How to Develop Great Niche Games

How to Develop Great Niche Games

The games industry is doing everything it can to appeal to the mainstream, including offering free games, social games, casual games, games that fix dinner, etc. With so many titles trying to be all things to all people, you might be tempted to look at past gaming trends and declare them dead.

Nope. The financial and critical success of games like Catherine and Dark Souls indicates that there’s still a market for niche games, and it’s a very hungry, very eager market.

Now’s as good a time as any to veer away from mainstream trends in game development. Here are a few tips to help devs find success with niche games:

Focus on a few features, and do them really well — What’s preferable: developing your title around a small sampling of well-polished ideas, or throwing in a lot of half-assed features and minigames for the sake of saying, “Hey, our game has this, this, and this! None of these ideas are fully realized, but at least they’re there!”

Take Bethesda Softworks’ Skyrim (amazingly popular for an open-ended RPG that’s all about anal-retentive detail and endless customization). For all the press we’ve been seeing about the supposed death of single-player games, the latest chapter in the Elder Scrolls saga managed to sell 3.4 million copies within two days. And it did it without shoehorning in an online multiplayer feature, or PVP. Instead, Bethesda put all its resources into fine-tuning the single-player formula, and it paid off.

Celebrate your fans — If you’re developing for a niche, you have an opportunity to garner a close fanbase. These fans will offer love, feedback, and occasional insults. Ignore the insults, but take the love and feedback graciously. Share appropriate fanworks, like cool projects and artwork, on the game’s blog, website, Twitter account, etc.

Foster a healthy community — In the same vein, make sure there are plenty of options for your fans to get in touch with your business and offer criticism. That includes well-moderated forums, Twitter, Facebook, and a contact email that isn’t buried like a secret treasure. If possible, members of the development staff should drop in when it’s convenient to chat with fans, share insight into the game, and (if they’re comfortable with the idea) offer tips on breaking into the industry.

Advertise the specific feature(s) that your game revolves around — When advertising the game (regardless of the medium), make it clear that it’s supposed to appeal to a certain demographic. Is the game a hardcore RPG? Is it a game about farming and raising a family? Is it a 2D adventure that’s supposed to appeal to retro enthusiasts? Flaunt it!

Care — It might sound silly, but the ladies and gentlemen who are looking for something different from what the mainstream is offering sometimes feel neglected and pushed aside. Fans of niche games often feel excluded by today’s market: you don’t have to go far on a game-related message boards to find complaints about how everything on the market is (supposedly) a brown-and-grey first-person shooter. Assure your fans that they’re not weirdos who no longer have any right to enjoy gaming.

Needless to say, the best way to do this is is to make that wicked-cool A+ niche game in the first place. It’s the Circle of Life–and game development.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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