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Indie games: who buys what, and why?

Humble's Phil Hofman breaks down the results of a study into indie game buyers' tastes and preferences

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Consumers who buy indie games seek titles priced between $15 and $25, discover their next purchase via YouTube, and prefer single-player experiences.

That's according to a study conducted by an independent analyst group on behalf of Humble Games, which surveyed around 5,000 gamers between 18 and 45 years of age, living in six different countries, while trying to trace a profile of people who buy indie games.

Humble's product marketing lead Phil Hofman presented the findings of this study during a talk at GDC 2023 earlier this year. Throughout his session, Hofman reiterated many times that the results of this study are not to be taken as roadmap and do not necessarily depict an exact representation of how things are on a granular level but nonetheless contain lots of interesting data.

The study broadly divided video games buyers in three categories – Regulars, Lights and Traditionals:

  • Regular Indie Buyers bought more than five indie titles in the previous year
  • Light Indie Buyers bought one to five indie titles in the previous year
  • Traditional Game Buyers bought no indie titles and more than one AA/AAA title in the previous year

40% of the people who participated in the study ended up in the first two categories, meaning they had bought at least one indie game in the previous year.

Indie games buyers appreciate original IPs and ambitious developers who take risks

According to the survey, Traditionals tend to spend less time gaming at twelve hours per week on average, while Lights sit around 15 hours and Regulars are around 18. Lights and Regulars tend to buy more games on PC and – contrary to what Hofman said Humble expected to see – Regulars buy all kind of games, even buying more AAA games compared to the other two categories of buyers.

The survey also explored personal attitudes, and the three categories of video games buyers are more or less on the same page for many of the questions: they mostly consider gaming a laid-back activity for unwinding, they love winning a competition and they like non-linear games that give the liberty to explore and present a wide variety of activities.

However, there is an interesting division on three specific topics. According to the survey, indie buyers are more likely to consider gaming a part of their identities and they prefer to play a variety of games and franchises, while Traditionals are more interested in games that their friends are playing.

Price and monetisation

The three categories of game buyers have many different ways to identify what an indie game is, but all tend to consider a low price as a defining factor.

The preferred price range for indie games seems to be between $15 and $25. Those surveyed said they start to have doubts about the product's quality under $15 dollars, while more content is expected from games priced over $25.

While a significant part of all buyers (around 30%) tend to wait for a few months after release before buying, launch is still quite important, with a big chunk of people buying at that time (21% Light Indie Buyers, 29% of Regulars), and approximately 10% of buyers pre-orders titles they want – although Lights use pre-orders significantly less for indie games than the other categories. And, as you might expect, a good chunk of people tend to wait for sales promotions.

Indie game buyers prefer third-person perspective and a slower pace that allows time to plan

In terms of monetization, all three categories of video game buyers – but particularly the Regulars – seem to prefer full paid games. Generally speaking, free-to-play seems to be an accepted model, but indie games buyers clearly prefer when the microtransactions are focused on cosmetics.

Conversely, Traditionals are fine with spending on microtransactions that affect gameplay and seem to be fine with advertising. The season/battle pass is more or less accepted by half of the people who took part in the survey, while monthly subscriptions are the less popular form of monetization (but significantly more accepted by Traditionals). According to the survey, only around 30% of all buyers like subscription services and the episodic distribution model.

Discovery

According to the survey, indie games buyers mostly find out about indie games through YouTube (31%), followed by Steam (15%) and friends and family (13%). If they are looking to know more about the game, gameplay videos are clearly the top choice (54%), with gameplay images and trailers clearly behind (28% and 27% respectively).

Gameplay videos are also the top purchase triggers at 30% of respondents, while fewer people say they buy because of sales (12%) or player reviews (10%).

Genre

First-person shooters are the most played genre for Traditionals and Lights, but placed second for Regulars, who prefer RPGs. Meanwhile, roguelikes and metroidvanias are significantly more popular among indie game buyers, while Traditionals are the most likely to play sports games.

Fantasy and science fiction are the two most beloved themes for all kind of video game buyers, while there seems to be a generalized sense of fatigue for post-apocalyptic, superheroes and, most of all, warfare.

Again, the results in this section of the survey are for the most part predictable: warfare and superheroes are quite prominent in AAA games, so of course Traditionals like them more than indie buyers but, at the same time, around 30% of them think they are overused themes.

Regulars love fantasy, sci-fi and post-apocalyptic more than the other two categories of video game buyers, which is consistent with them playing more RPGs than the other two groups.

Phil Hofman discussing the survey results on stage at GDC 2023

What buyers want from indie games

Predictably, indie buyers tend to agree more with characterizing indie games as unique, experimental, innovative, memorable, passionate, while 20% of Regulars associate indie games with low quality (compared to 10% for the other two categories).

All three categories of buyers tend to choose games based on story/narrative, controls/gameplay feel and amount of content, while multiplayer and particularly graphics/art seem to be a more significant factor for the Traditionals.

If we only focus on indie buyers, however, we see an interesting split: according to the survey, Regulars and Lights consider innovation/uniqueness and expression/creativity much more important when they are buying an indie game. Conversely, they consider the amount of content more significant for AAA games.

Players start to have doubts about an indie game's quality under $15 dollars, while more content is expected from titles priced over $25

According to the survey, indie games buyers appreciate original IPs, ambitious developers who take risks, unique mechanics, stylized graphics and games that allow for personal expression. They also prefer the use of third-person perspective and a slower pace that allows time to plan. Indie games buyers prefer single-player to multiplayer, and if they play the latter, they prefer cooperative over competitive.

Oddly, they seem to prefer games that offer vast worlds to explore, designed for long play sessions and with 20 to 100 hours of total playtime – which, as Hofman pointed out, isn't consistent with the fact that only 30% of them said they consider the amount of content a priority when buying indie games.

Final note

Hofman ended his talk with a summary of how indie game buyers are portrayed by the survey. While stressing once again that these findings should not be taken literally and/or as a guide to be religiously followed, he said that indie buyers consider gaming a part of their identity, do not limit their gaming habits to indie games, value innovation and risk-taking, want creative storytelling and artistic touches while also demanding great gameplay.

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Andrea Maderna

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