Struggling with obscurity as an indie
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
A few years back, Chris Hecker did an awesome little rant at GDC called No One Knows About Your Game. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend you watch it before continuing (it’s very short and memorable!):
We tend to lose sight of Chris’s main point here, which is that obscurity is probably our biggest challenge as indies. When we spend all of our time for months or years working on something and pouring our passion into it, we tend to forget that almost nobody knows about us and our game - even if they follow gaming media closely. We build up this perception that there is an audience out there waiting for our launch, a meritocracy of sorts where every good game has a chance. We tend to see our potential audience as a singular group of players who will look at our game and make a decision about whether to buy it or not.
The truth is, if you’re not an established developer with a large following, chances are good that 99% of your potential customers have no idea about your game at all.
So, your game announcement got mentioned on Polygon, IGN, Gamespot, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. It’s tempting to think that this means you’ve done your marketing job. But in reality - you have now merely made a fraction of a percent of your potential audience aware that your game exists. And even so, these folks will promptly forget about your game, and probably never give it another thought, unless they hear about it several more times.
Just think about your most recent game purchase. Did you simply read about it once on a game website? Or did you buy it because you saw lots of people talking about it, or after hearing about it from several different sources? Your goal is to saturate the consciousness of your audience.
So, what can you do?
Here’s where it’s tempting for me to start laying down a list of “how to” bullet points. Instead, I’m just going to talk about a few things (I think) we’ve learned about marketing and awareness, through our experience with Race The Sun. These are just some general principles, and your mileage may vary. We essentially started with zero following with that game, and are at a point now where it’s financially sustaining us, with something like 1.5 million players. It’s not a mega-hit, but I feel we’ve risen above total obscurity with it, so maybe these lessons will be helpful for you.
Lesson 1: “Marketing” is often a feedback loop
A lot of indies follow the 3-step formula:
1. Make the best game I can
2. Do PR (i.e. send lots of emails, tweet lots of tweets, go to tradeshows, ‘build buzz’)
3. Launch and hope for the best
But really, some of the most successful indies games are developed with a feedback loop, that looks more like this:
Make the best game I can
Put it in front of lots of people, learn about what they love, what they hate, and why the game is (or isn’t) special to them
Use new skills and lessons to reinvent parts of the game, make the weakest parts stronger, maybe change the name, do what’s needed to make it better
Repeat steps 2-3 until the game from step 1 is almost unrecognizable
Launch after several years of iteration and perfection
Not every game follows this “formula,” but I’ve seen a pattern with the most successful games, where the creators have a tendency to be brutally honest about the perception of their game and how players feel about it when they play. They go out of their way to find what’s special about it, and then continue to improve those aspects. This refinement process is what separates the good games from the great, or excellent ones.
For Race the Sun, it’s safe to say that if we’d simply “finished” the game we set out to make at the beginning of the project, it would have failed miserably. It wasn’t until we re-invented the core world-building tools for the game, and designed a much more interesting and dynamic world, that players really started to take notice. We took a very non-linear path to find the “special something” the game needed to stand out. Looking back at it now, we can see lots of areas of the game we could’ve improved upon - and these lessons will surely help make our next game even more polished and “special.”
Lesson 2: Marketing is a marathon, not a sprint
Race the Sun has been in the market for 2 years now, and we are still promoting it. We use every opportunity we can to talk about the game, still send codes to streamers, and generally take opportunities when they come up to get the game in front of new audiences.
Lesson 3: Platform support is really important
It’s easy to think that something like a mention in a big gaming website, or a “Let’s Play” from a popular Youtuber will be your ticket to success. These things help, but generally pale in comparison to something like a front-page feature on Steam or the App Store. Basically, unless you have a viral hit, you need this support from the platforms to rise out of obscurity. So, how will you convince the platform curators that your game is more special than the dozens of other new releases hitting the store? There’s no simple answer to this. Most of our connections with platforms have happened at events like PAX and GDC.
Lesson 4: Discounts and other promotions can help
In the grand scheme of things, a lot of us are concerned about the long-term effects of constant sales and bundles. Are we seeing a “race to the bottom” on Steam and consoles? Probably.
At the same time: Getting into a Humble Bundle, a “free weekend” on steam, or other big promotions like this, can raise the profile of your game considerably. We were pretty surprised that after we participated in a Playstation+ promotion (where PS+ subscribers get the game forever) not only did our playerbase increase, but our revenue didn’t go down. This just goes to show that awareness is our biggest hurdle. By giving away the game to lots of players, you’re just making the game a bit more visible. When we then made Race the Sun completely free on Steam for 24 hours,, we were slightly less surprised to see the same result: Revenues held steady (and perhaps went up a bit) after the event, thanks to increased awareness. But now we have 480k or so more players on Steam than before.
Note: Beware the “bottom feeder” bundles. The ones that sell mere thousands of copies instead of hundreds of thousands. These won’t really net you any attention or revenue, and will just take your time away and potentially erode your game’s perceived value with no benefit to you. If these are the only bundles and promotions you’re able to get into, it might be time to get back into that “feedback loop” I mentioned in lesson 1, and figure out why people aren’t more attracted to your game.
Lesson 5: Porting can help
Doing multiplatform development has been a real challenge for us, and I certainly don’t recommend it for everyone. Essentially, we spent a year making Race the Sun, and have now spent two years porting, improving, and supporting it across PC, Playstation, iOS, and soon WiiU and XB1.
What we’ve seen though is that each of these platforms has its own opportunities for raising awareness. People talk about the game when they play, and this feeds back into other platforms. For example, after our PS+ promotion went live in May ‘15, our Steam sales went up by about 300% for the duration of that month.
Lesson 6: Having a free game opens you up to bigger audiences - being cheap doesn’t.
I see many first-time indies falling into the trap of thinking that if they just make their game cheap, they’ll sell proportionally more copies than if their game is $10 or $15. The truth is, it doesn’t really work this way at all. For many players, they’d just as readily spend $2 or $15 on a game, if it’s a “must play.” They’re not going to drop $2 on a game that doesn’t look like it’s worth their time. Price is also one of the most direct signals of quality for players and platform holders. Keep lessons #3 and #4 in mind here here. Having a higher price will send a message to platform holders that your game is worthwhile, and it will give you more room for promotions later on. Starting out super cheap might just contribute to your obscurity!
On the other hand, having a free game opens you up to vastly larger audiences, particularly on mobile. Ultimately, having 50x as many players won’t guarantee you financial success, but your goal as a new developer may be to raise awareness of your company brand and create an environment for cross-promotion. Weigh these decisions carefully.
Lesson 7: It really is mostly about the game
This is really the most important aspect of struggling with obscurity with your game: if you’ve made a game that people don’t want to play, or that they don’t enjoy and don’t recommend to their friends, then marketing, promotions, and multiplatform porting will be mostly useless. Sending hundreds of emails to websites just to be ignored by virtually all of them is not a good use of your time.
Conversely, if you’ve made a game that’s attractive, that players love, and that people heartily recommend as a must play game, every effort you spend on promotion, discounts, and porting, will pay bigger dividends. How to measure the “marketability” of your game is a pretty big topic, but here are a few “metrics” to look at:
Is your game on Steam Greenlight? If so, what percentage of people vote “yes”? If it’s significantly below 50%, I might be worried.
When you tweet or post screenshots, how much activity do they get? Are they mostly met with silence, or do some of them get lots of retweets, including from people who don’t follow you?
How many emails have you sent about your game to various press, and how many responses have you received? Is the ratio 5:1, or more like 50:1?
If you’ve taken the game to tradeshows, does it draw a crowd? Do people keep returning to your booth to show their friends? Or do they play for a minute or so and then silently move on?
“Good” numbers for these metrics are hard to quantify. After shipping a few games, you’ll get a better sense for what success looks like in marketing. But the key here is: (1) People need to be attracted to your game when they see it, and (2) they need to want to keep playing and recommending the game after they’ve played it. It’s very hard to succeed without both of these factors. Have you sent dozens of hours trying to market your game, only to see it mostly ignored by the press, streamers, and social media? It's likely that your time would be better spent on improving your game instead. Try to be honest about this with yourself. There is no tweak to Steam or the App store's visibility algorithms that are going to solve your game's obscurity problem. You are the one who has the power here.
Lastly - it seems pretty crucial to make a game that stands apart. If you’re releasing in a crowded genre (2D platformer anyone?) then you really need to stand head and shoulders above the competition. Some of the recent big success have stood out simply by virtue of being weird or completely different. I’m thinking of games like Surgeon Simulator, Goat Simulator, DiveKick, and Cookie Clicker. Be different, or be the best!
Lastly, I highly recomment Ryan Clark's excellent recent article on choosing the right games to focus on, and finding the "hooks" that will make it stand out in the market.
That’s all I’ve got. It’s pretty scary out there right now; and I hope this helps a bit.