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The Fast Life and Fiery Death of Vampire Survivors Games.
Indie developers can strip a genre to the bones faster than piranhas can finish off a cow.
Way back in February, I wrote a big article about indie phenomenon Vampire Survivors. It was a fun cheap game that is still fun and cheap.
It's also a charming, scruffy take on the classic Twin-Stick Shooter genre, great for mindless gaming, with a price that is effectively zero. A great idea. So great that a million indie developers coincidentally had the EXACT same idea a few days later.
Time moves quick these days. There's a lot to learn from checking back in with this story. Both about game design, and about the indie games biz as a whole.
Nobody Stripmines An Idea As Well As Indie Devs Do
The history… Vampire Survivors entered early access in December, 2021. It became a word-of-mouth (and streaming) hit in mere months. It was released for real in October, 2022.
Indie developers started copying it almost immediately after it went public. With such frequency and enthusiasm that, in April, 2023, Humble Bundle did a "Best of Survivors-Like Bundle" This, of course, was only a small selection of "Survivors-Like" titles, with the more successful ones (like Brotato and 20 Minutes Till Dawn) absent.
Giving this sort of design (simple, low-budget, easy to copy) to hungry indie developers was like throwing a sheep into a piranha tank. We stripped it to the bone in a year.
I was inspired to write this post because I saw a popular streamer playing Yet Another Zombie Survivors.
And. Um. I don't like criticizing indie developers. I wish success to them all. And the game looks competently made. But. Well. If the name of your game starts with "Yet Another”, we may have a problem.
I recently got a lot of people shouting at me when I said there are too many indie games. But ... It's still true, and truer every day.
This Genre Is a Deathtrap
One of the most important qualities of a "Survivors-Like" game is not quality. It's price. Vampire Survivors sells for five bucks, so its clones are pressured to charge that much at most.
Let's be clear. This price point is a deathtrap.
Indie games are a niche, bespoke project, so we almost always sell smaller numbers of copies. That means we have to charge a decent price (usually $20-25) to have a chance to break even. To make money with a $5 game, you have to sell big numbers, and, in a market this crowded, almost none of these games will.
I played a few of these clones because I love Twin-Stick Shooters. As mentioned above, Brotato and 20 Minutes Till Dawn are popular and worth the tiny price.
Soulstone Survivors is OK. Pretty, with nice boss variety. Yet, it's been in Early Access for a long time, so buyer beware.
Meanwhile, In Vampire Survivors
The game made a ton of money. Its creator hired a bunch of staff, and they've been releasing bunches of new content. Some of it very cheap DLC. A lot of it free. I think they're doing a great job of keeping the title alive and fresh. (Steam Workshop could do INSANE things with this game.)
However, now that I can compare it to a lot of new takes on the same basic design, I'm finding something very interesting. Vampire Survivors has a design that is flawed in some ways, and the copycat games fix the problems.
Vampire Survivors has a ton of weapons, and they're adding more all the time. However, the weapons aren't balanced well. One weapon (the time freeze gun) is absolutely necessary to do the toughest challenges, while many of the other weapons are just traps for the player, way too weak compared to other options.
The newer games try much harder to balance the weapons against each other, providing a better variety of builds.
Similarly, there isn't much difference between most Vampire Survivor characters, while the newer games provide a choice of characters which lend themselves to a bigger variety of strategies. (Brotato is VERY interesting for this. It has dozens of characters that play very differently, though some balance tweaks would be to the good.)
Don't get me wrong. Vampire Survivors is still fun, and I occasionally give it a play or two when new content comes out.
I just think that, when looking at the improved designs, diminishing returns has set in. If you have an idea for a new twist on this design, it better be REALLY new.
Actually, Vampire Survivors Earns Its Money
I think Vampire Survivors is a flawed game and this could make a really interesting design discussion. Yet, its developers do have one feature coming that explains why they are Very Smart People who earn their money.
Soon, Vampire Survivors will have couch co-op.
I have always said the secret power of indies is being able to pick up neglected genres, dust them off, and revive them. Alas, with the indie market so massively flooded, there are few of these genres left. Couch co-op and party games are one of them. There is a lot of room for someone to eat Jackbox's lunch.
Survivors-like games are PERFECT for couch co-op and party play. Yet, how many games in the genre have it? It was a perfect way for a new title to stand out. Instead, Vampire Survivors is picking up that $20 bill lying in the street.
When its couch co-op patch comes out, I'm buying a second copy on console. Something I basically never do.
One Final Design Note
The thing that is really bugging me about these games is how bland the levels and the enemies are. Twenty minutes of the same foes, in the same order, acting in exactly the same brain-dead way. I can't understand why the designer-instincts of the developers aren't being tickled more.
Consider the very, VERY first game of the genre, the classic Robotron: 2084, which came out OVER FORTY YEARS ago. It had more variety in its basic enemies than most survivors-likes now, including Vampire Survivors.
Every 5th level of that game was a Brain Wave. You were swarmed by the fearsome Brains. They would fire wiggly, heat-seaking missiles. They would also seek out your resources and convert them into missiles to launch at you.
The Brains had so much more thought and care in them than what I'm seeing today. With so much competition and with it being so hard to stand out, why not put some thoughts into your enemies, folks? (The bosses in the excellent Beat Hazard are also really neat.)
There. Another $20 bill lying in the street. Good luck out there!
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