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Indie Marketing: tell the world! (Part two)

By on August 30, 2011
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This is a guest post by Ben Ward, video game developer and founder of indie studio HogrocketIf you haven’t read Part 1 of this article, feel free to take a look at it here.

In the last part of this article I was discussing the how and why marketing is different when moving from selling at retail to selling digitally. In summary, it’s not as important to have a long campaign ahead of launch to achieve awareness. It’s so cheap and easy to keep your game available for sale that you can build your promotions based on the actual sales of your game, rather than projections.

What is self-publishing?

Some small developers confuse the act of “self-releasing” with the discipline of “self-publishing”. Anybody can release a game now… just click through a few dialog boxes and BOOM – your title is on the App Store. However, actually supporting and promoting your product, growing the business, and achieving greater overall success is something that requires way more than a few clicks of a mouse.

At Hogrocket we like to think that we’re taking the publishing side of our studio seriously. We have connections with platform holders, worldwide press, conference organisers, traditional publishers, QA services, freelancers of various disciplines, and most of the other kind of people we need to in order to achieve our publishing aims. We’ve planned the promotion of our games over time, and we have a budget put aside to support this. We have pricing strategies defined, and all of the analytics we need to get a clear idea of what’s actually happening in our market. Of course we’re small enough to turn on a dime and throw all of this planning out the window if the analytics differ from our predictions.

So let’s talk tangibles. What is Hogrocket’s strategy?

Impulsive Market

Firstly, it’s admitting that we’re selling our games in an impulsive market. We’re competing for attention all the time, so we want to minimise the friction of people buying our game. If they hear about it and like the idea then we need those people to spend their money on it as easily as possible. They shouldn’t have to wait several months for the game to be released. They shouldn’t have to drive to the shop. They should be able to buy it right there, right then, for a decent price. Accepting the fact that you can’t change people’s purchase habits is key. You can’t change the tide, you have to go with the flow.

Recognising that impulsive behaviour is a key part of our strategy. We haven’t announced anything about our game publicly, not even it’s name, and we will continue to be cagey until release. We want people to hear that initial buzz on Twitter, perhaps read a feature on TouchArcade, and then immediately go out and buy the game. The price we’re selling at is so low that it should be relatively easy to convert a lot of those people into customers, and ultimately get better sales out of it. Of course it would be even better to release for free, but that’s a different discussion… 😉

Oh and it’s important to add: we’re being quiet about the game, but not the company. We still need to build a fan base, we still need to establish relationships, and we still need to build buzz in the key press. We straddle the line, for instance we ran a private beta test of the game and involved several key industry and press figures. Their feedback was incredibly important, but I hope it’s helped to open doors and raise awareness too.

Using metrics

As I mentioned before, metrics is also really important. In our first game we use a combination of sales/download data and in-game statistics recording to paint a picture of who is playing the game, and how they are playing it. Before we get into the nitty gritty it’s important to stress that ALL of this data is anonymised. To be honest we don’t care what your name is or what telephone numbers you have stored on your phone, and we certainly don’t collect this data. What we’re interested in is things like:

  • Which model of phone do you have?
  • When did you download the game?
  • How many levels did you achieve three stars on?
  • Which language do you speak?
  • How fast did you complete the game?
  • Did you turn the music off?

If we multiply up all of this anonymous data, it becomes pretty useful for both game design and marketing. For example, let’s say the game suddenly spikes in downloads in Brazil. Perhaps a Brazilian magazine ran a feature on the game or something like that. Well we might not know about the feature itself, but we could certainly detect the spike in downloads. We could decide to jump on this, and localise the game into Portuguese to further maximise the audience in Brazil. We can roll out this update in less than a week. We might decide to hire a Portuguese-speaking PR in Brazil who can push the game to other local publications. We might take out some Google Ads which specifically target Brazilian Internet users. And we’ll do all this in increments, measuring our success and investing our time and money in campaigns that work.

Of course, localising into Portuguese will help downloads in other territories, which opens more doors. It’s not guesswork, it’s iterative marketing.

Adaptive process

Another advantage that Hogrocket has over traditional developers/publishers is that our processes are combined. There’s no such thing as “the Marketing department”… our main marketing guy is also a programmer. This means that we can combine techniques to achieve maximum success. We’re not just limited to running advertisements on websites – we can change the game itself to leverage promotions. One obvious example would be to cross-promote future games from within our own titles, possibly providing incentives for users to download our whole catalogue. This is good for gamers, and good for us too.

We can also run integrated campaigns, such as combining a temporary offer like Free App A Day with the release of a new piece of content available via In App Purchase. This isn’t impossible in the traditional model, but it requires a lot more organisation.

Honesty and business strategy

Finally, the most important part of our strategy is probably the simplest. Just be honest.

The games industry is full of agendas, and a lot of the time people don’t talk about much of the stuff that happens behind the scenes. There’s a lot of fear about making a mistake or looking bad, and while that is a concern I think it’s crippling to many studios. That’s a mistake – the industry is full of really interesting people solving fantastically complex challenges every day. The world should know about what they do. There’s a tendency to hide behind logos and branding, but the human element of the industry is what is the most interesting to many people.

That’s why I write posts like this one. Some of the things I’m saying might be wrong, and I might acknowledge that in a few months time when that becomes apparent. But the most important thing is not to bullshit, as people can see it a mile off. As a group we should be humble about our successes and failures, but never stop giving insight into what we do. Ken Levine sees it when he calls for developers to go on The Daily Show to get their personalities across. We need characters and story, not just brands and logos.

Hogrocket is an interesting story for many people because we are following a trend: experienced developers moving from AAA to mobile. We’re talking about it a lot because it’s a huge transition… a few months ago I sat at a desk inside a 200 person studio, and now we have our meetings on a sofa in my living room. What hasn’t changed is the quality of our output, both in terms of the core team and also our freelancers. In fact, we have been working with some ex-Bizarre Creations staffers who are going through the same transition. It’s an interesting story, and one which we’d like to do a better job of telling.

There will be one more part of this article, this time focusing on some of the tools and techniques you can use to get the word out. If this article was “what do you say”, the next will be “how you say it”. Speak to you soon!

About Ben Ward

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  • Thanks for the detailed feedback. I for one am extremely interested in the experiment. I believe that “launch marketing” is not important for indies, but “permission marketing” is. That’s why I find the experiment so interesting.

    You guys have gone in for a AAA approach (high price point, bulding on buzz on day one, aiming for a launch spike); Andrew is taking an indie approach (normal price point, building a long term relationship with his customers, encouraging them to “pull” rather than him to “push”).

    I’m keen to see how each different approach pans out. I am inclined to prefer permission marketing, not least because it is where my expertise lies. but am ready to proved wrong. I hope that Tiny Invaders is very successful.

    And I’m always happy for you to share your results on GAMESbrief!

  • Pete Collier

    Hi guys,

    It’s Pete here, co-founder at Hogrocket. Thank you for the considered comments
    and the healthy dose of criticism!

    I’m sorry to
    hear that you feel Ben’s article comes across as conceited Brice. However the
    reality actually couldn’t be further from the truth, we’ve consistently stated
    that we might be completely wrong in our approach. In this very article Ben
    says this:

    Some of the things I’m saying might be wrong, and I might acknowledge that in a
    few months time when that becomes apparent. But the most important thing is not
    to bullshit, as people can see it a mile off. As a group we should be humble
    about our successes and failures, but never stop giving insight into what we do[..]

    And that’s
    all we are trying to do here, give some insight into our thought process and be
    willing to act on it (and our own savings I’d like to add, crazy I know!). If a
    3 man indie team like us can’t experiment with marketing strategy than who can?
    Please don’t berate for having a go, at the end of the day it’s our loss if we
    get it wrong and we’re openly trying to share our findings. Hopefully it will
    be of benefit to everyone to find out whether it fails or not. We’re certainly
    open to failure if that’s what it takes to learn. But in my opinion if new
    techniques aren’t tried then there is no chance for progress either.

    Your following
    remark: “hey tiny people, let an ex-AAA game dev tell you how it’s
    done!”. This seems pretty
    overly defensive to me, sorry. We don’t see any distinction between our AAA
    experience in marketing and what we’re learning right now as indie developers. The
    approaches yes, but Ben’s 8 years of experience doing marketing is not now null
    and void. Experience informs the decisions we make now, it doesn’t dictate

    The guy
    running Split Milk Studios – Andrew, you’re right he has done an amazing job
    promoting Hard Lines. In fact he is a friend of ours; we were at his birthday party
    a few weeks back in fact. We exchanged our ideas on approaches then and have
    been supporting each other throughout. I realise it’s too late for you to care
    about Hogrocket’s story, I’m sorry about that. All I can say is we’ll continue
    to be honest and up front about our opinions and results however controversial.
    We hope it’ll be interesting to others and I guess Nicholas thinks so too, otherwise
    he wouldn’t have invited Ben to contribute on this site, or maybe he just likes
    a good argument, I don’t know (Nicholas?)

    David – Yes,
    again, we may be crazy going in at a $3.99 launch price, we’ll see I guess! But
    some of our own research on Ben’s other app he has on the market for a while
    now (not related to Hogrocket) has proved that premium over freemium can be
    just as valid. We’re hoping to discuss our thoughts on this more in the future.

    Thank you
    for the compliment to call us brave for charging a real price. Recent evidence
    from Apple seems to think they would prefer more developers to do the same. See
    this article here –

    I’m really
    glad to hear you enjoy our articles and we promise to continue to share our
    results and I look forward to more constructive criticism. I’ll pimp my blog
    whilst I’m here as you may hopefully find that interesting to?

    Sorry for
    the rather long ramble, it’s been a long launch day and I need to go to bed,
    but I wanted to respond to what has been said.

  • David Barnes

    $3.99 launch day price? That’s brave for an impulse purchase when “you can’t change the tide, you have to go with the flow.” Sounds like you’re hoping for a big tide change here.

    The most innovative thing you’ve done is have the bravery to charge a real price. I wish you had worked harder pre-launch to convince customers it was really something special and worth 4 times as much as iPhone most games.

  • BRice

    No offense, but this entire article seems really naive and contradictory. In your first part you talk about the importance of getting the word out early and in this one you say don’t talk about it until you’ve released (who told you this is a good idea, btw?). You say being honest and transparent with your audience is important… but it isn’t. In fact, it’s detrimental. The most successful apps on the market are the ones that nickel and dime and trick users on the app store into paying more over time than they would ever pay up front. That’s what the market has showed time and again, the evidence is massive.

    And honestly, this whole article comes across a little conceited. You haven’t even put out one app and you’re giving advice on how to do it? In a tone that sounds like “hey tiny people, let an ex-AAA game dev tell you how it’s done!” You think the consumer gives a crap about Hogrocket’s story? Without even a product to care about, all I know about “Hogrocket” is that I don’t like them.

    You want some advice from an experienced customer? The guy running Spilt Milk studios did an amazing job promoting his company and humbly documented every step he took as he adjusted to what the market. I’ll buy anything that guy puts out. You… not so much.

  • Great articles and really good advice. I disagree with one of your points though: staying quiet about your game until in launches. I don’t see the advantage of not having some awareness raised and not having some fans waiting to buy your game when it launches. I don’t think that you would lower the impulse buy if some of the people buying were following your game’s development for some time and getting excited about it.

    That’s what we’re doing anyway and I’m hoping that it will work 🙂

    Best of luck to you guys and keep up the blogs!