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January 3, 2024
10 Min Read
Image via Adobe Stock
At a Glance
- Game marketing on TikTok rewards authenticity over polish.
- Using TikTok yourself is essential to understanding what makes for a good video.
- Don't overexert yourself while chasing success on the platform.
In today’s competitive attention economy, marketing your game through social media has never been harder–but the tools to find people have never been better. Avenues like Twitter and YouTube are well-trod, and there’s plenty of advice out there for maximizing awareness on these platforms.
Of the many newly-emerging online spaces, ByteDance-owned social media service TikTok has the rule of the roost when it comes to attracting eyeballs. It’s beloved by Gen Z, loathed by politicians, and quickly becoming the place where culture™ happens.
TikTok is a different beast, but not an untameable one. Here’s how some developers are making the most of the platform.
How visible should your dev team be on TikTok?
One of the first big decisions you have to make is determining the visibility of your development team. Traditionally, studios use a gameplay-centric approach which lets viewers see what they’re going to play, whether that’s by video, screenshots, or text descriptions. Based on conversations with several developers, TikTok isn’t nearly as straightforward.
Instead, what audiences on TikTok prize most is personal, authentic content coming from normal, everyday people. Brands can certainly go viral, but more often than not, TikTok’s “For You” page is populated with people you’ve never seen before, speaking directly to the camera.
"Every developer has to do an individual risk assessment on a holistic level of how much their marketing involves their personal presence," El Paso, Elsewhere developer Xalavier Nelson Jr., one of the most public developers on the platform, said on a call. Not everyone has the privilege, ability, or desire to put their faces on the internet, for one thing.
If you choose the personal visibility route, it’s worth knowing that you’re going to be exposed to “risk and exhaustion,” Nelson says.
“I can just talk to a camera about my game, and get people wishlisting and buying it,” he notes. Once, for example, he was working on a project that was going to be released on Xbox with some issues, so he booted up his phone and spoke honestly about it on TikTok. He told viewers that a fix was coming, but that the initial release may not represent the full experience he hoped to give people.
Not only did people appreciate the heads up about the situation, Nelson says that he secured more purchases with his disclosure.
Being honest and upfront about the realities of game development got people invested in the project, even if it was a vulnerable thing for him to do. “The audience of TikTok deeply cares about a level of authenticity, and an improvisational anarchic, madcap spirit,” he muses.
Use TikTok yourself—or risk seeming out of touch
Once you’re in the ecosystem, it’s worth paying attention to what’s going on in the platform writ large. For this, you have to spend time on the app yourself. The more, the better. You can’t game the mysterious, ever-changing algorithm, but you can at least direct the cannon by using hashtags or popular songs.
Things that would be niche on other platforms have a better chance of reaching their target audiences on TikTok, where users swipe through dozens of videos in a single session. As such, anything that would normally be aimed at general audiences on other platforms, like progress shots, milestones, or new trailers, tend to fall flat on TikTok, developers say.
The only commonality with other platforms is that TikTok prizes visually compelling content, though a game doesn’t have to be pretty to succeed on the platform. The content just has to resonate, and you likely only have a few seconds to grab someone’s attention once they scroll onto your video.
Most game developers focus on flashy gameplay, cute characters, funny moments, or even glitches in their games.
Dream Deer Studios, which has reached millions of views on TikTok, once used a simple but ubiquitous meme format–a Stranger Things character snapping their fingers before cutting to a jump scare from one of their horror games–and the video racked up 1.7M views. Many of those taps were totally new players.
“You'd be surprised how combining old Spongebob clips with horror content leads to a ridiculous amount of views on the platform!” a rep for the studio says. Simply scrolling on your own page will let you get a taste of what songs and jokes are popping off on the platform, but the key is using frameworks that you can personalize. You can’t force a good joke.
To keep up with the fast pace on the platform, Deer Studios recommends using a program like CapCut, which provides popular, easy-to-use templates, to quickly make content. Speed is essential: memes live and die within a matter of days, but more importantly, spending too long polishing a video is a recipe for disaster.
A shaky-cam video of a person pointing at their laptop will often outdo direct feed footage on TikTok because it’s more relatable. There’s no such thing as low production value on TikTok—there’s only good content and forgettable content.
“You can put hours, days or weeks into it,” Nelson says. “And it can get a few 1000 impressions, despite the fact that you've got maybe even millions of people following you,” he continues.
Accordingly, Nelson has seen off-the-cuff videos that focus on smaller details blow up, in part because uploading more content improves the gambling odds. TikTok also doesn’t seem to penalize you for having many uploads that fail.
Proper posting makes for perfect performance
The expected cadence might be fast, but when you post matters just as much as how much you post. Developers largely told me that posting from noon to the evening leads to better views. It’s not a make or break situation, however, as TikTok often surfaces content for users that is days, weeks, and even months old.
It’s also not nearly as important as watch time: the platform is more likely to surface your content to new users if existing viewers watch to the end.
Like any other platform, you can work with influencers in your specific category to raise awareness of your games, whether that’s giving them early game access or paying for their promotion. But you don’t have to spend a dime to find success on TikTok: as Grace Curtis of Future Friends shows in her GDC video about TikTok, you can get millions of people engaging with your material without any ad spend.
In fact, if users feel like they’re being advertised to at all, they might be turned off from your video immediately.
Money likely won’t help you more than, say, taking care in making your content accessible. Videos that do well on the platform more often than not have subtitles, or text-based accentuations. TikTok makes this as easy as pressing a button when uploading your video; you can select “Captions” and have the app transcribe your upload for you. Some people will watch TikTok without any audio at all, and if that’s the case, the platform will only surface captioned videos for the user.
These accessible videos can then be repurposed for other platforms, as audiences are now used to seeing TikTok reuploads on places like Twitter and Instagram Reels.
As Innersloth’s Victoria Tran noted in a postmortem of her efforts on the platform, highlighting things like game updates have some of the highest engagement and share rates for Among Us’ TikTok videos. This might seem straightforward, but you still have to be clever about how you show off new content or bug fixes. Simply listing off a bunch of patch note bullet points won’t be as effective as, say, making fun of yourself a little while doing so.
“If I can fit a trend into it cool[sic], but I’m more aiming for anything more personality driven,” Tran wrote.“For me, that usually means a bit tongue-in-cheek, and self-awareness is key — I’m not trying to be cool.”
Keep your players coming back for more
Once you’ve got someone to click, you want to keep them there. Studios like Landfall Games make use of the “pinned” functionality, which lets you stick specific videos at the top of your page. Most content creators on the platform use pins to highlight their most popular work, but you can also use it as an opportunity to introduce yourself as well.
These videos should feel current–in Landfall’s case, not only do they have a pinned TikTok that quickly runs you through their entire body of work, there’s also a video that tells people who they are and what they do as of 2023. You can also create playlists that help viewers reach the content they love best, whether that’s behind-the-scenes footage or videos focusing on a specific game.
Special attention should be paid to your profile in general, and nowhere is this more true than the link you choose to highlight on your page. TikTok only lets you put a single website on your profile, so you’ve got to pick carefully.
You can make the link go directly to a storefront, but it may be more useful to create a landing page of links that can direct people. TikTok users prefer using services like Linktree for this functionality, which is free for basic usage but charges for things like user tracking and scheduling posts.
You can also help your viewers sort through your content quickly by setting text-heavy thumbnails that quickly relay the subject matter, as No More Robots does on their TikTok page.
One of the most effective ways of keeping your audience engaged is to pay attention to the comments. When people ask questions or prompt new material, don’t just reply to them on the video. TikTok lets you “quote” comments in new videos, a functionality that highlights exactly what comment you’re responding to. You can also use the Duet feature, which lets you respond to a specific video as well.
Strategically responding with a video lets you maintain clear communication with your audience, while also making your audience feel important enough to be the focus of an entire upload. Even negative comments can be a good jumping off point for a genuine or lighthearted response.
“As silly as this sounds: interacting with your audience leads to sales,” says a Deer Studios rep. “Commenting on their videos, thanking them for playing the game, it surprises the players but also makes them realize you're an actual person. I've had hundreds of people freak out on TikTok when they realize the person running the TikTok account is the developer of the game!”
Don’t overexert yourself when chasing success on TikTok
While the rewards are high, investing in your TikTok audience does have its downsides. You can reach audiences directly, and you can sell them on your game without even showing them the game, but that deeper connection means that audiences expect more from you.
Nelson says that it’s hard to take time off when doing so feels like leaving money on the table for the wider team. Being aware of what people are saying in the comments can also occasionally be demoralizing, even for a big game like Among Us.
The benefits, however, are worth it–and they go well beyond enticing someone to pay for your game. Game development is widely misunderstood by even hardcore fanatics, but TikTok provides an avenue to demystify an increasingly complex medium. In doing so, you can build trust with your audience, and that might be worth more than a purchase in the long term.
“Late-stage capitalism and the inherent structures of the industry do not care to ensure your existence, and finding through Tiktok that you can get people to connect with you and your studio on a level that goes beyond the games, that [is honest] around the foibles and necessities of game development,” Nelson says.
“It's humbling, it's inspiring, and it gives me encouragement to do [it] even more…we're gonna take hard knocks, repairing that relationship, and creating that level of literacy in our audience. But we're also going to have beautiful moments of connection that otherwise would never be possible.”
Game Developer and GDC are sibling organizations under Informa Tech.
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