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Made in the Indie Spirit: How to keep an indie marketing voice while working with a traditional publisher

After working with a AAA publisher it can be hard to convince people that your game was developed entirely within the walls of an indie studio and not in a mansion filled with robot butlers. Owlchemy kept their indie voice strong using unique marketing.

How do you maintain your voice as an indie while working with one of the most recognizable AAA brands in the videogames industry? In this case study from Owlchemy Labs, you will see how establishing a strong voice for your company as well as for your title, and utilizing that voice across all marketing efforts can help you maintain your indie cred without passing up an opportunity to work with a traditional publisher.

SEGA recently released the first title to come out of their indie publishing initiative SEGA Alliance, the Owlchemy Labs developed title, Jack Lumber.  When people see the name and logo of a AAA publisher alongside your indie title, it can be hard to retroactively convince them that the game was developed solely within the walls of an indie studio and not in a mansion filled with robot butlers.  

SEGA and Owlchemy Labs at PAX Prime 2012Lumberjacks? Check. Hedgehog? Check. Robot Butlers? None to be found.

To keep our indie cred while working with a AAA publisher, the team at Owlchemy invested time and resources into creating a marketing campaign that fit with our unique brand and voice. The model we developed has three steps:

1. Develop a voice for your company 

When your marketing budget is limited it is easy to come to the conclusion that money is best spent on promoting your game over blanket promoting your company. However, spending time and effort developing a strong consumer and developer facing brand for your company can reduce the amount of explanation and marketing needed for individual titles. If your company brand is developed for visibility and evokes a consumer response that is positive the company name alone can market the game. In the same way that consumers will flock to a Disney film because it is a brand that they trust to give them a quality family experience, you can leverage your company’s branding to promote your products as long as that voice encompasses the tone and experience that players will find in your games. This is an integral part of your company’s future visibility and success, remember that you cannot keep your indie voice when working with a publisher if your voice is undefined.

When Owlchemy Labs announced Smuggle Truck both the game and the studio gained immediate notoriety.

Owlchemy Labs escaped major public scrutiny by staying above the political fray surrounding the title and later redesigning it, swapping the controversial immigrants seeking asylum into plush toys trying to reach the zoo. The newly imagined Snuggle Truck was accepted into the app store, and players were quick to see the high level of style and polish in the physics based game.

By not engaging in any politically driven debates and focusing instead on promoting the quality of their game, Owlchemy Labs created a persona for itself; a creator of absurd, highly polished games.

2. Branding across all campaign efforts

Owlchemy Labs has worked hard to develop a reputation for over-the top absurdity with a high level of polish. Their strong brand voice and creative marketing efforts made them a company I wanted to work with-- when the opportunity to do so presented itself with their latest venture, Jack Lumber, I strove to develop a campaign that continued Owlchemy Labs’ brand recognition while also celebrating being the first 3rd party iOS title published by SEGA.

Jack Lumber tells the tale of a lumberjack out to get revenge on the entire forest after a rotten tree fell on his granny. Owlchemy Labs began spreading the lore of Jack Lumber by sending out snarky anti-tree mailers for Arbor Day and filling their twitter feed with tree related puns. Owlchemy Labs developers wore plaid flannel despite obscenely warm temperatures at conferences. I walked the lines of PAX carrying an iPad decked out in a wood grain case offering queue-line scuttled fans the chance to play Jack Lumber against an Owlchemy Lumberjill. Chief Scientist of Owlchemy Labs, Alex Schwartz, roamed conferences with an axe in one hand and an iPhone in the other, inviting people to play Jack Lumber alongside one of the game’s developers.

Alex Schwartz shows off Jack Lumber at PAX East 2012Proudly presenting Jack Lumber at PAX East, Alex wore flannel and carried a big axe throughout the convention.

Owlchemy Labs at Boston FIG
Alex, Michael Carriere, and Kate pose in plaid at Boston FIG.

We worked with Kert Gartner on the trailer for Jack Lumber, and over the course of multiple raucous round table discussions, created a campy and fun introduction into the ridiculous and polished world of Jack Lumber. I remember walking into the room where the meeting was taking place and seeing several ideas scrawled out over paper. The room was filled: Kert Gartner, Indie Trailer Whisperer, and Devin Reimer, Chief Lumberjack and Programmer, took up computer monitors via Skype, Michael Carriere, Lead Beard, Alex, and I took turns pitching ideas to Kert for the trailer. When Devin suggested using a 1950’s filmstrip about deforestation as inspiration we were off to the races. Putting on my best newsie voice, (basing it on Alex’s impression of the Circus of Values bark from BioShock), I suggested the line “Whoa there fella, that’s no log, that’s a moose!” We had found the mood for our trailer.

Writing for the trailer soon became a race to see which one of us could come up with the best puns, with the best inflection; it was clear that everyone in the room was acutely aware of Owlchemy Labs’ voice; campy, fun, oddly nostalgic, and, thanks in no small part to Kert’s trailer-making-talent, polished from every angle.

3. Taking Calculated Risks

As an indie, generating and executing high-reward, low-cost marketing ideas is key. I pitched the World Lumberjack Championships idea to Alex while I was on vacation, days before I was set to start working for Owlchemy in an official capacity. The idea was simple: send one of the developers to Hayward, Wisconsin to film real life lumberjacks playing Jack Lumber. Hilarity would ensue. SEGA backed the idea by offering to professionally edit the Owlchemy Labs footage. While some companies would have rejected the idea as being too outside of the norm, Owlchemy Labs saw value in doing something unique, and I was off to Wisconsin.

Kate in WisconsinKate conducting "treesearch."

I called in favors from friends and a former student of mine to keep the project low-cost. We rented a car and drove for six hours from my high school hometown to Hayward, Wisconsin. We shared a small log cabin for the week, sleeping in bunk beds and enjoying pancake breakfasts each morning followed by fried cheese curds at lunch. The low carb lifestyle just doesn’t apply in Wisconsin.

We ran on 18 hour days: our cameraman, David Aragon, would film until we needed to recharge, and then we would lumber back to the cabin, log film, reload batteries, and start again. I had my friend Jennifer Dickinson running sound as we interviewed world class lumberjacks about their experiences playing Jack Lumber. We saw a real black bear. We went to a pancake feed. I measured beards, chugged maple syrup, and conducted science. It was amazing.

Owlchemy Labs sent Kate to the World Lumberjack ChampionshipsKate and the Pinery Boys at the World Lumberjack Championships

SEGA took our footage and created a great video showcasing the first leg of the trip, which you can see here. Eventually, I took off the Owlchemy Labs lab coat (yes, we have custom embroidered lab coats, done on the cheap) and attempted to become a lumberjill myself; that footage will be released with a future update to Jack Lumber. Lets just say log rolling is tougher than it looks.


So, how do you maintain the voice of an indie while working with a publisher?
All press releases and copy were a collaboration between the SEGA marketing team and Owlchemy Labs. All of the above mentioned marketing concepts were created in house at Owlchemy, with the full support of our publisher, SEGA. It’s important to work with partners that understand the value of the creative, and are willing to support that creative spirit.

Working with your publisher from the beginning of the relationship on the marketing behind your game increases the chance that your product will continue to showcase the voice that your company has developed for itself.  In the case of Owlchemy Labs, the marketing campaign was designed around promoting their ridiculous sense of humor and impressive level of polish. The first video of the World Lumberjack Championship is making its rounds and is being met with an overwhelmingly positive response.

Working with a company that values creative thinking and execution has been mutually rewarding, not to get too sappy, but considering that I am a gal that has always admired puns and lab oats, it has been a pretty amazing experience.

You can stay up to date with the antics of Owlchemy Labs by reading their blog found on and following them on Twitter @OwlchemyLabs.

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