[This article originally appeared on reddit.com/r/gamedev]
Hello! I've been making or marketing games at Pixeljam (probably best known for Dino Run) for 14 years now, and I'm going to try and distill our latest launch experience (Nova Drift, a theory-crafting 2D arcade shooter) into a single article. I should mention though that only about 4 of those last 14 years have really been focused on marketing, and the other 10 were spent just making games and *not* marketing, which is also valuable because you get to feel firsthand the effects of doing nothing.
The 3 main things I want to talk about are...
Growing the bubble
Content creators are our friends (especially the smaller ones)
You have to believe
The first half of this article will be thoughts on marketing, and the second half will be what I actually did with those thoughts and what the outcomes were.
1) GROWING THE BUBBLE
We all know that we live in our own bubbles, but from my experience everyone thinks their bubble is bigger than it actually is. This can be a real problem when putting together a marketing plan though... it's best to assume that 0.00001% of all gamers know about your project, because that's probably accurate unless you are getting published by a well-known company or have tons of marketing budget.
My job is to expand the bubble as much as possible. Every time someone sees or mentions our game on social media, streams it, posts on Youtube, tells a friend, sees it in a digital store, etc, the bubble grows a tiny bit. If someone just saw that the game exists, that's good... it's unlikely that they will buy it right away, because we all know that's not how it works. They need to see it over and over. They need to think *it's a thing*. It needs to take up enough mindshare for them until they can't ignore it anymore... that wonderful moment when one's thought process goes from "I've been hearing about this a lot" to "I need to try it". Depending on the person this can take 5 seconds to 5 years.
So how do we grow the bubble without a budget? Work, lots and lots of work. Full-time work, if you can swing it. But work is only part of the equation:
BUBBLE GROWTH = MARKETABILITY * EFFORT * LUCK
MARKETABILITY: this is the inherent potential of a game to sell based on its own merits, with zero marketing. It's not exactly "quality", but more like:
Quality * Catchiness * Timing
Quality: This is very hard to quantify, but one can get a good sense of this as more and more people play the game and give feedback.
Catchiness: does it have a hook that will make people talk? Can you understand what's great about the game from a screenshot or short video? Is it "meme-y"? Does it stream well? Does it allow the player to have moments that youtubers and streamers will want to make multiple videos about? I'm not suggesting anyone make games that ARE catchy, but one should not be surprised if they don't think about this and then no one talks or posts about their game.
Timing: Was the game released when no other games like it were available? Was the genre on the rise or decline by the time it was released?
Chances are we think the marketability of our game is higher than it actually is, since we made it. One gets gets a better sense of this once the game is thrust in front of people who don't care about our feelings, aka the people *outside* of our bubble.
Here is my (obviously biased) evaluation of the game we released:
Quality: High. I didn't make the game, so that helps me be more realistic. The dev is a good friend of mine, so that counts against my opinion though. Total strangers tell us it's great and we have a 99% positive review ratio on Steam (as of writing this article), so that's a good sign we're on the right track.
Catchiness: Medium. The game does have surprising and delightful moments that stream well, but it can't compete with games that consistently produce meme-worthy comedic or crazy moments that celebrity youtubers will post about. There are no jump scares, you can't really insert your own personality into it, it rarely has any laugh-out-loud moments. It's just solid arcade action with a very high degree of weapon customization, which is where most of the catchiness comes from. People find that it "surprises" them with how deep it actually is, which actually means we need to adjust our marketing strategy - they should realize how deep it is BEFORE they play it...
Timing: Games with this control scheme (rotate & thrust, like Asteroids) and degree of weapon choices are pretty rare, so we didn't really have much competition in that regard. Risk of Rain 2 surprise-launched the day after we did, so that probably dinged us a bit, but there's no way to avoid something like that. There are 100 other games launching on any given day, so you really just have to pick a date based on your best guess and hope for the best.
Okay, back to the larger equation:
EFFORT: This is the time one actually spends thinking and acting to get people aware of their game. Every game is different and therefore needs to be marketed differently. A good marketing effort involves knowing why your game is different and how to talk about those differences to various types of people. Most of this work is probably going to be reaching out to Streamers, Youtubers and Infuencers, which I will collectively call content creators.
LUCK: The L-word! The one factor that can make or break a project. It truly sucks that this is enough of a factor to put into the equation, but it has to be in there. If you don't have a major indie publisher or some other muscle, you have an extreme uphill battle ahead and you are going to have to get lucky. The nice thing is that the more you grow your bubble with EFFORT, the more likely you are to get LUCKY.
2) CONTENT CREATORS ARE OUR FRIENDS
You can spend a lot of time trying to get the most popular streamers and youtubers to play your game, and it's worthwhile for sure, but only up to a certain point. There are probably only a few thousand mega-influencers and then there are 1 million other people you haven't heard of that are much more likely to respond to your emails / DMs / unsolicited key distributions. We focus on both and cover all our bases, but you we spend much more time focusing on the lesser-known ones.
Here is what the marketing portion of my day / week / month looks like for Nova Drift:
Find new people to give promo keys to
Look at the outcomes of the recent streams / posts / mentions and follow those leads
Maintain positive relationships
Reinvent and adapt
Finding new people: you can never stop doing this. New people are entering the arena faster than you can find and contact them. If possible, someone on your team should be doing this at least a few hours a day, for months leading up to your release and then indefinitely afterwards.
Celebrity streamers are not ignoring you on purpose, they just get pinged hundreds of times a day by other devs that want the exact same thing you do. They might actually play your game, but it's probably going to take them seeing some of their other friends playing it to convince them its worth their time. So who are their friends? Well...
All the other streamers. ones just starting out, ones that are hustling every day to reach affiliate or partner, ones that do it for a living and have 500+ concurrent viewers: these are the people that are MUCH more likely to respond to you and play your game. You cannot possibly ever run out of these people - there are simply too many of them, and the only reason you think they don't exist is because you haven't heard of them YET.
So back to my daily grind : I spend a few hours each day finding new people to send keys to. I do this by:
- Searching for content created about similar popular games (on Twitter & Youtube) and then hunting down the emails or twitter DMs for the people that make that content. I find that Twitter DM's have a much higher response rate than email, but your mileage may vary.
- Checking sullygnome.com often for complete lists of streamers that play games similar to ours, then hunting down their contact info (usually on Twitter).
- Using an automated service to find these people - personally I use Keymailer but there are multiple options here. Using one of these automated services is a good way to find out about the marketability of your game. If you send 5000 keys out, how many people redeem them? I promoted another game last year (Cheap Golf) and got about a 1-2% key activation rate. Nova Drift was more like 20-30%. What does that tell me about the marketability of both games?
And then I look at the outcomes of sending out these keys:
- For the posts that people make about our game on Twitter, I look at every like and RT on each of those posts, and if those people are streamers or youtubers, I send them a key as well if their DMs are open. I also give keys to streamers to give to *their* streamer friends. There are very few degrees of separation between the entire community of content creators - I use this to my advantage and get creative with new ways to get keys to people that will like the game.
- I keep a huge spreadsheet of almost everyone that has streamed or posted a youtube vid of our game, or expressed interest it, or said they would stream it but have not yet. This sheet also has the names and contacts of everyone that I *want* to play the game, but has not responded to my key offer yet. I put in time every week to connect with the people on this list, if not just to keep Nova Drift on their radar. Streamers play tons of games and you can't expect them to only think about yours. So healthy relationship and communication are key - discord is really useful for this! We have a server that has about 1K members, and about 100 of them are streamers with their own special role and channels that I post messages to on a regular basis.
And then of course this all gets old, so I am always thinking of new ways to find new streamers and keep the existing ones engaged / happy. This is mainly so I don't go insane doing the same thing over and over for months. It can get tedious, but it's worth it.
And then we come to the last major point:
3) YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE
You simply have to believe in your game's quality and ability to sell. If you don't, it will come through in all of your communication about the game, and that won't end well. Many times in the past I have launched a game and been so disappointed with the launch sales that I simply wasn't motivated to do any more marketing after that. And if I did, it was half-hearted. That's why marketing effort in the months prior to launch is key - to ensure a launch solid enough to keep you motivated for the eternal slog that waits you afterward.
Here are some things you can try for keeping motivation up (aka keep believing):
Don't look at sales stats! This is REALLY hard, but it works. Looking at stats DOES NOT AFFECT THE STATS! And if they are lower than you want, it creates a negative feedback loop that WILL lower the stats later.
Spend time each week thinking up new ways to get your game out there - get creative! Sending keys to 10,000+ content creators is the route I personally chose, but it is one of many possible routes, depending on the nature of your game.
Take care of yourself (you know, your physical body) and try not to think about your game all the time. Find things that hit your brain's reset button so you don't get caught up in more negative loops.
OUTCOMES OF THE MARKETING EFFORT
Nova Drift was in development for over 4 years, but we really only started marketing it about 6 months before Early Access launch. Before that we had a small successful Kickstarter that established the community and it kept growing from there. I cranked up the effort on Twitter and Twitch about 2 months before launch, and we managed to get some solid streams of the game going (including our top streamers Celerity and Wanderbots) which really helped our wishlist numbers.
By the time launch came around (March 27), we had about 4000 wishlists, which really isn't that much, and not even enough to show up on the "popular upcoming" list on Steam. No matter, we knew the game was really good, and we knew a lot of those people that wishlisted it would buy it in the first week.
By launch day there were a few hundred streamers that had already played it, and I personally asked them to stream it on our actual launch day, and most of them did! Providing a giveaway key also helped grease the wheels :)
Day one sales: 800 units
Week one sales: 3000 units
Month one sales: 5000 units
Wishlists after 1 month: 10,000
This was at a price point of 14.99 with no launch discount.
By no means was the game a "hit" - it never went viral, no huge youtuber or streamer ever picked it up, but that's okay... it manages to still sell 50-100 units a day now mainly thanks to the constant influx of smaller streamers that discover it organically or I send keys to. The Steam discovery queue also amplifies our exposure in proportion to the external page views we bring in from various sources.
These numbers are good, considering the size of our team (1 full time coder/artist, 1 part-time coder and 1 marketer/publisher) and the fact that we will be making major updates to the game over the next year, leading up to the full release.
Here is a chart that shows how streamer activity influenced sales over the last 30 days.
The path to full release will look like the path we already took - finding new content creators to play it, releasing new content so content creators have something new to talk about, holding tournaments & contests, and of course always trying to re-invent our strategies, listening to the growing community and staying positive.
That's it! I hope this was useful and informative. Thanks for reading.
-Miles Tilmann / Robot Commander @ Pixeljam