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Publicity Is the Hardest Part of Game Development

Cipher Prime, a four man game studio in Philadelphia, recently funded a $60,000 Kickstarter project for the sequel to our first game, Auditorium. We learned a lot about how little we knew about publicity.

Andrei Marks, Blogger

March 29, 2012

8 Min Read

If you haven't seen the data that Kickstarter provides for project creators, here's a little taste. This is the graph that grows slowly as the days in your funding period tick by.

Auditorium Duet Kickstarter Graph

The slope of the line at any given point in time correlates directly to your emotional state. Our graph reads: hope, subdued hope, disappointment, despair, slightly less despair, resignation, cautious amazement, orgiastic elation.

Our company's name is Cipher Prime. We love making games. We've even sold some of them (Auditorium, Pulse, Fractal). But as a small four person company, not yet four years old, we exist in a state of marketing limbo. We're not completely obscure, but we still fly well under the radar of the gaming community at large.

When we decided to do a month long Kickstarter for Auditorium Duet, we knew we were in for an uphill battle. We know that there are people out there who like our games and our style. But throughout the Kickstarter we were painfully aware of how limited our ability to reach out to those people was.

This is a rough summary of our publicity plan. Some of these things we did, and did well. Some of them we have yet to do. We offer these ideas as advice for other game developers in a similar position to us, because we think that Kickstarter is a powerful funding tool that will help a lot of great games made.

  • Big game press is damned hard to get.

    • The largest outlet we were able to get on our own was Joystiq, which featured our story for the first week. Otherwise, cold calling, submitting news, and trying to get in contact with editors/writers was pretty much a bust. We did get a few news articles or mentions on several more well-trafficked sites, but the only reason we ended up on Giant Bomb was that Patrick Klepek contacted us. There aren't any definite solutions to this, just keep meeting people and keep networking.

  • Little game press is easy to get.

    • We gave Steam keys out to anyone who wanted to review the original Auditorium's rerelease, and we did a bunch of interviews with anyone who asked. It was a big time commitment, for probably a minimal amount of eyes, but we thought it was still important to build relationships with budding game writers and sites, and it still gets our company's name out there for search engines. You also meet a bunch of cool people.

  • Aggressive comment follow-up.

    • If someone wrote a story about us, we went a little out of our way to answer people's questions or clear up misconceptions about our company and Kickstarter. There are limits to this, of course, as this sort of stuff can suck up all of your dev time, and not all comments have good answers.

  • In-house mailing list.

    • We have a roughly 24k person mailing list, built up over the years, which we hit once at the beginning of the Kickstarter, once at the midway point, once at the beginning of this week, and we're planning on at least one more. You must reach out to these people, because they're the ones interested in your work in the first place. If you don't have a mailing list for your company, start one and encourage people to sign up. Just don't abuse it.

  • Local name brand is awesome.

    • Philly's game dev scene is really small, so we can be called a "Philly game studio" and have it mean something. If you're in a location where a place can "own" you, definitely take advantage of it. Local tech sites are happy to feature you, and even smaller news outlets are way more willing to talk and write about you. We also participate actively in our local IGDA chapter and other small groups, and were one of the sponsors for the Global Game Jam here in Philly. The friends you make help you out big time. We know they were our most vocal supporters throughout the Kickstarter.

  • Cross-Game promotion.

    • Before the Kickstarter went off, we updated our two iPad games to display a little flag in the menus that links directly to the Kickstarter. They will disappear after the Kickstarter. We also timed the launch of the Kickstarter to coincide with the rerelease of our first game on Steam. The Steam description promotes the Kickstarter as well.

  • Regular website promotion.

    • Our two highest trafficked sites are cipherprime.com and playauditorium.com, they both have very prominent Kickstarter banners.

  • "Lateral publicity".

    • We love, love, love Starcraft 2, and we've started an at least monthly online tournament where you compete for pizza (we call it Pizzacraft). We held the first one last Saturday. We kept it small because it was an experiment, but we wish we'd started it months ago because we're just getting started and we think it has big potential for getting our name out there.

  • Missed lateral publicity.

    • We really should have more educational stuff out in the aether. We participate in monthly Unity technical meetups in Philly, and occasionally give talks at local educational institutions about design or music in game development. We have a lot of in-house knowledge that we could potentially share. These are the sort of things we should be putting on Youtube and providing to the community at large.

  • Game Giveaways.

    • This was something that is potentially very useful, but we're a small team with different opinions about the business consequences of giving away large amounts of product, and for the sake of team harmony we decided not to do a big game giveaway.

  • Social media.

    • We have really lopsided social media use. Twitter we're great at (follow us!), but we never really contribute to gaming forums or social news sites. We'd like to improve on that, because we think that's a huge piece missing from the formula. If you don't use social media because it's tedious and irrelevant to making games, that's fine and partly true. But it's a different story when you're trying to sell games.

    • Twitter.

      • Make sure you have an account, and stay active, funny, and kind. Also be aware of how the beast works. For our final push we began an aggressive Twitter campaign of scheduled tweets at larger game companies and news sites, all talking about our project. Even if they ignored us, we garnered a number of retweets that succeeded in spreading the word.

    • Facebook.

      • I was loathe to spam my Facebook friend's list, but I stomached the awkwardness and invited everyone to a faux end-of-kickstarter event. Our team alone netted 1,500 eyes, which blew that number up hundreds more people. And even if only a fraction of those people realized this wasn't an actual event, they still noticed that there was a Kickstarter going on.

  • Paid Advertising.

    • Haha, we wish.

  • Luck.

    • Our Kickstarter had pretty good timing, coming in the wake of the Double Fine and Wasteland 2 successes. We were a fairly sizeable project (read: more than several thousand dollars) that was aggressively pursuing our project. I know we benefited immensely by just walking in the shadow of titans, because we could be a project that was held up as a counter example. Would we succeed? Would we fail? Were we riding on Double Fine's coattails? Were we doomed because of their success? The portrayal is less important than the readership. As time passes this story won't be as compelling, but there will always be something interesting about projects, and you have to leverage that something into news.

  • Your fans are the most wonderful people on earth.

    • You can't please everyone, and not everyone will like your games. But there are people who love your games more than anything and they go out of your way to support you. We are so incredibly grateful to these people and are willing to go out of our way to make sure we deserve that support.

A crowd-funding project like Kickstarter is a serious time commitment. It is inherently risky because it cuts severely into development time, with the possibility getting nothing out of that time. But whatever the outcome, you'll still learn a lot about your marketing reach and abilities.

In any case, because we've been lurking the Kickstarter website so much in this past month, we've become so incredibly enamored with the idea of it. There is so much cool stuff out there that is just waiting to be made! We'll definitely be doing smaller kickstarters for future games and side projects. We've also made the Kicking It Forward pledge, and whatever happens, we plan on using company funds to contribute to at least two projects a month.

Anyway, hope some of this helps people out there, if you have any questions feel free to ask! And, of course, please check out our Kickstarter!

(Adapted from my original reddit post.)

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