As the indie scene has grown and as Steam has lowered visibility for indie developers on its platform, discoverability for smaller studios is an incredible challenge. Even when you do all of what the marketing the gurus tell you to do, meaningful traction is hard to come by.
Classic marketing advice usually includes some or all of the following:
Soliciting reviews from bloggers and streamers
Social media marketing
Attending cons and expos
Building your email list
We go hard on all of these points, with physical and digital boots to the pavement to drum-up exposure for our games, but we still feel like we have to claw and kick our way to every new player with these methods. That doesn't mean they aren't worth doing. It just means that by themselves they aren't providing the number of players we think our games are capable of supporting.
As we work with more publishers and as we become a more mature, experienced development team, we're learning that key game design decisions can drive the organic traction and word-of-mouth marketing surrounding games, which means you need to think about marketing as you make the game, not after it's completed.
Here are three highlights from our process that are helping us find success:
Look at your game with a roguelike lens. Even if your game doesn't fall squarely in the roguelike genre, introducing elements of randomization and variations in play experiences add a great deal of replayability and also make your game more fun to stream. If your game is a single-play kind of game, you will get much less screen time and therefore have fewer people talking about it for any period of time.
Twitch is a key organic channel, so test your game there as soon as you can. Giving streamers early copies of your game, even if it's still in development, lets you see streamer and viewer reactions to your work before you've finalized all of the mechanics. For streamers, your game test sessions can be used for exclusive, private streams (if they so choose), and you get to learn about the potential traction of your game.
Stream integration will be a big deal in the near future. Microsoft's Mixer might not be the Twitch-killer they're hoping for, but the stream integration technology is compelling. As streamers become even more important, expect viewers to be able to influence the gameplay, perhaps by voting on what happens next or donating to spawn bigger, badder enemies to torture the streamer. This is new, but we're already seeing positive results from it.
But how does that look in an actual game? This is what we are doing with Coffee Crisis:
We looked at our code and found ways to make it modular, reusing and repurposing things we already made to extend replayability. Simple changes like adding shaders to characters to give them "elite" status all the way through building power-ups and randomized scenarios out of existing variables all come together to make the game more dynamic and to make each playthrough feel different.
We started testing with streamers early on and have continued streamer testing as we make changes and adjust features. Going through a big block of video—sometimes five hours or more of a single stream—can feel monotonous. We have also been working on Mixer integration, and the results there are also really exciting. Seeing viewers spawn more aliens to harass their favorite streamers (playfully) is always good for laughs, but more importantly, it's good for the streamers, their viewers, and for the gameplay experience.
As we continue to grow, we're leaning into these sorts of approaches to game design more and more. The industry is evolving, of course, and there will be new organic opportunities to explore there, but the evolution of streaming is particularly interesting and has a lot of potential for helping indie studios like ours get a foothold and directly engage gamers. I'd suggest any Indie of any size take advantage of this kind of opportunity to watch people play your games, give feedback, and see what really resonates with them. For example, our game Coffee Crisis was a hit with the streamers we worked with, which is showing as we continue to expand the game's platforms. It had a measurable impact on the Steam sales but really carried over in a magnified way to the Xbox One version. We hope the same holds true for the Nintendo Switch & PS4 releases this fall!
Our experience with these methodologies really helped up with Coffee Crisis. To expand upon this we've added Twitch & Mixer into one of our soon to be on interactive kickstarter titles: Log Jammers. We've been fine-tuning the online multiplayer for a while to ensure a seamless experience, iterating on user feedback for the interactives, and generally buttoning it up for a fast release. The community building on its own has been impactful, and if it's a good fit for your game, consider this a feature set worth your time.