[Getting your game in front of fans is both increasingly possible thanks to the events springing up around the globe -- but should even indie developers run real-life promotions? UK indie developer Mode 7 Games details a real-life example.]
Indie game marketers should constantly be looking around for inspiration. As well as coming up with original means to promote your game, you should also pay attention to the huge range of ideas being generated by more established developers and publishers. Some activities will be completely impractical, but some can be scaled down to indie size for an impact more commensurate with your aims.
Our marketing strategy for Mode 7 Games' PC indie tactical strategy game Frozen Synapse has centered on trying to get quality information out as early as possible during development: we wanted to let people in on the things that were exciting about the game from day one. This has proved difficult: it's a competitive multiplayer strategy game, and we've spent a very long time working on gameplay before finalizing art. While this is ultimately good for the game, it's meant that we haven't had a large number of art assets to release to the press.
When things reached the point where the game was at a just-presentable stage, we wanted to find a way of giving people a taste of the gameplay before we were ready to release a trailer.
We knew from beta testing that the gameplay was addictive and interesting, even if the game wasn't able to sell itself just with a video at the current time. We came up the idea of actually letting people play the prototype in a public setting.
Live events are one area which a lot of developers shy away from: are these really worth doing, or are they just an unnecessary indulgence?
Industry marketing commentators like David Edery are fans, and major publishers go to great lengths to make an impact on such occasions: Activision's enormous DJ Hero launch party in Ibiza, for example. With an increasing number of game events and festivals springing up around the world, figuring out your strategy to take advantage of these could end up paying dividends.
As we'd never run an event before, it had to be a worthy experiment of a significant size that would give us good data about how to deal with such things in the future.
Nottingham's GameCity festival was our immediate choice of location: I'd contributed to every single one of these brilliant annual games culture events to date, and had an existing good relationship with the organizers. We knew that if we put effort into an event there, we'd get their full support.
After contacting them, we were told that we could get allocated a space in a gigantic marquee which was going to fill the town square -- a great location to come face-to-face with the hairy masses! Here's a quick video of how things ended up, and here's a sillier video showcasing our festival experiences.
The inside of the tent at GameCity Squared
The correct approach, we thought, would be to try and get the game into the best possible state, then create a short, punchy game mode that could be played quickly in a festival setting.
I asked our lead designer Ian Hardingham how he came up with the mode which we eventually used - you can see our tutorial video for it here.
"A lot has been written recently about how games are too hard. But when you have to keep someone playing for a short amount of time, difficulty is actually one of the best tools at your disposal. I wanted to create an experience with a clear goal, but one that was actually very difficult at first to achieve. Rather than putting people off, this challenged them, and they suddenly became invested: they wanted to win.
"It was important that the goal be very simple. I started off with 'kill the enemy', but Frozen Synapse has some pretty complicated combat mechanics -- I didn't want people to think that they were failing because they just didn't know the game well enough.
"So I moved to an even simpler goal: 'get to these locations'. This has a really great benefit in that your first attempt is very obvious -- place a waypoint where you want to go and see what happens. The first thing that players do in your game must be very obvious. The rest will then emerge -- they will see how their first attempt failed and they'll start tweaking."
We started an art push to make sure that we had some coverage of everything (no missing animations, no horrible glitches etc.) and also began work on this new mode.
At the same time, we needed to decide on a concept for the event: Ian suggested running a competition. We wanted to keep some control over what happened, so the idea of "Beat the Game Designers" came up: members of the public would try and literally beat us at our own game.
With the concept locked, we needed a format: we would have a pair of computers networked together, where members of the public could take on one of the developers, and five or six others stations round them where people could try their hand against levels we'd set up.
I was initially against the idea of relying on networking even two machines together. In a live situation, any equipment will spontaneously invent a new and complex method of going wrong: this is an inevitability. I was eventually talked into letting this one slide, after being convinced that the two exact machines, the exact network hub and the exact cables being used would be tested throughly in advance. This turned out to be okay!
When conceptualizing an event, it really pays to think about the key facets of your game. For something like a puzzle game, you might set up a station with an "unbeatable puzzle" and try to get people to defeat it. Assuming you're going to have trial stations at your event, you're essentially creating a fairground attraction -- something that will make people want to come up and play immediately -- and your approach will be different dependent on your concept.
Think about what people can accomplish in your game in a five minute play session, and base your design around that. Not only will that benefit your event, it will also help when it comes to pitching your game.
As a final twist to our event, if anyone managed to get above a certain score, either against us or against an AI opponent, they would go into a draw to win... something.