Strap in folks for the longest episode of So, You’ve Decided to Make Your Own Indie Game yet! This time, we’re diving into everything marketing-related, from budget and community building to partnerships and influencer marketing.
Let’s start with the realities first; the budget and how much our developers put towards their first game for marketing.
Beidi Guo from Lantern Studio, the team behind LUNA The Shadow Dust starts us off with a realistic expectation many first-time developers will face: “We had $0 budget for marking [she laughs], but marketing we understood it was very important early on, so later we relied on our publisher to help us with most of the marketing.
“In areas like social media, we do it ourselves; we spend very little on actual advertising.”
We also spent an additional ~£5000 to hire professional help for a 3-month stint before the publishing of the game. In areas like social media, we do it ourselves; we spend very little on actual advertising."
Dinosaur Polo Club’s community manager, Casey Lucas Quaid offers a similarly early experience: “I was the first person to be paid dedicatedly for marketing, so we sort of just wing it in that respect.”
While marketing is the fundamental way of spreading the word about your new game, spending money doesn’t always guarantee success – though sometimes it does, as our developers explain.
Beidi offers the first insight here, commenting on the lack of return on investment when it comes to advertising, while YouTube offered a better success rate: “Approaching Youtubers led to some amazing exposure to our games. Meanwhile, money we spent on adverts didn’t give us much in terms of ROI. Algorithms control the exposure on social media, so unless you have a LOT of money to spend on adverts, expect very little.
Reaching out to YouTube broadcasters costs almost nothing but some research and time. If a large influencer personality likes your game, they sometimes do it for nothing. It’s really worth trying, and putting your game in front of people.”
Sarah Johana from Toge Productions shares a similar story in terms of exposure that doesn’t directly come from paid efforts: “The most successful [campaign] we’ve done is probably participating in online events, or being featured on the platform where our game is being released.
For example, Steam Game Festival where they showcase game demos and you can set up live streams, that type of activation gave us huge number of wishlists on Steam. When your game is featured on the front page, be it on Steam, Nintendo Switch eShop, PlayStation Store or elsewhere, it’s a huge benefit, and of course a much cheaper alternative to traditional marketing efforts.
It’s best to make a Steam page as soon as you have something ready to be presented. You want to build your wishlist numbers. The more wishlists you can get before your game is released, the better. Outside of Steam, try building your reputation, engage with fans, post your project on Reddit or Twitter and wherever else your audience is.
Casey shares similar sentiments to Beidi on moving away from paid advertising: “Mini Metro was lightning in a bottle, that just sort of blossomed a community on its own. We’re really grateful for that. Our community sort of marketed the game itself, rather than any dedicated external marketing effort to make the game a success.
“Rather than putting money into paid ads or influencers etc, our company hired me first, to drive that community feedback and feel…”
Rather than putting money into paid ads or influencers etc, our company hired me first, to drive that community feedback and feel, and that’s something any studio can do. It just depends on the time you have to put into that sort of thing.”
Following these successes and failures, we ask what they’d have changed, in hindsight.
Domiziana Suprani from Studio Evil takes the first stab at this question: “We faced additional challenges, being in a country [Italy] that isn’t at the heart of game development. We heard from friends in the United States that would tell us “yeah, we just need to cross the road, grab a drink, and have some press people review our game.” That’s tough for us, and a unique challenge to overcome.
Publishers receive a huge amount of information every day, so it’s hard to get your game in front of press that you may not have connections or contact with before.”
Beidi doesn’t think she and the Lantern team would change much: “More or less the same, but if next time we have more budget we’ll probably hire someone full or part time to manage social media.”
Bandai Namco’s Janneke van Ooyen, who previously worked with Crytek shared learnings on approaching language barriers, similar in theme to Domiziana’s comments: “Instead of trying to manage language-specific channels in Discord, which we couldn’t always support due to language barriers, we added channels that members of the community could self-manage and enjoy being part of the wider community around the game.
“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They’ll happen, but you can learn from them, so don’t be afraid of things going wrong.”
One piece of advice I can offer is that don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They’ll happen, but you can learn from them, so don’t be afraid of things going wrong.”
Building on those answers, we look into which platforms and tools were most effective for them, and what they would recommend to first-time developers looking to market their game.
Beidi keeps it short and sweet, offering up two suggestions for small teams: “We typically use, and would recommend both Later.com and Google docs for tracking work.”
Sarah reiterates her suggestions on focusing on the storefronts you’ll be promoting your game on: “As I have mentioned previously, the most useful and effective [tool] is getting featured on the store or platform where your game lives. Users can just click or tap and it’ll bring them to the store page right away. The conversion rate is much higher.
The other platforms would be Twitter and Reddit for promoting your game.”
Next, we dive into other aspects of marketing; namely, reaching out to press, setting your game up on Steam, and more.
Sarah commiserates with Domiziana when it comes to language barriers and the issues that present themselves in such cases: “One of the challenges for us, since we’re based in Indonesia, is that it’s hard for us to reach out to Western media outlets. Language barriers, cultural differences, and of course time zone differences all play a part in preventing the kind of reception we’d ideally like to see for our games.
Our advice for preparing for press coverage is that when you’re about to release your game or reach out to press, make sure you have everything ready; press kit, trailer, screenshots. It’d be nice if you can set up a form where press can opt in for your upcoming press releases; make it easy for them to find and use.”
Beidi stresses the importance of research before reaching out to press: “A lot of research needs to be done before reaching out to press. Find out who will actually review your game instead of just emailing everyone. A lot of time is required for this, but it’s worth it.
“A lot of research needs to be done before reaching out to press. Find out who will actually review your game instead of just emailing everyone.”
Keep your press email simple and have a press kit, link, images, and anything else press might use ready for them to download. Find out where the games similar to yours sell, and also consider reaching out to publishers, who might have good experience with this.”
Speaking of publishers, marketing can be tricky to pull off alone, which is why some choose to partner up with other developers and companies outside of publishing houses, to expand their potential audience.
Casey is the first to chip in, recommending platforms like Indiecade and IndieMEGABOOTH: “Rather than working with other developers, we worked with independent game organizations like IndieCade and Indie MEGABOOTH, which spawned from the need for indie developers who couldn’t afford event space on their own to be able to do so.”
Beidi meanwhile focuses on social media, and the potential for crossover: “The indie community on social media often does cross-promotion, which always helps. Take the initiative and offer help to those who might need it, and you’ll likely find good results and positive responses from doing that.”
Sarah learned that making connections helped expand the reach of the studio’s games: “We learned that making connections with other developers or publishers and doing something like cross promotion on social media or Steam is really helpful.
“It’s mutually beneficial for both parties. They’re able to bring their fans to see and check out our game, and vice versa.”
It’s mutually beneficial for both parties. They’re able to bring their fans to see and check out our game, and vice versa. Not only is it beneficial to sales and branding, but supporting each other helps motivate us to do better and makes us stronger, because we we’re all in this together. That’s probably what I love most about the indie game industry; Everyone is very supportive towards each other.”
“That’s probably what I love most about the indie game industry; Everyone is very supportive towards each other.”
This core community is one of the more important groups developers will cultivate, which is why we ask our developers how they build theirs, and how they interact and leverage this loyal group of customers to help grow a broader following.
Beidi’s view is that some games and developers may not need to develop large followings: “It depends on the game. Not all games need a massive community. I like to keep it small and personable, and I honestly think the best community is the autonomous ones? Where fans can just engage with the game on their own level, without anyone guiding or nudging them to react in certain ways.”
Casey agrees with this approach to building a community, keeping firmly hands-off unless fans want to actively engage: “Our community sort of sprung up all over the place. Reddit, Discord communities, and so on. We didn’t want to annex or try and take control of those communities.
“We wanted to give them the space to enjoy and express themselves, and even to complain without feeling overlooked or watched.”
We wanted to give them the space to enjoy and express themselves, and even to complain without feeling overlooked or watched. We wanted to be involved and accessible, but not impose our will on them. This way, fans become your beta testers, and partners in making a great game. Interact with your community, and be genuine. It’s going to be slow-going, but you need to accept that. Don’t be pushy, because all you’ll do is irritate people. Twitter is a great spot to organically advertise indie projects.”
Sometimes, individual customer voices aren’t enough, which is where influencer marketing comes in; influencers often interact with hundreds, thousands, and even millions of fans and followers. Used correctly, they can be a fundamental part of a successful marketing push.
Sarah starts the influencer conversation by expressing the importance of working with the right influencers, but also comments on getting your game in front of plenty of people as well: “We don’t really look at the number of viewers or followers. The more influencers that play your game, the more videos of your game there are out there for people to watch. Of course, we don’t want them to be the wrong influencers. You don’t want to give a review copy of a relaxing game to an action-oriented or fighting-game streamer. It wouldn’t make sense.”
Janneke expresses her experiences working with influencers and other similar activations at larger companies like Crytek and her current position in Bandai Namco:
“At Crytek, we did a lot of influencer campaigns, Twitch drops campaigns, broadcaster and tournament events, meetups and events, partner programs, and key provisioning. We do a mix of large and micro-influencers. We look for a minimum of 10 CCUs (concurrent viewers). It also depends on how dedicated and how someone presents themselves. Sometimes big influencers only play one game or so, so it makes sense to look at a variety of influencers.
“It also depends on how dedicated and how someone presents themselves. Sometimes big influencers only play one game or so, so it makes sense to look at a variety of influencers.”
For our first Twitch drops campaign for Hunt: Showdown, we looked at bigger broadcasters. For the second, we looked at smaller broadcasters and such. We saw an uptick in downloads as a result of working with content creators, so they’ve been a huge help for us. Influencers are the new marketing tool; back in the day, people watched television and found out about new products that way. These days, it’s YouTube and Twitch.”
Domiziana at Studio Evil had less successful experiences working with marketing personalities: “We didn’t have a huge level of success working with influencers. However, they never represented a big part of our marketing approach, as we mostly focused on different kind of activities.”
Marketing efforts can falter and fail. We ask developers what advice they have for developers struggling to gain traction, particularly in a climate where putting games in front of people at events is impossible.
Remember the reason why you started, says Beidi: “Find out what you like the best about your game, why did you want to make it in the first place? Then find the players who share similar thoughts and ask them where they usually go to find information on new games.”
Janneke supports the tone here with some advice on distributing keys and reaching audiences on Twitter and Twitch: “There’s a variety of things you can try, starting with platforms like Keymailer you can use to distribute keys to influencers. You can also look at Twitch, and look for games that are similar to your own, see who is playing them and how they’re interacting with their communities.
Reaching out on Twitter is also an option, as are events (though it’ll be a while before those become the norm again).
Finally, we wrap up with last nuggets of wisdom for first-time developers looking to kick off their marketing approach.
Casey recommends keeping things short, sweet, original, and tracking changes in audience’s taste: “Keep your communications to press short, sweet and to the point. If you find yourself not getting responses, take time to do research; who is writing about your genre, game type, and competition?
It probably means that person is into the sort of games you’re making. Avoid the shotgun approach; it’s obvious to those in the press that’s what you’re doing if you don’t tailor your message to each individual.
“Avoid the shotgun approach; it’s obvious to those in the press that’s what you’re doing if you don’t tailor your message to each individual.”
Finally, trends change. What worked five years ago probably won’t work today. Keep apace of the changes, and adapt to the environment you plan to release in. The plan you start of with may not be the one you end on.”
Beidi suggests making the game first, so you have something to show off: “Make the game first. Get a demo done so when you start to approach people, you have something solid to show off. Make a website and social media accounts where you have the link, basic information about your game & the demo ready.”
Janneke opts for the intensive work of reaching as many outlets and marketing avenues as you can: “Use marketing incentives, and get as many articles written about your game as possible. Do livestreams, gameplay sessions, and utilize the platforms that are available to you. Start a small community on Discord, and grow slowly, bringing in moderators from your loyal followers.”
Domiziana rounds out the tips section with a warning: “You can’t just wait for the game to be finished before marketing it. The critical milestones you go through during development are things you’ll never be able to reach again
“You can’t just wait for the game to be finished before marketing it.”
You need to be prepared in advance, so that you’re already connected with communities, press, influencers, and so on, and ready to put your game into the spotlight. There are so many games releasing all the time, so make sure you start growing your community and scheduling your marketing activities as soon as you can.”
Episode 6 of So, You’ve Decided to Make Your Own Indie Game wraps up the series in sensible style, looking at lessons learned from years of game development. Make sure you catch the final episode!
Developers and publishers interviewed in this series:
- Casey Lucas-Quaid, community and engagement manager at Dinosaur Polo Club.
- Janneke van Ooyen, community manager at Bandai Namco Mobile, prev. Crytek.
- Beidi Guo, art director at Lantern Studio.
- Alessandro Cossidente, PR and influencer manager at Meta Publishing.
- Christopher Wulf, prev. Those Awesome Guys and IndieMEGABOOTH.
- Sarah Johana, community manager at Toge Productions.
- Kris Antoni, founder at Toge Productions.
- Domiziana Suprani, producer at Studio Evil.