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.