Although this guide was originally written for the XBox Live Indie Games service, most of the tips here are applicable to any type of indie game.
Many indie developers are under the mistaken impression that they can just make an awesome game and the big bucks will roll in. Although this does occasionally happen, for the most part, if you don't market your game, you'll see limited success or none at all. After all, if nobody knows about your game, how can they buy it? Therefore, I present to you 9 tips about marketing that have proved invaluable with our own games.
#1 – Game design is marketing.
Marketing for your game begins before you've even started creating the game. Depending on the game you decide to make, effective marketing could be relatively easy or impossibly difficult. Now in saying this, I don't mean that you need to cater to the lowest common denominator. Rather, each game designer probably has ideas for a number of games that they'd like to make. Likewise, there are a number of game ideas for which there is a market for. Find a game idea that fits in both categories and you've got yourself a game that A) you'd like to make and B) has a good chance of selling well once it's made.
So what sells well on XBLIG? Unique experiences. Quality is important, but let's be honest here – most of us lack the skill and resources to go head-to-head with the big game development companies. Since you can't compete on their terms, you need to compete on your own terms. Either make something that nobody else is making or put your own unique spin and personality into a popular genre.
#2 – Marketing is an ongoing effort.
If you've got a couple million dollars, you can afford to start a marketing campaign when your game comes out. Since most of us don't have those kinds of funds, we need to start marketing early and continue marketing even after the game releases.
For starters, get yourself a website for your company. Besides hopefully attracting potential customers, a website gives your company legitimacy and makes the media more likely to take you seriously. Talk about your game development progress and talk about whatever you think is interesting. One of the reasons why people like indie games is because of the connection they feel with the creators – give them a reason to view you as an actual human being and you'll gain a following.
After a website, videos are the next most important thing you can do to promote your game. A teaser trailer a few weeks or months before the game is released, a launch trailer when the game comes out, and gameplay trailers after release can all be very useful marketing tools. Be sure to post them on youtube and don't forget to send them to gametrailers.com.
And just because your game is already out doesn't mean that you can't still market it. After Breath of Death VII had been out for several months, I decided to do a post-mortem which I then posted on Gamasutra and sent to a few places. Lo and behold, several other big sites picked up the story and we saw a big increase in sales for several days.
#3 – GamesPress.com is nifty.
GamesPress.com is a site that many game sites use to gather information. Make sure to send all of your press releases and media kits to them – with just a single email, you're likely to be covered by several small sites and maybe a couple bigger sites as well.
Gamerankings.com is also very nifty. Take a look at which sites have reviews there and then go onto those sites and look for contact information. Sure, most big sites won't give new indie groups the time of day, but you never know which ones will cover you unless you try.
Don't overlook social sites like Facebook and Twitter either. Not only are they useful for marketing, but sites like Twitter can be very useful for development questions, playtesting, and peer review if you can get a bunch of other XBLIG developers following you.
#4 – Be active on forums
Now, obviously you don't want to overdo this and waste all of your time on forums when you should be doing productive work, but being an active presence on several popular gaming forums can be very beneficial. Most forums frown upon developers signing up just to market their stuff, but if you're a frequent poster, then you're one of them and most people like to support their own.
And of course, being active on the XNA forums is invaluable when you have questions or need help with playtesting or peer review.
#5 – Paid advertising doesn't really work.
When you're selling a dirt cheap game, it doesn't make much sense to pay for advertising. When you've got a $60 game, your paid advertising doesn't need to be very efficient to make a profit since you're getting a good amount of money from each copy sold, but with a $1 game, your paid advertising would have to be unrealistically efficient to be worth the money.
#6 – Pricing
In the vast majority of cases, you're best off selling your XBLIGs for $1. The only possible exceptions would be for highly niche stuff without real competition on any platform or if you've already built a reputation for high quality, best selling games.
#7 – Don't neglect playtesting
You've spent months working on your dream game and now it's ready to launch, right? Not quite so fast. Make sure to put it in playtesting for at least a week before trying to release. As developers, we are often too close to our own projects to notice obvious flaws. Taking some time to get other people's opinions and add that extra layer of polish can spell the difference between a pretty good game that nobody buys and an awesome game that sells tons.
#8 – The initial experience
Given all of the work involved in making a game, I am constantly shocked at how little attention many developers put into the customer's initial experience. If you have a lame name or bad box art, most people won't even bother clicking on your game. If you have a poor game description or weak screenshots, most people won't even bother downloading the trial. And if your trial experience is boring, most people won't buy the game.
Spend some time making sure that your name, box art, screenshots, and trial experience are all of the highest quality. These are your greatest selling tools so take advantage of them. I can't speak for everyone, but we generally go through about a dozen different versions and variations of box art before ending up with the one that we decide to use in the final game. And it generally takes me a few weeks of periodic brainstorming and consideration before I finally decide on a game name.
#9 – The Top Lists are important
If you want to have lasting success on the service, the best thing you can do is get onto either the Top Downloads or the Top Rated. Of the two, the Top Rated is by far the safer option since it's more consistent, whereas Top Downloads tends to fluctuate. Not only that, but the Top Downloads list is sometimes hit with errors that causes it to freeze or put the wrong games up.
Hopefully, some of these suggestions will help other XBLIG developers find the success they deserve. Feel free to reply with your own marketing tips and experiences if you think I forgot or overlooked something important. And if you'd like to learn more, I highly recommend checking out The Big List of Indie Marketing and Business Tips.