Hi, my name is Jeff Hangartner! Recently I started a small Indie game studio called Bulletproof Outlaws. I'm an artist working from home and outsourcing the programming, music, etc. I've just finished my first iPhone game – Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief (the App Store link is here). It was officially released on June 6th, 2011. I've jumped into the wonderful world of marketing and I'm approaching it from a bunch of different angles and trying various marketing avenues out. I'm fortunate enough (and planned ahead strategically enough) to have some money to spend experimenting with marketing and I figure by sharing what I've learned, these marketing articles can help other small Indie Developers who can't afford to waste money heading down dead-ends and trying experiments that might not pay off.
There are 5 marketing articles:
Using word-of-mouth marketing via Twitter, blogging, forum threads, etc. to build awareness for your game, and a realistic look at the pros and cons of price drops and using microjob services.
An in-depth look into the sketchy side of the industry that people don't seem to talk about like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. Also covering traditional expensive marketing like banner ads and marketing agencies and ad services like AdMob.
What to put in a Press Kit, using Press Releases, creating screenshots and trailers, etc. Plus how to efficiently maintain everything we've talked about so far.
How to survive the internal side of marketing as an Indie Developer and dealing with the stress of spending your money, watching sales figures rise and fall, making big decisions, handling critics and pushy marketers, and a big blunt look at how rampant iPhone App piracy is.
ARTICLE V – Optimal Marketing Plan
A summary of everything, condensed down into 36 steps from Pre-Launch to Launch Day to Post-Launch, that I feel make up an Optimal Marketing Plan for an Indie Dev with little to no money who needs to make sure every dollar spent counts.
ARTICLE I – Social Marketing
Where My Game Is At
No beating around the bush: Elusive Ninja is down to basically around 2 sales a day right now. The game itself is a good game, it just doesn't have any exposure. The reviews from people I don't know (obviously the first few reviews of any App on an App Store are the Developer's friends haha) are all positive and I know the game looks great and plays good (I spent lots of time with testers tweaking the balance) and overall it has lots of polish. So I know I'm not working with a bad, low-quality product. Honestly, when I see someone saying “Banner ads don't work!” and their banner ads were made in Paintbrush and they're advertising a game with terrible art and unbalanced gameplay, my first thought is “okay, well it's not that banner ads don't work, it's that your game sucks.” I'm also throwing in some knowledge based on other people's experiences from other articles I've read along the way, and Developers I've talked to about the whole subject.
Understandably, you might be thinking “Wait, if your game isn't selling, why would I bother reading your articles on marketing?” haha In these articles, I outline a lot of the mistakes I've made and why they didn't work, so you don't have to make those same mistakes yourself. I also break down efficient ways to use some of the marketing avenues you may be thinking of trying out, which I learned through trial and error over time. When you're an Indie Developer, you're already wearing a dozen hats at once as it is just developing your games. Throwing on maintaining a Social Media presence and running contests and price drops, writing Press Releases...it can all be pretty overwhelming and time-consuming if you don't have a plan.
The summary: I'm an optimist, but also a realist. My Indie Dev side wants to believe that the right strategy can lift a game decently high in the App Store, but my logical side knows that expecting to pull off an Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, or Tiny Wings on your first go is a little overambitious. I think it's possible for a Developer's first game to hit big, but that you shouldn't bank on that and that you should expect to approach things from a long-term “piling up” strategy that's slower, but more solid.
Piling-up would involve stuff like building a brand name for your company, building an IP (your game's look, characters, story, etc.) that people can become familiar with, cross-promoting your previous releases with your new ones, releasing updates for your game and re-marketing the major updates as if they were new releases, building relationships with the Press, with Gamers in general, other Developers, your customers, fostering a fan-base, rewarding loyal customers, encouraging word-of-mouth advertising, etc.
So while the first game might not do well at first, when the second or third game you release comes out, you can use that as an opportunity to get your first game more exposure or a new boost in sales, etc. The Internet has affected the way marketing works, especially the whole Social Networking concept...I don't think that being a mysterious unknown anti-social Indie Developer in your shadowy basement is the optimal strategy these days. It's the equivalent of being the totally impersonal huge mega-corporation that doesn't interact with the “common folk”. Both of those CAN work, but they're not really embracing Social Media. It's kind of like when the Internet first became widespread and marketing consultants would tell companies “you have to have a website, everyone has a website these days! You don't even need to have a fancy one, you just need SOMETHING out there!” Some basic participation in Social Networking is important. It takes some work, and it's a slower strategy than just going “I'm going to buy a $5000 ad on the biggest game site on the net and cross my fingers and hope that I make jillions” but by building a Social Media presence you're rolling a snowball down a hill and watching it build up into a much more reliable marketing avenue over time.
On that note, I think it's important to approach Indie gameDev expecting to make more than one game and to get your finances in order ahead of time to support yourself through flopping a few games. If you're financially secure enough to survive 3 flops, you're in a great position...if any of your first 3 games hits, awesome. If your first 2 games don't hit but the 3rd gets you attention for the first 2, awesome. If your first game flops, your 2nd hits and gets some attention for your 1st, you don't have to worry while you develop your 3rd game. But if you approach things going “I'm going to put everything I have into this one game, it's going to be my Magnum Opus right off the bat” you're playing a MUCH riskier game.
Now I know that there are exceptions to that, and that ideally you shouldn't hold anything back and you should put out the highest quality game you can as soon as you can because just from a philosophy/respect point of view you should be doing your best work at all times...plus logically a quality game is more likely to catch on and make you jillions, etc. But from a business stability standpoint, you're taking a much bigger gamble that way, especially with the way the App Store has changed things. Releasing a game on the App Store, you're looking at having to release it for $0.99 or $1.99...you can't release a game for $19.99 or $49.99 on the App Store like you could if you were Konami or Capcom releasing a game on a console. So instead of releasing one huge epic quality game, why not take some time and release a few smaller quality games, until you're financially stable as a studio, and THEN work on that Magnum Opus when it won't cripple you if it flops.
Ya, Ya, Let's See a Sales Chart Already!
Not pretty, eh? I'm not gonna lie, it's a little embarrassing haha I was hoping I could turn things around by the time I wrote this article so I could be like “How I went from 1 sale a day to 10,000 sales a day” but no such luck...yet!
I've sold a whopping 256 copies (haha programmer number!) as of writing this, and the vast majority were at the start when I Launched and that was no doubt mostly my friends and family, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, etc. buying it. Along the top of the chart, R represents when I got a Review, B represents buying a Banner ad and P represents something Press related (in this case, sending out a bunch of review requests).
256 copies x 1.99 = 509.44 minus 50% (30% for Apple, 20% for my programmer, Derek) = 254.72 actual theoretical money in my pocket so far. Dev costs plus advertising has been around $3,000 so that's nowhere near enough to break even yet.
You can definitely see that when I “do stuff”, my sales go up, when I “don't do stuff”, my sales go down. Obvious, but the problem is that “doing stuff” tends to cost money and the timing of “stuff” is important...I'll get into that in the Reviews, Banners, and Super Combo sections.
I've also admittedly (and at times knowingly) dumped money into certain marketing avenues that were dead-ends and a total waste of money, and I'll probably do so a few more times before I'm done experimenting. My thinking is that because I have a quality product and I've hit a wall, I should explore getting around that wall now while I have some money to do it with and while I don't have to make much to recover the development costs...otherwise all that'll happen is I'll develop another game and hit the same “how do I get it noticed?” wall. If I can at least figure out the weak points in that wall and learn how to chip away at them efficiently now, I can focus a little more strategically when I'm marketing my next game. I consider this a shotgun blast, so that I can figure out the best places to aim the sniper rifle.
Why Not Just Add More “Stuff”?
Some people have suggested adding more to the game, changing the price, etc. but going by the vibe I'm getting from how the App Store market and general marketing process appears to work I honestly don't think that would do much. I could have 50 different objects to dodge or 5 different ninjas to choose from and I don't see a way that that would get me any more attention than I've gotten...it's just another stat for the marketing blurb which isn't getting read to begin with. Now if I added like 100 different objects, 10 different ninjas, 20 levels, RPG gameplay elements, a 5 hour fully animated plot, etc. I'm sure that'd get noticed more, but development-wise that would be a ton of time, money, and man-power, and I'd still be gambling and hoping to get noticed. The easy route would be to just make the ninja a big-tittied ninja chick and put in a Nude Code and I'd get all sorts of attention haha
Anyway, this is getting into theory now. So let's get back to actual results and data and take a look at the different types of marketing I've tried and my experiences with them:
These days word-of-mouth is probably the most powerful form of marketing at your disposal. It generally doesn't cost money directly, like putting up a banner ad does, but it DOES cost time. Word-of-mouth tends to require a lot of building hype, networking with the Press, interacting with your fan-base (even if it's just a handful of Twitter Followers), participating in forum threads, responding to E-Mails...I truly think this alone can be a full-time job and down the road when I can afford to, I'd like to actually hire someone to handle some of this stuff just because it's such a massive time-sink and you end up having to check threads, E-Mails, Twitter, etc. 24/7 to keep on top of it all.
On the plus side, while it's time-consuming to build up word-of-mouth, it's not torture or anything. You make new friends, you reward fans for helping you out, you get to participate in different communities, etc. It's pretty fun actually, it's just that at the end of the day if you're a small studio you have to consider “How much of my time am I spending doing this, and how much more work would I be able to get done in that time?” You'll have to balance this stuff in a way that's comfortable to you.
Why's It So Important?
I think when you're starting out, it's probably the most important category to focus on. Think of it like the gold and wood collecting stage in an old top-down Warcraft game. Sure, making Barracks and Knights and laying siege on your enemy's base is awesome, but to get there you have to spend some time building up your resources. Unless you fluke out and create Angry Birds on your first go, or already have a fan-base of some sort from other projects you've done, you're probably going to be starting out as a total unknown. Collecting all the gold and wood all by yourself as just one unit would take forever and wouldn't leave anyone left to build the barracks. By making friends and building a fan-base of Followers, you're recruiting an army who will help you spread word about your game.
The Angry Birds guys can announce ANYTHING and it'll be posted on the front page of every game news site that day. They have the brand recognition, studio reputation, and fan-base that demands attention when one of their Press Releases pops up on Editors' screens and that “ROVIO ANNOUNCES...” headline catches their eye. Plus it's probably safe to assume that they've made a lot of great contacts in the media since Angry Birds first exploded onto the scene. Whether the way this works is good for the game industry in general or not (hope you like Halo, 'cause I hear 4, 5, and 6 are coming) is a discussion in and of itself, but for the sake of keeping on topic I'm not touching that haha I'm not bitter about this at all...I'm just saying: This is how it looks like things work from what I've seen, so our question to solve is how can we work within this system as Indies with limited funds and reputation?
As Indies, we generally can't afford to post a full-page ad on all the top gaming news sites and run promotions where we give away a dozen iPad 2's. But socializing doesn't cost us money. Imagine if you had even 100 fans following your game's development, and each of those people has 100 fans. When you release or update your game, that's 100 people Tweeting, Facebooking, etc. about your game's news and now you're reaching 10,000 people through them that you never would have had direct access to. Now say you're friendly, out-going, social and polite with various game news Editors and Reviewers that you meet on your development adventures...if a handful of them decide to cover your game because they dig you, well now when you Launch your game, you're hitting that 10,000 people from before plus all the people who visit those news sites.
Meanwhile the guy who's making a great game, but sitting in his basement keeping to himself is Launching his game to..well, the handful of people who happen to notice his icon on the New Releases page in the few hours it takes for it to be bumped off there. There are success stories where the Developer doesn't do anything and word-of-mouth just happens to spread because the game catches on, but that's rolling the dice and crossing your fingers. We want to be a little more pro-active and tilt things in our favor here, otherwise we might as well just be buying lottery tickets.
Okay, so it's important to not be anti-social...but where do you begin?
Start your Twitter account ahead of time, while you're still developing your game. Most of your sales are probably going to happen on Day 1, so ideally you want to build up some hype and connections so that on Launch you can get as much exposure as possible and get a nice big clump of buys on Day 1 that get you attention (hopefully from Apple, leading to a Feature, which will lead to more sales!). Twitter is such an instant form of marketing that you can basically watch your news Tweet spread across the Internet as it's happening, which is pretty cool.
I'm actually super new to Twitter, I only started using it a few months before I started Bulletproof Outlaws, and all the “RT” and “FF” lingo was foreign to me. I've got the hang of it now, and here's what I've figured out:
Just Have One Account
Originally I had a personal account, and then created a business account (@BPOutlaws). The problem there was that everyone was Following my personal account by the time I finally made my business one, so to get them to Follow my business account was a chore, especially since for the first bit I was posting the same stuff to both my personal and business account since it was just me working on my business stuff by myself. Ideally the way to do it would be to start a business Twitter first, and then down the road when you have some employees, branch off into a personal Twitter account as well and announce it on your business one. Your business one is the one that's going to be making you money so if you're going to have less Followers on one of those two accounts, you want it to be your personal account that has less Followers.
It's also a lot less work to start with just one account. Maybe other people are better at managing this stuff than I am, but man, I hate having to reply to stuff in 10 different places. And then the people who aren't viewing your one account don't see your response so you have to repost it to the other account or just accept that you've now got multiple streams of different amounts of information out there and blah blah blah, it's just super confusing. Consolidate it all into one Twitter account, one Facebook account, and one E-Mail address, all related to your business, and you'll spend way less time running around.
Go Ahead, Mix Business With Pleasure
Using just one Twitter account also helps you connect with fans on a personal level. Realistically, no one cares about your business account. The general Gamer public isn't Following you because they're dying to see “BULLETPROOF OUTLAWS RELEASES ELUSIVE NINJA FOR IOS” in their Twitter feed. They Follow you because they're hoping to see stuff like “Wired on Redbulls, pulling another all-nighter, but I got the awesome rain effect in! Brain in zombie mode zzzz...” that makes them chuckle or makes them curious, and gives you some personality. By using just one Twitter account, you can mix your business announcements in with your personal stuff and it won't turn people off because you're presenting the boring stuff in smaller doses...kind of like how kids hate taking vitamins until you bust them out in Flintstone character form.
Time Your Announcements
Generally your Followers are going to live in or near your time zone. If you're Tweeting in Japanese, you probably have Japanese Followers. If you're Tweeting in English, you probably mostly have people from North America. Take into account the time zones of your Follower audience. If I have a big important announcement that's ready to be Tweeted but I've stayed up late working on it so it's 3am, I know probably 90% of my Followers are sleeping, so I'll wait to Tweet it till around 8am. I'm in Western Canada, so the people on my side of the country are getting the Tweet at about the time work starts and they first check their Twitter feed for the day, and the people in Eastern Canada are around 2 or 3 hours ahead of me, so they're getting the Tweet sometime during their boring work morning or just before noon when they can slack off and catch up on Tweeting.
By timing thing this way, I'm maximizing the chance of one of my Tweets catching on and making the rounds throughout the boring workday. If I Tweet at 3am, only a few people will see it, and it'll be at the bottom of people's “New Tweets” feed when they DO log in. I'll still Tweet at 3am, but I'll Tweet less important stuff.
Another thing to consider is the day of the week. Tweets on a Monday afternoon are probably going to get more attention than Tweets on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon when people are off doing things for the weekend instead of sitting at their office trapped for 8 hours looking for distractions to kill time with.
Use The Hashtags
I see a lot of random #hashtagging on Twitter, and a lot of people not using them at all. If you're a dev, throw on #gamedev or #iosdev or #iphone or #indie or any other really common words or phrases that in any way relate to what you're Tweeting about. I was adding #ninjas and #art on some of my updates. There ARE people who Follow tags out there. Like personally I'm Following #gamedev so when someone Tweets with that tag, it pops up on my Twitter feed. I've found a handful of cool new games that way, and picked up a handful of new Followers myself. And if I see something I dig, I'll Retweet it to help that person out.
If you're not using any #hashtags, you're just reaching your direct Following audience, which is good but just not as optimal as it could be. Who knows, you may make a Tweet about music costs, put a #music tag on it, and some composer sees it, digs your game, and offers up their services for cheap. Or you may announce your Angry Birds game with a #birdwatchers tag and tap into a community of people who spread word-of-mouth about your game just because it caught their attention being in some way related to their hobby. This is how Internet memes start...imagine your Tweet catches on as a meme the way All Your Base, Lolcats, or The Starwars Kid did. Sure, it's a total shot in the dark and not at all likely, but it doesn't cost anything to throw in a few hashtags just in-case.
It can also help you stumble into communities you didn't realize existed (like my finding #gamedev), or you may accidentally create a community (as in the case of the totally unexpected but awesome #ims211 explosion).
I tend to tag some of my news with #ElusiveNinja and I have my Twitter set up to notify me whenever it encounters “elusive ninja” in a Tweet. I've actually discovered some reviews I didn't know were out there, eavesdropped and jumped into discussions about my game, etc. this way. Plus Elusive Ninja has a “Tweet your score!” option that Tweets scores out with #ElusiveNinja at the end so if any of those go out, I'll see them and can congratulate some of them personally, etc.
Join The #IDRTG
It started as a thread in the dev section of Touch Arcade, it's a big group of a ton of iOS devs. Check out the #IDRTG here! It's essentially a ton of Indie Devs who all Retweet eachother's stuff. A lot of them don't have a ton of Followers, but even the small accounts all add up over time, and it doesn't cost you any money. Everyone in the group has the intention of helping eachother out because we all know getting initial exposure can be difficult.
Quit Blabbin' Will Ya?!
Keep your Tweets as short as possible. Shoot for under the 160 char limit by a solid 10 – 20 characters if you can. The reason for this is because if people want to Retweet your Tweet and it's at 160 characters, they don't get to stamp their name on it, or they have to post it as a Long Tweet which might not be possible from whatever Twitter service they use, or they have to rewrite or chop out bits of your Tweet to make room. Ideally if you can have a chunk of space for them to attach their own @names to the Tweet, they're more likely to Retweet it because they'll get some exposure too if their Retweet or your Tweet is Retweeted (confused yet?).
I actually tend to add #hashtags if I Retweet a Tweet that doesn't have any on it, because I figure the person doesn't realize they could throw on #gamedev or #iphone or #freelance or #dinosaurs and get a ton more views of their Tweet.
Use the shortest URLs you can, like those bit.ly ones. But keep in mind you might want to use your company URL just for the name to be noticed. Like if I'm Tweeting a link to a blog entry, I'll use a bit.ly because it's a long URL. But sometimes if I know a Tweet will probably catch on or reach a new audience, I want “http://bulletproofoutlaws.com/” stamped in my Tweet so that people see the Bulletproof Outlaws name.
Don't Be Afraid To Ask
There's nothing at all wrong with throwing a “PLS RT” at the start of your Tweet. Ideally your Twitter Followers all like you and are Following you because they WANT you to succeed, so this is just an extra little “Hey, I know you guys dig my stuff, but this particular Tweet is important so could you make sure to Retweet it for me to help me out?” request. Plus if your Tweet is Retweeted, you're bound to run intoa handful of kind souls who Retweet it just because they see the “PLS RT”. Save this for the important Tweets though, people probably won't put up with “PLS RT – Made the best sandwich EVER for lunch, mmmm tomatoes!” for long.
Show Your Appreciation
When you get Retweeted, you'll see people's Retweets in your Mentions column. I like to shoot a quick “Thanks to @bob @joe and @sarah for the RT!” after I get a few RTs. This is for two reasons: 1) I really do appreciate the RT, and by thanking them by their @names, they get their Twitter accounts mentioned to my Followers so it helps perpetuate a big cycle of everybody helping everybody get noticed. And 2) Other people see that I thank people who RT my Tweets, which makes them more inclined to RT my Tweets even if it's just to get their Twitter feed mentioned.
Twitter is really a win/win situation for everyone involved on it.
Return The Favor
I'll sometimes check out the profiles of people who RT or Follow me, just to see what people are up to and if I see someone Tweeting about their project and I think it's neat, I'll RT them out of the blue. This is another reason to be using #hashtags...I might not be Following you, but if you post something cool up and it pops up in my #gamedev column, I might end up Following you or simply RT your Tweet because I want to support you. I've picked up a handful of Followers just by RT'ing people's stuff that I like. Often I'll add a little comment to the start too, like “Love your art!” or “Great article!” just to show that I actually do like what they put out there, I'm not just spamming random stuff. If someone who's project I dig gets a good review, I'll RT that too, in hopes of helping them out.
The Golden Rule pretty much applies here: Treat others the way you'd like them to treat you!
Be A Little Picky
This one's a toughy. You want to find a balance between RT'ing (sometimes crappy) stuff to help other people out or to be nice, and RT'ing quality stuff. If your Twitter feed is crammed full of RT'ing garbage and news announcements, who's going to want to Follow you? They're just getting spammed all day. This will come down to your own personal preference though. I like to just RT stuff that I legitimately think is cool, or even has the potential to be cool (like someone's Tweet about their game that looks like it has an awesome concept even though the art is terrible).
Twitter is all about the personal connection. We get miffed when we find out a celebrity we're Following is just paying someone else to Tweet for them because we want to feel like we're really hearing that person's thoughts (whether those thoughts are deep or silly). While it's great to help everyone else out, you also have to remember that you're trying to build your own following of people who trust you to provide value.
@names Are Important!
Like using #hashtags, it can be helpful to include some @names when appropriate. A lot of people will shoot you a Tweet back with your @name in it when you have their name in yours. And some large Twitter accounts (like for game review sites) seem to have automated services that keep track of who's Tweeting their @names and they send out auto thank-you's which means your @name gets Tweeted to their jillion Followers.
I was messing around with Game Maker for fun one day to see what it can do (I dig it by the way, it looks super-powerful and I believe it can export games to the iPhone) and I Tweeted “Re-created part of #ElusiveNinja in @YoYoGamemaker today haha pretty awesome program, looks like it'll port to iOS soon! #gamedev" Lo and behold, a few hours later @YoYoGamemaker RT'ed my Tweet to their 700+ Followers. They would probably never have seen my Tweet if I hadn't thrown in their @name.
Apparently every Friday people on Twitter go “FF:” and list a bunch of @names of people who's stuff they dig. I've actually never sent out my own FF because I don't want people to be mad if they get left out of the FF haha But don't follow my example on this one! What I DO do with FFs though, is shoot out a “Thanks to @bob for the FF!” or if I see a collection of good FFs (like someone else Tweets “FF these awesome gameDevs:”) I'll just Retweet that FF list.
Like Twitter, start your Facebook early. For Facebook I'd recommend having one just for your business stuff and keep your personal one private. Twitter isn't a big deal to combine because you're just shooting out text messages, but you don't want random people checking out your family photos and all that jazz. I very rarely use Facebook, but someone recommended throwing up a Fan-Page for Elusive Ninja so I ended up making a Bulletproof Outlaws account.
The only thing I can really think of to mention about Facebook is that you need 20 Fans to get a nice short facebook.com/elusiveninja/ URL (as opposed to a really long goofy URL). All I really do with the Facebook site is post reviews or big news updates about Elusive Ninja to it. Personally I feel like Twitter and the Bulletproof Outlaws blog is enough, but admittedly I might not be utilizing Facebook to it's full potential!
This just popped up recently, and I don't have enough info on this to make any judgements yet! It looks like it combines Twitter and Facebook concepts, but we'll have to see how it all pans out once the “ooo a new toy!!” phase wears off and it either dies off or kills Facebook haha
This is something I had no idea existed until recently. The jist is that there's a bunch of “for $5 I'll do Such and Such” sites out there. A lot of the stuff is weird like “I'll send you a pic of your name written on my boobs!” and “I'll draw a picture of your dog fighting a robot!” but for OUR purposes as Indie Devs, there are services like “I'll Tweet any message or link you want to my 45,000 Twitter and Facebook Followers 3x a day for a week.” that I figured we could utilize a bit.
I gave a few a go because hey, for $5 I'll try it out. Here's what I learned:
Most Accounts Are Spammy
Basically that guy offering to Tweet to his 45,000 Followers isn't Tweeting to 45,000 iPhone users looking to buy games. It's more like the guy's Twitter account will be something spammy like @GreatOffers and they spam a dozen Tweets an hour to it. Odds are most of the Followers are bots or fake accounts or just people who really aren't going to be buying your game. The ones that offer to add Fans to your Facebook page add accounts that are riffs off celebrity names and stuff, like, it's pretty blatant that they're fake haha
But That Doesn't Mean We Can't Use 'Em
The most obvious way to use this is that Facebook requires 20 Fans on your Fan-Page before you can get a sleeker URL for it...so hey, throw down $5 and you've got 20+ Fans and now you can get that better URL right away which'll be more useful for getting ACTUAL Fans.
Check The Reviews
Other users can review the services they use, so give those reviews a glance to make sure the person offering the service is legit.
- “I will design a killer amazing ANIMATED banner for $5”
- "I will draw a cute chibi style portrait of you for $5”
- "I will create this amazing iPad video opening/intro for $5”
- "I will create a voice over up to 10 minutes for $8”
- "I will design a logo for you for $8”
These aren't things you couldn't do on your own, but they're super cheap quick little services. Take a trailer for your game and add a sweet voiceover, stylish little intro, etc. and now you've got something that looks a little more pro than if you were just doing it on your own. This is all just stuff that you should keep in mind is out there and available.
The Slippery Ethical Slope
There's definitely a question of ethics that pops up here. In theory, you could just buy a bunch of fake Fans, a bunch of fake Twitter Followers, a bunch of fake 5-star reviews, etc. which as long as people didn't realize they were fake, it'd make your game or studio look more popular and important than when you have 0 Fans, 5 Twitter Followers, a couple 3-star reviews, etc.
I'm not here to judge how you decide to use these services, that's your own decision. For me, I bought a handful of Facebook Fans to get the slick /elusiveninja/ URL, but all my Twitter Followers and Facebook friends and blog commenters and reviews and such are real. This isn't a moral high-horse thing, it's more because I want to be able to judge my success accurately...if I gain 50 legit Twitter Followers one week, that tells me that something happened to promote my Twitter account so I can Google and find out if I have a new review up or got a mention somewhere and thank whoever was responsible. But if I had 50,000 fake Twitter Followers I wouldn't be able to really tell down the road “I'm doing better than I was before!” because I'd have no idea how many of those actually gave a crap about what I'm doing.
This topic is going to come up more in the Reviews section of this article because it was pretty mindblowing to find out how prevalent this kind of thing actually IS these days and not many people talk about it.
I put up threads in a handful of forums around the net, mainly iPhone game related. Touch Arcade, The Game Forum, Cocos2D, MacRumors, iPhone Dev SDK, and 4 Color Rebellion. I've found that either the forum is dead and the thread sits there pretty much on page 1 with no responses because there isn't enough traffic to the forum for it to really get pushed down or responded to, or if the board is popular, the thread flies off the first page in 10 minutes because there's so many threads.
Dead forums aren't the worst thing, if anyone happens to stumble across them, there's my thread right near the top...but a thread that can stay on, say, Touch Arcade's main thread page for a few days, is going to get way more exposure. If you sign up, try participating in other threads too, especially on the community type forums, instead of just spamming your own game and vanishing. Some communities frown upon that drive-by-advertising and might ban you.
Some threads will gain a solid foothold and stick around for a day or two but that doesn't seem to be in the thread-starter's control...once you've replied to all the responses in your thread, there's not much you can do to bump your thread up without it looking like a blatant “BUMP!” post that just gets people annoyed at you. I tend to let the thread fall off the front page of threads, THEN respond to the posts in it, instead of responding as soon as they appear, to maximize how long it's on the front page. And of course if you update the game, you want to post in your thread and bump it up with the news. I think posting when you get a review is fine too, like “Hey, check it out, IGN just gave my game 10/10, here's the link!”
Self-Promote In Your Profiles
Make a profile ahead of time. Throw together a couple sentences for a bio, a signature, etc. Because different forums use different formatting (some allow square-bracket tags, some allow full out HTML, some only allow text, some allow only 100 characters for a profile, etc.), I just wrote a complete one in a text file, then cut and paste it tweaking it's formatting to match the different types I was running into. This sped things up a bit and now if I found a new forum, I could start an account and just cut & paste from this text file with little hassle.
Also make sure your signatures have a link to your game and to your website. Your posts will sit around forever since this is the Internet, so you want links in your sigs so that when someone stumbles on your post a few months from now they'll be able to click right to your game.
I'm a big fan of blogging, especially about game development. There are a few benefits to this:
1) I have a record of my game's development to look back on someday when I'm an old man.
2) It keeps me accountable for my game's development...if I slack off and don't work, I feel guilty that I haven't updated in a while and my blog readers hassle me wanting updates so I'm forced to get back on track.
3) It helps create a fan-base of followers, who are invested in my game's success. As people follow along with the game's development, they start to feel emotionally invested in it, especially if you ask for feedback and run polls on design decisions, etc. These are the fans who will probably help you market your game on their Twitter accounts, defend your game if Reviewers give it crap, rally you up with pep talks if you get depressed during development, etc. The Behemoth is my favorite example of a company that has an epic fan-base...they really only have like 3 games out, but they're so good to their fans (with shout-outs, contests, merchandise, etc.) that whatever game they put out next will have tens of thousands of people lined up to buy it on Day 1 just to support them. How much better a position are they in than the company with a dozen games out and just 50 Twitter Followers?
4) As a game Developer, I just like to help other game Developers out. That's why I spend a crapload of time writing stuff like this article. I read other people's development blogs and often I'll learn things that I would have had to discover the hard way on my own, and in the end save some time. If I can return the favor for some other Developer through my blogging, that's awesome to me!
5) Occasionally you'll write posts that happen to tap into the general public psyche and get linked around the net by people on Twitter, sites like Digg, etc. which will get you a bunch of extra attention and often a few new Followers.
But You Write a LOT, Dude...
Yeah, don't worry, you don't have to write as much as I do to build a following haha I just like to write. Realistically all a development blog needs for an update is a couple paragraphs of what's going on, what's planned for the next few days, whatever behind the scenes screenshots, artwork, music, videos, etc. are on hand...nothing too epic. In fact, I actually wasted a lot of development time writing the amount of stuff that I did for my blog. I did daily updates that were often multiple screens worth of writing. For my next game I'll probably strip it down a bit.
So How Often Do I Have To Blog?
I did daily updates because I was feeling ambitious (or foolish, you decide haha), but an update a week is fine. The key thing is that you update things regularly so people know when to check the site, and so that you're forced to stick to a schedule to stay on track. I'd recommend something like writing your blog entry on a Sunday night or Monday morning and posting it on a weekday. Going by my blog's stats, for the entire development period I consistently had way less visitors on weekends than on weekdays. I figure on the weekend people are out doing stuff, but weekdays when they drag their butts into the office and procrastinate through the day, that's the time they check stuff like devBlogs.
How Do I Start?
Set up a blog for free through a service like Wordpress. There are tons of templates to get you set up quickly. From there, you're basically good to go. See how easy that was? Throw up a post announcing who you are, what your game's about, some concept art and a summary of where you're at with it and you've got your first post already. Link your blog on to your Twitter, Facebook, forum signatures, etc. You want this to be the default place people head to when they're looking for information on who you are and what you're up to.
I haven't experimented with this too much yet, so I'm going mostly with observations of what other people do here, and just things I plan to do in the future. Contests can be anything from high score competitions, to rewarding people who Retweet your announcements, to fan-art competitions, to “design a boss” contests. Rewards can be anything from shout-outs, to Promo Codes for your game, to iTunes gift cards, to physical prizes like iPads (though you should check the legalities on this) or posters and other merchandise.
You can hold them regularly and repeatedly, like a weekly competition for the highest score that week, or you can hold them infrequently like a random Promo Code giveaway. If your contest and/or reward is interesting, it can pick up some extra publicity and get your game's name out there. That game The Heist gave away like 10 iPad 2s and it rocketed up to the number 1 spot on the App Store while it was doing that (though I don't know if that's the only reason it was successful, I think it's reasonable to assume it had a lot to do with it). When people win your contests, make sure you give them shout-outs, even if it's just a Twitter mention!
This is a biggie for iPhone Developers. It's one of the few ways we can guarantee changing our sales dramatically. If your game is $9.99 and it drops to Free, you're pretty much guaranteed to get a ton of attention, downloads, publicity, etc. But let's take a look at this category a little closer.
Benefits of a Price Drop
Whenever your price drops, you automatically show up on a ton of “Games on Sale Today!” Apps, websites, blogs, etc. and often it'll say how much your game normally was and what it now costs. This is a bunch of extra publicity.
Personally I think a Launch Sale is a good idea. It helps get you some attention and piles your purchases all into the first day or two of your Launch, which can help you get a good foot-hold in the App Store right off the bat.
Temporary VS Permanent
I don't see a lot of benefit to a permanent price drop, but with a temporary one you have to make sure everyone KNOWS it's temporary. Imagine you just bought a game for $9.99, and then the next day it drops to $0.99 and it looks like that's its new price forever. What a kick in the nuts, and if you haven't left a review yet, odds are the review you DO leave is going to be tainted with the anger of feeling like you got ripped off. Say you don't own the game yet, and you see it's dropped to $0.99 and you know that's a great deal but you're on the bus or at dinner or someone's knocking on the bathroom stall door and you don't have a chance to grab it. You forget about it for a couple days and then when you have downtime you remember the game and go to grab it and bam, it's $9.99 again. Another kick in the nuts situation, and you're probably not going to buy it for $9.99 because you feel like the offer was unfairly swept out from under your feet.
If the sales says something like “3 DAYS ONLY!!”, or “THIS WEEKEND ONLY!”, or “NEW YEARS DAY SALE!”, now you know exactly how long you have to get this game at this price. This is especially important in a Launch Sale because at Launch you want as many sales in as short a time as possible to secure a good App Store rank and hopefully get Apple's attention for a Feature...if your Launch says your game is $0.99 now but it'll go up to $9.99 in 2 days, people are more likely to grab it within those 2 days.
Learn The Holidays
I've never been great with holidays and now that I work for myself and don't really have a standard 9-5 Monday to Friday schedule, I'm even worse with them. Thanksgiving could probably sneak up and completely blindside me. This was fine when I was just messing around, but while I'm sitting there going “What? No one works today? Why?”, other Developers are having Thanksgiving sales, New Years sales, Back to School sales, Black Friday sales, etc. and getting a bunch of publicity and new users that I missed out on because I didn't pay attention.
Don't Get Stomped By The Giants
The catch with holiday sales is that EVERYONE knows about those holidays. So you put your game on sale and sit back to watch your downloads skyrocket, except oops, Gameloft, Capcom, Ubisoft, EA, etc. all drop their $9.99 games down to $0.99. Every game news site covers that news, Gamers jizz their pants over their chance to grab big-name games for super cheap, and nobody notices your game sitting there not just not getting many extra downloads but also making less money for each of the downloads it DOES get.
This is rough, there's not really much you can do about it except hope not to get crushed under the giants as they stomp around on us little guys. Another time this can crush you is if your game is Launched at the same time one of the giants does a massive sale stomp. All you can really do for that scenario is try to pick weird random off days to Launch your game or run your sales, instead of New Year's weekend and such.
I actually attribute Elusive Ninja's terrible Launch to it coming out on Day 1 of this year's E3 convention. I was in a situation where I could either delay the Launch for 3 or 4 weeks while the E3 news on every gaming news site finally slowly started to die down, or Launch it literally on Day 1 of E3. I had plans for some promotional stuff at E3 so I figured I'd go that route, but my promo stuff wasn't available in time and it was just a comedy of errors all-around. If I were in that scenario again, I'd either go the same route but make sure my promo stuff was done and ready to go ahead of time, or I'd just hold off entirely till the next month to release my game. No one cares about a tiny Indie iPhone game when Nintendo is announcing their new console haha
Promote Your Sales
If you're planning a solid sale, make sure to send out notice about it. Twitter, free Press Release services, any Press contacts you have, etc. The more coverage you get about it, the better.
Free Game Of The Day
There are a handful of services for this, where you hook up with them and they publicize your Free Game event. I haven't experimented with this yet, but I do know that some places charge money for this service. Paying to give your game away seems kind of silly to me, especially with limited marketing funds. Plus you have to consider the dangers involved:
Dangers of “Free”
So you've just put out a $2.99 game. It's got a bunch of 4-star reviews and a few 5-star reviews. Overall it looks pretty solid, and new users who check your game out tend to buy it. But then you drop the price to Free for a few days. All of a sudden you've got thousands more downloads, awesome! Except you've also picked up a ton of 1-star reviews. “There shoul d be a rockt loncher!!!!! 1-STAR. will 5-star when u add it.” What the hell? Where'd this come from??
Well, when you switched to Free you attracted a TON of people who would never have played your game, and who, since they didn't invest any money in the game, don't really care about giving decent feedback or feel any need to spend more than a minute or two playing your game. I liken it to back in the videogame rental days, when kids would spend their allowance to rent some random NES game for the weekend. A lot of those games were objectively TERRIBLE, but you spent your money to rent it, you have it for the whole weekend and damnit, you're going to FIND something to like about it to justify spending that money! ...and often you DID end up liking the game, when you would have ditched it if you had only played it for a couple minutes for free.
Someone advised that if you drop your game's price down to Free, expect to go down at least 1-Star in your rating and I think that's a good rule of thumb to consider.
Free VS Rank
I don't know if this is still true, but from what I read it sounds like if your game is Free, any downloads you get are awesome but your game is now in a Free ranking list, so your game's normal Pay rank isn't affected by all these new users...ie – you could be ranked at 180 on the App Store's Paid games chart, make your game Free, get 50 million downloads and be number 1 on the Free games chart, but still be ranked at 180 on the Paid games chart when you go back to the normal price.
But does all this mean that Free is ALWAYS terrible? Well that all depends on your goal:
Know Your Goal
Essentially it comes down to a choice you'll have to make over and over as you market your game: Do you want to get a ton of publicity, exposure, and attention...or do you want to make money?
There's no right or wrong answer here. Depending on where you are as a studio, or where your game is at in terms of success, or what you're hoping to accomplish, your goal may change. If your game has just Launched, you probably want a lot of exposure, so a Launch Sale makes sense. After that as sales die off and your rank starts to drop, you want to re-coup your development costs so going back to a normal price and running contests and such instead makes sense. Then one day you wake up and find out you're getting Featured by Apple and know you're about to get a ton of attention...so here you decide “Do I want to make a bunch of money?” or “Do I want to shoot for getting in the Top 20?” If you want to make money, you leave your price where it is for the Feature. If you want to raise your rank, you can drop your price and try to lure in a ton of extra users on top of the Feature and hope that propels you up in the ranks to where you can go back to your original price and be making way more money.
If your game was cheap to develop, you might want to give it away for Free just to get your studio some exposure. If your game has a ton of publicity built up and you know you have a jillion people lined up to buy it, you might want to price it at $3.99 to maximize your profits. If your game took 2 years to develop, you might not be able to price it under $3.99 and still recoup the development costs.
Every time you come to a marketing fork-in-the-road, you'll have to re-evaluate your goal at that stage.
Freemium And In-App Purchases
I honestly don't know much about these things yet. The potential for profit is huge through these methods, but as a solo Developer who contracts out programmers over the Internet, I don't really want to mess with this kind of stuff when I don't have an in-house programmer on demand in-case things are broken and Gamers are banging on my door complaining about money issues haha Down the road I'd like to get into this area just because there's a lot of potential money in it, though the world of designing In-App purchases that make sense, don't piss off Gamers, don't seem unfair or like a money-grab, etc. is a whole 'nother can of worms to study.
Social Media Sharing
I grabbed the AddThis Add-On for Firefox which puts a little icon at the top of my browser that I can click and get a dropdown list of Social Media sites (Digg, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, etc.) and instantly post sites to those places. I use this for when I get new reviews or put out Press Releases, etc. Haven't seen anything epic out of this, but someone recommended doing it and it's quick so I give it a go. I'm sure there's an optimal way to get a post bumped up on a site like Digg but I've never used many of these services till now so I'm not familiar enough with them to say too much.
If you don't have a Skype account, grab one. You'll find a lot of business-types want to talk to you over the phone to make their sales pitch for their services or to interview you, etc. so a Skype account is handy.
That brings us to a close on this look at some of the most popular methods of marketing using Social Media. It's all pretty inexpensive or free, so as an Indie Developer you're probably going to be using a lot of these. Stay tuned for Article II – Traditional Advertising, where I'll be covering more traditional methods of marketing that tend to cost money, like paying for banner ad space and using marketing agencies. I'll also go in-depth into the “seedy underbelly” of the industry, like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. which was all pretty mind-blowing to me when I started running into it and saw just how widespread it is!