Marketing for Indie Devs: Market Research

Market research is the foundation of all product/service creation. While feeling needlessly time consuming, it's an investment that facilitates your advertising, social media, and content creation activities.

Indulge me before we get started. 


I struggle with writing every blog; always wanting to make sure you are given my best. I struggle with scope creep and impostor syndrome, so imagine trying to write a post that tries to convey information taught over entire degree programs at universities.

So I am going to be upfront... this is likely v0.1 on this topic and I will revisit this post in the future, especially as I work through the next posts in the series. The topic is just too vast and complex to get it right on the first go. I know many devs can relate, trying to improve your game with each iteration. But when I do an update, I will notify subscribers so make sure you sign up to the blog.

If you feel I left anything out (I most assuredly did) or got something wrong (always possible), please, comment your questions, thoughts, and corrections so that I can make sure that every developer can get the best information I can possibly provide.

Why marketing research is important?

"Luck is the residue of design" - John Milton

If anyone's played Total War: Medieval II, you've likely seen this quote, or, you know, read John Milton. The persistent belief of, "Make a great game and people will buy it" is the most dishonest, lazy, and detrimental advice any developer can receive. This will bruise some egos, but while making a quality game is important, and will have a longer sales tail, but...

The quality of your game is less important than your ability to market it. 

Breathe. Still there? Haven't closed the blog yet? Good. Because I'm not here to feed a sense of importance or superiority. I WANT your game to succeed. I marketing can't promote a product that doesn't exist and no one can buy a product they don't know exists. So let's work together!

Success is not blind chance left to the masses. This is what people tell themselves to justify failure. Marketing is a science that, while not infallible, vastly increases the odds of success in the long run. Market research is about understanding the industry, how your game fits, so you can better ensure that you aren't throwing good money (or time) after bad. It will facilitate future decisions because you have already done the research.

Thinking: this is "stupid", "tedious", "time-consuming", or "what's the point?", 

I would respond with, "not at all", "very", "OH GOD YES", and "keep reading". 

One thing of note is, when you are working on your project, things change, life happens, new information is released. The best thing you can do is come back to your own research once a month or if anything big changes in your project. Updating your research is 100% acceptable as long as there is a reasonable and logical explanation for that change. So always keep yourself up to date on the latest information. Keep an RSS feed of your favorite  sites and blogs and spend an hour a day just reading and keeping up with the industry.


1) Know your resources. 

If you want me to set a fire, I need matches, tinder, and gas (I'm being simplistic here, don't "what about" me). So where can I find my matches, tinder, and gas. There are many companies who dedicate themselves to market research. Some companies, like NewZoo, focuses on the whole industry, while others, like Niko Partners, have focuses, in this case, Asia.

Then you have other companies like VGInsights, who attempt to do more sales research by recreating Steam (and other platforms) data as closely as possible. Make sure you read their methodologies to understand how they derive their data, because most studios are not releasing their raw sales data. That is NOT to say their data is bad. At all. But because of Steam's data collection restrictions, it is impossible for anyone to perfectly give 100% accurate information, but it's still incredibly useful information. Finally, be creative. One thing that I use is Augmented Steam, a buyers intelligence app that gathers sales info about games on Steam. It is typically used for finding the best sales, but I find it to be a helpful.

Which leads to my next point.  Be cautious about the data you use. The industry is notoriously tight-lipped on information. The most well-respected research companies have a deep knowledge of the market and have networks of people providing data and feedback. But, this is digital information and, as many of you know, there is always someone looking to make money off scamming people. Protect yourself by asking questions and vetting.


2) Define your game

Avoid falling into the trap of attempting to be broadly appealing. I get that you want to maximize your audience, but aim to do the opposite. Arrowhead Studios has a great quote on their website

"A game for everyone is a game for no one"

By trying to get everyone, you spend all your time (and money) on marketing a game for people who will be less invested than a more focused group. Especially if you're a dev who has little to no community, you need to build a core audience.

If you want to make a 2D side-scroller, metroidvania, with an anime art-style based on Lovecraftian lore, go for it! (free idea, I expect a credit) Make sure you write these things down. The more you define your game, the easier it is to find your core audience, but also narrows your reach. It's a trade-off you have to balance, but we'll talk about expanding reach in future posts. What you're doing right now is creating a foundational community to build an audience from.

If I'm defining the hypothetical (no doubt GOTY-worthy) above, I would use (by no means exhaustive):

Cthullu, Lovecraft, 2D, side-scroller, anime, metroidvania, puzzle

Next, find all the games that are most similar to your project. Easiest way is to spend a day or two trolling Steam for games that are most similar to your project. Then look at the "Related Games" section of those games. Any game that has some tangent to yours should be recorded.

Separate them out by what games are most like yours and what games have some things in common, kinda like a target. Use whatever tools you have available, as mentioned above. Look at everything about these games. Sales, reviews (both critic and user), social media accounts, what tags and keywords have they used. What mechanics did they use? Any interesting ideas? Look at their social media, YouTube, dev logs, look at post-mortems and case studies. If you can't buy the games to play, watch playthroughs of them. Know what everyone has done and is doing. Research, research, research. Write. Everything. Down.


"Didn't you talk shit about case studies?" Yes, kinda. Here is where things become boring (I HATED my methodology classes. it's an obscenely dry topic), but it is incredibly important.

In academic research, single case studies carry very little weight and are only applicable for very selective types of experiments. Would you take a single data point and apply it to the whole of anything? No. This is why multiple case studies, like my thesis, are more accepted.

I once saw someone hold up Payday 2 as proof that you can be successful without spending a penny on advertising. While extreme cases exist and with the right marketing strategy can be done, there are a host of issues which are short-sighted at best and disingenuous at worse.

Case studies are great for generating new ideas, but more data points are needed to identify causation of effectiveness and moves from qualitative to quantitative research, something much more scientifically accepted. If you think, "I keep seeing devs do X and it keeps working," the next task is understanding why. Now you're building your own data-led marketing strategy. This is what I hope you will all be able to do. Decisions led by data and not over-opinionated devs quibbling about their own perceptions.


2. Set a release date

Have an attainable release date. Yes, life happens, you get busy, other things become more important, you can adjust and delay, but have something that keeps you on a schedule. Write it down.

When should you release it? That's entirely up to you, but it's not rocket science, and you've likely seen this advice before. Avoid Steam sales, large industry events*, and major release windows, especially holiday season. Steam gives you some pretty nice ad features when you launch. I was going to post a picture of a boat being ran through by a cargo ship, some asshat had to block up the Suez Canal with container ship and now my Google images are filled with shit images. Long story short, if you're a small indie dev and you see the big AAA dreadnought coming at you, get the fuck out the way.

*Unless you manage to score some incredible feature in one of these shows. If so, CONGRATULATIONS! Beat that horse until it's dead and decayed.

There are plenty of low times in the gaming industry to launch your game, but pay attention to Steam's Upcoming, which gives you more established indie or publisher release dates, but on any given week, you are releasing your game along side ~200 other games on Steam. If you are releasing mobile, it's multiple times more. Also complicating things on Steam is that mobile games are finding their way to Steam as well, making an already crowded market even moreso. 


3. Define success

Measuring success is a difficult, but important task. Regardless of your position, rookie or seasoned dev, have goals. Current best practice is SMART goals. If you're having troubles on what goals to have outside of sales, think long-term growth. If it's your first game, you aren't creating your magnum opus or becoming an overnight millionaire, have a path. Social media followers, reviews, ratings, wish lists, media views, engagement, development and QA time, bugs, etc. Be creative, but purposeful. While we all hope that we launch the golden goose into early retirement, as you may remember in part 1, less than 50% of launched games make a profit. Temper the expectations.

When setting goals, use games from similar size devs from your game research above and challenge yourself. Set a goal that's reasonable, but acceptable, compared to other's past performance; like aiming for a C. It passes the class, but you could have done better. But also set a reach goal, something that challenges you to succeed beyond what you thought you could achieve, but still in reality. Then write them down!

Define Success, Goals, define goals,
There was no way I was getting through this series without atleast one Dilbert comic.

But how do you reach those goals? Social media, content creation, advertising, etc. We will absolutely be talking about these things in future posts and how to be more effective when doing them. But, for now, put yourself out there. The more exposure you get, the better your chances of success.

Goals should be important to your growth as a developer. In the event that self-dev isn't for you or move into another industry, you have these accomplishments to mention on your résumé/CV.


4. Define your target audience

Defining your audience is understanding who will be most interested in your game? Much of your initial targeting is going to be based on who YOU think is going to be interested in the game. However, as time goes on, you'll gather more data as you gain followers and these demographics will shift.

Target Audience.
Use this list as a start, but feel free to expand, especially in game genres and styles.

Much of this section is going to mimic the outputs from your game definition section,which, as I mentioned is that doing the tedious work early will facilitate later activities.  

In addition, because of how advanced advertising has become online, you can target people who like specific games, genres, characters, creators, etc. 

Who is your core audience? Be pragmatic and honest. Alter your list as your game evolves and takes form. 

Now, think of all the places that you will be able to find these people. BE CREATIVE! You have the obvious subreddits, Facebook Groups, Discords, etc., but go nuts. There's no such thing as too many locations right now. Think outside the box. More is better. We will talk about narrowing the scope later on.

Outside the box tip: Remember how I mentioned looking at YouTube/Twitch for walkthroughs, playthroughs, etc? Make sure you take down what streamers played those games and do research on them. Do they play specific types of games or are they variety streamers? Have they been binging specific genres lately? Are there specific art styles that these creators enjoy that matches your game? You're not targeting streamers, you're targeting their fans. There's some ulterior motives for this in later posts.

Oh. Did I mention? WRITE THIS ALL DOWN!


5. What are your selling points?

People need frames of reference to understand a anything new. How often have you heard "It's like X and Y had a love child" or "Think of Z, but if it had T" Besides, how do you explain to someone something that doesn't already exist. (If you ever want an interesting thought game, get someone to explain a current technology to a caveman.)

Game development, digital marketing
Exhibit A: Immortals: Fenix Rising. Ubisoft retools Breath of the Wild who retooled Assassins Creed.

People don't want different, they don't want the same either. They want familiar. I give you Exhibit A. Notice the frames of reference in the introduction? The writer provides a reference window to build their article so audiences understands what the writer is talking about. Remember: Marketing is about effectively communicating a product or service to its intended audience.

The key comes in building from familiar and defining your differences. This requires strong understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a dev. Leave the ego and self-consciousness at the door, honesty of your capabilities is required.

Are you more programming focused? Animation? Maybe music. You're going to have shortcomings somewhere and that's fine. We can't be a master of everything. Your future marketing plans will be about highlighting your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses. 

If you find that your weaknesses significantly effect the game you want to make, you have two options. Find someone who is willing to work with you or start learning yourself. This will obviously be effected by your intended timelines and available free time, but choices you have to consider. And, of course... write it all down. Your needs and your wants.


"I'm just an indie dev, I can't/don't..."

Every problem has a solution.

There are a couple philosophies in how to structure a marketing budget, but marketing, especially in AAA studios, gets MASSIVE budgets. Looking through as much info as I could find, estimates put marketing budgets of a given AAA game between 50%-80% of a total budget, much of this based on target markets and a number of other things. 

As mentioned in Part 1, many people equate marketing to advertising. Yes, advertising is a massive portion of that budget, but it also takes into account social media, press and media relations, research, content creation (blogs, trailers, images, videos, etc), and the salaries of those people and the various support functions personnel. Then, add on the layers of management coordinating all of these activities and costs balloon quickly.

You don't have to have a massive budget, but you have to make up for it in effort and creativeness to be effective. You just have to be clever and efficient in how you manage your marketing. This is part of the reason I have told you to write all these things down. So you can look at, think on, plan, and have fun with unique marketing strategies. 

Notice how much of a contrast AAA is to indie devs. Not only in budget, but effort and priority. As a game dev, have you spent half of your game development marketing your game? When you discuss with other devs, how much planning and time have they, honestly, put into marketing? Many studios don't have a marketing resource because, understandably, having someone working on activities that don't directly contribute to launching the project is a tough cost to swallow. But, having spent so much time making something I love only to have a handful of people buy the game would be harder.


Wait... you said "part" of the reason?

The reason I say part of the reason you should write everything down is, I have some ulterior motives for you, the dev. 

If you're making your own game and wanting to make it into a career, treat it as such. Make a business plan. Be a professional. All those things I asked you to write down. The brainstorming, planning, documentation; you are building a business plan and are already a good deal of the way through completing a pitch deck to help sell your game to, not only publishers, but individual investors who can help you with funding, bringing on more help to make your game, or, you know, having a budget to market your game.

I really hope many of you are opening up to the idea of how important marketing is to a project and the impact of having a dedicated resource can have. Marketing research is just the base of which all decisions are made and altered. However, if you are concerned about how to turn all of this information into action, the upcoming blogs will be taking all of our groundwork we have done here and turning it into actions to get more people interested in your project.

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