What Games Are Not
Games, as @retroremakes paraphrases my mini Twitter rant, are not commodities. This is a good thing because commodities are goods or services that have substantial fungibility - that is they can easily be substituted.
Copper is a commodity. Crude oil is a commodity. Tea leaves, coffee beans, and sugar are commodities.
There is only one Diablo 3. There are similar games, but the fungibility is low; Torchlight 2 is not a proper substitute.
You can absolutely have games that act as commodities, such as high accuracy clones within a mobile market, but we're not going to discuss those here, because you weren't so foolish as to try and make and sell one of those, right?
Why Does This Matter?
Within the last few months I've been distressed at an appalling spate of poor analyses within (indie) game development. They range from urges to aim for small games that earn 1,000% profit, citing indie game development bubbles, and more recently suggesting game developers are in dire straits because of an impending "indie mass extinction event".
I've already addressed most of the doomsaying in previous posts - I'm not interested in lending any more page space to that stuff. Instead I will talk about what you can do if you want to sell commercial indie games successfully.
Aside: The insufferable phrase "it depends" is implicit throughout most of this. Anyone telling you they have a hard and fast process to strike indie game oil 100% of the time is pissing in your sugary breakfast cereal. This doesn't mean it's all up to the roll of some dice, it just means you need to focus your attention and time and effort on elements you can actually control. You know, like most of life's endeavors.
Understand the What and the Who
I've said that obscurity is the biggest obstacle to indie devs and this is still true. The key to this is knowing, very deeply and assuredly, what you are making. The lock is who you are making this thing for.
There are a myriad of ways to fail:
- Having a poor trailer (e.g. 10 seconds of your pointless company logo, 10 seconds of buildup, you get the idea.)
- Technical issues like crashing or corrupt save files.
- Uninteresting game loops.
- Inappropriate pricing.
- Marketing/PR issues.
- Poor launch due to timing or other factors.
- Your payment processor/distribution platform went AWOL.
- You can't sell your game because your cat chewed through your website server cables.
Et cetera. Warner Bros. sure did underestimate how negatively PC gamers would react to all those technical issues - the backlash with Steam refunds and Batman: Arkham Knight was sincerely astounding to see unfold.
So understand what your product and/or service is, first and foremost. I don't mean in broad strokes. Don't tell me your game is "A pixel art platformer." Tell me your game is, "A cooperative precision platformer with backstabbing elements in a rich, colorful water-moon world." Or something like that. If you can't even excite yourself with your game description go back to the drawing board.
I really mean this because you're eventually going to try to sell someone with the concept of what your product is. Nothing will kill your sales faster than a description no one has any interest in (aside from no one knowing about your game!)
Move and Shoot Game
That's what my game Steam Marines 1 is, and what Steam Marines 2 will be. Sure, there's window dressing: Oh, you're controlling steampunk marines on a spaceship fighting robots and aliens! Oh, there are roleplaying elements and you have character portraits and stats and armor and weapons and, and, and...
But at the end of the day the game is about moving and shooting. If someone does not enjoy moving and shooting, they will not enjoy either Steam Marines game.
Aside: You'll note that shooting already implies a bit of narrative sugar on top of the game mechanics. Shooty games are different from point-and-click adventure games although you're generally still placing a cursor on a thing and clicking.
It's important to sell directly to your audience if you're an indie developer. This is why we should be happy games are not a commodity. You will spend your time explaining in loving, but concise, detail why your game is not SPACE MARINES IN SPACE 6: THE SPACENING. You will explain this one awesome core mechanic that binds the game together. You can sell the narrative - steady progress as enemies close in all around you, or a procedural world to explore and burrow and build, or everyone is playing mind games with your character and you have to escape a web of lies.
And it's more important than ever that you sell them on, and deliver, a real idea. Not some carbon copied anemic version of an idea. Forget Steam refunds - if you want to do this long term you should want to cultivate 1) a core user base, and 2) a reputation for producing quality.
Aside: When I say quality, I mean quality to the people who understand and want and are willing to pay for your product. You can't please everyone, but there are definitely some people you should want to please.
Find a niche, a specialty, and fill it while ringing a bell. You are not selling salt for fifty cents a pound, you are selling BEST F%$^ING GAME OF THE YEAR 2016 FOR $9.99 USD, COME ONE, COME ALL.
There are market realities to face. It is unlikely your zombie survival simulator is going to stand out from the crowd of other zombie survival simulators. Yes, even if it's a Souls-like. This does not mean the games market is over saturated, or that you can't sell zombie survival simulators. I'm just saying you're going to run into some competition in that market.
I promise you one thing: you are not anywhere near market saturation for your tiny indie game. Your problem is the exact opposite - you haven't got anywhere near the sets of eyeballs to glaze over your game. Now there is a cost to getting more eyeballs on your game, and if your potential market is too small this can mean it's not cost effective to try and market more.
Aside: Early on when I was developing Steam Marines many people (other developers!) remarked on my amazing incompetence for trying to make a commercial roguelike. These days commercial roguelikes are thriving and those sorts of people now call me a sellout. What-the-fuck-ever.
But as Simon Roth says, it's way cheaper to market a game a bit more than to make a whole new game. Also, you can probably use the practice.
There are many ways to stand out, and from my last five years of observations most indie developers do next to none of them (including myself when I first started, I might add.)
Aside 1: You may ask how I could possibly know that last bit, and it's because sometimes I'll just straight up ask them what they did for marketing/PR. The short version is tweeting a few times and posting to Screenshot Saturday is not a good marketing plan. Sometimes you get sad public accounts of developers basically admitting they did nothing.
(Edit: Raigan Burns, a developer of N++ and author of the above linked Neogaf post, emailed me and explained that the N++ team actually spent "about $50k and 3 months on marketing through the course of the project". So perhaps N++ is more an example of marketing gone wrong as opposed to zero effort.)
Aside 2: "Build it and they will come" is bullshit. That's no kind of business strategy.
The Devil's in the Details
Marketing is not a dirty word. It means communicating the value of your game to potential customers. That's it. However you do it, be it social media or gaming websites or good old fashioned feet on the ground knocking on doors, you're trying to say "Hey, look at this great thing you may be interested in!"
Things you can do to market and promote your games:
- Setup Presskit.
- Setup DoDistribute.
- Check out PixelProspector's Big List of Indie Game Sites (and more!)
- Make a Twitter account and start networking (seriously like all the devs are here.)
- Start participating in one or more game developer hubs like TigSource or GameDev.net.
- Start a blog. Cogmind's dev blog is a great example.
- Help others and get helped in return (see Rami of Vlambeer who made Presskit and DoDistribute.)
- Talk to game journalists. Read their previous game reviews to get a sense of what they like regarding genres, mechanics, and so forth.
- Use data from sites like SteamSpy and SteamCharts to get a lay of the land. I'd avoid SteamSpy analysis.
- Go to events like GDC or PAX.
Those are just some of the more generic resources and options. In my case I physically went to board game meetups because Steam Marines had intrinsic appeal to those people. You can go to genre or device (iOS/Android) specific podcasts or streaming channels on Twitch or YouTube.
Not every platform is going to dump your game in front of hundreds of thousands or millions of eyeballs - you should probably hit as many as you reasonably can. There are many postmortems of successful Kickstarter campaigns and you can learn a lot from those - there's a ton of overlap!
Ignore Greenlight postmortems - Greenlight is a seriously low barrier to entry these days.
If this sounds like it'd be an awful lot of work... it is. The bottom line is if no one knows about your game no one will buy it. That's a bit of an irreducible problem.
Holy Moly, Batman!
You don't have to do all of these. In fact you most likely do not have the time to do so, particularly if you are a one person shop. There are lots and lots of resources on indie game development, the business and marketing angles, and so on. The internet is a vast and wonderful resource - use it to your advantage.
Thanks for reading,
You can contact me via Twitter or leave a comment below.