Building Buzz for Indie Games

By paul taylor

[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 http://www.yourmailinglistprovider.com/)

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.


You must track everything

Don't just start pumping out information willy-nilly: you need to set goals. One of these is simply the fact that you need people to be consistently following your updates.

It goes without saying that you're already tracking your monthly income and expenses. By the way, if you don't do this then I am 100% certain that your business will fail.

You shouldn't neglect cash, so you also shouldn't neglect your monthly (or, in fact, daily) traffic stats. Traffic is the lifeblood of online marketing. Don't know how to track traffic? It's simple: use Google Analytics. It's the first thing indie developers should do when they start to take online sales seriously.

"We realized that we were way out of date and doing the e-commerce thing really badly. It's now possible to track traffic though a web site and optimize the site to result in maximum purchases. We launched a project (codenamed 'Glengarry') to metricate our site with Google Analytics and test two new Uplink sites to see which generated the best results." - Mark Morris, Introversion Software

You need to know how, why, when, and where people are coming from to see your content, as well as what they do with it when they arrive. Don't be intimidated by it -- I'm not a programmer or web developer but I've figured out quite a lot of it. Here's a great article by Cliffski which shows some of the advanced stuff you can do.

Web design doesn't seem to matter too much -- as long as your site is visually attractive and does its job, you don't need to spend years developing expensive Flash screens. There's loads of ways of getting an acceptable-looking website, and you don't need to pay for all of them.

I think web design is such a known quantity that there's no need to go into it here. When you're making decisions, go with common sense, but let Analytics be the litmus test. If your site isn't functioning, and by functioning I mean getting people to sign up to your list, post comments, follow you on Twitter etc., then you are failing.

Off you go!

You've started development; you've put the first content on your blog and social networking sites; you've come up with some innovative channels to get your news out and you're pumping news down them but care about your game less than they care about the average length of their nasal hair.

What happens now?

The first thing you need to do is reach out to a wider audience of gamers and get them interested in your concept and development process.

Stage 1: The Announcement

Big, well-known companies tend to do a teaser announcement first: they'll start a website with a stupid countdown or mysterious image. I've not tried this, but I'd hazard a pretty strong guess that this won't work unless you already have an established fan base, or your teaser is so strong in its own right that people are interested in it.

You'll probably be announcing your game when you have some content to show. I would suggest doing this as early as you can, with your first attractive pieces of concept art. This is going to be very difficult: most news sources won't pick up on you unless your concept art is stunning and your concept is unbelievable. A lot of sites won't cover you at all until you have a video.

Don't be put off by this though: get out there and get talking to people. Make a good first impression, but don't be so scared of putting out content that you sit alone in your tiny room sucking your thumb forever.

How to write a press release

There are many, many resources on this out there: it's mostly common sense. Try to communicate your point simply. Easier said than done, I find.

Here's an example of a good indie press release.

You need to trade off anything original about your game, anything noteworthy about you that you've done in the past, or just anything interesting vaguely associated with you that you can think of.

I once saw a talk by slightly-irritating-but-hugely-successful marketing guru Terry McBride where he was talking about strategies for marketing independent musicians. They had a guy on stage with him as a guinea pig: a singer-songwriter who used a laptop to perform live. This guy was fairly unremarkable, but it transpired during the course of their conversation that he had lost a laptop with some unfinished songs on it while on tour.

Of course, the marketing guys seized on this and spun it out endlessly into ideas of competitions to find the laptop, a concept album based on the idea, getting fans to write songs based on the concept, etc. You can take almost anything and turn it into a natty PR hook: if you're a creative person or you have creatives in your team, this is the time to put them to work.

One thing though: I can't for the life remember the name of the musician because all the marketing guys were wanking on about strategy so much. There's a moral there. </beard stroke>

Wait, how do I "announce" something?

Announcing something doesn't just mean putting it on your blog so your mum can read it (although obviously you should do this as your mum needs to keep informed): you need to build a PR list first.

Building a PR list is an incredibly dull but vitally necessary part of this process. Here are the methods I used to build ours:

Bethesda's press section

Bethesda do a lot of PR work for their games, and helpfully list all the places where they got reviews and previews. If they can do it, why can't you?

Individual magazines and websites

You'll need to find all the editorial contacts for English-speaking magazines that you can: I'd suggest Googling these individually. If that doesn't work, try going to a newsagent and looking inside the front cover of the magazine.

I'm not joking. Try the editor and news editor first: also if you know the magazine and think that a particular journalist will be interested in your game, find their email address. If you can't find it, phone up the publisher and ask for the number of the magazine. Then phone up the magazine and ask for the email of the journalist. Be pleasant, pushy and persistent.

Blogs

I follow pretty much every gaming blog I can find for our weekly games podcast Visiting the Village, and this is something I'd recommend doing if you're an indie developer. Seeing what other people are doing is really useful as it gives you more "market awareness".

Once you do get coverage, track it to see how effective it is. I would say, however, that you should try every single site you can get your hands on -- the wider you spread the info, the better.

Aggregation services

Blue's News and GamesPress are two great places to post -- they will take almost anything (because they are both fantastic and this is how news services should work).

You need to keep working on your PR list even when you think it's finished. Building your PR list should be the thing you do when you can't think of anything else to do. Do it on your laptop while watching TV. Do it on the train. Just keep doing it. It's boring. Keep doing it.


Stage 2a: Maintenance and Momentum

Now you should have created a situation where some people are following your updates -- time to capitalize on this.

Release quality updates about everything you can to do with your game: videos, pictures, audio, text, code, funny development stories, advice, ANYTHING. Keep pumping this out to your community.

Respond to what people say. Talk to them. Ask them to invite new people.

When you have enough new exciting content, you might consider collecting it together and doing another press release, which should lead you on to...

Stage 2b: Videos

It's common practice to release quality video trailers these days. If you have interesting characters, why not copy Valve's brilliant Team Fortress campaign and do a "meet the x"-style video? Do videos showing off interesting graphical effects, cool environments, crazy features: try and get people to share them on YouTube. Put anything that looks good moving in them. Make them funny or quirky. Post videos of your cats. Anything that will appeal.

If any seem particularly popular in your community, push them out with short sharp press releases.

You probably don't have the budget to do exciting rendered (or live action) videos, so most likely your vids will be in-engine. This means that they'll evolve with your game.

I'd suggest waiting until your game looks decent before pushing out the videos to the press (you can still release teaser videos to your community, but only really push the good-looking stuff). We started doing "director's commentary"-style voiceovers on our early teasers -- I'm waiting to find out if people hate this or not....

All this should be building up to the release of your major trailers. Check out this absolutely brilliant Scribblenauts video.

It's fun, it conveys the concept of the game, it looks great and it's punchy. Perfect. This really helped get people talking even more about this forthcoming game well before it hit the full hands-on preview stage.

Once your big trailer is ready, push it out to your PR list again. Really hammer it hard: this is going to make or break you. You should have the means to do this is place now.

Stage 2c: Other Gubbins

Now is a good time to get out there and meet people. Go to games events and meet journalists, other developers, companies from other tech industries... all of that will be helpful and interesting.

Be careful with this, though: it can be expensive and a bit of a time-sink. It's easy to feel like you're doing important business research, when in fact you're just getting drunk and talking complete nonsense about games to people. Do still go, but keep working while you're there and watch the costs. If you want to go to an event, try and speak there. This will raise your profile, you'll get a free pass and it's easier to meet people if you're in a perceived position of authority.

Think of interesting ways to push out news and keep your community going. Wolfire have fun with their chat widget, Cliffski rants about... things... and posts on RPS a lot: do things, be present.

Read this -- are you being a rock star?

Look at Cliffski's brilliant marketing tricks. Can you do anything similar - tackle a big gaming issue head on? Are you aiming for the huge sites like Slashdot and BoingBoing with outrageous content that will shake up the internet?

Are you achieving your PR and marketing goals? Have you got enough people subscribing to your mailing list, enough followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook? What are your estimated Day One sales given this?

Stage 3: Previews and release hype

This is a tough one: you have to get preview code which is hugely impressive, but get it out early enough before launch that a lead time of a month or so won't be a problem.

We found that, if you're pushy enough, magazines and websites will do previews of your game. In the UK, we went to Future Publishing and met the guys at PC Gamer and PC Format, who all very politely played our ridiculous game and made jokes about it. It helped that we brought biscuits. This resulted in a preview in a column and a review in PC Gamer, as well as some extra stuff in Format, some contact which have lasted years and a big load of motivation for us. I wish we'd been able to do more of this.

You don't need to do previews in person, of course, but if you can I'd recommend it. The most important things are, again, that your preview code is impressive and that you push it out to as many places as you can possibly get your hands on. We had some good success (and traffic) from sending out preview code to small blogs -- the bloggers were very excited to get an advance look at our game.

Preview is a massive stage: look at how much other companies invest in it. PopCap recently had a huge event for loads of journalists to come and look at new products. It's difficult but necessary: you'll need to come up with your own comprehensive preview strategy.

Noted hacker-type and social engineer Kevin Mitnick used to get people's passwords and access to high-security installations by asking. He would simply phone up, introduce himself and ask for things. Follow his lead (although obviously without the jail sentence and interminable self-satisfied smugness) and ask.


Stage 4: Open beta?

For certain kinds of games, especially real-time multiplayer, an open beta can be a wise strategy. You'll need packed servers to make this kind of game work: it's something which might not be the best approach for an indie (but you should never say never).

This will cause your community to explode and it can be very hard to manage. However, it does seem that people are willing to accept the transition from open beta to paid accounts / full game purchases, so it could well be worth looking into.

When you're ready to open your game up for beta, you're in preview already, so you'll have a huge amount of things to juggle.

Stage 4b: Pre-order

Pre-orders are becoming increasingly common for indie games. They're a great way of capitalizing on initial buzz.

One thing which many indies don't do is advertise heavily pre-release. If you have the budget for this, I'd seriously recommend looking into it, and this could work well when coupled with pre-orders.

Where to advertise? The most popular two systems among indies are Google Ads and Project Wonderful. Both require a lot of investigation and getting used to. The simplest thing I'd recommend is to start by running a small campaign with a low budget to see what works and what doesn't. Remember to use Google Analytics to track the effects of this.

You'll see that CPC (cost-per-click) is one the most important metrics you have: experiment with ways to keep this down as low as possible. Cost is vital, but quality of clicks is also important: with Analytics you can see how visitors from different sources behave, and you can target your advertising more effectively. Again, this is a massive issue for which another article is required. Nick Tipping has a great piece on this.

Stage 5: Reviews

So, PR is at a peak and it's time to hit the big one: reviews. Lead-time is hugely important with this:

"In addition, print magazines need months of lead-time before your review is published. So we were effectively ensuring that the print reviews would all be coming out at least a whole month late after the game launched." - Chris Delay, on one of Introversion's disasters.

Unless you're already well known, there will be a lot of opposition from major mags and websites to reviewing your game. Just another reason to make sure that you build awareness earlier: if your game becomes trendy, like Braid or Fez, you'll stand a much better chance. This is, actually, another reason to get on the conference / festival circuit: people will take you more seriously if you talk at these things.


Fez

The best advice would be to start early: talk to anyone who has given you a preview and push hard to get through the door of more obstructive places.

When you actually get to talk to journalists properly, they will always tell you that they wished more indies were doing PR to make it easier for them to find out about interesting projects! The problem is that there is a corporate bullshit filter in front of these people to stop them covering things which don't generate huge amounts of magazine sales / website hits. The corporate bullshit filter is your enemy: become significant and ask.

Stage 6: The Home Straight? WRONG!

Now you have a massive bulging community all eagerly anticipating your release, so it's time to unleash your glutinous masterpiece all over them!

Make a huge fuss on release: do more press releases to your huge list, put out more videos, phone up everyone you know and tell them. You don't need to splash on a massive launch party on the International Space Station complete with astronaut strippers or anything like that, but you could consider offering to take some journalists to the pub. Journalists like pubs.

You'll need to put a post-release marketing campaign into operation, too. For most indies, this revolves around a lot of targeted web advertising, game updates of all sizes (paid or otherwise), interviews (if you're already famous) and a variety of other tools beyond the scope of this article. The most important thing you can do post-release is keep going: I'd say it's where other elements of the marketing mix come to the fore rather than PR, but you must use any PR opportunities you can generate.

Updates are great, sales milestones are great: you can also get more conference talks going and put your game into competitions and festivals once it's done. Various developers have had a lot of publicity through the IGF and other indie competitions.

And Finally...

I hope this rambling introduction was of some use: as we pursue our plan for Frozen Synapse, I'm sure we'll learn a lot more over the next few months. One great way of learning is to talk to other developers -- if you'd like to talk to me then go ahead.

Reading List

Development forums and communities

http://forums.indiegamer.com/

http://forums.tigsource.com/

Very specialised, quite introverted communities. Lurk first, be nice and polite if you dare to post.

http://www.moddb.com/

Essential for any indie game - you must have a page on here.

Game Marketing Blogs and Articles

http://makeitbigingames.com/

Jeff Tunnell is a highly-experienced game developer and entrepreneur who writes sensitively and intelligently about the business.

http://forums.tigsource.com/index.php?topic=116.0

A brilliant article by Nick Tipping of Moonpod: I wish I had seen this earlier!

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RodainJoubert/20090622/2008/The_Zero_Budget_Indie_Marketing_Guide.php

Nice little game marketing "beginner's guide."

http://www.edery.org/

Game Tycoon - a blog by David Edery. Edery is a very outspoken industry consultant who worked on XBLA and knows a lot about marketing.

http://www.getrichgaming.com/

http://www.sellmorevideogames.com/

Scott Steinberg's writing on games marketing is slightly sleazy, depressing, ludicrously self-promoting and oddly fascinating.

http://gillen.cream.org/wordpress_html/?page_id=693

Brilliant games writer Kieron Gillen gives his take on indie PR. Essential.

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Thanks to Dejobaan Games, Positech, SaintXi and Hamumu Software for their assistance with this article.

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