Disclaimer: While I have certainly read quite a bit (both books and articles) and watched videos about Marketing and Marketing for games, I’m by no means an expert. This is the area where none of us had any real experience, and so far I’ll admit we haven’t achieved amazing results. We still haven’t taken every possible action we could take on this marketing journey, so take these advices with a grain of salt. They have surely worked for some people, but they might not work for you. I will update this article as we continue learning from our experience in the last phase of Gravitators.
1- Dedicated Marketer. Having a someone on the team allocated 100% on Marketing is usually not possible in small indie teams. If that is the case for you, you’ll have to decide between:
– Hiring a person or a PR company.
– Choosing one of the team members to do marketing tasks on top of their regular work.
– Divide the tasks between several members.
In my experience, most developers do not enjoy doing marketing. But in today’s oversaturated market, it’s a must. if there’s someone very social and outgoing on your team, or already very active in social media, that might be the right one for the job.
There are plenty of companies that can take care of this. Some are very expensive, others not that bad. If you can allocate the budget for it, you can search online and contact them for quotations. Be sure to ask for their PR Deck to see their past clients (which you can also contact to double check credentials and experience if you’re unsure).
On the other hand, you might be able to find a social media manager in your area for a good price to handle the “front lines”. Or perhaps a friend or an acquaintance would be interested. If you keep an organized and clear posting schedule, it won’t take much time per day.
If you are decide to do it all on your own or between the team members, my suggestion is:
– Read as much as you can about Marketing, both from marketing experts as well as indie devs. It’s an ever-evolving practice, as companies keep finding different ways of reaching customers. So you’ll always find something new going on. A good book to get you started is A Practical Guide to Indie Game Marketing, by Joel Dreskin. If you’re going to read several books, I suggest you get an e-book reader first, and go digital. Some of these books are too specific and might be hard (or expensive) to find.
– Prepare all the posts and work in advance. It’s easier to take one day to think and do all of this, and then only take 20-30 minutes 2-5 days a week throughout the month. If there’s anything special you can still post anyway, this is more to keep Marketing tasks flowing without affecting your daily work.
– Work Division. If more than one person will take care of marketing, try to divide the tasks to the best of your abilities. Artists can perhaps handle screenshots the best. Game Designers can do videos while playing the game. Social networks can be assigned to different team members, depending on where they are active the most. Ideally, you should have all the posts data centralized in one single place. So everyone can contribute or use.
2- Online presence. As soon as you have something decent to show (maybe even before), start setting up store and web presence. This means having a company or/and game website, accounts on the most popular sites (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Discord, etc.), and create your company/dev account in the most popular game stores (Steam, Itch, Humble and Epic/Gog if they accept you). You should probably also join indie dev groups in social media, you might find interesting info through them.
Whether you create website and accounts for the company or just the game is up to you. I’ve seen developers do both. We chose to do everything with Insular Games (instead of Gravitators) because we’d prefer to centralize everything into 1 account/website, instead of having to create new ones every time. It might be slower to get traction at first, but seems better in the long run.
A word of warning: get ready to be ignored. Unless you hit the viral jackpot, it is very hard to get noticed. The market is really saturated, and only a few ever reach the top. Nonetheless, setting up your online presence will still allow you to reach and grow your audience organically, in case you cannot reach virality.
3- Research sales. While this is not a must to start development of a game (after all, if you’re sure about your idea and want to see it through, who are we to stop you?), I’d still recommend you check how other games from your genre are doing, as soon as you have the initial idea and outline. Expected sales will help with setting up the budget (example: if all the games in the genre are making up to a certain amount of money, it’d be too optimistic to expect making triple the amount). Having a budget means you know how much time you have. And knowing how much time you have will draw the line on how many features and implementations you can do (safely).
There are a few ways that you can estimate sales for other games:
– Check the game’s wiki or website. Sometimes companies publish their sales (or sales milestones). This is probably the most accurate method.
These last three are of course estimated, and they manage broad ranges of sales, but they are still good reference if you don’t have the exact data. If you’re confident, you can use the average sales range “(min + max) / 2” of all the games of your genre. If you want to be cautious, just use the minimum value of the sales range.
4- Post online. Whether this is handled by a PR company, a specific person or everyone on the team, you will need to post game updates online. It could be pictures or videos of new features, difficult implementations, funny bugs, before & after pics, tutorials on specific topics for other devs, etc. Anything that can be of interest. Some platforms have certain protocols, so you should get acquainted with them before making mistakes that can cause you bad reputation.
We’ve tried using these platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Instagram, Discord, Imgur. And while we haven’t really tried very hard on all, the best one for us so far has been Twitter. The hashtags are very useful, there are bots and very cool people that retweet indie games, and there are several trends that easily grant you visibility, like #ScreenshotSaturday, #WishlistWednesday or #FollowFridays. You need to keep up to date with hashtags though, as trends come and go.
On the downside, you might feel that most of your followers are just other developers. And it seems a shared feeling within the indie dev community:
I’ve read someone saying once that Twitter is a great tool for people that are already fans of your product. This makes a lot of sense, and I’d argue that this even translates into all social media.
On my personal account, I never followed any game nor company account, even of my favorite games. I did follow some obscure indie games that didn’t have store presence yet, afraid I might forget their name later on. I almost exclusively follow games by adding them to my Steam Wishlist. I have followed very few companies on Steam too (when they consistently put out products I loved).
Marketing can be fun, but it’s mostly grunt work. You’ll most likely be making posts after posts after posts, with the hope of making one viral, but mostly seeing them drown in a sea of game posts. Chances of virality are low, and will greatly depend on what you’re showing (pretty artistic games, ultra funny or super original gameplay have a big advantage, multiplayer games can build a more cohesive community that can evolve at increasing speed, as they are in constant competition and interaction with each other, etc.). While the odds are not on your favor, you still need to try. If your game is well done, there must be people out there that will enjoy it. You just need to find them.
5- Festivals and Jams. You can also enter your demo into any event that will feature games. The easiest are of course virtual or digital events. Steam now has the Steam Festival (called Next Fest now) for upcoming games. Itch promotes game jams quite often.
We participated in the Steam Festival – Autumn Edition 2020 and overall didn’t have a good experience. We rushed to polish the game for the event, and officially announced the game not long before the Festival. Perhaps the little prior exposure hurt us, but the Festival itself had problems too.
There were way too many games, and discovering games wasn’t an easy task. Our game’s category was set up at the end of the list, and our subcategory was also at the end (I’ve never saw Steam move them to the top throughout the Festival week). I also noticed that the amount of people browsing decreased dramatically after 2-3 days. Even the festival banner was moved out of the top of the front page after 3 days (at least on my home screen).
There was no incentive for players to actually test more games (like XP or cards for badges, some kind of reward to keep them trying more and more games).
The main broadcast took the majority of the viewers, and I wasn’t sure how the streamers chose the games they played. The main broadcast plus the top 3-4 games probably accumulated 99% of the views.
So unfortunately we didn’t get many wishlists during the festival (around a few dozen, which wasn’t bad as we were just announcing the game, but we were expecting a bit more considering the size of Steam’s player base).
We sent feedback to Steam about the issues we found though. And from what I read, the first Steam Festival of 2021 was a bit better organized (we were not eligible to participate on it). Player response seemed to have been better too (from comments I read on Reddit at least).
I’m sure these events are going to get better and better with time, so you should definitely participate. A few dozen wishlists are better than none. If you have a dev account, Steam keeps you updated on the festival dates with plenty of time in advance.
Physical Game Events, unless they are hosted in your hometown, will have traveling costs. Setting up a Stand (and carry everything with you) is also demanding work. But it’s a great opportunity to talk to other devs as well as potential players, and get juicy feedback by watching playtesters live. Try to prepare a cheap but nice/useful token to give away (like a fridge magnet or something like that), so people will remember you at the end of the day.
Once you estimate the costs, you should carefully consider if you have the budget, or if that money is better spent elsewhere. Some devs have reported successes, but I’ve seen a lot admitting it was too expensive for what they got in return.
If you end up going, if you’d like to be reminded by the attendees, you should prepare an inexpensive and easy to travel with, but nice giveaway from your game. Something like a fridge magnet, stickers, stuff like that. With your game name, icon and/or logo. Additionally, have business cards ready in case you get in touch with other devs or companies that can offer services you might need.
6- Ad Campaigns. We haven’t done any yet, but from what I read from other developers, ads don’t convert to wishlists or sales that well, on any platform (Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Twitter, etc.). This could be due to a number of reasons, from dev side (not properly setting up target audience, failing to create engaging content) to platform/customer side (players might just ignore/hate/block ads on social media).
We might test this a bit with a low amount of money in the near future.
7- Game Journalists. With the rise of streamers, the effect of gaming magazines, websites and journalists has waned over the years.
However, when you’re marketing your game, your job is to make people aware of it. This means that you should pursue every single potential avenue. More views will get you more wishlists, which in turn will get you more sales. A lot of people still read (or get notifications) from various gaming websites. And many journalists are eager to publish interesting articles. So you can’t disregard this.
What you should do is:
– Gather a list of gaming websites and/or journalists that have covered or reviewed similar games.
– If you need a game review, send them an e-mail with every information they need: game name and description, some pics, steam key, links to press kit, etc. Journalists can get hundreds of e-mails per day, and they can’t publish everything, so don’t expect answers from all of them. I read several journalists asking devs to be brief and to the point, and to send everything on the contact e-mail to avoid unnecessary back and forth.
– If you’d like your game featured in an article, you need to find the “news” angle and pitch it to your journalist contacts. Nowadays, there are dozens of games launching every day. Why is yours more newsworthy than all of the others? You must remember that the journalist’s job is to provide news that people want to read. So unless you have something interesting to say, you won’t get featured.
8- Crowdfunding. Not only it can be great to acquire funding for your dream project, it’s actually a great marketing tool (whether you were able to get the funding or not, a lot of people heard about your game, which is already a win). The most famous sites that I know of are Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
Several years ago, crowdfunding was a novel trend and seemed for a while like the future of indie development, but nowadays it’s gotten a lot harder. There are a lot more campaigns going on at any given time (more competition), and due to several developers running out of funds and not delivering the projects, backers are more wary. Failed Early Access games on Steam have also contributed to this. People don’t like getting scammed, and once it happens once, they’ll most likely not contribute again. Board games still seem to enjoy high levels of popularity, but it makes a bit more sense because they are more tangible and companies require printing and shipping all the components.
We did not require funding this time around, so we didn’t deem it necessary to spend time and effort on crowdfunding. We might do it in the future to see how that experience goes.
If you’d like to pursue this, you should consider the following:
– If you’re going with Kickstarter, double check if your country of residence is supported. At the time of writing, this link will inform you about who can use Kickstarter. Indiegogo on the other hand seems to have worldwide reach. If you’re adamant on using Kickstarter, I’ve heard there are ways of using it even if you’re not within the supported countries. You can investigate, but knowing that probably falls into a shady gray area.
– Check all current campaigns, funded, ongoing and failed. See what they do right, what they do wrong. The quality of the images or videos they use. Their pledge tiers and their goals. If they focus on the product or on the personal approach. Take notes of everything, and see how you can adapt it to your game campaign.
– Most of the successful campaigns seem to have rather low minimal goals, easy to reach, but with lots of goal tiers afterward. If you’re an unknown indie dev with a first project ever campaign of an astronomical goal of USD 800,000 it’s going to be hard to make it.
– Pledge tiers should give tangible, interesting rewards. Brainstorm heavily on this, and make the best bang for your buck. Try to give your backers the most value for the lowest cost, so the rest can be used to fund your development costs. Physical goods are amazing rewards, but don’t forget those will probably have an extra cost vs digital.
– Likewise, you should prepare all the different goal tiers in advance. Basically, once you achieved the funding, you should have plenty of extra goals to achieve, and each time you break that goal, you add something extra into your game. Make as many as you can, preparing for the eventuality of the campaign going extremely well. You don’t need to publish the goal tiers at first, and you don’t need to publish them all together. Keep the backers chasing the carrot.
– The more professional everything looks, the better image your backers will have of you. Having some sort of pedigree helps (if any of the devs have worked on popular games, if you’ve run successful campaigns already, or even if you’ve published a game before – don’t be afraid of showing off). The game doesn’t need to be close to finished, but what you show has to be polished as if it were finished.
– Be ready to spend a full month almost exclusively working on that. Every single dev article I read about this has mentioned you are either full-time campaign mode, or you’ll be hearing crickets for the duration of your campaign. If you already have a following, it’s probably better because they can help you promote and re-share your posts.
– And finally: be realistic with your goals and your delivery dates. Make a pessimistic planning, adding a lot of buffer. Don’t overpromise. Overdeliver. Keep your backers updated often on progress. Give them little digital gifts if you can. You don’t want to be yet another dev that went silent and did not finish the project. That could potentially ruin your reputation and your professional career, as well as ruin the opportunity for future devs that want to launch a well-done campaign.
9- Youtubers and Streamers (Content Creators). We’ve arrived to la crème de la crème of Marketing. This is by far the best channel we have right now as devs to market our game. The audience reach they have is superior to any of the other methods described above (with perhaps the exception of a very viral post). No matter if you have a lot of time or a little time to do Marketing, this is where most of your efforts should be on.
A few suggestions:
– Gather a list of Youtubers or Streamers, from huge to small. Make sure they do feature your game genre. If you’re sending a platformer game to a horror FPS channel or your indie game to a AAA gaming channel, you will certainly be ignored.
– To find the channels, I usually search for: 1) games of the same genre, 2) the genre itself or the game’s theme, 3) compilations or best of 202X (indies, platformers, puzzles, etc.). Mind that at the time of the writing, YouTube has a limit to how many channel business e-mails you can see per day.
– When you contact content creators, consider the advice given to contact the press: be brief, send them the key, etc. Some will just play your game for free if they like it, others might require some form of payment to feature your game in their channel.
– An interesting alternative is to become a YouTuber / Streamer yourself (or your company). I’ve seen a few devs doing this, with good results. You can choose your content too:
. Play your own game. You can do a silent longplay, a dev commentary, show your face or not, test potential changes before they are available, etc. Do what you’re comfortable with, or step out of your comfort zone and try it out! You might have more fun than you initially expected.
. If your game is couch play, then you can have the team play all together.
. Or you can do tutorials on specific implementations, or even talk about general developer topics.
– There are sites that act as the middle-man between devs and content creators, like:
Idea is that you just worry about uploading your Keys, and the content creators will find it directly, without having to contact you. They all have free and paid services (with some of the money going to the creators), so you’ll have to see if worth it for each or not.
We will be starting to use these services soon, so I’ll update this article after fiddling around with them for some time.
10- Other Marketing Avenues. Always keep an eye out for this. Anything that can makes you stand out or get featured or talked about somewhere is useful:
– Writing articles, blog, tutorials, etc. Even if it’s more helpful to other devs (or even just yourself, to vent out), you can still gain visibility for your company or game by doing them, as well as doing some networking that you might find useful in the future.
– Extra goodies. Offering stuff for free is always appreciated. In our case, we decided to make Papercraft Gravitator Ships. If your game has significant popularity, you might want to consider doing physical or limited edition packages too. Companies like The Indie Box, Fan Gamer, Limited Run or Special Reserve Games have cool stuff.
– Cross Promotion with other devs. Instead of competing, share efforts with other indie devs of similar genres. Chances are that fans of one game might become fans of the other one as well. You can create bundles together, set the same discounts on sales, or just promote each other through each of your social channels.
The truth is that between the now-free engines, the massive amount of tutorials and all the free/paid assets, it’s as easy as ever to do a game. This low barrier entry has opened the flood gates and caused the market to become saturated, with many new releases every single day.
I’m sure most starting indie devs experience this feeling at one time or another:
You have AAA studios, AA studios, indie devs, solo devs, hobbyists and everything in between all competing for a tiny slice of the consumer’s pie (their time and their money). On top of that, many players already have a huge backlog of games, and only buy their favorite ones on launch. For everything else, they can just wait until 50% or 75% off. So today it’s just not enough with having a good game, that’s just a requirement.
There will always be a few success stories that perfectly hit every mark and end up at the top, with massive sales and popularity, but for most of the new games it will be a rather uphill journey.
The take here is not to make it sound hopeless. It’s to avoid underestimating the importance of marketing your game, so you can start planning and preparing from day 1.
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