A Guide to Launching Indie Games, Part One: Pre-Launch
The key to a successful launch strategy starts months before a game is even ready for release. One of the biggest marketing mistakes anyone can make is keeping quiet about what they’re working on. If you don’t have the benefit of an established audience, it’s crucial to start building one as you’re creating your game. Ignore that voice saying “I’m not ready to share yet,” buckle up and head past the break for some of the best strategies to build your audience for a successful launch.
Streaming & Videos
Streaming development sessions is a strategy that game developers are using more and more. In fact, so many devs are beginning to take up the practice that Twitch has dedicated an entire category to it. Even indie game developer Jonathan Blow is using YouTube to document his progress on a new programming language designed for building games. In addition to giving folks a look at how games are made, streaming also gets them excited about gameplay and visuals.
Vlambeer, the independent Dutch studio behind Super Crate Box and Luftrausers, has made it a habit to stream coding, art creation and testing sessions of their game Nuclear Throne, which is available through Steam’s Early Access. Each broadcast is fairly simple: a desktop screencast shows what the streamer is working on, while a camera pipes a view of them to a corner of the video. Of course, there’s also a fair amount of interaction with the chat room.
Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions, which is known for everything from Psychonautsto Brütal Legend, takes a different approach, which it calls “Teamstreams.” Several members of the development team give a recap of what they’ve been doing, complete with demos and discussions about how they’ve made certain design decisions, all without showing any code.
Of course, the value of streams don’t end when their over. Not only does Twitch save streams for later viewing, but developers can upload recordings to YouTube.
If you’d like to set up a stream of your own, here are five things to shoot for:
- Choose a Topic: Before you start your stream, decide on what you’ll work on. If your stream doesn’t have a focus, your viewers will lose interest.
- Show Gameplay: Getting a behind-the-scenes look is great, but showing users what all this work is about helps tie it all together and keep it interesting.
- Talk: Silence may be golden in movie theaters, but it’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to streaming your game development. Be lively and narrate what you’re doing.
- Interact: Talking to yourself will only go so far, so be sure to interact with the viewers in your stream’s chat room. Answer any questions they may have and make an effort to spark a conversation.
- Selfie Cam: Aim a camera at yourself and broadcast your headshot on a corner of the video stream. Not only do people like to put faces to the voices they’re hearing, but seeing someone helps make the whole experience more entertaining.
By keeping these points in mind, Nathanael Weiss over at WizardFu Games does a solid job of live streaming the creation of his roguelike, Songbringer. During each broadcast he covers a specific topic, walks viewers through how he tackles it, dives into code, and shows gameplay.
Be An Active Community Member
Actively seek out where folks who might be interested in the kind of thing you’re working on hang out. Whether that’s a specialty site, forum, chat room or otherwise, get out there and participate. That said, it’s important to contribute to the conversations already going on there — don’t shamelessly plug yourself. There will be enough opportunities to mention what you’re working on and spread the word to like-minded folks.
Here are a few communities that stand out to us:
On /r/gamedev/ you’ll find links to resources and discussions all about indie game development. Reddit doesn’t usually look upon self promotion kindly, but it does encourage it in some instances. This subreddit’s Screenshot Saturday is one of them. Each Saturday, you can post screenshots of your game to share your progress.
IndieDB is designed from the ground up to shine a spotlight on indie games. Devs are encouraged to submit their games to the IndieDB database, where they can blog, upload screenshots, list mods, write tutorials and more. When developers post to their blog, their article will be featured on the site’s front page. What’s more, users can discuss the zen and art of game development on the forums.
TIGSource may not have a database of games like IndieDB, but it has a thriving forum of fellow indie devs. An added perk is that bloggers often browse the forum and write about games they find interesting. In fact, even TIGSource editors occasionally highlight a game they like on their front page.
While Gamasutra‘s bread and butter is providing game industry news, it also has a developer blog section. Although its blog posts from “experts” might get more attention, the site frequently features articles from regular members. If you’ve got an idea for a postmortem, opinion piece or how-to article, consider publishing it on Gamasutra.
For more indie game dev communities, check out a fairly comprehensive list here.
While alpha and beta tests serve a very practical need when it comes to debugging and refining your project, they can also be an effective marketing tool that gets your game in the hands of players. If you’ve managed to get the attention of bloggers and the press before, this is the perfect opportunity to get more. If not, this is a good time to reach out.
Of course, you’ll want to spread the word about your testing through other means:
- Reddit: On /r/gamedev/ and subreddits related to the kind of game you’re making.
- Social Media: Folks who’ve followed you on Twitter, Facebook and other sites are highly likely to be interested in playtesting.
- Influencers: Send a note to folks who you respect that have large followings online. If you get them interested, you might win over a valuable ally/fan.
- Streamers and YouTubers: You don’t have to wait until your game is done to reach out to online video personalities. We’ve got a few tips on doing that here.
You should also reach out to people you respect who have large followings online; “influencers” in marketing speak. Not only might they mention your game during its playtesting phase, but they might help spread the word when it launches, as well.
While playtesting can build buzz around your game, what you learn from the testing can have an even bigger impact. Throughout the process you’ll learn what players love most about your game, which means you can refine your pitch for launch.
Let’s take an example from the software world. The team at Slack spent six months in a beta testing stage hammering out bugs, understanding which features users needed (and considered most valuable), and figuring out how to tell potential customers what their product is and why they should use it. Once Slack became openly available, the team behind it already proved their pitch and knew that customers would have a smooth experience once they joined.
Likewise, when your game’s put through alpha and beta tests, you’ll have ironed out bugs and will know exactly what excites players the most. Armed with that knowledge, you should have a smoother launch and a better pitch.
By keeping an online diary about what you’ve completed, what you’re working on, what your roadmap looks like and more, you’ll attract people who are interested in the game development process, whether they’re fellow devs or not. If you’ve solved an interesting design challenge while working on your game, write about it! It’ll give folks a behind-the-scenes look at game development and may even help others facing similar roadblocks, while simultaneously telling them about your game.
Renaud Bédard, the programmer of Fez, has done a particularly good job with this on his blog, The Instruction Limit. One example that stands out is his explanation of “Trixels,” the rendering technology inside Fez, and how they’re different from voxels, which were popularized by Minecraft. While the article is semi-technical, it’s written in such a way that’s still easy to understand for those who aren’t developers.
Blogging is also a good way to share your opinion, whether that’s on game development, the game industry or other matters. For example, Rami Ismail of Vlambeer, recently wrote about the state of the industry and how it’s becoming increasingly difficult for independent developers to make a living. It’s a topic that concerns both devs and gamers, and the article received a fair amount of attention as a result.
While you’re giving folks an insisde look at game development, you’re also helping them find your game in the wilderness that is the Internet. People will link to and share your content, all the while helping you create your brand — whether for yourself, your studio, or your game. Of course, there’s an additional perk: your website’s SEO will improve, and it’ll be more likely to appear higher up on search results.
Shoot for some press coverage even before your game is ready. Not only does it help spread the word to gamers in advance, but you can almost guarantee journalists who write about your project before launch are very likely to write about it again. Why? Journalists love following up.
Here are some milestones when you should try and get some press:
- Announcement: If you haven’t said much about your game, you can always try and get the press to cover it when you “officially announce” it. Just be sure to have a trailer (with gameplay) and screenshots.
- Kickstarter: If you’ve decided to put your project on Kickstarter, now is as good a time as any to look for press coverage.
- Steam Greenlight: If you’ve submitted your game to Steam’s Greenlight program, reach out to everyone who’s covered your game before and even contacts who haven’t yet.
- Beta Testing/Steam Early Access: When it’s time for playtesting, reach out to the press with information on how people can participate. Note: Sometimes, the press won’t be willing to write a story for their website, but they’ll be happy to send out a tweet. If you don’t hear back in a day or two, send an email reminding them and asking (nicely) if they’ll at least Tweet about your playtest.
- Launch: Barring future updates to your game, this is the last big opportunity it’ll have for press.
Of course, we couldn’t put this list of tactics together and leave out social media. If you haven’t already, create your social accounts and start posting updates about your project. When your game is still quite a while away from release, social media provides a way to give followers passive updates and keep the game in their mind. Of course, it’ll also help with sharing blog posts, streaming sessions, screenshots, and more.
While you should create game-specific social media accounts, that’s not necessarily the best way to reach people. Instead, focus on accounts for your studio as it helps build your audience for future games. Yacht Club Games, for example, uses its studio’s Twitter profile as its main account, but also has a Shovel Knight-specific account for interacting with fans and re-tweeting updates.
- Don’t write like a soulless PR machine. Instead, be human and genuine.
- Don’t pitch your game to members of the press on social media. Use email instead.
- Link to your website from your social media profiles.
- Post screenshots and video clips as often as possible. Updates with media tend to stand out.
- Use the hashtags #gamedev and #ScreenshotSaturday when posting updates and searching for fellow devs.
Including crowdfunding in this guide isn’t so much a recommendation as it is a warning. Sure, a Kickstarter campaign can build a community around your game and provide extra funds, but it needs to be marketed as well. What you’re left with is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” problem: you started a Kickstarter to market your game, but even your Kickstarter needs marketing.
Well-known game developers have the luxury of name recognition to make marketing easier, but indie devs typically aren’t so fortunate. Even popular developers face a marketing challenge when it comes to new franchises. Take Golem Arcana for example. It’s a digitally-enhanced miniatures board game Kickstarted by the folks at Harebrained Schemes, who are best known for their crowdfunded Shadowrun games.
“When we did our Kickstarter for Golem Arcana last year which was just over 500k is, well, that was a very different animal, because this was a brand new property with no emotional attachment to the audience,” Harebrained Schemes co-founder and CEO Jordan Weisman told us. “It was a product which challenged the way you play games, made you rethink that and decide to take a leap with us into a new way to play a game.”
“Before Golem Arcana came out we spent months on the road at conventions, demonstrating this to thousands of people. We went to game stores demonstrating it. We had to build awareness and preparation so that by the time we did launch the Kickstarter there was an audience there waiting for it to start and get that ball rolling.”
Within the first day alone the Harebrained Schemes team had already raised $100,000 — 20 percent of its total goal — all because of that preparation. Even with all that legwork however, Golem Arcana raised $518,538 with a goal of $500,000, making it a close call for the new franchise.
“And I think that’s the key thing, it used to be that people ‘Oh I’ll use Kickstarter as marketing,’” Jordan explains. “No, you have to market the Kickstarter and prep that beforehand because now those that first day is critical. You have to really come out of the shoot hot and so you got to prep the market before that.”
So, how do you prepare for a Kickstarter? While that topic deserves a guide of its own, the other sections of this guide apply as well. Blog, stream development, early press coverage and other tactics will help build steam for a Kickstarter campaign.
Next week, we’ll take a look at how to prepare a website, trailer and screenshots for launch.
How have you built a following before launch? Let us know in the comments! This post is meant to be a living guide, so we’ll add more to it as time goes on. Your tips and tricks might just get included, too.
Author: Alexis Santos