As an indie developer, it’s pretty hard to get your game noticed. If your game is so good that it single-handedly creates a new genre, then word of mouth might well be enough. Another dream scenario is if your game reaches some sort of tipping point where its own popularity carries it high in the sales charts for a long, long time. This latter scenario needs talent, of course you need a worthwhile product, but in my view it also needs some luck to get noticed by some big websites and get broad press coverage.
For the majority of us these are alas not likely scenarios, and with little funding available it’s hard to promote your game. This blog post is the first part in a three part series about marketing an indie game and will cover what techniques we tried. The second part will discuss the results, so the costs and game sales and website traffic. The third and final part will summarise what might be learned, if anything.
We’ve been doing quite a bit of practical research into marketing the Xbox indie game Gerbil Physics. I have read what I could find on marketing on a budget and myself and the rest of the team have tried quite a few methods to promote the game; some free, some cheap but none outside a modest budget:
- Xbox Marketplace Charts – The Xbox Live dashboard charts showing “New Arrivals” and “Top Downloads” automatically feature all new games and can reach a very wide audience, albeit for a short time. For many developers this can be the start and end of their marketing, which is a pity as there are some quality games there that deserve a wider audience.
- Press Releases – We used the august Games Press for our press releases, screenshots and promotional marketing. As an indie developer you need to sign up and then you can post free press releases that reach a very wide games press audience. We toyed with the idea of giving our game some weird hook, like about how many ways it could have been configured, but settled on a more conventional set of press releases. Everything on the Games Press site is moderated and so maintains the high quality you would expect. We looked at other press release sites like Game Release that position themselves as “indie friendly” but weren’t convinced they would be worth the 150 USD price tag. If anyone has used their site we’d be interested to know their experiences.
- Free Games – We gave away some 50 copies of the game to various individuals and via various websites. We ran a competition giving away free copies.
- Indie Review Sites – We submitted the game to some 40 or so websites that we’d classify as indie. This includes sites like XBLIG and xnPlay that are devoted to Xbox Indie games and genuinely want to see games do well and get some media attention. These sites naturally don’t get as much traffic as the mainstream sites, but they’re on the side of the indie dev and do a fantastic job of building awareness.
- Mainstream Review Sites – We submitted the game to some 20 or so websites that we’d classify as mainstream. This includes the likes of IGN and GameSpot and a whole raft of others, including the games and entertainment columns of some newspapers. Getting noticed here is a much tougher proposition.
- Online Advertising – This was an interesting marketing method, the brainchild of XBLIG’s Neal Emery. The idea was 10 developers would club together and purchase a shared banner advert on some high-traffic websites. The advert would take the potential customer to a landing page that featured all 10 games at once. We ended up purchasing a slot for 20,000 advert appearances on sites like Official Xbox Magazine.
- Printed Leaflets – The ever inventive Pencel Games artist and designer Jon Goosens did a great job of designing promotional leaflets. I got 5,000 of these printed and then proceeded to try to get them placed into game stores.
The mainstream stores like Game (the UK equivalent to the US GameStop) were totally not interested and could only take promotional material if it were sanctioned by their head office. Independent stores were more open, and some few did take the leaflets. Interestingly, one independent store would not take the leaflets on the grounds that there was “nothing in it for them”. I suggested that they might sell more MS Points cards but it turned out they didn’t sell MS Points cards as there wasn’t enough profit in it.
Plan A of getting the leaflets into game stores wasn’t really successful, so Plan B was to distribute the leaflets through letterboxes in London. I was going to distribute these all myself, but it was a lot more time consuming than I had expected and I ended up paying for someone else to distribute them door-to-door.
- Seasonal Promotions – Using the Xbox Marketplace has lots of benefits, but it is limited what you can do with your game’s price. It’s not possible to put a game “on sale” for short periods. As we were already at the lowest price point anyway, we had to find other ideas for seasonal promotions. We came up with the idea of giving a game as a Valentine’s Day gift, and an amusing poster was produced to encapsulate the idea. We then hawked this around websites and news sites asking them to publish a story about it.
- Game Website – We built a serviceable game website and there was already a vibrant art site both of which we tried to get traffic for.
- Online Store – We built a CafePress shop that allows Gerbil Physics-themed items like t-shirts, posters and buttons (badges) to be purchased. These products really are for marketing as the mark-up is very small and we don’t really expect to be shifting boxes of stuff. In fact shifting one that wasn’t bought by ourselves would be nice. CafePress offer a good service though, and they deal with the production of goods, handling payments and deliveries. All you have to do is provide the art.
- Twitter – We created a Twitter account and started building some followers.
- Blog – In all honesty, this blog is not intended to sell copies of games. It’s really just to share the experiences of game development and hopefully help other developers.
- Facebook – We created a Facebook product page and added some media to it. We participate in the group page “Xbox Puzzle and Trivia Games” organised by same Neal Emery who setup the online advertising group mentioned earlier.
- Tell A Friend & Other Games – We added features in-game to allow players to easily message their Xbox friends saying that they should try the game. We also added a promo screen encouraging players to try the Indie title “Horn Swaggle Islands”.
- Radical Long Shots – One thinking-outside-the-box idea that could have been awesome, was to aim high. Really high. Free copies of the game were sent to TV shows. Two free copies of the game were sent to the US’s first children. Yes, that’s right Malia and Sasha Obama got sent some promo codes, and who knows, had they ever seen game they might have liked it. If they have Xboxes.
Sales results and website traffic, or lack thereof, have been monitored since we launched the game on 7th December 2009. The next part in this blog series will give the hard facts behind sales and traffic and will try to analyse the cost/benefit of each of the above marketing methods.