In my time as an indie game dev studio founder, marketing was always a term we discussed like it was voodoo, or some 18th century pseudo-science, that had now been largely discredited. Recently, I've been trying to improve my understanding of what modern marketing means, and its allowed me to reflect again on some of the things we did right, and that we did wrong. The books I've found most useful so far are Purple Cow and Blue Ocean Strategy. They are very different books, but they do compliment each other nicely. I wanted to share my key takeaways from each book, and add a few reflections from experience.
In my time as founder, we usually thought about marketing as a process that you started late in development, basically involving creating social media accounts and trying to grow your following on those services by regularly posting content that would get shared, liked, etc. When we attempted to get some 'press attention', we made lists of every game review site and media outlet we could find, then spent a few hours on an email which was sent to all of them, with minimal changes. This was due to our fundamental misunderstanding of what marketing means in a modern context. That's where Purple Cow comes in.
Purple Cow makes a compelling case against the kind of marketing strategy we used. This idea of marketing, happening at the end of production, of being about broadcasting a static message to as many people as possible, continues to be a strategy used by many well-funded, well-known products, but does not work for new products, let alone new companies. The core reason for this is that since this strategy was popularized in the 1960s, people have become extremely proficient at blocking out this kind of messaging. Instead, Purple Cow argues that the product (or game) itself must generate the marketing.
These strategies focus around creating word of mouth, which has the potential to be more effective than any big budget marketing campaign. Whatever your strategy, the key to creating word of mouth is creating something remarkable. The important thing here is the difference between 'very good' and remarkable. This was perhaps my favourite quote from the book: The opposite of remarkable is 'very good'.
Ideas that are remarkable are much more likely to spread than ideas that aren't. Yet so few people make remarkable stuff. Why? I think it's because they think the opposite of remarkable is bad or mediocre or poorly done. Thus, if they make something very good, they confuse it with being virus-worthy. Yet this is not a discussion about quality at all.
If you travel on an airline and they do everything right, you don't tell anyone. That's what's supposed to happen. What makes it remarkable is if it's horrible beyond belief OR if the service is so unexpected (they were an hour early! they comped my ticket because I was cute! they served flaming crepes suzette in first class!) that you need to share it.
Are you making very good stuff? How fast can you stop?
Seth Godin, Purple Cow
One way to do this is to find a small market or segment, and their tailor your product to totally overwhelm their expectations. For games, this might mean creating something which fits into a small, undeserved niche, then being the absolute best game in that space. This small group generates the initial hype for the product, which goes mainstream as more and more people pass it on to their friends.
This natural word of mouth could also be created by totally subverting players expectations. Reflecting on breakout game successes, in some cases what makes them so successful is how counter-intuitive they seem. At a time when highly polished, big budget city builder games dominated the App Store, Flappy Bird shot to the top of the charts by being a hardcore, minimalist, purely ad-driven game that effectively introduced modern mobile gamers to the kind of hardcore games that had existed for years on the web. The conversations that happen around these games, around difficulty, interactions, story, themes, creators, are powerful tools in bringing the game to a larger audience.
Creating Your Own Rules
Blue Ocean strategy centers around the value of being different, and of positioning yourself in order to make competition irrelevant. According to Blue Ocean, markets are split into two types of oceans; red and blue.
In red oceans, the blood of competitors fighting tooth and nail for dominance has turned the ocean red, creating a very difficult situation to survive, let alone stand out. By contrast, blue oceans are untapped, free of competitors, and obviously much harder to find. Examples of blue oceans (that are now red) might be the first mobile free-to-play games, the first city builder games, etc. The key here is the broad idea that there is a great deal of value in creating something that sits outside currently popular genres or current expectations about games. That is where the potential for mega growth exists.
The recurring theme here is that whatever your game is, it must be very different to what already exists, and those differences need to be easily communicable. If you are choosing to follow a trend that is currently popular, expect your marketing to be an uphill battle, as you will struggle to generate natural word of mouth without some major differentiator.
Good & Bad Ideas
It's pretty clear now that our mass, generic emails were a waste of time. The press are very effective at ignoring these lazy marketing efforts, which is hardly a surprise given the sheer number of poorly conceived marketing messages they get daily. What ended up working was when we took the time to personally pitch the game to people, focusing on the game's unique elements and condensing that message down as much as possible.
In terms of social media, I thought that our goal should be regular social media engagement, so we managed our posts to go out on a weekly basis. I now think that, particularly while the game was still in development, we might have been better off holding onto content until we could create a bigger, better quality post with greater potential to spread through social media. If you spend a little time digging through Facebook post analytics, you quickly notice that reach of an effective post versus an ineffective one is quickly exponential.
Early on in your development process, you should be able to clearly articulate why your game will be so different from the thousands of new games uploaded every day. Game expos or any opportunity to pitch your game to the general public is a great way to hone your message, as well as your skills in presenting that message. Again, your focus needs to be on why this game is so different. Using words like 'innovative' 'new' or 'best' should always be avoided. Nobody believes you when you say you've created something innovative. You need to prove it to them.
All of this advice is very vague, but that's the point. If there were any obvious ways to create a breakout success, they would have been done already. But by being conscious of the importance of creating something remarkable, you are far more likely to create that massive success every indie developer is hoping for.