Jason Rohrer: Design ‘Unique Situation Generators,’ Not ‘Consumable Games’

“The press is dead.” At least when it comes to selling small independent games, according to Jason Rohrer (“The Castle Doctrine,” “One Hour One Life”).

In an era that prioritizes influencers and content creators, Rohrer believes the press no longer factor into how games are promoted and sold. To support his position, presented in a GDC Talk titled “2014 vs. 2018: The Shape of Financial Success Before and After the Indiepocalypse,” Rohrer compared what happened when he launched “The Castle Doctrine” in 2014 and “One Hour One Life” in 2018.

In 2014, Rohrer was competing against only three games when “The Castle Doctrine” launched. Opening day brought in 2,475 in unit sales.

Due to intense flooding of the Steam storefront that has impaired discoverability, 2018’s “One Hour One Life” didn’t reach the new release list on the Steam front page at all. Day one sales were sharply lower in 2018 with only 315.

Rohrer thought he had a problem on his hands. After developing “One Hour One Life” for more than three years, the game was set to be a sales disaster.

Operating under a standard decay curve that approaches zero sales (except for spikes around the holidays and Steam sales), Rohrer was in trouble. “One Hour One Life” defied the normal model, though. Sales continued to climb through day five, peaking higher than “The Castle Doctrine” did on its first day.

The trend-breaking sales continued through the game’s second month, spiking to over 8,000 units sold. He attributes this to word of mouth.

To prove out his theory, Rohrer looked at games that have around the same number of concurrent players as “One Hour One Life.” Games like “Staxel,” “Airport CEO,” “Dead in Vinland,” and “Feed and Grow: Fish.” Each of these sells for $15 to $20.

There are more than 300 games with more than 1,000 concurrent players,” Rohrer says. “There are tons of huge success stories here. Life-changing financial results for lots of game developers, and we’re just not hearing about them. Maybe there’s more success on Steam, and more people making more money on games on Steam than ever before.”

Unfortunately, without an in-depth analysis of costs to create those games, Rohrer’s assertion is supposition rather than fact.

What Rohrer was able to put data behind is the shift in how players are finding out about games. He started with his own titles. Three videos of “The Castle Doctrine” were made during the game’s launch week. That number jumped to 31 for “One Hour One Life” in its opening week. The top videos for each of those games have about 280,000 views and 2.2 million views respectively.

He then looked at the relatively unknown games like “Staxel” against games he labels as high profile commercial failures. This group includes titles like Fullbright’s “Tacoma” and Johnnemann Nordhagen’s “Where the Water Tastes Like Wine.”

The top videos for those two games sports views of 133,000 and 96,000 respectively. The top video for “Feed and Grow: Fish” has 7.1 million views. As for press coverage, “Where the Water Tastes Like Wine” and “Tacoma” received reviews from 45 and 56 outlets respectively.

In Rohrer’s eyes, that amounts to one thing.

“The press kind of died along the way,” he says. “It’s not that it doesn’t exist, but its influence in terms of game sales has dried up substantially.” He also suggests that media isn’t covering games a week or two after release, which doesn’t track with coverage patterns of many games at a number of established outlets.  

Rohrer landed on reductive analysis of the game market, suggesting that developers abandon the risk of “consumable games” and focus instead on what he calls “unique situation generators” if they want to strike it rich.

“If we look at all of the gigantic indie hits that came along—I’m not talking about the minor hits that made back their money, but the things that are making astronomical amounts of money—they are all unique situation generators,” he says. Though he does cite Jonathan Blow’s “The Witness” as an outlier.

Certainly, there are some games that are better aligned with streaming and YouTube videos. Games-as-a-service, roguelikes, sandbox experiences, and other highly replayable genres are a great fit for streaming. These are low-hanging fruit for content creators.

“This really fits in with the idea that YouTube videos and Twitch streams being so important in our modern ecosystem,” Rohrer explains. “How do you make a video about a consumable game? Anyone who would want to buy the game would avoid watching videos, because they don’t want the game spoiled for them. Even if you can find a way to make a video without spoiling it, you’re not really making a video that’s all that different than other people have already shown. Whereas the unique situation generators are just obvious candidates for other videos.”

Linear and narrative experiences require different skills from content creators. It is challenging to engage and entice viewers to either risk spoilers or watch someone else play a game they’ve already finished, but there is also more room for in-depth criticism that goes beyond the act of playing. It might be harder to create content around linear and narrative experiences, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for those games.

Gorgeous puzzle platformer “Gris,” for example, turned a profit after one week in December 2018. “Gris” fits Rohrer’s definition of a “consumable game,” rather than one that endlessly creates memeable situations. It’s certainly harder for indie developers, but there are more factors at play than whether your game is video fodder.

Rohrer posits that linear games are riskier affairs than replayable ones. Though that doesn’t deviate from our understanding of the game market for the past 10 years. It’s the reason why publishers rushed to staple multiplayer onto as many games as they could during the Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 era.

Despite flaws in the analysis, Rohrer does have good advice for developers that want to minimize their risk. “We used to make the games that we wanted to play,” he says. “Now we need to make the games we actually do play. Our own personal play histories don’t lie.”