It's an unfortunate truth that many indie game developers start and stop all their indie game marketing and promotions efforts at posting press releases to gaming news outlets like Gamespot, IGN, and Polygon. Though the confluence of many technological and market factors have created a period where indie games have an unprecedented possibility of success and discovery, the vast majority of indie games (and perforce, indie game makers), struggle with obscurity.
Managing Your Web Presence
The fact is that most reporters won't report on anything there isn't a readership for. If they haven't heard a little buzz about your game, they likely won't even respond to emails sent trying to land an article hook. So, what do you do? You manage your web presence to build a strong grassroots following. This largely starts with promoting a website for the game, a strong social presence, and work from there. Ideally, this is all begun pre-launch.
One of the biggest things is to have a website for your game which matches the game's aesthetic, provides lots of information regarding gameplay, the devs behind it, and what players can expect. Build newsletter sign-ups on every page, and offer something free for those who sign up: tracks from the score, and ability to be beta-testers, are among the biggest hits. Crowdsourcing help for beta testing like this is a great way to begin building a database of reviews and potential social influencers right off of the bat.
Most indie devs operate on a shoestring budget, so a custom-developed website is often right out of the picture: but you can build a free website using several website tools in a few hours, using pre-designed templates that function beautifully but use custom imaging. Start building social profiles as well: facebook, instagram, twitter, the whole shebang. Make a point of posting daily, follow the greats, and begin building an audience… that you then redirect to your website.
The instinct with social media is to just post links to the website and where to buy the game: don't do that. Produce harder-hitting content, pose questions to the broader community, offer free collateral. The worst thing anyone could do at this stage is see your post… and never interact with it. For good inspiration, look to the older posts of great indie devs who made it big: what of their posts got the most comments or likes? Could you do something similar?
Developing PR Collateral For News Outlets
When you've got a few hundred likes, followers, friends, or regular visitors to your website, you head over to the other important audience: article writers for major game publications. By now, you should have been interacting with the public, and with potential fans, long enough to have developed a company identity. A company identity is, in short, your 'voice' when you interact as a brand. If your company wrote a press release, would it be casual? Cuss-filled? Jokey? Formal? The general rule of thumb is not to be so casual that a reader can imagine you writing it in sweatpants with one hand stuck in a Pringle's can, but not so formal that it feels like you're the intro speaker for a bank's boardroom meeting.
Begin writing a collection of press releases announcing your game using the same tone associated with your brand in social media. If you're having trouble, hire a writer. Odesk, Fiverr, and other outsourcing platforms exist to help you save time and money, and if you need to hire a temp writer to keep from embarrassing yourself to media, then you absolutely should. Because you can bet that they'll remember your brand and your game if your email header opens with 'Attached is our completed game that we all made ourselves'. Your should always market your game as if it's worth a million dollars.
Shoot basic and broad press releases on slow newsdays, and ideally weeks before or after major gaming events or releases. For more detailed press releases, or for the actual release of the game, go a little deeper: identify news sources and scroll the newsreel to find out which staff members are most likely to cover your segment. Learn about their interests, what they like, don't like, and craft a personalized email to them with their name in the header. Discuss in the body of the email why you think they should cover your game, what's different about your company and your game, and link to your press release, your website ,screenshots, and videos… all in-text, not as attachments. Files with attachments are more likely to be put through filters. Note the numbers of the interest fans and potential clients you've built in the first phase, and include quotes from them.
Trade Shows & Live Events
Indie games can benefit from the exposure of appearing at trade shows and live events, but relatively few know how to up the ante for them. The worst thing you could do is have the devs sit at a folding table, doing nothing but passing out flyers.
Ideally, you want to create a situation where people can play your game. Not the beta: the real thing. A hot trend these days is to create a space where users feel like they're at home: if your game is console-based, craigslist some arm chairs and kitchy side tables to build a home atmosphere, bring a tv (or three) and give visitors five or ten minute sessions. Nothing builds interest like exposure! If your game is PC-based, try a similar tactic.
Impressions built in person are worth their weight in gold, and each person who attends a trade show, con, or event should be considered a gateway into their own personal network: which can be filled with potential buyers. Make an outstanding impression with the one, and they may promote you to their hundreds of friends and followers… for free. A great tactic is to give out free copies of the game to individuals who post about the game to social media. But whether or not people post, or play the game at a gaming event booth… they should always walk away with something free. If your brand is on a serious shoestring budget, this can be as simple a thing as water bottles or keychain beer openers.
But even if you're on the cheap, there are a lot of dramatic ways to make a great impact. Several soda companies (notably Coca-Cola) allow individuals to purchase custom-printed soft drink cans and bottles: if you can foot the bill, get several dozen printed with the name of your game. Wearable swag has the longest shelf-life, and t-shirts or sunglasses help to advertise you every time they're worn. Alternatively? Give away branded items seen or used in the game. Promoting a horror game where you need a flashlight? Get some bulk logo'd flashlights to give out! A dating sim? Fake engagement ring boxes could be a big hit.