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On Greenlight, Indie Games, Discoverability, and Marketing
by Evan Jones on 09/05/12 02:30:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


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.

Breaking in

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.

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Joy Zimba
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I think it's a bit condescending to indies to say they are looking to improvements of discoverability on Greenlight as a substitute for good honest marketing be it online or at conventions.

What I think they are looking at is the sheer amount of unique visits (be it from the community) each game has been getting- it's a sign that there is huge potential for Greenlight in itself to 'put a game before more eyes'. And all marketing resources/tips/tricks for indies encourage them to put your game in front of as many potential customers as possible.Most author pages or facebook pages don't get the volumes of views seen in the short time Greenlight has been up- even with a lot of effort from indies themselves.

Perhaps a giant slider (instead of just the Greenlight banner on Greenlight) or a square banner on the side on the main steam page highlighting or just slightly rotating through the latest additions or even recently upvoted games might help bring games buried back to the fore for more people to vote on them even if they are just arrived.Putting a submission date restriction like the game has to be older than 7 days to go to the slider might help prevent the most popular games keeping on showing up and get the buried games up on the top.

I think this is the kind of discoverability that indies are looking for.

Most indies don't have a large fan base but Steam has a lot of users and visitors who could be potential fans and buyers. I don't even think its about the quality of the game or what the dev might think their game is worth. It's about showing additional support to the dev teams that can't get a site takeover for their title even if their game might be really liked or has the potential to be commercially successful. It doesn't take too much to do- but it helps a lot.

Valve gets voters and buyers. Devs get exposure and buyers. Dare I say win-win.

Evan Jones
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Why is it in Valve's best interests to provide free promotion for titles on Greenlight? If Valve wanted a game on their service, I dare say they would probably bypass Greenlight and just make an offer to the developers themselves.

Remember, space on their homepage used to promote Greenlight titles is space they can't use to promote anything else.

Greenlight is a tool Valve is using to make one of its jobs (determining which games have widespread community demand) easier. It's not gratis marketing for indie developers.

Joy Zimba
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I understand what you saying, but considering that the games submitted are already 'aligned' to the Steam system and thus get deployed WITHIN Steam - whatever revenue that comes from a promoted game - a percentage goes to Valve in any case.

A small space provided to Greenlight titles (not dedicated to a particular title) could pay itself off in the long run. How that space works is what Valve can figure for themselves but it's something to consider. Perhaps it could even be something that adds a bit of added value back to the indies who are paying $100 just to submit.

About Valve approaching devs directly - I thought the whole point about Greenlight is that it was an open call to ALL indie developers to bring their best rather than having to seek and find titles one by one. Smash hit indie titles tend to have that element of surprise that comes from going 'from zero to a hero in X days'- in being a zero first, being able to track down such titles before they are big is pretty hard- thus Greenlight. The big players already do site takeovers and their titles are known be it months- even years- in advance.

If Valve wants to eat some of that 'newly released indie smash hit' revenue - they need to be behind the little devs before they sell those hundreds of thousands of copies. Otherwise those are hundreds of thousands of people who have already bought the game elsewhere BEFORE it's released on Steam. This could still happen even now if the game is in Greenlight but is still being upvoted-especially if Greenlight process keeps its current shakiness.

This doesn't negate the fact that Valve has a big community and is giving a indies' a shot at the big time but revenue is revenue - it's about being smart about it.

A little give today could be major earnings tomorrow.

Evan Jones
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That's making a lot of assumptions about Valve's internal financial numbers. (I'm not even sure how much Valve makes off indies, period.) But nonetheless, let's separate Greenlight titles into two types:

1) Titles that are of value to Valve
2) Titles that aren't of value to Valve

So then we have two problems:
a) If Valve can clearly and easily distinguish between 1) and 2) they don't need Greenlight
b) If Valve can't distinguish between 1) and 2) and they do promote Greenlight titles, then they will be promoting titles that aren't of value to Valve (i.e. wasting money)

It'd be interesting to be a fly on the wall at the meeting where someone tries to convince Valve's financial people that it's a smart idea for Valve to give free marketing to games it's not selling yet. Possibly the worst-case scenario is Valve giving a bunch of free publicity to a title that gains enough of a fan following *through* Greenlight that it decides it doesn't need Steam and jumps ship to another service (or sells the game themselves.)

Joy Zimba
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I have seen some of the titles with high votes on Greenlight being sold/ advertised on other portals, prior to being on Greenlight. ( Pre-orders, alpha funding, full release even being included in indie bundles) Even for the 'unfinished' games- being on Steam is an expansion of an already running operation for most of the indie devs there. Other portals promote pre-release titles - Valve can get create and do the same.

the truth is most indie games don't have a pre-existing fan base big enough to just plough through the Greenlight process on their own ticket - this says nothing about whether the game appeals to the Steam user or not.

A month from now- how many users will still be interested in voting even on brilliant titles- if they can find them? What about titles that need an extra push to get onto Steam -so indies go market again but how many fans can they add onto their well courted fan bases?

Long waiting times to get released/upvotes due to poor discoverability works only if Valve doesn't mind indies going elsewhere and being promoted and selling there- or if Valve steps in at certain percentage, tests, reviews and rolls out themselves. If there is not enough community input, poor sales are the result.

In that hypothetical meeting I would say " there are often simple cost effective solutions to big financial and PR headaches- if only we can think, plan and - not roll out square wheels. A poor system is cute to a point - and then it gets annoying- even to those who are dying to love us.The indies and their fan bases already came to the party so fix internal discoverability and let's move on."

Sean Hogan
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This is always good general advice to live by. Greenlight isn't replacing much of my marketing effort for Anodyne. It's more of an extra link to point people to. It's nice for some people to see the game on greenlight, but the most you get there is a like and a nice comment. Which are great but ultimately not super useful compared to working your ass off with marketing.

Michael Meyer
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All evidence seems to point to indies understanding very well that Greenlight is at best a PART of your marketing. Like, you market well SO THAT you can get onto Steam proper via Greenlight and get the visibility, trusted store, friendslist, achievements, perceived legitimacy, etc. that come with it.

Although yeah with the current state of the thing I'm not sure I would personally recommend spending the money/time to put a game on Greenlight.

Evan Jones
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Yeah, at this point I think Greenlight is a gamble at best, sadly. Zero success stories, ambiguous qualifications for success, significant cost of entry.

Ryan Creighton
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"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."

PONYCOOOOOORNS!!!! .... oh wait. Did you say "financial success"? Nvrmind.

Nathan Schuett
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Good stuff as always, Evan. And thanks for recommending Presskit! We're using it now for Wubyu, and it saved us a ton of time.