The Challenges of Marketing on a Zero
So you made this great game, invested your life, health, pennies, and future. Now to let people know it exists. Easier said than done, my friend. Here's what we've learned so far and what we're doing about it.
Reviews & Interviews
The game industry's best kept dirty little secret
Seems the reviews and interviews done by the big sites are paid for by the game's publishers! What!!!?? We were shocked to find this out. Why does no one talk about this? It should be illegal. It's down to the power of the big publishers. Corporate corruption. The almighty dollar.
Heh! Yep, I know. And here, as a gamer you thought the reviews and interviews were real. So did we. Well somewhat. We were sure that the reviewers were doing their jobs but it wasn't until we were solicited by an online distributor for a paid video review just how much of a paid job it was. And it was a fairly small site at the fairly modest price of $500.00 USD. And if we didn't like the review we'd receive $250.00 back! Fine if you have a marketing budget.
Here's a good test. Go to a major site, read the site review for a highly positive reviewed game and look around for advertising images on that site. Are they all over the background? Is the game featured in multiple spots? Are there little animated ads popping up all over the site? Now read the site review for a similar level game but less positive reviews. Compare the purchased ad space. No contest.
Then a conversation with a games recruiter friend clued us in on the high profile site interviews. You know those interviews you see on game sites where the site journalists interview game company developers and executives? Those are also paid for by the game companies and their publishers. Kind of eliminates the idea of fair publishing and any chance for an independent team to get any visibility on a zero marketing budget. Especially with all the paid for noise out there. Apparently it's known only to industry insiders, not the little indie like us.
Had we known this was common practice we would have gone about our plan in a different way. Having begun our game and IP development journey 10 years ago, we could have started with a game review site and done real reviews. In those 10 years we'd have created our own visibility and our own platform.
Visibility is the key most important factor in the success of video games. Visibility is an expensive commodity. The passionate game developer with zero marketing budget has to get creative and super industrious to find ways to viral market.
Knowing when to stop
That's the hardest thing with an ambitious project. When is it really finished? When is there enough gameplay? Is it optimized enough? Can we get one more feature in? Should we freeze it now and make the next features downloadable content or an expansion? Problem is, once the game is done, you need 4X the amount of time it took to make it, to market it. So stop making it and start marketing it, and if you can't stop making it, at least set aside marketing time and lots of it.
To get people interested in your game you need a web site. Gamers, reviewers and game sites all need a place to easily find out about your game. The friendlier the better. Taking the time out to build the site might not come easy so it may take a few tries.
In between game development passes we'd set aside a weekend to build a web site. We secured the domain krabbitonline.com last year to be the home site for our new Krabbit game. In a weekend we put together our first Drupal site and had a PHPBB forum hooked into it. The site was a big step up from the old KrabbitWorld site but was a bit confusing for signups.
After switching engines and going for more of the game we wanted in the first place, we tried Drupal site #2. It was closer to what we wanted but not dynamic enough. It wasn't a 'designed site' so to speak, it was really just content hacked together. This time we had videos and screenshots and character profiles accessible from the front page but it didn't show enough about the characters at a glance. And KrabbitWorld Origins is about the characters.
We then tried a new approach, following some other game site examples and put up a background with the two main characters blown up to giant size behind the latest video. And that's what it looked like. A video on top of a giant picture. Even though there was a dynamic menu at the top it still just looked like a video on top of a picture. Not inviting whatsoever.
After getting the game out, bugs fixed, new demo etc. we alloted some actual web site design time instead of just hacking content together. Thus the new dynamic web site featuring a host of custom characters, social platform and forum links, blogs, featured content, etc, etc.. Finally a more gamey web site. Improvements are still coming, including more share widgets and polls which will encourage player feedback. Now when potential gamers and reviewers visit they can easily find what they are looking for.
Community - a place where gamers can feel comfortable coming for support. Over the years we've had several forums for Krabbit games starting with Krabbit Korner, then Krabbit Online and now KrabbitWorld Origins. The new KrabbitWorld Origins forum is by far the prettiest and most welcoming. Gamers are starting to join in. We'd like to invite the thousands of members from our previous (now closed) forums to come back and sign up at the new one. Emailing them from our servers could be misconstrued by one unhappy recipient as spam and that's not a risk we're willing to take, as this could end up with the entire site being shutdown by our ISP. But we'd love to have everyone back. With our invitation we add our apologies for any inconvenience.
Sometimes you just can't give it away. Funny how that works. The thought behind the freebie plan was to get lots of players discovering how fun the game was and spread the word. Turns out in our case, people weren't as interested in a free product as a product they had to earn. We had more success with reduced price promotions than free ones and again more success with full priced versions than reduced price ones. Funny when a big publisher gives away keys to Call of Duty, no one questions it. Some people were even suspicious of free, thinking we were spamming pirated copies. Then again maybe we just didn't offer the freebies in the right places plus our web site wasn't up to snuff back then.
There are mixed opinions on whether or not demos even work as marketing material, specifically because of the low conversion rate. With the conversion rate for downloads to sales being at 1% (for downloadable games) that means an insane amount of demo downloads. For a game the size of ours that adds up to many terabytes. And success is only possible if the demo is good and does its job.
Servers weren't a problem. We went in prepared on that front. It was our second time around with promoting a 3D game. We thought we had a better plan this time.
Demo version #1 for KrabbitWorld Origins was based on feedback from testers we found in two development communities. Our game was designed with advanced controls for the seasoned gamer so we were getting our feedback from the wrong place, an environment highly populated with casual gamers and casual game developers. Based on their feedback that it was too complex we dumbed the demo down and started it off with a user friendly tutorial, a bit of combat, quest content and finished it off with character selection and a final battle. That got us reviews ranging from “this is a nice and unique RPG” to “dull, dull, dull”. Not the actiony feeling we were going for.
Demo version #2 for KWO incorporated Battle Modes to throw the player right into combat which is what this 'beat em' up' game is really about. This demo was received more positively by gamers and journalists with comments like “the Canadian dev team got it right this time”. We got many more downloads but still not enough to convert to adequate sales.
Demo version #3. KrabbitWorld Origins Advanced Demo, a whole new ball game taking us a full month of long hours to create. This one came to us in our 'walking around the block' business meeting. An advanced demo with cut scenes. Let's show the players the real fun of the game. High level 92, custom colored Krabbits, fully equipped with elemental bracers, adorned with ear cuff jewelry and the chance to play all 6 as well as be aided by each henchie available in the game. Playing the story, experiencing cut scene drama and a final epic battle. This one is going well download-wise so far. Third time a charm? ;) Let's hope so. But in marketing you can't just hope. You have to keep doing and doing and doing. Without end. There are numerous sites that will host your demo. Keep submitting and upgrading them for maximum visibility.
Game Videos & Trailers
Anything you can do that doesn't require contracting out, go for it! Just be prepared to try a few times while you learn. Our first game videos showed game features or some gameplay. Often they were created with content that was still being worked on and needed a few more rounds of polish. Most often the audience that best appreciated these vids were other developers, mostly new ones. With time permitting, and practice honing our skills and vision we began to make in-game cinematics. At least now we could share more of the story and drama of the game. The newer trailer-style videos bring more hits and better response.
There are a number of web sites, other than making your own Youtube channel, that will host videos. 1Up and gametrailers.com are two examples. Gamespot will host them as well. The downside for a small game dev studio is their videos can only be placed in the User Video sections. The upside is if the video is good enough some game sites will grab it and list it under Game Videos where it gets better exposure. Gamershell and Gamespress are two web sites that host game videos from where other game sites can grab them.
Directly contacting larger sites for partnering to become involved in a pilot technology program or simply to get listed can help visibility. This is a great example of how things often depend on timing, a quirk of fate or how the stars are aligned when you try. One person on your team can make first contact and be completely ignored while the other can try the same day and get an immediate response from a different department. More than once, Dean, a male, has contacted someone and got a response where in the same situation, I, a female, have been either ignored or dismissed. Seems it's still a boys club in some places.
Getting listed on the big sites has its pros and cons. Pros are; you get some credibility and more opportunities for downloads and sales. Cons are; you are but a tiny flea buried back below and underneath all the games who have publishers to pay for promotions, visual space, reviews and interviews. The noise above you is deafening. All you can do for now is spread the link around. Direct2Drive offers the opportunity for reader reviews, which is nice, but players often don't have the time to write them. GameSpot sends out updates to subscribers but if you don't let people know you have a listing there no one will subscribe to your game news. You have to get busy and post your blog, post gamefaqs and shop your site links.
Years ago when we uploaded our first demo to Apple it was instantly featured as most recent, most popular and staff pick. This year the Apple staff in charge are casual game lovers. Our game is 1000 times better than our previous effort and even though we get a tremendous number of downloads from the Apple referring link KWO has not yet been featured. This is probably mainly due to the app store movement, where games there are targeted towards casual gamers. These type of staff picks better fit into Apple's current marketing scheme. The only games in the action category that are getting featured there are small casual games or the kind of adventure game that has pretty painted screens but no character controls. Given the size of our download in that field 'most popular' spot is likely not within our reach. Not with Apple's current focus on casual. Or is that being pessimistic? :P
Now this is one place you have some control. There are some potential difficulties, such as the ridiculous offers made by some PR places to help get your press release out. Forget about it. They range from the hundreds for a 'one time try' to the thousands per month with a 1 year minim for a special package. If you do your research you'll find the reviews aren't that great for many of these places and you can't afford them anyways. They may have an average of up to 500 sites where they can place your press release. That's a lot, but if you try doing your own you'll find that many of those sites will pick it up from one of the larger ones anyways.
Then there are the so-called friendly community sites who will let you post your press release if you buy a Pro or Corporate membership. Our experience has shown us that they don't do anything more than let you post it. No promotion, no effort, nothing. If you are only interested in the press release service among the other services they offer the value for dollar just isn't there. Your time is better spent submitting your PR to the news hungry industry sites. Their rss feeds will get it out there like crazy.
There's also this little movement out there that is in support of fair publishing. Some sites do it vocally and others do it quietly but they give the indie developer a small chance at being heard. My favorites are Gamershell and GamePress. Gamershell will host your company profile, demos, videos and screenshots, while GamesPress will host company profile, art, screenshots, videos and press releases.
Fair publishing sites
Giantbomb is the newer game database that kicks butt. It hosts company profiles, game info, art, character profiles, just tons of stuff. Giantbomb beats Mobygames in more ways than I can mention. Mobygames is old school and cranky, difficult to deal with. Giantbomb is contemporary and friendly. Blogs and twitter can do a lot to get you out there too.
Articles & Blogs
Writing about your experience in either an educational or post mortem format can help visibility. Articles and blogs like this take time and you don't get paid for them like a journalist will be paid for a feature. But they can find their way onto a high profile site. Dean's 'Small Team Big Dreams' article was published on GameCareerGuide and Thirteen1 magazine. Since it was focused on helping the new developer it was attractive to the publishers. That brought us some hits. Adding rss feed to your blog can help you gain visibility too, but you've got to keep them coming.
Getting exposure through indie contests
I thought maybe it would help our visibility if we could get mentioned on some of the indie sites or win or place in an indie game contest. So far it's proved to be an exercise in futility. We paid our hundred bucks to enter the 2009 IGF. It's easy to perceive the judges as biased toward the casual and 2d games given the finalists, winners and opinion pieces published around the time of the contest. We found through our service provider reports that we get far more hits from our own sites then we did from the IGF listing. Not so great exposure from the contest as expected. The one judge who played our entry towards the end of the contest called it interesting and ambitious. Any contest entry takes time for documentation and promotion as well as the entry fee. There was no point in spending the time or another $100 this year.
The definition of indie is so blurred it's hard for us to be taken seriously as an indie team. We've been told our dream is too big. It doesn't represent the majority of the indie crowd. And yet other indies who partner up with MS and get a free XBLA kit instead of having to go in through the XNA route, which all other indies do, write articles proclaiming they are still in the spirit of indie. Even BackBone Entertainment just before their multi million dollar investment proclaims to be independent.
After we moved our game to an engine that was advertised as evolving to an MMO engine, polished the game up and finished it up, we entered the game engine developer's annual game contest. We spent a lot of time posting on the forums, doing special builds for the company, taking extra screenshots etc. That turned out to be another exercise in futility. The one 'judge' who played KWO claimed to start it up on his laptop, unplug the laptop, then continue to 'play for some time' at an internet cafe without hooking up to the wireless. Our game requires internet (which we had posted in the thread and on our site under system requirements) for the streaming content. From what he did play online, we saw from our logs that he read the first 3 screens of the tutorial and skipped the rest of it. It wasn't played, yet was eliminated. That one was tough to swallow. But we sucked it up and moved on, further determining we didn't fit in the indie crowd. At least not as far as we could see.
Getting exposure through indie and
other web sites
Next was the attempt to contact certain indie sites to get our game listed. There are typically two answers we get. 1) Your game is too big for our audience or 2) No answer whatsoever. Time for a new approach.
This is where we are now. Thanks to a recent blog by Michael Rose from Indiegames.com we've noted some key points on submissions to web sites for review. His blog inspired us to get busy on our new more dynamic site and to start blogging on our own. When we're ready we'll try submitting our game for review to a number of sites that appear to be friendly. This time going in we'll have a better web site and a string of blogs that the reader can relate to.
Thanks for reading!