Image courtesy of Poncle
There are, as of this writing, more than 27,000 people playing a $3 game on Steam called Vampire Survivors. That’s more than games like The Elder Scrolls Online, Red Dead Redemption 2, and Phasmophobia, and just below God of War and The Witcher 3. Vampire Survivors, a mashup of clickers and roguelikes that’s obsessed with the aesthetics of Castlevania, is an early surprise for 2022. It’s, uh, also a surprise for the game’s designer, because when Vampire Survivors launched on December 17, eight people were playing.
“I'm happy and in disbelief at the literally overwhelming positive feedback and very grateful to the amazingly supportive community that grew overnight around the title,” said designer Luca Galante in an interview with Waypoint.In Vampire Survivors, players guide one of several Belmont-adjacent characters around the screen. Your character has attacks, but crucially, you don’t press buttons to trigger them. Whips crack on their own, spells seek their own points of impact. As players level up, you pick weapons and boosts that operate on cooldowns, meaning the player’s goal is to avoid ever-increasing mobs and construct a build to defeat them. It’s both calming and frenetic.Galante previously spent years as a scripter and admin for a private Ultima Online server, and started developing Vampire Survivors because they missed a community to manage.“All I wanted for this game was to be a little platform, shared with a few players, that would allow me to have fun making new content over the weekends,” said Galante.Obviously, the world had much grander plans in store for Galante and Vampire Survivors, a game inspired by a mobile game called Magic Survival, where players move a wizard around, attacks happen on their own, and the screen fills with more enemies. Sound familiar? Galante grabbed some royalty free art he’d already bought and started wondering how they could build off the fun of Magic Survival on their own.
Tracking Vampire Survivors’ meteoric rise is fascinating. For the entire month of December, Vampire Survivors never had more than 20 people playing the game simultaneously. There are thousands of games released on Steam every week, and most fail to find a mass audience. The lack of robust commercial success is hardly the mark of artistic failure, but more often than not, a game launches on Steam and does not suddenly crawl up the charts; much of the strategy behind launching on Steam involves building interest prior to release.“I was once again not expecting much,” said Galante. “I put the game on Steam because there wasn't a player discourse on itch. [I] was hoping to maybe recoup the £1100 [roughly $1,500 USD] I had spent that far for assets, art, and music over a year.”The low-level player count continued through the beginning of January. On January 5, the game hit a peak of 14 players simultaneously. The next day, January 6, it suddenly had 1,143 players. It's popularity grew exponentially from there as 1,000 quickly became 2,000, then 3,000 and 4,000 and 5,000. A little over two weeks later, the game eclipsed 10,000 simultaneous players.
What happened? As with the sudden explosion of many indie games these days, Galante is pretty sure it’s because of a YouTube video. Here, it was YouTube’s SplatterCatGaming, who published a 30-minute video about Vampire Survivors on January 6 to an account with more than 712,000 subscribers. That is the very day the game went from being played by a handful of people to being played by more than 1,000 people. Then, Wanderbot started streaming it on Twitch and YouTube creator Northernlion—who has nearly one million subscribers, specializes in roguelikes, and has previously helped turn games into hits—published one of many videos playing through different runs of Vampire Survivors. “From then on it just kept snowballing,” said Galante. Vampire Survivors also represents the first time Galante had been able to finish a larger project. The others had sputtered out, but this one showed promise and made it to the finish line, so Galante published it.The unexpected success has turned into a lot more than Galante’s modest ambitions, because even though Vampire Survivors is “only” $3, now tens of thousands are buying it and the game is only getting bigger.“I always wanted to start my own studio, so this is giving me the opportunity to do that,” said Galante. “For now I haven't been sleeping much due to the unexpected pressure of admin, support, and bug fixing that presented itself on top of having a day job and a pre-existing content release schedule for the game, but it's all worth it. As things settle, that new studio becomes more and more a reality.”Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).