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I Still Hate Marketing... But Not As Much

This is a follow up to my article "I Hate Marketing..." which looked at the frustrations of trying to develop and market an indie game. Two years later, I share what I learned.

Actually, I don’t hate marketing at all, but that doesn’t make for a very good hook. Plus I wanted the title to tie in with my previous article I Hate Marketing. Since then I have taken a few college level marketing classes and tried a bunch of new stuff out. I hope this can help some other people who are where I was two years ago.

When marketing is your only focus and your only goal, it’s not a bad way to spend your time. But that’s not to say it’s without stress. I think what I was really trying to express in my previous article was that as indie developers, it can be extremely difficult to have to break away from development, especially when you have a good pace going on your project, which often it does right before it’s time to market.

If you want an idea of the stress, listen to what Antichamber developer Alexander Bruce said about trying to develop and market at the same time. This video from the GDC really hit home for me.

Putting The Team Together

My first recommendation is that you have someone on the team whose only job is marketing, which should include handling all of the social media. I really do mean all of them, no matter how obscure. In fact, the less mainstream a platform is, the more likely you are to get noticed. Don't be afraid to be a social media pioneer. There is more to the internet then facebook.

The only things you should really avoid is spamming or being off-topic. Don’t start talking about your dwarf gold mining game in a Star Trek forum unless everyone else already was. This is just basic etiquette. While there are some great social media mass posting tools out there, they have no etiquette and so even with their help, you have to do a lot of personalized writing and making friends.

Soon it seems like social media is taking up all your time and you can’t even work on your other marketing stuff. Before you know it, you need a person just to manage social media. If they’re real good at their job, they’ll wrangle in a good five to twenty volunteers to work with. That’s a valuable person who should be getting properly compensated along with everyone else. Your artists are probably on double duty now making art for the game and your promotional materials. It all quickly becomes expensive and time consuming for a small team with other tasks, be those as part of development or external commitments.

Marketing Can Be Scary

This might seem really daunting, but don’t worry. It can be done if you are prepared for it when it comes. That’s why I think for small teams working on their first dozen games should consider having at least one third of their team be dedicated to marketing and two thirds would be even better. Remember, you’re going up against people who buy ad space on games like yours. You need a solid team to go up against that.

This can be a tough idea for people with only a desire to create a great product. Having the desires and the talents to create a product is not enough to get exposure anymore. You can’t make any money when your product is unknown. You’ll need that marketing to be discovered and it has to be good marketing.

The cringing fear is idea of the marketing taking over the development of the game through A/B testing as we have seen in some games that have come out.

The reality is that your marketing data is going to change some of the things in the game. You wouldn’t want to invest a bunch of time into a feature no one really cares about and you’ll want to make sure the things people like and use often are in good working order. You’ll want to know your audience and consider their desires. But overall, I think most developers and fans agree that marketing is there to support the product, not to design it.

It's Okay To Not Be Original

The next real reflection I can give you is that original IP are tough to promote. People right now are entertainment saturated and weary of new franchises in fear that they might really like it and spend all their time on it. It’s a tough market out there! If you can't beat them, join them.

One of our most successful products was Star Trek Mod II: The Wrath of Mod for Civilization IV which I believe had around 20,000 downloads (including all versions of the game). It was a fan game, originally based on the Final Frontier mod by Jon Shafer, which lead to Star Trek Mod by Deanej. Star Trek Mod II was an expansion of Star Trek Mod using the Final Frontier Plus mod by a team of the same name.

So in the end, we had the Star Trek, Civilization, and modding communities all involved in the creation and aggregation of the game. It is the sort of incubator that, with a big enough boost, can create spin off games like DOTA.

Star Trek Mod II: The Wrath of Mod

Now if you’re not making a fan game and trying to make money, you’ll need the rights to the franchise you’re using. Building your own franchise popularity is tough when even Mario is on the phone these days. It may be a better balance of capital to invest in licensing an intellectual property then what you might spend trying to promote your own brand.

Our Star Trek Mod was sucessful, but image how much more sucessful it could have been with an official licence and proper marketing budget. Another thing to consider, working in a familiar story can save time in world building to get both the developer and the player right into the game. Obviously plenty of indie games have broken out with original IPs, but keep in mind, soild marketing had a big part to do with those successes.

Direct Marketing

Another successfully marketing campaign we had at Legendary Power was our Black Operations Mod for Democracy 3. While technically its own story and world, it is a subset of the Democracy 3 world, so not completely foreign to players.

I created Black Operations because as a player I wanted to be more of a megalomaniac in the game without being assassinated or lowering the game difficulty. I was fulfilling a need as a player. So I searched for other players with the same need.  

The two platforms I used were the Steam forums and I did a search for people complaining about assassins in Democracy 3. When I found one, I would reply or repost that I was having the same problem but solved it with the Black Operations Mod. This is called Direct Marketing,

An example of Direct Marketing

I spent six hours on it and got a boost of about 1000 subscribers and 2000 unique views in the first few days. Black Operations ranked in the top most popular daily and weekly mods for about a month from that one day of work. That’s about a 150 user per hour conversion rate. Not bad. The real achievement though is that now when people google that question it doesn’t take them long to find our Mod.

Social Media isn’t entirely responsible for the success. Positech and Steam Workshop played a big part by making the download and installation of the mod as simple as possible. This broke down many of those hesitation barriers people get when trying something new.

I tried getting Civ4 users on Steam into Star Trek Mod II, but because of a lack of a Steam Workshop for that game, adoption rates didn’t make it worth pursuing in that venue.

You Can Do This

Yes. It can be scary and it will be expensive. But there are many things you can do before you start buying ad space. These are just a few of them. Hopefully they will help you and you won't hate marketing as much as you thought you would.


Note: This past May, presidency of Legendary Power was passed to Nathan Fralick, who has been with the company since its inception. I laid a very good ground work for him and it sounds like he has some great plans for the company in the upcoming year. I look forward to what legendary Power has to bring and I hope that you will too. -Ken


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