Success or Failure Sign

The Surreal Mix of Prelaunch Emotions

This is a quick post…just to capture the experience I’m having. I’m sure it hits all developers when they’re close to launch so I wanted to try to put it in words.

I’m quickly approaching the launch of my first indie game…well, my first serious, complete, indie game at least. It’s a bucket of emotions, to say the least. One moment I’m exhilarated to finally be close to finishing the project I’ve been focused on for 6+ months of my free time. The next moment I’m terrified that the launch will be a disaster and users will hate it.

My soon-to-launch game is Thru-Hiker’s Journey, an Appalachian Trail backpacking simulation game which will simultaneously be released for Android and iPhone. I have a well defined audience, a popular blog willing to feature the game on release, and a small number of super passionate fans. I released a simple web version of the game 3 years ago and it has over 60,000 plays by 27,000 users. To this day, with no updates or marketing, the game gets 10-20 plays each day. I’ve done everything “right” but I’m still terrified of failure.

How I’m Fighting My Fear of Failure

  1. I have a well-defined metric of success. This is a little easier for me than most first time developers, since I have my old game to use as a reference. It’s very important that your success metric is a scale rather than a Pass/Fail. No matter how much data you have, there’s no way to truly predict what will happen when you launch. And you don’t want that metric to be a cause of more stress if your launch day is a bit slow.
    • You can measure success in a variety of ways. Revenue, downloads, social media shares…use the one you have the most information about and is easiest for you to track! I’m using downloads, since the app stores provide that information. However, I’ve also converted downloads to expected revenue. All of my assumed variables will be wrong, but money is what resonates with me.
  2. I’m focusing on the positives. When I hear my brain spit out a negative thought, I attempt to counter with “Yeah, but the graphics are awesome this time!” or “Yeah, but I did no marketing with the web game and it has 60,000 plays!” Your opposition thoughts will have to be unique to your game and situation. This won’t solve your launch anxiety, but perhaps staves off the depression that could follow all the negativity. Fight fire with water!
  3. I realize a bad launch isn’t the end of the world. I knew there was a risk when I started working on the game. Hopefully more people than my friends play the game, but maybe not. In any case, life goes on. I can start working on my next game or follow another passion project. I’ll be proud that I made something and released it for the world to see. Obviously I’d be happier if more of the world sees it, but at least I will have made something tangible that I can be proud of.
  4. I’m planning actions to avoid failure. I’m converting my anxious energy into planning my marketing strategy. I’ve already started reaching out to additional media sources. Sending someone a tweet or an email isn’t hard and you’ll be feel better knowing you’re improving your game’s chances of reaching the next bar of your success metric.

 

How to Sell Your Premium Indie Game

I recently wrote a post about promoting your indie game after development. I shared it on reddit and got some awesome feedback and criticisms. The comments validated that my article was actually useful! But one user didn’t find it that helpful because it seemed like it would only work for free mobile games. I really wanted to reject this idea. But, if a reader takes the time to post a comment about it, then I either missed the mark with my writing or it’s a valid argument. So, as promised, here’s my follow-up post on how to sell your indie game.

how to sell your indie game

After a brainstorming session, the obstacle became clear to me. It’s not that the strategy won’t work on a premium game; it’s that the customer’s barrier to entry is so much higher. The strategy itself isn’t wrong. Tt’s just difficult to apply to something that people have to plunk down $10 for.

Barriers to Sale

In comparing your promotion to a free game, there are a barriers that you have to move the customer past in order to get a sale. People are usually are willing to try a free game that matches their interests as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them too much. With the price of indie games rocketing to the floor, people aren’t willing to pay for something that they might not like from an unknown source. Let’s take a quick look at some of these barriers so that we can develop a strategy to sell around them.

Release Platform

PainFireFist specifically mentioned the Steam platform. If you’re promoting your game to a community that doesn’t have Steam accounts, that can be a barrier that blocks a customer from purchasing. If I told my father to buy a game on Steam, he’d look at me like I just volunteered as a trash collector. Steam is a lower barrier than a lot of other platforms though. It’s well known and trusted within the gaming community. You might be able to sell a game on Steam to a non-user, but you’ll NEVER sell an Android game to someone with an iOS phone.

Game Cost

If the game is more than *free* then the struggle to gain players is significantly increased. That’s what caused the rise of “Free2Play” games, after all. You have to convince people that your game is worth purchasing, which can be really difficult, especially if you hit the wrong audience.

Unknown Developer

The last big obstacle that indies run into, is that people don’t know who you are. You’re a stranger trying to sell something, and that makes you inherently untrustworthy. Why should they give you money for your game when it might be boring, incomplete, or low quality?

How to Sell Your Indie Game by Removing Barriers

We’ve established a few reasons why a customer may not buy your game. Now we need to build some strategies to move past each barrier. Let’s first address the philosophies to overcome each of the above barriers.

Release Platform

This just requires an understanding of the audience you’re targeting. You need to make sure you’re targeting a platform that your target audience is familiar with. If you’re post-dev on the wrong platform, then you’ve got an uphill sales battle because you effectively have to sell the platform and the game. There isn’t an easy solution to that one.

If you’re selling to non-gamers or casuals, you need to explain your platform to them. Just simple things like what it is and how to use it. Imagine you’re explaining it to your grandfather…keep it simple.

Game Cost

The simplest way to beat the game cost obstacle is to not have one. However, if you’ve read this far, then I assume that’s the least helpful thing you’ve ever read. 🙂

There are two main ways to beat the cost obstacle, excitement and dodging. Most people are willing to pay for a game that excites them. And a game can excite someone in a lot of different ways – graphics, story, uniqueness, innovation, etc – but it depends on the customer. This burden lands on your ability to present the game. Going over the top with killer screenshots, trailer(s), and superb storytelling can push you past the cost barrier. Developers usually do fine with the screenshots and trailers but fall short on the storytelling aspect, so focus your energy there to bring up the rear.

The other option is to dodge. Follow the success of the freemium model and release a short demo for people to play. Yes, it’s possible that it turns off some people that would have just taken a shot and purchased, but a well made demo should lock in anyone who’s on the fence. The important thing is that it’s short enough to leave the player wanting. Leave an objective just beyond the end of the demo. Make the gameplay fun but very simple, but frustrate them that they can’t move forward anymore.

Unknown Developer

There are two solutions to this obstacle as well. The first is just crushing the excitement factor. Make your sales pitch so awesome that they can’t say no. Hit them on every angle – graphics, story, innovation, etc. You never know which one will be the deciding factor for the buyer.

The second solution is finding a way to prove that you’re not a random internet dude who is peddling garbage. You can do this by showing existing positive reviews, media coverage, or with positivity from the community you’re engaging with. All of these can be faked in a pinch, but otherwise take a slightly longer timeline to achieve.

You don’t have to be in PC Gamer to convince someone that your game is for real, you just need to provide the potential customer with some kind of validation that they’re not getting ripped off.

How to Pitch the Sale

I’ve always been intrigued by sales techniques. To get into the philosophies, we need to talk in a metaphor for a minute. When you have a product to sell, the best method isn’t to directly sell the product.

As the old adage goes, the customer doesn’t buy a drill bit, he buys a hole in his wall.

You can present all the best features of your fancy, new drill bit to the customer and he won’t care. He wants whatever will put the right size hole in the wall. From there, customers have pricing preferences for quality, but those are secondary to putting the hole in the wall.

Games are a bit different because that philosophy doesn’t hold up as well. It’s why games are hard to sell. The best you can do is figure out what emotion(s) your game was built to evoke and focus your pitch on that. To do that, you need to nail down the value of your game. I realize this process feels foreign, but it’s really not that bad.

Defining Your Value Proposition

Why do people play games…because they’re fun, right? Yes, but that’s a fairly shallow understanding. People play games for a variety of reasons, but the majority of those reasons funnel down to fun. You ultimately don’t need to sell “fun” because people assume that it’s included. The difficulty of selling fun is the scope of competition. In today’s world, people have a library full of “fun” games so they don’t really need a new one. And if they did, you have to compete with every other game they might buy at the moment.

We just need to specialize our presentation.

Presumably, your game is unique. What makes it unique?

9 out of 10 developers just listed out their features from a development perspective. “It’s a music based game with procedural levels where you stop goblins from stealing” may sound neat to you and me, but not to most customers. And even if it does sound intriguing, it’s not exciting and doesn’t make them want to buy.

What makes your customer want to buy?

That’s the question you need to answer. Then you can frame the unique value of your game so that it fits into the answer of that question. If you answer correctly and also move the customer past any barriers discussed above, you’ve officially unlocked the ‘how to sell your indie game’ secret.

Framing Your Game for Sales

In the ridiculous made up example above, “a music based game with procedural levels where you stop goblins from stealing,” we need to correct the framing to match what our customer might be interested in. This depends on the audience you’re targeting, but we’ll do the best we can with an example.

Looking at the pieces of that feature statement:

“music based” – Music is a hobby that a lot of people identify with, so this might not require a change. But if we target a non-musical audience, then we should perhaps try to target an emotional undertone rather than the music itself. We could instead frame the game as a creative experience with unique audio-driven gameplay.

“procedural levels” – Some potential players won’t know what this means. It works in technical, gamer audiences, but otherwise is entirely meaningless. So we should look at a way of reframing emotionally. You could instead say that each play-through is exciting because you don’t know what new challenges and environments you’ll experience.

“goblins” – If this was a higher tier fantasy species, like vampires or werewolves, you might just leave it listed because it can draw in a specific crowd. However, I haven’t seen any goblin fanboy sites lately. 🙂 For this one, we just modify slightly frame it as a fantasy world run by evil goblins. Something to give the impression of a whimsical world that needs a hero.

“stealing” – This isn’t bad, but the language could be improved to make things seem more dire. Perhaps challenge your player ethically or try to evoke empathy for the character on the wrong end of the crime. To complete the framing example, I’ll just go with

Assembling your new frame

In the whimsical world of Wobbleplop, greedy goblin evildoers are wreaking havoc on the hardworking townfolk. Be the hero Wobblepop needs by thwarting the relentless attacks of the goblinmaster, Todd McAllister.

Using unique audio-driven gameplay, GAME NAME engages players into a deep campaign of action-packed counterintelligence. Each playthrough presents the player with new challenges as the villains undertake changing strategies.

Is that perfect? No, because it’s a made up game and I just whipped it up for the purposes of a dumb example. Let’s take a look at how the pros do it.

Have you heard of Overwatch? Wikipedia lists is as “Overwatch is a team-based multiplayer first-person shooter video game developed and published by Blizzard Entertainment.” That’s all true, but it’s not how they sell it to potential players. Here’s a screenshot taken from the website this afternoon:

how to sell your indie game

Hopefully if my example was garbage, this drives the point home. Your pitch shouldn’t be a list of features, it should be a story that engages the player on a deeper level.

Interestingly, this particular Overwatch pitch ignores the inherent multiplayer aspect of the game (and associated emotions of camaraderie, community, friendship, etc), which I imagine is a big hook. Perhaps on the scale they sell games it’s not a a heavy factor anymore…I’m sure they have specific data to base their decisions on. However, indie devs don’t have that benefit, which is why you have to constantly test and iterate on your approach.

Putting it All Together (TL;DR)

How to sell your indie game:

  1. Identify. Recognize the obstacles that might block your audience from buying
  2. Circumvent. Prepare strategies to move your customers past those barriers
  3. Nail the Pitch. Focus your pitch on a story that evokes emotion.
  4. Promote. Do steps 1-3 in while following the promotion strategy outlined in the last post.
  5. Iterate. If something works, drill down on it. If something doesn’t work, change your strategy.
  6. Persist. Sales is hard. Sometimes it sucks. You can’t let a bunch of “No’s” keep you from trying to get a “Yes!”. The salespeople I work with are constantly trying to hype each other up because it’s so easy to let negativity rule – and they’re super successful, career sales professionals.

You ever hear the story of the man who asked a thousand women (strangers) to sleep with him? 2 said yes.

Promote Your Indie Game

How to Promote Your Indie Game After Development

If you ignored marketing all through the development process, don’t despair. All of the same philosophies and strategies apply when you attempt to promote your indie game post-dev. It may actually be easier to get followers now on social media since you have high quality, polished art to share regularly. The only increased struggles you’re facing are the condensed timeline and an inability to show social proof.

The condensed timeline struggle

It feels like you need to get 1000’s of game downloads this very moment or you’re a failure. Of course, that’s unrealistic, even for top tier indie games. But you’ve worked hard on your game for months, or even years, and need the world to see it. More than that, you need to actually make some money to justify all your hard work.

The pressure of the condensed timeline is artificial. If you’ve gone this long without the reassurance of an audience, then a few more weeks while you find your footing in the marketing world really shouldn’t be that much of a burden. If you’re absolutely destitute, try to grab some part-time freelancing gigs while you build up your audience.

The social proof struggle

If you start marketing from the beginning of your game’s development, then it’s okay that your social media accounts have 5-10 followers. People aren’t expecting an unreleased game with programmer art to have a huge following. However, with a launch-ready or released game, people may suspect that your game is bad since no one else is following you. The same issue exists with customer reviews on your release platform.

The solution is to blindly plow ahead. Each follower and review you get is another push over this speed bump. It may cause things to be slower when you start, but some people won’t notice or won’t care. The important thing is not to give up if it seems like you’re not getting traction.

A Game Promotion Strategy That Works

When you promote your indie game, don’t look at the entire picture. Yes, you want a million downloads, we all do. But that’s not an actionable step. You need to break down your promotion and advertising into actionable goals. Since you’re not an experienced marketer, these actionable goals need to feel achievable or you’ll slump right back into inaction.

Remember, marketing isn’t hard – it’s just a different way of thinking. As a developer, you desire an absolute path with predictable results…but that’s just not how it works. In marketing, you do things and see how well they work. Then you iterate on the successful things until you achieve your objective. You can’t let the failures block your ability to see the minor successes.

So, onto the stupid simple strategy to promote your indie game

Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten where I heard this strategy. But it was definitely from one of the “rah, rah, entrepreneurship is awesome” types several years ago. If you recognize it, please let me know so I can link to the original!

Find 1 player for your game

I know it’s a laughable objective, just bear with me here. You haven’t done marketing, so you truly have 0 players for game at the moment. 1 player is significantly more players than 0, so there’s value in this action. So, consider what you could do to get 1 player.

Some easy solutions:

  • Email a link of your game to a colleague
  • Message a good friend on Facebook
  • Call your mother

Did you do it? PICK ONE AND GO DO IT; IT’S EASY.

Now, find 10 players for your game

A little less easy, perhaps. But now you have momentum. You already have 1 player! Consider how you could get 10 more players. You could do whatever you did in step 1 ten more times – unless you called your mother, I guess. 🙂 Or you can come up with an easier solution. No answer is wrong as long as it has potential to work.

Some easy solutions:

  • Post your game on your personal facebook account
  • Share your game on a ridiculously tiny gaming subreddit
  • Post a link on an off-topic forum where you regularly participate

Did you do it? Seriously, go do it. If you can’t do this, how will anyone ever play the game you worked so hard on?

Great! Now, find 100 players for your game

Don't Panic

You knew this was coming. It’s harder to solve than 10 players, isn’t it? There’s no reason to panic, just consider possible solutions and try them. At this stage, you may have to try multiple things…that’s okay. The goal is to get you thinking about who your audience is and how to get in front of them. So this time, consider who exactly will want to play your game. Who, other than your mother, responded well to your game from the first two steps? Find more of those people!

Some possible solutions:

  • Post on a forum related to the topic/genre of your game
  • Share in a community about a similar game
  • Reach out to a super-niche blogger and see if they’ll post about your game

Did it work? If not, try something else. When you finally achieve it, consider that you were just successful at marketing with no knowledge of marketing.

Now, find 1000 players for your game

Consider the specific type of person that would like to play your game. Brainstorm where that type of person hangs out online and then try to get your game in front of them. Keep doing that until you’ve exhausted every possible option…then consider another type of person that might like your game and repeat the process.

When you’ve achieved that, try to think of a place to promote your indie game where you might score 10,000 players. It will be a hard task and an uphill battle, but you’ll be able to show proof to that platform that your game is “good” and “successful” because of the social proof of already having 1,111+ players.

That’s marketing. It’s not hard…it’s just different. You don’t have to be good at it; you just have to be persistent in the face of apparent failure.

Listen, I know you read through this without actually doing anything. That’s fine, but you need to take action to successfully promote your indie game. If you’re still in the dev cycle, you can still follow the process above, but look for followers on social media instead of players. Re-marketing to those followers when you launch is a lot easier than fresh players.

navigating the game marketing maze

Navigating the Game Marketing Maze

Indie devs are constantly falling into a trap. Forums are filled with developers asking “When do I start game marketing?” Chances are, if you’re asking the question, I can assume the following two facts about you:

  1. You have no idea what marketing is.
  2. You’re already too late.

Unfortunately, you’re asking the wrong question. We need to talk about your development process.

Game Marketing starts on Day 1, whether you want it to or not. It encompasses everything from your game’s genre and topic to your casual conversations about your game with friends and acquaintances. Your post asking about marketing, oddly enough, is also marketing.

Step out of your game developer’s hat for a moment and just imagine an example product which we are going to tackle the marketing for. The product is a shoe. How would you design, produce, and sell a shoe? There’s two approaches that answer this question.

  • Approach 1: Make a shoe that you really want. Design your dream shoe and then figure out how to sell it after.
  • Approach 2: Find a gap in the shoe market. Figure out what the customers in the gap want, and are willing to buy. Make that shoe and sell it specifically to those customers.

With Approach 1, you end up with a product you really like. It’s high quality, but will it sell? No one knows. At this point, you can assess who the audience is and try to sell them the shoe. It might work out, or you might have spent 6 months making a pair of shoes for no reason.

If you follow Approach 2, you’re guaranteed to create a shoe you can sell. You know who to sell it to, where to sell it, and how much it should cost. However, you may not be in love with the shoe you made – it might be really nice, but not your dream shoe.

Most indie developers follow Approach 1. They make a game they really want to play, then try to figure out how to sell it. There’s nothing wrong with this approach if you’re a hobbyist. But if you want revenue, then you need to realize that you didn’t build a product, you bought a lottery ticket. And the best promotional game marketing in the world might not save you at this point.

Try to switch your mindset to Approach 2. Find a niche community that will play a game if someone made it – this can be a difficult and time consuming task. Once you find your target community, ask them what kind of game they would play. Then make the game they ask for.

Does it guarantee success? No.

But it does guarantee that the community you asked will be interested in your game. You still have to make a fun, quality game and release it on a platform that they will use, at a price point they will purchase it (check out The 4 P’s of Marketing). From there, you can promote it to groups with similar interests and start building up some hype. All the questions of when, where, and how to promote will almost answer themselves.

 

The Hardest Part of Making a Game

If you peruse any game development forums, you’ll see the same themes popping up over and over again. The first is obviously people who are interested in developing their own game but have no idea where to start. The next seems to be people who have released a game and deemed it to be a failure – usually blaming their marketing efforts. The hardest part of making a game doesn’t often gets its own forums threads though…how to actually finish a game.

The hardest part of making a game is finishing.

You don’t see people ask ‘How do I finish a game?’ because it seems like such a dumb question. But every successful developer I’ve met has an archive full of projects they never finished. And if you read the comments on /r/gamedev, you’ll see devs line up by the dozens to offer the advice of “make something simple and finish it.” They’re desperately pleading for newcomers not to chase their dream game first, despite their passion for it.

Making a game is hard. Making a game when you don’t understand everything that’s required to finish it is nearly impossible. All it takes is a moment of self-doubt while looking at your never ending to do list, and your game is lost forever.

I recently had to take a couple “mental health” weeks away from game development to get my sanity back. As you can imagine, working full-time and then spending a huge portion of your free time on a game that may not be commercially viable is quite taxing. I had to step back to gain some long-term vision before I could continue.

The crazy thing is that my game’s not that far away from being completed. The core gameplay exists, the basic art is done, background music is functional, analytics/ads/IAP SDKs are included and functional. All that’s left is finishing the remaining artwork, fixing obvious bugs, and adding some fun extra features. For me, it’s not the to do list that’s the problem; it’s launch date anxiety.

I arbitrarily pulled mid-January out of a hat as my launch date. Now that it’s creeping closer, my brain is in full-tilt “FUCK YOU” mode. The squishy void of information I call my brain finds avoidance as a viable coping mechanism, even though it works against itself.

Let’s work on some solutioning to this game completion problem that exists.

How to Finish a Game

  1. Scope down – You need to avoid scope creep, but you also will need to cut things that you thought would be included. Weight features against each other and the level of effort and chop that shit right out of your project. Think “What does this stupid thing accomplish anyway?”
  2. Stay organized – I track all my projects with HacknPlan. Some people prefer the list centric methods provided by Trello. The point is, find one that works and actually use it. This way when you inevitably lose momentum, you can come back and still understand what needs to be done to move forward.
  3. Deadlines – Love them or hate them, you need them. Even if their only purpose is to make a whooshing sound as they fly past, it at least draws attention to your production. You can measure your progress against them and then choose a reasonable launch date that will scare the shit out of you in the future.
  4. Flexibility – Deadlines, launch dates…you’re going to miss some of them…and that’s okay. Especially if you’re a solo developer, life just gets in the way sometimes. No one runs at 100% all the time. Well, some people probably do, but they’re total douchers.
logo design contest

I Ran a Logo Design Contest for My Indie Game and It Was a Disaster

Your indie game needs a logo, but you’re not a designer. What do you do?

Realistically, your options are:

  • Design a logo yourself
  • Use a logo maker
  • Hire a designer
  • Run a logo design contest

I Ran a Logo Design Contest

I researched all options before deciding to run a logo design contest. It seemed like the safest option because you get to review designs from many designers and pick the one you want. It seemed too risky to select a single designer and be stuck paying for whatever they produce even if you don’t like it.

The process is straightforward. You create your contest, pick some logo styles that you like, and write a description of what you’re looking for. Designers will see the open contest and create logos they think you’ll like. At the end of the contest you pick your favorite and the winning designer gets paid.

There are several prominent websites that provide these contest services. The industry leader is 99designs which charges $299 for the cheapest logo option.

If you’re an indie developer, you just shit your pants at the thought of spending $300 on a logo.

That’s why I used a competitor to  make my logo. I’m aware of DesignCrowd ($59 + contest prize), CrowdSpring ($199+), and 48HoursLogo ($29 + $99). After researching them all, I chose 48HoursLogo and it was a bad decision.

In the end, I got a new logo for my game that I’m satisfied with. It’s not amazing, but it’s functional and better than I can make. Here’s the design I chose:

Thru-Hiker's Journey Logo

It’s related to my game’s theme and has some fun, little details. The designer submitted multiple items so I was able to combine features I liked and iterate a little bit. It was very similar to what the process would have been if I just hired a designer straight away. But I didn’t have to look through hours of designer portfolios and negotiate on price.

For comparison, here’s a peek at the other logos I could have chosen:

other logos

Some of them really aren’t bad, but none of them are great. Also, keep in mind these are the better logos…there were some laughably bad designs submitted as well.

Where it went wrong

48HoursLogo was a disaster. 8 hours after I submitted my contest, the website went down for 2.5 days…the entire length of my contest. I checked their Facebook page to see if they had posted anything about the outage (they hadn’t). What I did find was dozens of other people in the last several months complaining that the site was down.

I had to submit a payment challenge on PayPal to get the owner of the website to respond to me. It was really a headache. He ended up giving my campaign a free 7 day extension, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. I can’t recommend using that site and it really turned me off to contests in general.

Pros & Cons of Logo Design Contests

If you’re thinking about running a contest, this is the part you really need to read.

Pros

  • Hands off process. Since we’re not designers, that seems like a good thing.
  • Many designers. Sure sounds better than one, right?
  • Professionally designed logo. It may not be the highest quality, but it’s better than we can make ourselves.
  • Often refundable. If you don’t like any of the designs, you can sometimes get your prize money back (but not the posting fee).

Cons

  • Low quality designs. No offense to anyone, but these artists aren’t working full time. And the best designers won’t even bother for the low prize money an indie offers. So you get 30 designs from artists who can’t figure out how to get paid more.
  • Still a lot of money. I signed up under the idea that it was cost effective, but I still ended up $150 in the hole. I’m confident I could find a better logo designer myself for the same amount of money.
  • The low cost competition is low cost for a reason. 48HoursLogo is obviously cheaper to draw in the people that scoff at $299. Which is fine for market positioning, but you still need infrastructure to support it.

If I could do it again

I’d make a quick and dirty logo on one of the many online logo makers and pay the $20ish to be done with it. I would have been better off putting the extra $130 toward advertising experiments.

No one makes a purchasing decision based on a logo. You just need something “professional enough” to not get laughed at. To accomplish that, all you need is a cool font and a little vector object next to it.

There are a thousand articles online disagreeing with me. “The logo is your most important asset!” That might be true for industry giants, but it’s not true for the small game studio. If anything is your most important art asset, it’s your app store icon, your Steam Greenlight avatar, or your release trailer.

 

secret sauce of indie game marketing

The Secret Sauce of Indie Game Marketing

Spoiler: there isn’t any. Indie game marketing is just regular old marketing.

Indie developers make a lot of mistakes…and that’s okay! We’re forced to wear a bunch of different hats and compete with professionals in fields we don’t understand well. Marketing your game can seem like a programming language written in Chinese characters.

But marketing doesn’t have to be hard. For most promotional marketing, you pick an action and complete that action. Then you measure your results and iterate on the most successful parts. Developers struggle because their minds are analytical and marketing is not an exact science.

Generic Marketing Strategies Work For Indie Games

Any marketer worth their salt will agree–marketing is marketing. The indie gaming industry thinks that it’s special, but it’s not. The trouble is that it’s a competitive field with flooded distribution platforms. We have to compete for visibility with giant corporations who have unlimited budgets. You may not beat these industry giants, but you can still get traction. You just need to understand basic marketing practices and follow through.

The Four P’s of Marketing

The “four P’s” explains the different considerations for an end to end marketing strategy. It doesn’t dive into specifics, but partitions your thinking into actionable categories. Let’s take a look:

  • Product
    • Understand exactly what you’re selling
    • Consider your unique selling points
  • Price
    • The value to the buyer
    • Competitor/market pricing
    • Audience reaction
  • Promotion
    • When, where, and how of reaching your customer
  • Placement
    • Putting your product where your customers are

I know developers look at that list and think “yeah, duh.” But you need to challenge your assumptions for each category. The way to do that starts with looking at your audience. Having no awareness of your target audience dooms you to fail. Unfortunately it’s the most common thing I see in negative indie postmortems.

Defining Your Audience

This is the most critical marketing step for indie game studios. I know this sounds trivial and worthless to developers, but it isn’t. If you don’t believe me, then consider this: how can you get your game in front of someone who would play if you don’t know who they are?

A well defined audience makes the 4P’s simple. Let’s use my game as an example.

  • Thru-Hiker’s Journey is a backpacking simulation game on the Appalachian Trail.
    • Who would play this game?
      • Hypothesis:
        • Hikers/Backpackers
        • Appalachian Trail enthusiasts
        • People who played Oregon Trail as a kid (current age 25-40ish)
      • Experiment: demo web game
        • Action: Shared on an Appalachian Trail forum
          • Result: People engaged. They played it, loved it, and shared it
        • Action: Shared on Facebook (since my friends fit the Oregon Trail category)
          • Result: People engaged. They played it, liked it, but didn’t share it. They’re also friends, so apply a grain of salt.
      • (Simple) Analysis:
        • Backpackers (unknown)
        • Appalachian Trail enthusiasts – Primary Audience
        • Oregon Trail nostalgia – Secondary Audience
    • Who is my audience?
      • Appalachian Trail enthusiasts are:
        • Age 20-55
        • More male than femalea
        • Enjoy outdoor activities like hiking, camping, backpacking
        • Less technical than average
        • Non-traditional gamers.
      • Oregon Trail nostalgic players are:
        • Age 25-40
        •  Even male to female ratio
        • More technical than average
        • Potentially non-traditional gamers.

The game is so well defined into the AT / Backpacking niche that the exercise is almost trivial. That’s a good thing…and why I chose to turn my simple web demo into a full featured mobile game.

Now let’s use that information and plug it into the 4P’s.

Product – Game simulating backpacking on the AT modeled after Oregon Trail. Controls and gameplay need to be simple and intuitive to non-traditional, older, casual gamers.

Placement – I first planned to release the game on Steam for PC. When I looked at my demographic, I released that would be a disaster. My players don’t game on PCs and don’t have Steam accounts. I would struggle to get through Steam Greenlight. And I wasn’t convinced that the non-AT audience categories would pay $5-10 for the game. So, I switched to a mobile release on the two biggest platforms to improve my reach.

Price – As I mentioned, there’s a price ceiling with a large part of my potential audience. I don’t think they would buy a premium mobile game, so I switched to a free to play model. If the game doesn’t get traction, I might be leaving money on the table from the AT enthusiast group.

Promotion – AT enthusiasts are easy to find in various forums, blogs, and Facebook groups. The Oregon Trail folks are harder to find. It’s a generic audience definition and people don’t gather into communities around it. So, it’s not a group I’ll be attempting to promote the game to. Backpackers gather in communities, so I’m going to treat them as my secondary audience.

If that wasn’t a terrible write up, it should show you the process for defining your audience. You then use your audience to define your product and promotion.

What if your audience still isn’t well defined?

A lot of indies show up on gamedev forums with a completed game and ask for help promoting it. They say it’s a “first-person exploration game with quests, crafting and combat, which blends the feel of classics like Daggerfall with the mystery of point-and-click adventures to create a unique & relaxing world of discovery” and want to help defining their audience.

Well friend…and I mean this in the friendliest way possible…

You made the wrong game.

You need to consider your audience before you make your game. A novel game idea is great, but without a vehicle to deliver the game to an audience, the game might as well not exist. If you want to make money developing games, you have to consider who will buy your game and how you’ll get it to them. Then you design a game that will meet the needs of that audience.

Building your dream game is great; there’s nothing wrong with it. Unless you intend to make money.

Headlamp Studios logo

Announcing the launch of Headlamp Studios, LLC

I’m excited to announce the official launch of my own indie game studio! Headlamp Studios, LLC is currently the truest form of independent game development that exists. It’s just me, Brad Allmendinger, wearing all hats for the company.

That’s right! It is a lot of work. I’m handling the ideas, game design, development, artwork, marketing, finance, and everything else that goes into making and releasing games. And I’m doing all this while I still hold down full time employment as a web developer and consultant.

If I had a Mission Statement, it would look like this:

Headlamp Studios, LLC will make simulation games for niche audiences that add happiness to the world.

Damn, Brad, that’s not bad for right off the top of your head. Have you considered going into marketing?

Yes.

I intend for Headlamp Studios, LLC to also act as a vehicle for testing marketing ideas for indie games. The gaming industry is brutal for indies, it’s harder than ever for small titles to get noticed. I have a decent grasp of marketing (for a developer) that I’ll use to help other developers.

This blog will share my marketing ideas, strategies, and results. I’m hoping I can share with developers that don’t have as much marketing awareness. My technical background should allow me to provide an analytical approach to marketing success.

Games

The studio’s first game will be Thru-Hiker’s Journey. It’s an Appalachian Trail simulation game for Android and iOS.

I had the idea years ago, in a moment of manic anxiety, and produced an ugly web version of the game. It’s still up and playable at atthruhike.com.

I did no marketing at all for the web game and it has over 60,000 lifetime plays. I posted one link on the Appalachian Trail subreddit and it took off in the backpacking community. Some of the biggest brands in the industry shared it. People posted it on every AT related forum I could find. It was an unbelievable experience.

It’s been a couple years since that launch and I’m ready to do it again. I think it’s time to revisit the success and build out a complete game and attempt to monetize it.