Five Key Areas of Discoverability for Indie Devs
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Whenever I ask indie devs what they’d like to know about marketing, a lot of them respond saying they have no idea where to begin. With this in mind, I went to Develop this year to give advice about how to get your game on people's radar. I considered five key areas of discoverability:
- knowing your audience
- sharing your content
- nurturing your community
- contacting influencers
- and spending money on promotion
The following is a broad overview to be used as a jumping off point for further research. Each game is unique. Marketing plans should always be individually crafted.
Knowing Your Audience
"The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself." — Peter F. Drucker
Did you make your game because you like playing games and wanted to turn something you love into a career? Because you see games as an important art form? To a certain extent, it doesn't matter: if you want your company to survive, your business goal is to make money—to sell your game.
Of course, you may have more personal goals for the game, but ultimately you’ll probably want enough profit to enable you to keep making games. In a traditional business landscape, an entrepreneur or CEO would begin by researching the market to find where there’s a gap, allowing them to create a product that is viable for profit. They’d know their target audience from the very beginning.
The games market is a crowded one. Over 500 mobile games are added daily and 4207 games were added to Steam in 2016. Most indie games were probably developed more because of creativity and passion than deliberated market research. This means that knowing your audience is that much more important.
No marketing can be done without understanding who will be most likely to buy your game. How else will you know where to market your game? Which features to push? Which publications and streamers to get involved? Every marketing strategy question will come back to ‘Who is my target audience?’
Helpful Tips on Finding Your Audience
How do you define your audience? First, ask yourself: what platforms will the game be on? What genre is the game? From there you can do research into the demographics for certain platforms and genres. For example, we find that our Sunless Sea players on Steam often fall into the 18-35 year old male category.
Places to start your research:
If in doubt, look to other games that are similar to yours and see if there is information about their demographics. If possible, get in touch with the devs.
There are stats out there about which countries use which platforms, and how much players there spend on games—NewZoo in particular is a great resource. As you begin discovering your audience, you may even find that breaking down audience by country leads to an opportunity to extend your customer reach by localising your game.
Investigating affinity audiences may also help: these are people that may be interested in your game based on their other interests, passions and lifestyle choices. For example, people that like Star Trek may enjoy FTL. Using Google Analytics on your website is a great way to gather this type of audience information.
The best thing you can do to gather audience information is testing—surveys or polls, or even getting a few people to play your game, so you can collect qualitative data.
A lot of the developers I know often have created a game they want to play. This can be great from a design and gameplay perspective, but I think it’s worth mentioning that, when marketing, you should not make any assumptions. Marketing is, at its core, about research and testing. While some of your audience may be similar to you, you may find some players will be attracted to your game for completely unexpected reasons and will notice things you would not.
Marketing is quite a cyclical process: Research, Plan, Implement, Measure, Optimise and then back to Research. Your audience isn’t set in stone, so it’s important to continue to gather audience data and adjust as necessary. Once you begin to gain players, you may notice new trends, and be able to define your target audience even further.
Sharing Your Content
Knowing who your audience is will inform where and how you share your content. Of course the first thing you want to do is to find out which social platforms your audience prefers.
Your game can help you to decide which platforms should be your focus. If your game has a unique art style, think Instagram or Tumblr; if it involves a lot of strategy or stats, start up a subreddit.
Also consider how comfortable you are with certain platforms. If there’s one that’s going to be excruciating for you to use and you’re more comfortable with other platforms where your audience also exist, then it’s fine to focus there.
So, what sort of things can you share? Anything really, as long as it’s material your audience likes and you’ll learn that as time goes on. Some starting points:
- Game updates
- Dev blogs
- Fan art / Cosplay
- Promotional news
Besides using social media platforms to speak to your audience, it's also vital to have a designated space to keep all of the main facts about your game (release date, game description, features, price, etc.). Typically you may already have this in the form of a press kit, but you'll also want this information to be available to your fans, whether it's on your website or available via whichever store pages you're on (Steam, GOG, Itch.io).
There are a few other things to keep in mind once you begin sharing content:
When should you start sharing information about your game to your audience? The sooner the better! As soon as you have a concrete concept of what your game is going to be and when you have something to say.
The longer you have to build your community, the better off you are—the goal is to already have a fanbase when your game is ready to launch. Without a marketer on your staff this may be daunting to think about, but you can scale back how much you share and how often, and then ramp it up ahead of your launch.
- For PC/Premium games, begin sharing at least 6 months ahead of launch*
- Keep timezones in mind, post when your audience is awake
- For big announcements, make sure it’s not during a public holiday, big games conference or a day where long-awaited AAAs are releasing
*This recommendation is for games that are not going through crowdfunding. If you’re considering a Kickstarter or other crowdfunding campaign, that is a whole different beast, and you’ll need to start much further in advance.
Once you start up a social channel for your game, it’s important to keep a consistent schedule for posting regular content. If you aren’t consistent, fans may lose interest in the game or even confidence in your studio.
Be realistic. Plenty of articles will say things like, “Five posts a day is most effective for Twitter,” but if you don’t have a dedicated marketing person, that might be difficult, so pick a schedule you can stick to.
Framing for Clarity
Framing is how you present things to your audience. If you know who your audience is then you will be able to tell what features of your game to push and what images will be more enticing to them.
Framing is also important for clarity. For example, if you want to make sure that fans understand something you’re sharing from pre-production may change, try taking a screenshot or video from within your game engine, so people can see it’s a work in progress.
Your game may also have a certain atmosphere or dialect around it that you want to keep within the branding of your game, however, with marketing, it’s always best to make sure any messaging that goes out to your fans is absolutely clear. Don’t let the flavour of the game interfere with people’s understanding of the game itself or important announcements.
Nurturing Your Community
Okay, so now you know who your audience is, and have set up channels to share information with them about your game, but how do you keep them interested? How do you form a community around your game?
Why It’s Important
The games industry’s shift from traditional boxed products to more mobile and F2P models, has really strengthened the “Games As a Service” approach. With that, player expectations about game studios have also shifted.
Players expect to be able to get in touch with the studio, not only on a customer service level, but also as a member of the game’s community. They also want to know what kind of company you are and what you stand for. These days consumers want to make sure they are backing a horse that aligns with their own personal beliefs.
In Fallen London, for example, fans appreciate our commitment to representation and gender parity. These expectations will become more and more important as younger generations rise to buying power.
Consumers have grown to distrust ads and more traditional forms of marketing. Forming a community for your game allows you as a studio to be more personable and therefore trustworthy. If a community is nurtured, it means that members will pass along their enjoyment of the game to other players, and word of mouth is the best type of advertising you can get.
General Tips for Setting Up a Cyclical Community
One of the best things you can do when setting up for a community is to make sure any set of rules or company beliefs are clearly posted somewhere from the beginning.
For example, if you’ve set up a forum or Reddit page somewhere, make sure any rules you want your players to follow are easily found and explained. These could be how to post on the forum, or even how to treat other players.
As your community grows, your earlier fans will be able to point new fans to these rules for you—it’s good for everyone to have clear direction and expectations.
Levels of Interest
It’s important to share content that will hit the different levels of interest of members in your community:
Important announcements like game release info, new trailers, game sales etc. should be designed to entice new players into joining your community.
Regular updates like new screenshots, features added etc. are there to keep members within your community interested throughout development.
Any sort of fan contests whether fan art or cosplay will allow those members of your community who want to be more invested to show their dedication.
And finally, there will be members of your community that will act as brand evangelists, those who are super-dedicated—players that may know the game better than you do. These members, if possible, should be offered positions of responsibility and trust within the community. These opportunities could be roles like a forum moderator, or even someone that gets early testing opportunities. They will help keep your community strong, and be your best supporters.
We’ve talked about community, but what about getting in touch with the press and other influencers? These people will send new members to your community, and without new people joining, your community could become a time sink rather than a valuable resource.
First step—create your list. Whether you’re using a spreadsheet or Mailchimp, it’s best to create the bulk of your press list early on, once you do it, you’ll only have to update occasionally.
Make sure you have all the major publications included first. Many sites will list at least a generic [email protected], if they offer up more detailed information, make sure you can delineate between who does previews vs. reviews vs. news etc. If your studio releases on a variety of devices and platforms (console/PC/mobile), it’s good to tag them along those lines as well—don’t send your mobile game to PC Gamer or RPS!
It’s also good to look at which specific journalists cover games similar to yours. Much like defining your audience, it’s important to make sure the publications you’re adding are the right fit for your game, too.
I’d recommend making a separate list for YouTubers and Twitch streamers. You’ll be contacting streamers closer to launch, and generally want to use a more casual tone with them, so a separate list makes things easier. Contact streamers who will have specific interest in your game and its mechanics.
When should I contact them?
When you have something to show them, mostly. For the press, especially if this is your first game, get in touch with them when you have something to show—that could be an announcement trailer or a demo. Having something to show is great, but if you have anything for them to play that will always be better.
Unlike your community, they won’t want updates when every new feature is added, instead, save contacting the press for times when you have big news like partnering with another studio or releasing Early Access.
Consider the timing:
- don’t send out a press release during E3 or any other busy events
- make sure a slew of big AAAs aren’t releasing
- generally avoid the pre-Christmas window, which will be overcrowded
Journalists are busy and thrown hundreds of games, so don’t be afraid to politely check in with them if they haven’t answered. Try to be as personal as possible—besides sending out a blanket press release, send out more personal emails to important publications and journalists who are a great match to your game.
Remember that press are people too, so getting to know their likes and dislikes, and about them personally, will help you develop good working relationships with them.
A few quick tips
- Don’t forget timezones! If most of your list are US publications, don’t send it out at 9:00 BST
- Generally it’s better to send out press releases Tuesday–Thursday
- For press reviews, ideally start sending out keys for press review 3–4 weeks ahead of your launch
- Unless you have a specific planned review with a YouTuber, send out keys to streamers much closer to launch, a week or less
What should I include?
It’ll increase your odds of being covered if you add assets to your news press releases (trailers, demos, GIFs, a new batch of screenshots etc.), and your information should be structured to shout about the best bits first.
Include any directions or info that will make the process as frictionless as possible (like if there’s a particular trick to getting the build running). Be sure any embargoes are clear and unmissable, and always make sure there’s a clear link to your press kit—and keep it updated!
Spending Money on Promotion
When indie devs budget out the cost to make a game, very few include marketing spend. Yet it’s common knowledge that AAA games and their publishers certainly must set aside a large budget just for marketing.
The games industry isn't great at sharing how much they spend on marketing, as it's perhaps a bit taboo, but surveys from the larger business world show that large companies (>$5b revenue) spend 13% of revenue on marketing, while smaller companies ($250-500m revenue) spend around 10%. Of course, marketing spend is more than just paying for promotion, but that’s what we’ll focus on in this section.
So when should indie devs consider spending money on promotion?
- When you can afford it
- And when you can understand it
Being able to spend money on promotion is wonderful, and can really help widen the reach of potential buyers, however, finding the funds is difficult enough, so be sure to understand the whole picture before spending a dime. If you have a limited budget, center your spending around key milestones like Early Access or launch, when your game is available for purchase.
Don’t spend any money unless you have very specific objectives. If you don’t understand what you want as an outcome of spending your money, then you risk wasting it. If you don’t have an in-house marketer or analytics wizard, it would be worth reaching out to consult with one for a short time to set up a plan for any advertising you’d want to do.
It’s also important to understand that a lot of the advertising from big brands isn’t specifically done to get sales conversions. In business you’ll often hear people talking about a sales funnel: Awareness, Interest, Decision, Action. This describes the path consumers go on before they buy a product—and plenty of ads you see are often for more top-level functions like awareness and interest, which, if you’re an indie with a small marketing budget, you probably can’t afford to constantly throw your money towards.
However, at key points like your launch, could help grab more potential buyers, or if you have a mobile game which is much more straightforward from ad to purchase.
How can I spend it?
There are unlimited ways to spend money on promotion, and it definitely depends on your goals, budget and audience. However, a few steady and common examples are:
These could be campaigns on Adwords, Facebook, Reddit, etc. Typically digital ads are where I hear horror stories of devs spending money on social platforms without understanding what objectives they have for campaigns or what the results mean.
Pros for digital ads:
- Compared to other types of promotion they can be inexpensive and very customisable
- They’re easy to stop early if they’re not performing well against your objectives
- They allow you to gather more audience data about your purchasers
Cons for digital ads:
- Can feel like sitting in front of the NASA console for the first time—it’s complicate
- Therefore it takes time to learn, unless you can hire a consultant
- Can easily waste money due to a lack of understanding
- Unless you’re advertising a mobile game, they’re generally more for awareness than direct sales
Events can be great if you have gameplay that suits having people come up and play it, or a game that’s great for watching. If your game has a lot of reading or is more suitable for long-term play, it may be more effective to use your money to go to events as a speaker, that way you can still gain the benefits of going to a conference without having to pay for a booth.
Pros for events:
- Personal! You can have one-on-ones directly with your fans or new players
- Great for game testing and seeing how people actually interact/react to your game
- Prestige, or showing that your game is a real game—great for branding purposes.
Cons for events:
- Not great for direct conversions to sales
- Can be expensive, especially if you want to go to a few
- The competition is literally all around you
- Can be exhausting, especially if you have a small team
If you’re looking for a more personal ad, podcasts can be a great way to go. Many podcasts will have data on their viewership demographics, so you can choose which podcast audiences align with your own.
Pros for podcasts:
- Much like streamers, podcast advertising feels pretty close to word of mouth advertising
- Podcast themes can be niche and cover a wide range of interests
- They can be a great way to reach your affinity audiences
- They come in rage of prices
Cons for podcasts:
- Can be difficult to see direct impact on sales (unless you have a mobile game)
- Better if done consistently, which could be pricy/hard to keep up
- Many steps to get the buyer from ad to purchase
So, some final reminders on spending money for promotion:
- DON’T pay for numbers instead of earning your audience
- DON’T spend money without having specific goals/outcomes
- DON’T spend money on a platform without understanding how it works
That was a lot of info to take in all at once about discoverability and marketing, but my main takeaway is this: marketing isn’t just PR or social media. Marketing is ALL the strategies you use to lead people to buy your game. In a crowded marketplace, it’s important to make sure you have a stake in each of these areas in order to better your chances at discoverability.
Your Indie Game Deserves a Marketer — by Hannah Flynn
Everyone Can Do PR: The 5 Pillars & Pitfalls of Indie Games PR — by Thomas Reisenegger
How to Choose the Best Social Media Platforms as a Game Developer — by Charlene LeBrun