Indie game marketing: the most common mistakes, and how to avoid them

Last year, I wrote about the most common indie game PR mistakes, and how to avoid falling into those traps. More than ever, those tips remain true: it’s vital to have a clear proposition, allow enough time to prove your value to the media, and ensure everything you present is on-message and slickly produced. But good indie game marketing covers more than just PR, and we often see studios follow the rules when it comes to their public relations, yet fail to capitalise on this success due to having a less-than-robust overall marketing strategy.

So that’s what we’re going to explore today. What are the most common indie game marketing pitfalls that we see, and how can small studios and solo developers avoid them?

But first…

Given the above, it perhaps makes sense to be clear on what we mean by ‘marketing’ versus ‘PR’.

PR is public relations – in other words, how you communicate with the world outside your organisation. In the past this typically meant working with the press, and that’s still a large component of it, but modern PR also encompasses influencer campaigns, social media and community, events, and more besides. But PR is just one component of these things: there are other marketing theories and practices that come into play too.

Marketing, more broadly, is the process of raising awareness – and ultimately making people want to buy, engage with or invest in – a product or service. One aspect of a good marketing plan might be public relations – but where PR is great for engendering trust and building a profile, it’s not the be-all and end-all of a successful campaign, and this is where many indies often fall down.

Have you ever generated great press attention for your game, but found its sales to be disappointing on launch? Perhaps you haven’t, but you know studios who have? This is a common reality in today’s gaming market, and more often than not it can be traced back to a sub-optimal overall marketing plan, which focused on PR to the exclusion of all else.

And that, in fact, is the first pitfall you should avoid.

Mistake #1: Assuming PR is your marketing plan

Indie studios on a budget often – correctly – identify public relations as an affordable strategy to employ. It often revolves around earned media – meaning you don’t have to purchase ad space in order to communicate your message. It’s time-consuming, and acquiring the knowledge needed to practice PR effectively can be a slog, but it’s something that most indie developers can carve out some time for and have a go at themselves. Or if not, PR agencies tend to offer packages that cost less money than ad agencies and other creative marketing companies, simply because most of the cost is for man-hours rather than actual monetary spend.

But time and time again, we see that in competitive industries, even successful PR does not equate to product sales. In sectors where the audiences is crying out for new products, a good PR campaign can lead to a huge spike in business – but in games, where there are hundreds of companies competing for players’ business every month, PR alone won’t cut it.

How to avoid it…

Take a step back, and learn to view PR as just one component of a wider campaign. First, think about the overall image you want to portray, and the people you want to reach. Take the time to learn about that audience – where they hang out, what they respond well to – and think of a number of different ways you can reach them over time. People are far more likely to buy a product the third or fourth time they hear about it than simply by reading one article or review, so plan for ways to hit the same people again and again via different channels.

Mistake #2: Entering a crowded market without a USP

A USP is a unique selling point: it’s the thing that makes your product irresistibly purchasable when compared with your competitors’ offerings.

But many indie developers begin working on their game as a passion project. They set out to create the sort of game they love to play, inspired and influenced by their favourite titles. The thinking goes: if I’d play this, then so would other people, right?

Perhaps. Perhaps they’d really enjoy it. But first, you have to convince them that your game is worth playing above all the other games from studios who have thought the same thing. And with the average gamer now older and busier than ever, competing for their time is a challenge – not to mention the fact that you’ll find it more difficult to convince journalists and influencers to cover a game that is derivative of what came before.

How to avoid it…

There’s nothing wrong with making the game you’d love to make, rather than cynically analysing the market and crafting something to meet that need. In fact, studios who take the latter approach often fail just as hard – being beaten to market by competitors, or releasing a product that feels phoned in, rather than the result of years of passionate work.

That said, ensuring you do proper market research before locking down your idea can go a long way to ensuring you don’t fall into this trap. Look at what other similar games are on the horizon, and compare them with your vision. Is your game doing something substantially different or more interesting to those? Is there enough demand from players to warrant another addition to the pack? Try to answer these questions as honestly as you can, getting the opinion of independent third parties if possible. If you’re struggling to find the thing that really makes your game stand out, it might pay to go back to the drawing board and flesh out your core idea a little more, before it’s too late to change things.

Mistake #3: Being too ambitious

We’ve all got that wonderful idea, that vision for something remarkable we’d love to do with our lives. For many indie developers, that idea takes the form of a video game.

But games are complex to make. And inexperienced developers often fall into the trap of over-scoping a project to the extent that it will always struggle to be successful.

Isn’t this a production problem rather than a marketing problem? Well, in our experience, the two go hand-in-hand. Spiralling production leads to delays and cut corners; delays and cut corners weaken trust, and a lack of trust means you’ll struggle to convince people to keep paying attention, or to give you the opportunity you’re relying on to cut through the noise.

Plus, as production costs swell, marketing budgets are often the first to be cut – and the more money you invest in your game, the more units it will need to sell to break even.

How to avoid it…

Look at successful games that are similar to yours, and do your research into their development. How much did they cost to build? How big was their team? Did they have past experience or was this their first title? What about similar games that failed? How did their production compare?

Then, really think about what’s realistic for you, and spend time planning out clear milestones that work from both a production and marketing perspective. Set deadlines and budgets you’re very confident you can work with, then double them. Is the project still viable? If not, then grit your teeth and find ways to reduce the scope. You can always come back to that dream idea once your first game has generated a bit of cash.

And on that note…

Mistake #4: Banking on your first game being a hit

When I was first getting established in the games industry, there was a lot of talk of an amazing new studio, who had come out of nowhere and revolutionised mobile gaming. The word on everyone’s lips was the same: Rovio. And everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, trying to make something similar and replicate the success of Angry Birds.

Except, Rovio hadn’t come out of nowhere. Rovio had spent the past six years making game after game after game, none of which made them much cash. They spent that six years scraping by on a combination of work-for-hire revenue and investor capital. Angry Birds, their first ‘hit’, was Rovio’s 35th game.

In any line of work, it is extraordinarily rare for someone’s first product to be an overnight success. If you were in a local band, and you pooled your money together to record and release your debut EP, would you expect to rise to the top of the charts? Unlikely – and yet a surprising number of indie studios, blinded by the indie gold rush of 2008-2014, see releasing an indie game as a ticket to stardom.

How to avoid it…

Treat your career in indie game development as a slow-burner, and follow the advice for Mistake #3 above. Instead of pouring your life savings into your first game, start with something humble. Even if you’ve worked on games for other companies, if this is the first game you’ve directed or produced, your first goal should be to learn the ropes of what it is to run a game development project from start to finish (and trust me, finishing a game is far more difficult than starting one!).

If your debut game needs to sell 100,000 copies to be considered a success, you’re doing it wrong. Work on an idea that will break even within a few thousand sales, and use it as an opportunity to get your foot in the indie dev door, establish your name on the scene, and demonstrate your ability to work on – and complete – a quality product.

Mistake #5: Neglecting your community

Community management is hard work. Often demanding full-time hours in and of itself, it can be a nightmare for solo devs and small studios to keep up with their community – especially as it begins to grow.

Unfortunately, this is absolutely the time that developers should be investing in their community. And those who fail to do so – going days without replying to messages or posting a tweet, or failing to keep an eye on their Steam page so as to respond to questions – run the risk of losing any interest and goodwill they had previously built up.

How to avoid it…

The short answer is: factor in time for community management. Even if you can only manage 30 minutes a day, be sure to set that time aside. If you’re making a commercial product, then that pesky bug you’ve been trying to fix is no more important or high-priority than responding to a potential fan.

I hear a lot of developers tell me, “Oh, I don’t really do social media.” In that case, you need to either hire someone who does, or you need to change that pronto. We live in a world that is dominated by online interactions. A failure to recognise that, and properly utilise social media as a marketing channel, is an active decision to ignore the habits of your audience – something any marketer will tell you is essentially the opposite of what you should be doing.

Mistake #6: Not processing feedback properly

Player feedback is a vital part of making a great indie game. It’s also a vital part of marketing one. And I do see plenty of developers actively seeking feedback, listening to their players, and attempting to respond to what they hear.

But there’s a difficulty. Feedback comes in many forms, and simply listening to what people say is only the start of the challenge. Often, it’s how things are said, who said them, and even what isn’t said that’s important.

Excitable teenagers at a games expo? Of course they’re going to say they love your game. They’re high on energy drinks and they’re talking to an intimidating grown-up game developer. Your friends and your family, the people who know what it is you’re making and what you’re trying to achieve, they’ll instinctively get it more than most. And the journalist who tells you that yes, the game looks really nice, well done, they’re just too busy to write something right now – well, they have to reject dozens of indie developers a day, and it can get tiring to explain the reasons why every single time.

Meanwhile, a vocal minority of players will tell you everything they reckon about a game, no matter how much they’ve thought it through. By reacting to the feedback you’re given on only a surface level, you risk missing the really crucial truths about your project – which can lead to some nasty surprises later down the line, when it’s too late to recover.

How to avoid it…

The most valuable lessons from a game design perspective often come from simply watching someone play your game. But it can be difficult to replicate this from a marketing perspective.

For this, you want to consider the context of the feedback, and minimise extraneous variables. Create a feedback environment that is as neutral as possible: people within your target market, who you don’t know and have never met, ideally in an anonymous situation where there is no pressure to say one thing or another. Online surveys, distributed via a targeted social campaign, can often work very well for this.

Beyond this, learn to prioritise feedback based on who supplies it to you. Listen to a stranger who loves your genre, over a friend who only dabbles with it. Listen to a games critic whose job it is to evaluate the quality of games, over a YouTuber who makes their money out of telling people how freakin’ awesome everything is all the time.

And always, always, prioritise detailed feedback over woolly impressions. It might be tempting to get giddy over someone who says “wow, that’s awesome” at a show, or be disheartened by an internet commenter who posts “man, this game looks shit” — but the nuanced responses, which explain in depth what a person did and didn’t respond well to, are gold dust. Cherish them, and act upon them.

Mistake #7: Trying to do everything yourself

We get it. As an indie developer, you need to wear many hats. You might be the programmer, and game designer, and producer. And you might find yourself taking on marketing tasks as well. After all, emailing some journalists and spending time on Twitter and cutting some video footage… how hard can it be?

Well, quite hard actually. I’ve been working in games marketing for years and even I often need to seek the advice or support of people more experienced than me. Every game is different, and the market changes so rapidly. Making smart strategic marketing decisions is very hard to do without the years of experience a certain level of insight demands.

Aside from any skills gap, though, good marketing requires a degree of objectivity. When it’s your project, your baby, it can be difficult to take a step back and really understand how the outside world will perceive your work. That can lead to shortsighted decision-making, potentially hampering your chances of success.

How to avoid it…

Of course, if you can afford it, bringing on a marketing professional or agency is the ideal option. But you’re an indie developer, and indie budgets are small. What should you do if this sort of commitment simply isn’t doable?

Working with an experienced marketing person on a consultative basis could be the way to go. Having someone who can provide you with an objective pair of eyes, guiding you through the process and helping you to avoid pitfalls while allowing you to do the hands-on marketing activities, can be a good way to save money without jeopardising your game’s success.

And think hard, and self-critically, about where your strengths and weaknesses lie. You might decide that you feel confident managing your own community, but you’d benefit from someone more experienced with the media to handle your press relations. You might decide that your creative abilities stretch to creating a Squarespace site, but not to cutting a theatrical launch trailer. Figuring out the areas where you can’t confidently say you’d do something to the highest possible standard, and finding help in those areas as a priority, is the way to go.

And that’s that – the 7 most common indie game marketing mistakes we see, and how to avoid them. If you’d like any advice on something not covered above, or anything in more depth, feel free to reach out via lewis@gameifyouare.com and we can have a chat!

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