Of the three arenas of starting your own games studio (see my past articles for the creative and business sides), marketing is the area where I’m most out of my comfort zone. I’ve been working in the games industry for a fairly long time, and for most of that time us developers had very little to do with the public facing side of games. We made the games and the publisher handled the marketing side of things. As the reach of the Internet grew and the cost of communication dropped to almost zero, that situation began to change. As a developer we started to get players by-passing the publisher to contact us directly. This trend accelerated as new publishing platforms such as iPhone and Facebook opened up gaming even further.
In many ways, your approach to marketing is going to depend on what sort of a games developer you are (such as work-for-hire or a self-publishing one) but either way, to some extent you’ll need to be prepared to talk directly to the players of your games.
An instructive experience with this communications dynamic came with Savage Moon, a PS3 title I designed, developed for Sony. We (the developer) would get emails from people with questions and ideas. The official advice from Sony was to pass that query on to their customer services department. Now I understand why they’d do it that way, they worked with us to make games and had no idea what we were like at communicating with their customers. We might go a bit crazy at a hint of criticism and rant at some poor fan. However from my point of view, it felt a bit odd to have to pass a question about a game I’d designed on to somebody else as I knew more about the subject than they did of course. It’s an issue that big companies need to engage with – how to empower individuals to have a real honest voice while managing the risk they might say something that reflects badly on all involved or accidentally reveal something they should not have. (Shh, don’t tell anyone but I replied to all of the emails we got directly!)
Much like the design of a great game, there is no one clear route to success. Being creative about marketing is as important as being creative with the game itself. There is always much more going online for potential fans than they can ever look at, so you have to always ask yourself, why would anyone bother listening to what you’ve got to say? As such, all the content of your communications; the manner, platform and context, are all vital to getting potential fans to tune in.
This article has a few key pointers on marketing that I think may help. Equally, as this is an area new to me also, anyone reading who wishes to share their own views, ideas and experiences, is greatly welcomed. I’m also assuming that you don’t have $100 million, which is the sort of marketing spend that a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops would have (interestingly about 4 times the development cost).
Firstly, I don’t think you can currently self-release a commercial game and hope that word of mouth alone will make it happen for you. You’ll need a marketing budget, and I feel you should expect to spend some money on marketing. After all, why spend time and effort making a game only to ignore the process of telling people about it? Back to the example of Call of Duty: Black Ops; that 4:1 ratio would ideally be the case with your studio, but not many have that kind of budget. You will need to find some money – well targeted adverts can work really well. Opportunities to attend a key event or sponsor something can really pay off. As you develop ideas for marketing, some will inevitably cost and you should have some sort of reserve of cash you can use.
Next consider planning, planning and planning. Did I mention planning? Good. You’ll need a number of plans. For example, you need to have an overall plan for how to get from the starting point of just you knowing about the game to the end point of having enough fans who both know about it and who are willing to buy your game so you can make a living. Broadly this plan should have two parts; your direct communications plan and your indirect communications plan. Direct communications are those channels where you have a strong degree of access and control, such as your studio’s website and blog, your Facebook pages, Twitter feeds etc. You might include your publishers sites, blogs and feeds here too if they are able to give you access (e.g. A post promoting a game on Sony’s blog looks like this).
The indirect communications channels are defined as outlets that may be interested in covering your studio and its games but who are independent of you so are under no obligation to do so. This is a wide range of channels from games sites (like Gamezebo!), blogs, magazines, fan sites and the like. Your plan needs to have an approach to each of these outlets to find the right person there to be talking to about getting coverage.
Looking more at the direct communication, it is important that you don’t wait until the game is completed before you start. A great example of how this can be done properly is the Hello Games people who blogged, chatted, attended events etc to build up a fan-base for their first release ‘Joe Danger’ so when it released on PSN, they sold more than enough to make back the development costs in day one. A rule of thumb here is that this ongoing communication is about regular updates that should talk about what you and the team are up to. It’s a way of keeping fans informed on ongoing progress.
By contrast, with indirect communications they are not going to be interested in every single thing you do, so plan your marketing to start early and engage people throughout the period of development. You’ll have some key points where you might be able to generate spikes in publicity; signing to a publisher, announcing a game, release of screenshots or videos, releasing a demo and finally releasing the game. Add into your plan when these bigger mail-outs are going to happen and to whom you’ll send press releases.
In all of your communications you need to be clear in both who you are and what you are saying. I’d say to keep it simple and don’t try to load too much into each burst of communications. However in effect your online ‘voice’ needs to reflect, well, you. To me it is about sharing your enthusiasm, which is easy when you are people who’ve created what you are now selling to the world! Take for example the blogger Robert Scoble, he started blogging whilst being an employee at Microsoft and took an unusual line for a corporate blogger of being himself. Of course he would talk about Microsoft’s products as was part of his job, but he’d also criticise them when he felt they’d gone wrong and he’d praise competitors’ products too. As a result he became hugely popular and generated a surge of goodwill towards Microsoft.
What about social media? Of course, as a minimum I’d expect a strong presence here, but given everyone is doing that too, we are back to the same problem of how do you stand out from the crowd? In the book ‘What Would Google Do?’, Jeff Jarvis says that the ultimate marketing campaign would be one you don’t need to do at all. Why? Because the product or service is so good and so well made that your customers would be creating the buzz for you. In effect good customers become your marketing team. The core thing about the mesh of communications’ technologies we have around us, and the old adage of a happy customer tells 1 friend but an unhappy customer tells 10, is amplified. When we post on Facebook or Twitter, others can see it and Retweet or Like it, opening up the post to their friends and followers and so on. Social media amplifies and it can happen to both the positive and negative. Don’t treat social media as if it is something one-way where you just talk; it is a two-way process where you should be listening and responding too. Also remember that it’s a series of interlocked communities, so you should be about more than just selling your game and become an active member.
I want to end this article by coming back to the indirect communication channels; games sites and the like. You need to balance how you deal with games media carefully. They have their own pressures and understanding that will help you to find that balance. They make money from adverts, yes, but they also need to keep editorial independence, or else why would gamers read them? You may think your game is a 10/10 mega-hit and get annoyed at a bad review, but you need to deal with it. Don’t try to pressure them into saying what you think they should say – some of the worst PR blunders in gaming history involve publishers or developers attacking reviewers. Bad reviews are part of the territory; there is no way that every reviewer will love every game you make. You should be aiming to develop long term relationships with these indirect sources based on a mutual respect; you can offer them good access to new titles with screenshots etc and they offer you coverage.
And with that, I’m off back to work on our new studio’s game…. Self-publishing games is hard work; it’s a very crowded space, but that competition drives us to make better and better games. Which as a gamer – I’m always in favour of! Good luck!
Tomas Rawlings is a games designer and consultant. He co-founded Red Wasp Design and is Creative Director at Auroch Digital. He is currently producing amongst other things, a panel at the Develop Conference in the UK where you can find out more about making games.