A Digital Marketing and Development Guide for Indie Game Studios
In the last few years, the indie video game industry has made an enormous resurgence to such an extent that many independently developed titles are even more popular than some of the world's biggest franchises. Back in the early days of video games, all developers were small indie studios or even one-man teams but, as the industry grew thanks to the rise in availability of consoles, large studios started to take over. Typically known as AAA games, these blockbuster titles are the products of major studios with enormous financial, marketing and human resources at their disposal. Many of these games have gone on to become well-known franchises or series, such as Assassin's Creed, Far Cry or Grand Theft Auto.
For a small independent developer, standing out against the likes of developers such as Ubisoft or Valve might sound like an impossible feat. In fact, however, many indie games have sold in excess of a million copies, despite their limited budgets and, in some cases, they've surpassed a million sales before they're even released in full! Thanks to digital distribution platforms such as Steam, and crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, it's now possible for those with very limited resources to make their skills known to the masses and rise through the ranks to become a widely respected indie game developer. You only have to look through the fast-growing Steam Store, for example, to see just how popular some indie titles are.
Another reason for the success of the indie video game industry is that it tends to tackle niches that have long been neglected by the major developers and publishers. For example, the real-time strategy genre, perfectly exemplified by AAA series such as Age of Empires or Command and Conquer, has practically disappeared from the blockbuster charts in recent years. Nonetheless, the indie game industry is already seeing to its revival with the release of successful titles such as Grey Goo. Other genres that have done particularly well in the indie sphere of influence are 4X strategy games, retro pixel-graphics games and roguelike adventure games, all of which practically disappeared from the mainstream almost 20 years ago.
Indie game development presents a vast wealth of opportunities. Unlike the AAA developers, which are often tied to the demands of publishing studios, indie developers get to enjoy complete freedom over their work. In other words, they are free to create something personal and unique unlike anything else that's been done before. As such, an indie game is a work of art in its own right, typically developed by gamers for gamers rather than solely being a product of a money-making venture. Indie developers love what they do, just like the world's most successful musicians or novelists. To an extent, a great game will market itself, but this guide will show you how to give your work the best chances to succeed before it's even ready for launch.
When Should You Start Marketing Your Indie Game?
When it comes to marketing your indie game, which should always happen long before it's actually ready for full release, it is absolutely critical that you get your timing right. Some developers think it's wise to start raising awareness as soon as possible, particularly if they intend to use a crowdfunding platform. Others might even want to wait until the game is completely finished. Both of these options, however, are far from ideal, since they greatly increase the risk factor involved and can leave your project open to disaster. Nonetheless, if your game is particularly small in scale and only requires a very small budget and one or two people to develop it, you can usually safely wait until it's complete before making it known to the masses.
For most games, the right timing depends on a number of factors. Get people excited too early, and they might grow tired of waiting for the full or even early access release and instead forget about it. Start promoting your idea too late, and you'll be unable to obtain any funding from early access or crowdfunding platforms. As a general rule, it's best to wait until you have a working alpha, even if it's an extremely basic one. This way, you'll be able to provide some working screenshots and a more tangible overview of what your target audience can expect.
#1. Defining Your Product and Target Audience
Any indie game development process starts with a great idea which will later serve as a base for the creation of your title and the audience you'll build up around it. Most importantly, the key to a successful launch strategy is to get started with promotion months or even years before the game is actually ready for release, but we'll be taking a deeper look into pre-launch options and funding in the next chapter. Before you can start turning your idea into a tangible reality, you'll first need to define your product and its target audience. Consider this step to be the creation of an initial plan that takes into account essential characteristics, such as the core quality of the game, its differentiating factors, its genre and the platforms it will run on.
Defining the core quality of your proposed game is what will determine its target audience and its place in the market. Just as importantly, it will determine the extent of the financial and development resources required to turn it into a reality. The most successful titles are typically those that check one or more of the following points:
It represents a revival of a once popular genre that has been neglected by major developers. Popular examples include real-time strategy (Grey Goo), pixel-based graphics (Undertale, FTL, Stardew Valley), survival and crafting (Ark, H1Z1) and platformers (Ori and the Blind Forest, This War of Mine).
- It introduces a completely new concept by merging two or more genres that have never been put together before, such as survival, crafting and dinosaurs in the case of Ark or prison and simulation, such as Prison Architect. Needless to say, the possibilities are practically endless.
- It provides something truly revolutionary by capitalizing on the newest trends and technology. These projects are among the most ambitious, hence they're not for the faint of heart. A good example includes the procedurally generated space adventure game No Man's Sky with its 18 quintillion possible planets.
- It's a remake or revival of a particular franchise of once popular video game, although copyright limitations usually limit the possibilities. Some of the most popular among these titles started off as mods, such as Counter-Strike Global Offensive, Black Mesa and Garry's Mod.
No matter what sort of game you're planning to develop and market, you'll need to make sure it fulfils the expectations of a modern audience. In other words, it needs to provide a consistent visual style, user-friendly controls, difficulty balancing and some characteristics that truly differentiate it from the competition. As you further narrow down your specific target audience, you'll need to learn how to cater to their personal preferences and past gaming experiences.
The platform you choose is one of the most critical pre-development and pre-marketing steps to take, since it's the platform that will largely define the nature of your target audience. For example, PlayStation gamers rarely mix with PC gamers and vice versa. As a general rule, consoles tend to be favoured among casual and younger gamers, while the PC remains the favourite in the so-called hardcore gaming community. Mobile gaming presents a wide range of opportunities as well, although the platform is also blighted by enormous inventories of pay-to-win junk. Following are the biggest and most important platforms and how they concern the indie game development industry:
- Digital distribution platforms for the PC are where almost all indie games get published in the first place. Steam is by far the most popular for indie titles, with GOG Games taking second place. Best of all, Steam also provides a range of funding and development options, as discussed further later on.
- Steam is also available for Apple Macintosh, although very few developers release games exclusively for the Macintosh due to its relatively small user base. Developing games for the Apple iPhone Store, however, is quite a different matter.
- Android powers most of the world's smartphones, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that it has the world's largest app and game store. Nonetheless, it is still dominated by the much-maligned free-to-pay pricing model, with premium options being sorely underrepresented on the platform.
- Gaming consoles generally remain the realm of AAA developers, largely due to the restricted development options and the fact that they come to the end of their lifecycles every few years. Nonetheless, Xbox and, to a lesser extent, PlayStation 4, have seen a recent increase in the availability of indie titles.
Ultimately, the platform you choose depends on the nature of the game itself and its target audience. For example, a real-time strategy game that relies heavily on mouse control, is not likely to do too well on a console. The same is true of games intended to be highly customizable through mods and frequent updates.
#2. Funding an Independent Game
It would be a mistake to think that you need a AAA budget to fund an indie video game, even one that rivals a major blockbuster title in terms of graphics, gameplay and technology. In fact, it is largely thanks to the rise of crowdfunding platforms and early access that indie games have become as popular as they are. You don't even necessarily need a great deal of money to get started turning your ideas into reality but, what you do need to start doing as soon as you have a solid idea in your head, is to start marketing it.
The amount of funding you'll need will, of course, depend a great deal on the type of game you want to publish. Popular indie games such as Banished, FTL, Stardew Valley and Undertale, for example, are very simple in terms of technology and graphics and, as such, were all developed by one- or two-man teams. On the other hand, high-tech games like ARK: Survival Evolved, featuring AAA-quality graphics and gameplay, require massive budgets due to the large number of people required to work on the project. As such, it's best to start small unless you already have an excellent team put together and a substantial amount of money to get started with.
For most solo developers and small indie game studios, particularly those in the process of developing their very first video game, crowdfunding presents the obvious choice, but you'll need to have a great idea to sell as well as one that's convincing enough for people to consider investing in. Unfortunately, crowdfunding has proven somewhat controversial among certain circles, since some would-be developers do not deliver upon their promises, even if they do receive the funding they require.
By far the most popular crowdfunding platform is Kickstarter, followed closely by Indiegogo. Many indie developers have seen their concepts become reality thanks to launching carefully executed crowdfunding campaigns. For example, the multi-platform game The Banner Saga, accumulated well over $700 thousand from more than 20 thousand backers on Kickstarter. Provided that you have a great idea to sell, combined with some beautifully designed concept art, crowdfunding remains a viable option. Nonetheless, you will typically need to be able to present some working screenshots of a very early alpha version of the game, so it is usually necessary to have development underway before you can boost your chances of launching a successful crowdfunding game.
Also known as alphafunding, early access is a funding model whereby indie developers with limited budgets make their games available for purchase before they are actually finished. Many developers are reluctant to release their projects to the public before they're finished, and for good reason, but early access still provides many benefits. Most importantly, it allows you to make money before the game is completely finished, although it will need to provide enough playable content to be compelling enough to those willing to try it out. You'll also need to show yourself to be actively involved in the development of the game by releasing updates on a regular basis. Another major advantage of the early access model is that your target audience has the opportunity to actively get involved in the development of the game to such an extent that it greatly increases the chances of long-term success.
One of the most successful examples of an early access title is the aforementioned ARK: Survival Evolved, which puts players in an unforgiving multiplayer environment filled with prehistoric predators where they must craft, build, fight and help one another in order to survive. Within days of the release of its first public alpha in June, 2015, it already generated over $10 million using Steam's early access platform. Slated for a full release in late 2016, ARK's success is partly down to its very regular content updates, bug fixes and active developer community.
If you're going for the early access funding model, and it is highly recommended that you do, you'll need to price your game accordingly, typically no more than half its suspected final retail price. After all, consumers are generally not going to be interested in paying the full price for an incomplete game that's still in early development. Another caveat of the early access model is that you won't be able to make buyers of the alpha pay for the full version of the game as well once it comes out. In other words, your alpha purchases should also be purchasing the final game when they pay for the early access version.
Pricing for indie video games (final release versions) varies considerably, but there are a few general rules and guidelines:
- Small, casual games, such as developed by one- or two-man teams tend to sell for $5 to $15.
- Larger games published by teams of up to half a dozen people are typically priced at around $30.
- AAA titles and large-scale indie games that feature AAA-quality graphics and technology tend to be priced at around $60.
The payment model you use is also important. On the PC or console, almost all indie titles use the straightforward premium model whereby games cost a one-time fee. Providing additional paid content, such as full-scale expansion packs, is also an option, although it's wise to avoid charging for small DLCs. In the mobile gaming world, microtransactions and free-to-play are popular payment models, but indie studios tend to stay clear of them.
#3. Development Blog, Landing Page and Distribution Channels
As an indie game developer, it's essential to realise that much of the promotional work occurs before the game is even ready for launch, even if you're going for an early access launch. It is also far less risky to promote your game and see how much interest you can build up in your project before you start investing in growing your development team and opting for paid advertising methods. When you consider that many of the world's most successful games, including both AAA and indie titles, are much anticipated before the public even has a chance to play them, it should make sense that promotion should start as soon as you have the foundation in place.
As is the case in pretty much any digital marketing campaign, the very first step involves registering a website. You'll typically use the name of your game as the domain name or, if it's short enough, a tagline. At this point, it's also wise to register a wiki for the game as well as any other official pages you might need. The two most important webpages for any indie game developer is a development blog and, once you're ready to make the game available to the public, either as an early access of final release, a landing page that encourages people to buy the game. However, most people nowadays buy games through distribution platforms such as Steam, which we'll be taking a deeper look into later on in this chapter.
Once you have a solid idea and plan in place and have organized funding for your project using platforms such as Kickstarter or Steam Greenlight, you'll be ready to take the next major step. Creating a development blog is where things start getting really exciting, since it will serve as a platform to generate interest in your project, keep people informed and build an active community. A frequently updated development blog is the most essential pre-release content format of all and, without one, you're not likely to get off the ground at all. Consider the following key benefits of an indie game development blog:
- Generate interest in your upcoming title by sharing progress on the development of the project.
- Build a community-driven platform whereby you can take note of feedback or even attract new talent to your team.
- Show early access buyers and project supporters that you are actively involved in the development of your project.
Once a game has exited the alphafunding stage (if indeed it even has one) and been released in full, many developers simply ignore their development blogs. However, abandoning your development blog gives people the impression that, once your game has been released and is making plenty of money, you no longer care about it. As such, buyer numbers may drop more sharply after the initial excitement than they normally would. Many successful indie developers continue to release patches and new content for their games on a regular basis. The best-loved studios often take the idea a step further by encouraging the community to get involved in further content development by releasing the source code and allowing others to publish mods for the game.
The landing page is where the magic happens. It's where your visitors are turned into happy customers. While the landing page likely won't be one of the first pages you'll create, it will quickly become essential as soon as you're ready to do one of the following:
- Increase email newsletter signups, including release announcements
- Allow early access purchases
- Allow full release purchases
- Allow pre-ordering of titles confirmed for release
- An attention-grabbing headline that illustrates the core element of the game and immediately lets people know what genre it falls into.
- An eye-catching banner image, preferably just above the headline or with the headline superimposed upon it. This image will typically feature concept art.
- A set of high-resolution videos, preferably presented in the form of a scrolling slideshow. You should provide a trailer and one gameplay video at minimum.
- You should include plenty of screenshots, concept art and any other relevant imagery, both in the aforementioned slideshow and elsewhere on the page.
- A brief overview of the game and its core concept, including an introductory paragraph that sets the scene. Keep this brief but, above all, exciting.
- A bulleted list of core features and specifications, such as the number of levels, characters, enemies and other key selling points.
If you have any available, it's also wise to include any testimonials, reviews and ratings. Additionally, you should add any relevant links, in the form of large, mobile-friendly buttons, at the bottom of the page to other resources, such as your development blog, contacts page, press kit page and community hub.
Distribution channels are where you'll actually be selling your game. These vary by platform (whether console or PC etc.), but there are many options available. Alternatively, it is also possible to go completely independent and avoid using a distribution platform entirely although, due to the enormous amount of extra marketing and administration work you would need to do, it is highly recommended that you avoid this approach.
By far the biggest distribution platform for the PC (including Linux-based operating systems) is Steam with a market share of over 70% of all digital downloads of video games. Steam has become so popular that not having your game in the Steam Store is a bit like a supposedly modern business not having its own website or even being listed on Google. Steam is particularly popular for indie game developers, with the number of indie titles available already approaching 6,000. However, to get your game on Steam, you'll first have to submit it to the Steam Greenlight program, whereby players will vote for the game if they want it to appear in the Steam Store. Before you approach Steam to publish your game, you will need to have a playable, working alpha if you want to join the platform's Early Access program or a full release version if you want to skip alphafunding altogether. You'll also need a solid marketing plan, since you can't expect Steam to do all of the work for you, despite the cut they take from any sales you make.
There are many other much smaller platforms than Steam, and while they don't have nearly the market share, they might be worth investing in in addition to Steam. Among the most popular for PC is Desura and GOG.com. Other digital distribution platforms, such as Origin and Uplay, are generally not suitable for indie titles.
If you're intending to publish your game on the console or mobile platform, the options are much fewer, but the process is also simpler, at least in theory. To publish either an early-access or full-release title, you'll need to use that device's official store, such as the PlayStation Store for the PlayStation, the Xbox Games Store for Xbox or the Google Play store for Android tablets and smartphones.
#4. Social Media and Community Promotion
Although your main website, development blog and distribution channel listings will form the centre of your digital marketing strategy, social media is likely where you'll be dedicating most of your time to marketing and building up your audience. Insofar as indie video games are concerned, social media and community promotion takes place not only on the mainstream social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, but also on more industry-specific networks such as major gaming communities and the distribution platform communities themselves. Steam, for example, has become a highly community-orientated platform complete with the full range of social networking elements ranging from discussion forums to online chat.
If only because of its enormous following, every indie game developer should have a presence on Facebook. Many developers have multiple Facebook pages including one for the brand itself and one for each game they have released or plan to release. In the case of indie video games, the brand page likely won't build up a great following beyond the most dedicated among your fans and those seeking more professional connections with your company and its projects. The most important page you'll ever have on Facebook is the community page for your game, particularly during the development stages. Ultimately, the Facebook community page serves as an outlet for providing regular news updates, promoting new content on your developer blog and, above all, getting involved with your community.
Marketing on Twitter is a bit more complicated due in part to its technical restrictions but also because of what people expect from it. Like Facebook, you'll want to have an official community page for your game complete with the same banner and profile images to ensure consistent branding across the board. Again, you'll also be using your Twitter account to share industry-related news, development updates, post-release updates and any other content that should interest your community. However, as a microblogging platform, Twitter is not as conversational in nature as Facebook, making it more suitable for providing brief but regular updates. As such, you'll notice that many developers maintain individual Twitter accounts for various senior employees. For example, the lead game developer and lead artist might have separate Twitter pages for posting regular updates pertaining to their specific roles in the project.
For every Steam game, there is a community hub where people can participate in discussions, post screenshots, artwork, videos, guides and, if available, upload mods via the workshop. Visitors will also be able to see news updates and reviews. Although the community hub is, by definition, a community-driven social platform within Steam (either through the Steam website or program itself), maintaining a presence here is critical for any indie developer. In fact, assuming you're using Steam to sell your game, which you should be, the community hub is perhaps more important than the mainstream social networks or even your website itself. To show yourself as an active developer who is genuinely involved with the community, you should regularly participate in the forum conversations, sticky important developer threads such as patch notes and frequently asked questions and use the News page to provide regular updates.
News Submission Networks
As any developer knows, there's no shortage of news submission networks and review websites on the Internet, particularly when it comes to industries such as gaming. However, there's no point in investing your time thinking about every single possible resource. Nonetheless, it pays to get recognized by some of the bigger networks by submitting press releases and giving them the opportunity to review your game. Some of the most important networks include the following, all of which have more than 10 million monthly visitors:
- Games Press
- Game FAQs
- Game Spot
- PC Gamer
As the second-most popular website in the world, YouTube is perhaps the most essential platform of all for indie game developers, particularly since they are so heavily reliant on visual appeal in their marketing strategies. Maintaining your own YouTube channel is crucial for success from the moment you first announce the development of your title. The first video you'll likely post will be the official trailer, followed by gameplay footage, guides, official trailers for major patches, DLCs and expansions, interviews with developers and anything else your community might find interesting. You can further draw attention to your YouTube videos by promoting them on Facebook, Twitter, Steam and any other networks you use. As with other networks, be sure to use consistent branding for your channel's homepage.
As a platform for social media marketing, LinkedIn is largely used by business-to-business industries for making professional connections. As such, it's not so important for game developers, since they sell to consumers. Nonetheless, as the world's number-one professional network, it provides an extremely useful function for indie developers, and this is the ability to reach out to potential recruits. As an indie developer, particularly one with loftier goals, you'll often find yourself in desperate need of new talent. While recruiting new talent from other communities, such as those on Steam, Facebook or Twitter, LinkedIn is the most valuable resource. As such, you should set up a professional company page, rather than a game community page, that focusses on the professional credentials of your company, yourself and the people who work for you
With indie gaming now being more popular than ever before, it shouldn't come as any surprise that there are several enormously successful online communities dedicated to the industry. It's these communities where you'll likely find the best quality traffic to your website and even seek out new talent to join your team. Following are some of the most important:
- Rock, Paper, Shotgun is one of the world's most reputable gaming sites, and it exclusively caters towards PC gamers. They specialize in previewing and reviewing indie games as well as publishing guides for popular titles.
- Indie Games Weblog might not be one of the biggest websites, but it's one of the more niche options in that it exclusively caters to the indie market including some otherwise very obscure titles.
- The Indie Game Magazine allows you to submit a playable (but not necessarily finished) version of your game for preview or review. They can be a bit fussy over what they'll review, but it's a popular site and worth trying.
There are, of course, many more options than those mentioned above, including those that are specific to certain genres. It's also wise to participate in the Reddit community, particularly the Indie Gaming and Steam Greenlight sub-forums.
Public Gaming Events
Contrary to what you may think, marketing and selling an indie video game doesn't need to take place entirely online. Not all indie game developers have to be confined to dingy basements as the stereotype goes and, sometimes, the best way to get your game out here in front of the public is to do it the old-fashioned way. Gaming booths, for example, are fun and community-driven public events hosted by gamers for gamers where audiences can get to experience some upcoming titles and project proposals. Perhaps the most popular is PAX, one of the biggest gaming conventions in the US. Many other countries have similar gaming conventions and trade fairs related to the industry so, if there's anything like that going on in your area, then you definitely won't want to miss out.
Since you'll probably end up spending more time marketing your game than debugging the countless lines of code, you will need a clearly defined strategy in place and a willingness to build and engage with a community. After all, the right approach will help you immeasurably to succeed. After all, without any marketing in place, you'll be fully reliant on the most dedicated among indie game enthusiasts somehow finding your game and, provided they enjoy it enough, posting rave reviews. Indeed, some indie titles market themselves to an extent, but there's no substitute for getting started with your own marketing strategy as soon as you are ready to announce your game to the public. Ideally, this major event should occur at some stage during the game's early development, though preferably only once you have the full scope of the project within your grasp. After all, over-promising and under-delivering can be even more disastrous than not marketing at all.
Written by: Charles Owen-Jackson