Now Sell It — The Role of Marketing in Indie Development
May 19, 2020

There’s more money in the gaming industry today than ever before. Multiple analytics companies published annual reports that show the market is growing, and audiences are getting bigger, buying more games, and playing long hours.

Despite the increase in numbers, many indie developers still struggle to find customers. What can smaller teams do to survive in a crowded but promising market?

The Game Market Landscape

The gaming market is saturated with new releases. There are more games than any one person can realistically play in a lifetime. On mobile platforms alone, over 1,500 games are released each day. That’s half a million new games per year, and it doesn’t even include PC, console, or other platforms.

Indie developers simply do not have the resources to compete in such a crowded and hyper-competitive climate. Only 6% of indie projects actually turn a profit, while another 25% only partially return the invested money. The remaining 69% fade into oblivion, despite bold new ideas, original gameplay, and innovative features. 

The reason for this is simple — too few gamers had a chance to hear about the game. The lack of marketing combined with a mountain of new releases proves problematic even for the best indie devs.

In today’s market, having a great game is not enough. You need to target the right audience from the beginning, otherwise, you’ll see your game drop like a stone. If you don’t yet have a marketing expert on your team, it’s time to find one, regardless of your stage of development.

Changing Markets and Target Audiences

People change, trends evolve. This happens quickly in the gaming industry. Market and audience changes must be taken into account in order to remain competitive. Below are just a few key areas you should keep in mind when shaping your marketing strategy:

  • Faster speed of life – People are bombarded with an endless supply of information each day. To deal with this overload, most of us make fast decisions about what to consume and what to leave behind. You have only a second or two to convince a potential customer to learn more about or buy your game.
  • New purchasing channels – It used to be that the only way to buy a game was to walk into a store. There were only a few viable platforms to play it on, too, which made things pretty straightforward. Today there are dozens of digital stores as well as dozens of potential gaming platforms. Sellers have to spread their efforts across a variety of channels, not all of which will have similar audiences.
  • More marketing options – Traditional communications platforms are on the decline. You can’t just put up a billboard to advertise your game and call it a day. You need to investigate website ads, social media marketing, podcast promos, and so much more.
  • New consumer expectations – Players have more choices than ever. They want to be blown away by a game, not just mildly interested. Developers have to deliver on these expectations or risk going unnoticed.

What the Modern Player Wants

Today, your average player owns and regularly games on 2-3 different platforms, perhaps a smartphone on their way to college or work, social/browser games in the office, and console or PC in the evening or with friends on the weekends.

They want specific features for specific games, such as convenience and short game sessions for mobile games, graphics in console titles, and so on. Every genre has its own features that players look for. 

Do you know what the main feature is for your game? If not, figure it out as soon as possible. Talk with your team, examine the game’s structure, enlist playtesters, and solicit their feedback. Being able to launch an elevator pitch at the drop of a hat is important.

The modern player will split their budget between multiple platforms. You have to fight to get their attention and fight to keep it. Gamers aren’t motivated to troubleshoot games. They’re far more likely to uninstall and ask for a refund at the first sign of any issue. This means your game has to work for the widest possible audience right from the start.

Audience age is another important consideration. Older gamers — and there are plenty of them out there — are willing to pay for time-saving features or premium access to a game service. Younger players are happy to level grind in their free time. Plan your releases with these two distinctions in mind.

Marketing Tips

Marketing isn’t a one-stage effort. At various times during development, you or your marketing manager will engage in different activities. Here’s a quick overview of what should happen at each point.

Pre-Production Stage

  • Identify the game’s audience. This is who you’ll target during the development and promotion of your game. If you’re making a gothic noir-style match-3 game, for example, you’ll target women aged 27 and up who play on their mobile devices in their free time. You can also use market research to shape your game’s look and feel before you start development.
  • Choose the platform for your game that best suits the genre, setting, and style. If your team is focused on one specific platform, your marketer can tell you what projects are trendy and will remain in demand in the near future.
  • Research the market to avoid problems and minimize losses. For example, although Malaysia is one of the fastest-growing regions for mobile gaming, if you were to release your project in the App Store there, you would only reach 4% of the total market — that’s the rate of Apple smartphone penetration in the region.

Active Development Stage

  • Start forming a community using promotion channels like social networks or your project’s website. Keep communication strong between players who send messages to your team. Early community building often translates to stronger sales upon release.
  • Move along with development to avoid errors like choosing the wrong settings or having a game that’s too complicated for your audience. Feedback is important here, both from the marketing team and from early players.
  • Decide when to show the game to your audience. The Witcher team didn’t show off any gameplay until release, as they feared it might be poorly received. Escape from Tarkov’s creators released an early alpha version, received a lot of negative feedback, then addressed those concerns. Both teams went on to create commercially successful games.
  • Prepare assets and choose product positioning so the game is perceived correctly. Your game should not be touted as “just another VR-shooter”. Instead, go with something descriptive like “humanity’s battle against vampires in an open-world sci-fi setting”.
  • Take changing market trends into account. Don’t be afraid to tweak your marketing tactics at this stage so you can stay ahead of the curve.

Release Window

  • Handle PR support in the media and among opinion leaders. Be proactive in your efforts, don’t let e-mails or social media messages go unanswered for long.
  • Establish work with the community, provide fast feedback, and deal with negative opinions on a regular basis.
  • Bring players into the project and solicit advice, feedback, and suggestions. Fans love to share their opinions
  • Launch, oversee, and fine-tune the advertising campaign. Again, don’t be afraid to tweak your marketing strategy, even after release
  • Do everything you can to maximize sales in the first few weeks. Games tend to earn a large chunk of their revenue just after launch.
  • Maintain audience interest through promotions, contests, new content releases, and more. Don’t let the hype die down!

After the Game’s Release

  • Conduct marketing analytics of promotional channels and marketing tactics to see what works and what needs refinement.
  • Strengthen the two-way communication between players and developers. Always keep communications open and honest.
  • Ensure the profitability of the project by using marketing campaigns to bring new offers to players.
  • Develop and implement a long-term project promotion plan.

Conclusion

Marketing efforts should always evolve with the market. That means a focus on quality, developing a strong brand, communicating with your fans, and constantly refining your promotional efforts over time.

Some indie teams will want to handle marketing themselves, but in the majority of cases, it will be to your advantage if you hire a marketing manager. Start early, before you even begin development, and you’ll see impressive returns on this simple investment.

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