During GDC Showcase 23 earlier in the summer, Game Developer publisher Alissa MacAloon and I interviewed game marketing consultant and strategist Chris Zukowski about the mechanics of the Steam marketplace, what strategies work best for smaller developers and how to deal with publishers giving teams the runaround. Welcome to episode 34 of the Game Developer podcast!
Music by Mike Meehan. Produced by Jordan Mallory.
I posed an open question to Zukowski, wondering how a team of say, five developers making a medium-sized indie game for PC might go about getting attention for their title. Zukowski had a multi-step plan ready to go. He advised getting a Steam page set up, looking into online festivals (on Steam, you can only do this once, so you have to get your timing right!), having a demo ready for streamers and get cooking on socials.
"We like to say, get your Steam page up nice and early: as early as you possibly can. And basically what you're doing is you're trying to collect wish lists and get into those festivals, get some early streamer coverage and possibly some press."
He also advised getting some pretty assets ready as soon as the art direction is finalized, pick a few environments (say, three for variety), and think about making a trailer.
"Once you get that, make a quick trailer. It's like 30 seconds long. And then from there on out, what you're doing are these kind of hits you're trying to get into all those festivals that I mentioned."
Marketing your indie game at festivals
Zukowski also plugged howtomarketagame.com/festivals for that specific point.
"You got festivals, and then from the festivals, you also try and get your demo out as soon as you can. Demos are hot now—that's the new 'meta' I'd say, since 2020.
"Gotta get those demos out!" It isn't enough to just have the demos out, it should also be in the hands of popular streamers. "A streamer can't play screenshots or a trailer, they just can't!"
"And then you ride that wave from here until launch, and in between there and do some some socials, it depends on your game. If [you have] beautiful, great visuals, you might do well on TikTok or Twitter. Otherwise, you're gonna be like the rest of us where you're just grinding it out and nothing really works on Twitter and Tiktok and then you just ride that wave of festivals, streamers playing your demo, all the way until launch and then you do a big blast, right?"
There were a few caveats: if you are crowdfunding, you may need to time your steam page release differently, and if you are working with particular platform holders or publishers, they may have other requirements. But this was the starting plan for most small teams, in Zukowski's view.
Zukowski was also bullish on the power of putting out smaller games (on Itch.io) and the simple power of email marketing. He used a small recent game called Tiny Glade as an example: "It's a wholesome castle building simulator, it looks really cool. What they did was they were putting out prototypes that they're putting out images on screen, and then they would just direct to a mailing list... But they built it up to 25,000 subscribers. And then when they're ready to their Steam page, they just converted that mailing list into steam, which was awesome. Perfect.
"So, one thing you do if you're doing jam games, make a link in the front page like when you start up your game jam: It just says 'play' and 'sign up for the mailing list to find out if this is real' or something like that. Then you're just capturing that interest in a place to hold on to it."
The current drama at X (Twitter?) and other social platforms also give email marketing a sheen of stability that's easy to favor.
"Never has there been a stronger case for mailing lists and right now what's happening to Twitter, Discord, Reddit, all that stuff: the mailing list will never go away!" He laughed. "It just exists like as part of the internet infrastructure."
Listen to the full episode above for all of Zukowski's practical advice on getting an indie game noticed in the modern "meta" of Steam.