Over the past few months, I’ve been on a content frenzy. Some of the recruits that read this have been with the underground since 2013 when it started (and they’ve seen more content in the last 3 months than the YEARS before hand.) Others are just visiting and finding us for the first time through the lens of that content. I expected a lot of questions on marketing and similar subjects when I began delivering information on it, but something strange happened that I had not anticipated. People asked me questions on YouTube or Twitter, sometimes even Facebook, but the questions they asked indicated that most of the time, they and I had very different definitions of what the word ‘marketing’ even meant. This made answering those questions very difficult.
Now I’m no expert. I’m just a dude who likes making games, and happened to run a marketing company for a few years until I was lucky enough to sell it in 2015. Doesn’t mean I know everything, but it is clear to me now that I know quite enough to be helpful in the indie game community, so that is what I’m trying to do. But I feel that no matter what tactical and practical advice I share, what methods I give out, what platforms I recommend…if developers trying to market their game don’t quite get this one single concept, all of their efforts might be in vain.
So let me just get this off my chest in all of my ranting glory and drop a knowledge bomb here. Marketing is a feature.
Marketing is a what??
A lot of the developers I talk to seem to lump everything to do with selling or making money from the game after it is complete into one giant bucket they call “marketing.” Not only is that a ridiculously bad conceptual practice that can lead to getting overwhelmed and quitting, it’s also just plain inaccurate. Marketing is pretty simple, but lets first start by defining what marketing is *NOT*.
- Marketing is NOT advertising, although advertising is a part of it.
- Marketing is NOT reaching out to press and streamers, although reaching out is a part of it.
- Marketing is NOT the same thing as exposure.
- Marketing is NOT the act of monetizing itself if you are free2play or freemium.
So what is marketing? Marketing is the intentional and focused long-term effort to acquire paying customers by showing them that you are likable and trust-worthy. If you don’t plan on monetizing then you’re just acquiring gamers, not paying customers. That’s a bit easier, but very much the same task.
Marketing is not always fun, flashy, or immediately rewarding. It can take up countless hours doing boring and repetitive tasks just like any truly great project. But to actually be effective in your marketing, you HAVE to look at it as a feature or it will fall in between the cracks and get lost to other priorities.
Features improve the core experience
When you add a feature to a game, you are adding in something that makes the player’s experience inside your interactive media better in some way. Because if it doesn’t improve the experience, you cut it out right? (RIGHT?!?!). Things that get included without improving anything actually detract from the experience, and that is what separates good features from bad features.
Great marketing works just like an awesome feature. It makes the game better, it makes the experience more enjoyable, and it leaves players with a greater sense of enjoyment. Now remember, marketing is not always the act of monetizing, so I am not suggesting that by making marketing a feature, you pummel it with ads, or you get your players to buy more stuff. That’s a slippery slope, generally a bad practice, and it actually falls under monetization.
Marketing improves the core experience because you have the ability to set expectations properly. Let’s take No Man’s Sky for example. The game is not bad, it’s beautiful, massive, and fun to play. But the internet at large regarded it as one of the biggest flops of 2016, and likely the hated title that year. The internet’s reaction, however, had nothing to do with the actual game, it had to do with the game not meeting the expectation that the marketing before hand had created. If No Man’s Sky had operated by the above definition of marketing and properly set expectations before launch, their marketing would have IMPROVED the experience, not made it one of the most refunded games of all time.
If you design a good game, all you have to do is properly convey that in a form of media that people will see. That’s it. And when you properly set expectations in front of interested parties, they play your game and have awesome experiences. There are things that you can do here and there to improve your conversion over time, but that’s really all you need to do.
Features are planned ahead of time
Regardless of whether you’re a planner or a prototyper, features are always planned. Mechanics can be iterated or discovered, story can be adapted, art can be modified…but features have to be planned in one form or another. Because they generally interact with lots of other components in the game, you have to give your features a bit of thought before you begin. The more complex a game, the more thought you have to give them.
Marketing is the same way. You don’t have to plan countless materials months ahead of time either. You simply have to sit down and think through the plan and how it affects all other components of the game. If you are not good at interacting socially, how will showing off your game early affect your ability to finish it? If you don’t have any of the art complete yet, how will showcasing it affect the non-developer’s ability to see it for what it is? If you told someone about your game right now, and they went home and Googled it, what would they find?
These are not life-altering questions to ask, they are simply things that should be thought through before you jump into implementation. You wouldn’t implement an entire RPG inventory system without thinking about how it interacted with equipping items would you? (WOULD YOU?!?!). Don’t implement your marketing until you understand the basics of who you’re talking to, what they want, how they find you, and how all of that affects you.
Features are worked on during development
No matter how you do your development, by the sticky notes on the board or by the emotion you feel after you get off work…features are always implemented and worked on during development. In fact, some of us get in the pesky habit of working in a feature factory and get caught in the Dev Cycle of Doom. But either way, it’s clear that features are a core part of how your game works.
Marketing is no different. If you are not working on your marketing along side your game, you are missing out on a massive opportunity that could end up crippling your final product. If you shipped your game without a very core feature, could you lose out on a lot of revenue or potential players? Despite KNOWING that they should, I still talk to a lot of developers via Twitter and email that simply don’t.
Well, bad (good?) news: you need to work on marketing during development.
If you treat it as a feature and give it the proper priority it deserves as a feature, you can’t go wrong. Just like you need 20 spells implemented in your RPG, why not try and get 1000 followers on Twitter? Just like you want to get the new battle system done by next week, why not also aim to have 5 different people play test it with you and give you their thoughts to help you craft the best demo ever? It’s easier than it sounds, you just have to make the effort to do it and give it the proper focus.
Features get built directly into the product
You can’t really define a feature without considering it something that gets built directly into what you’re making. You can’t have a Shamwow without the extra epic cleanup, and you cant have a game without at least a single feature or two. Features are what us developers spend such precious time developing into our game to improve the experience.
Marketing is very much the same, it needs to be built into your product.
Again, because some developers seem to have a flawed understanding of marketing I need to be very clear that I do not mean you should cover your game with ads or anything of the sort. What I am suggesting is much more straightforward. Remember, marketing is a long term game. Your short term goal should be to sell your game up front, but in the grand scheme of things, every game should increase your audience size. Therefore, every release should be bigger and better.
So how do you do that? Well, what if you included your social media links inside your game on the menu screen. What if you implemented an email list signup in your game so that people that loved it can hear about your future titles. What if you had a basic, online text feed that you could publish to inside the game and used it to promote future titles. What if each game had a “more games” link that promoted all your other games. Or what if, you gave out your demo in exchange for an email list signup.
There are SO MANY ways to implement long-term marketing in your game. The trick is to simply offer them a way to stay connected to you on the platform that they use the most.
Features are a core focus of the developer
Technically, anything you implement in your game could be a feature in one way or another. And technically that means features are your core focus as a developer. Now the aspects of design and what should and should not be included in your game are a different subject entirely. But here’s the point: your focus as a developer is solely on the development of the game and it’s features.
Your focus should be on marketing, just like a feature.
So many developers I talk to have just finished their game and are looking for marketing info, or they are close to finishing and are researching things to do when it’s complete. But their questions and comments very clearly communicate to me that at their core they believe that marketing is something you do after your game is finished. They are missing a very critical piece.
See, if marketing is an afterthought, that means that the concept of completion is based around the technical aspects of game development, not the financial return of months or years of work. Now granted that is a common belief for artists of all sorts, and certainly the integrity of the work should come before the exposure of it…but that mindset is why so many developers either quit prematurely or skip marketing all together. They don’t think it is a necessary part of the end product, and it’s too much of a hassle, so why finish?
If you include marketing in the project as a feature, then the game is not done until you’ve worked on and succeeded at marketing it. No game was ever made without at least a few boring hours of sluggish, painfully boring work. And although marketing is fun for me, I know for many it is quite the opposite. But just like you can’t complete a game without getting over those humps and curvatures, you can’t ever really be successful with a game without including marketing as a focus of yours outside of an act of the almighty internet gods.
Conclusion: marketing is a feature
Features improve the core experience. They get built over time into the end product. They are planned ahead of time, they are worked on during development, and they are a core focus of a developer’s time during the creation process. Marketing should fall into that boat for any title that you want people to play, 100% of the time, no exceptions.
If you want people to play your game, or better yet, buy your game, you have to look at the act of user acquisition as part of the project. If you look at it as a separate entity, it is significantly easier to abandon it at that phase than to continue on through the trenches to a potentially rewarding outcome.
So instead of actually finishing the game as the completion of a project…why not start small. Consider defining “Finishing your project” as publishing the game and getting 1,000 players. Not just turning it into a final EXE or APK. You’re not finished with your project until you hit that goal.
I sincerely hope this helps you. I know I was a bit ranty, but I really believe this at the core of my being. Marketing is not evil, its not an afterthought, and it’s not something to be ashamed of. If you make a great game, it’s your responsibility to share it with the world. And if it’s great, they’ll let you know.
Do you agree? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts!