If you were to only listen to the biggest developers and publishers out there, you’d be told that the only way to make a game is to reach for the stars. Set your sights as far as possible, spend as much as possible, and only then could you design something that sets the world on fire. As games like Vampire Survivors keep proving, however, sometimes a little can go a long way.
Rather than going for extravagance, Vampire Survivors is a small and simple rogue-like shoot ‘em up with rounds that last up to 30 minutes. First released in December of 2021, the game only costs a few dollars or pounds, yet it has quickly become one of the most famous and widely loved releases of the last couple of years. So, what does the game do, how does it succeed, and what lessons could the AAA market learn from its popularity?
An Eclectic Idea
As most games are these days, Vampire Survivors is an unusual mishmash of different components. In terms of style, its most obvious influence is Castlevania, with subtle and not-so-subtle references borrowing from the series’ long history of characters and weapons. Gameplay, however, is much more difficult to pin down.
The game operates mostly as a kind of top-down shooter, where the player character starts with certain load-outs as is typical in modern takes on rogue-like games. As they try to survive to the 30-minute end mark, the player kills bosses and huge numbers of enemies, choosing certain built options through item drops and level-ups. Eventually, the game can become a sort of bullet hell, with the character as a mobile turret shooting out a huge number of projectiles to halt the undead menace. Like DOTA did to MOBAs, we wouldn’t be surprised to see this type of game soon become a subgenre itself.
As for what made Vampire Survivors such a hit with players, the answer ultimately comes down to how well it fused a collection of simple elements into a more complicated and involving whole. Vampire Survivors is infinitely approachable, where gameplay systems and strategy are eased into thanks to a simple start and streamlined rules.
This is the same concept that has allowed other types of digital interactive entertainment like online slots to succeed. To newcomers, these games are simple enough that they can be picked up and played. That said, taking a look beneath the surface reveals a surprising amount of depth. This is what has kept these exciting yet deep games as classics for generations, and it could give Vampire Survivors and the titles it inspires similarly long-lasting appeal.
At the moment of writing, Vampire Survivors is the 70th most played game on Steam. This puts it alongside AAA titles like Sea of Thieves, CoD: Black Ops III, and even The Witcher 3. Yet, despite this performance, Vampire Survivors was created by a small team on a minuscule budget. It might not look complex, it might play simply, but as it turns out, a hook is all you really need.
The question is, what is it going to take for AAA developers and publishers to remember that gameplay is always the most reliable element of ongoing success? In terms of profit margins, games like Vampire Survivors vastly outperform their opponents, yet the larger gaming industry continues to turn up its nose. Make no mistake, big developers will eventually rip this game off as best they can, but until then, we can all remain frustrated at how little initiative they show when taking these first steps for themselves.