This blog post was originally published on the author's blog, Think Small.
When I was starting out making games, 99% of the advice that I heard about development of indie media was useless to me. Be it independent video games like I am wont to make, or independent movies, or books, or music, or whatever else it is that you like to do with your spare time.
You’ll get lots of advice about how to manage a business or tips on design or guidelines for marketing and advertising or whatever else. But I find that for a neophyte, for the lost soul who is just starting out and has no experience no audience and no knowledge, most of that stuff is a pointless exercise because all of the marketing, business, and development knowledge in the world doesn’t help if they’re not centered around and supporting a game worth playing. But of course it goes deeper than that.
Let’s do the numbers real quick. Let’s say you have a goal to make $100,000 with your game, and your game sells for $10. This means you need to sell 10,000 copies of your game. If your demo->sale conversion rate is 10% and your website visit->demo download conversion rate is also 10%, then you need one million people to visit your website to sell 10,000 copies of your game. So how are you going to get one million people to visit your website?
Well, you could advertise. At 5 cents per click it will cost something like $50,000 to get one million people visiting your website. That would leave you at a $50,000 profit which could work, but indie developers don’t have $50,000 to spend in the first place so that’s not really an option.
You could do marketing. Reach out to the press, send them preview copies, see if you can get positive reviews written about your game. That may net you your one million visitors, but I’ve found that it’s quite difficult to get game press to talk about an unknown game.
The fact is that press websites are after traffic, and they’re going to get that traffic by talking about the latest _____ of _____ # game, (you know, God of War 3, Gears of War 2, Medal of Honor 2, Call of Duty 4, and so on) or Minecraft, and chances are their readers won’t click that link if they’re not familiar with the name already. Many news sites are willing to cover unknowns, but generally they are the smaller sites and that won’t get you to your one million visits. The only other way they’ll cover you is if your game is hella awesome.
And I don’t mean just awesome. I mean hella awesome. I mean drop down holy cow this game is freaking awesome awesome.
The only other way to get one million visits to your website is if you become the kind of viral storm that Minecraft has been. You need thousands and thousands of people linking your game to each other, sharing screenshots, bragging about what they did, telling stories about how they beat this or that level. But in order to net that kind of attention your game needs to be freaking awesome.
And I don’t mean just awesome.
Larger publishers and developers don’t really have this problem. In this case the old saying of “it takes money to makes money” bears itself out. Press is willing to look at a new IP if it’s published by EA (such as Dead Space) or Ubisoft (such as Assassin’s Creed.) Publishers can drop six-digit marketing campaigns and saturate the market with advertisements of their game.
One week before release of, say, Dragon Age 2, you won’t be able to cruise any game-related website without a DA2 backdrop or sidebar ads or previews. All of this attention means the twitters and the forums will be a-buzzing. With even an average game, they can spend a lot of money on marketing and advertising and they usually make much more than that back in revenue. But if you’re reading this, chances are you can’t afford to do that.
So you have only one option left. Remember what I was saying about awesome?
The way I like to think about it is “shareability” if I can coin a term. When people play your demo, they need to come away liking the game so much that they want to share it with their friends. When someone sees your game’s teaser trailer, they need to think it’s so funny or intriguing that they link to it on whatever forums they frequent.
When you send a preview build to that huge press website, they need to be so impressed with your diamond in the rough that they’re willing to override their business need for traffic by linking to your unknown entity. What you need isn’t better market research or social integration or any other buzzword. You need a game worth sharing.
This is part of what I think a lot of people don’t understand about viral marketing. Sure you can add a Digg button to your website. Maybe one or two people will click it, but everybody else has a Digg button on their websites too. Those Facebook “Like” buttons are good and all, but if the content on your website isn’t worth liking then nobody will click them. All of the social buttons in the world won’t help if your game isn’t fun.
I love graphs. Let’s go to a graph.
This is a graph that those who know me have seen and heard me talk about many times and they are all probably sick of it by now. This graph charts your success against the number of buckets of fun that your game has.
What’s notable about the graph is that if you make an average game, a decent game, a pretty good game, not a terrible game but not an awesome game, you get only moderately more success than if you made a crappy game that nobody in their right mind would ever want to play.
The real success only comes if you made a freaking awesome game that lies all the way on the right of the graph. That’s where your game is good enough to get the attention that will catapult it into the media and get people talking about it.
Of course, making a game that good isn’t easy. The challenge which I will discuss in a later post is how to make that hella freaking awesome game without working on it until you have a beard a meter long.