[ I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. ]
PLEASE NOTE: this blog uses 2019 Steam review scores and links to explicit sexual games. Click at your peril.
Every week I receive ICO Partners’ Steam newsletter. It’s a simple round-up of all the week’s latest Steam games, alongside their number of reviews and overall review score. As well as keeping me in the loop about new games I might be interested in, it’s also taught me a valuable lesson about nicheness, audience fit and what can be reliably termed the Law of Boob.
The single most consistent thing about new releases on Steam is that if you make a game with breasts in them you’re looking at a baseline of 80%+ positive reviews. This seems to happen with an uncanny consistency that makes me wonder if I and my heterosexual feminist principles are a blocker for good business decisions. Every week I see games called things like Hentai Asmodeus outrank games that are palpably higher quality, and while they might not make the megabucks of lower-rated but higher-grossing offerings, they show an audience resonance that many more successful titles fail to match.
This weekly trend is borne out across Steam. Monster Hunter: World is a cool 75%. Civilization VI is 71%. Once phenomenally popular, PUBG sits now at 51%. All are apparently less good than Cultist Simulator, the game my studio made in our pyjamas for £142k, which is niche and flawed and doesn’t have a tutorial and sits at 78%. This doesn’t mean AAA PC games are doomed to middling review scores, of course. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is 97%, and famously excellent AAA offerings like Fallout: New Vegas, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Divinity: Original Sin 2 are all happily 95%. But it tells me two things: one, that trying to please a wide audience tends to lower your overall review score, and two, we should all be putting colons in our games’ titles.
You know what’s better than The Witcher 3? Meltys Quest, sitting pretty at 98% positive, which as far as I can tell is about a queen’s journey to find a bra. CD Projekt Red is also put to shame by DEEP SPACE WAIFU: NEKOMIMI, another 98% positive bastion of gaming brilliance where you’re a rat in a spaceship shooting clothes off megalithic cat-women. I think. Three other offerings equal The Witcher 3 and its 800 awards: NEKOPARA Vol. 3, ‘a heartwarming cat-comedy’ set in a sexy patisserie’, LOVE3 -Love Cube- which appears to have very little to do with cubes, and The Ditzy Demons Are In Love With Me which surely needs no explanation. All of these are 97% positive because the people who like anime boobs really like anime boobs and they’re all wonderful examples of product-market fit.
I’m not suggesting that games are at their best when they’re thinly-veiled pornography. But I am saying that we indies who don’t make boob games should consider what our version of boobs is. What’s the one thing about our games that will really resonate with potential players? What will excite people into loving our products, rather than filling the generic game-shaped space in people’s lives? If you don’t have an answer to this, you might be in trouble.
Every developer wants their game to be universally loved. AAA studios have the money to sometimes – sometimes – make that happen. Indies don’t. So don’t aim for everyone and end up making Meh Soup. Aim for one particular audience and really knock it out of the park. Or, y’know. Consider hentai.