One of the things I’ve learned from my project management life is that working on only one project at a time leads quickly to lulls in activity, where resource isn’t utilised fully. In fact, earlier this week I was talking to someone who ran their own indie games studio for 10 years and they said this was their biggest challenge – making sure there was a sufficient pipeline of ideas and projects to keep their dozens of staff productive.

The Sepia Cowboys may already have fallen foul of this already (eek!), so while we await the release of Hope, we’ve been thinking pretty hard about what to do next. I read a while ago that as developers there are (i) games people buy (ii) games we would like to make and (iii) games that we are able to make. At the intersection of these three groups, therefore, are those games that we probably should make. Being commercially minded, we thought a good starting point would be to understand what type of indie game sells, which is what we set out to do.

Data sources, limitations, assumptions

An immediate issue we discovered is the lack of really good data on video game sales. SteamSpy is a great source of current data on games and genres, but their estimates on owners can be quite wide, particularly for smaller indie games. There’s also the fabulous data gathered from the 16-decimal-place Steam achievement ‘glitch’, which produced pretty accurate owner numbers, but is now over a year old and only includes games with Steam achievements. We settled on using a combination of both sources – while not perfect, it was the best we had to go on.

We removed some games from our dataset – only indie games were included, free to play were out (controversial?) and gone were the non-core genres such as utilities. From an initial dataset of 13,000 games, this left us with a touch over 9,000 in our sample.

Indie games by genre

The first thing we looked at was the number of games in each genre. Games don’t only come with one genre, so we had the joy of over 370 unique combinations of genre tag in our sample. To make this more manageable we filtered this to only show those with 25 or more games, leaving us with 49 unique genre combinations. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most frequent genre is “action, indie” with 1,245 games, 12.5% of the sample. The next most popular genres are “casual, indie” with 813 games and “action, adventure, indie” with 802 games. Collectively, genre combinations of “action”, “adventure”, “indie” and “casual” account for 62% of the games in our sample.

indie games by genre

Looking at 49 bars is still quite a lot, so we then limited the number of genres to ‘main’ genres of action, adventure, casual, MMO, racing, RPG, simulation, sports and strategy and counted the number of times each of this was included in a genre combination. As games can have one of more of these genres, they may appear in multiple genre classes (i.e. the sum of the genres adds up to more than the number of games in our sample). The genre with most games is action, closely followed by adventure and casual, in line with the analysis on the fuller genre list. Middle of the road are the strategy, RPG and simulation genres. The genres with the fewest games are sports, racing and MMO.

indie games by main genre

Indie games by owner

Ok, but which games do people actually own? Now it gets a bit tricky. We have the SteamSpy source of owners that is current, but can be low on the accuracy front. We have the achievement source that’s out of date, but much more accurate. We shot for somewhere in between and generated a blended owners count, using a weighted average with double weight given to the achievement source.

indie games by owners

The “action, indie” genre had the most owners, followed by the “action, adventure, indie” genre. We see the emergence of “RPG” in third place, in the “action, adventure, indie, RPG” genre. While the top 10 – accounting for 65% of the owners in the sample – includes RPG, strategy and simulation elements, the action, adventure, indie and casual elements would appear to draw the most owners. At the opposite end, “casual, indie, sports” games fare the worst, with the fewest owners.

Conclusions & Next Steps

In terms of popularity – by number of games and owner count – action, adventure and casual indie games come out on top. Elements of RPG, strategy and simulation start to sneak in, while the sports, racing and MMO genres are decidedly niche. I can’t say there’s anything particularly surprising here.

Where it does get more interesting is where we go deeper and look at the revenue potential in each of these genres, to give pointers on which genres present the best opportunity for a small studio to pursue. And that’s exactly what we’ll do in part 2 in a few weeks… get your number brains warmed up!!!