A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how making games is now easier than ever, and how that makes selling games harder than ever. At the end of that article, I said I think we are going to see the end of low-budget games. That doesn’t mean I think those games won’t be made anymore. I just think those games are going to be less and less successful, with some exceptions.
In retrospective, I think the “low-budget game” label is not very accurate, because it is fair to ask “what is a low-budget game?”. Also, “low-budget” is a label that takes something else as a point of reference. In other words, “low-budget” compared to what? Compared to one of those $100M-budget games made by big studios, or those $100K-budget games made by some developers? If that was the case, all of our games are low-budget, because even our highest-budget game had a budget of around $15K.
Maybe a more accurate descriptor could be “low-quality cheap-looking games”, even if that sounds somewhat pejorative and even insulting. However, that doesn’t make it any less accurate and I’m pretty sure you know the kind of games I talk about: those games that evidently were put together quickly just to get a quick buck, sometimes going as far as literally taking an asset purchased from the asset store, sometimes with the same models and textures, and turning that into a game, which some people call asset flips. I think this YouTuber gives a good explanation of what an asset flip is and isn’t.
This long introduction takes me to the subject I want to discuss. Should you, as an independent (or even solo) developer, focus on making smaller games, or should you try to make bigger games. As I always say, the answer is “depends.”
I have worked on games of different sizes. For example, there’s Enola, a somewhat extensive game, and then there’s The Dreamlands: Aisling’s Quest, a short game you can finish in less than an hour. However, we have an even smaller game titled Color Slayer, which is a hyper-casual game. They have all had a different level of success. Surprisingly, Color Slayer is the most successful of all. While I am not super-experienced in game development, I have my share of released and unreleased games that have helped me gain some experience, and based on this experience I can say focusing on either type of game has its advantages and disadvantages.
Smaller games can be finished quicker (specially if you are able to nail down the gameplay in a short period of time). Sometimes they won’t rely on a lot of content, a big number of levels, and don’t aim at 10+ hours of A-to-B gameplay, meaning they don’t have a very specific start and end, and the amount of time anyone plays depends specifically on the person (for example, those who have accumulated hundreds of ours on Tetris). Depending on the game, you can even rely on randomized content (for example, an infinite runner or a match-3 game). On top of that, you can finish these in just a few months, so you could make 2 or 3 a year.
However, these games cannot be too expensive. You can make a small match-3 game or infinite runner and sell it for $10 on Steam, and this means you need to make a lot of sales for it to be profitable. Still, if you are able to keep the development costs down, it will be easier to break even.
On the other hand, bigger games have the advantage of offering a longer gameplay campaign that can keep gamers engaged, can have a more complex gameplay, and also bring up new gameplay elements as the game progresses. Bigger games also attract a bigger audience, since Steam (as of 2022) is setup in a way that it puts games with a longer gameplay time front and center, while leaving smaller, casual games on the back.
However, they will take longer to make (at least over one year), rely a lot more on the quantity of levels, environments, and other elements that will keep the experience fresh. There’s no point on making a 10+ hour game that feels exactly the same. On top of that, they may require extra investment depending on the genre, to cover for things like very-specific sound design and voice acting. The longer production time and higher budget mean you need to sell more to break even.
I think the important factor when choosing one over the other is your long-term strategy. Regardless of the type of game you choose, something you need to know is that you still need to make good games and market those games, because you can’t simply make the game, put it on Steam and hope for the best. Are you able to spend a long time working on a game, or is your time limited meaning you should work on smaller projects? Is your plan to live off a decent number of sales at $15-$20, or an even more decent number of $3 sales? Are the sales of the $20 game enough to sustain you while you finish the next project, or do you need a more regular stream of $3 sales?
Personally, I have found that offering a mixed bag of products works well. Bigger games can provide a higher stream on income during launch, even if sales start to go down after a few weeks or months, while smaller games can provide that extra income when needed. Of course, to make this viable you need to keep making games. You can’t just make a game and then work on the next one when you realize you’re running out of money.
Next time I will share some tips to keep development costs down.