Reality is a Game

Game thinking from Adam Clare

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On Marketing Indie Games In 2016

Marketing games is already a difficult challenge and marketing indie games is playing the marketing game on hard more. In 2015 game companies spent $630 million on TV ads with one company, Supercell, spending nearly $60 million themselves on 29 ads.
Marketing spending on games

How can a small indie company compete with these big spenders? Many have tried and thankfully they have also documented their success and failures when marketing their indie games. One thing I have noticed this year is the death of the idea that good games will sell.

Various talks and meetings I had at GDC have led me to believe that the industry has learned as a whole that marketing matters – a lot!

As a result, here are some wise words that I’ve come across about how to get your indie game seen in this changing landscape.

Community

Community
Hannah Flynn of Failbetter Games attributes success to having a very strong community, which she acknowledges can be a challenge.

In indie games, your community is everything. The gaming community at large cares more about games than any other community I’ve worked in cares about anything. Their ratings, recommendations, reviews, feedback, fanart, streams and videos are worth their weight in gold. Investing in your community is crucial to your future.

It’s not just your community that you are trying to build that matters, there are already many communities that you may want to consider joining. The TIGSource forum is one of the best known. To discover more communities take a look at the big list of indie development forums.

YouTube and Twitch

Streamers use Twitch and YouTube because it’s presently a great way to get a large audience, which means you might want to do the same thing. Over at Wero Creative we’re trying that out. We’re streaming every Wednesday (3pm EST) this summer to see if people are actually interested in watching us make our games.

Watch live video from werocreative on www.twitch.tv

You can stream like we’re trying or you can approach streamers.

Both YouTube and Twitch are popular places for people to discover new games. Minecraft benefitted from positive exposure from streamers and you can too. The key though is have a game that is interesting for both the viewers and the player – try to think of ways the streamer can interact with viewers.

The key to this approach is finding personalities who want to review the sort of game you are making. Reach out to them and hope that they want to review your indie game. Indeed, Pocket Gamer has a good summary of how to approach and work with influential streamers.

Don’t know of any popular streamers? You’re lucky that somebody create a list you can spam: contact list off YouTubers – or don’t because spamming them will make them hate you. On that note, if you make things hard for streamers then they’ll likely ignore you or worse they’ll berate you.

Discoverability

One apporach to indie game marketing: gifs
One way to be found is by putting yourself out there.

In a world filled with emoji and GIFs and all that jazz one needs to utilize visuals effectively. Indeed, a picture is worth a thousand words and a GIF can be worth way more. Black Shell Games (now also a PR/marketing company) noted in a Reddit post that the key is visual media.

Don’t spend week after week perfecting your copy down to a T if you could instead spend a few hours culling breathtaking video footage and screenshots that sell your game much better than text does. Even on the App Store and Play Store, the icon and screenshots are stunning for most hit apps, and encourage people to play the game.

One way to get discovered is through being part of game bundles. Jaime Dominguez-Blazquez discovered this when promoting the game Vortex Attack, as well as other important notes, in his post mortem on releasing the game on Steam.

Luckily for me, a few days after there was someone, Alie from Groupees (a site about bundles) telling me that placing my game in his bundle would help it to get extra visibility. … I just had to wait a month for the bundle to become active but it was great. We sold almost 4000 units; from that about 25% of the people took time to vote the game in Greenlight.

At first, I thought it was pretty good as it ended up increasing my visibility permanently.

Here is how it went (it’s the green line):

Sales of Vortex Attack

Another way to get discovered is to find a publisher (which is a whole other can of worms). This used to be a really great and guaranteed way to have your game found because it let the studio focus on making the game and publisher focus on marketing. The catch is that over the years the role of the publisher has changed – and it depends greatly on the size of your studio and the publisher in how effective the relationship can be.

Rob Remakes is incredibly skeptical about the benefits that a publisher can provide in terms of helping your game get the attention it deserves.

As ever, there’s no guarantees here that a publisher can definitely get you pushed on sites you may not normally be able to reach (and this is also why PR and Marketing firms exist too, but that’s not for this post) but upping the odds, yeah? It’s not just about mailshots either, it’s about what we call mixers (where devs and journalists meet to talk about works) and show floors and organising demonstrations for the press and sorting keys out and so much more. It’s work.

If none of the above is working for you then jump on to the current trend of in-app advertising and integration.

Price point of a game

photo-1434871619871-1f315a50efba

Yes, the price point of your game is part of marketing mix, in short – your pricing strategy matters. That Wikipedia link is based more on physical goods than digital, but the core ideas apply to video games. A good publisher can probably help you figure out what price to sell at.

The core problem with video games is that here never is a good price for them. Over at the Guardian Simon Parkin asks the question is the price of a video game ever really right? He examines expectations of the consumer and of the creator and how neither might not matter in the actual price.

Similarly, the price of games themselves has remained fairly constant for the past 20-odd years: the blockbusters cost around £40-£50, budget and independent titles around £10, and phone and tablet games go for a couple of quid or nothing at all. The pricing is reflective of nothing much beyond consumer expectations. It often doesn’t account for the number of hours that went into a game’s production or the value and quality of the game itself.

Conclusion

The attitude that a good game will sell on its own has changed and now indies are finding that they need to market games as much as create them. Marketing indie games is hard, but you can do it!

There are ways you can market your game in these competitive times:

  • Embrace communities (whatever that means to your game)
  • Reach out to streamers
  • Become a streamer yourself
  • Consider a publisher
  • Have the right price

Other things to think about:

What’s Going On With Indie Business Plans?

Every indie game studio has the same problem: how to make enough money to make the next game.

It seems every month there’s a new post somewhere about how indie game studios are doomed. This is – and isn’t – one of those posts. Sure, it’s hard to make a profitable gaming company in the indie space today, but it was hard in the past too. It can be done! Many people have found ways to make money and games at the same time.

Making money isn’t easy

Making a profitable game depends on a lot of variables and in the indie space small decisions can add up to big costs.

“At the moment, our expectation is about 1/3 the return of the original Spider for 5 times the man-hours.”
– Tiger Style’s David Kalina

Recently, Tiger Style released a sequel to their successful game Spider. Pocket Gamer interviewed Tiger Style and they looked into the disappointing sales trend that the studio is seeing. It used to be that if you got onto a platform you were guaranteed some returns, now that doesn’t seem to be the case.

“[I knew] the biggest companies would come along and colonize the market, establishing the rules about how games make money and locking the rest of us out of the majority of the revenue.”]
He refers to the major onset of free-to-play as “the tipping point” for the App Store’s push towards big money, a weighted market in which companies like Tiger Style have no hope of competing.

With the premium approach on mobile stores no longer a solid option what can be done? Of course one game does not signify the approach is broken, but it can make people think twice about the strategy.

All of this is following the notion that there aren’t any business plans for studios of any size.

People are still making it in the indie world despite the obvious challenges of making a game. The strategies have evolved over time and here are some options each served with some scepticism on my part.

Make a good game

If you think that you can make a good game and just sit back and collect then you are sorely mistaken. Indeed, just a couple weeks ago Total Biscuit tackled this very concept in a video. It’s worth listening to at the very least.

The video looks at Airscape and the creator of the game wrote a very interesting piece on Gamasutra about the release and promotion of the game.

At this point, I think it’s fair to say that we can eliminate bad marketing as the main cause of the game’s failure. Press were given ample opportunity to write about the game, and for the most part, thanks to the great work done by the PR company, they were made aware that it existed. Indeed, we actually heard back from many large press outlets saying they would not review or cover the game’s launch. As mentioned before, it wasn’t exactly a busy period so I think it would be incorrect to chalk it all up to bad timing.

If your games are really niche or really artsy then maybe the commercial metric doesn’t work for you.

Try cultural funding

This summer the innovative indie studio Tale of Tales shut down because they decided to pursue their individual art and because their most recent game, Sunset, was a commercial flop. They wrote a nice post and the sun sets…

In its 12 year existence Tale of Tales has always teetered on the edge of sustainability, combining art grants and commercial revenue to fund our exploration of video games as an expressive medium. We considered it spreading our dependencies. And that was fine, because we assumed this situation to be stable. All we really wanted was the opportunity to create.

They have been fortunate enough to be able to make their games with the support of arts funding. This is not practical for many studios and can be nearly impossible. I know that in Canada you can leverage some arts funding and it’s usually focused on helping individuals – not studios.

Last month Tales released their numbers and a bit of introspection on the whole experience since their announcement. They were able to breakeven on the game and are now trying out Patreon to fund their efforts.

In 3 months, 17,000 copies of Sunset have changed hands. This includes copies in a Humble bundle and those for the Kickstarter backers. This has allowed us to pay our debts and save our company. Tale of Tales is safe now but we haven’t changed our mind about moving away from commerce.

Notice that they reference bundles as something that let them save their company.

Bundles of money?

Grouping indie games into bundles to sell them at a discount all started with the success of the Humble Bundle back in 2010. Now there are so many game bundle sites that I won’t list them all, thankfully.

Are bundles worth it? Absolutely. Are they the solution to all your money woes? No.

Bundles are part of a large marketing push for your game and if done properly can be successful. There’s a good look into how to effectively use bundles as an indie game dev at Video Game Marketing.

If you look at the decision to distribute your game through a bundle as an isolated event purely analyzed by direct earning potential, you’re going to be scared away. When you understand the “marketing mix” this decision creates and supplements, you likely can’t find a better way to gain attention for your game. Too many people write on the theoretically of important topics, and I refuse to conform – so here’s some practical market data.

Target a specific niche

Maybe you are going to make a game that appeals to a very specific market (like the platform game in the Total Biscuit video). There are problems here too.

As pointed out in this excellent article form the people behind Steam Spy, Your target market doesn’t exit.

The term “female gamers” includes both a woman in her fifties playing Candy Crush Saga on her phone and a college girl enjoying Call of Duty on her Xbox. They’re so far apart from each other, that it makes no sense to try and fit them into the same vaguely defined category. There are many female gamers, they’re different and there are probably dozens of categories you could divide them in.

Thanks Steam Spy!

So what to do?

Make games.

Just do it!

Shia

Jeff Vogel has an excellent piece on the “Indie Bubble”. In it, he predicts four things may happen in the indie games industry:

  1. People will abandon their dreams
  2. Ambitions will grow more modest. Budgets will be cut.
  3. “PR better” will stop being the answer to everything
  4. Indie gaming will survive

I’m confident that indie gaming will go on since what’s happening to the games industry has happened to pretty much every field of entertainment. Remember how Napster and GarageBand ruined the music industry and now there is no more music and nobody making money from it? Exactly.

Still, if you no longer want to make games you can always try to get paid by playing games. It sounds like you have to find a niche there and rely on direct contributions from viewers.

Where is all the money you’re making on Twitch coming from?

Fifty to 60 percent of my income comes from donations from people who like to watch me play. Combined with paid [voluntary] subscriptions to my channel, that makes up about 75 percent of my income. I’m finally at a point where ad revenue’s actually picking up. In fact, now I could probably live off ads alone.

A Look Behind The Scenes At Itch.io

Itch.io is a great site for indie games for two reasons: you can find games to play (and buy) and it’s a handy tool for developers. The creator of the site is a fan of post-mortems, much like me, and he wrote a blog post outlining the inner finances and working of Itch.io.

Of all registered users only 13% have uploaded a public game. This suggests that the majority of users that have registered are more interested in playing games than distributing them. A nice indicator of where future development time should be spent as itch.io currently is primarily for sellers.

Interestingly, in the blog post he mentions how he first envisioned the site, which is rather different compared to what it is now.

84% of purchases are from external sites. Originally itch.io had no way to browse games, the philosophy was that the site would provide the tools but not the distribution. I’ve since changed my mind and added plenty of ways to discover games on the site. I’m not sure what my target percentage for internal purchases should be but I’m actively trying to increase it with features like the recently released game recommendation system. To me, it’s an indicator of how well I’m doing in distributing games. I get very excited when I release a new way for people to discover games and it results in additional purchases that might have otherwise never happened.

I’m looking forward to more of these sorts of posts in the future.

A Business Plan For Indie Game Developers Doesn’t Exist

There is a problem in the independent gaming industry that has been present for years but is gaining attention: there is no solid business plan to follow. For other industries there seems to be some rues, guides, or other ‘rules of thumb’ that startups can use. Not so in the gaming industry.

The gaming industry for independent (small) studios is an uphill battle. It takes more than just a good game and good talent.

This week TechCrunch posted about this problem in the mobile market space: Mobile’s “One Game Wonder” Problem. The notion that all a company needs to do is keep making games until they create the next Flappy Bird to make it successful. There is a  problem with that insofar that all these peaks in sales lead to treacherous valleys. From TechCrunch:

It’s barely a year since King unseated Zynga as the number one game maker on Facebook. A long-time purveyor of casual web games to a relatively small audience (30m according to Wikipedia), King had its one game wonder moment with Candy Crush Saga, a match-3 game not dissimilar to Bejeweled but innovative on its own terms. Beautifully produced and highly addictive, it transformed the company’s fortunes and led to a couple of other “Saga” games that rode its coattails. King floated an IPO at $22.50 and seemed unstoppable to some.

But then, not unlike Zynga, suddenly the news has turned sour. Despite generally-increased metrics across the board, revenue expectations have been missed, leading to a confirmation of the suspicion that the company isn’t able to grow. The fear is that the motherlode game has peaked, and with no obvious contended to replace it that means the party could well be over. And so the stock price fell (at time of writing it’s at $13.53).

Here’s more info on the present downfall of King in chart form.

Scrooge Doge

Sure, that’s an extreme example of very successful companies, but the peaks and valleys happen at all levels. It’s true for mobile and beyond. There are studios that had a great game but are barely heard from again. There are tons of examples of games that fail right from the get-go (here,here,and here).

Flippfly has tips for making a living by making indie games but it boils down to have a plan by researching more:

The takeaway here is: There are a lot of options for publishing your game, and the sands are shifting quickly. Don’t blindly jump into a plan without knowing what your potential audience size is there – talk with others who’ve tried it, read “numbers posts” and be realistic about your expectations. Get to know your distribution partners – their support is crucial to your success.

This leads me to think the only plan one can have is to try to make games!

The problem with that is not everyone can afford to put the time into game development given the low return. Its hard to pay rent and all that jazz when the annual take-home is so low for an independent designer.

In this context it’s easy to think that modern indie game development is akin to playing the lottery: you just need that one successful game.

In order to have a successful game you need to get it in front of people, something that indie game developers need to learn. I’ve looked at this issue before in regards to social media promotion and more recently how hard marketing can be for indies.

There are some good guides for marketing your indie game. It was only a few years ago that marketing was frowned upon by indie developers and that good games will get the attention they deserve. That’s not the case anymore. This could be a sign that the indie game studios are learning and growing.

One of my games Das Game

Das Game

Indeed, Radiangames  just posted the sales data on the games they released at Gamasutra. The impact of good marketing is evident (it also shows that having a plethora of games is an advantage). I have no idea how one gets featured on the any app store, I’d like to as it means a greater chance of success:

I feel very fortunate to have my games featured as often as they have, as it means thousands more in sales.  At the same time, getting an Apple Editor’s Choice or top banner is worth far more than being in the middle or latter part of the New & Noteworthy list.

Over at the New Statesman (of all places) they look into how the very notion of the one game wonder is bad for both the longevity of the industry and games as a culturally expressive medium. This raises the issue of what we’re sacrificing as a gaming culture to ensure good profits.

The dominant story of this video game-making generation is the one about the struggling artist who made a breakout hit and never needed to work again. As a result, the industry’s conferences obsess over how to make effective moneymaking games or, at very least how to make a sustainable business.

This focus on financial gain rather than artistic gain is, arguably, at risk of turning video games into a cultural backwater. The big business side of the industry is characterised by creative conservatism, sure-fire bets based on bankable precedents.

So what to do?

Rosenberg

After writing the above I feel that it paints a gloomy picture of getting into indie game development. As someone who makes independent games for a living I assure you it’s tons of fun and very rewarding (plug for my company Wero Creative). It is possible to make a living off of games even if you don’t make a Flappy Bird. Don’t worry things are good will always be able to cheer you up.

Personally, I know that the lack of a clear business plan is a problem but I also love it. With no clear set way of doing things it means that anything is possible. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the person to shake up the industry with a radical new approach!

Most game projects fail due to scope and ambition, so start small if you’re just starting out. Remember even AAA level games suffer from scope and sometimes stop development because of it.

To encourage a note of optimism here are some ideas to help change the business world of indie games:

  • Don’t make a business plan, just wing it.
  • Make games in your spare time as a hobby and hope that one day the revenue will add up.
  • Don’t just learn how to make games, learn to market them.
  • Get a publisher.
  • Check your scope.
  • Start small and build.

Lastly, here’s the tally of revenue of that Radiangames posted on the sales data.

  • $24K – Inferno+ (twin-stick shooter/action-RPG-lite)
  • $17K – Slydris (block puzzler)
  • $12K – Ballistic SE (arcade twin-stick shooter)
  • $11K – JoyJoy (arcade twin-stick shooter)
  • $10K – Fireball SE (arcade dodger)
  • $10K – CRUSH (arcade block puzzler)
  • $6K – Fluid SE (arcade overhead racer)
  • $3K* – Bombcats SE (physics puzzler)
  • $3K – SideSwype (block puzzler)

*Does not include iOS sales

That’s a total of $96k, even with the costs associated with developing a game that’s a good chunk of cash money.

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