We recently shared a report on the state of the hypercasual games model and how it is faring so far in 2023. This report highlighted some of the successes and challenges surrounding the once massively popular game model in today's market.
In this follow up post, Azur Games publishing lead Sergey Martinkevich shares some additional insight into hypercasual games development and offers advice on which genres within the space may work best for smaller teams.
After the release of Azur Games' report on the hypercasual games market in 2023, questions have emerged regarding the selection of trending genres for small studios. By "small studios," I'm referring to teams comprising three developers and a couple of artists. Such a structure enables the creation of prototypes that meet the competitive market standards without overextending development time.
One of the most critical pieces of advice is to focus on a maximum of one or two genres. The goal should be to master them, not just perform adequately.
If your studio already has a portfolio, analyse the genres from past projects that showed higher retention rates, as this is currently the most vital metric. I have found that projects with solid retention metrics are usually successful, even with obstacles like high CPI.
What to pick if you don’t have extensive expertise
Set a goal and commit to it. Follow the process of creating, analysing, iterating, improving, and repeating the cycle. This transitional period in the market is not just about survival; it offers opportunities to earn or even build something substantial.
To accomplish this, don't merely launch raw prototypes onto the market, hoping for instant success (a strategy that used to work). Instead, invest in thoughtful projects from the outset, considering factors like content volume, content delivery, architecture, and monetisation.
The era of 1-2 person studios in the hypercasual sector is becoming a relic of the past.Sergey Martinkevich
By "content volume," I mean that each prototype should offer at least 40 minutes of unique gameplay experience. This doesn't refer to repetitive core gameplay with occasional new models but rather 40 minutes of diverse user interaction with well-structured content flow. Analyse successful titles to understand this aspect better.
It's important to note that smaller teams will naturally extend development time. If the team is too small, development can take as long as six months to a year, with no guarantee of the game's success. Thus, the era of 1-2 person studios in the hypercasual sector is becoming a relic of the past.
Idle tycoon, idle clicker, and even idle RPG (if the team is robust) are good choices. The Idlers have been performing well for quite some time, and this extends beyond downloads to in-app revenue as well.
Investigate everything connected with strategy games. While a small team may immensely struggle with 4X strategies, it's worth exploring simpler subgenres. This includes RTS in various forms, city builders, enterprise tycoons, time managers, and tower defence games.
If the artistic skills of the team permit, also consider action shooters with a realistic setting.
However, small and inexperienced studios may best avoid certain areas, such as .io games. The competition is intense here, with substantial involvement from big publishers. Success chances are minimal unless you can produce a project that's truly exceptional and head-and-shoulders above the rest, requiring substantial expertise. The same logic applies to racing games; without a large supporting team, it's best to steer clear of this genre.
If you produce hyper-casual games marked by quality, you can venture into any genre; the only limitation is the required resources. The key concept for hyper-casual games in mid-2023 is polishing. This means adopting an entirely different attitude toward every project.
Take melee mechanics, for example. Collisions with enemies shouldn't be reduced to mere swing animations and HP exchanges. They should involve unique animations that depend on factors such as the weapon in hand, the identity of the opponent, the damage dealt, and the corresponding action and reaction. This meticulous attention to detail — what could be termed microtuning — is what constitutes polishing.
With this approach, your chances of success in the market can multiply many times over compared to competitors. However, in some genres and styles, accomplishing this with a small team will be somewhat more accessible. Therefore, assess your strengths correctly and choose a genre accordingly.
A rising trend is the usage of stylized and distinctive 2D art, and in the realm of 3D, it's critical to abandon public assets in favour of original content.Sergey Martinkevich
What to pick if you have good artists (or the other way around)
Good art has become a distinguishing feature in any game genre, often driving success in many casual and even hyper-casual projects through unique visual stylization. So read the following and go produce some pretty stuff.
A rising trend is the usage of stylized and distinctive 2D art, and in the realm of 3D, it's critical to abandon public assets in favour of original content. This emphasises the importance of moving beyond conventional models and the "classic" hypercasual style, which the market has grown tired of. Players, even unconsciously, are likely to abandon games that feel repetitive in their visual design.
Consider designing a wealth of unlockable content using proven mechanics like idle gameplay, but enrich the project with unique micro-mechanics and visually appealing skins. Avoid making the player wait for ten minutes to discover new features; instead, introduce content in the early stages to captivate their interest. This approach will not significantly affect the coding process, placing the focus on content and artistry. If the game is a runner, ensure the phases of the game are diverse, such as collecting, shooting, and finishing mechanics, and incorporate a unique visual style for each aspect.
Conversely, the approach must differ if your team comprises of strong developers but lacks sufficient artists. Building an art strategy from scratch or embracing minimalism can be effective ways to go in this scenario. Don’t overreach or try to mislead yourself. A successful example is The Tower, a casual tower defence in a sci-fi minimalist style. Although the game relies on simple geometric designs, it exudes stylish minimalism, boasting excellent mechanics and well-implemented waves, modes, meta, etc., resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue per month.
Starting the development process
The starting phase of game development has evolved to require meticulous planning and consideration. In any genre, developers must now thoroughly envision the entire workflow at the outset, extending beyond mere interstitials to include a robust in-app monetization strategy. This foresight should be implemented as early as the initial testing phase, even when considering monetization tests.
A common pitfall occurs when developers create an impressive prototype in a complex genre, only to later discover that the project's architecture and product roadmap are ill-suited for scaling. This misalignment can lead to prolonged technical updates, the addition of new mechanics, crashes, and conflicts between the game designer's vision and the actual capabilities of the development team.
Furthermore, it's essential not to overlook the game's core loop in favour of adding more content. If your game already comprises 200 levels, doubling that number is unlikely to enhance the gaming experience or drive growth in metrics. Instead, focusing on improving the replay value of the existing levels can yield a more engaging and successful game.
What was possible three years ago, such as transforming a 35% retention rate on an unpolished prototype into 42%, is far more challenging today.Sergey Martinkevich
A season for innovation
With numerous genres experiencing a resurgence or even a complete rebirth, the present moment offers fertile ground for daring experimentation. You can find the examples in our market analysis report, and indie success stories on platforms like Steam are a good source of inspiration.
However, don’t forget to ensure that the creator's ambitious vision aligns with the expectations of mobile gamers. Even niche projects must demonstrate excellence in terms of monetization.
Observing current trends, we notice that casual games generating upwards of half a million dollars a month may only see modest download numbers. But the key to their success lies in their initial architectural planning, which accommodates the expansion of in-app purchases, rewarded ad systems, and more. Coupled with a unique, genre-appropriate visual style, this strategy can yield significant returns. An exemplar of this approach is Archer Forest: Idle Defence by MadMans, a 2D game boasting a one-of-a-kind visual style that has garnered more than a million dollars in in-app revenue per month.
If you’re working without a publisher, possibly part-time or self-funded, there can be no cutting of corners. Quality must be a priority from the very start. What was possible three years ago, such as transforming a 35% retention rate on an unpolished prototype into 42%, is far more challenging today. A 35% starting rate is now less promising.
As the hypercasual market matures and players become more discerning, large projects continue to attract the audience and divert it away from the hypercasual sector. Now’s the time to make a definitive statement of your competitive edge.
Edited by Paige Cook