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How independent developers tend to start at the wrong end of marketing, and a more structural way of thinking about marketing.
Marketing is one of those topics that will come up at least several consultancy calls a week - and it makes sense: discoverability is the biggest issue that independent developers face in today's industry. As making games got more accessible, the amount of people releasing games went up, and any games' ability to stand out went down.
There are a million ways to think about marketing, a million problems to solve for, and a million considerations and ways to approach certain issues: how to reach press & influencers, how to communicate your game clearly, what screenshots perform best. Instead of tackling these today, I want to take a step back, zoom out a bit, and talk about a more structural way of thinking about marketing. Specifically, I want to talk about the one marketing thought exercise I use most with independent developers: a funnel.
"Funnel" is a preposterously overused word in marketing terminology, and there are a million distinct versions of the model that exist. The point of each of these models is different, but their goal tends to be similar: most big tasks are unsolvable, but break them into smaller tasks and they become solvable. The version of the funnel I use breaks games marketing into three distinct problems, instead of one big problem:
- People need to be able to learn that your game exists.
This is mostly a question of reach. We're not trying to convince people to play the game - that's not the point. All we're trying to see is how we can get it in front of as many people that would not instantly reject the game as possible. This is usually what independent developers think of when they think of marketing, and it is generally actually the simplest one to solve for.
- People need to be able to gauge whether the game is for them.
Communicating what your game is is just as important as communicating what your game is not. Contrary to many people's expectations, this is a stage in which we're trying to cull audience as aggressively as possible. We want to get rid of everyone that would never be interested in your work, and leave an audience that is (potentially) interested in whatever you're marketing - and in communicating clearly, encourage them to click through.
- People need to be able to make a measurable commitment.
Now that your potential customer is on your store-page, landing-page, or subscription-page, you're looking to make a conversion. This is where you ask people to make a commitment: this could be a purchase, a wishlist, a subscription, a Discord sign-up, a Twitter follow - anything that you can quantify and set goals for. If step 2 went well, you'll have a rather predictable case here: you should have a rather good idea of the kind of demographics that end up here at step 3.
While chronologically these occur in the order of 1 (reach), 2 (cull & communicate), then 3 (commitment) - the order in which you solve them is the opposite direction: 3, 2, then 1 - so commitment, cull & communicate, reach.
For step 3 - commitment, you want to consider your store page or conversion page. We'll get into the topic properly in a future episode, but the short version is that by this step we should mostly have people with at minimum some interest in what you're showing. So, you should focus on the following:
- Trailers/Screenshots (or, depending on platform, the visual elements) - this is 90% of your battle, and on most platforms this is the content that gets surfaced most aggressively. In a lot of cases, your odds of success converting someone literally hinges on these, and you should treat them as such. No version of your conversion page should be live with subpar screenshots or trailers. Experiment: Iterate, reorganize, and adjust.
- Short Description - the blurb (there are worse words & abbreviations in game development, let's be honest) is the short text that usually goes at the top of the store page. They're commonly written as "[game title] is", followed optionally by the genre, and then the narrative/mechanical selling point of the game as written in the game's tone but as player action ("Fall Guys is a massively multiplayer party game with up to 60 players online in a free-for-all struggle through round after round of escalating chaos until one victor remains!").
You test this with small audiences - and if that's all working, you move on to step 2 - culling. We'll get into the topic properly in a future episode too, but here, you want to focus on some different items - although you might re-use some from the "commitment" step. Remember, while for the conversion step we can assume everyone to have a vague idea of how they got there, for this step people have no idea yet.
- Key Art/Icon/Trailer/GIF/Screenshots (or, for short, the visual elements) - again, this is 90% of your battle. Across almost every platform, communication including visuals perform better in every tracking category. You want to make sure your key art/icon is striking, easy to read, and communicates the tone or style of the game or game mechanics.
- Copy (or, the textual elements) - this can be written words or the script for a video, but the short version is to go what your game is and what it's great at in order to get rid of people who do not want it. People often understand marketing to be the act of convincing people to care about your game - but that's not the goal. The goal is simply to get the people that would already play it (if only they knew about it) to understand that this is what they're looking for.
This is far more public-facing than the previous step, but again, we are going to want to test this. Finally, only and if only when we're sure that every person that goes into the funnel has a good chance of coming out of it converted to a sale or a wishlist and with their expectations properly in line with the game, we start working on reach.
A lot of independent developers fixate on increasing their reach without ever considering if it'll do them any good, imagining that somehow things will magically work out as long as enough people see their game on some livestream or news site or social media platform. Then their months of hard work getting influencers to play, or getting the game into some event pay off, their game gets its hour in the spotlight, and the developer realizes not too many people clicked through or converted. It is a hardbreaking lesson I frequently see developers learn at the expense of incredible amounts of work, so let me give you the spoilers on this one: there is little point in getting great reach if no one clicks through, the wrong people click through, or the people that click through don't actually ever convert.
In the majority of marketing cases I take on, the problem isn't actually reach: the problem is that people that the marketing does reach aren't actually convinced or enticed by what they see. As we run through possible ways to improve my clients' marketing, we make small improvements - sometimes it reflects in just a 0.5% improvement somewhere, sometimes changes are very notable and meaningfully change the projection for the game - either way, over time these improvements can add up to really meaningful differences.
You are trying to widen each part of the funnel, allowing more people to flow through to the bottom. You don't necessarily expect everybody to move from learning about your game to gauging their interest to making a commitment in one go - some people will see your game five or six times before it actually captures their eye. Some will take countless looks at the game before they feel capable of gauging whether the game is for them. Some will browse through your page several times before they click "wishlist" or follow your social media accounts. Some will see it and instantly be convinced.
The only marketing that will be harmful to your work is very successfully doing bad marketing. Anything else will be ignored at worst or helpful at best. As such, you might as well experiment and see what works.
A lot of people think of marketing as a "thing you do at some point", but the reality is that marketing is an on-going process. Marketing is about iteration and process. You are trying to shift percentages up and down, increasing the amount of people that wishlist by changing your screenshot, rewording your marketing copy to get slightly higher click-through, or re-arranging trailer shots to get people to watch your trailer a bit longer. The goal is simply to ensure an ever-improving flow from the top of the funnel to the bottom.
You might try something and the results get worse: that's to be expected - not all experiments are a success. There is nothing to worry about though: the reality of independent game marketing is that unless any one act of marketing goes viral, it won't have a measurable impact on the long-term of your projections. If you do poor marketing with bad screenshots, that won't actually damage your game: people will just not care and keep scrolling. They'll probably have forgotten about your game within seconds or minutes. The only marketing that will be harmful to your work is very successfully doing bad marketing. Anything else will be ignored at worst or helpful at best. As such, you might as well experiment and see what works.
Stop thinking of marketing as "how do we get 250.000 people to see our game" and start thinking about how you can convince one more person than yesterday to check out the store page, or click the "wishlist", "follow", or "buy" buttons. Anywhere you can increase people's flow through the funnel is a small victory - even if it's just a decimal percent. Small improvements to any piece of the puzzle add up, and given enough time, it will start making a difference - the people that check out your store page might wishlist the game, those who wishlist might buy it, those who buy it might talk about it. So make sure you have a lot of time, make sure you pay attention to changes in the data, and make sure you experiment and find ways of measuring each step of the funnel.
- Draw a funnel like in the article above. Establish for yourself which data you can collect that will help you get a feeling for how you're doing. Write down the numbers and the percentual change each step down the funnel. Update this information as a recurring ritual at stable intervals (1 or 2 weeks, for example). Try to correlate what happened each update, or what you experimented with, to the changes in numbers. It is generally believed that on a generic storefront, the following media have the most effect on click-throughs and conversion: key art/icon, trailers, screenshots, short description, long description. Update them one by one, and see what happens in the weeks after the change. If your platform of choice offers other functionality or expectations, experiment with that too: tags, keywords, text overlaid on screenshots, etc.
- Specifically for step 2 of the funnel, the goal I give developers is to cull uninterested people aggressively. That might seem like an odd goal - but it has consistently shown to be the best way to get developers to communicate as clearly as possible as to what the game is and what it is not. Expectations gleaned from your marketing strongly influence people's opinions of the game - and the last thing you want is to reach a lot of people who will buy, then refund the game, potentially leaving negative reviews in their wake. Go through each of your (potential) materials -image, video, text- and ask yourself the question: does this communicate clearly what people are getting? And if not, does it avoid communicating anything that the game is not, or that you cannot deliver?
- The funnel works or fails purely based on the amount of data you can gather about your actions. Try getting familiar with analytics: Twitter offers them here, Steam offers so-called UTM links here, and "click tracking" is included in many URL shorteners or analytics programs. Whatever platform you're on, it's likely that there are ways to get additional insight into what is happening at every step down the funnel. For the final step of the funnel, make sure you are tracking a meaningful, measurable outcome: a wishlist, a follow, or a subscription. If you don't care about analytics, but you want to do marketing right: learn to care about analytics.
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