Hacking your indie game marketing
Marketing. It’s an indie developer’s worst nightmare…
…but it doesn’t have to be! Instead of putting off marketing to the last second in favor of developing your game, indies are better served by brainstorming a marketing plan up front and treating it as part of the development process. This article will focus on ways to “hack” your marketing by getting it done efficiently and on a tiny (or nonexistent) budget.
In my law practice, I assist indie game developers with a number of legal issues. As part of my counseling, I also help game startups with their general business strategy, including marketing their company and their game. I’ve had the pleasure of working with some great marketers in my professional life, whose wisdom I’m passing on to you, the reader.
So what exactly IS marketing?
It’s a scary word, for sure. It evokes expensive Mad Men-style advertising execs and pricey Facebook or Google ads.
Nothing could be further from the truth. “Marketing” is simply a word for the way that you reach out to potential consumers and make them aware of your product. Many indies take a product-focused approach, creating a game that they themselves would want to play. They balk at the “focus group-tested, lowest common denominator” approach that bigger companies take to mitigate risk.
I believe that there’s a way to make the kind of game you want to make while still having an eye on the bigger picture, which is actually selling your game to consumers (and hopefully turning a profit).
If you are a first-time indie developer, I’m sure that you have lots of questions about marketing. How do you go about getting people to notice your game? What if you have no money to hire marketing people or to pay for ads? How can you “hack” your indie game marketing?
The #1 thing to keep in mind – always ADD value!
Jamey Stegmaier, crowdfunding expert and owner of Stonemaier Games, says that, “The greatest key to marketing anything is to stop asking people to do something for you and start finding ways to add value to other people. My entire company exists entirely because I learned to embrace that philosophy.” Jamey literally wrote the book on crowdfunding, so first-time developers better pay attention.
It’s easy to ask for things, and much harder to actually deliver value to the community. When I started my solo law practice, I was a nobody. I quickly built an audience and established authority by providing value to readers of my blog, in the form of articles and eBooks explaining legal concepts related to game development.
When people get some value out of what you say, they pay attention, whether it’s through a checklist, a tutorial, or an inspiring podcast interview or anecdote. They sign up for your mailing list. They interact with you on your blog and on forums. Once you’ve delivered this value consistently, they want to support you by buying your game.
Marketing begins before you even start development
It’s a common misconception that marketing is something you do after the game is ready to show off to potential buyers. The smart indie dev, however, starts the marketing process before the first line of code is written. This preliminary work involves market research.
Traditionally, market research is done by firms that charge a pretty penny for their services. The average first-time developer simply doesn’t have the money to pay for this up-front research. There’s a number of no or low-cost ways to conduct your own market research, though, that devs can take advantage of.
Jennifer Cuthill, a market research guru with Clearworks, recommends finding out whether or not there is “market opportunity” in whatever type of game you want to make. Researching market opportunity lets you know:
- what the potential audience size is
- whether they want to purchase, and
- that this is, indeed, a good game to start developing.
Doing this research allows you to mitigate risk by identifying particular needs of an audience and taking a lot of the guesswork out of deciding on specific features and unique selling points of your game.
It’s important that you are specific about your audience— – this kind of research isn’t supposed to be directed at friends, family, and “average joes.” There is a big difference between doing mainstream focus testing and doing market research that’s targeted to a smaller group. As an indie, you don’t necessarily need to appeal to a mainstream audience. You can survive by effectively leveraging a niche. It’s important, then, to confirm that this niche exists, that it is large enough to sustain you, and that they are ready to purchase whatever game you developing.
One overarching theme in this type of low-cost market research is leveraging the power of the Internet. Before beginning development on a particular game idea, you should find the places where your intended audience is hanging out. Whether that is on a gamedev subreddit, at a game conference, or in a forum dedicated to a niche game genre, that’s where you need to be.
Once you are there and familiar with that community, it’s time to start your research. You can do this by asking open-ended questions in forums and on Reddit, sending surveys to those who have signed up for your mailing list or read your blog (using free and low-cost survey tools, like Survey Monkey), and even meeting potential fans face-to-face at conventions and other gatherings. Their answers to various questions related to your future game can be invaluable in shaping the direction that your development takes. This kind of research is covered in the book Ask., by Ryan Levesque. He details a system for product development, but the ideas behind it can be used to assist you in your indie game market research.
During development of the game
Once you start development, the marketing work ramps up and changes form. According to Black Shell Media’s Raghav Mathur, “The worst mistake a developer [can] make is keeping the fans in the dark.” If you’re not reaching out to that potential audience you discovered in the pre-development phase, you’re missing out on a huge marketing opportunity. This outreach should start early and happen often.
Raghav points out a number of ways that an indie dev can do this:
- A developer blog with articles about your team, your game, and interesting game development stories and tutorials
- Forum postings while your game is in Early Access
- Discussions about your game on Reddit’s r/gamedev or r/games subreddits, and about related topics that can be circled back to discussion about your game
- Sharing updates about your game, your blog and your company on social media
Doing this throughout development can have a number of positive effects. You share tips and stories with other game developers, who may be useful with cross-promotion and co-branding in the future. You create an ongoing dialogue and excitement within your potential market. You get mailing list signups using a form on your website. These are invaluable when you’re about to launch your game on Kickstarter, Steam Early Access, or as an official final release. You can make a name for yourself in the industry at large, garnering attention for yourself and your game from the media, both traditional press outlets and those in the game streaming and “Let’s Play” world.
One particularly useful technique in the blogging world is guest blogging. This means that you write a blog post that is published on a different (and usually more popular) website than your own. This can potentially put you in front of a much wider audience than you would normally have on your own site, allowing you to pick up new fans easily. Just make sure that guest post links back to your own site or mailing list signup page.
Another added benefit of creating a number of blog posts is to increase your game and your company’s “Google juice,” or search engine optimization (SEO). The aforementioned guest blogging is particularly good for this.
SEO has both immediate and long-term effects for your game sales. First, if you can rank highly for search terms relevant to your game (that you discovered during your market research), then more potential purchasers will be able to find you. Second, having that series of posts that always live on the Internet will bring new readers (who could be purchasers of your game) to your site and your game into the future – this is a “long tail” effect that can potentially keep sales going long after launch.
Launching the game
While it has become standard practice in recent years, Raw Fury’s David Martinez recommends reaching out to streamers and YouTubers, alongside the traditional press, to get attention for your game. However, the real trick to this is actually getting noticed by those YouTubers.
David says that the best way is through tried-and-true “old fashioned PR” methods. This means doing a number of things, including:
- actually meeting content creators and press at conventions
- following and tweeting back at them on Twitter about stuff not just related to your own game
- watching their streams and chatting with their communities
- subscribing and watching on YouTube, and
- treating them like a human being and not just a number on a spreadsheet.
That face-to-face meetup can have much more impact than an email. If you meet someone in person and know who they are, what they stream, and can hold an interesting conversation with them, the chance that they remember you when you ask them for help later on is much greater. “Why would a content creator be inclined to respond to you if you’re just essentially spamming them, or if your email looks like the other 10 games they were pitched on the same day?” David cautions.
It’s true – a personal anecdote or reminder about your face-to-face meeting can really jumpstart your chances with that particular streamer. David also encourages the use of online tools like Keymailer to facilitate the distribution of your game to reviewers. These should be used in connection with with the in-person meetings – not instead of them.
Once you get over the unfounded fears that go along with the term “marketing,” it’s actually pretty simple. It just takes some hard work, but putting in that work throughout the entire development process can pay off in dramatically increased attention and sales.
Of course, marketing is just one of many aspects in starting an indie studio and getting your first game finished. If you’d like to learn more about launching a game startup, sign up for the mailing list on the right to learn about the online course just for indie developers!