Like many, my path into the games industry was a bit like pinball. After a master's degree in game design and theory, I've done everything in games from artwork, QA and production, design, and finally marketing. Previously, I marketed a plethora of indie titles from development through to release. The following thoughts are what I've picked up on after switching to mostly post-release marketing at Failbetter Games:
1. Community is vital for niche games.
As games have grown to become more of a service than just an off-the-shelf product, fostering a community has become indispensable. It extends the life of the game and fosters word of mouth, which is every marketer’s dream goal.
Up until now I’ve only worked on games from development through to launch and not much after. Hopping into a community that’s been going strong for so long is quite the treat. I expected fans to know a lot about the game and of course to know more than I did, but it’s actually astounding how much they know. They are our game wiki, they are our lore wiki, they are our avant-garde testers.
Fallen London has a broad target audience in terms of demographics, but it’s definitely a niche game, and having one of our players recommend it to a friend that shares the same niche interests is incredibly valuable.
2. People are surprised when indies use traditional advertising.
In London the outdoor advertising for Fallout 4 was almost comical. It was everywhere. Bethesda is great at their short-burst-huge-impact campaigns, swooping in and announcing a usually well-pedigreed IP only a few months before its release. They can do this because they have a large marketing budget and a known IP: they can put Pip Boy on every billboard, Tube ad, phone booth, bus stop, and pigeon in London. People are used to this.
They’re apparently not, however, used to seeing indies use outdoor advertising. I joined Failbetter right after the iOS launch of Fallen London, and part of that campaign entailed train ads. People who play mobile games may not read traditional games press or watch streamers do Lets Plays, so making sure part of the campaign reached a non-core gamer space was essential for awareness and user acquisition. Many of our fans took pictures of our ads and tweeted at us, surprised to see us out in the real world (which is great! If you want to share more pictures of our ads on different platforms than they were originally posted on, feel free!).
3. Indies need dedicated marketers more than ever.
In July 2016, 27,849 games were submitted to the US App Store. In that same month, over 631,000 games were already active in the App Store. While I'm writing this there are 10,644 games available on Steam, along with another 1,802 that are on Greenlight.
If you’re an indie developer, you’ve put a hell of a lot of work into your game. For most people it’s not just a business idea, it’s passion. Even if your main goal isn’t purely sales, chances are you need to make some money to pay for the time in development, not to mention if you plan on making more games. Marketing isn’t evil, marketing is making sure the most people possible know about your game, and hopefully are convinced that it’s something they want to buy.
For most consumers, purchasing a game isn’t a snap decision. You need to start your marketing early, probably while you’re still developing. Get a marketing person on your team! Even if it’s a part time deal until things amp up. There are so many things that we can help you out with. If you’re wary about spending money on a marketer, imagine how much your time costs, and how much you’re spending trying to do both developing and marketing, or how much money you may lose by not being able to dedicate enough time to marketing your game.
Hannah, the comms director here, did an awesome presentation about this and tips for hiring a marketer at Develop this year. You can find her slides here.
4. Game studios can function with healthy practices for their employees.
As mentioned above, many people work in the games industry are not only trying to pay the bills, but are trying to do so by doing something they love. Many games businesses are being formed by people who aren’t trained in business or HR. Since those employees may also be in the industry for the love of it. they are often happy to work overtime, or just do it automatically. If there aren’t systems and plans set up to stop employees from burning out, or to help them grow, then there are going to be problems with production schedules and high employee turnover, despite good intentions.
After being at a few different studios, it was wonderful and refreshing to find myself at a studio that has put into place safeguards against things like crunch, burnout and other issues employees may face. It was a bit like finding a unicorn, I’m not going to lie.
As a bit of workaholic, it’s great to have people ask to make sure I’m leaving at 5:30 when the day ends. By having strict working hours, an actual hour off at lunch, and one day a week to work from home, my mind is calmer, healthier, and more able to be creative and to solve problems. Some of the best ideas come from times when you’re not at work, and if you’re working 10 hour days and stressed out for the few hours between work and sleep, those lightbulbs are not going to turn on.
And if Failbetter can create Fallen London and Sunless Sea amongst other games, using these employee-friendly practices,then it’s possible to both make games and not have insane working conditions.
5. Marketing and comms doesn’t always call for solely marketing copy.
A few other people have mentioned this in their “Five Things” - joining Failbetter can be a smidge intimidating from a writing perspective. Sunless Sea! Fallen London! How do you match that?
Now, as a comms person I’m obviously not responsible for any sort of game writing, however, I am responsible for staying on brand and on voice for our social media channels, Fallen London game announcements, and anytime I’m interacting with our community. Switching from a typical ‘marketing your product’ voice to ‘market Fallen London ’ voice is no easy task, especially for a non-Brit.
And I’ll be honest with you, at this point my writing is a bit of a mess. It’s like London architecture: it has classical foundations from the Romans, it’s been burnt down, rebuilt, invaded, rebuilt, bombed, rebuilt, until it’s a complete amalgamation of over two millennia of styles. Except my foundations are American, and the styles range from writing for packaging design, B2B promotions, academic writing, and promoting swaths of brand new indie games.
After five years in the UK I can pretty much masquerade as your average Brit. Then I joined Failbetter, where staying on brand is an entirely different game. It’s English, Victorian English, but not entirely, it’s a bit humourous, a lot dark, and has its own quirks. Players have told us they have learned more words through Fallen London than they did at school. Being an in-house marketing person means diving into the game you’re representing, but with Fallen London that’s nearly seven years of marvelous stories, deep lore, and the nuances of the writing itself. It’s why I find myself googling things like “etymology of the word...” or “when were pie charts first used?”
So for anyone who thinks that marketing or comms copy is always going to be the same corporate style, I have found in-house game marketing to thankfully be quite different!
- Study/Consume the brand and the game - spend as much time as you can reading through everything you can to understand the voice
- Ask a lot of questions - whether it’s to help you understand concepts of the world, how things work, or what words and phrases can and can’t be used
- Draft up examples - at small studios everyone is very busy with what’s on their own plates, try your hand at writing the Tweet/post/announcement and then share it with a writer for tone and factuality
- Keep a cheat sheet - I have a doc full of commonly used Fallen London words, phrases I’ve gotten wrong in the past (‘until’ not ‘through to’), and stock responses to commonly asked questions