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Giving it Away For Free: Marketing a Free Game

In September 2014, Space Whale Studios relaunched its game for free. One week after the launch, Owner/CEO/Business Cowboy Aaron Chapin details which marketing platforms drove the most views and downloads.

Aaron Chapin, Blogger

September 15, 2014

5 Min Read

The Background

In December 2010, Space Whale Studios launched Return All Robots on PC and XBox Live Indie Games. While people who played the game generally liked it, we couldn't get enough eyes on it, and sold very few copies. The members of Space Whale drifted apart, and the company basically ceased to exist. Occasionally, on Space Whale's Facebook page, we'd get someone asking if the game was still available.While looking through files on an old laptop, I found the installer for Return All Robots, and decided to re-launch it for free. I'm still proud of the game we made, and I definitely wanted to make sure anyone interested could still play it.

The Launch

I've become a big fan of itch.io, uploading my personal game jam games there. So when I decided to relaunch RaR, I decided to post it there. Itch.io is free, looks relatively nice, and has flexible payment options. So I set the page up, and hit the launch button on September 9th, the same day that Destiny came out. This probably wasn't the best idea, but I'd missed the pre-Destiny news window, and I knew that the launch wasn't going to be massive anyway. My only real goal for the relaunch is to get the game into a few more hands. To that end, here's what I did when the game re-launched:

  • Sent a press release to my friend Nicole at Geekadelphia (a Philadelphia-area geek-interest website).

  • Spent $40 on twitter advertising for the launch tweet.

  • Spent $40 on facebook advertising to boost the launch post (which came piped in from twitter).

  • Posted a link to the game on Reddit's /r/IndieGaming subreddit.

Itchio has a nice analytics page, which shows your daily views and downloads, as well as the referrers. It's not earth-shattering, but it works well. The first day was best for views, unsurprisingly. Facebook and Twitter were both sending a decent amount of views, but I was simply blown away by the response I'd gotten from Reddit. Even though the link only received ~30 upvotes, Reddit has been responsible for a full half of the incoming traffic, outperforming Facebook and Twitter by a wide margin. It's worth mentioning that I'm a relatively active Redditor, so I wouldn't expect to have seen this much traffic if it had come from a totally brand-new account.

The Mistake

Anyone reading closely will have noticed a big mistake I made in my data collection. The Facebook post I boosted was piped in from Twitter, which meant that the link that a Facebook user clicked is the t.co link to RaR's itchio page. So, in my analytics, it looked like the Facebook link had never been clicked, and all of the traffic came from Twitter. Unfortunately, I'll never know exactly how effective they were individually, but in general, for small budgets like mine, both platforms seemed ineffective. The two days after launch were following the same pattern as launch day, with Reddit coming in first place consistently. Itchio's own search pages started  climbing the chart as well, though still behind Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter.

The Celebrity

The third day after launch, Andrew Aversa (hi Andrew!), also known as Zircon, the game's composer, retweeted the launch tweet. Andrew's an amazing musician, and has a well-earned throng of fans. Even though that day had half as many views as launch day, the number of downloads was actually one higher! So even though fewer people were seeing the site, more of them were downloading the game, a fact I attribute solely to Andrew's fans.

After that, I thoroughly expected the number of views and downloads to drop precipitously. They didn't, though. It turned out that Itchio had featured RaR on its front page! At that point, views from Itchio shot to the top of the referral chart, and it eventually dethroned Reddit as the #1 cumulative referrer.

The Conclusions

Now, a week after launch, it seems like the initial push is over (though we'll see if this article generates a bump!). Some of the conclusions I've pulled from this data may seem like no-brainers, but some of them surprised me. My takeaways going forward are:

  • Reddit will be good to you if you're part of their community.

  • Facebook and Twitter advertising, at least at the level I could afford, isn't really worth it.

  • A retweet from someone who already has an established fanbase is worth it's weight in gold!

  • Being featured by your platform is similarly effective.

One thing that I wished I had, though, was a download-per-referrer count. Itchio's analytics only shows you your views per referrer. So while I know my overall conversion rate is 12.5%, I can't tell if any particular referrers are better than others. I can make some intuitions, since the day of Andrew's retweet I had half the views but the same number of downloads as launch day. Beyond that extreme example, though, I can't make any conclusions with confidence.

And since you've waited so patiently, here's the breakdown of referrers from launch week, in graph form. I don't think you could ask for a more effective TL;DR than that!

Check out Return All Robots on itch.io here! It's free!

Space Whale news is posted on Facebook and Twitter. My personal twitter has more indev updates and unrelated things.

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