Indie Game Marketing 101: A Love Story - Part 1 [What is PR/Marketing and why/when should I care?]
Thanks to everyone who’ve shared their thoughts on marketing, the indie scene, post-mortems and other quality stuff freely on the web. Some extra love to Studio Total, the Wolfire team, Kieron Gillen, Brian Baglow, Rami Ismail and Simon of Pixel Prospector for continuously producing new and interesting content and thoughts. Also, thanks to Gameport and Blekinge Business Incubator for giving me the time to gather data and take my time to write this.
What is PR/Marketing?
“Marketing is Communicating Externally” – Brian Baglow
Before we start off it’d probably be worth our time to choose some definitions of words that’ll be recurring throughout the text. These definitions are not global, the only ones legit or necessarily ones that you’ll agree with. I’m basing them mostly on the way they’ve been used in the material I’m basing this article/text, so by pure laziness (and because of the fact that I’d rather put more time into how to actually sell games/do a decent bit of decent marketing) I’ve chosen to roll with them. I find them working decently enough, and rather than go all academia up in this cracker and discuss the eventual issues of certain words etymological background connotations in modern day advertising/marketing/pr I’d rather just keep it simple. So here we go.
Marketing: More or less anything/any action that’ll get information about your game/product out.
Advertising: Physical stuff that you’ll have to pay for. Swagbags, billboards, ads and what not. Traditionally, this is what most large companies have been using.
PR: Any type of social interaction where you end up discussing something that might be related to your game/brand. If you’re debating whether or not real world physics should be implanted in all platformers, telling your grandparents about your game, networking at ye olde game conference (aka drinking beers and talking to people etc) or posting an IAMA on Reddit you’re doing some kind of PR. PR is something that’s always a “long run”-thing. You’re building awareness, about yourself, your company, your game and the games you haven’t even yet thought about. Thus, PR is not in any form or case irrelevant – whether you’ve just put down your first lines of code or are finishing up the last crunch before going gold PR will always be relevant. (So do it)
And why should I care?
”Marketing is one third of your chance at success” – Joost ”Oogst” van Dongen (Awesomenauts)
“This isn’t ‘Field of Dreams’, you are not Kevin Costner, if you build it they will not come.” –Edward Rumley (COO @ Chillingo (EA))
“Obscurity is a greater threat than Piracy” –Tim O’Reilly (O'Reilly Media)
Fact of the matter is: If people aren’t getting the information about your game, they can’t even start to begin to not give a shit about your game, simply because no one knew what to not give a shit about in the first place. Looking at the (obvious) example in Minecraft you’ll quickly come to deduce it wasn’t just because it’s a fun concept with a decent execution – Notch has been active all over the web. Blogs, twitter and what not. Discussing obscure coding issues, debating politics and the indie scene and making sure to answer people directly when they have had questions for him. This is something he did a long time before Mojang single handedly became something like one third of the Swedish game industry in net worth.
So why should you care? Frankly, if you are in this to actually make enough money to keep being in the game-making business pr/marketing won’t, can’t and mustn’t be an optional side-quest at any time. It’s one of the foundations for your future, just left of vision, development and caffeine addiction.
So when should I care?
”How often do you look up more information on something you never heard about before?” – Alexander Bruce (Antichamber)
“Start early. Be open. Be Real. Be Noisy” – John Graham (Wolfire Games)
“Another misconception about marketing is that it’s something you do around the release of your game. Not at all! In fact, you should be doing some marketing work before you write your first line of code.” - Jay Barnson (Rampant Games)
One of the few (or rather the only one my google-fu turned up quickly enough for me to bother about) that has put himself in a position against showing off stuff early is Phil Fish (Fez): “With Spore, he said, everybody remembers the amazing 2005 demo, the game looked finished and everyone wanted it then, but in the intervening three years until its actual release, the hype surrounding the game took on impossible to meet expectations.” This should be read in the light of the fact that Fish showed his first build of Fez in 2008, a game that took him another five years to release (and which had gotten enormous amounts of coverage when it finally did).
Generally the pros of starting to show off your work early seems to outweigh the relatively low risk that someone might catch a glimpse of the game, base their understanding of the game on that glimpse they got, hype the shit out of that glimpse until the internet hype machine has broken everyone’s expectations and then leave that crowd feeling fucked and cheated out of an amazing game (that never existed). Spore didn’t have any transparent development phase, and until its actual release there was quite little concrete “game” to actually go on, and not very much insight in what was actually happening over at the developers office. That’s probably also why people had a hard time understanding what had happened to the insanely hyped demo-game they played in 2005 when the actual game released in 2008 – something that made the players/press feel that the game didn’t live up to what they were expecting.
As a smaller company you’ll have to make noise and get in touch with people early. The more times someone heard about you, in any context, the bigger chance that the person actually checks something you’ve done out. The more assets, interesting blog posts about your concept, discussions about games you’ve enjoyed/not enjoyed/despised but secretly loved for all the wrong reasons people come into contact with, the more the chance of someone finding something they find interesting/likeable increases. Awareness is generally a slow build-up, and thus is something that needs constant maintenance. This is something that for example Wolfire Games and Vlambeer does exceptionally well. Apart from being active bloggers and engaged in all (oh yes, all) discussions on twitter (lex Vlambeer) Wolfire games have made a comicisch thingie about their coming game Overgrowth, and Vlambeer have been making the news almost every week this year with releases of old builds for free, birthday parties, panels at conferences and what not. The comic helps set the tone for Overgrowths universe, and I found it both well written and interesting. It engages me in a game world and a game that I can’t even take part in (apart from the alphas they continually put out but you know I’m making a point here jesus don’t be so picky).
So what should I do? How? So many possibilities, so little that’s actually getting done.
“Creative without strategy is called 'art.' Creative with strategy is called 'advertising.'”- Jef I. Richards (Chair and Professor in the department of Advertising, Public Relations & Retailing at Michigan State University.)
Be creative! You won’t be draping E3 in skyscrapersized posters. Let’s be clear; You’re not EA, Blizzard or any other huge concern – which is to your advantage! Use the fact that you’re not bound by three PR-assistants and one Chief Marketing Officer and a “No Fun”-Gorilla that’s breathing down your neck, telling you what not to talk about and shutting things up as soon as it might spark any interest. You’re not a multibillion concern, so don’t try to mimic their moves. Take your strong points (small team, agile etc) and create your own PR-Strategy. This is something which you have to do while developing, not when you’re done developing. Make time for marketing/PR. Make time for strategizing. Have a plan. Developing a game that won’t be played is only interesting for those who only develop for the sake of the art of games, themselves or whatnot. If you are; Fine! I hope you’ll get a fulfilling experience, and I wish that maybe sometime I might partake in it. I hope it shines. If you do this, then you’re not in need of anyone knowing anything about the game, as the creation in itself is its own reward.
Those of you who also would like to enjoy a meal every other day and keep making more games in the long run: put in the hours needed for marketing. Create a document with some thoughts, outline a plan – you don’t need to write the fucking bible, but you do need to have some idea of where you’re supposedly going to go. It will pay off, and help you out in the end.
To get things rolling easier, and to actually pitch in and try to be helpful in the midst of all this snarkiness (sorry), I’ll try to share some of the stuff I feel are important. Keep in mind though; This ain’t no golden autobahn which you’ll leisurely cruise with the top down until you end up in Shangri-La. This is what I think is important, based upon the knowledge I’ve gained by working with some great and creative people and all the wonderful material posted online by people with both more knowledge and hands-on expertise than me (List is in the end of the doc, read the articles/papers). In the end though, PR/Marketing is more like trying to hit on someone in a bar rather than putting together a bookcase. You can prepare for the task at hand, but even if you’ve showered before going out, dressed sharply and not gotten shitfaced it might still end up being you alone in the bar. This is basically The Game if The Game wasn’t disastrously sexist and non-functional, and without any guarantees. Also I’m not Neil Strauss, I’m just trying to hand you some heads-ups before you head out to the bar, general stuff that I think could maximize your potential for a solid base. (Not necessarily fourth or fifth or whatever).
Part 1: Get a solid base
My stance here is pretty simple: Use all available channels you can think about (and google for the rest that you might not have remembered). With that said, there’s a couple which you should be using, and which you shouldn’t opt out from using. These channels are easy to maintain, and make it easier for people to read up about your game and/or make it easier for journalists to write something about the game should they be interested in doing so.
A homepage that is/have
- Easy to navigate. If I never heard about the company/game I don’t want to be stopped in the middle of my honourable quest for more info by a homepage that’s just not designed well enough to actually show me the information.
- A presskit/press page that’s easy to access from the front page.
- A blog which is active more than once a year. This is a good place to not only show off what you’re doing, but you can also engage readers by simply discussing events/areas that interest you. A post abot why you should work towards releasing more games on Linux, why you feel that a certain model or monetizing works better than that other one or thoughts about why it’s such a good thing to work in the creative space that BBI’s Gameport offers are some stuff you could write about, but you probably already have a couple of ideas right now, don’t you? Go write.
- You use Google Analytics. There’s quite a few good guides online, and Cliffski (Positech Games) has a really good one which you could use as a starting point: Google Analytics for software sellers
- Some of those amazing moving pictures in framesthingies (aka some youtubez), concept art and screenshot from different builds.
A twitter account that
- Follows interesting people that you’d wanna read more from. (Since you will be using it quite a lot, you might as well fill it with interesting stuff from the getgo, right?)
- Is not only for the occasional OMG THE GAME IS HERE LOOKIE-tweet. S-O-C-I-A-L-I-Z-E. Don’t be afraid to engage with people you think are interesting if you have a differing (or a similar) opinion that you think might contribute to the discussion. By actually behaving like a human (and not horse_ebooks) you’ll end up having an easier time when you’re actually promoting your stuff. By contributing interesting content (whether as thoughts in debates or assets or…you get the geist of it, right?) you are actually being part of the community discussing that certain issue. This could be the difference between a retweet from RPS (52,240 followers and rising) and the lonliest sound in the world: The sound of a tweet being eaten alive by the cyberspace moray who spends its time devouring meaningless posts on the interwebz.
- Is being used as if it was your regular account (it kinda is). If you don’t have a regular account, then fake it until you make it.
- #screenshotsaturday, #indiedev, #indiegame, just sayin (hashtags, read up on it)
A Facebook page that’s
- not just a megaphone telling people that there’s a new blog post over at your site. It should do this too but your Facebook will rarely be frequented by people who are totally unaware about what you’re up to. The person liking your page usually does so because they are interested in what you’re doing, so take the opportunity to S-O-C-I-A-L-I-Z-E. (It’ll stick in the end, promise). Encourage interaction by interacting with people yourself, answer people directly and don’t talk like no corporate stiffy son. (Or just sound like you do in general, rather than someone trying to sound like what they think serious people who are doing serious things on serious facebook pages sound like when they are answering the plebeian hordes.)
- active on other Facebook pages. Use your Facebook page like your usual account, debate and discuss news in games, politics and what not on appropriate Facebook pages you yourself enjoy. If you’re going to debate the Xbox One, then do it with your company Facebook rather than your own account, the visibility is more interesting for your company Facebook page than your own personal account.
- Posting images and videos. In general these get much more interaction than usual posts.
A MoDB account which is
- Updated frequently (posting the stuff you post on other places) which increases the chances of being featured. It’s quite a large site with a very active and, most of the time, nice community, so go be a part of it and contribute yourself to gain some good developer points with people who are genuinely interested in games.
A YouTube account that has
- Has videos (Dev journals, vlogs, FAQ-answers, introductions to the team, spoken word, be creative)
- Has a link to the channel in the description of each video (ease of use – make sure they can find more of what you’ve got)
- Be active in the comment sections (Socializing!)
Good places to hang out: : r/IndieGaming, r/gamedev, r/game
Something to have in mind though; you need to practice good reddiquette and not mistake the subforums for billboards. Write interesting stuff, contribute with nice content and in general take part of the community. Reddit is a beast though, so make sure to get a feel for where you’re posting your stuff. If you get a foot through the door (being regarded as a contributing redditor) it might pay back in spades later on. You’re knowledgable: Spread the knowledge! [This part could prob get it’s own chapter, but I don’t have enough knowledge of it myself to feel comfortable to delve deeper than this, so if anyone has any critique/knowledge and feel like writing some words – give me a a shout out on [email protected] ]
Other places you could be active on
A steam group for the game/company, LinkedIn, Google+, forums, twitch.tv etc
In the next part I'll try to give some heads ups on the subject of journalists, hot/cold emails and press releases - hope you enjoyed the first part and will stick around for the next one to go online.