Let's have a quick talk about discoverability!
Discoverability is something that's been a major issue for indies recently. With the game market growing larger than ever before, it's becoming increasingly more challenging for an aspiring developer to stand out and be seen in an ever-widening field. Recent developments such as the opening of Steam's Greenlight service and the subsequent institution of a $100 fee for listing have intensified discussions about indie discoverability. How can indies make their games known to the world?
How do people discover games?
Before we can talk about discoverability, we need to talk about how we - that is to say, you and I, game players - discover games. You discover a game for one of two reasons:
1) You made it yourself, or
2) Someone told you about it.
That's it. Those are the only ways to discover new games. You do not, and cannot, discover games entirely on your own. If you read about a game in a blog, website, or magazine, a journalist told you about the game. If you stumbled across a game during some random Googling and came across the author's homepage, the game's author told you about the game. If you see a game in a storefront (physical or digital), the store managers told you about the game. If you read about a game on Facebook or Twitter, the people you follow told you about the game.
Important takeaway #1: games don't get discovered unless people are talking about them.
Why do people talk about games?
Now, let's look at the ways in which you can encourage people to talk about your indie game:
The easiest means is also the most expensive: advertising. Advertising is incredibly effective at getting people to think about what the advertisers want them to think, which is why it's a multi-billion dollar business. However, many indies don't have the budget to advertise - at least, not when they're in the early stages of starting out.
The polar opposite to this is to eschew advertising entirely and start a word-of-mouth campaign about your game. Blog regularly, post on forums, attend conferences and bring a laptop with a demo. Get people excited. Enter your game in festivals. If your game is cool enough, different enough, or interesting enough, people will start spreading the word for you. This is incredibly time-consuming and also requires a game unique enough to get people interested - derivative titles just aren't going to succeed this way.
Another option is to get the media excited about your game. This has roughly the same prerequisites as the word-of-mouth option: enthusiasm, something to demonstrate, and a great pitch for your product. This is perhaps harder than the word-of-mouth approach, as you're essentially trying to convince media outlets that their readers will be interested in your game. The bigger the readership of the media outlet, the harder of a sell this will be, as publications have reputations to uphold, and nothing burns readership faster than a steady stream of topics their readers aren't interested in.
The fourth option is the most business-y of the four. This is the model of using storefronts for discoverability. In this situation, you're essentially asking a storefront to use their limited promotional opportunities to promote your game. By asking a storefront to, say, display your game on the front page, the pitch you're making to the storefront is that your game would make the storefront more money than any other hypothetical game they could put in that slot. This is a very, very hard sell.
Important takeaway #2: people don't talk about games unless you pay them or give them a really good reason to.
How do indies make it work?
And now we arrive at the crux of the discussion. All of the ways to get your game talked about, and thus discovered, require an insane amount of really hard work. We have yet to see an example of a game "going viral" and reaching financial success without any effort put forth on the part of the game's creators. The myth that a person can create a really good game, throw it on a public app store, and become a millionaire in a month with no further involvement is an absolute fantasy.
This can come as a shock to indie developers, many of whom have backgrounds in meritocratic disciplines that don't really require one to engage in marketing to get ahead. In many fields, really good work is simply identified as such and the creators of that work are appropriately promoted. In the real world, simply creating a product isn't enough. Many indies are optimistic enough to assume that if their game is good enough, they will succeed - but, even though the business of games is rapidly changing, it's still a business, and making a successful game development business requires strong business skills as well as strong game development skills. An excess of talent in one of those departments can make up for (but never completely eliminate the need for) strong skills in the other.
Important takeaway #3: if you want to be successful in indie games, you will have to accept the fact that you must spend a significant amount of time doing marketing & networking.
So what about Steam Greenlight and their $100 fee? The fee is certain to stop spammers, but it's definitely not going to stop peddlers of low-quality games who see their creations as more noteworthy than they are. Services like Greenlight (and even Steam itself) will absolutely help some games reach a wider audience. However, what a lot of indies seem to be looking for is a service that will substitute for the hard marketing work involved in creating a successful game, and it's very hard to conceive of any service that could provide that.
Luckily, if you're new to marketing indie games, lots of people have really good advice and free resources for you!
Pixel Prospector has a great collection of resources.
Darius Kazemi's articles on effective networking will help you do a better job of presenting yourself at conventions, game festivals, and conferences.
Presskit() is a great free tool for creating marketing pages.
Evan Jones is a San Francisco-based game designer and programmer.
It would make him very happy if you followed him on Twitter @chardish.