INDIE GAME DEV: ASSESSING RISK
Sometimes a big risk pays off - we're all familiar with the stories about indie game developers who spent many years turning an unproven idea into a big hit. In many ways, risk is used to the indie creator's advantage - we can make games with themes, mechanics, and aesthetics that big budget studios can't or won't consider, unearthing joy that would otherwise go undiscovered.
It's a balancing act, though. Big risks that pay off garner the most attention, but more often than not, if you take that leap into the dark, you won't land on solid ground. But thankfully, there are many ways to achieve success as an indie - it's critical that we look beyond the "breakout" hits and also consider the qualities of games that succeed quietly, methodically, and on a smaller scale. That big "overnight success" you just heard about? The risky game that shifted the paradigm or created a new subgenre? It could have easily been built on the tail of a hundred lesser-known releases. Or with extra resources that reduced the risk of failure. We should also make sure we recognize that less risky games still contain important innovations to the artform, even if they're harder to explain in a quick elevator pitch.
In this article, I share a framework that you can use to help you evaluate the risk of a game concept and compare the riskiness of one idea to another. It's one of the things I think about when I'm deciding what I want to work on next. Regardless of whether you want your next game to be a paradigm-shifting smash hit or you just want to make something you care about with some pieces of you in it, the goal of this framework is to try and make development feel a little more predictable.
Note that this article (and the framework presented within) is aimed primarily at people interested in commercial indie game development. In creating anything, even as a hobby, there is some inherent risk in putting yourself out there, but here I'm mostly focused on financial risk. Similarly, I think that releasing any game is a success from a growth perspective, but here we'll be talking about success as making a sustainable living from selling games.
It's tough choosing a game idea to work on, especially if your goal is to be a full-time indie game developer. That initial decision of what to make is crucial because it sets you along a specific path and not only could that path be long and windy, but the reward at the end might not be what you hoped. It's technically possible to change direction partway through development, of course, but that's easier said than done - it's rarely clear how close you really are to release and changing direction involves throwing out a lot of hard work. It's not uncommon for developers to push through to the bitter end, only to realize that there isn't a large enough audience to justify another game.
Barring the invention of time travel, there's no way to remove the uncertainty from game development entirely. What you can do, however, is reduce the uncertainty using a framework to analyze ideas before you start working on them. At least then you'll have a sense of what all these different paths look like. Otherwise, you're just blindly following a notion and hoping that, at the end, your game is "good" or "fun" enough... and that's kinda like walking into the wilderness unprepared and hoping for the best.
For me, the key word here is "risk". What we want our framework to do is help us estimate how risky one idea is compared to another. Under my framework, there are two major components of risk: resource investment and broad appeal. Resource investment is what you put into the project: time, money, etc. The more you put in, the more you'll probably need to get back to call it a "success". In our travel analogy, this is equivalent to the length and difficulty of the path. Broad appeal means a larger potential audience - in our analogy, this would be the reward at the end of the path. So a game that requires less investment (shorter, easier path) but is broadly appealing (larger reward at the end) is less risky than a game that requires more investment and is not broadly appealing (a longer, more difficult path with a smaller reward at the end).
Here's a visual representation of risk before we start discussing each axis in more depth:
As you can see, this graph implies that, if you are interested in lowering the risk of your project, you could consider either lowering amount of resources you invest into the project (time, money, etc.) or increasing the broad appeal of your game.
But you might be wondering: how is it possible to increase the broad appeal of a game without investing proportionally more resources into it? Well, indie developers do it all the time and I feel like figuring that out is a key part of being indie. Big budget studios obviously try to work efficiently, too, but by their nature they will miss any ideas that are not in the extreme upper-right part of the graph (massive resource investment to try and capture a huge audience). As always, I don't recommend trying to emulate large studios when you are a small developer... by doing so, you're playing into your weaknesses while ignoring your strengths.
Hopefully this will all make more sense after we look at the framework in more detail.
The threshold for success goes up the more resources you invest in your game. For example, a game that's in development for 10 years will probably have to sell more copies to be "successful" (let you keep going) than a game that's in development for 1 year. Also, the longer development goes, the greater the chance of falling into a death loop of some kind. That also increases the risk.
Not all projects are created equal when it comes to resources investment. Certain concepts and even genres require, on average, more resources than others. It's obvious, for example, that an MMORPG would require a massive investment and is a huge risk in that regard. But how much time and money is required to make a roguelike compared to a puzzler?
One thing to consider is the Amount of Unique Content your game requires. The more one-off, non-reusable content you'll have to make, the more time it will take to make it. In the first Super Mario Bros., a handful of tiles are recolored and reused to fill in the vast majority of the game's environment (did you know the clouds and bushes are the same sprite, recolored?). Super Mario Bros. 3, on the other hand, is a much larger game with a lot more unique content - like the Kuribo's Shoe, which is only found in a single stage of the game (World 5-3, to be exact). Despite being built off of SMB1, I'd say that SMB3 still required a lot more resources to make than the original game.
I wouldn't say SMB3 was a risky game to make, however, because the larger resource investment was balanced by the game's enormous appeal as a sequel to one of the most popular games of all time. On our risk graph, it would make sense to put SMB3 above the upper right corner of the graph.
Another thing to consider with regards to resource investment is the Amount of Experimentation Required to make your game fun to play. How often will you have to "go back to the drawing board" when an idea doesn't pan out? Every game requires some amount of experimentation, but the more novel your core game mechanics are, the more time it will take to get them right.
"High concept ideas" that sound exciting and novel in a brief elevator pitch are often hard to systemize. For example, successful puzzle games (like Braid, Portal, or Antichamber) are usually based around high concept ideas and it takes a lot of experimentation with design and technology to find the depth in their mechanics. Until you play those games yourself, it's not easy to imagine how they'd work in practice. So yeah, I'd say that puzzlers in general are quite resource-intensive.
Also, the less experience you have with the type of game you're making, the more experimentation will be required. If you're making a puzzle game for the first time, you're probably going to spend more time on it than someone who has already made one before. If it's your very first game ever, then it doesn't matter whether you're making a puzzle game or a platformer - everything will require experimentation! That's why the common wisdom is for new developers to start very small in scope.
When indie developers do release a game, they often switch to a completely different type of game next. That might be the right thing to do if the game you released struggled to find an audience. Or maybe it was so successful that you can afford to take the risk! As long as you take into account that any experience you leave behind will have to be made up for by spending extra resources.
The other axis of our framework is broad appeal, which, let's be honest... can be a little unpleasant to think about, like you're trying to win a popularity contest or something instead of just "being yourself". But to be clear, "broadly appealing" doesn't necessarily mean "good" or "worthwhile", it just means that it appeals to a large number of people. Personally, I enjoy playing games that are popular and also games that are niche! But there's another way to think about popularity: as a creator, I enjoy trying to find the intersection between my own interests and the larger game playing community, because that feels like more of the back-and-forth communication I want from making art. I feel like I can learn AND teach the most with that kind of mindset.
Also, you can think about appeal as much or as little as you want. How much "room" do you have in your vision to consider your audience's interests? As a new indie dev you might want to focus more on broadly-appealling concepts until you understand your own voice better. Or maybe you already have a strong voice but you want to save its full power for when you can shoulder more risk (i.e. when you have more resources).
Obviously no one can predict with 100% certainty what will be popular... but there are trends that we can see in the success of individual games and the evolution of games as an artform. With these trends in mind, we can start to develop a sense for what matters, on a fundamental level, to the average player... and maybe what is exciting about video games in a general sense. From there, you can decide how much you want to factor it into your own plans.
Elden Ring. From Software, 2022. "Big" might simply mean a bigger world! (But there are other ways to achieve the feeling of it.)
If you track how games have evolved, you can see there's a trend of virtual worlds getting larger, from single screens, to scrolling cameras, to overworld maps, to large open worlds that can take hours to cross on foot. Games have also tried to give players more agency over time, moving from totally linear, level-based structures to free exploration. Putting it all together, we can see that players are generally excited by the prospect of getting lost in large game worlds where there is a lot of variety and a lot of ways for them to express their own creativity.
But obviously not every successful game has a large open world... so maybe it's more accurate to say that players want games to FEEL big. They don't necessarily need to BE big. That could mean a smaller game world that players can visit many times and in many different ways. Randomized level generation and build/run-based gameplay (as seen in games like Brogue, pictured right) are ways that indie developers have given games this "big" quality without resorting to large open worlds. And although it's less effective, another way to make a small game feel bigger is to add extra modes that put a different spin on static content.
Compelling characters and lore may also generate a feeling that the game is larger than the sum of its parts. What players interact with in-game might not be a lot, but you can give them the sense that it's part of something larger - if they're excited enough by the possibilities, they might fill in the blanks themselves. You don't need to get that kind of world-building right in a single game, either - you could build on these ideas across a series! With each game you release, the shared world becomes bigger and each individual game starts to feel bigger by virtue of its connection to the whole.
In a similar way, online multiplayer can make even a tiny game feel big, if enough people are playing it simultaneously. However, if a game is centered around online multiplayer and the playerbase is small, the game will feel just as small. So online multiplayer isn't a consistent way to make your game feel big, even if you do have the resources and experience to implement it.
Developers get frustrated discussing the length of games with players, because it often becomes decoupled from the quality of the experience, which is what developers value most. But what I think many players are trying to convey when they complain about playtime is that they want more "bigness", with length being the easier part of that to explain. And to be sure, bigness is a multifaceted and wide-ranging concept that's difficult to wrap one's head around. But I believe that figuring out efficient and "out-of-the-box" solutions to the problem of "bigness" is one of the most important things you can do if you are an indie developer who is concerned about broad appeal.
Heroes of Might and Magic III: HD Edition (PC). New World Computing, 1999. Lots of little things on the screen scream "fiddly".
"Fiddliness" is a concept in board games and it's usually meant as a pejorative, like: "This game is too fiddly." A fiddly board game has too many minor rules and edge cases to remember and/or too many different pieces that need to be moved around to track things. In other words, a fiddly game is one that lacks elegance in design.
In tabletop games, it makes sense that fiddliness would be seen as a bad thing - it's a medium that's built around face-to-face social interaction, where the rules need to be taught orally to the group and then tracked by human brains aided by physical cards and tokens. Elegance, the quality of having a few very intuitive, powerful rules, is how board games take the complexity out of rulekeeping so that players can focus on strategizing.
But in video games, the computer can manage so much of the fiddliness for us. An extra rule that causes headaches in a board game because it introduces a new chit to move around might go completely unnoticed in a video game. As a result, video game players actually value fiddliness, since they understand, at least subconsciously, that it's a byproduct of ambitious, freeform designs that enable them to DO MORE. Fiddly genres like strategy/tactics games, simulations, and management games are evergreen for this very reason.
Fiddliness is a contributor to bigness, as well: a small world that has a lot to do in it can feel bigger than a large world that is lacking in interactivity. Together, I think that these two concepts are the key to understanding how popular a genre is and how much room there is in the genre for more successful games. It's tempting, as a game designer, to focus too much on elegance in design because uncovering elegant rules feels, for lack of a better term, "designery". But unless other game developers are your primary audience, I would treat elegance as a means to an end and not the end itself. These days, if I had to choose between an elegant-but-restrictive solution and a janky-but-permissive solution, I'd lean toward picking the latter (all else being equal).
There's a lot you could say about aesthetics and what's appealing about a video game's presentation. For the purposes of this article, I'll just say that, in my opinion, aesthetics have to be REALLY compelling before they start making a significant impact on a game's broad appeal - it's easy to fall into that Morass in the Middle where you're spending lots of time on aesthetics that will not make an appreciable difference to the average player. If you're not confident in your artistic skills, I suggest putting more of that time and energy into bigness and fiddliness where it will count much more. A minimalist art style that is crisp and expressive will give back more for your efforts than one that is trying to emulate Cuphead or Metal Slug but falls short.
While everyone appreciates novelty, I think there is a divide between players, game developers, and game journalists here in terms of how they value it. In general, developers and journalists value novelty more in and of itself, especially at the concept level, because of how we engage with games as part of our work. It's not uncommon to see journalists and devs lauding a unique new indie game concept that ends up not selling very well because the game feels small and restrictive to players.
If a game is attractive, big-feeling, fiddly, AND conceptually novel, well... that's where you'll probably see universal praise from players, media, and game devs alike. Some ideas are also so one-of-a-kind and interesting that they don't need to be big or fiddly necessarily. But that's obviously a tall order and not something that I would suggest new indie devs shoot for blindly - without the requisite experience, "novel ideas" usually end up being gimmicky (i.e. unique but also shallow/restrictive). Instead, try to find creative ways to put your personality in the details of your game - it may be harder to explain in a sentence, but players will still feel your "soul" in the project if you did a good job of it.
Having a positive reputation increases the appeal of the games you release and lowers your risk - eventually, people might start to buy a game partly for you, the developer, as well as the game! And the media enjoys writing articles about "The New Game From the Creator of X", which makes it easier to do marketing. Developing a reputation is a long term goal you can work on across multiple releases.
Also, when evaluating other games in your research, you should keep in mind the effect that reputation is having on their success. A well-known and popular developer shoulders less risk when working on a niche game and they may be able to make an idea seem appealing in a way that a new developer can't.
Pricing is a tricky topic and there are many angles to approach it from. For this article, I'll simply say that lower price points are more appealing to players and I believe that, for new indie developers in particular, it's more important to grow your fanbase than to maximize your revenue (although I believe that the former leads to the latter more often than not). More players means more reviews and more people talking about your game all at once, and that's what will get the snowball rolling before it turns into a puddle. Even though we might wish the opposite to be true, the amount of work we put into developing our games is inconsequential to our potential fans - pricing expectations and what the player values are all that matter when they are browsing a game store.
Of course, if you price too low that can cast doubt on the quality of your work - you want to make sure you're in a reasonable range of prices. I would compare it to other games in similar genres, with similar aesthetics, taking into account the reputation of their developers. Apples to apples and oranges to oranges. As a new developer, I would probably be looking more at the lower end of that price range, with the aim of maximizing community growth, number of positive reviews, and word-of-mouth marketing, knowing that that's what makes a game seem enticing to passers-by.
In my opinion, good marketing can certainly make a game more broadly appealing, but only to the maximum extent that the game itself will allow. A game that isn't broadly appealing most likely won't become broadly appealing through marketing. So I wouldn't count on marketing to "fix" anything for you with regards to appeal. It also takes resources to implement, resources that could be spent on developing the game. So with marketing, I suggest focusing on the lowest-hanging fruit, marketing that you can do from your computer: create appealing screenshots, trailers (skillful trailer editors are worth it if you can afford one!), and store pages. Also, give out codes to reviewers and streamers and post about your game on social media when inspiration strikes. I would say that's a perfectly solid foundation for marketing and you can feel good if you can manage all that and nothing more.
Marketing isn't just about promotion, though - it's also the best way to get a direct sense of your game's appeal before release, through unsympathetic player feedback.
SUMMARY: IT'S ABOUT PRIORITIZING
"Risk assessment" is really just another way of saying "my time is limited, so where is it best spent?" With games having so many complex, moving parts, it's easy to spend time on stuff that doesn't contribute tangibly to the game's overall popularity. That's why my framework is essentially designed around WHAT YOU PUT IN and WHAT YOU GET BACK.
To summarize: unique content and experimentation is largely what drives how many resources you spend on development, with personal experience affecting the latter. That's what you put in to a project. As for what you can get back - the appeal of the game* - I'm suggesting that "bigness" (the feeling of being big) and fiddliness (the level of interactivity) are the most important attributes for a game to have, although other things like aesthetics, novelty, reputation, price, and marketing also play a role. These other attributes can make up for a lack of bigness or fiddliness, but they need to be extremely strong to do so, in my opinion.
As an aside, I think the framework also explains why it can feel so bad when we compare ourselves to one another in the indie dev community - a game that took one year to make can WILDLY outperform a game that took ten years, simply because the former was made using simpler processes with more broadly appealing outcomes! But in the same way that finishing is a skill, finding the intersection between what you like and what others like is also a skill. Spending your time wisely is a skill, too. The purpose of a risk framework is to give you an idea of how to develop those skills.
* Note: As I said before, we're focusing on commercial game development here. Personal satisfaction and growth are a given!
SHOOT 'EM UPS UNDER THE LENS OF RISK
DoDonPachi (Arcade). Cave, 1997.
Now that I've explained the framework, let's apply it to a genre I have deep affection for, one that's been around since the dawn of the medium: shoot 'em ups (aka "shmups" or shooting games/STGs)!
To me, playing a good shmup feels like improvising on a piece of music: you read the movements of enemies and bullets like they're notes on a page and respond with a rhythmic tapping of buttons. Visually, they can be an overwhelming feast for the eyes, with gorgeous science fiction and fantasy backdrops erupting in a colorful symphony of explosions and bullet patterns. There's something so wonderfully pure about shooting and dodging in one of the oldest video game genres!
So what do you think? How risky is it to make a shoot 'em up today? Sadly, I feel like they're in the higher risk part of the graph. Let's start with their broad appeal: in general, the broad appeal of classic arcade games has declined steadily since the rise of home consoles and PC gaming. The basic structure of classic arcade games - linear, mostly static, short in length from beginning to end - fails to capture the feeling of "bigness" that most players are looking for today. Classic arcade games are not particularly fiddly, either - they embody the philosophy of "easy to learn but hard to master" because that's what works best in the fast-paced environment of the arcade. You can spend a lifetime learning a single good arcade game, but it requires a certain mentality to enjoy them that way.
Some arcade genres have found ways to embiggen themselves successfully. Platformers evolved to include Metroidvanias and roguelikes. Beat 'em ups and fighting games have seen rebounds based around the strength of their nostalgic characters and multiplayer components (particularly with the advent of online multiplayer). For shoot 'em ups, however, the path is not so clear. I personally love fun space ship designs, but humanoid characters are more broadly appealing. And the basic design of traditional shmups is resistant to random generation, RPG mechanics, open worlds, or multiplayer.
Difficulty is sometimes cited as the reason why shmups struggle with mainstream audiences, but if that were the case, I don't think roguelikes and Soulsbournes would be as popular as they are. The problem isn't that shoot 'em ups are too difficult, but that the difficulty doesn't feel worth it for your average player.
Off the top of my head, though, I can think of a couple examples of bigger-feeling shoot 'em ups. The first is Capcom's U.N. Squadron for the SNES (pictured left), which lets you choose (and replay) missions from a strategic map and use funds accrued from those missions to upgrade your ship. It's notable that many of these "big", fiddly elements were added or expanded upon specifically for the home market and were not present in the arcade original. Another example is ZUN's Touhou Project, which is maybe the most successful attempt I've seen to make a "big" shmup... but in reality it's 18 separate shmups connected by an expansive lore that features many compelling humanoid characters. I think those are both promising avenues to explore for the genre.
Shmups have also found success as part of a bigger collection of games, like the various retro game compilations or a project like UFO 50. By itself, a shmup may be niche, but it could be part of something much bigger and collectively fiddly! Through these types of collections, I'm hoping that players who aren't into shmups will learn to enjoy them.
From working on my own shmups, I can also tell you that, unless you're trying to make something as retro as Space Invaders, the resource investment is going to be higher than it seems. A top tier STG may only have 6 linear levels, but each one is chock full of eye-popping setpieces and intricate enemy and bullet patterns. Also, because shmups have evolved with an increasingly niche hardcore audience, their design has become more and more abstract to match. Understanding why the hitboxes in most modern shmups are so much smaller than the sprites is only the tip of the iceberg. The amount of unique content and experimentation required to make a stand-out shmup are going to be quite high unless you use a game engine specifically tailored to shmup-creation.
So yeah, I would consider shoot 'em ups to be high risk games to make nowadays, with niche appeal and higher-than-expected resource investment... something I would only recommend to passionate fans who can shoulder that risk. Or perhaps to challenge-seekers who are intrigued by the "puzzle" of how to push them forward (keep in mind that many of your ideas have probably already been tried - do your research!). In the past, I've written beginner dev tutorials based around making a shmup but now I think it makes more sense to start with adjacent genres that are lower risk and easier to embiggen, like a top down shooter or a run 'n' gun.
Still, there's so much to love about STGs and so much to learn from them. I have no doubt they'll be around forever and I definitely encourage everyone to try them at some point.
OTHER WAYS TO USE RISK ASSESSMENT
Metroid (NES). Nintendo, 1987. (Source)
As you can see, a framework can help you come up with a rough sense for how risky a particular idea is, so that you're not just winging it. You can apply a risk framework to a genre, but you can also apply it to a system, a style, or even a singular mechanic (after all, a genre is really just a collection of such things).
Let's do another example: let's say you want to make a Metroidvania... how do you think that compares to making a shmup? Metroidvanias have considerably more broad appeal than shmups, being much "bigger" and more fiddly... but they're big in a way that's hard to systemize and invites feature creep. In other words, the resource investment to develop one is usually very high - it's a genre where it's not uncommon for developers to plan for a 2-year development and end up spending many times that to finish (if they ever do)! And if you have a Burrower personality, the risk of making a Metroidvania goes up even higher. So I would say that it's also a risky genre, for different reasons.
But let's say you want to make a Metroidvania anyway - you've never made one before but it's the type of game you're most excited about right now and you think you have the discipline to avoid burrowing. Seeing as how the genre's defining characteristics are already quite broadly appealing, it would make sense to try and minimize the resource investment. Your goal changes from making a Metroidvania to making a "lightweight Metroidvania". One of the major considerations here is the artwork - you decide to go with a simple art style that still looks charming, knowing that any increase in fidelity will be multiplied across a significant amount of handmade content, from the characters to the environments to the UI. I would also go light on scripted cutscenes and dialogue in favor of environmental storytelling, which is less resource-intensive to develop. If telling a traditional story is your primary interest, a Metroidvania is probably not the best genre to do that in.
Now, a Metroidvania, even a lightweight one, is not a novel concept, which is good because it means that there are other games to learn from. Of course, there's always the concern about standing out, and it's at that point that I know a lot of indie developers start looking for a "hook" (i.e. a high concept novelty) to separate themselves from the pack. But as I said above, these kinds of novelties often feel restrictive in execution... not to mention the time it takes to experiment with a hook, which undoes a lot of the benefits you reaped from going "lightweight" in the first place.
Again, I entreat you to think about innovation as something that goes deeper than just the elevator pitch, especially if you're a new developer who is still trying to "make it" in this industry. If you've never made a Metroidvania before, it's going to be quite a challenge just to release a basic one that feels good to play... and once you actually start working on your "basic", lightweight Metroidvania, you'll discover that there are countless nooks and crannies under the surface where you can add your own touch to the genre.
And what if you're just starting out making games but you don't have a single, strong idea that you absolutely have to make? Conventional wisdom states that people who want to get into indie game dev should make many small games, and that's good advice, but I think we can get more specific than that. With my risk framework in mind, it makes sense for new developers to create games that are small BUT ALSO as big-feeling and fiddly as they can muster. Something that can be made in a year or less but has broadly appealing qualities.
Easier said than done, of course, but looking at the history of indie games, we've seen many developers gravitate toward these types of (relatively) lower risk games, successfully releasing small roguelikes and other run-based, build-based games, as well as lightweight Metroidvanias, tactical games, and survival games. The key is to design creatively and prioritize where your resources go, instead of just putting in more work and hoping that enough people value it as much as you do. Where it makes sense, let the computer help you systemize your ideas and make the most of your limited resources, since it's the computer that separates video games from other types of games.
And if you still want to take a big risk on an unproven, high concept idea... or maybe a shmup... or a Metroidvania to rival the most ambitious in the genre? No one is stopping you! At least with a framework you can better gauge that that's exactly what you're doing. The nature of risk is such that sometimes a high risk venture will pay off and sometimes a low risk venture will not - game development is very complex and hard to predict. There's no silver bullet. Risk assessment is just another tool to help you think about what challenges you're getting into and what will work best for you and your situation.
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