In today’s games industry, making a great product is only half the story. “Build it and they will come” no longer rings true, if it ever did. Many developers seem to operate under the assumption that a self-evidently great game will just “sell itself”, and unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The good news is that there are always things you can do to generate interest in your game, even if your marketing budget wouldn’t cover the cost of a Happy Meal – so here are some things you can do right now to start getting people excited.
1. Start early
Many new developers think that the marketing process starts a couple of months prior to their big release.
Unfortunately, they might as well just load a gun and point it at their toes. When should you start? As soon as possible. Right at the beginning of development. Yesterday.
Start banging a drum about what you’re making as soon as you start making it. This can go against all of our impulses to only show the world things “when they’re ready” and they have a bit of polish, but today’s gamers and social media users love to see projects develop. If you haven’t even made a prototype yet, post some of your concept art. Post something.
The unfortunate truth is that it can take months and months, perhaps years, for your message to start to take hold in a big way, so don’t short-change yourself by trying to do it in six weeks.
By the way, don’t be afraid that people will copy your brilliant game. Howard Aiken once said, “don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” Ideas are ten-a-penny, and largely worthless without good execution – so put them out there and show the world how well you can act on them.
2. Find a niche
So, real talk: your development company probably isn’t Ubisoft. You almost certainly do not have ten hojillion dollars to market your games the way the big guys do, blasting your message on the biggest and broadest wavelengths possible.
In a way, though, those triple-A marketing efforts are often more wasteful than they are effective. It doesn’t matter if 100 people see an advert for the latest FIFA title and 99 of those people have never had the slightest interest in buying a sports game.
This just means you will have to get creative with your approach. Don’t try to reach “all gamers” – that’s daft. Instead, start thinking of ways to reach those specific types of people who might be interested in what you’ve got.
- If you’re making a game in a specific genre, could you target people who have enjoyed other games in that genre – for example, could you sell a new hardcore platformer to people who enjoyed Super Meat Boy or Cuphead?
- If your game has a nostalgic, creepy vibe, could you sell it to people who like Stranger Things, or gamers who are fans of Stephen King stories?
- If you have a game about wizards and spells, could you find a way to reach players who are crazy for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings?
In essence, try to identify a group of people who might be interested in your product – particularly a group that might have a fan community or a way to reach them.
For some marketing projects, you might be forced to think outside the box; if you’re making a game about cartoon carrots, you’re probably not going to find a passionate carrot fan community waiting to buy a videogame. You might, however, be able to find people who like quirky things and silly concepts in general – perhaps by trying to reach people who like Adventure Time, say, or The Muppets.
On a related note…
3. Ditch #gamedev
Every game developer in the universe seems to post their work on Twitter and Instagram with the hashtags #gamedev, #indiedev, #screenshotsaturday, and so on. These are all well and good – you may even seem to be getting good engagement with them.
But let’s not forget who uses these hashtags; it’s other game developers.
Yes, game developers buy games, too. But are they your main target market? You want to reach people who play games, not just people who make them, and #gamedev has become little more than a big incestuous mess of game developers trying to sell each other their creations.
Identify the people you do want to reach, and then find out what hashtags they use and where they congregate. To do this, a combination of Googling for fansites and hashtag research for social media can help you to zone in on the right gamers (RiteTag.com is an excellent tool to help with the latter).
4. Have a compelling trailer
Trailers are one of the most important aspects of your marketing activities, and to some extent can make or break your game’s success (it won’t matter if you get ten thousand gamers to watch your video, if it makes your game look like a piece of crap that nobody in their right mind would get excited about).
Here’s some tips for a great game trailer:
- Keep it short – a good rule of thumb is to not exceed a 1-minute duration unless you have a really, really good reason. People online have short attention spans, and if you can’t hook them in 60 seconds you’ve got a problem.
- Be sure to feature a lot of gameplay – this sounds obvious, but everybody hates those trailers that are basically just cutscenes and flavour narration and don’t show you what the actual game is. Triple-A development teams with established followers can get away with this, but everybody else? Nope.
- Identify upfront what you want your trailer to say. You’ve got one minute of your viewer’s attention to communicate the essence of your project, so clarify this before you start editing the video. For example, you might say, “I want the viewer to know that this is a horror game with a creepy vibe and not too much action.” Use that motto to guide your decisions about which shots to include in the trailer and how to communicate that with the presentation.
- Don’t front-load a bunch of logos; nobody wants to sit through several seconds of “So-and-so Game Studios presents…” stuff before anything happens. If you have to have those idents in there, consider putting them at the end.
- Make sure your game’s Unique Selling Point (USP) comes across very clearly – if you’ve been able to make a game with a compelling hook, your trailer should be shouting that from the rooftops. If you’re lucky enough to have any awards, accolades, good reviews, or a previously well-received game project under your belt, then get it all in there as well. You know, “From the makers of…”
5. Utilise calls to action
This is Marketing 101 – if you’ve gone to the trouble of putting your promotional materials in front of a lot of people, you should definitely make sure they know what to do about them.
A call to action instructs someone to take action then and there, and it can simply be something like, “Buy now!”, “Play now”, “Buy it here”. It might sound obvious, but a surprising number of developers just put their material out without really stating what they’d like people to do with it.
If your game hasn’t come out yet, you can’t do a call to action, right? Wrong! You still want to gather up all those interested gamers so that they can later find out when the product gets released – so your calls to action in this situation might be things like:
- Wishlist the game here!
- Follow us for more updates!
- Sign up to our mailing list!
- Check out our development blog!
A person who sees your marketing material, and is interested, should not be left wondering what to do to find out more – so make sure there’s a clear instruction they can quickly carry out.
6. Think twice about courting YouTubers and streamers
Yes, this flies in the face of a lot of conventional wisdom when it comes to marketing games, but the truth is that getting streamer coverage of your game isn’t a magic potion for mega-sales – in fact, it may even harm you.
It’s true that there is a type of game that can benefit hugely from video coverage. If your game has a lot of generated content and variation in play experiences, then getting big views on YouTube can make your game look like a fun experience without spoiling anything; some games, such as the procedurally-generated The Binding Of Isaac, owe a huge portion of their success to Twitch users watching streamers having fun with the game and deciding that they wanted to play, too.
But consider a more content-authored game, one with a linear narrative progression – what are the chances that somebody will watch a video of the gameplay and then “not need to play it” for themselves? Who would want to buy a puzzle game after watching their favourite YouTuber find all the solutions? Depending on the type of game you’re promoting, you may well decide that streamer and YouTube coverage is unlikely to work for you and focus your efforts elsewhere.
In the end, the most effective videogame marketing strategy is one intelligently tailored to the specific project you’re selling. By starting your promotional efforts as early as you can and carefully targeting the people most likely to be interested, you can sometimes achieve great results even with little to no financial outlay.