Quick disclaimer: this first post is going to be less data driven than I like because it's more conceptual. However, future deep-dives will be so.
The belief of "just make a good game and people will buy it", is not, nor has it ever been, true. There are currently over 50,000 games on Steam, 1,000,000 on iOS, and 600,000 on Google Play, even good games are going to get buried.
Because of the current state of the world being an unmitigated dumpster fire, people are spending more time playing video games than ever. There has been no better time to be a game dev, and that's a bad thing.
As vaccines are distributed and the world pulls itself from Hell, all the things video games have been replacing (vacations, sports, social life, normal work routines) will return. Additionally, film, television, and music industries will return to normal production, which compete for people's finite free time. You are competing for a person's free-time. Good marketing is not a luxury, it is an essential. You could create the next Undertale or Celeste, but it can't be profitable, if people don't know it exists.
For the past few months, I have been up to my eyes in game marketing info. Newsletters, industry writers, bloggers, you name it, I subscribe. I've noticed discussions of industry trends, but many focus on hyper-specific case studies, which can be helpful depending on how unique the strategy was and if you understand the fundamentals behind it. However, what helps significantly more is understanding the basics, allowing you to form a unique strategy for your game. Besides, you don't want to copy someone's strategy. As one writer said (I believe it was Chris Zukowski), "if you're doing what someone else did 6 months ago, it isn't going to work."
I've been to hundreds of dev websites (see: finding participants for my thesis) and, from my experience, an overwhelming majority of the time, there is no dedicated marketing person for the studio. Most don't even have a marketing budget, much less the ability to hire someone solely to focus on marketing.
I understand, you're a game dev. You learned how to write the most efficient code, perfecting your art style, or tweaking a rig. Your dream was about making that little piece of digital happiness. Having a person on staff that isn't focused on finishing a game feels like a tough cost to bear. But the indie community needs to understand that, if you are building a team, a marketing resource must be part of that team. If you do not start early and nail your marketing, your game will get lost in the other 100 games that will be launched alongside your game that week.
Marketing starts before a single line of code is written and ends when the studio ceases to exist. It is an investment in the success of your game. If you're waiting until a month before launch to start, you will likely be disappointed.
Why you need to focus on marketing (even if you intend on using a publisher)
Marketing isn't only about awareness, it's about compelling someone to click buy on your game rather than someone else's.
The most damning review I've read started out with, "This is a game that completely failed to find its audience," and concluded with, "I think it's one of the best games around." This is one person's view [also "most helpful" review] and while there are plenty of negative reviews, this would keep me up at night.
If you really don't want to handle the advertising and want a publisher/PR firm, that is a completely acceptable option and can be the best decision for you. However, doing your research and marketing, even with this in mind, can improve, your odds of getting a publisher and gaining negotiation leverage when it comes to contract signing time. We can talk about what you may experience with publishers later, but what you need to know now is: you WANT that leverage, and being able to say you have a couple thousand wishlisters is HUGE.
What marketing does
Before we go any further, a small disclaimer, we are going to be talking about digital marketing only. There are some differences regarding analog/real world marketing but you're not going to be doing much of that.
People often associate marketing with advertising, which isn't wrong, but that's only a facet of what marketing does. If I covered every detail, this blog would be a thesis in itself. So what this blog will do is cover an overview of the different aspects of marketing and then in the subsequent weeks (and months), go into greater detail of what each aspect is, why we do it, and the general strategies you can employ yourself to get your game in front of more people, organically and paid (if you have a little extra cash, you would be surprised how far even $10 gets you).
Marketing Research and Analytics
Why it's important - This is where it all starts. Market research is how studios identify, to a higher degree of success, what is likely to make a profit and mitigate chances of failure. It's not always right and often errs on the side of caution, but they're successful more times than they fail because of it. This can mean that AAA studios will make a "safe" game, but that's a story for another blog post.
How it works - Market research evaluates trends in the market and decides if a project is green lit and keeps its fingers on the public pulse through the game's life cycle. What is the demand for this game? What is your budget? Expected development time? What is success? This is only the beginning of a TON of questions that you have to answer before even starting to plan your game and continues through its entire life cycle.
Why it's important - Depending on the content, it serves to generate new interest, inform current followers, or both. In the world of fast-paced, short attention span buyers, you need to constantly remind people you exist and to be excited with perpetual new content.
How it works - Some of this content may end up being used as paid marketing assets, but the major purpose is organic growth, particularly through social media. These things generally include trailers, concept art, dev blogs, music, and newsletters. The more you post (within reason) the more chances of new people seeing your game's assets and generating new interest, while simultaneously informing and building hype around your game's progress. However, the biggest problem I see in many dev blogs is that they are dev-centric. Sure, it's great for getting devs interested in your game, but you need to make it relevant for players. Players don't care about you squishing bugs, they want to see that one bug that made you laugh when you found it. Endear them to your games development problems.
Some of these aspects are often separated out, particularly email marketing, because it is more about informing current followers of updates. Because these followers are already interested in your game, they need to be communicated to a bit differently. For simplicity, let's keep email combined for now.
Why it's important - The best tool in your arsenal for gaining interest in your game without having to pay for it. It is by far the best way to gain new audience, build a devoted following, and get feedback on your game. It is your studio's community representative.
How it works - This is probably the most misunderstood and misused tool in the marketing arsenal, because anyone with the faintest marketing knowledge knows they have to have it. The most common (and accurate) criticisms of social media is the lack of social. While it's a great marketing platform, using it solely as such is a great way to get people to ignore you. Use your social media to inform, entertain, engage, and above all, be SOCIAL!
What so many companies fail to realize is how effective it can be to multiply your marketing effectiveness. Social media needs to be treated like an intelligence agent. When you see an account ask questions like "what is your favorite game?" or "what do you do in your free-time?", most of the time, this is just to keep up engagement KPIs, but for those who realize its value, this is prime marketing research information. You have the most engaged audience in your platform, telling you what interests to target with your marketing. So many companies miss this opportunity for free market research.
Why it's important - Very few people ever look beyond the first few websites on Google, fewer still go beyond the first page. Search Engine Marketing/Search Engine Optimization is about getting your game to show up as high as possible in as many relevant searches as possible to get people coming to your website, store page, etc. Note: YouTube has its own algorithm that you will need to understand as well.
How it works - SEO and SEM are generally separated out and I will discuss this later on, but for now SEO/SEM is understanding how search engine algorithms work and making sure your content is as high in listings as possible for more people to see it. This is done by researching trends in queries and other elements, adjusting your content to be more fitting to what Google believes is higher quality, thus ending further up on searches. Does it seem ridiculous? Yes. Yes it does. Welcome to our "brave new future", algorithm manipulation.
Why it's important - More eyes, more interest, more sales.
How it works - You already know this, give money, get ads. However each platform has various ways in which they do this. Social media platforms offer amazing advertising features, some better than others, which we'll get into later, and different strategies work better than others. Backtracking a little into SEM, using search engines and Google Ads can be very effective. However, setting up these ads properly, as well as doing proper testing can be tedious and frustrating. Additionally, setting up the ads needs to be done carefully because I have seen hundreds of dollars accidentally spent because the ad was configured wrong, and there are no refunds. But correctly targeting these ads can return amazing results.
Why it's important - Streamers playing your game gives it legitimacy, It also has the ability to sink it quickly. Everyone who watches them play it will experience it with them and their opinions will greatly affect their audience's perception. As I talked about in my previous post regarding the Chinese market. One studio got thousands of downloads simply because a streamer tweeted out that they liked a game.
How it works - Contact them. Be warned that larger streamers are more likely to have to managers, as well as a price for them to play the game. The higher you go, the higher the barriers you have to clear. However, don't ignore the mid- and low-tier streamers. Many of them have a closer relationship with their audience than larger streamers and won't cost you money. Think quantity vs quality as well as effort/reward. The important point here is to find the right streamers, the ones who played games like yours and enjoyed them, not just the ones with the most eyes.
Why it's important - This is the most important aspect of your marketing. The Storefront. Whether it be Steam, GOG, Epic, Google Play, iStore, etc., all of your marketing efforts are to get to come to this one page. Your job is to make your page so engaging and informative that a person's next action is to click "Buy".
How it works - Your storefront needs to be meticulously crafted. Eye catching key art, interesting trailer, and unforgettable pictures, Do not skip on the UI! Your tags need to be perfectly chosen to achieve maximum effect and getting into key related a games. Your descriptions need to explain in a paragraph or 2, what kind of game it is, and very general overview of the story. It's easy to say, it's another to truly make it happen. Testing, testing, testing, and when you're done, more testing.
Why it's important - You have to decide how much of your resources and time are worth to continuously upkeep your game, whether that be in additional content, marketing, or to decide to sunset your game.
How it works - Your game, from inception to the end of time, is now in the product life cycle. Based on your product's sales trajectory, this will give you an indicator of when you should start discounting your game, how much, and if you should change your marketing strategy for it. You should have a plan based on your ROIs and monthly sales. Eventually though, your game will fall below those numbers and you will have to make the decision to put it on the shelf. Of course you can always pull it out for anniversaries, special events, or other projects, for a nice little boost in revenue, but active management of your game will eventually come to an end. Unless you're Concerned Ape... because apparently he's just going to keep updating Stardew, and I love him for it!
That's, more or less, all for your introduction to marketing for devs. In the coming weeks, we'll discuss individually, and in MUCH more detail, how these things work and what strategies you can employ. If you want to keep up with this marketing series, subscribe to our email list or follow us on social media. We will keep you updated on all the interesting data and marketing news. No spam, we promise.