If you can’t convince yourself, how can you convince anyone else?
I’ve been developing commercial indie games and trying to get people to care about them for over a decade now. Marketing is a known thorn in the side of pretty much every indie dev but, sorry, this post doesn’t give you any cool tips and tricks. In fact, I think the vast majority of game marketing activity is performative (and by extension, useless).
It’s been a minute since the last email we sent out, we’ve started a YouTube devlog for The Song of The Fae (SoTF) and that’s mostly replaced what I was writing here. So, I’m trying something new. Devlogs and open development are more popular than ever but I find that most developers prefer to present the “pretty version” of game dev.
Our videos show my raw thoughts on the current state and design, and show how uncertain the direction of a game is at any given point in its development. Similarly, I want to share posts (like this) that illuminate both the “creative” and “business” side of the studio, showing our vulnerability and lack of understanding.
I’ve realised we are not on track in terms of marketing for The Song of The Fae (buy/wishlist plz ❤️). All is not lost, we’re still in heavy development etc. but we’ve already made quite a few blunders:
Overscoped the game
Unclear vision from the outset
Shared public demos too early
Entered Early Access too early
But, in fairness, we’ve done many things right with SoTF compared to our previous title The Thin Silence (also buy/wishlist plz):
Grew audience + wishlists throughout development
Feedback from players early
Building a community
Heavy market research
Strong core mechanic
Learned to tweet/post interesting things
Looks good in GIFs and screenshots
A somewhat interesting devlog to follow (still learning this)
We’re doing better than we ever have before and to some extent that’s the only signal that matters, but being who I am… I want to do better. I am still slipping into performative marketing habits and I aspire to be much more strategic.
Get to the point already!
Okay okay. So what about game marketing do I feel is so “performative”?
A quick google of “how do I market my game” will immediately suggest a lot of activities to you:
Post on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok constantly
Make sure you include interesting1 footage and images of the game
Start a YouTube channel
Don’t even consider how many hours a simple video will take away from the game, nor how difficult it is to appear comfortable on camera
Start a blog
Just write! Not like the content matters! Blog constantly!
I’m sure they’ll pick your email out of the 1000s they receive daily
Write a press release and send it out
Here’s a crappy template that everyone will immediately recognise as a template! You might even end up as subheading in a Kotaku article
These are performative activities because it’s not the items on the list that matter. It’s the aesthetic, implication and personality that carries the real “marketing”. A surface-level interpretation of this list leads people to start marketing without knowing who the target is or what they’re selling. In turn, you’ll see devs tweet incomprehensible images, drown posts in hashtags, send rambling emails that bury the lede and generally spinning their wheels.
I’ve done all this. I’ve long been guilty of being too abstract about the idea of who my target customer is, let alone what they want to hear. I found myself at the release of TTS unable to be more specific about my customer than “gamers who have struggled with depression” which, shockingly, doesn’t translate well to a call-to-action.
I don’t have any issue with the authors of the marketing advice you find online, it’s the lack of context we build around this advice that bugs me. Developers feel the need to do all of these things at once, distracting them from the game, with no view to identifying which approaches actually work. In fact, they are often so overwhelmed by what they should be doing that they do a bad job of… all of them. As usual, the 80/20 principle applies everywhere, focus narrowly and shift that focus based on feedback.
It’s in the details
I have long believed that beginner’s mindset is critical to both creativity and business, never assume you understand how anything actually works. Instead, what if we think of marketing as a journey rather than a checklist or a hurdle to clear? Marketing is the process by which you understand the public-facing vision of your product.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it doesn’t matter if you tweet about your game 10 times daily if the content isn’t interesting to people. This tends to go two ways: doing this for way too long or giving up immediately.
This is what sucks about marketing, it takes time to build interest and most measures we have are lagging indicators. If you make a good video then gain a bunch of subscribers, then whatever video you release next will likely perform better than average regardless of quality. Controlled experiments and constant variation are useful here. Try a new style of tweeting for a week, try releasing YouTube videos at a different time this month etc.
If you want to avoid performative marketing and do effective marketing, I believe the only way is to deeply understand who you’re talking to and how they’re feeling at every step of the journey. There is no shortcut, if you do not have that understanding, you need to do research and experiment until you do.
That experimentation can be across many games, one game’s development or just over a few months depending on what stage of development your business is at. Much of this post was inspired by The Stairstep Approach to Indie Marketing by Chris Zukowski which provides some more specific advice for your personal situation.
My current take on marketing is to carefully observe how I personally become interested in a game. On Steam, it’s almost entirely down to promotional imagery and screenshots that illicit a click through. From there, it’s the trailer and a brief scan of the store page text. This tells you a lot already, I should focus on the visual elements of the page but historically the text has taken far longer.
When running through this lens, it’s easy to pick out the games that do a good job but it’s harder to notice why a given game stands out and it’s even harder to consciously notice why a given game doesn’t stand out.
This applies on every platform where you compete for attention (hint: all of them). Think to yourself, what would make me interested enough to learn more about my game? That is, aside from someone like Splattercat or Northernlion picking it up (a man can dream).
This is where marketing can begin to feel uncomfortable for a lot of developers. It’s no secret that game developers tend to be both introverted and idealistic, it can feel close to outright lying to do this. Worse still, some developers are more than happy to lie and are rewarded for it surprisingly often (see Kickstarter, lol).
Personally, selling myself and my work has always felt like chewing glass. Unfortunately, in business you choose between working for someone else and having them sell you, or selling yourself2. As a stubborn, independent person I’ll choose the second every time.
I still struggle with this personally but, when I think about it, it’s mostly imposter syndrome. If you have actually made a game that’s worth playing then trying to convince people of that is perfectly ethical, perhaps it’s even net good!
Well, you’re up to date with how I’m thinking about this mess right now. I’ll leave you with a work-in-progress theory.
At all times there are (at least) three different perspectives on a game:
the dev’s vision
the pitch the marketing spells out and;
the actual state of the end product
Motivation and passion stem from the dev’s vision, but if that vision doesn’t dovetail with the marketing pitch and end product… It’s just mental masturbation. They don’t all have to be the same view, but they must each be compatible and compelling. I suspect that marketing become easier, perhaps even a fun virtuous cycle, when you can combine all these perspectives into one.
This is definitely a different sort of post for me, much more “thinking out loud”. Let me know what you thought on Twitter and subscribe for more!
it’s important to be extremely vague about what interesting means
I am paraphrasing this from somewhere, no idea where, probably some garbage LinkedIn post