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Why people aren't buying your game

If you feel like you are just throwing darts trying random marketing schemes then understanding what a marketing funnel is can really help. In this post I will introduce this concept and illustrate where things can go wrong.

Chris Zukowski, Blogger

February 6, 2018

17 Min Read

There is this cliche that appears in a lot of post mortems. You also hear it in conversations with other indie devs. It goes something like “Damn consumers! You spend $5 on the same-old bland latte from Starbucks every day but you won’t fork over the same amount for my lovingly-crafted artistically-inspired humanely-produced indie game that was made over 3 years? Why why don’t people just give my game a shot?”

Yes the choice seems so obvious: the same old boring overly-roasted coffee or true independent thought. 

But that is not how it looks from the customer’s point of view. Starbucks has spent decades and millions of dollars establishing a relationship with that customer. The customer knows them and they know what to expect for $5. 

The customer’s reluctance to spend $5 on a quirky indie game is because they have no idea what it is. Is it well made? How long is it? What type of game is this? But most importantly, who did this? In the end we indies have a big hurdle to overcome: establishing a relationship with our players so that they trust us to buy our games. 

Imagine your game was coffee. From the customer’s point of view it is like they were walking towards a Starbucks and then you in a van just crashed across the sidewalk swung open the door and said “You wanna buy my coffee?!?”  

Everyone is going to say no. Who are you? Is your van clean? Do you even know how to make coffee? Where did this coffee come from? They have never seen you before. They don’t know what is going on behind the doors of your van. They do know that for the last 5 years at Starbucks they have received the exact same cup of coffee and it tastes the exact same way and they extract the same amount of joy for $5. 

The difference (in this regard) between you and Starbucks is that they built up a relationship over time so that the customer knows what they are getting when they lay down the money. Starbucks has carefully moved their customer through something called a sales funnel. 

A sales what now?

Someone had to explain it to me and so I thought I would do you all a solid and do the same. Once you understand what a sales funnel is it will fundamentally change how you think about marketing and what you need to do to give your game the best shot at success. Learning how a sales funnel works was so eye opening for me it was the equivalent to the end of that movie where that guy was dead the whole time and you had to replay the movie because your perspective had been shifted and everything made sense again. 

I know the term “sales funnel” sounds about the most boring thing in the world. It sounds like one of those things that those guys in sports jackets talk about in the Business Track at GDC. You are probably saying to yourself I left my boring 9-5 job to become indie so that I didn't have to think about things like sales funnels. 

Please! I promise this is a really is an important concept and it is actually kind of fun and will really help you understand why someone does or doesn’t buy your game. 

So what is a sales funnel

A sales funnels is just a model that describes the steps and triggers that customers go through as they become aware of you, your game, and your company. It visualizes how they move from not knowing who you are to being a crazy, die hard fan.

This is what a sales funnel looks like

Funnels help you figure out where your marketing is failing, what marketing tactics your are missing, and and an understanding of what kind of marketing you need to spend your time on. 

If you feel like you are just throwing darts trying random marketing schemes then this will definitely help you. 


It is easiest to explain how a sales funnel works with an example.

Let’s do this from the viewpoint of a customer. I am going to call her Player 1 in this example. Player 1 played some Starcraft II back in the day and loved it. She played hours of it but never played any more RTSs after that. 

And also for this example let’s say there is a company (I will just call them The Company) and they are releasing a new middle-of-the-road RTS. It isn’t super hard core but it isn’t casual either. It is mid tier. They haven’t released the RTS yet but they are already starting their marketing.


This is Player 1. She is totally unaware of The Company’s RTS.


Every day Player 1 reads a general interest game blog like Kotaku. One day Kotaku posts preview screenshots about The Company’s new RTS. Player 1 is intrigued. The screenshots look really good. player 1 doesn't love the genre outside of SC2 but she is intrigued because it does remind her of that game. Intrigued yes, but If, at this point, if The Company came up to Player 1 and asked if she wanted to spend $20 to play it she would definitely say no. She doesn't know anything about the game. It looks cool but she isn’t going to spend $20 just to find out it sucks.


This is now Player 1. At this point she is aware and somewhat positive but doesn’t really care. 


Player 1 is intrigued enough to visit The Company’s website. She sees they have dev log which they religiously post every week. It is really funny and it turns out they were huge Starcraft II fans too. She is happy to discover that they love all the parts of SC2 that she loves and they hate all the parts she hates. They say they are going to make a game that is going to hit that sweet spot. She warms up to the thought of this game. But Player 1 still has reservations. She thinks: “Can they really pull this off? RTSs are really hard to get right.”  If asked, she still wouldn’t drop $20. 

This is now Player 1: She is more than just interested, she now wants to learn more about the game.


She is so interested that she subscribes to their dev blog RSS feed. Through the blog, The Company announces that they are starting a twice-weekly Twitch stream. Player 1 subscribes to that and watches every episode. As she watches, she learn the game’s units by name and how they work. They show off some great emergent gameplay and how this translates to some really clever strategies. As she watches the stream she learns the history and personalities of the devs. She finds out they used to work at Blizzard making Starcraft II. On her way home from work, Player 1, regularly thinks about the game and the strategies that she learned on the Twitch stream. She is sold, she will buy it.

This is now Player 1. She is at the "take my money stage." She knows what she is getting with this game, she knows the history, she knows the pedigree of the designers at the sudio. 


As launch day approaches the devs at The Company remind their followers to wishlist in on Steam. Player 1 does it.

Then on launch day Player 1 watches their all day stream. They tell her to buy it today. Player 1 does it.

They ask for a review. Player 1 does it.

That is the classic example of how a person moves through a funnel to arrive at a sale. It took weeks for her to move from unaware to excited fan. But, as she became more and more interested in the game there was a different and more specific type of marketing to interest her. A well functioning sales funnel slowly markets to a user at several different levels of interest. 

Lets examine the types of marketing The Company used to get Player 1 to buy
-  Getting popular websites to post their high-quality screenshots. That got her into the funnel.
-  A website with a regularly updated dev log warmed her up.
-  A Twitch stream convinced her that the game was quality and had depth.
-  A request from the developers to wishlist the game (and the subsequent email by Steam) got her to actually pay. 

Example 2

Now imagine a totally different person. Let’s call him Player 2. He doesn't really like RTSs. He played Plants v Zombies on his phone a number of years ago. Player 2 also reads Kotaku like Player 1. They both saw the exact same screenshots and were both intrigued. 

However when Player 2 went to their webpage he looked at the dev blog and noticed that the RTS was a little too hardcore for his tastes. He closes the browser tab and continues about his day. He never looks for any more information. He never buys the game.  

In this scenario Player 2 fell out of the funnel. However it is important to understand that the game devs did nothing wrong here. Player 2 was never going to buy their game. A million dollars in extra marketing targeted directly to him would never convince player 2 to buy. He just naturally fell out of the funnel. 

There are a number of important lessons to learn from this example:

  • Even a well constructed funnel is not a magic brainwashing scheme. It is not going to convert 100% of people. You still have to make a good game and you still have to make a game that has an audience that is big enough to pay for the development of it. 

  • Just because someone is exposed to your game does not mean they are going to buy it. Just because your trailer got 100,000 views doesn't mean all 100,000 people are going to buy the game. 

Why a funnel?

This model is called a funnel because, well, it looks like one and the input goes in the top and it trickles down to the bottom. The shape is this way because each row in the funnel represents a percentage of the audience who moves to the next stage. The top of the funnel is awareness and represents 100% of the people who saw something about your product. The percentages drop with each level down the funnel.

Player 1 made it through every stage. Player 2 did not. He went through the Awareness step but fell out before the consideration phase because he realized the game wasn’t for him. So Player 2 was never part of the "Consideration" population.

Also, my previous charts were not to scale. A typical game usually has a funnel that looks more like this.

A very slim percentage of people will go from awareness to consideration. And even fewer will go deeper than that.

What do you pour in a funnel?

A funnel is only useful if you have something to pour into it. In the case of sales funnels it is people. So when a streamer or a blog covers your game imagine it is like a cup full of unaware people being poured into your funnel. Liquid fans. 

Look at all those unaware people, I sure hope you and your funnel are ready for them.

A certain percentage of those fans will naturally fall out of the funnel because the game isn’t their thing. Again, this is totally fine. 

However you absolutely need to have a way to collect fans who move past the Awareness phase. Usually game devs tell people to follow them on twitter. That is alright but a huge percentage of your potential audience does not use twitter. If they don't use twitter, they fell out of your funnel.

Therefore it is much better to ask them to sign up for your mailing list because everyone has email. For information about why a mailing list is better, see my other column The 5 Reasons Why You Need To Build An Email List This Year.

If you do not have a way to recontact your fans you are essentially wasting all that “Water” that was so generously poured on your funnel.
This is what a funnel looks like if you don’t offer a way for fans to sign up for updates or you don't provide more meaty content that can satisfy someone who is already aware of your game. Wasting water makes me sad. 

Leaky Funnels 

Let’s replay the scenario from above but this time, let’s pretend we are in an alternate universe where The Company didn't have their funnel in place so there were no dev logs or streaming. The Company did get their RTS mentioned on Kotaku and Player 1 did see the screenshots. 

Player 1 was intrigued and went to the website. However there was nothing there for her to do. On the company’s website she just saw the exact same screenshots that she saw on Kotaku and glanced at a teeny tiny little dumb icon for their youtube/twitch stream. She didn't click it because nobody told her to do it and what benefit she would get from it so she just closed the browser tab. 

Player 1 went about her day and by the time she woke up the next morning she had totally forgotten about The Company’s game. Months later when the game launched Player 1 totally missed the news and didn’t buy it. The alternative universe version of The Company later wrote a post mortem that said "We were covered by Kotaku and 100,000 people visited our website but our game still failed. Indiepocalypse!"

Temperature of fans

You have probably heard the sales term “cold call” or “hot prospect.” These terms are referring to sales funnels. A cold call is a sales pitch to a prospect who is at the pre-awareness level of the funnel (aka totally unaware of the product that the sales guy is trying to sell.) As you know, cold calls are the hardest. 

When Kotaku posted The Company’s screenshots they were exposing The Company's game to a “Cold” audience. That initial exposure warmed some of those people in a way that is similar to a sales call.

Then, when Player 1 started following The Company’s dev log she was being “warmed” to the idea of the game. 

However, just like water, your “warm” fans can go cold if you do not keep in contact with them. 

How many times have you read a post-mortem about some long-in-development game that failed and you thought to yourself “oh ya I remember hearing about that game. It looked neat but I totally forgot about it.” Well you experienced this first hand. That developer let you go cold. 

When folks move from Awareness to Consideration you absolutely positively need to give them some way for you to contact them later (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, or Mailing Lists). There are way too many games out there and there are way too many distractions. If you do not continue to give them updates you will lose them and lose all that good fortune you had when a popular blog covered your game. 

I also often hear developers say they don’t want to market there game too early because if they do get coverage, people will forget about them by the time their game is done. That sentiment indicates that a good funnel is not in place to capture and keep those potential fans “warm.”. 

Why you need to understand funnels

The reason I like sales funnels is that it makes figuring out a marketing plan so much more digestible. Once you know the different levels of the funnel you can place each potential marketing tactic within each stage. You can also identify where you might be missing something. 

And once your funnel is in place, you can also pinpoint where things are going wrong and fix it well before your game launches. 

Examples of good funnels 


They are probably the greatest game company at working their funnel. They have cool art for the unaware, Blizzcon for the hardcore fans and extensive dev logs for those of us waiting for their next game. Before Heart of the Swarm released I would always check their blog to see the new units. They knew people like me were in the consideration phase so always hyped up the next major announcement so that I would go back and check it out. Here is an example of what they covered in their regular updates before the game released.

Tom Francis

The developer of Heat Signature and Gunpoint is an indie who manages his sales funnel extremely well. His youtube channel is updated religiously. In simply produced videos he documents his thoughts on game design. Check out his his youtube channel.

Star Citizen

Long in development and forever raising money, this game has a sales funnel that has been keeping fans engaged for years. If you take a look at their youtube channel you can see that they have a video for every stage in the funnel. They have intro videos for those who are at Awareness level. For the Consideration level they have these great trailers for each of the game's ships that are full of inside jokes. It really is worth studying what they do. Check out their youtube channel

I don’t understand much about this video. But that is ok I am not interested in this game. It was not made for me. It is targeted to people who are deep down the Star Citizen Funnel.

What to do next

So I showed you a cool diagram and introduced you to a fancy marketing term. But here is a little exercise you can do to see how your marketing plan is shaping up:

  1. List out all the marketing tasks you are planning.

  2. Determine which layer in the funnel those tactics would apply to.

  3. Determine where you have holes (you are probably ignoring folks in the consideration area, most people forget them).

  4. Determine the triggers you want people at each phase of the funnel to perform.

  5. Make sure you have some way for potential customers to follow you (such as an email list).

Additional Help

I know you are probably wondering what are the recommended marketing tactics for each level of the funnel. Unfortunately I have to cut this essay short. But, my next column will be entirely dedicated to listing every single marketing tactic and mapping them to a funnel. Hopefully that will give you some ideas. 

Join my mailing list to be notified when that column comes out.

If you sign up I will send you a free copy of my eBook about all the emails you need to send to your fans (both at the top and bottom of the funnel)


Please enjoy this gif which perfectly captures the emotions of a person rapidly moving through a sales funnel.



At the start of this column I related the story of the dingy van crashing in then asking $5 for totally unknown coffee. That truck could have the best coffee in the world but it was trying to sell it to a “cold” audience.

Many games fail even though from the outside they appear to have great press coverage. Getting a bunch of people into the awareness phase does not mean they are going to buy a game. You need to consider how you are going to take them from curious and turn them into someone who will buy your game on day one. You need to build a relationship with your customers. 

Good luck game devs. See you in two weeks...


Image Credits:

  • Beaker icon from noun project (by Icon Island)

  • Speeding van from the movie Old School

  • Face icons are repurposed review icons from GamePro.

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