I write about genre a lot.

Genre and quality are the most important things that will determine how well your game does. This graph is in my most popular blog posts all about what genres are popular in 2022 and always causes my twitter engagement to go up when I share it.

A graph that show that Roguelike Deckbuilder, 4X, Simulation, City Builder, and Open-world Survival Craft are very profitable genres with less competition.

The basic takeaway is that indie game devs are making so many platformers, puzzle games, and nobody is really buying. However there is huge demand for games in the 4X, city builder, roguelike deckbuilder and not many indies are making them.

This graph and blog cause a lot of really weird opinions from game developers. Here was one twitter reaction:

This week I want to write some of the common myths about taking a genre first approach

MYTH #1: If we all decide to only make genres that are popular, we are all going to make the same game

Well, I hate to tell you, indies are already all making the same game.

The most common games made on Steam are VR, Visual Novel, Platformer, Puzzle, and FPS.

And guess what, the general public’s perception of us indies is that we all make the same game. See this sarcastic reddit post. Here is the meme from it: 

For some reason we all make pixel art platformers (I did too!)

So, too late on that one. If our games are all going to be the same, we might as well try to make it in a popular genre right?

MYTH #2: Paying too much attention to genre limits creativity

Over the weekend I watched this great documentary called Hype all about the birth and creative flourishing around Seattle’s Grunge scene.

The most amazing part was with this interview with the band Mudhoney talked about how their label SUB POP made them stars. Here is the quote:

[The label told us] “You sing about dogs, you sing about being sick. You have a shtick, it will take you to the top. He basically gave us 5 chords, but he said don’t use more than 3 within one song.”

Mark Arm Mudhoney

That single formula made dozens of bands stars and resulted in what was considered one of the most original genres in rock in decades. 

Constraints bring creativity but you have to understand those genres.

MYTH #3: Fans want a totally unique 100% original game that has never been seen before.

Too much new scares people. What people want something that is new, but familiar. This comic sums this up better than I ever could

Link to post

Far too often I see indies trying to stand out by trying to invent a whole new genre. Unfortunately you are not standing out, you are alienating your audience. 

I know you are a cultural omnivore. You love weird stuff, foreign films, defying standards, but you must empathize with your audience. And the truth is, most people are basic. New foods scare them. New experiences scare them. They want things that are familiar. 

Raymond Loewy designed the Coke bottle and hundreds of other iconic products and logos. He always anticipated tastes by the principle he coined called Most Advanced. Yet Acceptable or MAYA. Read about his legacy here.

He would push the public forward in new directions stylistically but it was never too far. Just a tiny difference here and there.

So if you are experimenting, don’t change every trope in a genre, just tweak 1 or at most 2. 

MYTH #4: The genre is just a suggestion

In a previous blog post I talked about anchors which are the aspects of your game that make it familiar to people. 

You must understand the tropes and anchors of whatever genre you pick. You must study other games in the genre. Play them. Look at their pop cultural references such as film and novels and consume them to understand what the fans are looking for.

If you don’t understand the key elements of a genre, the fans will revolt or at least ignore you. I was looking at a recent visual novel that was released to a lukewarm reception. The reviews make it clear that the game missed one of the major genre anchors… meaningful choices and deep characters. 

Look at these reviews.

Text: “The gameplay is honestly just a few dialogue options, it doesn’t seem like they have any impact on the story. It’s more like watching a movie play out and reading text messages.
Text: “I was a little disappointed that there is not much of “gameplay” so to speak, but I think that may be on me for going in to the game without understanding that its a visual novel with some interactive bits. As a whole it feels like you just experiencing a linear story and your choices don’t really matter and are a way to keep you invested in the story.
Text: One-dimensional gameplay: you only construct sentences, even Facade you can mess around with the house which also affects the dialogue, other visual novels have minigames.

I know it seems like fans are being obnoxious and rude. You might think that they just need to learn to try something different and open their mind. But, fans have an expectation when they pick up a game. Genre sets those expectations and if you violate those, it is to your detriment. 

The reason you have to study genres so deeply is that the differences between them are so subtle. If you miss those cues, you could miss your audience. 

Back to that documentary about grunge (Hype)… there was an interview with this guitarist who breaks down the very subtle differences between the genre of Punk and Grunge. Watch it here:

Genre is so subtle but you MUST be attune to every difference and play within those boundaries.

Summary: how to actually innovate in genres

This is where I usually get subtweeted. Indies read this and think I just want boring similar games that all look the same and no innovation happens.

Let’s review, I told you that genres like puzzle platformers are over saturated, and that fans of Roguelike Deckbuilders, Open World Survivial Craft, 4X, Strategy, and Simulation are just begging you to make games from them because nobody else is. 

I also told you that you must be very careful to conform to genre expectations.

At this point many indies complain that this is an impossible task because the reason the genres like 4X and Strategy are so unsaturated is because they are very complex and take years to build.

What to do?


Remember we are supposed to be crazy inventive indies who overturn norms? That is our super power.

Decades ago, indies were famous for taking bloated and slow moving games and stripping them down to their absolute essence. That is basically what Super Meat Boy is.

But now platformers are the sluggish bloated genre.

Strategic games such as Open World Survival Craft, 4X, and city builders have exclusively been the domain of AA and AAA developers.

This is where we need to be innovating.

We need to figure out the absolute minimum that fans expect from the genres, and deliver that in the most interesting way we can. 

For instance, look at Stacklands. The developers Sokpop took God / Builder games (a typically complex genre that takes years to develop a descent game in) and stripped it down to the core tropes, and turned it into a card game.

They took out elements that weren’t needed such as huge sprawling maps with little buildings and tiny villagers running around on paths. They focused on the important stuff like resource management.

Because the more complicated bits were stripped out, it was developed in months instead of years and it has sold tens of thousands of copies. 

As another example, look at ISLANDERS. It took the typically overly complicated city builder sim and stripped it down to its core which is placing buildings next to each other to get resources and grow bigger. They took out the overdone stuff like laying water pipes, placing police stations, and terrain deformation and left in the good stuff which is making cool buildings sit on a hillside.

Dorfromantik took just the expansion part of a 4X game and basically made a 2X game. It is so elegant, so simple, so new. 

Tile Cities is another very smart mini city builder that reduced a complex genre down to their most primal elements. This reddit post by the developer covers how it did well for them despite them doing no marketing. “No marketing” success indicates that there is a real desire by the fanbase; so much so that fans will hunt YOU down to buy your game. 

When I tell indies to look at what genres are selling, I am not telling them to clone and copy so that we are actually all making the same game. I am doing the opposite. I am trying to show everyone which genres are way too oversaturated and which ones are crying out for innovation.

So please, go off, leave this well trod land and go innovate.