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Building Buzz for Indie Games

August 26, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this in-depth feature, Mode 7 Games (Determinance, Frozen Synapse) co-head Paul Taylor discusses key steps to getting your independent game known, from careful initial announcements to pre-orders, talking to bloggers, and setting up blogs yourself.]

When Mode 7 Games was founded, I was still flailing around at university and knew precisely nothing about the games industry. I wish someone had sidled up to me in a dark alley and given me a quick breakdown of all of the things I was going to encounter in the next few years, as well as a gentle slap to the face followed by a chocolate-chip biscuit. This flaccid and convoluted multi-faceted metaphor is exactly what I'm attempting to embody here. Wish me luck.

This article is going to focus on what you can do to market an indie game pre-release, as this is an area a lot of first-time developers neglect.

The Basics

One Very Important Thought

"Obscurity is a greater threat than piracy" - Tim O'Reilly

Obscurity is literally the worst thing that can possibly happen to you and your game. Notoriety is better. Public hatred is arguably better. Seriously. At least people remember Limbo of the Lost.

Marketing anything takes a lot of time and effort. Most small indies skew their efforts far too far towards production and away from marketing: this is one of the reasons why so few are a genuine commercial success, and why many high-quality games generate minimal revenue.

The Concept

You will have already come up with a game concept. One vast component of marketing is having a strong concept for your product. You should already be thinking about your audience when you start to create something.

However, you're probably an independent creator because you're trying to do something that other people aren't. If you wanted to lope along with the pack, hunting for the sweet juicy buffalo of social compliance, you'd probably already be working for a big hairy company on a big hairy property.

Scott Steinberg would advise you to aim squarely at the mass market: "Music, animals, sports, raising a family... Keep game premises rooted in real-world frames of reference whenever possible." - Scott Steinberg, Sell More Video Games

Jeff Tunnell, on the other hand, thinks you should stick to where your passion lies:

"I make games that I want to make, and find out if there is an audience later. Trying to come up with a forecast is not an art or a science, it is an exercise in futility. Back in the day after Dynamix was acquired by Sierra we did have to work with marketing and do the prediction dance, but it was rarely correct, and the games I believed in the most like The Incredible Machine got terrible forecasts." - Jeff Tunnell, What is My Game's Sales Potential?

Here's my take:

There are commercially-successful indie games about gangly kung-fu fighting rabbits, abstract computer landscapes populated by tiny green squeaking things, and small, dribbly blobs of goo. These are never going to be as big as The Sims, but they were never intended to be. By "commercially successful", I mean "making enough money for their creators to continue making games". That's your goal, right?

Go for a "popular" concept only if you have a passion for it: you need passion to drive you through the process of making the game. If you're coming up with something wackier, realize that you're going to have to work harder to find the audience, and start figuring out how you're going to go about doing that before you start development.

Frozen Synapse

Whatever you do, you should have a strong core concept that you can express quickly:

Uplink - "hacking game"

Democracy - "you are the Prime Minister"

Frozen Synapse - "you are a tactical commander"

Couldn't resist, sorry... but I do have a point: sometimes it's good to go for the odd PR cheap shot in order to get your concept out there. Don't overdo it like Scott Steinberg and write an entire essay about how awesome your consultancy business is in the middle of your book, however. That would be silly and some British guy bashing away an article about game PR would probably call you on it three or four years later.

One further note on concept: your concept must be married to a coherent and strong aesthetic. Uplink wasn't just a hacking game; its depiction of hacking came straight from Hollywood. It simply presented its core idea in the most stylish way possible.

Getting Set Up

If you're making a game, almost everything you do is newsworthy to someone. If you've done some stimulating programming, scrawled some mind-warping concept art, composed some interesting music or found an original way of promoting your game, there's a community of people out there who care about it. If you've eaten some soup, they probably don't care about that, and neither does anyone following you on Twitter, so shut up.

You'll need a website, most likely a blog. Well, duh.

"The only way to start a blog is to pretend the audience is there, even if you think it's zero. The truth is, your friends will come and read it. And then it'll be your friends and some guy who lives in Cleveland." - Jonathan Coulton, indie musician, Electronic Musician Magazine 08/2009

In Seth Godin's marketing gobbledygook language, you have to "unite a tribe." This means "find a bunch of people who like something, give them somewhere to gather and feed them information". This is what your blog is for: it's not just a vanity project for you to vent your endless guff.

Blogging is only one way to do this though. Here's a good analysis on social networks by the awesome Wolfire guys.

Of course, there's social networking sites, podcasting, videos, online tutorials, articles, talks, IRC and email mailing lists (try

Essentially, there are scads of different ways of disseminating information about your game. I'm sure you can think of many more than I've mentioned, as they're not that hard to come up with. The most important thing isn't that you have coverage over every communication method, however. It's that you use your chosen ones well.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Dave Blanpied
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Matter over Mind.

Stephen Northcott
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Excellent article. Thanks. I just made it compulsory reading for all of our team!

Leo Gura
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Good stuff. One technique I don't see any game developers using well is SEO -- which is something I plan on utilizing heavily, coming from an SEO background.

Paul Taylor
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@Leo - That's a good point, I didn't mention SEO in this article. I'd love someone to do a piece on SEO for indie games publishers - I'd definitely read it as it's an area I wish I knew more about.

Paul Taylor
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@Tim Carter

I'd love to have a deal where someone else did all our marketing! That only happens if you have a very, very, very nice publisher, and that doesn't seem to happen very often for budget / indie titles. Hmm.

I absolutely agree that you need to balance your time between marketing and development if you have a dual role and it's incredibly tricky. Most indies I know talk about this issue a lot. I'm lucky, in that my development role is mostly audio and music, which is confined to specific times during the development cycle, so when I'm not doing that, I can be doing biz dev / marketing. This just came about because of the structure of our company - it's MUCH harder for one-man-band developers, I do appreciate that.

Christian Nutt
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You can hire PR, but that has questionable efficacy and also doesn't really have structures set up for handling indie clients at present. However, in this economy, many PR people I know have gone "indie" themselves, due to the scarcity of full-time jobs. Perhaps if the right connections could be made, the savvier ones could create services that are in step with indies... but still, I can't imagine the budgets for most indie games can encompass that function. You guys would know better than I, though.

Paul Taylor
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It's something I've thought about and that we're open to - you can always use support if you have a budget and it's going to provide a real return. If there are PR people out there who can do things you can't and can really save you time, I say go for it. The most sensible attitude I've seen from indie developers is to listen to any proposals and evaluate them vs. what you know you can accomplish. Again, it's so important to track the effects you have with your own marketing, then you can work out your value vs. the value someone else can add.

Stephen Northcott
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We share the jobs around wrt marketing. Our music partners are very dedicated to all the projects we do together and quite often handle the post-release and pre-announcement stuff as that all ties up with when their work load is lightest.

Likewise on the programming side I handle a lot of the web site heavy lifting, while our graphics bods work on tidying concepts for visuals / sites.

I am talking about a mammoth indie team here consisting of 3 people in total, with perhaps 1 or 2 others involved from time to time from either of the three arms of the project; coding, artwork, music.

Basically product earnings are split three ways between coding, artwork and music, and that incentivizes everyone to pitch in to a marketing plan that we discuss at project setup.

We are getting a lot of promo codes from AdWords at the moment also.. So I suspect anyone setting up an analytics account will get these too if they sign up around now.

Carl Van Ostrand
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Thank you - fantastic article. Lots of hurdles to jump, but I have long legs.

Dirk Broenink
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Hm as for the time balance between marketing and development: Maybe it's an idea to finish developing first, then start marketing for it. It takes a way the chance to write about the development as it is developing through the course of the completion of the game, but it might be worth it. Or at least start marketing when time starts permitting it, nearing the end of the development.

One thing that I'd like to add is this: don't overhype it. It can have a reverse effect if you build up a hype and then wait too long with releasing. A suspended release can build up the hype, people will get anxious to download it, but waiting too long can have a reverse effect.

Paul Taylor
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"Maybe it's an idea to finish developing first, then start marketing for it. "

I'd really strongly disagree with this, to be honest. I think you'd miss a great deal of opportunities to build up followers: it's an organic process and it takes time. In my experience, you can't just turn marketing on like a switch at the end of development and build up the interest you'll need to launch your game effectively. Look at the amount of lead time and previews given to bigger titles - that happens for a demonstrable reason, it's not just cynical big corporate marketing nonsense.

"Or at least start marketing when time starts permitting it, nearing the end of the development. "

That's probably better, to be honest, but I do believe that - as long as you're putting out interesting content that is relevant to your audience - you should start as early as possible. Maybe the things you're doing at the start of development are only relevant to other coders: I still think you should talk about them to those coders.

"One thing that I'd like to add is this: don't overhype it."

That's definitely a good point - but I'd rather say, "Don't make promises you can't keep".

I'd err on the side of over-hype, though - I have to say I don't think I've ever seen a small-scale indie game that has been intentionally over-hyped by its *creators*. Journalists maybe...!

Timur Anoshechkin
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awesome, article of the week

Rodain Joubert
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Excellent article! I've read its ilk in the past, but yours is definitely the one I'd point to first if I had to recommend something for indies to learn from. I'm humbled.

I also love how the article itself doubles in places as a marketing prop for your own game - touche!

Nicholas Pham
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Excellent article Mr. Taylor. I am a grad student studying Game Design down in Florida and I was wondering if you had any other "MUST READ" books related to Game Design and Viral Marketing. Also have you written any books?

Paul Taylor
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@Timur and Rodain - thank you very much! Glad that people are finding this useful.


I haven't written any books yet, but after our astonishing forthcoming commercial success with this game, I'm sure that will be inevitable(!)

Random marketing book recommendations: I'd read one of Seth Godin's books if you're after "inspirational" material (l like Purple Cow). I like Mark Borkowski's The Fame Formula on PR stunts / shenanigans (which I think ties nicely into viral marketing).

Game design-wise - all I know about those books is that our lead designer buys every single one he can find then complains about how shit they all are, so not much useful info there!

As an outrageous mega-plug for one of our mates, Cliffski (who helped with this article and is a MASTER of indie game marketing) has put his new title Gratuitous Space Battles on pre-order today, so you can go and check it out all the in the name of pre-order strategy research (ahem) - Gratuitous Plug for a Gratuitous Game, but seriously, you can learn a lot from this guy.

Ivan Atanassov
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Excellent article. Easy to read and understandable. I find it very helpful and encouraging. Thanks Mr. Taylor!

geoff warren-boulton
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Professional marketing and PR companies do exist for indie devs. (I work for one!) We've build all kinds of app specific campaigns and are always looking to get awesome apps the visibility they deserve.

A quick tip for developers is to make sure you figure out your killer feature. Really publicize what makes your app so great and sets it apart from other apps in the crowded app market.

I'd love to be a resource for anyone who's interested in hiring a specialized company like Appular to create and manage your campaign!

Simon Joslin
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Its a distraction from development, but an absolutely necessity. Thank you for the article - an excellent summary and a great resource.

Vlado Jokic
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Great article, Paul! Our team was sitting in the dark with only knowledge of general marketing and sales, but your advice has helped give us a much clearer idea as to how to utilize our existing knowledge and expertise towards developing an effective marketing strategy. Great big thanks from all of us at Footloose Games!