Oof... this got way longer than I thought, and between this and some personal goings on behind the scenes, this was challenging to write. I definitely want to come back to this and improve it more, but I think this gets your 95% of the way there.
Building the sales funnel
Understanding marketing is understanding human behavior. Every year, companies spend billions of dollars on consumer behavior research and there's no better example of this than walking into a grocery store. But, when you don't have a physical store, you have to entice people along the buying process. In sales and marketing, we call this the sales funnel. I won't bore you with the marketing speak right away, but because all our top-level marketing actions rely on a quality store page to convert visitors, we will start at the bottom of the funnel.
Your Store Page
Now! Let's start using the research we did in the previous post, Making marketing work for you is about presenting your store content to show your game in the best light, while also making sure that your game appears more often to those who are likely to buy it.
Note: These are general guidelines and with general guidelines comes exceptions to rules. 90% of the time, these guidelines will apply to your game. However, there are distinct times where it benefits your game to contradict them, but your game's "personality" or strategy must justify it. This is where you have to know your game and adjust accordingly. (This is also why I mentioned why I dislike case studies).
This is the most critical junction of your marketing activities. All of your social media, advertising, and PR efforts could be completely wasted with a poorly planned store page. Fortunately, stores like Steam and Humble Bundle force everyone into the same format, so your assets have to do the talking. That said, you want to have this up and running before you do any social media and content creation. While incredibly unlikely, the last thing you want to do is have something go viral and have no store page to direct people to. Never be in a situation where opportunity appears and you're unable to benefit from it.
Where to start and what is needed
While we'll focus on Steam, much of what's written is applicable to other stores. In the future, I'll try to add an addendum for things like Humble Bundle or mobile stores.
In Steam, you have several sections here to show off your game. If you're looking for a list of needed assets, Steam provides a well-defined list of assets needed for your page. So let's talk about how to use them.
Large Capsule - If I ranked the most important assets to create for your game, this is #2 only behind your trailer. While it only appears on Recommended and Daily Deal sections, it's the foundation of your small capsule and logo.
Your large capsule shows up above your description with some being unique from their small capsule while others use a scaled up version of it (Phasmophobia). If you can, figure out how to expand on it in an interesting way. You can take a more generic route (ie. DOTA 2, Crusader Kings III) by adding a character next to it and calling it a day. Now, look at more interesting comparisons from the indie collection (Valheim, Stardew Valley). They made these assets completely unique, yet the logo remains recognizable.
Small Capsule - This is used all throughout Steam search lists, new releases, etc. While this is probably more often used throughout Steam, It's typically derived from your large capsule. Make it pop and grab people's attention because it competes for attention with all the games on the search page.
Do NOT underestimate your logo!
Regardless of how much we're told to "not judge a book, or game, by its cover," we do. All. The. Time. Harvard Business Review did a study of over 500 logos, finding that logos greatly effect consumer behavior and performance. This is why large companies spend upwards of millions of dollars on a single logo design. It's not fair that your game could be a masterpiece and never have more than a few purchases. Welcome to the enigma of human behavior and why good marketing is necessary.
When creating a logo, every design choice is carefully and deliberately crafted to convey a message by hijacking your brain's inherent understanding of the world, but this understanding can also be influenced by culture. Color, complexity, symmetry, descriptive design; every element effects perception.
Notice how fast food chains typically use Red, Orange, and/or Yellow? That's because these colors incite hunger. Your brain, whether you realize it or not, has a specific color language that it has learned to understand the world by and any graphic designer worth their salt, knows this and should be able to these for a greater impact.
Take, for instance, the Satisfactory capsule. Just the name alone tells me it's a building simulator, maybe like Minecraft? Maybe Factorio? Maybe both? A bright orange field is a major eye catcher on the Steam lists and, for me, it reminds me of orange construction barrels. The silver font reminds me of something made from a metal cast forge or a machined aluminum part. The art style quality tells me it's likely a high-quality graphics game.
What do you think? Does this impart the same feeling to you? These are things you should think about when you make your logo.
*Intercultural learning break*
In the west, it's common to wear black as sign of mourning, however, in Eastern cultures, white is worn at funerals. Want to cause a ruckus? Gift giving is a major way to build bonds in Chinese culture. So you decide you want to buy a Boston Celtics hat for the basketball-loving Chinese publisher you're working with, incredibly thoughtful of you! Oops. Maybe a jersey then. Fun finance fact: On the Shanghai Stock Exchange, green represents loss, while red signifies gain. Here's a super handy guide to help you avoid mishaps and flatter a future Chinese partner. Point is, not all cultures perceive color the same.
Important: When giving or receiving gifts, ALWAYS with 2 hands.
*Back to the main program*
Aside from colors and design of the logo itself, remember to consider your background color. Steam's store page is a dark, navy blue while press sites tend to be white. You can try to thread the needle and create 1 logo that fits both, but don't shy away from a couple hours of extra work to do an palate swap alternative? A good way to get overlooked by potential players is by blending in.
Discoverability is everything from here on out. Do NOT just throw your logos and assets to some random internet artist because they were cheap. Work with your artist to come up with a design. Why are you using that style of art? Why that font? Color? Be purposeful and clever with your design, have a standard of quality above "because I think it looks cool." If people are seeing your game, they're likely seeing these assets more than anything else in the beginning. Make it something they want to look at.
Thankfully, Steam's "Upcoming" has a great feature where you can mouse over a game and you'll see 4 screen shots. It's something I wish they would adopt in their standard browsing since it has a big impact for your game because the effort to see additional content is diminished. People are WAY more willing to mouse over than click to see more info. (Never underestimate the laziness of a consumer. This is relevant in so many ways and something we will touch on in a future)
I know some indies want to spend their marketing asset time/resources on their trailer, for great reason. It's what sells your game more than anything else. You're going to be posting your trailer everywhere. But the reason I'm so adamant about the still assets is because:
1. Your game lives on Steam, and outside of "Community Recommended", you trailer only shows on your Steam page. You need eye-catching assets that get Steam browsers onto your page.
2. Your trailers won't come until you're a good way through your project. You need to have assets to attract people immediately. Time is your most valuable resource and it's finite. You need to be building your wish list every day, from Day 1. If you're waiting for a trailer or a high-quality screenshot, you're wasting valuable time.
Don't worry about getting this right on the first shot and don't overthink it. You can, and should, rewrite this throughout development as your game becomes more clear. Re-address it every couple weeks, take in feedback, and see if it still grabs you. Don't get stuck on a specific message, Potential buyers just want to see what the game is about and what genre it is. This is your game's elevator pitch and you need continuously fine-tune.
Take a look at Valheim's description:
"A brutal exploration and survival game for 1-10 players, set in a procedurally-generated purgatory inspired by viking culture. Battle, build, and conquer your way to a saga worthy of Odin’s patronage!"
I underlined the important aspects that explain what the game is. "Exploration", "survival", "1-10 players", tells me mechanics and genre, "procedurally-generated", tells me infinite re-playability, possibly a sandbox style game while "viking culture" and "Odin's patronage" gives me setting and lore.
The user now has an idea that they're getting, essentially, Viking Minecraft. Don't get bogged down in specifics, but does that description give an accurate depiction? Just make yours descriptive, sound fluid, and appealing. That's not to say it's easy and you're prone to overthinking, but don't over-complicate things.
Tags are probably the best tools on Steam to increase visibility that's within your control. Yet, it's sadly misused by a lot of well-meaning devs.
Marketing is a numbers strategy game and tags are your best tool for getting your game seen inside Steam's platform. While huge studios can get their games to show up pretty much at will (read:$$$), you can increase your ability to show up in "Recommended" and "More like this" sections.
I want to be honest here, Steam will more often promote games here that are higher selling/rated (for obvious reasons), so don't think you can tag your way to success. No one technique or tool is going to make your game a hit, (well... throwing truckloads of money at it will) it's the sum of the parts, that makes marketing successful.
Common mistake #1 - Not doing your research
Part of Steam's (and every other search and content platform's) discoverability system is recommending games that are similar to games people are interested in. If someone likes a game, more than likely they'll buy similar games to it. It's in Steam's interest to recommend games that they believe a player will buy based on their buying behavior.
What you're doing with tags is telling Steam's algorithm "this is what my game's genre, themes and concepts are." Steam will connect your game to others that best share your games tags. If Steam likes your game (ie: it sells a lot) it's more likely to show your game in the "More like this" section. Alternatively, in "Recommended", Steam is looking at what a customer has in their library and what games they most often play. Based on those statistics, Steam is going to recommend specific games that have those same tags, again, based on your game's ability to sell.
The best way to make sure that your game shows up more is targeting games similar to yours and using matching tags to those games. Don't aim for big series like Final Fantasy for RPGs or Mega Man for platformers, because their "more like this" section will always be other games in the series unless you're going for a tribute game like 20XX or Mighty No. 9 are to Mega Man.
Common mistake #2 - Using overused tags
Let's say you managed to make the next GOTY candidate, and the first tag you use is "Indie" because, well, it's accurate, and you're proud of being an indie dev, as you should be. But what you just did was take your game camouflaged it and tossed it in the forest, hoping people will find it. As of this writing, almost 50,000 games identify as indie. Use Steam's popular tag page to see how you can compete in less competitive tags that apply to your games.
Editor Rant: I think there needs to be a discussion on what is considered "indie". Why are small teams and solo devs self-publishing their first games being grouped in with subsidiary studios like Tarsier (Embracer) and Double Fine (Microsoft) or devs who use a publisher like Mediatronic (Devolver Digital) or Concerned Ape (Chucklefish)? Obviously each one of these studios make absolutely incredible games and should be applauded for their work, but getting hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars worth of support doesn't really fit the definition of the word "independent" to me.
(Trying to avoid gate-keeping here) But I think self-funded devs, and Steam could benefit from a distinction. Indies contribute so much creativity to the industry, and Steam could be facilitating and fostering that creativity by at least not allowing the indie tag to be used by subsidized and publisher-assisted games, OR creating sub categories of Indie. To me, the term loses meaning when you see Little Nightmares 2 and Ori and the Will of the Wisps being shown alongside Totally Accurate Battle Simulator. /Rant
The first thing every potential customer that comes to your page is going to notice is that big media area. Your trailer, game play footage, and still images are the most important assets to sell your game.
At first, you will likely have just key art, logos, and placeholders, but don't be afraid to be creative with it, either. As long as you follow Steam's guidelines you can make your images whatever you want. Make a little chibi animation of you and your team taking a pickaxe to a computer saying, "Game under construction" (Again, free idea, have fun with it).
As your game grows, you'll include more assets. Steam allows you to include a lot of assets, you won't need all of them, but again, have a standard for your game. Don't include everything you have just because you can. Only upload pictures that show your game in the most positive light. We are all our own worst critic, but here is where that actually pays off.
AAA games have several trailers, announce trailer, release date reveal, game play trailer, story trailer (if applicable), release trailer, and accolades trailer. Obviously, this is the privilege of a full marketing staff and obscene amounts of money, but as an indie dev: "ain't nobody got time for that!"
So here's what you can/should focus on. Take into account your skills and resources available to you, the more you can do the better. But stick to these:
- Game play trailer - can be combined as a release date reveal.
- Release trailer
- Accolades trailer - only if you get a handful of positive reviews from medium to large outlets, otherwise just make a new large capsule with your accolades.
Your game play trailer should be the first video that shows on your Steam page until you have a release trailer. Additionally, Steam has a great new live stream function that can act as your game play trailer. Showing a trailer and game play footage at the same time? Yes, please.
If you want a great "how-to" for game trailers check out Derek Liu's YouTube channel. However, if there is one critique I have about his video, it's that social media is your best friend right now, especially if you're releasing your first game. Indies don't really get the luxury of a slow, suspenseful trailer. You have to adapt your trailer to the mindset of "I have 3-5 seconds to make an impact or they're moving on." Lead with excitement, shock, humor, bright colors; something that pulls a lot of emotion out of someone immediately. Unless, going back to part 1, you get fortunate enough to get a presentation slot at an industry event. If you're able to build a suspenseful scene, it's incredibly effective, but your margin for error is higher as people may choose to move on before the payoff.
Additionally, your trailer shouldn't rely on sound or music cues. Don't get me wrong, I have bought games solely on the soundtrack. Sound design and music is an INCREDIBLY effective selling point. However, on social media, sound is muted so your trailer must first visually attract people. Your art design may not appeal to all, but that's why research is so important. There are some absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn illustrations and artful animations, but it's not for everyone, and you have to find your audience that will enjoy it.
When it comes to your game play trailer, make a script. Don't walk around looking to show something off. Have an idea of the mechanics and settings you want to show off, cut it together, and do a voice over which narrates the game play and gives interesting information about the game. If your game play trailer looks uninteresting, people are going to be turned off. Watch AAA trailers, you'll find everything is as scripted as a movie. Everything shown should be purposeful, interesting, and engaging with zero down-time.
For images, your first picture should be something that features your UI/UX design. According to a Chris Zukowski interview I can't find now, buyer's look for your UI/UX when they purchase. The rest of your pictures should be showing off the absolute best features of your game. If it features combat, use your best picture of combat. Does it have some art you really want to show off? Go for it. Find important elements of your game and show off the best of that element, but don't feel like you need to fill up all your assets, if it doesn't add to your game's appeal, leave it out.
Remember how I told you earlier to not go into lore in your first description? Well, go nuts with it here, but don't give it all away, give the background of game's setting and main protagonists, the motivation for the characters in the game. You can also include some really nice high-quality GIFs (I mean seriously high quality) here as well to help you give your game a illustrated story vibe. If you want to see a description page that is incredibly well done, check out Fall Guys' Steam page. It's a masterclass of a store page.
Be creative and go all in with your game's description. This is where you get to splurge about how awesome this game is. Lore, story, characters, mechanics, be passionate about your game. If your game is scary, talk about how it's scary. If it's action-packed and tons of death and destruction, your tone has to be as energy-driven as your game. If you aren't passionate talking about your game, no one else will be either.
This is pretty straightforward. Check the boxes you're localizing for. So what this will focus on is what languages to localize for. (percent of users with language set on Steam)
English (41.9%) - No explanation needed.
Chinese [Simplified and Traditional] (18%)- If you've been a regular reader of my blogs, you know that despite the regulations and issues that comes with getting your game approved in China, Chinese players are still able to access your game on the Global Steam client with or without CCP approval via VPN, even with the recent release of Steam China. Now the largest game market in the world, you should have a good reason to NOT localize your game for Chinese.
Russian (11.1%) - A gaming juggernaut in its own right, This market is a must to translate for.
Spanish (5.6%) - It's the official language of nearly every country in the Western Hemisphere and a handful outside of it. While Spain will probably be your highest revenue market of the Spanish speaking countries, Argentina will make up a non-insignificant % of your total units sold. Unfortunately, due to the weakness of the Argentinian Peso, the revenue impact is much less so. Nonetheless, depending on your translation word count, Spain should be able to make your money back on the translation and consider any sales from the Western hemisphere as a bonus.
German/French (3.8%/2.9%) - While surprisingly low (as a percentage of Steam users), both French and German markets have huge buying power. Additionally, being a country using the Euro means that your revenue will not take a hit because currency adjustment... yet*.
*My personal prediction on what will happen with the EU vs Steam lawsuit: Despite only being 3% of games on Steam, the rule, while well-meaning, will force weaker markets like Poland and Hungary to pay the same price as Germany and France. Unless these titles were significant in some way, I don't see Steam lowering their market adjusted prices, but Steam is not a publicly-owned company so they don't operate solely on profit goals. That said, A study done on geo-blocking regulations by JRC found that removal of regulations benefited smaller countries, more than larger ones. Basically saying that geo-blocking benefits stronger economies more than weaker ones.
Portuguese (3.8%) - This is more so for the Brazilian market than Portugal. Brazilians tend to make up a decent amount of sales, however, I've been told by one dev that it was not profitable to pay for a Portuguese localization for the market, Personally, I've seen plenty of sales from Brazil, at least enough to make a translation worth it. This is something you will have to weigh for yourself.
Korean/Japanese (1.7%/1.6%) - I don't like lumping these two together as I want to keep from making it seem like "Asian" is a monolithic culture. However, they both make up a similar population size on Steam and are massive markets for the game industry.
That said, be careful with your translation companies. Summarizing a portion of my Chinese market blog, localization companies will give you their best effort, however, errors still happen and they have no stake in the success of your game. If you would like to try other routes, you can be creative with it, but just weigh your risks and rewards.
Final ideas I concocted while I was writing this. From the moment you start your project, record EVERYTHING! Record your conversations around game planning, record programming (well... maybe not, unless you're having a particularly nasty bug you're trying to squash), animation, art work. This will make it easier to create your dev blog, social media content, and I've even played with the idea of what a project would be like that was almost entirely live streamed, like on Twitch. Considering all of the art and other niche channels out there, it could be a really unique way of building a fan base and getting live feedback on a design. I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this, but an interesting idea nonetheless.
That said, if you found this post insightful, interesting, or if you just want to flame me on social media, please share with your own networks. And if you think you could use a little added fire-power or need someone to just pick up some loose ends, hit me up. I'm always looking for work, just tell me what you're looking for and we will work out a price that fits your budget.