Welcome back to Indie Game Marketing 101! If you haven’t read yesterday’s beginner’s guide, and you’re completely new to the concept of games marketing, you might want to start there.
For the second part of our Games Marketing 101, we wanted to open the floor to game developers on Twitter, to find out exactly what questions have been searing their ways into people’s skulls.
We had a fantastic response to our shout-out on Twitter, and some brilliant questions we wouldn’t have thought of ourselves – apologies if we end up missing any questions out. Here’s a selection of the most pertinent ones, which we’ve done our best to answer.
@ChrisDPhillips1 and @DJFariel ask: “With no budget or funding, what’s the best approach to take when spreading the word?”
Lots of successful developers have employed essentially a zero-budget marketing strategy. The thing you need to go into this remembering is that time equals money, so if you’re short on money, you’ll need a lot more time. There are few quick wins when it comes to free marketing: this project is going to be about good old-fashioned hard graft.
You’ll want to start the same way as with any other marketing project: by building a strategy. Decide on your goals then work backward, then brainstorm some ideas as to how you can move toward those goals. What can you give to the press that they’ll want to cover? How can you incentivise people to follow you on social media or join your Discord community? And, importantly, where do your ideal target audience hang out? You’ll need to go and embed into those communities, make yourself known to those journalists, and so on and so forth.
One piece of advice I’d definitely give to the developer with no marketing budget is: give people free stuff they can engage with now. For example, alpha and beta phases are often a great way of getting people engaged with your game, especially if you can identify where your potential fans are on the web. By reaching out with the right content to the right websites and communities, you’ll be able to attract people to come and test out your game and get involved in discussions about it.
The main thing with zero-budget marketing is not underestimating the time commitment, and not expecting instant results. Zero-budget marketing is a long game, and there will likely be times, as you see your Twitter following creep up by just one or two people a day, when you feel like giving up. But don’t. That couple of hours a day might lead to an increase of 10 community members a week to begin with, then 20, then 50. Then, in a year’s time when you’re nearing the launch of your game, you’ll look at your 1500-strong community – all ready to buy the game and tell other people to do the same – and be glad you invested that time.
One area that can be challenging if you have no budget is in the creative production side of things: if you’re not a web designer, or a video producer, what do you do when it comes to showcasing your game in a professional manner? The options are essentially: call in favours, or put the time in to learn.
Finally, a very real option to consider – but one that tends to be spoken of in hushed tones, if at all – is this: make an appointment with your bank. If you’re serious about your project, and you genuinely think it has potential to make money, then small business loans are a thing – and if you can show the bank a realistic profit-making plan, you can normally get quickly approved for a small-but-useful sum. If you’re making a game because you want to make money out of it, then look at you, you little entrepreneur. Part of being an entrepreneur is taking financial risks. Be cautious, but don’t rule it out.
@KittySeraphic asks: “Is games marketing something you pay up-front for, or does the marketing team take a percentage? If the latter, what happens if the game project dies before fruition?”
Generally speaking, there are three types of external marketing support you might bring on-board as an indie: a marketing agency, a publisher, or a freelancer.
Marketing agencies charge an up-front fee in exchange for an agreed set of work. This fee might be a flat, all-inclusive number (as with Game If You Are); or it might be a ‘mark-up’ on your budget (for example, if you go to an advertising agency and ask them to run you a £15,000 campaign, their fee may be £15,000 + 25%, whereby they invest the £15k in the actual advertising and the extra 25% to pay for their time and expertise). Some agencies charge on a results basis: “if we achieve x, you pay y.” Generally speaking I’d advise caution if a seemingly professional agency offers you this deal, as it may suggest they’re not sure whether your project is viable, and want an easy get-out if they don’t think they can make your project work.
A publisher will front the costs of bringing your game to market, and take a percentage of your revenue in exchange for their services. Deals are often negotiated bespokely and their recoupment percentages can range from 20% to as much as 70%, depending on the publisher and the game – some publishers will even take 100% of the revenue generated until they have recouped their whole investment. Because this presents significant risk to the publisher, it will normally be up to you as the developer to prove to the publisher that your project is worthy of their investment. Bigger publishers will normally take some sort of intellectual property ownership as part of the deal – so if you aren’t able to complete your project satisfactorily, they have the right to pay another developer to finish the work, make other games in the future, or sell that IP to a third party to make back their money. Many indie publishers will let you keep your IP but have you sign a contract that commits you to finishing the game to a certain set of standards, so be sure to take legal advice, as action may be taken against you if you fail to meet your commitments.
Some publishers have a business model that involves signing as many games as possible, and playing a ‘numbers game’ – i.e. “if we release 100 games this year, a few of them will do well and pay for our investment across the board.” If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. When considering a publisher, make sure you get a commitment from them on exactly what marketing work they will do, what results they expect to see, and what – if anything – they will do if your results are falling short of their targets. Some unscrupulous publishers have been known to sign games indiscriminately, then later decide which ones they want to focus on – leaving the rest sitting in a zero-sales limbo with nothing you can do to escape the contract.
Finally, we come to freelancers – independent contractors who will all work in different ways. Most experienced freelancers will charge based on a ‘day rate’ – an amount of money you pay them for each day that they work on your project – which normally ranges from £150/$200 per day up to about £800/$1200 per day, depending on their level of experience. You may be able to find a newer, less experienced freelancer who will be happy to work on a percentage-of-sales basis. This is fine, but do make sure you feel confident that they know what they’re doing, and do make sure you have a contract in place that protects both parties, and explains clearly what will happen if the game doesn’t do the numbers you each expect.
@KittySeraphic and @WeltenbrunchYT ask: “How far in advance of release should I start marketing my game, or start looking for a marketing company?”
These were two slightly different questions but I’m grouping them here for convenience.
Let’s start with a nit-picky point, which is this: marketing begins the second you decide to make a commercial game, whether you like it or not. If you’re making a game that you want a significant number of people to play, then your game design is marketing. Right from the outset, you should be identifying your audience, working to understand what they like and dislike, trying to figure out what’s missing from the games they play. These things can become your game’s USPs, and make it much easier to convince people that your game is worth playing.
I believe most developers can benefit from bringing on some sort of marketing person or company at that super-early stage, but it’s not feasible for everyone. That marketing plan, though, should be a living, breathing document from day one.
That said, I think what people usually mean when they say “when should I start marketing?” is “when should I start showing people my game?”. The answer games marketers normally give here is “as soon as you have something to show”. I’d go one further and say you should be planning to have something to show at least six months before launch for most games with a decent marketing budget, or at least a year before launch if you’re slogging it without paying a penny. It’s going to take a lot of time, energy and grind to build up that momentum, and it’s going to take lots of lovely assets and demos and the like to get people invested. The earlier you can start, the better – so make sure you’re factoring asset production time into your marketing plan from early doors, and make peace with the fact that sometimes, the fastest or most efficient way to build a game is not going to marry with the most effective way to market it.
If you’re bringing an agency on-board to run some marketing campaigns for you, then I’d recommend starting to speak to potential partners at least a few months before you want that first ‘hit’ to go live. At Game If You Are, we’re generally booked up around one month in advance, after which it will take at least a few weeks to prep your campaign and get it ready to go live. We sometimes have developers reach out to us to let us know they’re releasing next month and need a marketing partner to put a campaign together, and there’s almost always nothing we can do to help. If you’re launching in February, and you’ve not started speaking to potential partners by November, oh no.
@BenjaminZeozen asks: “Where do I begin in reaching out without becoming a shill?”
I found this one a really interesting question because, when you work in marketing, honestly it barely crosses your mind. It can’t, otherwise we would be out of work very quickly. But as an indie not used to promoting their own work, I can imagine it being very difficult. I asked my colleagues for help.
Lucy says: “I think my gut says to practice with Twitter. If you are honest and excited about your game while also looking to support and retweet other developers, you should be fine.”
Jon says: “As Lucy said, social media is a good place to start. Being transparent is always key to not looking like a shill. You can also reach out to other people and turn them into your shills. You don’t have to look bad if you can reach out to press and influencers privately over email to start promoting your game.
“On the other hand, you could embrace the shill and shamelessly promote your game everywhere you can, fully acknowledging that you are shilling, but that the game is good despite it. ”
They both make excellent points, and Jon’s final note resonates with me. We’re cultured in many parts of the world not to brag or boast, but the fact is, if you’re not shouting at the top of your voice about your game, the chances are there’ll be someone drowning you out. My advice, on reflection? Work on making your game and your marketing assets so freakin’ good that it seems like the most natural thing in the world to want to show everyone.
Some really practical advice to end on: when reaching out to journalists and influencers, I like to use the “three emails” rule. That is to say, you send one email a few days in advance of your announcement, enquiring about their interest in coverage. On the day of the announcement, if you’ve not heard back, send a polite follow-up letting them know they’re now free to post. If you still hear nothing back, one more polite email a couple of days later is permitted, but then drop it, and try someone else. I tend to use that final email to ask for any feedback, which is often enlightening.
@Kid_Desimo asks: “I can only do three marketing tasks. Which three should they be?”
A very real answer to this could be: “write a marketing strategy that aligns with your business plan; hire the best people to execute that strategy; and evaluate their results on a measurable basis.” But I suspect this might not be what you’re getting at.
How about this. One would be reach out to press and influencers: they’re still a useful way of getting not just reach, but also credibility, for minimal financial outlay. Two would be to use social media, but to embrace all of its functionality, and remember that ‘posting a screenshot every now and then’ is the bare minimum – for example, do consider investing some budget into Facebook advertising, which will allow you to increase your social reach on an incredibly granular level via some nifty and intuitive tools.
The third thing would be research: into your market, your competitors, the marketplace, and the world of marketing. These worlds – video games and marketing – move at an astonishing pace, and it’s easy to settle into a strategy only to find things aren’t working any more. Staying alert and ahead of the curve is – for example – what has allowed Mike Rose and his label No More Robots to be so incredibly effective: he was using Twitch when everyone was obsessing over YouTube, and they were attracting thousands of people into Discord servers before I even knew what a Discord server was.
@mtrc asks: “What are good ways to gauge if something I’m doing is working before the game is on sale? Is it just if it gets shared a lot? If it appears on certain sites? If the press write about it? etc.”
All of these can give you an idea of how a game is going to perform when it’s on sale, but not necessarily. The important thing is to understand how those things relate to the targets you’re setting, and how the targets you’re setting predict the eventual results.
Let’s use an alarmingly stretched analogy. You want to water your house plants tomorrow, but there’s no running water coming out of your taps. Good news, though: it’s starting to rain outside! So you head outside, put down a bucket, and wander off. There’s a tiny hole in the bottom of the bucket, but that’s okay right? The rainwater seems to be collecting in there just fine.
The next day, you come back to find your bucket completely dry. Overnight, all the water you collected has seeped through the tiny hole, and by the time you’re ready to water your plants, there’s none left.
In this analogy – and I know, I’m sorry, it’s Friday afternoon in my defence – the rainwater is your audience, and the bucket is your marketing channels. Unless you scoop up that water and deposit it into a receptacle that’s going to hold until release, that water – a.k.a. your audience – is going to deplete on an ongoing basis until there’s nothing left.
In other words, it’s all well and good getting a huge article on IGN six months before launch, but who’s going to remember it on release day? Who’s ready to buy?
Your key performance indicators when marketing your game – such as press readership, wishlist numbers, community interaction etc – are your water level, and you need to monitor that water level on an ongoing basis. If it’s rising instead of falling, you’re doing something right.
@mtrc also asks: “Do people still buy ads? Is that a thing?”
Yes, people definitely still buy ads. How useful traditional advertising is for indies is a matter of some debate, though. In my experience, traditional advertising – a magazine spread or a website takeover – only really work when you reach a sort of critical mass, and with highly visible ad deals often coming in at £10,000+ per unit, mass advertising is out of reach for many indie developers.
But digital platforms such as Google and Facebook allow for highly targeted and granular advertising on a ‘cost per click’ basis. It means you can invest slowly but surely, monitor your results, track your conversions, and reach an audience far more specific than any traditional ad deal will allow for. Plus, with Facebook and Google, you can track people who have visited a particular URL and send a specially crafted new set of adverts back to them, to re-engage people who have already seen your content – a process called ‘re-marketing’.
We find this sort of advertising very useful for building wishlists, growing communities, and boosting visibility on launch days. It certainly requires a level of investment – you’re unlikely to see results for less than £500 / $750 or so – but if you have some extra cash to burn, I’d strongly consider investigating it.
@QuantumTigerAI asks: “I dumped Facebook when I discovered they were using and abusing my data. How do I market while keeping well away from them?”
Okay. A lot of ethical questions have been raised by big data over the past few years, and rightly so. Major platforms have not always shown themselves to be entirely responsible when it comes to handling people’s personal data and it is completely reasonable to want to boycott said platforms as a result.
It’s a tricky situation when it comes to marketing, though. Why do platforms like Facebook and Google harvest so much personal data? Because it’s incredibly useful in marketing, and data-driven marketing is the direction we’re heading in. By boycotting Facebook you are – sadly – boycotting perhaps the single most powerful tool marketers have at their disposal in 2019. You may need to consider which is more important to you: the success of your game, or sticking to your moral guns.
Of course, there are ways to market without using Facebook. Firstly, its organic (i.e. zero-budget) marketing clout is pretty much zero: Facebook makes money by restricting your fans’ access to your content unless you pay to unlock it, unlike Twitter, whose model is based around a mass free flow of information. So using Twitter may be a good alternative. Remember that Instagram is owned by Facebook, so you’ll probably want to steer clear of that too.
Google has been embroiled in less controversy than Facebook of late, but it too harvests a heck of a lot of personal data, to a degree that would surprise many people, so if that’s your issue, you may want to consider what your position is on using Google’s services too; that said, if you want to be found on the internet, Google is almost certainly going to be some part of that journey.
My advice? Make it a vocal part of your communications strategy. Be the game developer who is releasing a game while boycotting the usual marketing platforms for deeply held reasons. Tell people why you’re doing that, make your story interesting, and people might sit up and pay attention.
@orangepascal asks: “Where/how do you market outside your own bubble? I can market my game to many other indies, but can’t seem to reach players.”
It can certainly be difficult to break out of your own little corner of the web – and as useful as showing your game to other indies can be, it’s not going to result in your game selling tens of thousands of units, unless you get a really lucky break.
Bubbles are generally self-imposed, though, and the only advice I can really give here is to force yourself out of that comfort zone.
When you’re writing your marketing plan, try to figure out who your ideal player base is, then work to understand where they’re likely to hang out. Are there any particular communities on the internet? Any particular events they attend? What other games are they playing, and where have those games been marketed?
Once you find those communities, you’ll typically need to either pay to market within them, or embed yourself into the community to become a known name. Reddit, for example, can be a great place to promote your work, but its strict “one in ten” rule – where users will get pretty swiftly banned if they submit more than one promotional post to every nine genuine community contributions – make it difficult unless you have plenty of time. Still, making that time might be necessary, and people are much more likely to take a look at something from someone they know than someone they don’t.
And that’s it for now! If you have any more questions, please submit them to @gameifyouare on Twitter and perhaps we’ll do another of these in the future!