In the modern era of games development we're seeing a huge return to the values of old -- the indie uprising, if you will. So many talented and skilled individuals are going it alone, or as part of a small team, to make the games they want to. Never before have so many independent developers been making so many interesting, fun, and commercially viable games.
It's actually the modern distribution platforms -- primarily the digital ones that lower so many barriers to shipping a game to a paying audience -- that have enabled so many people to take advantage of new opportunities.
That said, it's extraordinarily hard to make a living as an indie, and that's traceable to the skills associated with running a business. Marketing, PR, business development, accountancy, being fluent in "legalese" -- these are the sorts of skills many of us don't develop while we work for other companies.
One of the many reasons I left the security of working for a games company behind was because I wanted to stretch myself. Creatively, sure, but also in terms of expanding what I'm able to do.
A year and a half on, and I've learned so much and done so many new things that I find it hard to remember them all -- but with this piece I'm hopeful that I'll be able to give an insight into one of the most interesting, contentious and demanding areas of life as an independent game developer: marketing and PR.
Bear in mind that I'm a one-man studio (with no coding ability). I've launched a couple of successful iPhone titles (Crunch: The Game was my first - working with Rory Kelly on code - a free maths-puzzler for iPhone; and Hard Lines, our critically acclaimed second game for iPhone and iPad, which was co-created & co-developed with the very talented Nicoll Hunt), and plan on expanding my reach on iPhone and mobile, while also tentatively dipping a toe into the world of PC development.
Put what I'm about to write into some context -- I have no marketing budget beyond my time, and my company is currently me. We are inextricably linked at this stage. Think of it like this -- I hopped into Dr. Brundle's teleporter, and my company crept in with me. The result is... unique.
What Are the Aims of PR and Marketing?
Your aim, broadly speaking, should be to create a group of customers who are devoted to you. Your products and brand must appeal to them, and you must make it possible for them to open up a dialogue with you.
You must create the games you believe in, find the customers who also believe in them, and then encourage them to join together in a group that starts to do some of your marketing for you, and supports your endeavours with relevant feedback and opinion.
You essentially want to become a platform holder of your own creation, with its own audience and a market that follows it around, regardless of hardware. The problem with that is all of the other platform holders getting in the way -- but more on that later.
As an indie, one of the major factors you've got going for you -- one that bigger companies struggle to harness effectively -- is that you have a personality. It doesn't have to be yours, although with Spilt Milk I make certain it is mine. What this boils down to is that you must have a very strong, consistent voice with which to communicate your message.
If people know and trust what you say, and if they are familiar with the tone because it is consistent, they will most likely feel some kind of connection with you (and your games) as a result. It's a relationship that you're embarking on, and you have the power to make it so much more personal and affecting (as well as effective) because of how close you are to your audience.
What does this mean? No PR reps leaning over your shoulder tut-ing during your interview (though you need one in your head making sure you don't go too far) and no bosses telling you not to post that stupid video online because it might negatively affect public perception of your company.
I confess that making my company and me essentially the same thing means it is very easy for me to stay true to my message, and to present a consistent face for the public to latch onto. It just works. You can do the same too, but it might not be your style -- you certainly need to be comfortable with the way you present your company.
And by the way, I still cringe when I use phrases like "communicate your message". It's a shame that it is part of the much-maligned business-speak that a lot of indies avoid, dislike or downright refuse to use. If you're one of those, please, for the love of all that is good in this world, change your stance. Message is important. Your message is distinct, unique and interesting. Ignore taking advantage of that at your peril -- it is one thing you've got that differentiates you from everyone else, and it is essentially free.