I want to talk about an aspect of indie development/business which is very often ignored, but in my opinion is important: the perceived vs real success of a game.
Recently I released two games, Cursed Lands and Love Bites. As always I got some positive reviews but also negative ones (it’s inevitable). Beside some obvious troll-reviews, one thing that always amuses me is when a player decides if a past game was successful or not depending on his/her own tastes or perceived success.
For example: I like sci-fi, so if you make a game that is not sci-fi, I could say “you should do another game like Bionic Heart which had really an original plot, was popular, etc etc”. If I like card games, I could say “instead of making a new RPG you should do another card game because clearly did better” and so on. Assuming results that are real only in the mind of the person who is writing it 😛
A popular game is not always the best selling one
This seems strange, but it happened to me in the past, and I also know of other indies who had the same experience. A game could be popular, meaning that has a big following, many people tried the demo, people and review sites talk about it, youtubers do let’s play, but… it’s not as successful as you might think. Maybe a smaller, hidden niche game has made definitely more money than the other, for a variety of reasons (game price, bundles, platform, time of release, piracy, luck).
I could make some examples with my own games: my game Bionic Heart was definitely more popular than Heileen (the first game of 2008). It appeared in some japanese sites, many bundles, has more Steam reviews…Yet, Heileen sold almost double its amount!
Another case is when a game, for some unknown reason (really, sometimes we developers have no clue ourselves!!) sells very well on a specific platform, that screws up perception. Loren did well both direct and on Steam. But if we exclude Steam and consider only direct and mobile, Roommates did better than Loren. So as you can see it’s really hard for the users to know how a game really did simply because only the developers have the whole picture.
Steam reviews are also very misleading, since people assume that a high rating means it’s a better game, or a game that sold more. It’s true in many cases, but also not true in many others. Personally I think that rating is high if the product meet people’s expectations. That’s why you see many short, super linear, but erotic VN with 90% positive: people know what it is, they buy it, they like it and leave a positive review. If you start to add gameplay, non linear plot (or, an ACTUAL PLOT haha), allow to choose the gender, have many romances, the score will decrease. It’s ironic but making simpler and shorter games will be rewarded much more on Steam (and that’s why most of other indies I know doing VN follows that system).
Also, back in 2014 or even earlier, releasing a game on Steam automatically meant a LOT of exposure. Right now things have changed completely. So a better game released now could perform much worse than an average game released back then. As you see, there are many things to consider.
The morale is…
The morale of this story is that if a developer says something like “from now on I’ll only make yuri games” (no, don’t worry it’s not my case…yet) there is a reason. Maybe that developer saw that the 90% of the top selling VN games on Steam are yuri, and this for sure had an impact when planning their new game(s).
Or if the public clearly want content of a specific type. It’s no secret at all that more sexy/erotic contents in VN does better. Like, a magnitude of order better. I think that nowadays if you make a VN that doesn’t at least have a sexy component, you could save your efforts (obviously exlcuding already famous indies) since it will be wasted time. Luckily, in this case I can solve it “simply” by having suggestive content on/off in options screen, so it’s not something drastic as deciding to have only a specific romance type.
Of course everyone has their own favorite games or themes, settings, romance types and it’s normal to support your own ideas, you should totally do it. But ultimately, since this is a business, the choices are made usually thinking about profit.
So far, I moderately ignored the “profit factor” when making games. Spending 10 months making SOTW RPG part, or all the time doing Amber’s crafting without a clue if was worth it or not (spoiler: it wasn’t). Making a yaoi only game (Heirs & Graces) when every dev I knew told me that was a bad idea (and from profit point of view, it definitely was!). Trying ot make BIG games with a lot of love interests and protagonist gender choice, when almost every other developer is making much more money doing MUCH shorter games with just one gender and less romances and erotic content.
All of these choices nowadays make little sense from a business point of view, but I honestly hope to be able to keep going like this thanks to the generosity of people supporting me in various ways, buying the games full price, being patrons on Patreon, leaving positive Steam reviews even if they’re not completely happy about the game, and so on.
We’ll see how it goes in future, but remember, very rarely the decisions of an indie (serious ones doing it for a living) are taken because of personal tastes or randomly. When players think of an indie as truly independent artist, I laugh. Maybe in the beginning we were, but right now if you don’t obey to the market’s laws you won’t stay in business for long.