Indie Game Marketing 101 – Part 1 – A beginner’s guide to games marketing

So, you’re releasing your first indie game. You’ve been hard at work on it for a while, and this whole marketing malarkey is something you’ve heard come up a few times. But to be frank, you’ve never really known much about marketing, or what it entails. In fact, you didn’t even consider it when you set about crafting your masterpiece all those months or years ago.

Then you realised that everyone is doing marketing, and it seems everyone at every games event or on every Twitter conversation is talking about marketing, and suddenly you feel a bit overwhelmed. With so many buzzwords flying around, and so many different developers disagreeing over what approach is best, it can be difficult to know where to start, and easy to feel left behind.

Never fear, legendary game developer! Once upon a time, we were new to games marketing too. After all these years working in the field, it can be easy to forget that we’ve amassed a lot of knowledge, and that some of the things we talk about on this blog might need a bit of contextualising. So today, I wanted to put together a sort of ‘indie game marketing 101’ – an introduction, at the most very basic level, to marketing your indie game: what that means, why you need to do it, what options are available, and what to expect as you embark on this journey.

Here we go.

Contents

What is marketing?
Why do I need to market my game?
Where do I start with marketing my game?
What are some marketing activities I should consider?
What makes a good marketing strategy?
What materials should I be creating and showing people?
What should I do after my game has launched?
How much should I budget for marketing?


What is marketing?

Marketing is the process of ‘bringing to market’ a product or service – that is to say, of releasing something into the wild, and making sure that enough people know and care about it to give it a decent chance of success.

At its broadest sense, indie game marketing is about making sure your game has an audience. But there’s a lot of nuance to it, as well, such as figuring out which type of audience is going to be most interested in your game, what the best ways of reaching them are, and how to make them care enough about your game to consider playing it, in an era where I’m pretty sure there are more indie games than there are people on the planet.


Why do I need to market my game? Surely if it’s good enough, people will find it via word of mouth…

The commercial marketplace is a big and noisy place, and the games industry is bigger and noisier than most, with thousands of game developers and publishers all competing for players’ attention. The simple answer to this question is that it’s very difficult for a player to notice even a very good game, because there is so much noise to cut through in order to find new things.

The slightly more complicated answer to this question, especially where indie games are concerned, has to do with the way ‘discoverability’ works on the marketplaces you’re likely to be selling within. The likes of Steam, the App Store, Google Play, and the Nintendo eShop are part-curated, part-algorithm driven. This means that some content is pushed toward players because the people in charge of the store think it will perform well, and the rest is automatically distributed around the store based on a complex set of mathematics that aim to predict what will perform well. This is because there are simply so many games to choose from, that storefronts have the freedom to foreground the stuff they know – or have a pretty good idea – will make the most money.

But in both of these cases, there needs to be evidence – either to a human being, or to a computer – that large numbers of people will be interested in your game. And generally speaking, this means you have to show some initial momentum: people visiting your Steam page and adding you to their wishlist, people enthusiastically covering your game in the media, or people following your social channels.

In short, the games market is too loud and too competitive for players to notice your game by accident, and the platforms that can expose you to a large audience want to see proof that people are already interested in your game. This means that unless you invest time and energy into marketing, nobody will know your game exists, let alone start talking about it.

The good news is, if you’ve even considered who you’re making your game for, or what you think makes it really awesome – congratulations – you’re already doing marketing!


OK, so I need to market my game. Where do I start?

The first thing you’ll need to understand is that marketing your game is a project in and of itself. Just like developing a game, running a marketing project is something that takes planning, and an investment of time (and often money) in order to make it work.

The vast majority of indie games fail – but that’s at least in part because the vast majority of indie developers treat marketing as an afterthought, rather than as a part of their game development project itself.

Our advice is that as soon as you decide you’re going to release a commercial game (or as soon as possible in the process, if that’s already happened), you start working on your marketing plan. Start by thinking about who is going to get the most enjoyment out of your game, and what other games are currently out there that those people seem to be enjoying. Look at what those games are doing and not doing. What’s working really well for them? Are there any ‘gaps’ in the market you can see, for something a little different? You’ll want to consider building these things into the very design of your game – because without a game your audience wants, no amount of marketing is going to make it successful.

Then, you’ll want to think about what sorts of activities you can undertake in the months leading up to your launch.

Planning marketing activities before the launch of your game is very important, because those pesky algorithms I mentioned earlier – the ones that determine how much visibility your game gets on a store – often look at things called ‘pre-sale metrics’ to determine how popular your game is likely to be. On Steam, for example, one of the biggest things that is likely to give you visibility once your game launches is how many people added your game to their Steam wishlist before its release day. Meanwhile, charts and trending lists, which can often give games a large boost within the market, look at how many people are buying or engaging with your game in a short space of time. This means that having a whole bunch of people who are ready and waiting to buy your game on day one can be the difference between success and failure.

Game developers are often wary of showing too much of their game while it’s in development – because it’s a work-in-progress, or because spending time showing their game takes too much of their attention away from development. But the reality is that, for most games, some form of pre-release marketing is essential – so make sure you think about it early, factor things like screenshots and trailers into your production plan, and carve out time for marketing throughout the project.

Some game developers, if their budget allows, choose to bring on a marketing partner or consultant to help them develop that plan. That’s not essential, but if you can afford it, bringing in an external party with plenty of marketing experience can help you to formulate a more reliable and robust strategy, while allowing you to focus more of your attention on making the game.


What are some different marketing activities I might consider?

From the early 2000s to just a few years ago, the gaming press acted as ‘gatekeepers’ for indie developers, and a game’s success often hinged on how many articles and glowing reviews it received from high-profile magazines and websites. For this reason, a lot of indie developers still use the terms ‘marketing’ and ‘PR’ (public or press relations) interchangeably, even though the latter is really just one small subset of the former.

The gaming press can still be very important, and most indies would do well to factor them into their marketing plan, but in 2019 there are more accessible marketing channels and activities than ever before – and the best way to develop an engaged and enthusiastic audience is to use several of them at once, reaching people in different ways at different times, to ensure you stick in their mind and really make an impression.

Perhaps the most accessible of all marketing activities is the use of social media. Most of us are on there anyway, and even if you’re not, it’s easy and free to start an account and begin posting. Social media can be a great way of getting your content out there and in front of interested parties, but it’s not a quick win, and you’ll need to be prepared to invest time every day into posting content, joining in relevant conversations, and building up a following.

Many indie games in 2019 benefit from having a place to foster a strong, engaged community ahead of launch: after all, to get those all-important pre-sale and day-one metrics up, you want to have a set of super-engaged players who are excited to buy your game. Discord is a popular choice for housing a community, but again, it will take time and effort to nurture, and you’ll need a strong strategy in place to get people to join it in the first place. Mailing lists, too, can be a great way of reaching your audience at the most important times. We typically recommend offering something awesome for free, or meaningful involvement in the production process, as an incentive to join.

Meanwhile, for those who have a slightly larger budget, digital advertising is more accessible to indie developers than ever before. Search and social giants Google and Facebook make most of their money by collecting enormously granular data on their millions of users, and allowing advertisers to make use that data, via increasingly intuitive tools. Making a game that exclusively appeals to 27-year-old women from Birmingham who also show an effervescent love for monster truck racing? That’s fine: in just a few clicks, you can ensure you’re only ever paying to advertise to that tiny subset of the population, slashing your costs in the process.

Showcasing your game at events – such as Gamescom, PAX or EGX – can be a great way of reaching large numbers of people in one place, and seeing their reactions in person. These events can cost a lot of money to attend and exhibit at, though, and it typically takes a few events to build up real momentum. If you do decide to fork out for a booth, be sure to have a plan in place to convert interested players into enthusiastic fans who’ll follow your game long-term.

And of course, there are still good, old-fashioned PR efforts: sending your news to journalists, and sending preview and review keys to critics and influencers, can still be a great way of not only reaching a new audience, but also – assuming their coverage is positive – gaining trust from your potential player base.


What makes a good marketing strategy?

The best marketing strategies comprise a sequence of ‘campaigns’ (a coordinated set of activities), which work across a number of different channels, and which are able to reach your audience multiple times with different content and activities, increasing their engagement on an ongoing basis.

Getting on IGN with your announcement can give you a great deal of visibility, but it’s not worth anything unless their readers follow you until launch day. You need a strategy that pulls people along that journey with you.

A good strategy starts with overall goals and objectives (e.g. “we want to sell 10,000 copies of our game”), then works backwards. You’ll want to establish what are the metrics that suggest you’re on-track to meet those objectives, known as key performance indicators or ‘KPIs’ (e.g. “we want to sell 1,000 day-one copies to get onto Steam’s ‘trending’ list”), then keep working ever further backwards (“we want 2,000 active Discord members ahead of launch, of which at least 50% have signalled their intent to buy as soon as the game is out”), until you find yourself setting interim or ‘milestone’ targets (e.g. “we want to sign up 300 new people to our Discord during PAX”).

After each milestone, review your actual results against your targets. Did you hit them? If so, great – how can you repeat that success? If not, why? What went wrong? What could you do differently next time?

A great marketing strategy begins with a thorough plan, but it constantly evolves, learning from experience and becoming increasingly informed by the results to date. Be sure to take time after each big marketing activity to assess what worked and what didn’t, and adapt your strategy accordingly.


What materials will I need to produce? What should I be showing people?

For all games, your two absolute prerequisites will be a set of screenshots, and a video trailer. When I say ‘prerequisites’ I really mean that: you’ll need them both to be able to launch your game on any of the major storefronts at all. But these are also the two things people will generally look to as a first impression of your game. Invest time and effort here, and if the audiovisual arts aren’t your strong suit, bring in a professional. The difference between a slick, professionally cut trailer, and a home-made iMovie job, can be the difference between your audience sitting up and paying attention, or yawning and moving on.

Your game will need a logo. This will appear in more places than you might think, not least all over your store pages, so you’ll want to make that slick and professional too, with a style that communicates something about your game’s ‘personality’.

You should have a website, and you should make it good. There have been games that have succeeded with a URL that redirects straight to their store page. I tend to turn my nose up at those ones: it speaks to the effort you’re willing to put in. Maybe that’s just me.

If you’re really serious about this, and building the sort of multi-channel, multi-phase strategy described above, then you’ll also need assets that specifically support each individual campaign. Trailers, for example, are a great way to announce a new set of features, or your release date: they provide something for people to latch onto, something more shareable than some information in text form. Be wary of thinking “indie game releases new trailer” is a story in itself: your assets should always support the news, not the other way around.

You’ll also want to consider tailoring your assets to the platform they’re intended for. A snappy 20-second video will perform better on Facebook, whereas a 90-second theatrical trailer is more likely to be picked up by the press.

A nice-to-have is ‘key art’ or ‘hero art’ – professionally crafted images that most often showcase your game’s characters or environment or world. Think of them as your movie poster. You can market a game without key art, but most of the biggest and most professional productions have it, and it can provide that extra special something that instantly communicates what your game is all about.

Finally, you should seriously consider keeping an up-to-date, reasonably polished work-in-progress build that you can show to selected individuals. There are journalists, for example, who would love to cover your game pre-release, but who’ll want to give it a quick play first so they can vouch for its quality when pitching a story to their editor. And alpha and beta phases, where you bring players in for a limited time to gain feedback and collect bug reports, can also be a great marketing opportunity – a chance to engage your audience with the most important asset of all: the game itself.


What happens after my game has launched? Do I just… stop?

This guide has largely focused on pre-launch marketing, because that’s so important. But there’s no need to stop as soon as your game is on the market. In fact, doing so would be to miss out on a lot of opportunities to create a ‘long tail’ for your game’s commercial success.

Working with your fans to encourage them to spread the word can be a great way to keep that momentum up after launch – many communities of an indie game, in fact, expect their developers to stay in touch via social media and community portals. Entering your game for awards can bring an additional boost of exposure and prestige. And, of course, continuing to support your game with patches and updates can bring back lapsed players and generate new visibility. Plus, if you intend to release more games in the future, sustaining your community can be a great way to make your next marketing campaign a heck of a lot easier!

Sales and bundles are also a great way of encouraging new people to try out your game, though think carefully about when to time them. Various consumer laws around the world mean you can’t run sales every few weeks, and each time you discount your game, you’re setting the expectation that it can be acquired on the cheap. Generally speaking, it’s best to wait until your sales drop off considerably before thinking about sales and bundles – normally at least five or six months after your launch.


This is all well and good, but how much is it going to cost me?

That’s likely to revolve mainly around your goals. If you’re a spare-time developer hoping to sell just a couple of thousand copies, maybe pay for a nice family holiday somewhere, then you might be able to get away with learning some grassroots marketing techniques yourself and not paying anyone a penny. In this case, you’ll want to think about how much time to set aside for marketing – because trust me, those hours start to add up very quickly, and you need to budget for them every single day.

If your goals are more commercially oriented – say, you need to sell at least x number of copies to keep your employees on the payroll – then you’ll almost certainly need to think about factoring in some sort of budget. The figure you settle on will depend on a wide range of factors, such as available investment, running costs, and predicted revenue for the game – but most successful indie developers seem to settle on a budget that is around 25-50% of the amount they’re spending on making the game (to put this in context, many triple-A publishers have marketing budgets that match, if not exceed, their production costs).

Ultimately, you’ll need to do the sums. If you’re expecting to sell half-a-million copies at $20 a unit, then a marketing budget of $5,000 is unsuitably low: it’s not going to get you anywhere close to the commercial goals you have in mind, because it will limit you to just a couple of small-scale campaigns and you’ll fail to reach and engage enough people. Besides, if you really think your game’s going to net you $10million in revenue with the right marketing, then you need to be prepared to pay for it. But if you only need to shift 5,000 copies to make your next game a reality, a budget in the low-thousands might suffice.


And that’s all for now, folks! But keep your eyes peeled on our blog, because next up we’ll be answering a selection of excellent questions from our followers on Twitter. Stay tuned!