"How" and "when" to do marketing are both questions that are deeply dependent on the game, the platform, and your own personal context. If you are an established independent developer you might be able to hop online and vaguely announce the release of your game for the next day as a completely valid marketing strategy. If you're making a game that is a sequel to a successful first title, the situation is markedly different from your first game.
So let's take the situation of a game that is 'good' but not necessarily 'remarkable', and a first-time developer. How do you start, and when do you start?
"When" is a bit of a trick question: marketing is not one single action - it's a process. There are generally two schools of thought for good campaigns: a slow burn - where developers announce their game early and show off little bits of content over the course of months or years, or a blitz - a focus on a more active campaign closer to launch. Regardless of which you pick, your marketing process should start as soon as possible.
If you have a publisher, instead of you self-publishing, it can still be worthwhile to read about the structure of a good marketing plan - even if it is just to get a feeling and understanding for what your publisher should be doing.
1. You need to start getting a good idea of who and where your target audience is.
If you make your games based on audience information, you should already have a pretty good idea - but if (like most indies) you came up with the game first, you'll have to figure out who you're making the game for - and learn where you can find them.
For marketing, people tend to think the job is to convince people to play your game - and like I pointed out in an earlier post, that's just pertinently untrue: the job of marketing is to let people who already want to play your game know that your game exists. Think of it this way: if you have 100 "points" of marketing to spend, you can spend those 100 points on convincing 1 person that's not interested in your game, 50 points on 2 people that or 50% interested in your game, or you can spend 1 point on 100 people that are already 99% interested in your game.
Where are these people that already are (mostly) convinced? Do they play similar games? Do they enjoy games in your aesthetic? Are there non-games-related forums your audience might gather? Look at your competition - where is their community from? Where do they talk? What streamers play the game? Make notes, and make yourself a good mental model of where these audiences are and how you can reach them.
2. Start defining the style of your marketing communication.
What style of communication fits your game? Are you making a neon-spectacle roguelike for fast-paced arcade players? Then you don't want images that feel static, you want a trailer that breathes tempo and action, and you want to lean into that neon aesthetic and tone.
The beauty of this part is that you actually have plenty of time to figure this out: in fact, I'd leave a bit of extra time for marketing to try a few things. Especially when you're starting out, the stakes are relatively low: if your marketing isn't particularly resonant, nobody will see it or care for it. A lot of independent developers take this part way too seriously as if they already have hundreds of thousands of people watching their every move: let me reassure you that nobody cares (hopefully, yet!). Give yourself time to figure out what works for you.
Keep in mind that it's absolutely OK to be creative with the style and tone of your marketing, and don't just try to emulate other campaigns in your game's immediate competition. Your goal is to be recognizable enough for fans of the genre/aesthetic/platform, but different enough that you stand out.
This does not mean that this messaging stays static - in many cases in my career, I've adjusted messaging based on conversations I witnessed about the game, or trends that formed around in the community or online. The tone for the marketing of Ridiculous Fishing - a game I worked on that released in 2013 - initially was an artisan game that would keep a straight face and not acknowledge how ridiculous it was. The infinitely effective "it's fishing with guns, chainsaws, and toasters" catchphrase came from a random passerby who played the game at a conference. It shifted the messaging to lean in more on the contrast between the soft and genuine story of redemption and the absurdity of using a bazooka to obliterate 150 fish you just flung into the sky. The game itself would never wink at you - but the marketing could.
It's up to you to figure out what you want to do in terms of messaging, but please don't over-strategize. The audience is unpredictable - short of doing expensive market research, the only way to really figure out whether something will work is to try it.
3. Take inventory of your resources.
This is where you start listing what all works in your favour: do you have existing fanbase? A big Twitter account that lands you in trouble every other week? Do you have a TikTok account with millions of followers watching you play a portable keyboard while scoring goals with only wheelhouse kicks on rollerskates?
Do you have existing contacts at major websites? Are you a visible community member for a big streamer? Do you know people who work at platforms? Is your game likely to be considered for awards? Did you manage to negotiate an exclusive reveal somewhere?
Also start generating resources: make a press-list with press contacts that gave games similar to yours good reviews. Create a presskit to make life easier for people that do want to write about your game. Write some code that outputs screenshots from your game during testing automatically. Make trailers, write copy, create your blurb, reach out to press to discuss your game. E-mail Geoff Keighley. Message whoever the biggest influencer alive is this week. The worst that can happen is that they say "no".
Most of all: write a document - that document is your marketing plan, and while it won't be defining, it will be guiding.
4. Define your strategy.
So, here we are - writing that marketing plan.
So: what is your marketing strategy? I have a very specific bone to pick with the answer to this question I get from a lot of students and aspiring developers - you cannot answer this question with a platform for marketing. That means that "Twitch" is not a marketing strategy, and neither is "press", nor is "reaching out to influencers". A good marketing strategy includes a "what you're doing", a "when you're doing it", a "why you're doing it" - and most importantly, a "how you're doing it".
Your strategy is effectively straight-forward, and answers the following three major problems along the "what", "when", "why", and "how'.
Your goal is relatively simple: get people to enter the funnel, ensure that people have repeat exposure to the game, and do it all in a way that allows you to see what works and what doesn't.
Everyone has different ways of approaching this, but here's a few pointers as to how I help developers figure this out:
- I write down my goals: what am I trying to achieve, and by when.
- I define three audiences: the 90% convinced group (all they need is to see that the game exists), the 75% convinced group (they might enjoy the game if they see it repeatedly), and the 50% convinced group (they are skeptical, but can be convinced by people talking about the game).
- I define three moments: the announcement (for a slow burn campaign I prefer about twelve to eighteen months out, for a blitz campaign this is three to six months out), the big wait (the period between the announcement and the release), and the release push (generally the last three-to-six weeks before release, including previews and reviews).
- I ask the developer to make a matrix and decide what the strategy is for the intersection of audiences and moments. Some are relatively straight-forward: I personally don't believe the 50% group will quickly be convinced without (very) positive external mentions - so for announcement I might focus on press, but I won't have a strong focus on the group during the big wait. Some of them are more complicated: the big wait for the 75% group can be incredibly tricky - you need to keep people interested in your game with repeat exposure, but not so much that they stop caring or start being impatient. Don't forget: people rarely unfollow something when it's quiet - silence is a strategy, but it works best if you're already in a good place. The matrix looks as follows:
|50% convinced||75% convinced||90% convinced|
|Announce||focus on press||-||-|
Taking the above example, since I wrote "focus on press for the 50% group at announcement", I will write that as a header and then write out a max two- or three-paragraph plan that can be executed at that time. That means that even though I can make adjustments at that time, if necessary I can simply take the document and follow the steps in it - it should have a (reference to) a list of assets to create, but also a (reference to) a list people to help create those assets or to reach out to, with their contact details. That way you don't have to spend too much time setting this up when it is time to do marketing - oftentimes there'll be plenty enough on fire as-is at that point.
In the end, this document will be several pages long, and then contain a massive list of names and e-mail addresses and links to articles or videos that made me believe the specific people I'm going to reach out to are a good fit for my game. I save that file, check it occasionally, adjust it liberally, and ignore it frequently - but having the document around means that even in the worst-case scenario, I have a plan that I can act on, or hand off to someone less busy to act on.
- Take inventory of your resources. It's easy to make this fast, but you would miss out on a ton of wonderful places to talk about your game. If at the end of taking inventory your resources don't include sites for smaller and debut indie games like Warpdoor or Buried Treasure or Indie Games Plus, you should do another pass on this.
- Write your marketing plan. There's no wrong way of doing it, besides not doing it and then realizing you would've been better off if you did. I've run marketing campaigns without a single plan - but I've been doing this for more than a decade, keep track of marketing continuously, have a wide network of friends across media, and know what to expect in general of a game launch.
- If you have never launched a game, talk to someone who has launched a game. If you know nobody, consider using my consultancies - but keep in mind that literally anyone that has launched a commercial title on the platforms you're launching on will be helpful.
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