Having just launched our brand new site for Incubator Games, I figured I'd talk a bit about its development.
Initially we had thrown together two quick splash pages, one for Incubator Games and one for Tribes of Mexica. They contained only basic information and served as good placeholder, but it was time to upgrade. Before we did, though, I wanted to do some research.
Small developers have the advantage (and the obligation) of self-promotion. Without the red-tape of PR, concerns over trade secrets, time-lined marketing campaigns, etc., we can much more freely engage our audience.
Now community involvement is a rather obvious point, but there's more to indie game sites than just having a blog. To pinpoint some other themes, I visited 2D Boy, Wolfire, Tale of Tales, Introversion, The Behemoth, thatgamecompany and various other websites. Here are a few common things that popped up:
- Sticking to your true motives -- whether they're artistic endeavours or silly, humourous games -- is a must. It might not always come across as professional, but one should remember that professional can be something of a synonym for impersonal. Besides, I seriously doubt any publishers would turn down World of Goo because its creators run a whimsical website.
- Sections for about/contact/games are pretty standard and should be easily accessible. You might want to create something more unique for your website, but I'd advise against it. New visitors won't have a lot of patience, and if they can't find out who you are and what you do in a short amount of time, they'll leave.
- No one relies on Flash or large resolutions as that might alienate some users.
- Splash/title pages are common, but some sites simply use the news/blog section as the homepage.
- Aside from RSS, e-mail newsletters and subscriptions are always provided. These are either used to send out e-mail versions of the news posts, or simply as a delivery system for press releases.
- No one likes spam, so e-mail forms are pretty standard (although, as was pointed out in this thread, making your e-mail public isn't such a big deal with GoogleApps).
- Stores are not always individual sections (sometimes they're external or appended to each game's individual page), but info on how to get the product into the user's hands is always available.
- Photos of the teams and their offices are pretty common and help to add a humanizing touch.
With all that in mind, we designed a site that would look fairly sleek and uncluttered, and would fit the motif of our logo.
Once we had a visual design and a good idea of what content to include, we had to decide on the best way to actually create it. I had previously used WordPress for my blog and got pretty comfortable with it, so I decided to try it out for our website.
WordPress provides an integrated system for posting news items complete with comments and RSS, and an easy way to implement static pages. Its customization options are pretty good as well, and I knew it'd be able to support most (if not all) of our desired features.
What's more, WordPress has a huge community behind it that creates various plugins. These plugins greatly enhance and append to the functionality of WordPress, and there's one for just about anything you can imagine. The plugins we're currently using on our site are:
- Akismet - anti-spam software also used by other plugins.
- WordPress.com Stats - traffic tracker.
- WordPress Automatic Upgrade - streamlined updating system for WP and its plugins.
- NextGEN Gallery - custom galleries manager with built-in image/thumbnail resizing, watermarks, tags, etc.
- WP-prettyPhoto - prettyPhoto lightbox clone used to open all WordPress and NextGEN images.
- WP Clean-Contact - e-mail form plugin.
- WP Email Capture - e-mail capture form (used for newsletters/mailing list services).
- Sociable - social bookmarking collection that can be appended to individual posts or the WordPress' index view.
We had to tweak some of these plugins for our own purposes, but it wasn't hard to incorporate them into the website.
As a side note, Pods is a plugin that can bring WordPress much closer to a fully-fledged CMS. We didn't have time to try it ourselves, but we've heard good things and might give it a try in the future.
3). Nuts 'n' Bolts
Of course it's often browser cross-compatibility that gives developers the most headaches, and that's where developer tools come in. These include Firebug for Firefox, Dragonfly for Opera, IE Developer Toolbar for Internet Explorer, and Web Inspector for Safari and Google.
All of these applications share a lot of functionality, including the ability to inspect the properties of any element on the website. In short, they allow the user to easily track down a component and view its box-model and HTML/CSS attributes. This might not sound like a lot, but it helps to visualize how the browser interprets and outputs the markup, and how rendering problems can be mitigated.
Another useful resource for browser cross-compatibility is BrowserShots. This free service can render a website as it would appear in various browsers at various resolutions. The screenshots it outputs can be viewed on the site or downloaded in a single zip -- definitely useful.
In addition to these tools -- and WordPress.com Stats -- we're making use of Google Analytics and StatCounter. All three of these applications are used to monitor traffic, but they also contain various levels of complexity and unique features that make each one worthwhile.
Our webhost provides search engine submissions, so we took advantage of that instead of searching online for similar services. Providers for search engine submission certainly do exist, but the free ones seem to require a link-back, and we can't personally vouch for the paid ones as we didn't use them.
Social bookmarking sites have generated a fair amount of traffic for us in the past, so we made sure to include them on our new site, particularly the ones targeted at game development such as IndieGaming and GameDevKicks.
We also submitted our site to Open Directory and sent out a press release using Games Press.
One final -- and quite vital -- source of traffic I'd like to mention is conventions. GameOn Finance and Vortex were recently held here in Toronto, and we wanted to make sure that we had the new site ready for them. While at the conventions, I met lots of people and saw a significant spike in our direct traffic and referrals from LinkedIn.
And, of course, it's just good to get out there and make yourselves known.