Opinion: When talking to the press too early can hurt you
Releasing trailers and expository information about your games too early can hurt your sales, says Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield in this op-ed from the August issue.
I recently watched a trailer for a game by Diego Garcia and Emmett Butler called Heads Up! Hot Dogs. It's an amusing iOS game about dropping hot dogs on people's heads as they walk by at various speeds. Some of them bounce up and down, making it tougher for the dog to settle. Cops try to shoot your hot dog out of the sky.
The game has a nice art style, good music, and seems like quirky fun, if a bit light. As soon as the trailer finished playing, I thought "I reckon that's about 99 cents. I'll go buy it." I went to the App Store and found...nothing.
Turns out the game isn't due out until fall 2012. The trailer got coverage on a few major blogs, and for a game of this size, that's about all it's going to get. By fall, who will remember the little game about dropping hot dogs? Even if I do remember it, will I still want it then? Will Kotaku want to write about a game of this size a second time, no matter how quirky? With the press, your first shot is when you convey the excitement of a New Thing. After that, the thrill is gone, and at best you'll get a "remember that game? It's out now," if that.
The pace of the game world is speeding up, and the window of opportunity for promotion is changing accordingly. I think that for indie games on PC, iOS, and Android, the bulk of your marketing should thus be after the game is already on the market.
A Small Case Study
My friend Tim Rogers of Action Button Entertainment released a game called ZiGGURAT on iOS about four months ago. Before the game's release, he kept putting out hints about it - releasing trailers, images, and the like - and he would always have people asking where the game was. After all, he had been talking about it, so clearly it must be out, but the people looking for it couldn't find it, so there must be some mistake.
99-cent App Store games have become the impulse purchase of the game market. I don't want a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup right now, but when I'm in the checkout line waiting for the pink-haired old lady in front of me to take out her checkbook, it starts to look pretty compelling. When I'm avoiding work for five minutes to look at a video of a new game, that's my checkout line. I want to buy it right away, and I don't want to be told to come back later.
ZiGGURAT had two spikes in sales, which were related to two favorable reviews from larger publications, and a postrelease YouTube mock infomercial Tim created. The most important lesson is that while Tim did a good job promoting the game before its release, the major sales came when promotions hit postrelease - not when the game first went on sale. In his case, releasing too much good information to the press before the game was out might actually have hurt sales.
It's been well established that any barrier between the game and the player is a significant loss of revenue. In the case of Heads Up! Hot Dogs, I thought it was interesting enough to buy. But how will I remember to check when it's released? If industry blogs never talk about it again, or nobody links it to me once it's out, I won't know. What if the developers used up all their goodwill with that first trailer push? Will potential players even remember the name?
A Notable Exception
Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is an exception in a lot of ways, but we'll just talk about the trailer here. The team released a teaser trailer well before the game came out, and it got people excited. The difference is that S:S&S EP has a very defined visual and sonic style, and the video was all about tone, not gameplay (in fact, it barely even told you what the game was). Unlike the Heads Up! trailer, the S:S&S EP trailer had a voice and a direction, but no detail.
Here, then, are my ideas for the modern world of iOS and PC indie game marketing.
If your game is high-concept: Tease it with video. Establish a tone and authorial voice for your game, and present developer diaries in that voice. Don't be too specific, and keep all communication with the outside world in the game's voice. After the game is out, promote further in this manner, but also discuss your game frankly in your own voice as well. When you're releasing game updates, return to the "game voice."
If your game is anything else: Do not release an expository trailer before your game's release. Tease it with images and sounds, but don't show a trailer. Keep your public info to just your loyal followers, fans, or friends. Do accept feedback, and discuss your game publicly and answer questions if asked - it's always good to let people feel involved in your work - but don't release a trailer or do a real press push until the game is out. After that, go wild, do anything you can to get noticed.
In the world of triple-A games, building buzz is still the name of the game, but that's because you have to have a big brick-and-mortar launch, and you need to be at the front of players' minds when they enter that GameStop. But for smartphone, PC indie, and other smaller-scale platforms, you won't have the budget to get tons of trailers into their brains. For most games, you've got one shot to get people excited. Make sure your game is out when it comes.