Indie genres

Being a game developer is hard. Going at it as an indie is that much harder. You don’t have the budget that the big guys have, which means that you can’t afford flashy, state-of-the-art graphics, A-list voice actors, or a soundtrack full of 80s hits. That doesn’t mean that indie games can’t be great. They can, as the past few years have shown. (After I finish writing this post, I’ll probably go back to Sunless Sea, one of those great indie games.)

But the lack of money, and the lack of assets, technology, and infrastructure that it creates, that does have an impact on what an indie dev can do. That’s starting to change, but we’re not quite there yet. For the time being, entire swaths of gaming’s concept space are blocked off for those of us not backed by the AAA guys.

It’s for this reason that some gaming genres are far more common for indies. Those that are the easiest to write, those using the least amount of “expensive” bits, and those that fit within the capabilities of indie-available tools are best represented. Others are rarer, because they’re so much more difficult for a small studio or lone developer.

So let’s see what we can do. I’ve taken the most popular game genres and divided them into three broad categories: those that are very indie-friendly, the ones that indies probably can’t make, and a few that are on the bubble.

The good

  • Puzzles: Puzzle games are some of the first that budding game developers learn how to make, and they’re still highly popular. They’re easy to make, they don’t require a lot of high-quality assets, and people know they won’t be very fancy. Yet puzzle games can be incredibly addictive, even for casual players. These are always a good choice for an indie project, particularly a solo one.

  • Platformers: Another popular genre that perfectly fits the indie mold. Most of the low-cost and free engines have special support baked in for platformers, almost like the creators are steering you towards the genre. And it’s good that they are, as platformers have brought success to quite a few developers over the years. People thought they were dead when the 3D revolution hit, but time has only proven them wrong.

  • Adventure: Adventure gaming is another genre left for dead in decades past. But it also found resurgence in recent years. Point-and-click adventures, survival horror, visual novels, and even interactive fiction have grown in popularity. For indies, adventure is a good genre because it rewards great writing over eye-candy. Art is hard for most programmers, but there are a lot of free assets you can use here.

  • Shooters: First-person or third-person, shooters are popular everywhere. Most of the major engines are tuned for them, and for a while it seemed like that was all the big guys knew how to make. Now, indies aren’t going to make the next blockbuster franchise, but that’s no reason to give up on the shooter genre. Plenty of niche gamers have a favorite shooter. The hardest parts are the assets (but Unity, for instance, has a lot of them available at a decent price) and the multiplayer backend. Get those straight, and you’re golden.

  • Retro: I’m using “retro” as a catchall term for a number of smaller genres that have been around for a long time and are still popular today…in their original forms. Think shoot-em-ups, for example. A lot of people seem to like the retro feel. Pixel art, 8-bit sounds, garish color schemes, and frustratingly difficult gameplay are the rule here, and a subset of gamers will eat that up. In other words, retro gaming is a perfect fit for indies: assets are easy to create, nobody expects them to be good, and you don’t have to worry much about game balance.

  • Sandbox: Ah, Minecraft. The open-world sandbox might be the defining genre of the 2010s, and it’s one that the bigger studios haven’t really tackled very much. Some of the best sandbox games, according to the gamers I’ve talked to, are the indie ones. The genre does have an allure to it. No story needed, AI is only for enemies, the world is made by code, and players will swoon over the “emergent” gameplay. What’s not to love? (Of course, it’s never that simple, but that hasn’t stopped indies from taking over the sandbox space.)

The bad

These next few genres are the ones that don’t seem indie-friendly, but a dedicated developer could make something out of them.

  • Turn-based strategy: Of the strategy variants, I prefer this one for its laid-back nature. But it’s a hard one for an indie. You’ve got two real choices. You can focus on single-player, but then you need a good handle on AI. Or you can make a multiplayer-centric game, with all the problems that entails. Still, it can be done, even as a volunteer effort. Freeciv and Battle for Wesnoth are two examples of free strategy games that have won hearts and minds.

  • Simulation: Sims are another tantalizing genre. They’re a little more complex than their sandbox cousins, often because they have restrictions and goals and such, but most of the same arguments apply. Simulation games also tend to be better focused, and focus is a powerful tool ignored by many devs on either side of the money line. But they’re a lot of work, and it’s a different kind of work. Simulations need to be researched, then written in such a way that they (mostly) reflect reality. Can indies do it? Kerbal Space Program proves they can, but it’s not going to be easy.

  • Role-playing: RPGs, in my opinion, are right on the line of what’s doable for a solo developer. They’re well within the reach of an indie studio, however. It’s not the code that’s the problem—RPG Maker takes care of most of that—but the combination of gameplay, artwork, and writing that makes an RPG hard. That shouldn’t stop you from trying. When done right, this genre is one of the best. Free or cheap assets help a lot here, although you still have to do the storyline yourself.

The ugly

Some genres are mostly beyond indie capabilities. Not that they haven’t given them a shot. Sometimes, it even pays off.

  • Sports: With one exception, sports games are very unfriendly to smaller studios. You’re competing against juggernauts who’ve been at this for decades, and they have all the licenses, endorsements, and publicity. But if you’re willing to invent a new sport, you just might be able to slip into the picture. If you have a bigger budget, that is. It worked for Rocket League.

  • MMO: Just no. MMOs combine all the problems of RPGs with all the hassle of multiplayer shooters, and the whole is much greater, in terms of trouble, than the sum of its parts. Indies have tried, but few have really succeeded. It’s a combination of content and infrastructure that tends to doom them. The general lack of dedicated tooling (MMO-specific engines, etc.) doesn’t help matters.

  • Real-time strategy: The RTS genre is almost dead unless your game is named StarCraft, all but replaced by the MOBA. Either way, it’s a tall order for indies. Strong AI, good artwork, racks of servers to host the multiplayer matches, and the list only grows from there. To top it off, the real-time genres seem to attract more cheaters than just about anything else, so you have to be watchful. But monitoring games for cheating means taking your eyes off the code or hiring moderators. Neither is a good option for a dev on a tiny budget. If you somehow manage it, the payoff can be enormous, because of one recently coined word: esports.

  • Console: This is a platform, not a genre, but it’s worth mentioning here. Thanks to the closed nature of consoles, indie development usually isn’t worth pursuing. Yes, Sony and Microsoft have become more open in the last few years (Nintendo is, if anything, becoming even worse), but there are still too many barriers in the way to make console games a good use of your valuable time. Stick to the three PC platforms (Windows, Linux, and Mac) and the two mobile ones (Android, iOS) at the start.

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