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Once upon a time, marketing was considered taboo and almost completely ignored by indie game developers. These days, most devs recognize its importance and do make some effort, but do little to differentiate themselves from the masses. In this article, we explore the art of marketing, and how you can use it to gain much-needed exposure for your game.
What's the Problem?
The independent gaming world will forever remember 2008. It was around that time that a few innovative developers released what would go on to become critically acclaimed, genre-busting masterpieces. Games like Braid and World of Goo helped us remember what guerrilla game development was really about: creativity, passion and, above all, breaking boundaries. Combine their success with the launch of the App Store that July, and the result was millions of wannabe coders and small-time designers starstruck by the prospect of riches and gamedev glory.
The vast majority of these newbie developers needed time to refine their craft, and released games that garnered very little attention, mainly because they weren't all that good. Suffice it to say, they usually didn't make much money.
But then there were the seasoned developers who created good, and sometimes great, games. In fact, their games were so good that many of them believed the gaming community would welcome them with open arms, and buy their products by the truckload.
Most of them didn't make any money either.
So what was the problem? Well, game development became so accessible that everyone started creating games, which proved both a blessing and a curse. With so many games being released every day, gaining recognition suddenly became very difficult, regardless of the quality of the game. In short, for all their hard work, most developers failed to properly market their games—and this is still true today.
When to Begin Marketing Your Game
Before we get into specifics, it is important to dispel the common notion that marketing can only begin after a game is released. As most of you already know, a game draws most of its sales within the first few weeks, and even days, of release. If the proper channels don't already know about your title by the time it's launched, your sales during this critical window are going to suffer.
So, instead of waiting until the eleventh hour, follow this general rule:
- Begin your marketing campaign the moment you have something that illustrates the fundamental mechanics and look of your game.
Whether it's one finished level, a mocked up (quality) screenshot using Photoshop, or a small demo that displays a nuance of your game, it is imperative that you start generating hype as soon as there is something—anything—worth showing to the public. From that point forward you should be promoting the progress of your game on a semi-regular basis.
Tip: Although it's imperative to start marketing your game early, the last thing you want to do is to start posting early, unpolished screenshots of your game all over the web, especially if you're still in the programmer art phase of development. Google isn't too keen on removing such images, and trust me when I say that they will haunt you for the life-cycle of your development.
What Every Game Development Team Should Be Doing
Okay, so you've decided to launch your campaign months before your game's targeted release date. Good. So now what? Let's start with the essentials. You'll need:
- A website: Whether your website acts as a home base for all of your games, or just the one you're currently working on, it needs to be updated frequently and departmentalized. The home page should feature an extended overview, captivating screenshots (a picture of your UI isn't all that exciting), and relevant links. You'll also need a media page that houses images or videos.
- To do the social media thing: Sorry, there's really no avoiding it. At the very least you should have a Facebook page and a Twitter profile. If your game is small or mid-sized this is probably enough, but in theory you could subscribe to dozens of social media outlets. More on this below.
- A development blog: While development blogs are less essential than a website and a strong social media presence, gamers and developers alike love to read about the personal struggles and triumphs associated with making a game. Keep it personal, as if you're speaking directly to your readers. Humanize yourself and viewers will connect with and appreciate your plight. Post as frequently as necessary, but try to avoid posting about every little bug fix or new art piece. It's enough simply to prove that your game is coming along.
- Trailers: This comes a bit later, but is probably one of the single most important things you can do to get people excited to play your game. Don't overload it with cheesy titles, and don't think you have to be an expert cinematographer to produce a compelling video. Instead, target each facet of gameplay at least once, clearly display the game's title and the name of your company (you do have one, right?), and keep the cut scenes down to a minimum.
You can never have too many trailers. Triple-A games and movies release dozens of teasers, spotlight and full trailers, and they do so for good reason. If you do decide to release multiple videos, you can ignore the previous rule and tailor each one to a specific aspect of gameplay. One could be a combat demo, another a introduction to the game world and the story, and a third solely dedicated to your protagonist. Be sure to space them out—it's the best way to generate hype.
You can create all the websites, dev blogs, and trailers in the world, but if no one knows who you are, they're not going to matter. Perhaps the toughest part about marketing a game is making the public aware that it exists. Once they know about it, the rest is actually pretty easy. Well, it also helps if your game is, you know... good.
Let's break down the different ways that you can get people talking about your game without cramming it down their throats.
We've already mentioned that social media is an integral part of the marketing process. Fair enough, but how do you transition from relative unknown to Internet superstar?
Tips for Posting on Twitter
Of all the social media outlets, Twitter is the one that affords developers the easiest access to potential fans, members of the press and other burgeoning developers. Use it, learn the science behind it, and master it. Here are a few tips:
- Do not use Twitter to approach random members of the press—no one likes a beggar. Instead, view it as an opportunity to see what they're plugging and what genres of gaming they feel most passionate about. Feel free to reply to their Tweets, but only if you have something engaging to add to the conversation. If you're lucky they'll toss you a follow. And then, when you Tweet about your game, there's a chance they'll see them.
- Going further, if a member of the press favorites or retweets one of your posts, don't dismiss it. That's not to say you should immediately request a preview of your half-finished game, but it's a firm indicator that when your game is ready to be showcased, someone might have genuine interest in plugging it.
- Post your game development updates during peak hours, ideally somewhere between 11am and 11pm EST. Better yet, post them twice—once in the morning and once during the evening hours. (The reason being that if you only post updates during the middle of the night, then by the time your followers check their feed your post will have already been long buried.)
- There's a tendency among game developers to follow just about anyone who is making an independent game. These "Serial Followers" care more about receiving a follow in return than they do about your game development team. And if you dare to not follow them in return, they'll drop you faster than Mario can say "It's-a me."
- Don't become a "Serial Follower." Instead, follow those who you are genuinely interested in hearing from. Indie developers that you admire are a good starting point. Your favorite indie gaming sites should be included as well. In the beginning it's OK to follow more people than people that follow you, but it's far more preferable to follow 500 people and have 1,000 followers than to follow 2,500 people and have 3,000 followers. If you find yourself falling into the latter category, chances are you've become a "Serial Follower." Do you follow?
#ScreenshotSaturdayare your friends. Look them up.
Other Social Media Tips
- The IndieGaming subreddit is a great place to link your YouTube trailers, preview, reviews and game demos. Save the Steam Greenlight plugs for /r/greenlightquality. And whatever you do, don't inundate your reddit post title with flashy buzzwords. "Innovative 2D RPG with pioneering game mechanics and epic storyline" doesn't tell me much.
- Your website should link to your social media accounts. Your Twitter account should have links to your Facebook page and website. Your Facebook page... you get the point.
- It's worse to have a grossly outdated Facebook page and website than none at all. Keep things current.
- If you must relay your gamedev failings to the Internet, try to be funny about it. Same goes for your announcements.
To illustrate the last point, this recent Twitter post fared particularly well for us:
"After two years of toiling, sleepless night and neglected wives we're finally close to releasing an #EchoesofEternea game demo. #gamedev"
As did this musing:
"The difference between coding a 2-hour platformer and a 20-hour RPG: 62 gray hairs, 7 doctor co-payments, and 2,000 hours. #gamedev"
Despite the theory that all game developers are vampires who dwell in dark basements, getting out into the light of day and attending public gatherings is one of the smartest things you can do to promote your game. I promise you won't turn to ash.
But in order to snag a booth at one of the bigger conventions like PAX, you'll have to reserve a portion of your meager budget for travel and venue expenses. If you have the money it's well worth the effort. If you're on a tighter budget, consider submitting to Indie Mega Booth. Through them, qualified game developers can have their game showcased at PAX for as little as $500—quite the bargain.
Better yet, you can submit your game to IndieCade for a paltry 80 bucks. Now, that won't guarantee you entry into the festival, but if you are accepted, you'll gain a slew of additional exposure, the likes of which supersede your upfront costs by a colossal margin.
Even if you can't afford a booth or are rejected from festivals, go to conventions anyhow and make good use of your social suave. Hand out flyers, physical CDs of your demo, a slip of paper that says "Buy My Game"—anything so that gamers won't instantly forget who you are.
See, as a game developer it's important to connect with other developers, but it's arguably more important to connect with the people who will actually be playing your game. Gaming conventions will allow you to do that and more. By meeting with your target audience face to face, it will further humanize you and your efforts. In addition, it will give gamers the opportunity to play your game, and you the chance to receive meaningful feedback.
See also: Tips for Game Conference Success.
Crowdsourcing is generally thought of as a way to procure a budget for your game, but it's also useful as a marketing device. Our current project, Hiro Fodder: A Blue Hope, benefited from crowdsourcing in several ways.
Firstly, it forced us to create a video and write a detailed description about our product. Secondly, our page was hit tens of thousands of times over the course of a month. So even though we only got a little over 300 people to back the project, it was great exposure for our little RPG. Finally, and this was something that we didn't anticipate, we spent a lot of time communicating with other developers, even going as far as to sign up as the programmers for another project that had over 1,500 backers. We've since grown very close with the developers behind Echoes of Eternea and have become fully immersed in helping their game become a reality.
Now if only we had realized just how long developing two 20-30 hour, homegrown RPGs would take! But fear not, we're getting close!
The great thing about crowdsourcing is that a lot of smaller indie game journalists keep up with new campaigns. Several journalists wrote articles about Hiro Fodder without even asking us first. We have since established a great working relationship with these writers, and will definitely be calling on them when the game gets closer to release.
Contacting the Press
One could easily write an entire article on dealing with the media. It is such a critical part of running a successful marketing campaign that overlooking it would already place your game at a severe disadvantage. But it's one thing to communicate your game to the press; it's another to do it effectively.
Here are a few tips:
- Be realistic: Before you contact any of the major players in the gaming community, assess what you hope to achieve. You're probably not going to get IGN to write a feature piece on your Match-3 game, but you may get a smaller indie-focused mag to give you a shot. Once your game garners enough press from smaller sources, you should start taking more chances. No harm is going to come out of telling Kotaku or Joystiq about your upcoming game.
- Target the right websites: It may seem painfully obvious, but if you're targeting a mobile device, don't contact PC mags. You'd be surprised how often game developers make grievous missteps like emailing PC Gamer about their revolutionary new game for Android devices.
- Be yourself: You're not writing a cover letter, so don't treat your emails to press members like one. Starting your email with lines like "[Company X] is proud to bring you an innovative gaming experience like no other..." is off-putting. Instead start with something simple, like "Hello." Tell them who you are and a little about your game. Provide them with a few simple links to your media or demo. If you can say what you have to say in fewer words, do so. Remember, these guys probably receive dozens of emails each and every day from developers just like you. Be humble, be straight to the point and never, ever tell them how much you love their site. Sucking up is not a virtue.
When dealing with the press via email:
- Don't forget to send members of the press working copies of your game.
- Don't cram your opinions down their throats. You might think your game is fun and awesome, but let the press draw their own conclusions.
- Don't forget to include your unique selling point. This is usually a game mechanic that's particular to your game. For instance, our unique selling point is the ability to store accumulated Action Points for future rounds, allowing you to unleash powerful attacks at the risk of leaving your character vulnerable while charging up. Is it revolutionary? No. But unique, yes.
- Don't wait. Reviews will hardly help you three weeks after your game is released. Better to have the press mention your game in the weeks and months before it's due to launch.
Late Stage Marketing
By the time your game hits alpha, you should really consider a few of the more recently available marketing options:
- Alphafunding: Mid-sized online distributors like Desura offer this service, which allows fans to play your incomplete game and watch it evolve. Even better, they're allowed to contribute money to your game. It's sort of like Kickstarter, except the only thing you're obligated to provide to your fans is an awesome game. It's a really sweet deal, and an awesome way to get people pumped about your upcoming release.
- Steam Greenlight: At the initial writing of this article, getting your game Greenlit was a difficult task. These days, so many games are accepted that the real hurdle is making your game stand out among the masses. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't place your game on Greenlight. Quite the contrary. The site is visited by tens of thousands of gamers, and you are guaranteed to win some of them over with your game, most of whom will purchase it from your personal website or another distribution portal that isn't Steam. It's not as prestigious as it was a year ago, but Greenlight is still an opportunity that should not be missed. See also: Tips for Getting Greenlit on Steam Greenlight.
- Press Releases: Press releases probably won't help that much unless your game already has a solid following. But if you ran a sound marketing campaign, there's a good chance it might. Target major distributors like PRWeb and smaller ones tailored towards indies. You should probably only do this about a week before the game is released.
- Other avenues: If you're an active streamer on Twitch or belong to forum communities, now would be an excellent time to let the public know that your game is nearing release. Just don't become a member of a bunch of well-established communities for the sole purpose of plugging your game. It comes across as obnoxious.
There you have it. Marketing your game is probably as important as debugging and polishing it. Without marketing, you're completely reliant on gamers knowing about your game without you telling them. Now, if you win a major contest or get picked up by a major distributor, that could very well happen, but for the rest of us, it won't.
It's not entirely necessary to do everything listed in this article, but at the very least you should:
- Create a website.
- Create an account and post regularly on Twitter.
- Post a YouTube video of your trailer.
- Contact a few game journalists who have shown prior interest in your type of game. (Remember, keep your emails short and personal.)
- Place it on Steam Greenlight (as long as it's not super-casual).
Do at least that, and you'll stand a chance of developing your brand. Happy marketing!