Somehow, thanks to the inexorable passage of time, the year 2023 is almost upon us. The past few years have seen a slow, subtle, but actually quite seismic shift in the indie game marketing world – reliable platforms have lost their impact, new channels and techniques have opened up, and player expectations have morphed and heightened. One thing, of course, remains the same: finding an engaging an audience for your indie game is hard. (What’s that phrase about war never changing?)
With more games than ever before being released on PC, console and mobile platforms, it takes something extra special to stand out from the crowd – and many of the techniques you’ll find in indie game marketing guides are no longer relevant. So if you’re planning on releasing an indie game in 2023, what are the top marketing mistakes to avoid? Here are our thoughts.
Over-investing in your first game
If you’ve just quit your day job to take up indie game development, it can be tempting to launch straight into your dream game. After all, that’s why you’re doing this, right? You’ve had this idea in your head for the past 20 years – a huge MMORPG with a persistent world and many paths to carve through the story. You’ve managed to secure some investment and taken out a couple of bank loans, and now you’re planning to spend every waking hour over the next few years creating your magnum opus, dreaming of the successes that will follow.
But the sad reality is that the vast majority of new indies’ first games will not be a huge success. Even if you’ve worked in the industry for a while, you’ll likely hit upon unexpected roadblocks along the way. And unless you’re already an established name in the industry, it will take some time for you to build up the reputation and following that’s required to ship a best-selling title – that is, unless you’re one of the few that get lucky.
Many of the most successful indies around started small, focusing on shipping something with a tight scope, that would yield enough returns to start investing, bit by bit, into something a little bigger next time around. Your 60-hour blockbuster can probably wait for a few years. Start with something humble but effective, use it to start building a following and your first revenue stream, and go from there.
Over-reliance on new trends
Don’t get us wrong – in the world of marketing, it’s vital to stay across new trends and emerging platforms. But while it can be tempting to be the early adopter, we’d recommend caution in over-relying on something that might be a flash in the pan.
Platforms change, discovery algorithms shift, and something that looks on the surface like it would be effective might not actually yield the results you’re looking for.
A good current example is TikTok. Enormously popular with younger players, TikTok is a great way to drive huge visibility for your title, if you can figure out the right sort of content to play the algorithm. This might be what you’re trying to do, but beware – TikTok users can be very difficult to engage long-term, and getting them off the platform (for example, to your Steam page where they will wishlist the game) can be extremely difficult. Think carefully about what you’re trying to achieve, the metrics you’re trying to drive, and select the right channels and approaches for that – even if it means staying with tried-and-tested methodologies and eschewing the shiny new ones.
Over-reliance on old trends
That said, be careful not to stick to what you know for the sake of it. Twitter continues to be the ‘owned media’ platform of choice for many indie devs – and it remains an important piece of the puzzle for many titles. But gone are the days where creating great social media content alone is enough to drive momentum for your indie game.
Good indie game marketing in 2023 is likely to require careful coordination of multiple different platforms, with a keen understanding of what works well for one thing but not for another. We’ve had too many conversations with indies who were delighted to see a tweet go viral, only to find that only 5 extra people had bought their game as a result. Or studios who put faith in the gaming press to generate the noise and interest they needed, only to find that the coveted IGN story only drove 50 extra wishlists.
In 2023, considering the entire customer journey is going to be more important than ever. How you can lead the horse to water is one thing, but what about making it drink? Awareness campaigns aren’t enough any more: ongoing, patient engagement of your target audience is more vital than ever, and keeping up with players’ expectations and behaviour is key.
Lack of persistence
Sometimes, developers come to us because they feel like they’ve tried everything and nothing has worked. “We tried advertising,” they say. “We tried the press. We tried social media. Nothing happened.”
But dig a little deeper and it turns out they didn’t really invest the time or money to give it a fair shot. Having seen no returns from that £50 Meta spend, and no replies from their first few emails to press and influencers, they concluded these techniques must be worthless.
The fact is that marketing requires persistence and resilience, and you should go into your marketing campaign expecting successes to build over time. You might need to hammer that social media, set a reasonable starting budget for your ads, and be prepared to email journalists and content creators time and time again before people start to take notice.
This is why it’s important to start marketing well before you intend to release your game – to ensure you have the opportunity to build momentum and value in the marketplace, and eventually, hopefully, generating a ‘snowball effect’ that starts to yield greater returns.
Efficiency over impact
Understandably, a lot of developers want to make their game in the most efficient way possible. They plot out their production schedules in detail, starting with the most technical building blocks from which to build outwards. This is a great way to ensure that development time is well-spent – but it can have a detrimental effect on your marketing.
When plotting out your marketing plan, it’s important to consider your key beats and ensure you’ll be able to produce the assets you need to support them. Think about when you want to announce (probably 6-12 months before release for a PC or console game, less for a mobile game). Do you have a sufficiently varied subset of the game fully complete – final assets and polish in place – to create a brilliant announcement trailer and a deck of captivating screenshots? How about as you build toward launch? Are you planning to have a vertical slice in place to show to press and content creators? Are you factoring in a month between project completion and release, to allow sufficient time for reviewers to play and assess your game, and to ensure you can focus on marketing in those final weeks?
If you’re unsure about where to plot out your key beats and the sorts of assets that you should be building into your production plan, speaking with a marketing consultant can be a helpful way to ensure that development and marketing can sing in harmony.
Under-estimating the little guy
While it’s always advantageous to be featured by the biggest games websites and content creators, we’d advise caution in turning your nose up at smaller channels – especially in 2023, when the media marketplace is likely to be more crowded than ever before.
With influencer networks becoming more competitive and media organisations making redundancies left, right and centre, the opportunities to get covered in major spaces can be thin on the ground. This means the people that work there need to be highly selective – only featuring content they already have a pretty good idea will be successful.
That YouTube channel with 1,000 subscribers, or the indie games website with only 20,000 monthly readers, might seem like it won’t move the needle on wishlists or sales… and you might be right. A single small article or video here and there isn’t going to be the answer to all your marketing problems.
But the truth is, over time they add up and increase your media value. Being able to show traction among the smaller media channels will give you more clout as you approach bigger channels, as you’re demonstrating an initial grassroots buzz that’s likely to make you a more appealing proposition. And who knows – maybe that tiny Twitch streamer will be huge by the time you release, and you have a great existing relationship you can rely on when it matters…
Ignoring the algorithm
Be it on Steam or Kickstarter or whatever, many of the platforms you’ll likely rely on as an indie developer are algorithmically driven in terms of discovery. This means there’ll be a complex system under the hood, calculating and predicting what is likely to be popular, and foregrounding those things at the expense of others.
With storefronts like Steam, the success of your game can absolutely hinge on how much momentum you can drive, and in turn, how successfully you can show the algorithm that your game is worth showcasing to the market. Platforms keep their exact calculations as keenly guarded secrets – but it’s vital to gain as much understanding as you can of how these things work, so you can factor this into your marketing.
Running with Steam as an example, we know that in the run-up to release, showcasing rising momentum in terms of store page traffic and wishlists is highly advantageous, and that games that make the coveted front page tend to have at least a 10,000-strong wishlist on launch day. Once you’re on the front page, you’ll be visible to many magnitudes more potential players than before, and you’ll start to create a snowball effect. Once your game is launched, the trick is to stay visible for as long as possible – and we know that the speed at which people start buying your game and leaving user reviews is an important factor in this.
Take the time to read up on and speak to other developers about their own experiences on different platforms; ask for and share data; and ensure you’re tracking KPIs that matter.
Thinking marketing agencies are a magic bullet
As much as we’d love to tell you we have a cast-iron guaranteed solution (we’d all be very rich if we did!), the fact is that marketing agencies won’t automatically solve all of your problems. Agencies like ours can bring immense value to your indie game (we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe so), but it’s important to have managed expectations.
All marketing carries risk. Even the very best marketers in the world sometimes work on failed campaigns. There are simply so many variables – many of which are out of our control – that can affect whether a title launches out of the gates or struggles to get moving.
A good marketing agency will be able to talk you through both the opportunities and risks of your campaign, and give you a realistic idea of the levels of success you can anticipate. They’ll be able to bring their experience and expertise to advise you on the most effective strategies, to give you key insights into your target audience, and to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of management and execution. They’ll know what KPIs to track and how to iterate and change tracks if something isn’t working.
But I’m afraid to report we aren’t magicians. Just like developing a game, good marketing requires time, patience, and a hefty dose of both trial and error and good luck to get right. Effective client-agency relationships are a partnership, and a collaboration, which evolves over time as you edge ever closer to your objectives.
Not having a marketable game in the first place
And here it is: the ugly, stomping, unavoidable elephant in the room. In a market as crowded as indie games – and with an audience as discerning as gamers – the inescapable fact is that not only will a good game not sell itself, a bad game won’t sell at all.
In fact, it might not even be that your game is bad. Plenty of good games, with competent marketers publicising them, still don’t yield a success. There are simply so many games to choose from, and there is so little time to play them all in, that you’re competing for attention with thousands upon thousands of alternatives, and often, only the very best and most interesting succeed.
If you have serious commercial ambitions with your game, you’ll need first to undertake some significant market research to understand its viability as a product. How many people are actually playing this sort of game? Is that number trending up, or down? Which platforms do they prefer playing on? Are there any gaps in the market for something new, or has everything already been done? If you’re planning to ship a pixel art platformer on Steam in 2023, and it doesn’t bring anything significantly new to the table, then oh no. Dozens of these are released every month, and almost all of them sit at fewer than 10 user reviews.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t make the game you want to make: you’re an indie after all, and that’s probably why you’re here. But make sure you’re realistic about the ceiling of what you can achieve with your title, think long and hard about opportunity and risk, and go into your project with realistic expectations.