8 min read

The appeal of making an auto shoot 'em up game like Vampire Survivors

It's hard to ignore Vampire Survivors! What a simple and fun concept. Are you making a game like this? Should I??
The appeal of making an auto shoot 'em up game like Vampire Survivors

Vampire Survivors is the leader of a new breed of auto shoot 'em up arena games. Hundreds of developers small and large have either already published or are currently working on their own games in the genre.

What's the appeal?

And should I make one?

You can also listen to this article in podcast form or watch on YouTube.

Inspired by Magic Survival (an Android game by LEME), in these games you move your character around the screen, no worries about having to aim or attack, constantly collecting ridiculous power-ups, and fending off hordes of monsters. Vampire Survivors developer poncle sometimes uses the slogan, "Be the bullet hell." which means it's like a reverse-bullet-hell.

A bullet heaven?

Let's see what Spelunky creator Derek Yu has to say about it:

Perhaps best described as an "enemy hell walk 'em up", the joy comes from watching hordes of monsters melt before your hero's destructive arsenal... and finding random chests to become even stronger!
-Derek Likes It

Vampire Survivors has sold millions of copies and has helped inspire an army of new games including – just to name a handful – 20 Minutes Till Dawn, Boneraiser Minions, Brotato, Pixel Survivors: Roguelike, Soulstone Survivors, and not one but TWO games called Zombie Survivors on Steam.

I'd heard about the game but I hadn't played it until recently. Last month some friends of ours released their first game on Steam – it's called Deadly Harvest and might remind you of Vampire Survivors! Then another friend told me about his friend who was also making a Vampire Survivors game ... but with cars.

Even Ron Gilbert, developer of Monkey Island, chimed in on the conversation:

We should have added a Vampire Survivors mode to Return To Monkey Island
-Ron Gilbert

It's also hard to not notice the genre doing so well for other developers.

A short story in three games

Check out the amazing progression of Steam developer Blobfish:

The estimated net revenue in these screenshots are rough "guesstimations" from Steam Revenue Calculator, a Google Chrome extension. The values come from an algorithm called the NB number which currently approximates about 60 sales per review.

Let's examine the last 3 games from this dev, leading up to their auto shoot 'em up:

  1. Lost Potato released Aug 14, 2020 (~$4,000)
  2. Space Gladiators released Mar 10, 2021 (~$56,000)
  3. Brotato released Sep 27, 2022 (~$728,000)

I'm not sure if it's directly inspired by Vampire Survivors, but Brotato is in the genre and launched just a few months ago. Look at that amazing progression from just a few thousand in revenue, to a respectable earning, to a hit indie game. Surely the developer shipping games yearly and improving their skills along the way is a huge part of Brotato's success, but the genre and timing are also relevant.

I feel some personal kinship with these auto shoot 'em up games. The first premium indie game I ever made was with Lost Decade Games, an arena shooter called Onslaught! Arena. (The iPad version even had an auto-shoot option!) Next up we made A Wizard's Lizard, another arena shooter.

So the genre is in my wheelhouse, it just goes in a direction I haven't before.

These auto shooter games also seem to have less content than your typical roguelikes – there aren't big maze-like dungeons, just hordes of monsters. It's a genre that's inherently less work than the ones I've worked in, so I know it's a concept I can actually ship. (I think many developers feel this way about it.)

Reasons to make an auto shoot 'em up

Recent popularity aside, why else is the idea of making an auto shoot 'em up like this intriguing to me?

These games are really fun. Who wouldn't want to make one? I'd like to play one from each of my favorite developers!

Get practice shipping a game on Steam. I haven't released a Steam game since Indie Game Sim in 2016, so some of my Steam knowledge is 6 years stale. Launching a small (but good) game sooner rather than later would help me get better at launching bigger games on Steam.

Indie Game Sim (2016)

Get access to a new Steam game I can experiment with and learn from. Steam is fun to me as a developer and I like getting into the numbers of it. It would be awesome to be able to run sales, participate in events, and learn from having a new game on Steam.

Gather fans around my witch games. Steam is the best place to find desktop gamers and I want get a game into their hands ASAP. I'm working on a bigger game called Witchmore, but it won't be ready for months (years?) and I'm itching to get a game on Steam way before Witchmore is ready.

A screenshot from Witchmore, my WIP game. The witch is wearing a pirate ship hat.
Witchmore. I love it but it's big and will take time.
If you're curious: read/listen/watch more about Witchmore, which I talked about in a previous article/podcast/video.

Make a little $ to support my bigger games? I won't kid myself that tossing another Vampire Survivors-like game into the huge pile of similar games is going to be very lucrative for me, but it won't make ZERO dollars, right? If it could earn enough revenue to pay for a month or two of game development, that's huge and worth pursuing.

Reasons NOT to do it

Making a game directly inspired by another game sometimes feels bad to me. I want to believe that there's more originality and creativity in me than that. But really, almost all games are influenced by others and there's always room to innovate within any genre.

It would be interesting if games were thought of more like music. If you heard that your favorite band was remaking one of your favorite songs by somebody else, you'd be excited to hear it, wouldn't you? (This is common in the music industry; a compulsory license provides a legal path to remaking the music of others.)

Performance is a concern to me. These games tend to have hundreds of monsters and maybe thousands of projectiles, particles, and numbers flying all over the screen. This code needs to be heavily optimized to be buttery-smooth, and boy do I hate optimizing code. I'd rather be making cool systems and features than worrying about the frame rate. (It's doable I just don't wanna.)

Would this game be a distraction from Witchmore, the big game I've been working on? Well, yes and no.

Yes, it's a distraction: simply working on Witchmore and nothing else would probably get Witchmore done faster.

No, it's not a distraction: I'd already planned to build most of the features and content I'd need for an auto shoot 'em up game inside of Witchmore. Monsters, combat, and dungeon crawling are all on the TODO list – in fact, auto shoot 'em up content is simpler than what I've already got on my plate!

That optimization work I mentioned is probably something I'll have to do for Witchmore eventually anyway, it's just that the auto shoot 'em up features promotes those tasks higher up the priority list than I'd like.

Also I think shipping a small game with the same engine gives Witchmore a clearer path to success. I haven't shipped a Steam game with my Unity tech stack yet, and doing so with a small game will give me experience and confidence with a bigger game. This "survivors tangent" might be very good for Witchmore in the long run.


What do you think? Should I do it or should I get back to work on my big game?

If I go down this road there are certainly some things to figure out, like:

  • What makes a good auto shoot 'em up?
  • What makes a bad auto shoot 'em up?
  • How much content does the game need?
  • How do I balance all that content and level progressions?
  • What hooks will help my game stand out from the crowd?
  • Based on a competitive analysis, what kind of revenue can I estimate?

But those are topics for future editions. Stay tuned!

Questions for you

As a solo dev I mostly live in an echo chamber, so your thoughts are helpful! Here are some things I'm particularly curious about:

  • Should I make and publish an auto shoot 'em up game on Steam?
  • Or should I ignore this impulse and focus on Witchmore?
  • (Another route to go is to stick with Witchmore, get the auto shoot 'em up features in ASAP, then publish as Early Access.)
  • (There are also a million other options. Just an infinite supply of them.)
  • If I publish an auto shoot 'em up on Steam, what price should it be?
  • Games are too hard and I should flee into the desert?? 🏝
Let me know your thoughts via email, an audio recording, or Discord.

Book news

First off, last time I asked for a few more reviews for my book How to Make a Video Game All By Yourself and wow you guys you really came through! Big thanks to Craig and Regan for bumping the book up to a solid 4 stars on Google Play.

It's also now sitting at 47 reviews on Amazon; thanks for writing those reviews! And check this out: it's currently a #1 Best Seller on Amazon! (This probably won't last long so take a gander at that lovely orange banner while it's still up.)

How to Make a Video Game All By Yourself on Amazon with an orange banner that reads, "#1 Best Seller"
Ahhhh #1 Best Seller I've been wanting this for monthssss!
This accomplishment is thanks to my lovely wife Andrea, who put a lot of work into figuring out which categories the book should be in – and getting them in there. Maybe that doesn't sound hard to do, but it is:

There are two different versions of the book (paperback & Kindle) and hundreds of categories that may or may not be a good fit. Also, you can't just assign your book to categories using a web interface – you have to email Amazon directly to request changes to your categories. Each optimization change can take hours to calculate and days of back-and-forth to complete.

(And if the book's not in the right categories, it'll never climb the charts.)

So huge thanks and all credit to my favorite person "Andraconda" 🐍❀️

Thanksgiving is coming up. Not everybody celebrates of course but everyboy loves food, so if you subscribe to the Valadria newsletter then this message has a delicious recipe in your inbox. Upcoming episodes will get more into food and how it relates to making games.

Background music is Electronic Sunrise and you were played out by Find Them – both of which you can use in your own projects. 🎢

Now go make the game!