Game Dev Secrets to Indie Success

Ready to learn the best game dev secrets to creating a hit mobile game?

Today, we’re going to share the same game dev secrets that we used to make hit games like Phases, The Line Zen, SKY, The Pit and more. Then we’ll walk you through the whole process and break down each secret strategy. These strategies are perfect for solo devs or any small indie team that wants to take their game making to that next level.

So, let’s jump right in!

'game dev secrets 1'Game Dev Secrets:  #1 – Reverse Engineer The Hits

In the very beginning, before you start making your game, it’s important to do your research. To create a successful game as an indie developer, you have to not only research top games in your desired niche, but reverse engineer them as well. It’s one of the best game dev secrets to practice.

When you know what’s working and the reason why it’ll lead you in the right game design direction. You’ll be able to make the type of game that players are already interested in and as a result, you’ll be a step ahead of the competition.

As an indie developer, you never want to just ‘wing it,’ it’s critical that you take the necessary time out to research before you jump into creating your game. So, when you start creating your game, you’re not creating something that’s outdated or that people are sick of playing because the trend has been played out.

Researching and reverse engineering hit games is one of the most coveted well-kept game dev secrets around. You have to do your research to make a hit game.

Here’s how we do it:

First, we try to identify some current trends that are going on right now. I’ll walk you through the whole process on both the iOS App Store and Steam platform, but you should use the platform that you plan to use to launch your game. This technique will work on most platforms. 

Top Free Games Category

Open up the iOS App Store and go to the Top Free iPhone Games section. When you’re looking for games to reverse engineer, it’s important to focus primarily on the top free games category instead of paid. There are several reasons why you should do this.

The first is that there’s a very slow turn over rate for paid games in the App Store. Most of the top paid games are older titles that have been around for quite some time. Games like Minecraft, Bloons, Heads Up!, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Monopoly have held top positions for years. However, on the top free games chart, it’s often the opposite. These games are consistently changing, and many of them are newly released games. Newer titles will also give you a better idea of what’s currently trending.

In fact, the top three to five games in the free games category are usually new releases. The entire top free games chart is a 50/50 mix of new and older hits, which will give you a strong chance. Another reason it’s good to focus on the free instead of the paid category is that many of the top grossing games are free titles. The competition is fierce in the paid games category, so it’s harder to break into. You really have to create a unique game and build an entire community of loyal fans behind it to rank in the top paid games category.

When you focus on the free category, you’ll gain deeper insights into the trends that are working, and you’ll be able to increase your odds of success in the process.

To start, let’s examine the iOS App Store. In the top free games category, you’ll find titles like Flip Master, Bowmasters, Snake vs. Block, Pixel Drop and Flappy Dunk. Scroll all the way down and browse through the first top 100 free games. Take notes and jot down any reoccurring themes or trends that you notice.

Reverse Engineer Your Way to Indie Success

If you have an idea of what type of game you’re leaning towards making, look at the top free games in that particular category or genre. Keep an eye out for games that look like they’re from indie developers. If you want to go the publisher route, then try to select games that were published by the same company or publishers that interest you.

Try to pick a couple of games to research and reverse engineer thoroughly. The goal is to find out why that game is successful. Analyze its App Store page, read the reviews, Google the developer or publisher. Then download and play the game. Be sure to take notes. Record anything that stands out to you. Look for themes, trends, break down the app’s gameplay mechanics and study it until you have the answers that you need.

When you figure out how they got in the position that they’re in, you’ll be able to recreate that success. Remember to also look for patterns and trends that on the rise. When you’re applying game dev secrets like reverse engineering, you can make your research as detailed as you’d like. A great tip to follow is to break down the reverse engineering process into different sections such as gameplay, monetization, and art style. Try to come up with a game concept that is currently trending upwards.

Using Steam

Now let’s take a closer look at the Steam platform. Go to Steam’s Top Seller’s section. Then go to the right side panel’s filter options. You should see an option box for ‘Narrow by Tag’ with various categories like Indie, Action, Casual, Adventure, etc. listed. Click on the category that you’re researching. For example, we’ll be analyzing the current trend in indie games, so we’ll click on the ‘Indie’ option in the search filter. A fresh list of top games in that particular category will appear.

Following the same technique, try to pick several games to research and reverse engineer. Don’t stop at just current trends, break down each game and find out what features or aspects about that game is working well and why. Take notes and use them as a reference when you’re finalizing your game concept and planning development.

'Game Marketing'Game Dev Secrets: #2 – Start Marketing When You Start Making

When it comes to game dev secrets, this one is HUGE. Start marketing your game early! Far too many indie developers make the mistake of starting their marketing efforts post launch. If you want to make a hit game, you have to start marketing your game as soon as you begin development.

In our previous article called, ‘Game Marketing Tips from App Experts’ we asked several successful developers to share some of their best marketing strategies. Starting marketing early was one of their top game dev secrets. As an indie dev, you should always be promoting your game. There are tons of different methods that you can do to help promote your game early and generate buzz. You can post teasers of your game on popular social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.

Another way to help promote your game when you’re just starting out is to set up a website or blog. You can do a lot with this type of online presence. It can serve as your game’s home base, which will provide you with your own platform to capture emails, make announcements, talk directly with potential new players and fans and build a whole community around your game. You can create a simple landing page announcing your upcoming game and an opt-in for receiving updates, or you can create a developer blog to document your game development journey. If you want, you can even do both.

The Minecraft Technique

Minecraft creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson applied these game dev secrets when he was creating his hit game. He started blogging about developing Minecraft back in 2009 using Tumblr and posting videos on YouTube. You can check out old archive posts from years ago that he posted while making the game. Most of his posts were screenshots in the form of teasers and videos. Notch’s consistency in posting helped him build a solid fan base around his game before it was even released. Being consistent with your promotion is another key factor for success, which Notch was able seamlessly to do using YouTube for videos and curating his content on Tumblr.

Although Tumblr isn’t as popular as it was back in 2009, you can still follow Notch’s technique by documenting your game journey on a popular platform with social features like Medium for example and publishing video content on YouTube. Reddit and Digg are also great sites to use as well to help push your game.

'create a game'Game Dev Secrets: #3 – Create a Game That People Want to Play

It’s also essential that you create a game that people want to play. This is why researching and reverse engineering hits are game dev secrets. To create a game that players want to play, you need to know what’s working and which game types people are gravitating towards the most. Being in the know on the current trends will give you a leg up on the competition. It’ll also guide you in the best direction to go with your game concept.

When you’re trying to make a game that players will want to play you need to come up with a concept that’s unique yet familiar. A good way to do this is by modeling and improving off of other game ideas.

You’d be surprised by how many hit games were modeled and improved from other games. For example, Rovio’s Angry Birds was modeled after a game called Crush the Castle, Supercell’s mega hit Clash of Clans was modeled after a previous Digital Chocolate game called Galaxy Life, and Minecraft was modeled after a game called Infiniminer.

One of the best-kept game dev secrets is the ‘model and improve’ method. It’s the secret sauce that most successful game developers and entrepreneurs in general use. You can apply the ‘model and improve’ technique to come up with bigger and better game ideas.

Here’s how it works:

Select one or multiple games from your previous research that inspired you. Maybe it had a great art style or cool theme or a standout gameplay feature that you liked. Take out your notes and analyze the different aspects of the game and try to brainstorm ways to improve. The goal is to change, remove, or add something to that base concept to make it unique. Come up with new ways to tweak and make improvements on each feature until you have an entirely new game concept that’s 10X better.

Remember when you’re modeling and improving, always to tweak and add something special to it. You never want to copy or rip-off someone’s game. It can get you into trouble if you do. Strive to make a new game based on the idea that you’re modeling and improving.

'game dev secrets 4'Game Dev Secrets: #4 – Package It Together Perfectly

Although it may seem too obvious to be one of our game dev secrets, it’s not. To make a hit game, you have to package every aspect of it together perfectly. This means your game design has to be perfect, the sounds must all be in key, the music has to flow with the game and be trendy, and your game must be polished. A polished game is consistent and cohesive throughout. It’s free from any errors and bugs. Not just technical bugs but issues in the game’s internal design as well. From the core mechanics to graphics, sound, and controls every component of the game is close to perfection when it’s truly polished.

A great example of a polished game is Playdead’s Inside. They did an excellent job of polishing their game to the point where you’re immersed into that world. When you’re making games, you want players to be fully engaged. Having too many imperfections and bugs in your design will ultimately turn off players from your game. This is why it’s essential that you package everything together perfectly and make sure it’s polished.  

Polishing Your Game

Polishing is not easy, but it’s important to do if you want to make a successful game. If you want to add polish to your game you first must review it. Sit down and take some time analyzing your game. While you’re playing it, play close attention and look for any small details or aspects of the game that could be improved. Consider the characters, sound effects, unique features, controls and search for any errors. Make the necessary improvements and then use beta testers to gain further feedback. Ask your friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers to test your game. Hire beta testers or enlist the help of volunteers on forums to check your game. Use the insight you gain from testing to make improvements until your game is completely polished.

More Game Dev Secrets

In the video above, Trey explains all four game dev secrets in detail and shows you examples of the games and methods that he used. He’ll also reveal a bonus game dev secret that helped him get his game Phases greenlit on Steam and more.

Tiana Crump

About Tiana Crump

Tiana Crump is a journalist and social media manager at Buildbox with a passion for inspiring others and driving brand awareness. As a gamer and creator, she enjoys sharing game development insights, tips, and success stories from the Buildbox community.