There is so much that goes into making even a small game: design, writing, art, playtesting, editing, publishing, etc. And yet, making games is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to running an independent game studio. Even if you make an amazing game, it can be difficult to find customers if you don’t invest an equal amount of time and resources into marketing.
As someone who is new to the games industry, I am trying to focus on small achievable milestones as I learn new skills. I know that my first projects won’t have the scope or resources like well-known indie games like Gone Home, Butterfly Soup, or Dream Askew. But I’d still like to give them all the love and polish and attention that I can, and that includes marketing.
So, I reached out to a couple of other indie game designers who have released successful narrative games with queer themes to learn more about what strategies and tactics they used to market their games. I spoke with Jay Dragon about their tabletop RPG Sleepaway and Sisi Jiang about their IGF-nominated interactive fiction game LIONKILLER.
Sleepaway by Jay Dragon
Jay Dragon is a prolific role-playing game designer. Since joining itch.io 12 months ago, they have published 24 game projects there, many of which are compilations of multiple games. Some of their games are poems, some are zines, some are rituals, some are secrets.
Sleepaway is currently Jay’s best-known game and largest publicly released game. It is a tabletop RPG about a group of camp counselors defending their campers from a terrible creature known as the Lindworm. The Sleepaway book is 130 pages and contains illustrations and character art by multiple artists.
I asked Jay why Sleepaway was the one game of their many RPGs released in the last year to get this lavish treatment.
“I made the game and then I looked at it and I realized that it was going to be bigger than anything else I had made yet. It was like, okay this is going to be a chonky boi, and so I need to make this what it deserves to be. I have artist friends, so let me do a Kickstarter and pay them what they’re worth.”
In addition to that desire to do the game justice with a fully featured publication, Jay also believed that the potential market for Sleepaway was significantly larger than the market for many of their smaller lyric games. This intuition proved correct when they launched the Kickstarter and surpassed their initial goal of $3500 and raised over $14,000 from 501 backers.
Before the Kickstarter
While Jay may be relatively new to itch.io and publishing printed games, Jay is not new to game design. They started running, producing, and designing large-scale LARP events when they were 14 years old. This decade of experience has honed Jay’s ability to conceptualize and pitch games to different audiences.
“People always make fun of me, because when I write something, I write the title first before I write anything else. When I sit down to make a game, I have the concept in my head and I’m like ‘what’s the game called?’ And then I name it something and then I can write it. But I can’t write a game unless I know what it’s called.”
Funnily enough, Sleepaway originally had a different title when Jay first started writing it. Jay knew at the time it wasn’t the right title, so after the game was finished, they went back and changed it. Once the title changed, Jay felt like they were ready for Kickstarter, because they knew the best way to pitch the game.
“One of the most important skills in all of this is just being able to give a good elevator pitch and then making sure all aspects of your product connect back to that elevator pitch. I see a lot of people fail at that on Kickstarter. If I look at the title and the tagline and the cover art and I don’t already know what it is and why I should back it, they’ve already made an enormous mistake.”
Jay had the pitch, but knew if the Kickstarter was going to be successful, they needed phenomenal cover art.
Jay negotiated with one of their artist friends to create the Sleepaway cover art. Because Jay has spent years in the LARP and TTRPG communities, they have many talented friends who are willing to collaborate. This was essential, because while Jay has many skills (game design, writing, graphic design, marketing, distribution, printing, publishing), they also have a very realistic understanding of their own limitations.
“I do not know how to do art. I do not know how to edit. I do not know how to manage podcasts. But I know a lot of artists, editors, and podcasters.”
- Know your game’s elevator pitch, maybe even before you make the game
- Don’t be afraid to change your pitch if it isn’t working
- Befriend as many cool talented people as you can
During the Kickstarter
Once the cover art was complete, Jay felt they had enough material to launch the Kickstarter. The text of the game was mostly complete, and the success of the Kickstarter would determine exactly how much additional art Jay could commission.
To coincide with the Kickstarter, Jay released an early PDF version of Sleepaway online for people to test. This lets people see the game mechanics and world-building at work in Sleepaway before deciding to back the project. It also gave Jay some much-needed playtesting feedback to help finalize the game.
Most of Jay’s promotional efforts for the Sleepaway Kickstarter happened through Twitter. Jay only had about 250 Twitter followers when they started promoting Sleepaway, by the end they had 500. Sleepaway was also promoted by Kickstarter on its front page and the cover art was featured in an io9 article about Kickstarter projects.
Jay attributes some of Sleepaway’s success to having a good range of reward tiers.
“You want a lot of different ways for people to buy your product. And you want at least one of those options to be as expensive as fuck. Because there are people who will just scroll down and pick the most expensive option. And you need to make sure that expensive option is an appealing thing.”
The high-end reward for Sleepaway was a limited-edition hardcover copy with alternate cover art and additional play materials in the appendices. A quick analysis of the % of money raised by the highest tiers compared to the % of backers in those tiers shows how impactful a compelling high-end reward can be. The top 17% of backers brought in 45% of the money for Sleepaway.
|Reward||Price||Backers||Total $||% of Backers||% of $|
|Softcover + donated copy||$50||23||$1150||5%||8%|
|Hardcover + donated copy||$90||32||$2880||6%||20%|
If Jay could go back and do the Sleepaway Kickstarter again, there are a few additional tactics they would put in place (learned from subsequent Kickstarter campaigns Jay has managed):
Line up appearances on podcasts in advance so they air during the campaign
Record an “Actual Play” so people can watch/listen to get a feel for the game
One thing they are glad they chose not to do is offer international shipping options.
“I have watched too many people get burned as they Kickstarted something and then the international shipping costs changed. Suddenly a project that had made them $2000 – all of that was gone.”
Jay feels confident in their ability to manage international shipping for projects now, but given that Sleepaway was their first big Kickstarter, it was a strategic move to limit the scope to what they knew they could handle.
- Launch your Kickstarter when you have a minimum viable product
- Give potential backers lots of options to test drive your game (demo, actual play, etc.)
- Include a range of reward tiers so you can capture the full value of your game
- Scope your project to your current capabilities
Sleepaway was a big hit for Jay. Not only was it an artistically and financially successful product in and of itself, but it has brought more attention to all of Jay’s games. Since Sleepaway, Jay has launched a number of other games, including Esoteric and The Flower Court, and has seen them receive more attention than similar games launched before Sleepaway. As of the time of writing this article, Esoteric is the highest-rated lyric game on itch.io and The Flower Court joins Sleepaway as one of the top-rated queer physical games.
Esoteric and The Flower Court are also prime examples of the two very different markets that Jay serves with their games.
“One of my audiences is the game designer/writer person, who is already in the industry. So, a lot of my lyric games are kind of inside baseball. My other big demographic is queer people who like Dungeons & Dragons, but don’t know how to go next level with it or are turned off by all the math.”
Sleepaway was a rare game that served both of Jay’s audiences. Even though the Kickstarter is long over, it continues to sell well on itch.io (it has made an additional $2500 there).
Jay sees Twitter, itch.io, and Kickstarter as key referral sources that continue to cross-pollinate. Whenever Jay helps a friend run a Kickstarter project and gets listed there, they see a boost on itch.io and Twitter. Jay’s growing Twitter following (now approaching 1000), has boosted sales and pledges on both itch.io and Kickstarter.
LIONKILLER by Sisi Jiang
Sisi Jiang is a narrative designer and game writer who created the IGF-nominated game LIONKILLER. In LIONKILLER, the player takes on the role of Hua Mulan and makes choices that may lead them to love, war, and many other possibilities. LIONKILLER is remarkable for many reasons. Even before it became the first Twine game ever to be nominated for an IGF award, it was showing up on Best of 2019 lists alongside games with larger teams and budgets.
Before LIONKILLER, Sisi built their skills studying history and moderating roleplaying forums.
“I actually started going on roleplaying forums to write fiction. But then I started learning more about code. Because, in that world, the people who were the most powerfully socially were the ones who knew how to code. They became celebrities and commodities, people wanted to become friends with them so they could get the best custom websites and communities. I learned to code because I didn't like the appearance of the existing designs.”
Sisi was involved with the online roleplaying communities for seven years before moving over to Twine and LIONKILLER. Their ability to code in HTML and CSS made transitioning to Twine relatively easy. However, perhaps the most important knowledge they gained for forums was understanding what keeps readers engaged in play spaces that are primarily text.
“I think what made LIONKILLER successful—despite my complete lack of budget—is I think I really did hit an audience that was starved for this kind of interactive fiction.
A lot of interactive fiction are basically puzzle boxes, which don't interest me as much. Some of them are fun, but a lot of people out there aren’t interested in puzzle boxes. I really hit an audience that wants to play games where they feel things rather than just navigating rooms and solving a mystery.
I didn’t really intend it to be that way. I just sat down and thought, ‘what kind of game would I like to play?’ and then I made it.”
Throughout our conversation, Sisi and I kept returning to this idea that certain types of games and players are routinely ignored and delegitimized by the industry because they are coded as feminine or queer (e.g. Neopets, roleplaying forums, free-to-play mobile games). But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a passionate market hungry for that content. In fact, quite the opposite, it is a perennially underserved market.
LIONKILLER Part I
Sisi started working on LIONKILLER in May 2018. Their operating budget was effectively zero. They only were able to work on it because they worked a graveyard shift job with a lot of downtime. They had a grand vision for LIONKILLER but knew they couldn’t execute it with their current resources. So, they released the first part for free on itch.io in October 2018. They submitted it to a couple of independent game festivals and were rejected from both.
They put further development of LIONKILLER on hold and worked on some smaller game projects for a while. That could have been the end of the story if it wasn’t for a chance email they received in March 2019 from Emily Nguyen at Wattpad. Emily had come across LIONKILLER while searching for interactive fiction projects to use as test products for their new app. I pressed Sisi on how exactly Emily found LIONKILLER Part I.
“Emily said that her division was basically paying her to play Twine games to find good ones to use as test cases. So, there was someone who was specifically trawling a very specific subset of games. And I think when she was looking, this game was listed like 27th in its category on itch.io because enough people had downloaded it. So, I think it helped that it wasn’t on the very bottom of that list. But it still felt like luck.”
Sisi said Emily also mentioned that the game itself stood out from many of the others she reviewed. So, the quality of LIONKILLER’s design is not a negligible factor in its success.
WattPad agreed to fund the development of LIONKILLER Parts II & III in exchange for it launching on the Tap app. Part I launched on Tap on May 17, 2019 and was followed by Parts II & III to complete the game on July 15, 2019.
- Don’t discount experience you have gained in “non-traditional” spaces
- Make the game you want to play, even if it’s not standard for that genre
- Release the first part of your game even if you can’t currently complete the rest
A week before the full version of LIONKILLER launched, Disney released the first trailer for the live-action version of Mulan. Naturally, Sisi had a lot of thoughts about it and decided to tweet about it. One of those tweets exploded, getting 1600 retweets, 2900 likes, and leading to 1000 downloads of LIONKILLER Part I. I asked how intentional this marketing strategy was.
“That tweet was not calculated. A lot of things I do just aren’t that calculated.
To me it was just a reaction. I looked at that trailer and I was just like ‘ewww, they really did that’ and then I sent a tweet. Later I came back to my phone and it had exploded, and I was like ‘oh, oops.’ But people were downloading the game.”
After the success of that tweet, Sisi made a point to tweet about their game anytime there was a new wave of publicity for the movie. However, beyond seizing those opportunities when they arise, Sisi said they do not have time, resources, or energy to market the game.
“I am a game developer first, but I became a marketing person out of necessity. I think it’s been invaluable knowing the limits of what I can do. I understand marketing is important, but I’m trying not to overextend myself. I think a lot of people aren’t really realistic about what it means to sell your game as a business.”
Sisi also talked about the emotional struggles of being a solo creator and trying to market a creative product where you are intimately familiar with all of its flaws.
“What hampered me a lot, was not being unconditionally proud of it. I always start shooting myself in the foot whenever I try to market it. It’s really been hard for me to even talk about it. You have to be proud of the thing if you want to market it.
I think it’s really hard for us as creators to be objective and internalize the idea ‘my game is awesome.’ Because we see all the mistakes and bad code that went into it. But the thing is, your game is awesome to people who don’t live inside your brain. It’s objectively awesome to them!”
- Capitalize on marketing opportunities when they pop up
- Know the limits of what you can do
- Hype yourself up about your game. It’s objectively awesome
Sisi’s pricing strategy for LIONKILLER—and feelings about how indie games in general should be priced—evolved over time.
LIONKILLER Part I launched as a free “pay what you want” product. Once parts II & III were added, Sisi felt comfortable raising the price to $5 because it felt like a complete experience. But once it was nominated as an IGF Finalist, they decided it was time to raise the price to $10.
“I had the feeling that if I didn’t raise the price, then who will? There’s no other way for me to help other people get $3 or $5 for their game if I don’t raise the price of my game which was literally nominated for an award.
Isn’t it absurd that some people give away months of their work for free? Giving our work away for free only serves to make the industry more homogenous. Because marginalized people can't afford to spend months making a game to give away for free.
People think that customers pay for genius. No. They pay for convention. Whatever the convention is, they will pay it.”
LIONKILLER has benefitted from several rounds of publicity and attention. Its temporal proximity to the Disney movie, historic IGF nomination, and prime placement on the Tap app continue to drive attention and sales today. However, it is difficult for Sisi to figure out exactly which of those efforts have led to what percentage of sales. Even though itch.io gives detailed info about referral sources, not everything can be quantified, nor does Sisi have the time or energy to figure it out. They are more worried about their next paycheck.
“My brain is so entirely on my next project. Also, I just helped ship another game.
If you want to survive as any sort of marginalized creator, you need to learn how to be a self-sufficient businessperson. I didn’t come out here wanting to be a businessperson. But it’s made things a lot more livable than if I just resigned myself to releasing free hobby games and waiting for a company to snap me up.”
- Charge for your indie games – a rising tide lifts all boats
- There’s a limit to how much marketing analysis is possible or helpful
- Being a small indie creator is hard work
In picking who to interview for this project, I specifically tried to find two very different games. On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be a lot in common between a physically printed TTRPG meant to be played with a group of people who make up the story as they go and a ground-breaking digital game with a set number of choices and outcomes. However, the business strategies of these two indie creators had a lot in common. Here are some themes that stuck out to me:
- Know your audience, and by extension know yourself. You are the primary representative for your audience. If you want a type of game, other people do too.
- Know your game’s pitch. Refine it and hone it down to a single tweet.
- Your game doesn’t need to be finished to start marketing and looking for funding. Once you have a complete slice of the game it’s time to show it to the world.
- Experiment with different pricing structures to find the one that works for your game. But don’t be afraid to ask for more money. You are worth it and so is your game.
- Not everything goes according to plan. Embrace happy accidents.
- Embrace your limitations. You can’t do everything and that’s okay. Ask for help. Say no.
- Being an independent game studio is a lot of hard work. You can’t just make a great game and expect it to succeed. You need to think like a businessperson.
- Marketing your creative work can be emotionally difficult. It’s natural to struggle with it.