When we speak to first-time commercial game developers, we’re often asked the question: “what is a suitable marketing budget for my game?”

It can be a difficult question to answer. There is no fixed rate on results, and different games require different approaches to be successful. Indeed, “success” means something different to each developer.

Some games have mananged to become breakout success stories by doing only in-house grassroots marketing, while we’ve all heard the stories of major studios shutting their doors after a multimillion promotional spend failed to break even. So how should you go about determining a reasonable and reliable marketing budget for your game?

The 25-50% rule

Many successful indie developers have suggested applying a rule of 25-50% – that is to say, for every x amount of money you spend on making the game, spend another 25-50% of that amount on marketing.

So if your game costs £20,000 to make, you might want to consider spending between £5,000 and £10,000 marketing it.

This is a useful rule of thumb and can help you ballpark a marketing budget. But it does tend to assume your production budget is an indicator of your commercial ambitions, which isn’t always the case. If you’ve managed to figure out an ingenious idea that only takes two people a month to build, then if you want to really hit the big-time with it, the 25-50% rule might not be sufficient.

The 1:1 rule

In our experience of working with a lot of indie studios over the years, we have found that marketing spends do often seem to map on to sales figures in a roughly 1:1 ratio – that is, if you’re working in British pounds.

Average “cost per user acquisition” figures vary wildly depending on the game’s price, genre, and platform, but tend to be around £1 for many games. In other words, to get one person to buy your game, you’re likely to need to spend about £1 on marketing.

Generally speaking, the higher your marketing budget and the more people become aware of your game, the lower your actual cost per acquisition will be, as word of the game starts to spread. So acquiring your first user might cost you more than £1 while acquiring your ten-thousandth might cost you less.

It’s an inexact science, but once again, it can be a helpful ballparking method. If your game needs to sell 10,000 copies to be considered a successful project, then a marketing budget in excess of £10,000 is a good figure to earmark (although do bear in mind that your game will need to break even on marketing costs too, and factor that into your calculations).

The ‘zero-budget’ calculation

Games can be successful without a marketing budget. But if you’re serious about becoming successful, that means you’re instead going to need to invest time and energy into your cause.

Firstly, that means making sure you understand enough about marketing to make this work yourself. Before you go into a ‘no marketing budget’ commercial project, take the time to read plenty around the subject, and consider booking yourself on a few courses. You wouldn’t dive into coding a commercial game if you’ve never programmed anything before, and marketing isn’t any different. Once you feel confident that you have a good grounding in the basics, take the time to write up a proper marketing plan, factoring in the appropriate amount of time to work on marketing at each stage of your project.

Once you’re up to speed and actually marketing your game, you can apply the same 25-50% rule as mentioned above – only you’re investing time, instead of cash. For every hour you spend developing, take 15-30 minutes to make people aware of your project, nurture your community, or send emails to press and influencers – whatever your marketing strategy dictates.

Running a serious commercial project without any professional marketing people on-board is never ideal, but hey – it’s the world of indie games. Sometimes, needs must.

It’s a little bit more complicated…

These are very much back-of-the-envelope calculations. Establishing exactly how much a sale will cost you from a marketing perspective is a nigh-on impossible task, and even getting close to that requires significant market research and analysis.

Indeed, this sort of research and analytical work is a key part of any serious marketing project, and your available budget may ultimately dictate how much of this you can do.

For example, major publishers invest hundreds of thousands or more per game into simply understanding their audience better – because that level of understanding allows them to make more accurate predictions and cost-analyses, and to make their marketing activities more efficient or effective.

These sort of research spends will be out of reach for most small studios – but investing even a little into strategy (competitor analyses, player questionnaires, focus groups, mock reviews etc) can give you a significantly better steer not just on how your results are likely to map onto costs, but how your audience is likely to react to your game, allowing you to tweak and refine things to improve your commercial potential.

TL;DR version

  • Figuring out an appropriate marketing budget can be difficult for first-time developers.
  • Try setting aside a marketing budget that’s 25-50% of your production budget for a general idea. If you’re bootstrapping this without any budget at all, you can apply this rule to your time too.
  • Applying a “one pound spent equals one sale made” approach can also give you a useful back-of-the-envelope budget calculator.
  • But, of course, it’s really more complicated than this. Appropriate budgets will vary depending on the game, its genre, platform, and price point.
  • Market research and strategy development costs money, but can be a worthwhile investment to help you understand what results your budget is likely to deliver, and how to best spend it to increase your chances of success.