Marketing is one of the most important elements of being an indie game dev. There are many ways and methods to run a successful marketing campaign. All of them require significant time investment.
Promoting a game doesn’t always require a high budget. In fact, many indie games have successfully launched through free marketing tricks alone.
We’ve talked to developers about their top marketing tips and done our own research. We’ve summarised this in a list of indie game marketing tips to help small developers with $0 budget to get started on the journey. This is an indie game marketing 101.
Why is marketing so important for game developers?
First of all, your audience will never appreciate the quality of your game if they can’t find it in the first place. Visibility is everything.
Does word of mouth work? If you have a good enough game, does it market itself? Unfortunately, that’s often not the case. Otherwise, indie game industry would be doing a lot better.
Steam, Google Play and App Store all use algorithms to put your game in trending lists which will result a lot of visibility, but in order for them to do so, you’ll have to send the algorithms the right signals to begin with. Similarly, for word of mouth marketing to work, you’ll need people who spread the word in the first place. You need to create initial momentum.
Word of mouth and trending pages are both boosters to your original marketing plan, NOT your whole marketing plan.
Marketing should start early, often pre development and continue throughout the development cycle. This allows you to build up interest ahead of launch and get the required momentum to support word of mouth, trending lists and journalists, reviewers and streamers picking up your game and giving free promotions.
Before development – market research
- Supply of games – It’s surprisingly common for indie devs to start developing a game without having done any market research. They have an idea and a vision and they follow that blindly.
There are 500-600 indie games released every month on Steam – many of them from the same genres and themes. It’s incredibly hard to market just another indie 2D platformer. Do your research. VG Insights and Steamspy are both great tools to help you with this.
- Demand of games – You need to make a game that other people want to play. Get people to test it early and often. See if there’s traction. Do your research on what does and doesn’t work on similar games. What does your audience want? It’s hard to market something that has little appeal to begin with. Look at the top 10 games on Steam right now and see what genres they’re in.
- Know your audience – Know who you’re making the game for. You don’t necessarily have to go after the biggest player groups. It’s fine, and actually potentially beneficial, to have a niche audience. You might have less competition and you can better direct the marketing efforts.
During development – game mechanics to support marketing
- Retention mechanics – Build traction and retention through game mechanics – especially with free to play games, you should think about ways of extending your players’ average playtime. There’s a lot of material out there on how to reward players for consistently returning to the game and giving players gratification even in late game. This will not just help you with lifetime value of the user, but also with increased word of mouth.
- Virality generators – Have something new in the game. Something you can market and sell. Indie games are all about trial and error and innovation and that helps with ‘going viral’. You need something to market – visually, game-play wise or story wise.
There is a great video on YouTube from the creator of The First Tree on why their indie game went viral.
Before release – indie game dev marketing tips
- It’s SO important to have a community before you release the game. It’s like giving yourself a head start during the release. This allows you to hit the ground running, get a lot of downloads early on and hopefully push you to the trending games lists.
It’s all about the snowball effect early on and you can’t achieve that without having an existing fanbase. You need a concrete marketing plan to achieve that and this means a lot of work if you haven’t signed up with a publisher.
- Connect with other game developers
- Be active on subreddits and share your experience. Build relationships and friendships.
- Be active on Twitter – Twitter has an amazing gamedev community. Share your progress and engage with others.
- Make meaningful connections – It’s easier to get 10 strong relationships going that will retweet you to 500 people each than building a follower base of 5,000 people.
- These game devs will help you promote your game, but are also often early adaptors and players of your game. They’ll also give you great advice and feedback.
- Connect with potential audiences
- Build a wishlist on Steam, optimise your Steam page, keep people engaged and updated with your progress. On average, every 4-5 wishlists result you one sale.
- Have social media presence, post regularly. If the game is themed, find relevant subreddits and engage with them.
- Have a development blog. Talk about your journey and tips and post about it on sites like Gamasutra.
- Have a Discord channel to engage with your most loyal early fans.
- Build a network for post-release
- Research blogs, sites and journalists who have posted about games similar to yours and create a list with contact details.
- Engage with these people early on and often. Like their posts and leave relevant comments. Build up rapport so that when your game is released, you’re not just another dev asking them to write about their indie game.
- If your game is streaming-friendly, start doing the same with smaller streamers. Small streamers tend to have a much more engaged audience. They tend to play games in the same genre as the streamer and the conversion rates are actually a lot better than with big streamers. At the very least, have a list of all the streamers who play games similar to yours and their contact details.
Steam page optimisation
Optimising your Steam page is an easy and surprisingly misunderstood marketing tool. There are some great articles around this that go into a lot of detail – for example How Steam Users See Your Game. I’ve summarised the key themes below, but worth giving the above article a read as well!
I’ve also specifically written about Steam page optimisation on Gamasutra.
- Steam page optimisation – Screenshots and trailers
These are the most critical parts of your Steam page. Visual stimulation and all that. If you get one thing right, make it screenshots!
Firstly, having a trailer is not that important. I know. That sounds wrong. But most people don’t bother with it. What they do bother with is clicking through the handful of screenshots to understand what the game is all about. They can do it in seconds.
Show them the genre, the UI, what the player is controlling on the screen – show them the gameplay.
If you do make a trailer, focus on the same thing. Gameplay is king. No one cares about how fancy your cinematic cutscenes are and no one is fooled by them.
- Steam page optimisation – short description
Focus on descriptions that are not obvious from the screenshots. Talk about game mechanics, not art style. Don’t give an atmospheric story. Be concise and to the point.
“It’s a platformer. You’re a rabbit. You shoot baddies and collect carrots. It’s also a base builder – you use the carrots to improve your burrow.” Done.
- Steam page optimisation – tags
Steam tags that focus on sub-genres seem to work best – city builder, 4x, metroidvania etc work well! Tags around it being an indie game, 2D etc are less relevant – it’s pretty obvious from the pictures!
- Steam page optimisation – reviews
Reviews are not the first things people usually look at. That being said, average Steam game reviews are over 70% positive.
If the potential player looks at the reviews, they look for the negative ones to find reasons why they shouldn’t buy the game. Avoid deal killers – major bugs and crashes. It’s fine to have someone say they don’t like rabbits and, therefore, your game. It’s not fine if they don’t like the rabbit bugging through the floor.
Post release – $0 budget marketing
- Marketing is a full-time job if you want to succeed and have no previous track record. AAA studios spend another 100% of their development budget on marketing. Indie games don’t have that budget, so the key is to get creative and spend time on it.
- Engage with the small community you have. Build your Discord server into a hub. The ideal journey for a player would be to discover your game on Instagram, Facebook, Reddit or Twitter and then be directed to your Discord. That’s where you can nurture the relationship and keep people engaged.
- Sell yourself wherever you can – Contact journalists, blogs, podcasts. Make a list of places that could write about you as well as places that allow guest writers to write on the site. The PR you get from this coverage will be one of the most effective marketing tool, but also very challenging to achieve unless you do proper research.
- Talk about your development process and journey as well as the game. Whatever it takes to get the word out. Creativity and pure hours spent on marketing are your 2 tools here.
Monetisation for indie games – pricing as part of marketing
- You don’t always have to aim for large amounts of copies sold at the expense of price.
- Maybe you’re not monetising enough on the game? If it’s paid, how does the price compare to other similar games? If it’s free to play, what’s your lifetime value of a player?
- The key mistake indie devs make is thinking lower prices will get them more players. It’s often not true. Pricing a game $19.99 vs $9.99 doubles your revenue per game which you can use for paid ads or to hire a community manager to get more people to buy at a higher price point. You’d need to believe in a very steep price elasticity curve to justify very low prices. Read more about pricing in my other article – Should developers charge more for an indie game?
Other non-conventional and genre specific games marketing ideas
There are a bunch of effective, but not one size fits all marketing tips that don’t fit in the list above. I’ve briefly covered them below in case this sparks an idea.
Influencer Marketing – This is one of the fastest growing marketing forms. Getting streamers to play your games can make a huge difference. This can be done by paying streamers or by making a game ‘streamer-friendly’.
Goat Agency has a great article on influencer marketing in the gaming industry. They have a lot of stats on this.
Streaming doesn’t work for all games of course and mostly benefits higher budget online games that focus on team work and social elements.
Also, not all views are of the same quality. Some streamers have audiences who watch the streamer and have no interest playing games. Other, often more genre focussed specialist streamers, bring you audiences who mostly also play the games themselves.
Partnerships and cross-game characters / references – A somewhat underutilised method to move players from one game to another is adding more ties to the games. It works for sequals and games in the same universe. However, it can also work when partnering with other studios to include some easter egg characters in games.
Publicity stunts – Whether it’s walking on the streets in your underwear or releasing an animated polar bear on the tube, brands have long used publicity stunts to gain attention. This is low budget and, if you’re creative enough, can get you a lot of free coverage. Seems to me that it’d be a good fit in an industry where creativity has no limits.
Start marketing early and be persistent
The key takeaway from this article should be to start early, devote a significant proportion of your time on marketing and be persistent. This is especially true if that’s your first game. It takes time to build a community and a followership. Once you do, the journey gets easier. Don’t give up!