Once upon a time, releasing an indie game was enough to get people’s attention — especially if your game was on Steam, the holy grail for the indie developer looking to gain visibility with a large audience. There was a time when a Steam release would guarantee you millions of eyes on your game, and drive sales without you having to do anything. That fabled time now has a name: 2013.
It is not 2013 any more.
And as such, we hear from many developers who are about to release a game, and who know that they need to do some marketing to be in with a chance of success. The problem is, it takes time to construct a scenario where success is likely, or even possible. Developers who begin thinking about marketing just weeks before their release are shooting themselves in the foot, and instead engendering a situation in which their hard work is destined to fail.
1. Community is key — and it takes time to grow
For many indie games, community is the most vital marketing tool. A strong, engaged, excited community can spearhead impactful word-of-mouth, which is still one of the most effective marketing methods at your disposal.
Communities don’t crop up overnight. Rather, they’re the product of long-term investment in individual people. It’s vital to make your potential fans feel important, listened to, and valued. Build up that trust, and you’ll have a sea of people ready to help you spread the word — but be aware that trust takes time to build.
2. Media relations is a long game
When you first tell a journalist about your game, their first question is likely to be: “why should I care about this?” And unless what you’re making is enormously innovative or newsworthy in its own right, this can be a difficult question to answer.
A journalist has to consider the value your story will provide to their readership. If no one knows or cares about your game, why would they bother writing a story about it? People read games websites — or tune into YouTube channels, or whatever — to find out about stuff they care about. So you need to make your game something worth caring about.
Again, this process doesn’t happen overnight. It’s important to figure out where your game is best placed when it’s an unknown quantity — perhaps in features about little-known games in development, or ‘spotlight’ showcase videos — to start building up awareness of what you’re doing. Over time, you’ll become a known name to more media figures, which is ultimately how you’ll get the all-important coverage come launch. But unless you start early, you’ll miss the opportunity.
3. Lead times are a thing
You love your game. To you, it’s the most important thing in the world. But the harsh reality is that your game is only top priority to you.
For anyone else who might help you spread the word about your pride and joy, you’re going to have to wait. Big publishers get to skip the queue when it comes to press coverage, and news becomes old quickly, so it’s important to get in early and talk about opportunities that may not come to fruition for some time.
By way of example, we’re currently arranging launch-day YouTube coverage for a game that’s coming out in almost three months’ time. Even now, we’ve had several influencers reply to us saying they’re fully booked for that period, as there are simply too many big games releasing then. But others, having liked what they’ve seen of the game, have agreed to hold us a slot — something they wouldn’t have been able to do had we got in touch any later.
Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that — even during quiet times of the year — it will typically take a website a couple of weeks to put a review together. For print, you can extend that to two months, due to the time required to put the magazine through an art pass, go to print, go through distribution, and end up on store shelves.
Start too late and you may miss all of these opportunities to get your game in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
Sometimes, people ask us when is the best time to start thinking about marketing. The honest answer is, you should be thinking about it as soon as you decide you’re going to make a commercially released video game. It’s just as important a piece to the puzzle as code or art — so don’t do yourselves a disservice, and plan ahead!