The Zero Budget Indie Marketing Guide
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Today's game market is, by all accounts, saturated. There's simply not enough time for people to play everything that's on offer out there, even if everybody dedicated their lives to hunting out – and playing through – as many titles as humanly possible.
Because today's gamers are so spoilt for choice, it's easy for new limelight seekers to be intimidated by the teeming throng of "play me!" titles and quick fixes that constitute the marketing rat-race. In the worst case, a particularly shy indie dev may just upload a small demo, paste the link in a small corner of his/her personal blog, tentatively approach one or two friends and basically just stay put and hope that somebody with media clout walks by, shouts, "oh my word!" and wakes up the digital neighbourhood for you.
That's not to say that such windfalls don't occur. They are, however, incredibly unlikely. A lot of people regard these success stories on the Internet as the norm, unaware of the fact that for every runaway success they hear about, there are at least a thousand other less exposed games still hiding in the shadows.
This guide is for anybody who has a nice game under their belt and wants to give it some more exposure. It doesn't matter if you're just a two-bit dev submitting simple concepts to some backwater forum. In fact, it's probably better if you are: this article is geared towards you, and can help you make the most of something that would otherwise disappear into the murky undercity of the Internet.
A few notes before we get started
Firstly, and most importantly, this is not an article about spending money. Marketing is done on the cheap here, so things like literature, middle-men, PR agencies and paid-for advertising are way out. If you have a marketing budget, that's fantastic. But the focus here is on free services first and foremost to ensure maximum accessibility.
Secondly, this is not an article about making money. There're countless bits and pieces of writing out there that can help you draw up a viable business scheme, hunt down the best royalty prices from software portals and secure yourself a distribution platform that can earn you the buckazoids. Regardless of whether your game is freeware, shareware, charityware or vapourware, this article is concerned with only one question: how do you get people to know about it?
And with that, we begin to take a look at how the experts answer that question.
The media aren't that scary
It seems so laughably simple, but he raises an excellent point: when advertising a game, too many people are afraid to approach journalists, or have absolutely no idea of how to do it properly. This leads to many "cookie cutter" approaches, where people suit up their language, bring their best promo efforts to the table and start treating the media like faceless consumers or – worse still – job interviewers.
In a blog post entitled "How To Use And Abuse The Gaming Press And How The Gaming Press Wants To Use And Abuse You", game journalism veteran Kieron Gillen (better known by some as one of the guys behind Rock, Paper, Shotgun) explains the mental state of a typical journalist: "We're not perfect, because we haven't time to be perfect. Just like developers. The secret is that we actually want to write about you. When someone has a phenomenal amount of work to do before the nineteen day clock ticks down to deadline, anyone able to present them something interesting to fill their pages saves them an amount of work."
He goes on to explain how indie developers need to be more aggressive in their promotion. Typically, professional journalists spend a lot of time trawling their news sources looking for things to report on. This is a fairly difficult job: what distinguishes one game marketing blurb from another? Which blogs need to be followed? Which screenshots look the prettiest? Where are the points of interest amongst thousands of RSS feed entries?
Make some lucky journalist's life a little easier and follow Gillen's advice: take the initiative to send over copies of your game. That's what Introversion did with Uplink, after all. Fish took similar measures when promoting Fez, even going as far as offering exclusive footage of Fez to particular sources.
Journalists are there to be wooed. That's not to say that one should ever be rude or disrespectful: it's just important to remember that your game is news potential, and that more often than not, the big bad media will be more than happy to help you out. Even if they're forced to be terse when under deadline strain!
Don't get around – BE around
This leads to a distressing trend of once-off forum posts, introductory blurbs in random people's inboxes and a general explosion of marketing that tends to fizzle out after a few days, leaving the Internet with what's really only a drop in the ocean when it comes to game promotion. As a rule of thumb, you can improve your chances of successful marketing by building up your audience long before the release date ticks around.
In the aforementioned Offworld article, Kyle Gabler mentions that one of the immediate tips from his "self promotion jelly bag" is to enter as many competitions as possible; events such as IGF, Dream-Build-Play and the Global Game Jam are just a few examples of annual (and high-profile) game development events. Then there's general community involvement: attending game development events, becoming an active member of developer forums and (the big one) maintaining your own blog.
Game blogs can be a surprisingly effective marketing tool if you use them properly. Michael Rose, an editor at IndieGames.com, emphasises the importance of this from a game journalist's perspective. "It's always a very good idea to have a working website available for viewing," he says. "The best kind of development sites are the ones which have separate pages for each different project, along with a blog which I can subscribe to the RSS feed of! That way I can check out an indie's games and keep up-to-date with all the latest from them via their blog."
The Wolfire Blog is a notable example of this system in action, giving readers daily updates on the construction of their latest project, Overgrowth. The blog doesn't just serve as a dev diary either: it's laced with programming and art tips that draw in more pageviews on a daily basis. They've also gone to the length of establishing a full-blown comic based on the game's universe, building a firm society around a title that isn't even past its alpha builds yet.
Another blog to note is that of Adam Saltsman on Gamasutra: his regular writeups and strong presence within the game development community offers a great deal of visibility for projects such as the recently-released FATHOM and his Flash development kit, Flixel.
Presentation is an important part of your promotion. This isn't just about the look and feel of your game: the media that you release and the way that you present yourself to potential reporters and communities is of great importance.
Rose talks about such padding, particularly the importance of a good video. "When it comes to promoting, I think a decent trailer is always a necessity. I can check out a video of a developer's game and think wow, that looks really good and then give it a post on the site. Screenshots work well too, but a video always give the reader a much better idea of what to expect."
Gabler also realised the importance of the so-called "press kit" during early promotion of World of Goo: he found that a lot of reviewers were using the same tired image of a single level from his game, and in pursuit of more varied promotion opportunities he decided to broaden the number of interesting shots in circulation.
Sometimes, having a unique or "grabby" form of delivery assists with marketing. Rohit Shenoy from Dejobaan Games comments on the humour-filled approach that the company took with their latest project, AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!. "No question, people like the unique flavor we have given the game. We worked hard to insert a lot of humor into the game and into media for the press. More importantly, we tried to maintain a consistent type of humor so that people recognize our tongue-in-cheek style as uniquely Dejobaan. I believe the comments from the press and gamers speak to the value of doing this consistently in both our marketing materials, and the game itself."
Even more exotic avenues include the music video which garnered additional interest for Popcap's Plants vs Zombies. "It all felt pretty spontaneous," says developer Laura Shigihara about the song's creation, "but I'd like to think that the result was one of the coolest things I've ever seen."
Be confident, be real
Shenoy mentions the risk of sending out Dejobaan's game at the tentative alpha stage – namely, the heightened chance of a poor audience reception. "We shared some concern about whether people would get past the "rough edges" in the alpha to the real stuff, but based on priorities decided it was ok for us to be rough in the alpha stage."
The risk turned out to be worth the reward: "We found about 30% of people did complain about deficiencies in menus/controls, but most also gave us good feedback on other aspects."
It's not just alphas that are at risk of receiving negative feedback, however. Just about every game developer out there can expect negative responses at some point or another, no matter how high-profile their releases are. Carlos Bordeu from ACE Team (the devs behind 1st-person indie brawler Zeno Clash) puts things into perspective.
"We knew (way before any review of the game was published) that the game would be criticized for its length ... We don't really mind when people say the game is short, as long as they put the length in context with the game's cost.
"I doubt that any game has ever escaped being criticized by a very vocal and unforgiving individual. It would be unrealistic to expect everybody to like what you do. As long as you have a big percentage of people that like it, you are OK. For every 'hate mail' we get, we easily get 50 ones of people who enjoyed the game very much. After release, a couple of guys wrote to us saying they had lost faith in the videogame industry for the past 5 years, and that Zeno Clash had revived their interests in becoming game developers. If you can have that sort of impact on someone, you did your job well."
Our concerns about getting shot down are shared by just about every other developer out there. Consider Edmund McMillen, somebody who can boast (amongst many other things) being the force behind high-profile indie games such as Gish and the upcoming Super Meat Boy. He has taken his fair share of criticism when it comes to his work, particularly in a recent project, Spewer. He puts it simply: "No matter how good your game is, no matter how much time and heart you put into your work, people will find a way to bash it."
This is not to say that criticism should always be received poorly, but rather in context. "In a way, criticism is a great thing. It's VERY hard to deal with when starting out, but over time you kind of loosen up and pick apart what they are saying. The only way to learn from your mistakes is by accepting them, and criticism is a good way to realize where you need work.
"But there is an art to criticize something effectively, and the anonymity of the Internet tends to bring the worst out in jealous, angry people with too much time on their hands."
In an extensive TIGSource business piece, Moonpod's artist, Nick Tipping, also cautions against treating all advice as sacred. In game development, the customer isn't always right, particularly when it comes to advice about marketing your game.
"When we started, I used to hang out on the Dexterity forums (now the Indiegamer forums), which was the place to learn about building up a shareware games business. I was very much in awe of all the senior members - they always had something to say, and some of them had post counts in the thousands - so surely they knew what they are talking about?
"Well, not quite. There are a lot of people who want to be indie developers, and have been trying to finish their first game for years. That doesn't stop them posting on forums. Within a few months of releasing our first game, most of what I had thought to be true turned out to be complete bollocks."
The ultimate way of dealing with negative criticism or bad choices? "Cry yourself to sleep," McMillen jokes. "There should be a support group for artist like us!"
Learn about the media avenues available to you and attack as many of them as possible. Bordeu mentions how, even after hiring a professional PR company to do their promotion in the US, they still resorted to a lot of raw indie legwork to draw in audiences. "We depend a lot on word-of-mouth and good press in websites and game magazines (mostly in the form of interviews and reviews). We approached any PC videogame site we could, from Destructoid and Rock Paper Shotgun to IGN, PC Gamer and Eurogamer."
Reading and research are key here, and often communities are great sources of compiled lists and the like. For example, this TIGSource forum post outlines a lot of press release services including the free Games Press, a service which is (intentionally, mind) kept fairly low-key outside the professional arena. Although there is a deluge of mainstream titles that get announced on this site on a daily basis, a lot of indie companies slip in regular updates on their projects to garner extra attention. Similar repositories of knowledge and marketing sources exist on places like wikis.
Do your best to send out those tendrils to every corner of the earth, because you can be sure that every bit of marketing will matter. After all, a 1-in-100 success rate is a lot easier to deal with if you make those hundred attempts instead of just one or two. Again, don't be rude, but be assertive about where and how you can promote a piece of work that you've put the time and effort into.
It has to be restated that the subject of game advertising is broad, and many different developers have their own unique approach to the matter at hand. It is hoped, instead, that these general guidelines can point you in the right direction if you're not sure where to go – or at least bring your focus to a few people who've done things correctly.
Go forth, make games and do your best to become the centre of attention.