In my community and in my consulting practice I have had the privilege to watch a few developers launch wildly successful games. Marketing these best seller games feel different. Every day these games get hundreds, even thousands, of wishlists without doing much at all. These developers can post on Reddit and every mod lays down their proverbial swords and lets their post stay up earning thousands of upvotes. When they contact journalists at sites like IGN they immediately get a response saying “we would love to host your trailer.” Or when they enter top-tier events like the PCGamer show, the organizers confirm their spot within 10 minutes.

I am not exaggerating.

Marketing these games is like you used a cheat code. Everything they try works. As written about in my benchmarks charts, these games are Diamond tier games. 

Now if you have been working away on a game that earns 1 to 10 wishlists a day it might seem like an impossibility that there are games out there earning 10x or 100x what you are. What are they doing differently from you? What do they know that you don’t?

The secret is the game. 

The game has to have a certain charm, or spirit, or spark that makes people stop what they are doing and read more about it, and then share it with their friends. This is truly word of mouth. In a previous blog I called this a Feather game.

I don’t think indies realize how much more visibility games that have that special “it factor” earn than typical games. The following chart came from my survey of over 100 games and how much visibility they earn on a typical week.

Can you pick out the “it-games?” I want to show you six types of games that have a shot at achieving this level of visibility.

Approach #1: Incredibly beautiful graphics

These games are obvious when you see them. They are just beautiful. The animation is mesmerizing. VFX top notch. While many of these games are photo-realistic, they don’t have to be; think of Webbed, or Gris. These games can be stylistic but have a certain spark that captivates.

The benefits of this approach

These games go viral instantly. From the very first screenshot posted on Twitter, Tiktok, or Reddit people are talking about it. The wishlist velocity is high from the very first announcement and only increase as the game’s graphics evolve.

These games can be popular despite their genre. For instance, my research has shown that Pixelart Platformers are a very difficult genre. But a game with top-tier graphics can defy these genre headwinds (see Webbed and Blasphemous.) 

The risks of this approach

First, you have to have a truly transcendent artist on your team. They are the star. There are very few people who operate at that level and it can be hard to find them.

But even if you have a great artist, sometimes games with amazing art fall flat on their face at launch when the gameplay doesn’t match the visuals. This usually happens when the lead (or sole) creator is primarily an artist. Maybe they came from AAA and spent most of their career learning from fellow artists but had no exposure to the game design side of the studio. So although their graphics showed a lifetime of experience, they were novices at making engaging game mechanics, or creating controls that were responsive. This disparity between graphics and gameplay meant all their marketing worked really well in the form of trailers, gifs, and screenshots but fell apart as soon as players got their hands on it. 

How to know if your game has good graphics?

You will just know the instance you share a gif on social media. These games tend to go viral very easily. Earlier this year I wrote about the beautiful city builder on a mountainside called Laysara: Summit Kingdom earned 11,000 wishlists with a single Reddit post. This is what I am talking about.

Games that fall into this camp

Approach #2: High Concept Game 

If you don’t have a transcendent artist on your team, you can still have a hit if you have a great high concept. A “high concept” is a term used in hit-driven-creative-industries like film and book publishing where the premise is so compelling that it sells itself. You just need 1 or 2 sentences to interest people. 

For instance: 

Untitled Goose: You are a funny Goose causing chaos 

Superhot: A FPS where time moves when you move. 

A lot has been written about “hooks” so I won’t rehash it here. Just watch this video:

But these high-concept games aren’t just a clever twist on a well trodden genre. They aren’t just X+Y combinations. The unique combination of elements transcends. For instance with Untitled Goose game, just having the pitch “you are a goose” is not enough. It could have been a boring 2D puzzle platformer where you peck switches and jump on eggs or something dumb. But what made Untitled Goose Game go viral was the combination of stealth elements, the anarchic behavior of the goose against stuffy villagers. It was perfect alchemy. 

How to know if your game is high concept?

I know this blog post is going to cause people to email me pitches like “Our game is X and Y, Chris is this a game with a good high-concept?” 

I don’t know.

I am not in charge of video games.

The general public knows. You just have to share your art, your concept on Twitter, TikTok, Reddit. They will decide for you. There is no formula. The crowd decides. So share and see what hits.

The risks of the “High Concept”

The most important thing is that the concept must actually be interesting to the public. I know it sounds obvious, but I have seen teams spend years trying to make it work but nobody thought it was a good idea. They convince themselves that people are interested and they keep grinding and grinding on the game trying to improve it but it is built upon an idea that nobody is excited about. I believe that a high concept is defined at it’s birth. Either people like it right away or they don’t.

Sometimes your high concept just won’t work. You can’t force people to like it. You might have to just ship and move on to a new concept if people aren’t interested. 

So how do you know if you have a high concept that people are interested in? If you are sharing consistently on social media, if you have posted good quality trailers that show off your concept, check my benchmarks page. If you are still stuck at Bronze and Silver levels of typical week visibility, the high-concept is not appealing to people.

The successful high-concept games take off instantly from the announce.

Sometimes when the concept is a bit of a gimmick the game concept can be too clever by half. For instance, the concept might attract curiosity, but once people play it for 5 minutes they feel satisfied and either don’t buy the game or don’t recommend it to a friend.

For most games I recommend posting a demo and keeping it up for the entire life of your pre-release marketing campaign. But, for high concept games you should actually hold back on a public demo to ensure the idea stays fresh.

Similarly I find some indies end up being a bit too clever and too high concept and actually scare off the intended audience. Sometimes high concept games don’t have enough “anchors” (as I described here) to appeal to an audience. The game is too weird. Too Avant Garde. There’s a real risk that these high-concept games don’t actually attract an audience that wants to play it, they just stoke the curiosity of the player. It is a knife’s edge and if you miss, it can go very badly. 

Successful Games using this approach

Approach #3: The amazingly addicting gameplay

Games that hit using this approach look unassuming from the outside but reveal their appeal once players get their hands on it. Typically the game’s screenshots are just “ok” but they aren’t so amazing that they go viral. Sometimes the game’s concept is nothing that unique. In fact it might be very similar to another game. People dismiss it at first as just another “clone.” However, once people start playing it there is some magic combination of gameplay dynamics that make the game a hit.

How to know if your game has addicting gameplay

To succeed, you have to get it in the player’s hands as soon as possible. You can do this via betas, alphas, open-development, demos. 

The best example of this is Peglin. The game might seem high-concept Peggle + Rogue at first. But there were already games out that had the exact same concept. Similarly, the graphics for Peglin are cute but they are not so good that they achieve Approach #1. If you look at the follower chart for Peglin you can see that in the first year that the Steam page was available, it didn’t earn many wishlists. The graphics and the high-level concept alone didn’t interest people enough to wishlist it.

However, once they released a demo and gave it to streamers, the game went viral. You can clearly see when they released the demo which corresponds to the follower chart moving upwards in the middle of 2021.

Similarly, if you just looked at screenshots of Vampire Survivor you probably wouldn’t be that excited to play or want to share it with a friend.

But once you play a single round and see the frantic pace, exploding treasure chests, and upgradable powerups you are hooked. 

Playing is believing.

The risks of the “Addicting Gameplay”

Marketing this game lives or dies based on the fun and replayability of the demo. It must be a replayable style game which is why most of these games are rogue-likes. 

Similarly you must have a very, very good game designer on your team. I have interviewed many of the developers of the games listed below and they all seem to got their start at an established gaming company that specialized in addicting gameplay (mobile, casino, web platforms) or the developer has made dozens of games. 

Building a game with rewarding gameplay loops that has players saying “one more round” is a true skill and cannot be taken for granted. it takes years of experience to get it right. 

The other downside to this approach is that narrative or linear games are nearly impossible. Not all genres can fit here. It must be endlessly replayable.

Successful games using this approach 

Approach #4: The gameplay must be infinitely deep

This approach is best represented by Minecraft. The key selling point here is showing off how deep the simulation is. They show off their scale and scope. The simulation must involves very complex and amazing emergent gameplay.

Noita sold itself as a game where every pixel is simulated. 

Dwarf Fortress built up its fandom with players telling outlandish stories of things that emerged entirely out of the game’s systems.

Often the graphics are laughably primitive because there are so many gameplay elements that to get them all implemented developers had to create simpler art. 

This type of game is very similar to the Approach #4 (amazing addicting gameplay) but what distinguished these games is that gifs, trailers, and screenshots can actually sell the game. For instance, a crazy gif where you zoom out and out and out and showing how big or varied the simulation is can sell the game. Approach #4 games typically don’t sell themselves until they are played.

For instance, here is the Noita trailer that shows off how the simulation can be played with.

These types of games are great if your coding team is larger than your art and game design team.

The risks of the “Addicting Gameplay”

These games are beasts to develop. They take YEARS and the thing that makes them amazing don’t appear until many of the core systems are in place. 

Successful games using this approach 

Approach #5: Serving an Underserved audience

This is a very small, very risky approach in which you make a game for a very passionate audience that nobody is making games for any more. These fandoms typically lurk in ancient forums that are still playing and discussing the same game from decades ago. Fan fic is usually involved.

To make a successful game in this approach you have to accurately tickle the interests of this fanbase but make a game that feels fresh. 

Marketing these games

These games start their marketing within the fandoms. The first players come from these obscure communities. Typically the games are free and shared openly. The fans give input as the game develops. Then at some point the passion leaves the core audience and radiates out to adjacent fandoms. This is the trickiest part and is impossible to predict.

The risks of this approach

If you don’t get the most important gameplay elements exactly right because you don’t fully understand the audience, you could look like an opportunistic interloper vying for a quick cash grab.

You must understand the shibboleths exactly and be able to say them back correctly.

You might also make the mistake of over-estimating the fandom. Even though nobody has made a game for this audience in decades, there might not be anyone who cares about that game. So you just remade a game that was never that popular to begin with. The game never had a cult following, it just looked like there was one. So now you spent time making a game that feels outdated and there is nobody excited about it.

Successful games using this approach 

Approach #6: Hilarious sandbox

These games are like marble mazes or domino tracks. The are digital Rube Goldberg machines. The point of the game is to setup a strange scenario then push play and see what happens. They typically rely on hilarious physics, jank, buggy behaviors, glitches, and explosions. 

These games are marketed with hilarious gifs that are shared quickly on social media. The sandbox quality of them allows for endless replayability and new combinations. 

This genre is also not as strict about the art direction. Because the audience is more interested in the hilarious interactions, they don’t care about story or that you used an asset story piece that looks out of place. If it is funny, it works.

The risks of this approach

Similar to high concept, the stage and the actors of a physics sandbox game must have that perfect, ineffable hilarity to it. If the sandbox doesn’t generate hilarious scenarios, it won’t get shared, and it won’t be bought. 

The UX also has to allow for quick iteration and placement of elements. If it is hard to setup the sandbox, players will lose interest quickly.

Successful games using this approach 

Summary

To earn hundreds of thousands of wishlists, it isn’t about marketing, it is about the game. Your game has to have something that really connects with an audience. If you want a hit game, it isn’t enough to just have a “bug free” or “good game” you have to have a transcendent game.

There are more (like having a hit IP) but usually those are out of reach of an indie studio.

Take the time to look at top selling releases every month. Try to figure out which of these approaches those hit games took.

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