This original and longer version of the article is published on the Video Game Insights blog.
All that developers want is to have independence and make a game they’ve always wanted to make. Alas, this freedom, as all freedom, comes with a small print stating you need to be an expert in development, design, art, marketing, law, accounting, business and 10 other roles you didn’t know existed.
Being an indie dev is 40% about being a dev and 60% about the marketing and business side of things. Most people have the ratio at more like 90-10 and then they're surprised when things don't work out. I’ve talked to developers about their experience and researched the material out there on the topic to summarise a list of best practices and tips regarding game dev marketing to help small developers get started on the journey.
- Supply of games - Many indie devs make the mistake of blindly starting to develop something they'd like to play. There are hundreds of indie games released monthly on Steam – many of them from the same genres and themes. You need to understand which games have already been made too many times.
- Demand of games - You need to make a game that other people want to play. Get people to test it early and often. See if there's traction. Do your research on what does and doesn't work on similar games. It’s hard to market something that has little appeal to begin with.
- Know your customer - Know who you’re making the game for. You don’t necessarily have to go after the biggest player groups. It’s ok to have a niche audience. You might have less competition and you can better direct the marketing efforts.
- Retention mechanics - Build traction and retention through game mechanics - especially with free to play games, you should think about ways of extending your players’ average playtime. There's a lot of material out there on how to reward players for consistently returning to the game and giving players gratification even in late game.
- Going viral - Have something new in the game. Something you can market and sell. Indie games are all about trial and error and innovation and that helps with 'going viral'. You need something to market - visually, gameplay wise or story wise.
- It's important to have a community before you release the game. It's like giving yourself a head start during the release. This head start allows you to hit the ground running, get a lot of downloads early on and hopefully push you to the trending games lists. It's all about the snowball effect early on and you CAN'T achieve that without having an existing fanbase.
- Connect with other game developers
- Be active on subreddits and share your experience. Build relationships and friendships.
- Be active on Twitter - Twitter has a great gamedev community. Talk to them about your game and experience and listen to what they have to say.
- Make meaningful connections – It’s easier to get 10 strong relationships going that will retweet you to 500 people each than building a follower base of 5,000 people.
- These game devs will help you promote your game, but are also often early adaptors and players of your game. They'll also give you great advice and feedback.
- Connect with potential audience
- Build a wishlist on Steam, optimise your Steam page, keep people engaged and updated with your progress. On average, every 4-5 wishlists result you one sale.
- Have social media presence, post regularly. If the game is themed, find relevant subreddits and engage with them.
- Have a development blog. Talk about your journey and tips and post about it on sites like Gamasutra.
- Have a Discord channel to engage with your most loyal early fans.
- Build a network for post-release
- Research blogs, sites and journalists who have posted about games similar to yours and create a list with contact details.
- Engage with these people early on and often. Like their posts and leave relevant comments. Build up rapport so that when your game is released, you’re not just another dev asking them to write about their indie game.
- If your game is streaming-friendly, start doing the same with smaller streamers. At the very least, have a list of all the streamers who play games similar to yours and their contact details.
- Marketing is a full-time job if you want to succeed and have no previous track record. AAA games spend another 100% of their development budget on marketing. Indie games don't have that budget, so the key is to get creative and you need to spend your own time on it.
- Engage with the small community you have
- Sell yourself wherever you can – Contact journalists, blogs, podcasts. Make a list of places that could write about you as well as places that allow guest writers to write on the site.
- Talk about your development process and journey as well as the game. Whatever it takes to get the word out. Creativity and pure hours spent on marketing are your 2 tools here.
- You don't always have to aim for large amounts of copies sold at the expense of price.
- The key mistake indie devs make is thinking lower prices will get them more players. It's often not true. Pricing a game $19.99 vs $9.99 doubles your revenue per game which you can use for paid ads or to hire a community manager to get more people to buy at a higher price point. You'd need to believe in a very steep price elasticity curve to justify very low prices. Read more about pricing in my other article - Should developers charge more for an indie game?
I am Karl Kontus, one of the creators of Video Game Insights, a free game industry market research platform. If you have any comments or questions, get in touch on our Twitter page or join our Discord group! I’m always happy to talk about the video game industry.