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I worked on Sausage Sports Club for 3 years and learned an insane amount in the process. I was incredibly lucky to be surrounded by experienced and generous game makers in that time who were willing to give feedback, advice, and help push me and my game forward every step of the way. I know few people have that privilege, so this post is to lower the ladder a bit and hopefully make making games a little bit easier.
Here are the topics I cover in this post:
Market Research — Using constantly obsoleting data to inform decisions
Perception — The importance of talking about your game thoughtfully
Social Media — Tips for getting the most out of content you post online
Conventions — Why you shouldn’t go and how to get there if you do
Platform Support — Figure out your leverage, and use it
I want to give a big preface at the start here- this is my first commercial indie game and at the time of publishing this I won’t have Sausage Sports Club sales info yet. I won’t talk in absolutes, but I want to be extra clear that this is just one perspective on what does and doesn’t work. Any piece of advice you hear is extra information you should think critically about and weigh against all other information you hear. Also all the images here are the funniest handshake stock photos I could find.
There are so many unknown variables in trying to make and sell an indie game, but there are tools that can help reduce your risk and give you a better chance at success. Market research is a big one where your goal is to get more information that will help inform all the decisions you’ll make in building and selling your game. I was obsessive about this throughout development and every good decision I made was either the result of tons of research, getting lucky, or both.
Here are some tools I used to research other games:
Steam Spy: This used to be a great tool to approximate the owners of every game on Steam. It was inaccurate in a lot of ways and the usefulness of estimates were muddled by Humble Bundles, free weekends and deep discounts but it was the best tool to see how well games were doing until Steam badly broke their algorithm in April 2018.
GDC Talks: Every day the Game Developer Conference’s Youtube channel uploads a video from this past year or the previous 30 year history of game development oriented talks. You can watch everything on that channel for free and a non trivial number of the videos are about game reception, sales, business lessons learned, and marketing advice.
Mentor Advice: My network of friends in Chicago’s indie game scene were generous with their knowledge and advice about market trends, Kickstarter, selling games, Steam changes, developing for console, and dozens of other things. There’s few things I can recommend more than getting involved in your local indie scene, making friends on Twitter, and forming a private community where you can share knowledge.
Just Ask: Are there games like yours that you can’t find information about on what’s left of Steam Spy, from friends, on public blogs, or on twitter? Just ask the developers nicely and they might tell you. Send a succinct message explaining why your game is similar, that you’re doing research on similar games and the market, and maybe suck up a little bit.
Everywhere: To do market research right, you should constantly be looking for information about new games coming out. What was their release strategy? How well does their game do in the first month? First 6 months? How does that match their expectations? How did they pay to make their game? How does the scope, marketability, and way they allocate their team’s time and resources differ from your team?
A last thought here- lots of advice you’ll hear in this post and in the sources I’ve mentioned above may be contradictory and that’s a great reminder that all advice is subjective, from one perspective, about a specific game, at a specific time, on a specific platform, in a specific context, etc!
Throughout development I did a decent job of continuously putting out content about Sausage Sports Club and my development process, but one thing I wish I’d learned about earlier is the importance of perception. Perception is what people think of your game when they first hear of it, when they discuss it with others, when it pops up again in their content feed, and when it’s finally released. It determines whether press will cover you, whether influencers will make videos, how much people will pay, and how much word of mouth will spread your game. It’s amorphous and tough to gauge, but definitely something you can affect either positively or negatively.
Here are just a few things that affect the perception of your game:
Open development content is probably WIP, but the level of polish in GIFs and screenshots still sends a message about what to expect. It’s also notable that snippets of development can be exciting, but may not represent what’s it like to play the game.
Wherever you decide to build an audience and communicate, your professionalism and values can either attract or annoy people.
What accolades has your game or studio earned in the past? Awards, influencers, good press, and anything legitimizing improve perception.
One of the best ways of sharing a continuous feed of content about your game is social media. Whereas getting people to sign-up for a mailing list or to regularly check your blog requires effort, following on social media is easy and with each new follower your content has more potential to be amplified. The challenge is in making your social media channels worth following and in making content people will actually engage with.
Here are strategies I use to get the most out of social media:
I think of all social media channels as an exchange. Anyone who decides to follow me is doing so because the content I make provides some sort of value for them. That might be education, laughs, cuteness, news about the game, reinforcement of their beliefs, or all of the above. Focus on making content that’s valuable for others and easy or fun to engage with.
With Sausage Sports Club- short, exciting stories told in GIFs were best. All the tweets that blew up were also examples of good storytelling with a clear beginning, some build-up, and then a surprising or funny ending.
Especially early on it’s important to follow and engage with others, so people who would want to follow you will actually see your account. If your content is amazing and super shareable you can get away with engaging less, but if you feel like the value of your content doesn’t match your growth then try this.
Having lots of followers is good, but having high quality followers (read followers with many followers) is also important to helping your content reach a wide audience. I didn’t purposely style my content to attract those people, but sharing development tips, explanatory tech-art GIFs, and links to tools I’ve open-sourced has had that effect.
Each platform is different and if you’re going to reuse content you should tweak it to fit each platform. Tweets do best with little text and GIFs, but Facebook posts can afford more text and longer videos for example. Feeling out intricacies of each platform is time consuming, but important.
Every few weeks, in almost every part of the world there are events where game developers try to spread word about their game with public demos. I took Sausage Sports Club to around a dozen of these and learned a lot in the process. I’ve seen good write-ups about the costs and ways to save money, but none about whether you should go or what your goals should be if you do. Let’s talk about that stuff!
Here are some BAD reasons to go to conventions:
To connect with and convert convention goers into fans. This totally does happen and feels really good, but you can connect with more people more effectively for little cost by streaming your game’s development on Twitch.
To playtest your game and make it better. Again this definitely happens at conventions and feedback is crucial, but that sort of environment shapes expectations of your game and only shared-screen games really shine.
To travel and see more of the world. Maybe you’ll get a taste of this, but mostly you’ll be tired in a convention center shouting your pitch at strangers and counting the minutes before you can go sleep in your hotel.
Here are good reasons to go to conventions:
You want to get your game on consoles, but don’t have a contact at one or any of their teams. For the major shows, all the big platforms have reps walking around, taking meetings, and looking for new games to sign. Ask around, DM them- you’ll find some way to meet them on the floor.
You’ve been applying to award shows, looking for a publisher, and reaching out to content creators, but nobody takes your game seriously. If you keep showing up to shows with a unique, polished game, a legit looking booth, and talk to everyone- folks will start paying attention.
In general, if you have some large goal that meeting thousands of people in a short time is likely to help with, then being at a convention may be worth it despite the huge money and time cost. My goals ranged from hitting my Kickstarter goal, to meeting content creators, to getting signed on Switch.
Now you probably know whether it’s right for you to be at conventions, but which conventions are worth going to? That’s a harder question to answer and depends a lot on what your goals are.
The entry level is PAX and Gamescom, which are consumer oriented and ideal for making your game seem more legitimate to platform holders, publishers, and influencers. This posturing also helps ensure curators of more selective events will have seen of your game directly or second-hand.
The next level is game festivals, which are less business oriented and closer to art showcases. They’re usually volunteer organized and curated by people on the look out for rad new games. I consider Bit Bash, Day of the Devs, Fantastic Arcade, Indiecade, and Juegos Rancheros to fit in this category. These all select games through an opaque process, which is why you can consider selection in these events accolades and also why showing at conventions and meeting lots of people improves your odds.
There are some conventions I haven’t listed that fit into the above two categories, but any convention that big games and platforms aren’t showing at that also can’t be described as a festival aren’t worth the effort.
You might have noticed going to the conventions I’ve mentioned above are prohibitively expensive. That’s true! Here are some options for attending:
Showing in a console, other platform, publisher, or competition prize booth is ideal. They’ll send out a press release, arrange press and influencer visits, and usually foot the bill. Also, push for them to have staff available to run your game so you can take breaks and network freely.
Another option is curated groups like Indie Megabooth or PAX Rising. There are tons of options like these if you look- all with different cost and clout benefits, but they all help legitimize your game somewhat.
Last is the homemade booth, which for bootstrapping indies can be a risky choice. If you run a show on too tight a budget, your booth will look crappy and showcase the game poorly, which gives passersby a bad impression.
So you’ve gone to a convention, your game has been accepted onto the hot new console, now what? How can you get these mega-corporations to care about you and your game? Hint: you can’t.
This isn’t anybody’s fault and isn’t at all a complaint about my experience working with Nintendo. The truth is every platform is just trying to be the best and everyone is trying to do their job well. That means each new platform wants to pick the best and most diverse lineup of games to show and sometimes that’s not going to be you. Or maybe you’ll squeak in like me.
So what can you do to try and get platform support?
Know what leverage you have.
How is your game different from other games?
What can you offer that showcases the platform you want to be on?
What bargaining chips do you have to make your game the most appealing option?
For me it was timed-exclusivity, but for you it might be a desirable feature or the ability to release as a launch title. Also be sure to look at your target platform’s past game showcases and be honest about whether your game is up to that quality level. If it’s not, you’ve got work to do.
Thanks for reading, I hope you found this valuable. If you’d like to see more content like this please support my work by checking out Sausage Sports Club and sharing it with a friend. It’s out on Steam and Nintendo Switch now!