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.