We sometimes have clients come to us who have been running their own marketing for a while, but have hit a brick wall: they simply cannot get more than a handful of people interested in their game. Often, these clients are stumped, and at their wits’ end. They’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to work.
When you work on enough marketing projects (and I’d estimate I’ve publicised upwards of 200 games in some capacity over the years), you start to spot trends that make these issues a lot easier to diagnose and treat. Here are the top five reasons we find indies aren’t getting the attention their developers were hoping for – and how to steer things back on track for your game!
1. It’s unoriginal
With 600-odd new releases on Steam every single month, there’s going to be no shortage of indie games in 2019. A lot of them will be good, enjoyable experiences, with solid and polished mechanics, that get all-but-completely ignored.
Why? Because the success of even a high-quality product in a competitive market is hampered by a lack of originality. With so many games to choose from, another addition to the already over-saturated mix is always going to struggle to cut through the noise. No gamer in 2019 is thinking “I wish there were more indie platformers to buy.”
Stalwart genres can be a great way to cut your teeth in games-making – there are plenty of resources, tutorials and communities to help you out – but they’re not the best way to go if you’re hoping to achieve commercial success. In a crowded market, the people who stand out are the innovators – and if you can be one of those, you’re already ahead of 95% of the competition.
2. It doesn’t look good enough
Another symptom of games being such a crowded market is that players don’t need to look hard or far to find something they might want to play. The sheer ludicrous number of games on the App Store, Steam, or even the Nintendo eShop these days means gamers are used to idly browsing, and only paying attention when something really stands out.
If your game looks mediocre – and by ‘looks’, I mean anything from your trailer to your screenshots to your logo and overall brand identity – then you’re asking for people to scroll right past it.
The fact is that today’s most successful indie games – almost without exception – are beautiful creatures, with slick art direction, professional production values, and strong marketing imagery. The idea that indies can get away with looking less polished than their triple-A counterparts is nowadays – if it were ever true – an outdated and misleading notion.
3. You aren’t telling enough people about it
This might sound obvious, but if you want people to know about your game, you have to tell people about your game. There appears to be a common misconception among certain indie development circles that emailing a few journalists and tweeting a couple of times a week is enough to start the word spreading. But it categorically is not.
Taking potential players from ‘interested’ to ‘enthusiastic’ is a journey, and it’s a journey a lot of people will bow out of midway. It’s why in marketing we talk about a sales ‘funnel’ – with a big wide opening at the top and a tiny hole at the bottom. This excellent article from Failbetter’s Haley Uyrus explains sales funnels in more detail. Haley explains how a lot of indies make the mistake of focusing on only the top and bottom of the funnel – i.e. your announcement, and your store page. This is true, but I’d also add that many indies simply don’t add enough people to the funnel in the first place – meaning that by the time you’re ready to launch their game, only a handful of people care.
Marketing is a numbers game. You tell x number of people about your product, y number of people like it enough to follow it long-term, and z number of people end up buying it. Z will always be a small percentage of y, and y will always be a small percentage of x – so it’s vital that ‘x’ is big enough to begin with. Scream from the rooftops. Devise multiple pre-launch PR campaigns. Tweet every flippin’ hour. Otherwise, you’ll be drowned out by someone else’s voice.
4. You’re telling the wrong people about it
A long while ago I had a client who was making a game for teenage boys. They’d invested heavily in advertising the game to this market and attempting to be featured on websites and in magazines targeted to that demographic. But despite the heavy investment, they simply weren’t picking up any momentum. What exactly was going on?
We quickly stumbled upon the answer. When we spoke to a sample of teenage boys about the game, a large number of them said the very concept of the game simply didn’t appeal to them.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of talking about your game to the people you want to like it, rather than trying to understand who are the people who actually do like it. Another common example of this lies with developers of small, pixel art indie titles continually pitching IGN and Gamespot and wondering why they aren’t getting anywhere; the reality is that IGN and Gamespot’s audience doesn’t play that sort of game, so those websites are hugely unlikely to bother publishing anything of the sort.
Show your game to different audiences and find out how they react. Figure out where your most enthusiastic fans hang out, and focus your attention there.
5. Your timing is wrong
Maybe this will come back to bite me later in the year when we’re trying to book in work for the Christmas period, but screw it, it’s important to be honest: if you’re releasing or announcing your game between October and December, you’re setting yourself an enormous and often insurmountable challenge.
While big-name game series are spread more evenly across the year these days, there’s still a triple-A spike during these months. Accordingly, it’s also during these month that there’s a huge spike in marketing noise, as publishers compete for column inches and billboards and PPC ads. This fierce competition pushes up the cost of marketing, and it makes organic promotional efforts more difficult to land – because journalists and influencers can barely find a second to step away from all the triple-A madness.
That isn’t to say indies can’t do well during these months. There have of course been notable exceptions to the rule. But if you’re planning to show something toward the end of 2019, you’d better make darn sure you’ve got numbers 1-4 under control, otherwise number 5 on this list is likely to be the nail in your game’s coffin.