In many ways, 2018 has been a phenomenal year for indie games - with the likes of Return of the Obra Dinn, Guacamelee 2 and today's GRIS rightly enthralling players. But it's also been a very challenging year for a large number of indie developers, who have increasingly found it difficult to stand out from the crowd.
This year at my micro-agency, Game If You Are, we've worked with around 20 different indie studios on more than 50 individual PR and marketing campaigns, and we've spotted some trends we think you should be aware of as we wrap up 2018 and head into the New Year.
1. First impressions count more than ever
Once upon a time, indie developers could get by with some intriguing mechanics and a "gameplay over graphics" mentality, if they could accurately describe what made the experience special. But as the market has become more crowded, first impressions have begun to count more than ever.
Not only is the competition so much more fierce, but a shift toward audiovisual media has made it increasingly important to be able to show something that grabs people's attention right away - without the need to read a single word.
At the start of the year, a Gamespot editor told me he'd played two of our clients' games and enjoyed them both equally, but was going to cover one and not the other, simply because one looked great in a screenshot and the other didn't. And this approach to content selection has only become more ingrained as the year has gone on.
Meanwhile, editors are receiving dozens if not hundreds of pitches a day from indie developers, and often only have time to skim-read these emails. We know from our email data that by far the most-clicked link from our press releases and mailshots is the one that says 'Watch the trailer', so it's vital to make yours as striking as it can be - and that starts with ensuring the game itself has an audiovisual appeal that's clearly communicable in video.
2. Indie news on the biggest sites? Forget it
A common reason that indie developers give for working with a PR agency is because they want to see their game appear on the biggest and most widely read games sites. Developers often feel that their game has a unique hook, which makes it stand out from the crowd and appeal to a wider audience.
Here's some bad news for you: the editors of the biggest sites all disagree.
We're hearing more than ever from major outlets like IGN, Gamespot and Kotaku that indie game news almost always bombs on their sites - and in fact, even leads to discontent among their audience - regardless of how good the game looks. Their readers head there to find out the latest on big triple-A blockbusters, and see indie content as a wasted article that could have been used for a game they already care about.
The upshot of this, of course, is that there's no point chasing for coverage on a site whose audience is never going to be interested. In 2019, we recommend that indies focus their attention on more specialised websites - platform-specific or indie-friendly outlets, whose audience may be a little smaller, but is likely to be much more receptive to what you have to say.
3. The rise of Discord & the importance of community
Believe it or not, Discord initially launched in early 2015 - but it's over the past 12 months that it's really risen to prevalence in the indie game community, particularly when used for marketing purposes.
This makes sense. As storefronts, platform holders, and major outlets provide less organic visibility to indie games, the importance of having a strong and engaged community becomes higher. And Discord provides the perfect platform on which to build that community.
Designed with gamers in mind, Discord provides both text and voice chat with a range of smart functionality that makes it easier than ever to manage the communities you build. Time and time again in 2018, we've seen that the most successful indie games are those that placed an emphasis on building and nurturing a strong fan base who, come release week, were ready and mobilised to help spread the word.
Community-building takes time, though, which is why it's vital to read this point in conjunction with #8 on the list!
4. Indies love making platformers... but no one's playing them
Perhaps it's the relative ease of development; perhaps it's nostalgia borne of a generation of indie developers who grew up in the '80s; perhaps it's the rip-roaring success of games like Cuphead. Whatever the reason, indie developers have continued to flock to the platformer genre in 2018.
But there's a problem. As our sister publication The Indie Game Website discovered in an investigation this year, the platformer is the most popular genre for indie developers, but it's among the least popular genre with players. In fact, most indie platformers released on Steam have barely any players at all.
This may in part be down to a mountain of shovelware released in the genre, but if that's the case, it's a vicious circle that makes it more difficult than ever to convince people to play your lovingly crafted platform game. The more bad platformers are released, the less people trust a new entry into the genre. Meanwhile, the sheer number of platformers means demand falls relative to supply - so fewer people care and, as such, the media is less likely to be interested in coverage.
The fact is that, for every Cuphead, there are hundreds of genuinely good platformers that barely anyone has heard of. Think long and hard about venturing into this genre in 2019.
5. The great Switch rush of 2018
This time last year, 'indie game heads to Nintendo Switch' was still a story worth reporting. My goodness, how long ago that seems.
After a long history of ignoring the humble indie developer, Nintendo turned the tides with the Switch and has re-branded itself as the indie-friendly platform-holder. The result has been vast swathes of indie studios repackaging their game for the hybrid handheld - dramatically altering the supply:demand ratio.
Whereas last year many indies enjoyed huge success on the Switch, this year more and more studios have reported disappointing Switch launches, even if their PR and overall visibility were very good. As with Steam and the App Store, when there are so many games launching, it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd, and even more difficult to convince players to invest in yet another game.
That said, Nintendo platform-specific outlets are still largely more receptive to covering your indie game than generalist or PC-focused websites, we've found. But that may all change as we head into 2019, and even more games make the transition to Switch. Only time will tell.
6. The Steam bubble is beginning to burst
This one was kind of inevitable, it being something that's been spoken of for several years already, but 2018 was the year in which the Steam bubble finally properly burst. After Valve's opening up of the platform in 2017, allowing any developer to publish its games there (as long as they didn't fall foul of a set of increasingly arbitrary rules and regulations), 2018 saw yet another fall in the average sales figures per game. And then came October.
In October, Steam's developers changed how the platform's discovery algorithm worked. But a bug in the code led to a dramatic drop-off in how much visibility newly released indie games received on the platform. As a result, hundreds of developers reported a cliff-edge in their sales and revenue. Eventually Valve admitted to the bug and claimed it was fixed, but developers have reported a permanent drop-off in their Steam traffic, and a Valve representative hinted that some intentional, permanent changes may "help some games but harm others."
The news was a harsh reminder that being beholden to a single behemothic platform, which can change the way it works at any moment, is perhaps not the wisest or more sustainable business plan. But with the gradual rise of Itch.io, and Epic's announcement of a new store with a more favourable revenue share, we're hopeful that indie developers will have more choice of viable distribution platforms by this time next year.
7. When is a sale not a sale? When it never ends
Indie games have long been intrinsically linked with a sale-and-bundle culture. Still, in 2018, it has seemed truer than ever. With the introduction of the Steam Lunar Sale this year, the platform now has four major seasonal sales, with a variety of other, smaller sales scattered around. And more companies than ever before are offering bundle packages to players hungry for low-price games.
This presents a variety of problems for developers. Gamers increasingly know exactly when to expect sales and bundles to land, and developers are under increasing pressure to offer their games at discounted rates. This normalisation of price-cutting has led to many gamers choosing to simply wait for the next time a game is on offer, safe in the knowledge that it's unlikely to be any more than a few months down the line.
Launching games within a couple of weeks either side of a sale can lead to significantly reduced download figures. But that leaves increasingly few windows available for studios, and leads to a concentration of releases around shorter periods of time - making it even harder to cut through the noise.
The result is a weird dichotomy. It's more important than ever before to be aware of the games distribution calendar. But equally, it's perhaps less important than before to stick to certain prescribed windows - because you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't. Ultimately, great games with great marketing can do well even in sale season, while bad games with bad marketing will fail regardless of when they're released.
We'll have more on how to release games in today's sale-and-bundle culture in a future blog post.
8. Indies still don't think about marketing early enough... even though the ones that do enjoy the most success
We're going to be really blunt about this one, because it's something that is repeated constantly in indie gaming circles, and yet seems to be weirdly difficult to make stick. Indies: you are thinking about marketing way too late. And this is a key reason why so many indie games fail.
Despite ongoing reminders from experts at conferences and on the web, pleas to make marketing planning a key part of your early design and production process, and despite the fact that literally all of the successful game developers say they invested long periods of time into marketing, we still regularly receive emails from developers who tell us they are releasing their game in two weeks and are therefore starting to think about marketing. And at that stage, there is almost nothing anyone can meaningfully do to help you.
Why? Well, for one, marketing takes time. You wouldn't go to a developer and ask them to make an entire game in two weeks, so why would you go to a marketer and expect them to somehow magically succeed?
There's a more fundamental problem, though. It's common to hear advice that says 'start thinking about marketing as soon as you have something to show', but to our mind, even that is too late. That's because the process of marketing begins with deciding what product you're going to be making, who you're making it for, and what that means about the way you should organise your entire project.
Marketing is about understanding consumer behaviour. It's about learning people's desires, pet peeves, and purchasing habits. It's about psychology; about figuring out what makes a game stand out to different types of people on a digital store shelf. It's about saying "if I were x type of person, what would really interest me right now?" - about answering that question honestly - and then designing a product to satisfy those desires and expectations.
This isn't about 'selling out'. It's not about cashing in on a hype train that may have stalled by the time you're ready to launch. It's about ensuring, right from the start, that you're embarking on a project that is commercially viable - then continually refining and optimising what you're doing to keep pace with the rapidly-shifting nature of the gaming audience.
The problem, we think, is that it's easy to conflate 'marketing' with 'sales'. Selling a game is something that happens at the end: when you have a product that is ready for people to buy. Sales is about tipping people over the edge into a purchase. It's about dangling the carrot in front of their face and moving it, just a little, until they're ready to pounce.
Marketing, though, takes place from the start, and it's about what people like about carrots. Are big carrots popular, or smaller ones? Do people like sweeter ones or bitter ones? Have we got people to taste our carrots and let us know what they think, and how they stack up against our competitor's carrots? Does our carrot need to be orange, or is there a new market for purple or white varieties? Are people even buying carrots at all these days? Might it be worth investing the next two years of your lives into beetroot, instead?
If it turns out that nobody eats carrots any more, then dangling one in front of people's faces is just going to annoy them. Do marketing. Investigate beetroot.
Lewis Denby is the director of indie game marketing and PR agency Game If You Are and publisher of The Indie Game Website. Occasional gamedev. Recovering games journalist. @gameifyouare