In the modern era of games development we're seeing a huge return to the values of old -- the indie uprising, if you will. So many talented and skilled individuals are going it alone, or as part of a small team, to make the games they want to. Never before have so many independent developers been making so many interesting, fun, and commercially viable games.
It's actually the modern distribution platforms -- primarily the digital ones that lower so many barriers to shipping a game to a paying audience -- that have enabled so many people to take advantage of new opportunities.
That said, it's extraordinarily hard to make a living as an indie, and that's traceable to the skills associated with running a business. Marketing, PR, business development, accountancy, being fluent in "legalese" -- these are the sorts of skills many of us don't develop while we work for other companies.
One of the many reasons I left the security of working for a games company behind was because I wanted to stretch myself. Creatively, sure, but also in terms of expanding what I'm able to do.
A year and a half on, and I've learned so much and done so many new things that I find it hard to remember them all -- but with this piece I'm hopeful that I'll be able to give an insight into one of the most interesting, contentious and demanding areas of life as an independent game developer: marketing and PR.
Bear in mind that I'm a one-man studio (with no coding ability). I've launched a couple of successful iPhone titles (Crunch: The Game was my first - working with Rory Kelly on code - a free maths-puzzler for iPhone; and Hard Lines, our critically acclaimed second game for iPhone and iPad, which was co-created & co-developed with the very talented Nicoll Hunt), and plan on expanding my reach on iPhone and mobile, while also tentatively dipping a toe into the world of PC development.
Put what I'm about to write into some context -- I have no marketing budget beyond my time, and my company is currently me. We are inextricably linked at this stage. Think of it like this -- I hopped into Dr. Brundle's teleporter, and my company crept in with me. The result is... unique.
What Are the Aims of PR and Marketing?
Your aim, broadly speaking, should be to create a group of customers who are devoted to you. Your products and brand must appeal to them, and you must make it possible for them to open up a dialogue with you.
You must create the games you believe in, find the customers who also believe in them, and then encourage them to join together in a group that starts to do some of your marketing for you, and supports your endeavours with relevant feedback and opinion.
You essentially want to become a platform holder of your own creation, with its own audience and a market that follows it around, regardless of hardware. The problem with that is all of the other platform holders getting in the way -- but more on that later.
As an indie, one of the major factors you've got going for you -- one that bigger companies struggle to harness effectively -- is that you have a personality. It doesn't have to be yours, although with Spilt Milk I make certain it is mine. What this boils down to is that you must have a very strong, consistent voice with which to communicate your message.
If people know and trust what you say, and if they are familiar with the tone because it is consistent, they will most likely feel some kind of connection with you (and your games) as a result. It's a relationship that you're embarking on, and you have the power to make it so much more personal and affecting (as well as effective) because of how close you are to your audience.
What does this mean? No PR reps leaning over your shoulder tut-ing during your interview (though you need one in your head making sure you don't go too far) and no bosses telling you not to post that stupid video online because it might negatively affect public perception of your company.
I confess that making my company and me essentially the same thing means it is very easy for me to stay true to my message, and to present a consistent face for the public to latch onto. It just works. You can do the same too, but it might not be your style -- you certainly need to be comfortable with the way you present your company.
And by the way, I still cringe when I use phrases like "communicate your message". It's a shame that it is part of the much-maligned business-speak that a lot of indies avoid, dislike or downright refuse to use. If you're one of those, please, for the love of all that is good in this world, change your stance. Message is important. Your message is distinct, unique and interesting. Ignore taking advantage of that at your peril -- it is one thing you've got that differentiates you from everyone else, and it is essentially free.
Opening up a Dialogue
So how do you open up a dialogue with this rabid fan base you want to create? Having a newsletter signup form on your website (and a similar button in your games) helps to an extent, though that's less about opening a dialogue and more about getting a set of receptive ears to listen to your preaching. Twitter is a much better place to start.
So many words have been written about effective marketing and PR on Twitter, yet I still see so many companies and individual developers not using it effectively. The simplest and best advice I can give is that you need to assume that everything you do in your day-to-day development process is of interest to someone, somewhere. You just need to find them.
I realize a lot of people reading this will think that I'm talking self-aggrandizing bullcrap. That it's an incredibly self-centered and vain way of doing things. You may be right, and you may not want to follow my advice. But hear this -- if you don't think what you're doing is interesting to people, then why are you doing it?
You're going to need to sell some copies of whatever it is you're working on at some point, simply so you can afford to keep doing it. To start out on a project with the attitude that people won't find it interesting is to call into question the project as a whole.
If you feel deep down that a piece of concept art sent out for free on a social network won't get some kind of positive response, then you really do need to take a look at the appeal of what you're planning.
Now that's out of the way, you need to pay some attention to what your audience is saying. I don't mean you should try and incorporate their every whim into your game -- I've had some terrible things suggested with worrying frequency -- but you certainly at least need to address their input. A cheeky wink and a "you're mad" might suffice on Twitter.
Obviously, the tactics vary depending on what channel you've chosen to use for this dialogue, but the point remains the same. If your audience feels like it's a one-way conversation, they're going to stop listening and find someone who offers them some back and forth. It's not like there's a lack of choices out there for them.
So once you've engaged your audience, and your game is ready to launch, what should you do to ensure it gets all the coverage you know it deserves? Well, your loyal, invested and eager fan base will no doubt help out by telling their friends and spreading the word in general about anything you announce -- heck, they're likely to surprise you and spot coverage you'd never notice without them. This has happened multiple times with Hard Lines, and even this small element makes all the time spent on Twitter seem worth it.
There's more you can do. Obviously, securing reviews on prominent websites is a key to getting your game known about. I'll deliver this next part with a caveat; the relevance and reach of reviews entirely depends on your chosen platform.
How to Get Review Coverage (and Whether You Should Bother)
In short, if you're expecting your iPhone game's sales to be affected in any meaningful way by Touch Arcade's 5 out of 5 review, then prepare to be disappointed. My firsthand experience with the stellar reviews we saw with Hard Lines on all the big outlets suggests there is no real correlation. We saw slight increases, but those were often overshadowed by the natural upticks over weekends, and certainly nothing that lasted more than a day.
It's clear the iPhone audience is not made up of gamers in the way the traditional industry is -- reviews hold some water and obviously help build a buzz, but not in the segment of the audience that drives games into the prominent chart positions. And nothing helps sales on anything like the same level like Apple featuring you, or a few days at a high chart placement.
Of course I've no data to compare regarding a quality game that didn't see prominent high-scoring reviews (maybe my next game will flop -- who knows?) but my gut tells me regardless of "core user" outlets like Touch Arcade and Pocket Gamer giving positive coverage, you'll need to place your bets elsewhere to drive success. Advertising, partnering with a publisher, cross-promotion with other products, killer app icons, and games that are built specifically to appeal to your chosen audience are all fairly obvious things that help you drive sales rather than review scores.
Still, the most effective way I know of getting review coverage (beyond making a good game) is by becoming friendly, or at least talking on friendly terms, with reviewers themselves. A lot of sites allow you to find their email addresses, twitter handles and the like.
Don't be weird, don't stalk, and don't keep spamming them with correspondence. But certainly find out who likes what kinds of games, what platforms they cover, who they work for (most games journalists work for multiple sites and publications) and then get in touch. Again, assuming that what you are working on is interesting is a good place to work from. Don't assume it's the best game ever, but do assume they want to know what you're talking about.
This all the takes time too -- don't expect them to get back to you straight away (or sometimes ever) but then don't go away assuming this is because they don't care, or that they're being mean. They're simply the busiest subset of Homo Sapiens discovered so far.
Keep sending information that is relevant to them and one day you'll get a response. Don't give up, but don't be pushy to the point of annoyance. Do offer exclusives to those special few that you've identified as being the most useful, and be useful yourself. Sending out-of-date, minor or repeated info is not being useful. Sending relevant news and interesting content is. Their job is to pick the best stuff and show it to people. Make their job easier for them, and they will thank you for it.
If you are going to release a core game on a core system (say a shooter on PC) then I'd be willing to bet that review scores have a bigger influence on sales than with the iPhone and more casual platforms (I'd love some firsthand experiences in the comments by the way!) but I've not got the data to back that up.
What I can underline is the importance of realizing who your market is. It's ever so important that you take this next nugget of knowledge away and act upon it. Seriously, I feel like I'm uncovering some kind of conspiracy here, simply because I've seen it spoken about so little. I hope people take it seriously.
Who is Your Audience? The Secret Nobody Will Tell You
Time to get blunt.
Your customers are not your audience.
Or, to be less confusing, stop asking who your audience is. You need to ask a different question:
"Who controls your potential audience's exposure -- and access -- to your game?"
I'm assuming you don't have the funds to buy a TV spot for your game all by yourself. If you've got a publisher doing everything for you, then that's great too. But they'll have the success that eludes you, because they know who your audience needs to be. And again, it is not the person paying for the privilege to play your masterpiece.
Your target audience is the platform holder.
The lie that has been propagated is that you need to market to your players. This is not true, as they are already playing. And the fact is, without the permission of the platform holder, you simply cannot effectively market to potential customers. The platform holder (Microsoft, Nintendo, Apple, Sony, Amazon, Google, Steam, whoever) guards the keys to your success.
This does not negate the work you (must!) do with regards to your own fans. I hinted at that right at the start of this article; "You essentially want to become a platform holder all of your own creation."
Mind Candy has managed it with Moshi Monsters, but you can count the other developer-led success stories on one hand. Become a platform holder all by yourself and you can call shots in a way you never even dreamed of... but for the rest of us we have to play within the rules of the system. The problem is most people don't even know which rules to follow.
If Microsoft is moving towards pushing Kinect in a big way, then provide some content with which to sell it in your next game. If Apple announces features of its next OS update with months to go, smart developers will adapt and think of ways to use them in their existing games, pushing an update out to take advantage of them in interesting and appropriate ways.
Sony's Vita has a bunch of interesting features (the rear touch-pad for example) that encourages developers to experiment. Go and do so! Make a game in which the core interaction is pinching the device between thumb and forefinger. Do this, and expect Sony's management take notice. That input method cannot be experienced on any other hardware, and assuming the game itself is decent then they'll be very keen to support you.
The changes don't even have to be this fundamental to the game. Align your game's style to that of the platform holder. Aspire to be a second- or first-party piece of software in any way that you can and all of a sudden you'll find yourself contributing to the platform holder's message -- you match their tone, stance and content and it becomes sensible for them to bring you into the fold.
Even putting aside the idea of actually achieving a second party publishing deal (which a lot of indies do not want), a simple thing like a promotional spot on the front page of their system's shopping front end will do more for your sales than anything you could manage by yourself.
On the flip side, think about your brilliant and polished game without that sort of leverage or common ground. There's only so many hours in the day and only so many staff paid to find and promote interesting games on a platform outside of those created in-house.
There'll be a formal process that is followed when categorizing all of the upcoming releases. But it'll start with putting all of the games into one of two categories -- ones that contribute to their message, and those that don't. Yours, a game that does not take into account this reality, will fall into the latter -- the category into which the vast majority of games are thrown. Your chances of being "discovered" and then promoted fall rapidly.
All of the above, of course, can feel like going against the grain -- pushing your game in directions it never would have been if you didn't need to. But there's the rub. You do need to. You can always bet the farm on being better than everyone else but most of us simply cannot achieve this, not in the early stages of a company's growth at least. Epic, Valve, Bungie, Infinity Ward, Blizzard, Naughty Dog, et al certainly take this approach. Can you compete in the space they occupy?
So how do you position yourself to get the attention of these giants? Your game may have a killer feature set that makes it the single best way to showing off their latest advances (and therefore help them sell more hardware) but they need to be told about it.
Networking: It's Not Just Drinks and Small Talk
This is another topic that has been covered in excruciating detail elsewhere, but I want to underline the importance of this element of your work. Not only is it important in terms of business development and building relationships, but it can be a pretty natural extension of the conversation you have with your fan base.
Rule number one: be nice.
If you are not friendly, open, and honest, then people will find out. It may not happen this week, or this year, but one day it will bite you in the ass. It's obviously easier to just be an honest person and extend that into your work. Why try to lie, or pretend to be something you're not? It complicates things.
What did you say to client A? Does it contradict the stance you took in that interview last week? Being honest means you'll never have to worry about that sort of thing -- even if you do end up contradicting yourself if you're honest about the fact then nobody will care.
Combined with the fact that you're consistent with your attitude, this means people will be comfortable approaching you. Asking your opinion, introducing themselves and trusted friends -- and all because you're a nice person, nothing more complicated than that. It doesn't take any qualification, or any expertise. It's a level playing field in that sense. You've got no excuse!
Rule number two: always say yes.
If someone asks you if you'd be interested in a potential collaboration, say yes. If someone enquires about sending you an email regarding some possible work -- even if you think you might not have the time -- say yes. Don't be greedy and waste people's time because that's not nice (see rule one) but with that in mind, always give the world the opportunity to give you an opportunity.
I've lost count of the times when I've thought, "What is the point of me finding out more about this? I doubt I'm going to be in a position to do anything useful with it," only for me to be grateful I did down the line.
Again, it might be months before you do see any benefit to it, but it will happen. You make your own luck. Give karma every chance to pay you back. I got a contact at Apple straight off the back of a business contact that I completely lucked out on, and that has since proven to be very beneficial. The intro only happened because the person at the other end was being very nice, and we ended up doing some business together, too! So you see, it's all interconnected.
Rule number three: get on Twitter, dammit!
Personal experience has me leaning towards using Twitter as a tool for all of the above. It allows the shy (not a problem I have) to make contact with useful and interesting people who share similar interests (if not opinions) and converse with them in small bites.
It allows a network to be built that will only be reinforced when the inevitable real-life encounters happen. It's truly a wonderful tool, and for every minute I spend on it retweeting funny cat videos, I just remember all the tangible (money making!) opportunities that have resulted directly from Twitter.
That aside, Twitter is one of the best ways to communicate with your fans, and extend your reach. It's hard not to get a new follower every day, even if you're just using it for random conversation, so when you start being open and honest, and sharing all those interesting things you're doing then you'll reach the thousands very quickly indeed.
Hopefully this has been a useful read. My aim was to sprinkle my own experiences over a base of genuinely pertinent information, forming a Chocolate Sundae of PR and marketing advice for the aspiring independent developer. I could keep on and on about the things I've learned, but as I've said there are a few key thoughts that I absolutely must repeat here. Because I don't trust that they've sunk in.
- Be nice.
- Market to the platform holder, as well as your fans.
- Use Twitter.
- Be confident in your voice.
- Open up a conversation.
- Believe that everything you're doing is interesting to someone, somewhere.