[In this in-depth feature, Mode 7 Games (Determinance, Frozen Synapse) co-head Paul Taylor discusses key steps to getting your independent game known, from careful initial announcements to pre-orders, talking to bloggers, and setting up blogs yourself.]
When Mode 7 Games was founded, I was still flailing around at university and knew precisely nothing about the games industry. I wish someone had sidled up to me in a dark alley and given me a quick breakdown of all of the things I was going to encounter in the next few years, as well as a gentle slap to the face followed by a chocolate-chip biscuit. This flaccid and convoluted multi-faceted metaphor is exactly what I'm attempting to embody here. Wish me luck.
This article is going to focus on what you can do to market an indie game pre-release, as this is an area a lot of first-time developers neglect.
One Very Important Thought
"Obscurity is a greater threat than piracy" - Tim O'Reilly
Obscurity is literally the worst thing that can possibly happen to you and your game. Notoriety is better. Public hatred is arguably better. Seriously. At least people remember Limbo of the Lost.
Marketing anything takes a lot of time and effort. Most small indies skew their efforts far too far towards production and away from marketing: this is one of the reasons why so few are a genuine commercial success, and why many high-quality games generate minimal revenue.
You will have already come up with a game concept. One vast component of marketing is having a strong concept for your product. You should already be thinking about your audience when you start to create something.
However, you're probably an independent creator because you're trying to do something that other people aren't. If you wanted to lope along with the pack, hunting for the sweet juicy buffalo of social compliance, you'd probably already be working for a big hairy company on a big hairy property.
Scott Steinberg would advise you to aim squarely at the mass market: "Music, animals, sports, raising a family... Keep game premises rooted in real-world frames of reference whenever possible." - Scott Steinberg, Sell More Video Games
Jeff Tunnell, on the other hand, thinks you should stick to where your passion lies:
"I make games that I want to make, and find out if there is an audience later. Trying to come up with a forecast is not an art or a science, it is an exercise in futility. Back in the day after Dynamix was acquired by Sierra we did have to work with marketing and do the prediction dance, but it was rarely correct, and the games I believed in the most like The Incredible Machine got terrible forecasts." - Jeff Tunnell, What is My Game's Sales Potential?
Here's my take:
There are commercially-successful indie games about gangly kung-fu fighting rabbits, abstract computer landscapes populated by tiny green squeaking things, and small, dribbly blobs of goo. These are never going to be as big as The Sims, but they were never intended to be. By "commercially successful", I mean "making enough money for their creators to continue making games". That's your goal, right?
Go for a "popular" concept only if you have a passion for it: you need passion to drive you through the process of making the game. If you're coming up with something wackier, realize that you're going to have to work harder to find the audience, and start figuring out how you're going to go about doing that before you start development.
Whatever you do, you should have a strong core concept that you can express quickly:
Uplink - "hacking game"
Democracy - "you are the Prime Minister"
Frozen Synapse - "you are a tactical commander"
Couldn't resist, sorry... but I do have a point: sometimes it's good to go for the odd PR cheap shot in order to get your concept out there. Don't overdo it like Scott Steinberg and write an entire essay about how awesome your consultancy business is in the middle of your book, however. That would be silly and some British guy bashing away an article about game PR would probably call you on it three or four years later.
One further note on concept: your concept must be married to a coherent and strong aesthetic. Uplink wasn't just a hacking game; its depiction of hacking came straight from Hollywood. It simply presented its core idea in the most stylish way possible.
Getting Set Up
If you're making a game, almost everything you do is newsworthy to someone. If you've done some stimulating programming, scrawled some mind-warping concept art, composed some interesting music or found an original way of promoting your game, there's a community of people out there who care about it. If you've eaten some soup, they probably don't care about that, and neither does anyone following you on Twitter, so shut up.
You'll need a website, most likely a blog. Well, duh.
"The only way to start a blog is to pretend the audience is there, even if you think it's zero. The truth is, your friends will come and read it. And then it'll be your friends and some guy who lives in Cleveland." - Jonathan Coulton, indie musician, Electronic Musician Magazine 08/2009
In Seth Godin's marketing gobbledygook language, you have to "unite a tribe." This means "find a bunch of people who like something, give them somewhere to gather and feed them information". This is what your blog is for: it's not just a vanity project for you to vent your endless guff.
Blogging is only one way to do this though. Here's a good analysis on social networks by the awesome Wolfire guys.
Of course, there's social networking sites, podcasting, videos, online tutorials, articles, talks, IRC and email mailing lists (try http://www.yourmailinglistprovider.com/)
Essentially, there are scads of different ways of disseminating information about your game. I'm sure you can think of many more than I've mentioned, as they're not that hard to come up with. The most important thing isn't that you have coverage over every communication method, however. It's that you use your chosen ones well.