In a day and age where new titles hit the market on a daily basis, being able to stand out from the crowd is super important. In 2016, 4,207 games launched on Steam. Steam doesn’t let you launch games on weekends, so that’s approximately 16 games per day. How do you differentiate yourself from the 15 other games launching at the same time as yours?
One step in the right direction is having a solid pre-launch marketing campaign to drum up some hype before your game even hits the digital (or physical) shelves. Building up a community of early supporters—who believe in your game enough to take a chance and get involved early—is incredibly powerful. These early backers are your biggest fans and will provide you with invaluable feedback and engagement. Having a successful pre-order campaign is a surefire way to have an even more successful launch, especially in the AAA sector.
In this article we’re going to break down what exactly a pre-launch/pre-order campaign looks like, what it can help you do and how to effectively run one as an indie developer.
One major reason studios push pre-launch campaigns is to encourage pre-orders of their game. Pre-orders are chances for players to claim a copy of a video game prior to release. While they can’t play it until release day, they can rest safely knowing their copy will be held in the store for pick-up or pre-loaded on their PC, ready to go for when the game becomes publicly available.
Furthermore, pre-orders often come with some sort of bonus, such as a map of the fictional game world, a t-shirt, DLC content, etc. This is to incentivize players to buy the game early and take a chance.
The beauty of pre-launch campaigns is that they help enormously with word-of-mouth marketing and advertising. Any player who wears a shirt of your game becomes your game’s advertisement. Whether they’re getting gas, groceries, or ice coffee, they are helping promote the game. Plus, being an early adopter is often highly valued in hardcore gamer communities, and any player who buys your game early on will definitely be telling all their friends. It’s a win-win situation—your early buyers get exclusive items and the knowledge that they’ll be the first to know about new content, and you get to start building a passionate community around your game.
But before setting out on a pre-launch campaign, it’s important to consider your studio’s needs. What is the goal of the campaign? Apart from the obvious marketing and advertising, campaigns can meet individual studio goals, like gaining more public awareness for the studio as a whole, improving community engagement between the developers and the players, and increasing social media followers for expanded outreach moving forward.
Depending on the studio’s needs, the campaign can be molded in a variety of ways. For instance, a studio in need of more public awareness for the company itself should opt out of creating things like stickers or a world map of the fictional game world. Instead, they should try running a social media campaign with targeted hashtags and valuable information about the studio. What makes them so important, and why should people care? Links and eye-catching graphics also help to stand out on outlets like Twitter, where walls of text usually get overlooked. A great way to build your studio’s presence is by doing an AMA on Reddit or a Q&A session on Twitter/Facebook. Consider doing a Facebook Live stream and answer audience questions in real time.
If your goal is to move pre-order units, then you should make sure to highlight the incentive for buying the game early. For example, No Man’s Sky offered a special ship to those who pre-purchased the game and made sure to highlight this ship and other pre-order features in all of their marketing materials.
Something to consider when creating a pre-launch campaign is the balance of investment and profit. It’s important to draw up some numbers so you don’t risk losing money at the end of it all. What are the goals for direct sales (after eCommerce provider expenses), other sales (after publisher/distributor expenses) and total sales? What about quarterly download and sales goals for direct distribution? How do pre-order sales fit into this? Keeping conversion rate, download and unit goals in mind is crucial for any campaign.
Additionally, since many pre-launch campaigns focus on drumming up hype via social media and other communities like Discord, consider your non-financial goals and how you can achieve positive return on investment(ROI) in every channel. Set some goals for follower counts, Discord community members, number of people entering giveaways, etc..
Make sure the goal of every single marketing action or project you undertake is clear—are you trying to sell copies, gain more followers, or attract Discord community members? Keep all of this in mind and make sure the end result ties in to the means of getting there. During a pre-launch campaign, if you are accepting pre-order and also trying to build a following, make sure you are measuring ROI on these two things separately, and also choosing which of these two goals to focus on.
Here’s something else to consider: key performance indicators, better known as KPIs. These are metrics that are chosen to evaluate how successfully a certain channel’s marketing activities are performing. For example, the number of social media followers you have is a KPI, as is your total sales amount. If you’re doing a pre-launch campaign but you aren’t accepting pre-orders, the KPI for you to measure your success might be Twitter followers. If you’re accepting pre-orders, it will likely be the number of pre-order units you can ship.
Nathan Lovato, a writer for Game Analytics put it wisely with this example:
“You may be looking to target new players with your next game. Before the game is released, one key performance indicator would be your subscriber count’s growth on social networks. As a company, you may want to increase your revenue to create bigger and better games. Two KPIs to track in that case could be the amount of new weekly customers and how much each customer spends on your products on average. Those are streams of data each employee in your company can understand.”
When it comes to bringing in new fans, driving highly targeted traffic to your pages is very important. Once you have more traffic, incorporate tools that can help optimize it and maximize performance. For instance, Google Analytics is arguably the most popular analytics tool available. It breaks down individual regions, including states, provinces and cities. Combined with its simple, easy-to-use interface, its information comes across crystal clear. However, users new to tracking tools might not agree. Another example is the Xsolla Tracking Tool. Since it is deeply integrated with other Xsolla services and the game itself, developers can see many significantly valuable metrics automatically. More so, they’re able to track performance not only from the links, but also from distributable keys and promotional codes.
So remember your goals and ROI objectives for your pre-launch campaign. A few relevant metrics to get a sense of your progress are all you need. Keep in mind that as you move from pre to post launch those goals will shift, and the KPIs should transition along with them. You will need to keep track of demographics, weekly retention rate, and conversion and monetization once your game releases, whereas during the pre-launch period you may have been primarily keeping track of follower counts.
It might sound like a lot to track, but stick to tracking methods that everyone on the team can understand. The objective here is to provide an in-depth view based on specific questions, like who is playing the game? How long do they play in each session?. Where are my followers talking about my game? By having valuable information like this, pre-launch campaigns can shed light on who to target moving forward, post-launch. They can even shed light on the overall success of a game, the potential for virality, and the average player base your game studio tends to target.
Unfortunately, guaranteeing that you have a return on investment and accomplish all of your promotional and marketing goals is impossible. However, you can work your hardest—and plan wisely—to help increase the chances of success.
For instance, in the AAA sector especially, pre-launch campaigns start off by planning what to sell along with a pre-order, how long it will take for production, and finding the right vendors to facilitate these tasks. Merchandise must be attractive enough to be in demand, while being priced at a good value for the customers.
At the center of it all, a landing page and website from which to sell and measure metrics is a must. From these websites, bundles can be created, games can be promoted, and a chance for players to pre-order can be presented. Start promoting your pre-launch marketing materials and offerings as soon as you have something solid to show off, such as any bundles or pre-order keys. Create plenty of promotional materials that significantly highlight the unique bonuses players get for pre-ordering. Show off some of the features in the full game and tease players with upcoming information.
Use tools like PayPal or Xsolla’s Pay2Play to sell games directly from the website to increase profit margins and streamline the process. Both Pay2Play and PayPal offer easy-to-use widgets. PayPal has a powerful API and a lot of customization options if you want to deeply integrate its features into your website—for example you could set up a subscription service where users are automatically billed monthly for access to certain content. Xsolla’s Pay2Play solution encompasses a wide variety of internationally used payment methods and has a lot more accessibility for international users. You can also use Pay2Play to generate download keys for your game, streamlining the process even more. The Humble Widget has similar features but is a little more basic, and allows you to easily sell DRM-free copies of your game. It can also help provide Steam keys to early buyers after the game goes live on Steam.
Downloadable content (DLC) is often on developers’ minds when they start looking at their launch strategy. If you plan on shipping DLC, it’s important that you don’t mislead players. Use the studio’s blog to explain what players are getting. This is a serious AAA problem—DLC pre-orders, with little to no detail provided to the players. If you’re going to create awesome bonus content for players, it’s important that your work doesn’t become seen as simply a cash grab. Explain your plans and talk to your community so that everyone is in the loop and feels that their voice is being heard.
Influencers are also becoming more and more important in the modern gaming market. YouTubers are often contracted by studios to make sponsored content prior to a game’s release, so that their followers get excited about the game and pre-order it, or at least keep it on their radar to purchase at launch. However, these sponsored videos with large YouTubers can cost well over $100,000, and for indie studios that is often a bit out of reach. In that case, target the most relevant YouTubers and streamers who play games in your niche and send them a review copy and presskit a few days prior to launch. If they decide to play your game you will end up with a lot of free exposure.
You should also email relevant journalists. Assembling a good presskit is vital and you should make sure to target people who are highly likely to enjoy your game and whose audiences enjoy games in your genre. If you plan on reaching out to journalists and content producers, consider using PR tracking tools like Muck Rack, Anewstip, Xsolla Network or TrendKite.
There are many examples of successful pre-launch campaigns, especially in the AAA sector. You should definitely study what others have done and how well it worked out for them before designing your own campaign.
For instance, the Bioshock 2 campaign involved the creation of a narrative-led “Something in the Sea” viral site, which according to Gamespot was aimed at the “core community of rabid fans.” It also involved meticulously placing 8 “wine” bottles, based on a fictional drink in the game, around the globe. They were meant to look as if they’d washed ashore on beaches, but each one featured a hype-inducing poster inside of it. This became a scavenger hunt, as the viral site hinted at the locations of the bottles, encouraging fans to track them down and get some posters. All of this work wasn’t in vain either. In its first week of release, the game became the best-selling Xbox 360 game in both the UK and North America.
Another campaign that went well and used more traditional techniques was Grand Theft Auto 4’s. Rockstar used Steam to give out a free copy of GTA: Vice City to anyone who pre-ordered Grand Theft Auto 4. They used guerrilla and viral marketing to drip feed information to the press. They used their fansites and fan community as a catapult for marketing, whenever they weren’t using TV or billboard advertising. And unsurprisingly, it sold 6 million copies during its first week alone. Granted, GTA has an enormous fan base and is arguably one of the biggest IPs in gaming history. However, they managed to make the most of this existing community very effectively.
Of course, these are AAA games. Most tend to have a following already, and at the very least, a big studio name behind them. Even new IPs have a fair chance at successful pre-launch campaigns. So, what about their indie counterparts?
Obviously, your average game development studio can’t afford the type of marketing that Rockstar or other large studios can. It’s extensive and expensive and there’s not enough manpower to make it happen. The good news is that indie developers can do similar campaigns for a fraction of the cost.
Obviously, starting with the basics is important, and that includes a trailer, screenshots, a press release, a proper landing page, and a blog. This also means blogging regularly leading up to the game’s launch, as well as building a community. You of course have to do the basics of any good marketing campaign–social media, community engagement etc.—but what about larger campaign ideas?
For starters, gaining a spot at conventions like PAX East is a great start. The exposure gained in these conventions often comes from press interviews as well the players who sign up for your mailing list or who are generally interested. If you have a large following already, try doing a virtual scavenger hunt. Or maybe host a local event in your city (if you have a following there). At the very least, using fansites and fan community, GTA style, isn’t out of reach. Set up a subreddit or Discord server for your community and talk to them regularly.
Just like Rockstar gave out a free copy of Vice City to people who pre-ordered GTA4, consider giving out copies of your previous games (assuming this isn’t your first title) along with your game in the early or pre-launch stages. This can help provide a frame of reference for your potential to be successful as a developer, as well as generally drum up hype and get people excited.
There are several indie game campaigns to refer back to as resources, or even just inspiration. For instance, Austin, TX-based Devolver Digital is known for their support and release of Hotline Miami, the neon, top-down game from Dennaton. For their pre-launch campaign, Devolver opened a phone line in Miami, Florida so people could call and leave voice messages. After the game launched, the studio made a trailer using these fan-created voice recordings.
Additionally, the game’s cover art was created by Swedish painter Niklas Åkerblad, originally the character designer and animator at Shortfuse Games. The artwork, combined with the music for the game, was used in marketing but has since taken on a life of its own. The electronica/synthwave soundtrack alone has a mixtape aesthetic (picture Drive meets Cocaine Cowboys), and became so huge that Laced Recordsproduced the collector’s edition vinyl for it. If your game has awesome features like a custom soundtrack or beautiful visual aesthetic, try tapping into other relevant tangential niches and getting exposure there. There is a lot of overlap between these communities.
Pre-launch campaigns are valuable for the success of a game. They are great for establishing a solid community before the game goes live, and help drive sales upon launch.
Creating a successful pre-launch campaign does require effort, but it should be entertaining every step of the way. Explaining the DLC to players helps with engagement, while hyping up the game. Using resources like blogs, social media, and YouTubers is invaluable in game marketing. It very much boils down to giving people something, whether it be information, a t-shirt, exclusive footage, or in the case of the reliable content creators, a Steam key. When you give to your community and interact with them, they give back and will stay loyal to you.
This article first appeared on the Black Shell Media blog.