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Marketing Channels for Indie Devs: A Crash Course

Let's face it, some marketing avenues aren't suited for indie developers. They either waste our time or precious money and give nothing in return, as one developer found out. So which are worth pursuing so we can get back to development? We rate them.

Taylor Bair, Blogger

March 16, 2015

19 Min Read

[If you haven't yet read it, a helpful introduction to this material can be found on Gamasutra here, or my website here.]


Following up from the last article, we jump right into our Marketing Mix and rate Sales Promotions, Public Relations, Direct Marketing, and Word of Mouth marketing along with some specific tips in using them as game developers.

Along the way we'll look at Becca Bair, a freelance pixel artist and game developer who almost made the cardinal sin of Sales Promotions: devaluing your work, but turned it around for good results.



Time: 1~3

Capital: 0 (Technically)

What do you do when your sales begin to lag? A lot of people consider discounting their product. This method requires little time (excepting the time it takes to advertise your promotion) and no capital.

But hold up there, cowboy. Don’t be too eager to discount your stuff, and here’s why. A discount sets a precedent. It says, subtlety, but still says to a consumer: this is what my product is really worth. If you go to any overstock reseller and see Nike products with half-off tags, you begin to realize, “Wow, Nike is making a killing off these things at full price,” and from then on you’re less likely to pay full price for it.

Sales promotions should be used sparingly, and usually as motivators for other things. Let’s see how that works in practice.


Dev Spotlight: Becca Bair

When Becca, a freelance pixel artist by trade – game developer by hobby, decided a customer survey would be useful in finding out what people hiring game artists wanted in terms of service, quality, and cost, she realized there was a problem.


A sample of Becca’s work from the RPG Puzzler Vidar.

How do you motivate someone to take a survey?

Ask nicely?

Fat chance – believe me, I’ve tried. That’s the quickest way to get ignored.

If you want unbiased answers, you can pay them, or you can offer a special promotion, and this is exactly where the sales promotion is most useful for a game developer. Think of it as a bartering system: this would help me, and that would help you, so let’s make a trade! Capitalism at its finest.

The survey released, and within just days she had enough information to better gauge how to meet customer expectations. All it took was a network of very helpful people and a small incentive to reward people’s time.

That is how sales promotions can be incentives for things that will be more use to you later down the line. And if you’re wondering why the rating on this one for capital reads: 0 (Technically), it’s because, if used poorly, you can end up losing money by setting a new standard of what your game is worth to people. Never a good thing, so tread carefully!




Time: 1~3

Capital: 0

This form of marketing is very similar to advertising, but the main difference: it’s free of charge. Many magazines make their living off covering games and generating public interest for themselves via you, the game developer. Think of it as one of those symbiotic relationships – you know, where those birds eat bugs off a bison or whatever.

Who’s the bison in this example? YOU DECIDE.


This is not, scientifically speaking, a symbiotic relationship. But c’mon… they’re so dang cute!

But really, if your game can help gain exposure for a magazine / blog or is considered informative in nature, you should be taking advantage. In fact, they want you to. There are plenty of video game websites that ask for games to cover, even big ones like Rock Paper Shotgun. And most only ask for a preview copy of the game in return.

This is a great form of free exposure, and your time spent usually only amounts to a preview build of the game, some pitch emails, and a great deal of waiting (as some games websites take their sweet time). But effectiveness can vary greatly. These magazines and blogs might not draw enough traffic, or not the right kind of traffic, to convert readers into buyers.

Still, while coverage might not reach exactly the right kind of people, you’re almost guaranteed to reach some kind of people, and that’s not so bad, right?

But to maximize your effort, research the publication and the kind of audience it likely caters to. You may be surprised to find the independent games website you frequent as a developer only attracts other developers looking for ideas for their own games, and less so players of indie games. Similar recommendations to advertising research also apply here, so I hate to say it, but go read those again if you’ve forgotten.


Research will sometimes unearth things you wish you didn’t know. But knowing is half the battle! And other cliches!


Incidentally, this is also where social media marketing would fall in the spectrum, though it is beyond the scope of this article to go into the vast options and the effectiveness of each. More on this topic in the recommendations section and future articles, though I will give a few pointers:

Get a Twitter account. For you, your game development company, and any games you have. Get one. Don’t ask why. Just do it. Also, a website for your game dev company is essential. If you don’t know how to make one, use a templated something or other – there are lots out there.




Time: 1~3

Capital: 0~2

There was a time when this marketing technique looked like piles and piles of junk mail. Things have changed. Now it’s just piles and piles of spam email.

Is my distaste obvious enough?


I love how this photo has two random apples. Because, you know, people love leaving apples by the junk mail.

To be fair, direct marketing has its place. If you think it’s of benefit, by all means set up a mailing list for your game. It takes very little time and no cost at all if you’re doing it online, and all you have to do is set up a few key notices to alert people when something major happens with your game.

Effectiveness depends on two things here. First, don’t inundate people with update emails. Only hit the big stuff. I confess, a few musicians have released albums that I only knew about because of direct marketing, but they didn’t annoy me with emails to the point that I unsubscribed, either. Honestly, one email is sufficient when you release the game. Save the rest for social media.

Second, this is best used as a retentive marketing technique rather than generative, meaning it is meant to retain customers already interested rather than find new ones that aren’t aware of you. Some companies still use huge databases of possible clients and email them en masse, but that technique has horrible returns, and to be blunt: it makes you into the worst kind of person inside. I mean, we’re talking real slumlord stuff here.




Time: 0

Capital: 0

This is the soft, wet-nosed puppy of marketing. Everyone wants it to cuddle up next to them and warm their stressed bodies at night. But guess what – you can’t buy this puppy or just go pick him up from some shelter. No no, this puppy finds you.


This will totally be my next article.

I can say, without hesitation, that this is far and away the best kind of marketing on the planet. It requires no time or money from you, and it means so much sweet attention. But reach your hand out to grab it, and it’s gone.

Why, you may be asking? Well, it’s an unassailable fact of marketing that people don’t trust you or I. And why should they? They don’t know us from Adam. People trust their friends and family, they trust their doctor and dentist (because they shove those hands all up inside us), but little you and I? Yeah, we’re distant thirds or fourths or fifths on that chain.

Word of Mouth is an illusive little beast. Unlike Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin, this is one form of marketing that IS a “prize to be won.” The best you can do is make some friends who also have friends who have dentists who have wives and children and hope someone says something about your game. But if you want to know a great place to start on that road, look at social media. Also, if you’re lucky enough to find that special concoction on the internet that makes something go “viral,” you’re probably generating a little Word of Mouth.

This is the sort of marketing that you shouldn’t necessarily set out to find. If you approach the other channels consistently and smartly, this one will follow after.


Next Time

We'll rate the final two marketing channels and give some final recommendations for developers on which to use in the different stages of development. More on that can be found at my article here or website here.

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