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Indie Marketing: tell the world! (Part two)

By on August 30, 2011

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