Your game is almost Alpha. You've slogged through months of making and building, and now you're in the home stretch with the finish line in sight. You plan on spending the next few months polishing and tweaking and balancing your latest masterpiece, before pushing it out to the world and making your fortune. Well, not quite. There's quite a bit more to be done. In fact, a whole new world is just being revealed to you, as you Google about marketing, PR, community building, and publishing. You've read the post mortems, heard the horror stories, and watched the GDC videos, of games collapsing in the last few months of dev, or disappearing into the abyss on release, through lack of exposure or apathy. And now you're sitting there, worried about your extraordinary creation, something you've poured months of creativity and energy into. A slow dread is spreading in your belly. A fear that your game will just, well, fizzle.
There's so much to do! And if you're like me, you have your limitations. We all have our various skills, and we're all good at what we do, but no one is an expert in all things. For example, I'm a programmer first and foremost, and I can turn my hand to a range of other things in a push (apart from art, I'm crap at art), but biz dev, marketing, PR, and community building? Nah, those have always been a bit of a mystery, and something I've historically ignored till the last minute, and then done a half-assed job with, once I actually force myself to do it. It's just not a very interesting part of the game dev process to me, and I'm sure most of you will agree. The Marketing nerds won't of course.
Looking wider to the rest of the team, my guess is that you're running lean and mean and have only the skills you need to build the game, represented in your motley crew. Small, scrappy, indie dev teams are typically made up of the bare talent/skills needed to get the game made. A programmer, an artist, a designer, a musician (if you're lucky), and a producer(if you're unlucky (I kid, I kid, I love Producers)), and even those roles are usually covered by a single person. Fact is, if you're running your project on a shoestring, which is typical, you're probably all in and already relying on the kindness of others to get the work done. Finding money for professional help with the nitty gritty part of actually bringing the game to a ready audience, can be challenging. The temptation is to bumble through and do it yourself. This can be a tough proposition if marketing isn't your bag or "what you do". And it's not just the marketing. There's PR which entails leaving your dark cave-of-an-office and talking to other Humans (shudder). There are contracts and NDAs, and other legal paperwork to wrangle and navigate. There are events and interviews to schedule. Money to be raised. A million little and big things to do once you're done building the game. Discount the value of experts and professionals at your peril.
Marketing and business dev are not high on the list of requirements at the start of a project, and only really gets any attention towards the end. Finding a publisher can help with a whole range of problems that a small indie dev can face and struggle with. Marketing / PR, advertising, events, distribution, funding, production support, etc. etc. That's great, but it all comes at a price. Publishers will take their cut, and depending on your track record, that cut can be the lions share. Then you factor in the piece that Steam or other distribution platforms take, and you could end up with not a lot to show for your years of toil. Of course, a good publisher can take your game to the next level, and a smaller slice of a bigger pie, is still better than a big slice of a tiny pie. Mmmm, I like pie. Anyway, a good publisher can bring a lot of value to the table, so it's definitely a route that should be considered, provided the math works.
Alternatively, you can self publish. You can cobble a plan together, run a Kickstarter, tap you network of friends to spread the word, pester sites and Youtuber's to give you some coverage, and cross your fingers. Maybe you can throw a bit of money at it. Maybe you'll get lucky. The problem with this approach, is failure. Basically. Effective marketing of your finished game is potentially one of the most critical parts of making it.
To be clear this article doesn't favor self publishing over a traditional publisher, or vice versa. Get a publisher or self publish. It just has to make sense for your situation and needs. There are lots of pros and cons for both routes. The rest of this article is really just a bunch of notes and thoughts about what I've found out the past few months looking into this whole subject. You know, being as my game is just about Alpha.. Gulp.
So, to self publish or find a publisher?
Is it worth giving up a piece of your game to get “professional” help with this stuff? Everyone making a game for profit, needs to sit down and talk about this stuff honestly. Weigh up the benefits versus the costs. Will you get value for your money? Will the bump in sales and income, be worth what you paid to get it? Of course, you don't necessarily need to give up a piece of your game to get professional help. You just need money. The more the better. Because professionals like to get paid.
There is a distinction. A Partnership, rather than just a straight publishing deal, will have additional intangibles, such as; Enthusiasm, creativity and investment (beyond financial) for the game, across all aspects of the game, including marketing, distribution, and production. A partnership usually comes from trust and credibility, built over multiple projects and consistent, mutual success. Having a publisher who actually cares and works with you to make the best game you can, is something we can all hope for.
"Stage and Spotlight". Ideally, the publisher should put the developer and game front and center. The publisher should take a back seat and promote the developer and game, and not take credit or push themselves ahead of the game and developer. The game and developer is the star here. The publisher should be an ambassador for the game and developer.
"Personal Relationship". It's about accessibility. How responsive and available is the publisher? Do you have a dedicated "handler" or account manager or contact to work with? Is there a lot of "churn"? Do you speak with a different person every time you interact with them? Understand who does what and what the structure is at the publisher. Know who can make things happen and get stuff done. It really helps if you like the people doing the work, and the "culture" of the publisher. Do they have your interests at heart and will they have your back in a knife fight?
"Honesty and Realism". Everyone involved must be able to talk frankly and not pull punches about money, deadlines and anything that could impact any aspect of the game. Both sides have to be able to ask and answer questions with transparency. Money is important. It's the thing that makes the relationship work. Where is the money coming from and where is it going? How is it distributed and paid out?
Wooing a publisher is a serious business. It's no joke. There's money and reputation at stake, so take it seriously, and be scrupulous in the detail. As a developer approaching a possible publisher, it is your responsibility to research the publisher's body of work and reputation. Educate yourself before talking to anyone. Check out their website, Youtube channel, Metacritic scores, buzz and feedback. How have they been successful, and how can that be applied to your game.
Once you are talking seriously to a publisher, ask for references (yes you can do that). Talk to developers that are already in the publisher's portfolio. Not just the successful ones. How did the publisher deal with a developer/game that wasn't performing well? This will tell you a lot about how a publisher treats a developer or behaves when things aren’t quite so rosy.
Simple question.. How will you make us more money than if we did this ourselves?
Not everything a publisher can offer will be of interest to you or relevant to your situation. You may be fully funded already. You may just need access to a specific platform. You may desperately need money to keep the lights on, or help with paperwork.
These are things to consider, and questions you should ask a potential publisher before committing ink to paper.
Marketing / PR - Advertising, Events and Community.
What can the publisher offer? What are their capabilities? What resources do they have? Do they have a team? Where are they based? Do they specialize in a particular country? Where will the game be marketed (countries/regions)? Can they speak the language in that market? Do they understand the nuances of the country/region? How will they market the game? Ask for examples of previous campaigns for other games. Do they include streamers and Youtubers? How about Social Media? How about community building and management? What is a typical budget or spend on a marketing campaign? How will it be spent? How will the cost be recouped? Do they go to events? Worldwide? Look at their track record and how they have supported other games.
Distribution - Channels, Digital, Retail, Merchandising and Events.
This is mostly about access. Steam, PSN, XBox. Placement on storefronts, inclusion in promos, merchandising. What access and relationship does the publisher have with the various distribution channels? Do your own research. Look at the publisher's catalog. Where does your game fit? Is there opportunity for cross-promotion or "synergy" with their other products?
Funding - Money for Development
How much do you need and when do you need it? Be specific and clear, as contracts don't get a "redo". How much will the money actually cost you, both short and long term. Going back to your publisher for more money after the fact will only weaken your position and will probably mean you have to give something else up in return. Modifying an agreement can be difficult and expensive.
Production - Testing, Audio, Localization,Voiceover, Video Production, etc.
Are the production services part of the deal? These are real costs to the publisher, so what are they, and how are the costs recouped? What level of expertise does the publisher have in the services they offer? Who do they contract out to? Do you have direct contact with them or are they a walled garden?
When negotiating an agreement, do not settle for wishy-washy answers, or assume anything. If there's something that isn't clear or understood, ask for clarity and for it to be explained in excruciating detail. Ask for examples. Understand how the money works. How it flows in and out. How the accounting works and pay schedules are structured. Understand any caveats and clauses that affect the money. How are publisher costs recouped? What are considered "costs"? When will they be recouped (schedule)? There are no stupid questions, only sad and broken developers.
Sustainability. Know the health of your publisher. Who funds the publisher? Who pays them? Pay attention and anticipate potential problems. Understand risks and have a "Plan B". Plan for the future and position yourself for the future. Understand your requirements on the money side. Payments take time to filter through the system. Plan for your next project.
Communication with a publisher/partner is super important. Communicate regularly and early. Try to avoid surprises, and don't ignore important stuff. If something isn't clear, make it clear. Know who makes the decisions.
IP and ownership should be really important to you as a developer.. The game is your baby and the IP is its soul. IP is your most valuable asset, long term. Do not sell the IP. Do not make it part of any agreement. Think about the future and sequels and additional games based on the IP. Does the publisher have any interest longer term? Are there any exclusivity clauses written in that would prevent you developing your IP elsewhere? How is the IP positioned, promoted and messaged by the publisher to the world? The IP isn't just the game. It's ANY other opportunity that comes out of the idea, be it books, t-shirts, comic books, "plushies", trading cards, movies, anything. Ownership is control.
There are lots of publishers and lots of promises. Understand your publisher (know everything). Stay in charge. Drive the deal and keep control of the game and IP. They need you more than you need them, because you can always self-publish if the deal is bad.
Make sure your personal agreements with your team and partners are squared away and very clear. What is your company structure and ownership? How is money distributed? Understand disbursement schedules, accounting, and the legal stuff. How are contractors managed and paid? How are the accounts kept and expenses tracked? Contracts are important. No handshakes and vagaries.
If you self publish, consider hiring a PR person or marketing firm to help. Marketing and PR is hard and is a full time job. That is a hard truth and reality. There are people out there who will work for a reasonable fee, and give you a "leg up". Even a simple, but professionally thought-out plan and timeline would be a huge help and guide for most people.
Social Media - Facebook is useless. Twitter is better. Reddit is perilous and you must play by their rules or be punished. Generally, it is better to use Social Media as a funnel to your company or game website. Build your community around your own site if possible. You will also keep ownership of your content that way.
Website / Blog - Most people build a site for the game and promote that. The game is, after all, the point here. Once you have a few games, it makes sense to gather them under a company site. Making websites and promoting community around them is a fairly big job, so spend your time wisely. Have a "Press Kit" available. It should contain everything a would-be game journalist would need to put a pieces about your game together. Write an "Elevator Pitch", a couple of sentences that says exactly what the game is about. Make some short pieces of copy that can be copy/pasted into a blog or review. Have various quality and sizes of promotional screenshots, renders and videos available.
Have a mailing list sign up, Stay in touch and engage your followers/community regularly. Cross post to social media, providing links to get people back to your site. Get on Indie game dev and player community forums and get involved with their communities. Get involved with communities interested in your genre of game. Once you have the beginnings of a community around the game, consider hiring a fulltime community manager, because running it is a lot of work.
Game Press - Reach out with email etc. Follow on Twitter and interact. Email announcements and press releases. A Marketing / PR person can be super helpful here, particularly if they are well connected.
Mainstream Press - Consider other angles for the game that may be interesting to other, non-game media. Radio, TV, print. Does the game feature a place or a time that has interest outside the game? Is it socially/environmentally conscious? Does it make a political or topical statement?
Youtube - Youtube is an important part of marketing your game. "Big List of Youtubers" . http://videogamecaster.com/big-list-of-youtubers - Find influencers interested in your genre and communicate. Early access to game etc.
Twitch - Twitch is all about games (and cam girls), but mostly games. Twitch recently announced plans to add a sales platform as part of Twitch streamer's channel. This has great possibilities for developers, and opportunities for streamers, so know your Twitch streamers and identify the ones who may be interested in your genre of game.
Expos and Shows - Consider a demo level that shows the game off in isolation. Controller is a must. People just want to pick up and play. If the game is too involved or not right for an expo, don't waste your money. Unless you just want to hang out and party with super cool people.
Kickstarter - Use as part of a marketing strategy. Build a mailing list. Build an audience. Build a special demo level for backers to play. Offer the same demo for general download on the game website, later on. Add manageable and affordable rewards and stretch goals. Keep away from physical good, like t-shirts and books and figurines. While these things are super cool, they are expensive and time consuming to package and mail to backers. Try and keep your rewards digital, like soundtrack download and bonus music track, digital art portfolio, backers credit roll and “Hall of Heroes” in the game.
For multiplatform launch, have a distinct "story" tailored to each audience. Know what the PC audience expects, and know what the PS4/XBox audience expects, and pander to them directly. There are different expectations on each platform. This extends to UI/UX for each platform.
Ads don't really work. Not an effective form of communication. People block/ignore ads. Exception is to announce something "important" like a sale, or a major update.
Stay engaged with community. Reviews and ratings are important. Consider "trading cards" and achievements for Steam.
Localize the game to support other languages. French, German and Spanish.. Watch your metrics and see where your game is being played.
PS. You can check out my new game (I'm almost at Alpha), right here..