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 III – Game Related & Maintenance
You need a website for your game, obviously. The good news is it doesn't have to be anything epic. These days a lot of game Developers simply have Wordpress blogs with a page for their game, or a simple one-page website for their game. Make sure there's a link to your game's App Store page in an obvious location on your site. Use the little “Available On The App Store” image Apple gives you, people recognize that quickly. Have some screenshots up, your trailer, some marketing blurb, and a link to a Press Kit for people who want to do articles or reviews of your game.
Pay a few bucks to register a domain name like http://www.thegame.com/ that redirects to your game's website so that you can seem all professional and awesome and people take you more seriously when you link your stuff.
App Store Description
There are a bunch of sites that offer the service of writing an App Store description for your game, but there are also a bunch of sites that offer tips on what you should put in your App Store description. Spend a couple hours Googling for tips and writing your own App Store description up and save yourself the fee someone else would charge. Most of them tend to follow a common structure:
- Catchy first two lines (when the user first loads the game's App Store page in iTunes, only the first few lines of the description are shown till the user clicks a button to show the rest)
- Quick description or summary of the concept, plot, objective, etc. (exciting marketing blurb)
- Quotes from reviews or awards received (people want what other people approve of)
- More in-depth feature list (more detail on what makes your game unique)
- Contact info (the game's website, Twitter link, FAQ link, etc.)
My App Store description for Elusive Ninja strays a bit from this and I have like no sales, so don't use Elusive Ninja's description as a guide haha I'm messing around testing different stuff out with this project to see what I can and can't get away with and where I can break out of the standard formula, but it's probably at the cost of some sales...so like the saying goes “do as I say, not as I do”. :)
App Store Screenshots
You get 5 screenshots, so use 'em all up. Originally I was going to just post raw screenshots, but Derek of Ravenous Games whipped up a template to use to make my screenshots look more fancy. I dug the look of it, so I decided to run with it. My Press Kit still has a bunch of raw screenshots for reviews and such, but your App Store screenshots should catch people's eye. Normally I'm not a big fan of the “tiny screenshot within a screenshot” thing because I want to see the game's art clearly before I buy it, but I figured the art in Elusive Ninja is large enough that everything is still clear even with the raw screenshot shrunk down a bit. I don't know if this is a good move or not, people might like plain raw screenshots more, but I like the look of the fancy ones so I'm going with them for now.
Something to keep in mind is that some Reviewers just grab the screenshots for their Reviews off the App Store and might not want to use fancy ones with marketing text on them. Or they might not be ABLE to use them, because if they have marketing blurbs on them and they're in a review it may look like the Reviewers are the ones that said “Epic Ninja Action!” and such...so understandably they'd probably rather have raw screenshots they can use and stamp their website's logos or caption text on. So if you're doing fancy screenshots, make sure you have a link to your Press Kit with raw screenshots in your App Store description.
You need a trailer these days. Everyone wants to see a game in action. Keep in mind though, that you don't want to show too much in your trailer. Better that your trailer is too short and has people curious about your game, than too long and has people bored of your game. I've seen a lot of trailers where people just record themselves playing their game for 5 – 10 minutes when the game is a puzzle game or simple action game. If your game's concept is simple, keep your trailer to 30 – 60 seconds or people will watch your trailer and learn how the game plays and what to expect, and see most of the power-ups or special features, and really there's nothing left for them to bother buying the game to discover.
Try to get the trailer going as soon as you have nearly-finished visuals going. You want to be building up hype before the game is actually Launched, and a trailer with some cool gameplay footage can help do that, and might get you some feedback that you can use to tweak the game before it Launches.
Unfortunately, I was surprised to find that Apple doesn't really provide tools for making trailers easily. You'd think there'd just be a “record the device when it’s plugged in” button but nope! It looks like the only way to really collect game footage is to run the game in the simulator and record the desktop with some kind of desktop recording program. This isn't bad for iPhone games that don't use crazy controls or phone features, but the iPad simulator is horribly slow and I can't imagine recording footage off it.
I decided to go with SimCap, which is built specifically for recording from the Simulator (ie – you don’t have to crop the final footage or anything). The main benefit to using SimCap however, is that it combines with SoundFlower to record the audio. Basically SoundFlower re-routes your Mac’s audio into SimCap so it gets recorded along with the video. It’s a little cumbersome and I don’t entirely understand the mechanics myself, but all I know is the tutorial was super easy to follow, it was super quick to set up, and it worked flawlessly so I highly recommend it.
I used After Effects to arrange my trailer, but you can use iMovie, Adobe Premier, or Windows Movie Maker, etc. Google around and find a program you dig that you can afford or that's free. Snip out chunks of exciting game footage, throw some transitions in, some text overlays describing the game's features, add some catchy music in the background if you weren't able to record the game's audio as you played, upload the whole thing to YouTube and you're good to go.
A lot of people on freelance sites like oDesk and Elance offer trailer-editing services. You're probably looking at dropping anywhere from $80 - $300 to have someone else make your trailer, but if you're not artistically inclined or don't want to dive into the wonderful world of video editing yourself, it might be worth saving yourself a bunch of time and hassle. A few people on microjob sites like UpHype and Fiverr offer trailer-editing services but I'd be pretty skeptical about what kind of quality you're going to get for $5 - $10 so don't set your expectations too high there haha
This is something a lot of Indies don't think to make. When a Reviewer wants to write about your game, they often want to include some screenshots, or some game art to spruce up their article, or their website has a specific design template it follows for reviews and it specifically needs a title screen shot, a piece of art, and a gameplay shot, etc. On top of all that, honestly from what I've seen so far, a lot of reviews and articles are just cut & pasted text out of your game's description...but hey, no complaints, exposure is exposure! The key thing to understand is that a lot of Reviewers have a ton of stuff on their plates on any given day, especially Reviewers that cover iPhone news because there are so many new Developers with new games contacting them every day...so you want to make it as easy as possible for them to review your game.
What's in it?
My Elusive Ninja Press Kit is probably a little excessive in places, but I figure better to have too much than too little. It contains:
This contains various versions/sizes of the Bulletproof Outlaws logo. Some are horizontal, some are vertical, some are black and white, some are full color, some are PNGs with transparent backgrounds. Main thing is just to have a variety of stuff so people can use whatever fits best on their layout.
This has various art from the actual game. Since I did the original art large to fit big iPad screens, this was easy to throw together...I just grabbed some sprites of the ninja and throwing-stars and junk and the title logo and threw them in here. If I had concept art, character designs, etc. from the game, I'd put those in here too.
When you submit your final game to the App Store you have a handful of icons for it, from tiny 57x57 ones to large 512x512 ones...so I just threw those in here.
Elusive Ninja only has one Press Release so far, but if I make some more (for updates or cross-promotions) I'll add them to this.
These are the fancy App Store versions of my screenshots, with borders and marketing blurbs on them. These are great for the App Store because they look good and catch the eye, but you should keep in mind that Reviewers might not want to use them, or might not be able to use them, because if they have marketing blurbs on them and they're in a review it may look like the Reviewers are the ones that said “Epic Ninja Action!” and such...so understandably they'd probably rather have raw screenshots they can use and stamp their website's logos on and such.
So with that in mind, these are raw screenshots. There's only 5 fancy ones, but a solid 20 random raw ones. I figure it's good to have a variety so that reviews won't all use the same screenshots. It's a pain to grab screenshots from a game so in the vein of making reviewing your game as easy as possible for the Reviewers, grab a bunch of screenshots in advance.
The other benefit to including these is that YOU can choose which screenshots are in this Press Kit, so you can make sure that all 20 shots are cool looking scenes from the game instead of someone else just randomly capturing the screen and ending up using a screenshot where your main character is obstructed or there's some graphical glitch.
For this I just grabbed the App Store description I wrote. I saved it out in a few different versions: .TXT, .DOC, and .ODT (OpenOffice) because I figure some sites allow bolding, italics, etc. and some just use raw text only.
This is a big .PDF file (took a while to fiddle with the compression settings to get it down to around 2 megs instead of a ridiculous 20 megs or a super compressed ugly 400k .PDF), saved out with selectable text so a person can just click-drag on it and cut & paste the text off it or click the links. I pretty much copied the layout of League of Evil and a couple other Factsheets in terms of what info to throw on there. I honestly couldn't say if this was worth the effort in terms of if anyone actually looks at or uses this, but since it's using in-game art and screenshots it didn't take very long to throw together and it makes things feel more professional to me so I'm glad I made it.
This is just a shrunk down version of the Factsheet in-case someone wanted to post it on their site. I threw a bit of random stuff into the Press Kit that I have no idea if someone would use, because it's my first one and I'd rather err on the side of too much stuff than too little.
This is a .ZIP of all the above stuff for convenience. I tried to keep it around 10 megs max. I figure if you know you're downloading a Press Kit, you're not going to be mind-blown by it being large but no one wants to download like a 50 meg kit unless it's for like, Halo. Instead of attaching this kit to E-Mails I just made a customized bit.ly link to link directly to it (bit.ly/elusiveninja_presskit goes to the directory of raw files and bit.ly/elusiveninja_press links to the .ZIP file directly). I was worried that people might not trust bit.ly links so much (especially the ones with randomly generated URLs) so I tended to include both links just to be like “Here's the raw files and here's a conveniently zipped up version!”
A couple sites mentioned that they're interested in exclusive content for my future projects. This is something I didn't think to do, and might not be possible until you have a few Press connections who are actually interested in your stuff. But for the next game I'll probably whip up some exclusive stuff, whether it's behind-the-scenes sneak peaks or contests or what-have-you. The website with the exclusive content gets attention from your stuff, and you get attention for being Featured by them, it's a win-win situation.
A Press Release is important for getting word out about what you're doing. Our business coach recommended putting out a Press Release for pretty much ANYTHING. Realistically, there's no downside to it since you can use a bunch of free Press Release services. Check out my blog entry where I was experimenting with different services a while back and the results. Looking back, it's probably better to have too many Press Releases than not enough...at the end of the day, it means your company and game's name will keep crossing people's news feeds and that might make them more likely to pick up and publish your Press Release when you have actual big news, VS a company they've never heard of before. It also hooks you up with some totally random connections...I got a couple interview requests from people who would otherwise have no idea I existed, off my first Press Release.
Writing A Press Release
I write my own Press Releases because there are a ton of “how to write a good Press Release” articles all over the Internet. Hit Google up for some because they go into a lot of detail about what should be in a Press Release, what order things should be in, what to make sure to mention or what to leave out, etc.
Outsourcing A Press Release
You can hire someone else to do your Press Release for you, most marketing agencies offer this, as well as tons of freelancers. Personally, I think it's silly to spend $100+ for someone else to write you a page worth of text about your own product or announcement since you're the one that's going to know the most about what you want to announce. Especially if you're going to put out Press Releases frequently. But if you're not a very good writer, or if English isn't your first language, outsourcing the Press Release might be worth the money.
Submitting A Press Release
A Press Release can take a while to submit to a ton of different sites because each site has a different form and different length requirements or ways to divide up the sections of the Press Release, so if you're doing it yourself expect it to take a good chunk of the day just to submit the thing. And if you hire someone else to write it for you, expect to have to break it apart or re-word chunks of it to fit in the various “100 characters MAX” boxes on some of the sites.
You can hire a service to submit your Press Release for you, which I haven't tried yet but I think I might try next time, just to save myself some hassle and to see what the results are. You can also submit your Press Release to sites that charge a fee for accepting and posting them, but if you're tight for money you really can get a pretty wide spread for your Press Release off just the free sites.
Consider publishing your Leaderboard if you have a game that's heavily community-based or competitive. Rewarding people at the top of the Leaderboard, holding contests, announcing winners on your blog, etc.
Don't spend a lot (or ANY) money on this. If your game hits huge and gets into the Top 10, it might be worth spending some money on it (do your research first!) but if your game isn't super-popular then no one probably cares about merchandise for it. But if you have some downtime and you're feeling artsy-fartsy, consider throwing together some stuff and create a free CafePress store. Put some wallpapers together with in-game art. The guys at The Behemoth make little statues/toys of their characters. Odds are for your first few games no one is really going to care about merchandise, but if it's quick to throw together and free, and creating it doesn't take long, it doesn't hurt to have it available. I threw some Elusive Ninja wallpapers together for fun, but they were quick to do since I just used in-game art and realistically I know probably no one will use them but me haha
So now you've got a ton of stuff out there related to your game. Twitter and Facebook accounts, banners, reviews, a blog, etc. It doesn't end there! Once you've made this stuff you need to maintain it to keep your web presence solid and the information up to date. So let's do a quick run-through of everything that needs to be maintained and some efficient ways to do that:
Keep track of the results of your banner ads and try to find ways to determine which ones are bringing in actual sales, not just views of your App Store page or Impressions of the banner. If a banner isn't reaching the goal you set for it, don't bother renewing it and giving it a few more months, try putting that money into a banner elsewhere or some other type of marketing. If you're a small Indie, this is the time to be experimenting because your money is limited. When you're a big company with tons of marketing funds you can leave a bunch of stale banners that barely do anything all over the Internet, but right now you need your money bringing in the best possible results.
Stay on top of these! Especially Twitter. Facebook you can kind of let slide aside from responding to comments on announcements or what-have-you. But Twitter is huge right now, everyone is using it all day every day, so you want to make sure you have a presence on there. I've slipped a few times and been off-the-grid for a couple weeks and you miss a lot of what's going on, a lot of chances to Retweet other people, a lot of conversations to participate in and get exposure from, a lot of news about what's happening in the game development industry, etc.
I installed Tweetdeck on my iPhone and laptop so I can check it on my iPhone when I'm out and about with some downtime like riding the bus or taking a poo, and I leave it running in the background on my laptop so I can have it pop up new Tweets as I work.
I started using FireFox and the LastPass add-on and it's pretty convenient. I basically made all my accounts, saved the passwords to LastPass so I could auto-login, then whenever I made a thread I bookmarked it to a Threads section in my Bookmarks. Now I can regularly click “Open All in Tabs” and all my threads will pop up and log in for me so I can tab through them quickly to see if there are any new replies and if so I'm all logged in to respond. This is pretty efficient all-around.
When you stumble across new reviews (or articles), take a moment to thank the Reviewer, whether it's by Twitter, E-Mail, or leaving a comment at the end of the review. This is partly just polite, but it's also something that helps build good relationships with the Press. They're taking time to review your game, which helps you out, and it only takes a minute to shoot a quick thank-you message out.
If there's a comment section and other people have posted opinions or asked questions etc., pop in and answer the positive and neutral comments. This is part of building relationships with the Gamers that have bought or may buy your game.
I've noticed that people can leave some pretty harsh comments when they feel like they're anonymous, but when when the Developer makes an appearance in the comments everyone tones it down a bit. They don't suddenly start sucking up or anything, and if they have a negative opinion of your game that's totally okay, everyone has their opinion...but it tends to change the vibe:
randomguy1: “this game sucks ass”
randomguy2: “looks gay”
randomguy3: “waste of money”
Developer: “hey all, I'm the dev who made this game! Just curious what parts of the game you guys don't like if you don't mind giving some details? I might be able to fix some stuff for an update, or at least take the feedback into consideration for our next game!”
randomguy2: “didnt buy it cuz it should be 99 not 4.99”
randomguy3: “too easy finished it in an hour”
randomguy1: “(big huge 2 paragraph critique of every aspect of the game)”
Developer: “cool, thanks guys. I was actually worried about it being too easy, but it's hard to tell when you're the one making the game 'cause you get used to playing it. I'll look into releasing a set of harder levels, that might help justify the price a bit more too. Wish I could just give the game away for free, but I gotta' pay the bills. :)”
It's not going to magically make everyone like your game or anything, but being friendly and letting people know you're reading what they write can help reduce the big doggy-piling negativity that tends to happen in these situations. It makes the thread look less hostile to other people who read it which leaves a better impression, and it helps build a relationship with Gamers...and occasionally it can result in some useful feedback!
I'll get more in-depth about this in Article IV – Psychology.
If you have a new event to announce that creates new visuals in the game (new map pack, new characters, new endings), you should throw together a new trailer showing that stuff off. If you have a large game, like say, an RPG with multiple main characters, or a puzzle game with multiple big core mechanics, you could have a trailer highlighting each character or mechanic (Capcom does this kind of thing with their Street Fighter games).
Do an occasional Google search for key phrases from your Press Release, just to see where they end up. And write a bunch of Press Releases...as long as you're writing and submitting them yourself to free distribution services, you're not spending money, so go for it. You never know which of your Press Releases is going to catch someone's eye and land you mention on a website.
Update this if it needs it. Like if you put out an update with some new art in-game, throw some of that, or some screenshots of it, into your Press Kit.
Do it regularly. We ALL slip at this, so don't beat yourself up if you miss a few updates. As a way to keep myself accountable I tried updating daily for over 100 days, but I still had points where I missed a few days and had to play catch-up posting 4 or 5 updates on one day. You don't need to do huge epic updates, it's more just to let people know you're still plugging away. I'm being a little hypocritical on this because as I write this I haven't updated my blog in like 2+ weeks. It's because I'm just focusing on writing these marketing articles and there's not really anything to write about aside from “wrote more stuff today”. Soon as I finish this it'll be back to regular updates, though I probably won't shoot for daily this time.
Digg, Tweet, etc. your posts if you do something “article”-ish. You never know what's going to pique someone's interest. I had a post that was about making rain effects and someone posted it to Hackernews and it happened to start a little discussion on there that got me a ton of website traffic and a handful of regular Followers. If it hadn't been submitted, they'd never have seen it.
Be sure to allows comments and feedback on your site. For the first while (LONG while) you're not going to get more than a comment or two here and there with most of your posts having 0 comments, but over time that'll build up. Be sure to respond to the people who DO comment, because if they took the time to comment on your post, they're probably going to be someone who's going to follow your progress pretty closely and you'll likely be hearing from them again. This is that “making new friends” thing I talked about, don't be shy!
Run these whenever you get some downtime and can manage them. There's nothing wrong with running the same contest over and over (like a weekly high score contest). Over time you'll come up with new ideas for prizes or challenges and can slip those in there. And if you're about to Launch a new game, what's a good idea to boost attention for that game and your old games? Hold a contest for one of your older games where the prize is a Promo Code for your new game!
As I type this, The Behemoth just Tweeted that for every download of their free Pink Knight character in Castle Crashers, they'll donate $1 to the Keep A Breast Foundation to help fight breast cancer. Not only is that totally admirable and awesome of them as genuinely good people, it's also going to bring their game a bunch of attention. The Behemoth is really a prime gameDev company to study for marketing and community building.
If you decide to make some merchandise, which again you can do for free with something like a CafePress store, throw together new designs every now and then. This kind of stuff is good for giving out as contest rewards.
Another thing to consider is holding contests to have other people design merchandise. Like a wallpaper design contest or a T-Shirt design contest. There are some phenomenal artists out there who love doing that kind of thing, just as a chance to show off their skills or to kill some downtime.
App Store Description
Update this whenever you add new features in updates, and add short but positive quotes from new reviews you find. Be sure to include what site the quote came from, because the bigger name the site, the better. A movie review quote that ends in “-- Roger Ebert” holds more weight than one that ends in “-- My Mom” haha
TweetDeck – I love TweetDeck. Not just because it looks slick, but it's got mobile versions for smartphones and a Scheduling option for your Tweets. So after a late night of working where I'm going to sleep at 5am, I can Schedule a Tweet with an announcement for 10am when I'm fast asleep and everyone else is using Twitter.
AppFigures – This service is great. It's $5/month, but totally worth paying for. You get a ton of data, charts, you can check out all your reviews in all the different App Stores, etc. And you can have it E-Mail you every morning to let you know what your sales were the day before.
Flurry – Throw this in your game to keep track of stats, from playtime and frequency of play to custom events. Like I have an event flag trigger every time someone visits the Get More Games section so I can tell how many people use that button.
AppMetrics (iPhone) – I was using a free App called AppStat Lite to check my Flurry stats on the go, but just switched to AppMetrics the other day. It's also free and also loads your Flurry stats, so through the day you can check out how many New Users you have and stuff...it's not the same as actual sales (since the mass amounts of piracy going on screws with the stats), but it gives you something to look at haha
Google Analytics – Much like everyone else in the universe, I use this to keep track of hits on my blog. Remember back when people's websites had little “number of visitors” counters at the bottom of their sites to keep track of that? ahh, I'm gettin' old.
Analytic (iPhone) – I use this free App to check my site hits on my iPhone when I'm on the go.
Paypal – I'm not a huge fan of using Paypal because it takes a while to deposit money into it, but all the banner advertising and microjob and freelance sites seem to require using Paypal. I found out that now you can click a “Don't have a PayPal account? Pay with your debit or credit card as a PayPal guest” option at the bottom of the Paypal login you get redirected to and just pay directly with your credit card instead of having to have funds in your Paypal account. Much more convenient!
OpenOffice – It's free and awesome. I'm writing this doc in it, and I use it for all my spreadsheet stuff to keep track of my marketing costs and results and all that. I've been stressing keeping track of all this stuff, so now's the time for you to get familiar with a spreadsheet program!
Thus ends our look at game related marketing and maintenance. This stuff can be pretty time consuming when you're doing everything by yourself. Ideally down the road I'd like to hire someone to do a lot of this stuff for me. I think a full-time “Marketing Guy” is a good investment once you have the money for it because while this is time consuming it's all very important. As soon as you let your web presence die off, people start to move on. You can make a comeback, but it's a lot easier to just pop in now and then and maintain things, and it helps build and keep a loyal community which is vital as an Indie developer these days! ...until you pop out a massive hit game and make it big at which point you can then just randomly vanish whenever you want and become a hermit making random appearances here and there and still ending up on the front page of every news site. :)
Next up is Article IV – Psychology. Before I get into the Optimal Marketing Plan of Article V, I want to sidetrack and talk about the psychological side of being an Indie Developer spending money on marketing because I think it's important to have a strong internal mindset as well as an outer plan to follow. You'll be pushing large amounts of money around, watching your stats rise and fall, dealing with App Store piracy...there's a lot that will blindside you if you aren't prepared for it so I'm hoping the Psychology article will help Indies handle that stuff in a healthy, productive way!