Recently read BadgerHammer’s blog on video game marketing. Like them, I’ve been pressing all the marketing buttons prescribed by industry “conventional wisdom”, yet getting nowhere. This spurred me to write down some ideas I’ve had mulling in my head for a while now about indie game marketing.
Marketing is usually referred to as something game developers do during and/or after game development. As if it’s a parallel process to the nuts and bolts of making a game. It isn’t.
Way back when I was at school, I did business studies and learned about the 4 P’s – Price, Promotion, Place and Product. They are all interconnected, but the focus of most indies is on promotion and price.
Indies are oft advised to think about who the audience for their game is. This is usually an oblique way of criticising a game’s lack of appeal. However, it can be easily misinterpreted as a retrospective task. To figure out who might want to buy the game, after having already started, or even finished making it.
Go a step further, and developers can see which groups of people are responding to the game, and tweak the game here and there to make it more appealing. It’s an attractive idea, as it allows the developer to still make what they want, but also feel like they’re doing that “marketing” stuff.
In reality, the big changes in direction needed to do this effectively run up against a whole lot of resistance. They compete with the creative vision for the game, and the need to iterate on the core mechanics to find the fun. Added to that, most games aren’t coded with the flexibility to allow quick pivots. Then there’s the sunk cost fallacy at work – developers don’t want to ‘waste time’ ditching a large chunk of their game to go in a different direction.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can’t just arbitrarily pick a group of people and design a game for them. Fifty year old self-employed Mums in Hawaii when you specialise in pixel art isn’t going to fly. It also supposes that imaginary group are homogeneous – all have similar gaming tastes, habits etc.
Asking the Questions
The product – the game – is an inseparable part of the marketing mix. So how to square that with the need to make a fun game? For me, I start by prototyping game mechanics, then seeing which prototypes have the most potential for success if turned into full games.Is the core mechanic fun, does it have depth? Etc. I’m now starting to mix in business-related questions to that list.
Will the game look appealing in video form? With Totem Topple, if you were just watching the game, without having played it, it’s not at all clear what’s going on. With Flight of Light, it looks like a whole lot of other similar games, and without playing, it’s not obvious how it’s any different.
With Atlantis Dare, the disasters both grab the attention within a few seconds of watching a video, and clearly differentiate the game from the competition.
As well, with Atlantis Dare, I have a far clearer idea of who it appeals to. The game looks similar to Civilization and Endless Legend, and it’s fans of that 4x strategy genre who’ve been drawn to it. In testing, those players have played it for the longest. That’s helped validate the game mechanics, but also that there is an existing interested audience out there.
The next question being if I can actually reach those people. Where do they hang out? What sort of media do they consume? If the best way to reach an audience is through TV adverts, I don’t have the budget for that.
When one or more of those questions comes up negative, it’s time to drop the game. This is where I’ve struggled in the past personally. Arguably it’s easier to let go of a game when it isn’t that fun. Less so when I can see people are enjoying a game, but that it’s also unmarketable. My aim for the future is to get much quicker at getting prototypes to the stage where I can assess them. Creatively, moving on from a game is easier if, on failing to tick all the boxes, I’ve invested less time and emotional energy into it.
Where are They?
A note on Place though. In video games, this means platform (or digital storefront). For the last couple of years, I’ve been focused on console, as I think there is less competition on console. However, the experience on Wii U has been disappointing. For both Totem Topple and Gear Gauntlet, there was a mismatch with the console audience. Gear Gauntlet was billed as a Gamer’s game – Hardcore, twitch reactions, fast paced, no faffing around with story. Totem Topple, a weird stylised tower-defence game. Looking at successful indie games from other developers on Wii U, they tended to be narrative driven pixel art platformers – The Shovel Knights and Axion Verges of this world.
From a development point of view, interface usually dictates platform – Is this game better with a mouse, or on touchscreen or with a console controller? That shouldn’t change, but if the game can’t reach it’s intended audience because they aren’t on the target platforms, it’s reason enough to not continue that prototype into full production.
To be clear, I’m not saying to stop doing all those other things like contacting youtubers and press, building a community, being active on social media, and so forth. Simply to stop thinking of making and marketing the game as two separate things.