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Why Marketing Your Indie Game is Important

Marketing is rapidly becoming more and more necessary as part of game dev- but why?

Designing an indie game to be unique while also having a defined aesthetic is growing increasingly more important as time goes on, as the indie game market (and game market in general) is constantly expanding at a seemingly exponential rate. It has become more necessary than ever to create eye-catching games, games that instantly attract eyes (and hopefully the eyes of buyers) towards your product. Your product is unique, and you must like it- why else would you be spending so much time to make it if not? Then, it stands to reason that you should want more and more people to notice your game. While maybe not immediately recognizable, good game design has striking correlations to good marketing- another essential piece of game dev that is sadly overlooked too often. According to Polygon, 2,964 games were released on Steam in 2015. That number increased to 4,207 games that were released in 2016. That number again jumped to 7,672 games being released in 2017 just for Steam. Each year it seems the number is almost doubling, meaning it is absolutely becoming harder and harder for consumers to find your game and it is absolutely necessary to make that first impression count- and if it doesn’t, then you need to rely on good, heavy marketing to make sure you get more than just one impression from people.

Why is My Marketing Not Helping?

Indie games typically fail at marketing for a number of reasons, ranging from “somewhat avoidable through research” to “do you even know what game dev means?”:

  • Not targeting the right audience
  • Not reaching enough eyes
  • Not marketing long enough before and after release
  • Failing to market before release (the common “my game is releasing tomorrow and I forgot to market it!”)

Now, let’s go over briefly some of these.

Not targeting the right audience- you just can’t market enough to sell decently if you’re not marketing to the right audience. If you’re making a mobile mystery point and click game, then your main audience is going to be middle aged women. If you’re making a side swiping action game like Temple Run, then your main audience is going to be bored middle and high school students. Marketing outside of these ranges can work, but you should already be seeing the vast differences in some gaming genres. With the addition of mobile gaming to the market, more and more “non traditional gamers” are now adding money to the market, meaning the market is expanding even in these ways.

Not reaching enough eyes- posting a couple tweets every few weeks and maybe tagging them isn’t going to suffice even if you’re Ubisoft or EA. Some surveys have said that it takes three impressions before consumers build an idea and recognize a brand– this means that effective marketing consists of posting frequently and posting in multiple places. It is for this very reason that more prolific indie game companies hire people just for marketing, as it truly is a full-time job. Those emails don’t send themselves, and a lot of times people don’t have a good grasp on what effective marketing consists of.

Not marketing long enough before and after release- this point is a bit more controversial, as some people will have differing opinions on this. Some will say you should start posting and announcing your game the moment you have any shred of assets to show off, whether it be an extreme prototype screenshot or a concept art sketch. Some will say you should wait until you have a good collection of assets ready to share, such as a trailer or even a demo. Personally, I believe there is a nice middle ground that can be found that changes for each game. As an artist, I always start with the art, so I can make art assets as needed. However, for companies such as those run by friends who are programmers and writers instead of artists, they have to depend more on their artists for when they can announce their projects and might lean more towards mock screenshots. Whenever you feel comfortable that you have enough assets and a good idea of what your game is, start marketing.
But what does this have to do with marketing enough after release? Well, let’s say you magically get your game out there. Congrats, you gave all your personal info to Valve and now it’s on Steam. Do you just go to your next game? Do you move on? …Somewhat. You should definitely move on, yes, but you should also try to not drop the game and run. There will be bugs. That’s inevitable, no matter how much proofreading, beta testing, and sleepless nights. There will always be people in your genre who don’t know about your game. Tweetdeck is a great tool for post-release marketing, as you just schedule tweets and leave. Try to check social media accounts frequently though, as people like being replied to.

Failing to market before release- whenever someone says “my game is releasing tomorrow and I forgot to market it”, a marketer dies on the inside. As previously said, marketing should be viewed as a natural and necessary step in the game development and publishing process, so it is absolutely mind boggling to hear of people who release a game and then decide to dip their toes into marketing, despite the fact that they should already be waist deep into marketing by the time of release, if not neck high. If you want to even try to make your deposit back on your game, you must begin marketing months before release. Most games won’t make their budget back, let alone get in the green money-wise, but that’s another story.

So… How do I “Market”?

​That’s a good question we’d all like to know! …But let’s go over some basics.Be active on social media- if you make a social media account for your company and/or game, try to keep it up to date. There are plenty of scheduling websites that can help you queue posts so you don’t have to remember to post daily. As well as being active on social media, you should also aim to make sure you’re using the websites to your full advantage, as each site functions a bit differently.

Start marketing as soon as you have enough to show and keep at it- start marketing once you have a fair amount to show and know what your game is. Graphics are the best way to catch people’s eyes, of course.

Contacting reviewers- game news sites and blogs are a great way to further reach people who are potentially interested. Don’t worry about being declined- 9/10 they’ll ignore/not reply to your email instead of sending one back saying why they don’t want to review it. Of course, don’t target sites that review only android games in the hopes that they’ll review your Steam release- don’t waste your time like that. Try to find as many sites as you can to email that allow devs to email them, as for the most part you won’t get responses back. These sites get a lot of emails every day, and they have to pick what to and what not to cover.

In an essence, marketing is getting people who want to buy your game to know about your game. You definitely want to hone in on your audience and make sure they know what your game is, but in general the goal of marketing is spreading the word about your game. 

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Finding Your Game’s Audience

You’re far enough into development to start marketing your game fully- great! …But who are you going to market it to?

Sometimes when people are sad that a game didn’t do well, they mention “it was marketed well”, yet it didn’t do good. The sad truth is, more often than not if a game doesn’t do well, it actually wasn’t marketed well. Marketing frequently is a good start- but if you don’t know who to market to, then you’ll force yourself to do way more marketing just to make up.​So, who do you market to? How do you figure out your audience that will buy your game?

1. Who will play your game?

This is a seemingly basic question but is actually a difficult and precise question, and in order to market efficiently, you must answer it as best you can. The answer shouldn’t be something generic such as “teenagers” or “visual novel fans”- instead, it should be rather detailed so you know where best to spend your time marketing. Because this answer varies wildly per game, let’s go over some examples with made-up games as well as some of mine own towards the end.
Sherlock Holmes – Finding the Clues
Description: A woman finds herself in London on a work trip when she uncovers the beginnings of a mystery. This is a point and click hidden objects game, with semi-realistic art.

So, in our first example we have a point and click hidden objects game. Let’s think about the typical playerbase for these types of games- they’re usually middle aged women. A female protagonist, semi-realistic art, all of these are further bonus points for this playerbase as that’s what the typical game type that this playerbase plays has.

Rocket Rapid Relay
Description: A multiplayer fast-paced action racing game with a stylized art style.

For our second example we have a racing game with an interesting style, but with a catch- it’s multiplayer. On this fact alone, your fanbase will consist of mostly multiplayer fans of racing games. The mood will help narrow down the age group- if it’s more corny with low realistic violence, kids can be the target market; if it’s more crude, adult humor with higher amounts of realistic violence, adults can be the target market.

With made-up game examples we can only get so far, so now I’ll delve into two of my own games and how I figured out the audience for each.

That Which Binds Us
Description: A young woman down on her luck meets a man who can change it all. It’s a romance & modern fantasy visual novel with an anime semi-realistic art style.

At first, I thought my target audience was otome fans and called it a day. That was easy! …No, it’s not that easy, because my audience wasn’t otome fans. Otome fans are used to anime styled dating sims with multiple love interests- that wasn’t my game. Mine only has one love interest and isn’t fully anime style, so just targeting otome fans wasn’t the approach I should have taken. Instead, I should have targeted visual novel fans who like GxB romance with a solid story. This shifts my audience into more of a ven diagram- some otome fans are still targeted but now I’m targeting many other people.

I Saw Him Today
Description: A short kinetic novel (a visual novel without choices) about dealing with the after affects of suicide.

With this game I was able to get creative with my marketing (and I would have been able to get much more creative had I put in choices, but I did not as a narrative design choice). I didn’t tell the story in a typical VN format as there’s no sprites and only CGs, so I could mask it as a “”full game”” easier (and again, I would have had an even easier time doing so if there were choices in it). I marketed it more as an “emotional experience” which suddenly sounds more interesting to a lot of more typical gamers than “sad visual novel”.

2. How do I know who will play my game?

Alright, let’s say you read through those examples above but you still don’t understand how to find your target market. Never fear, this editorial isn’t done yet! There are a couple more ways to figure out who to market to.
1. Find games similar to yours.
This is probably one of the easier ways to find a market for your game- find games similar to yours and see who’s playing them. For That Which Binds Us, I looked around for people who played more indie otomes rather than just Japanese otomes, as most JP otomes have multiple love interests and thus wouldn’t quite be my target market. This is also a great research tool for finding reviewers for your games- find people who have played and liked games similar to yours and bam.

2. Look around in your genre.
Hopefully if you’re far enough into development that you’re ready to start fully marketing you’re also in a few dev circles for your genre- in that case, ask and look around. This is similar to the above step but less detailed and works if you really can’t figure out any games similar to yours.

And that’s about it! Marketing to the right audience helps relieve a lot of stress caused by throwing a lot of marketing out there and hoping it stick, since the more niche your game is the less effective that will be. However, finding your right niche fanbase will not only help your current game but will help your games in the future and make marketing easier.