Survivors” or “Vampire Surviving.” 

Rule 2) Do not steal assets such art or code from the original game. Obviously. But you are not even trying to mimic their style. The original Vampire Survivors used asset store art. I even consider it unethical to legally buy the same art for your fast follow. 

Rule 3) You must have a considered and thoughtful reason why you are improving upon the original. When making 20 Minutes Till Dawn, the creator said  “I honestly disliked the Vampire Survivors auto-shoot gameplay, so the decision to make it more active was mostly because of my personal preference. My philosophy designing this is that I think there is an audience that wants a game that has depth in mechanics but with short, casual play sessions.” I think it is much more ethical if you are trying to push the genre forward or expanding its audience or improving its graphics.

Rule 4) You must mention the original inspiration game somewhere on your Steam page. It can be as simple as “A reinterpretation of the game Vampire Survivors that everyone is so excited for”  or “It is Vampire Survivors meets a cooking game”

Rule 5) You must support your game and interact with your community to a reasonable degree. A fast follow isn’t a shell game that barely runs to grab a bunch of money and leave the customers in a lurch. Take pride in your craft and improve your game as requested by your customers. Support them. 

Rule 6) Money is not the sole motivator. This is about learning and the love of game design. It is about building a sustainable career for yourself. If you are doing this to get-rich-quick, go find some other questionable scheme. 

How to develop a fast follow game?

First, you need to find a target game to follow up. Time is of the essence. You could take the risk now and try for a Vampire Survivors-like game, but It will probably take you 2-3 months to finish and you are risking the fact that everyone could be tired of the genre by the time you release it. 

It could take months though before another hit arrives. I only see a couple original games per year break out like Vampire Survivors did. 

Alternatively, you can just wait for the next up and coming fad-genre. To do that, check what Streamers are playing. You can see what is trending using Sullygnome. You can filter by “trending” here. There is also for Youtube trending search

Now any streamer will play pretty much any game once. It is a true miracle and a real indicator of virality if a streamer plays a game across multiple streams. So don’t just look to see if a game got played by a big streamer, look for games that are played over and over again by the same streamer. 

The game must be one that is basically a short play-session-style arcade game. A lot of streamers are playing V Rising, but that game is way too deep to be developed in a couple months. 

You are looking for games that go viral because of streamers. So you need to look for games that Streamers like to play. A game like Unpacking did very well but not because of Streamers. I think it did well building word of mouth slowly over time and they had a big publisher. So I don’t think it would work to do a fast follow of Unpacking.

Also avoid trying to do a fast follow of a multiplayer game. Yes Among Us is played a lot and the gameplay loop is simple and could theoretically be made in a few months, but, do you notice how there really aren’t that many Among Us-likes? I think it is because it is really hard to get a critical quorum of players. The success of Among Us is very hard to replicate. So don’t try to do a multiplayer game as a fast follow. It should be single player.

The game also has to be endlessly replayable with short loops which means these games are typically in the rogue genre. 

If you are in the middle of development and do a quick pivot to a fast follow game, you might be able to reappropriate a lot of that code and get the game out faster. That is what happened with Fortnite which had its game design reimagined after the success of PUBG.

How to market a fast follow game?

I normally recommend that you have your Steam page up for at least 6-months and market for the long term. But you don’t have time for this. You are basically putting all your eggs in one basket: Streamers. 

So you need to get a small demo up as soon as possible and into the hands of Streamers. 

Get your Steam page up faster with less diverse graphics, a simpler trailer, and less effort into it. The demo is what is going to make or break your success, not the Steam page. 

As soon as you can get a public demo live on your Steam page, reach out to as many Streamers as you can who played the game you are “fast following.” Watch how they play and make improvements based on their feedback. 

Also get an page live and put your demo there too. Use to get extra feedback from that community. They are super helpful.

Your time should be spent constantly reaching out to streamers and trying to get them to play.

Also apply to festivals. The reason 20 Minutes Till dawn and Nomad Survival did as well as they did was because they were in the Going Rogue festival. Festivals + Streamers is where your visibility is going to come from. Reddit, social media, and the press are much much less important in this strategy.

You still want to try and get 7000 wishlists before you launch because you need the extra visibility from Popular Upcoming.

If your demo is not getting picked up by Streamers or they played it once and moved on to other games, try and diagnose why. Why do they get bored? The developer of 20 Minutes Till Dawn got a lot of early feedback from

“I originally only planned to make more characters and weapons for the full game, but after reading player feedback, it seems like they wanted more build variety, enemy variety and difficulty, so I knew I needed content in that direction as well.”

Remember you are trying to improve upon the original game you are “fast following” so you need to see where the community wants the genre to go.

Pricing should also be cheap. The reason these games can get so much visibility and sales is because there is no barrier to entry. When a Streamer plays a $3 game, viewers are more likely to immediately buy it. When a streamer plays a $10+ game viewers are more likely to wishlist it and buy it later during a sale. I think because these $3 games are impulse buys, the influx of sales that streamers bring in triggers the Steam algorithm to give it more visibility.

Can everyone do this?

If you have had a big success in game development with a premium title, launching a fast follow game could hurt your brand. It would look weird. 

But if this is your first game, if you have never released anything and you are stuck deep in development hell and you are completely burned out, and you don’t know how you could possibly finish your game, a fast follow title might just be the break you need. 

A fast follow game can teach you more about game development and marketing in 3 months than all the previous years of development on your previous game. 

If you are a big developer and your team needs a break, you can still do a fast follow game without hurting your brand by creating a secondary publisher name on Steam. Nobody will know. You can test out concepts. You can experiment with new tools or development practices. If you are lucky and find a hit, it could even extend your runway a bit.

It sets you free. 

Fast Follow games are an affront to the rich legacy of gaming

Gaming has always been about the fast follow.

At the birth of video gaming Pong and Space Invader variations that founded companies like Atari and Namco. 

The development of Ms. Pacman was basically a fast follow mod that got purchased by Namco.

Fortnite was a fast follow of PUBG. 

Everything is a remix. Everything is a fast follow.

$3 games, Isn’t this devaluing games?

Humans always love a mix of simple and complex.

We love sweet simple sugars but also complex umami.

We love campy action movies by Michael Bay but also complex films by Jane Campion

Gaming is the same.

Simultaneously the video game market has supported quick hit arcade games for 25 cents and complex computer RPGs you play for hours. 

Flash portals like New Grounds and Kongregate have succeeded at the same time deeper premium games like Bioshock and Skyrim became blockbusters.

If you look at Northernlion’s youtube video history you can see he has spent multiple sessions intermixing the $20 premium game Card Shark and the free-to-play game Super Auto Pets.

Making a bunch of fun, quick-hit games for $3 will not harm the market for premium games. If anything I think the price differentiation could make things better for both camps of developers. 

I looked at the last decade of steam game prices. As you can see they have always hovered around $7 despite AAA prices rising drastically. 

The average between a $3 game like 20 Minutes Till Dawn and a $20 game like Card Shark is $11.50. I think card shark should actually be a $30 game. Which would make the average between the games $16.50.

So we should make cheaper games when we are just starting out and experienced devs should be making more expensive premium titles. 

There will always be a desire for a cheap bottle of Coca-cola and a bottle of expensive French wine.