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Three ways to market your indie game

By on September 7, 2011

There is a battle royal brewing over the best way to market your indie game.


In one corner, we have companies like Hogrocket. The developers of indie puzzler Tiny Invaders on iOS, they come from a AAA development background at Bizarre Creations. (“Brought to you by the creator of Geometry Wars!”). They’ve brought AAA marketing views too, keeping the game secret before launch, building relationships with journalists more than fans and focusing on the idea that a big launch is the key to self-publishing success.

In the other corner are indies like Spilt Milk, or even GAMESbrief. Talk a lot about the products that are coming (as Andrew has with his Spilt Milk Studio diaries, or I have with the prospective launch of 52 Games Design Secrets)

In between are people like Cliff Harris of Positech, who spends a lot of money marketing his games (titles like Gratuitous Space Battles and Democracy 2) with Google and tracking its effectiveness. In Cliff’s mind, an indie who doesn’t market is just leaving money on the table.

So what are these strategies, and which one makes most sense for your business?

1. Launch marketing – it’s all about the buzz

Launch marketing is what many people think of when they think about marketing a game. This strategy emerged because of the retail nature of traditional games.

In the world of physical AAA games, you get one shot at your marketing. There is a release date that is the centre of your marketing universe. That date really really matters.

The CFO of one of the top five publishers in the world once told me that he could predict the lifetime sales of a game to within 10,000 units from the first weekend’s sales data. Good sales means retailers keep stock on the shelves. They re-order. The digital distribution platforms highlight the game more. That first weekend can make or break a title.

So it is no wonder that lots of game marketing has evolved to support the big day. The carefully orchestrated PR reveals, the intensive marketing spend on TV, specialist press and outdoor in the run-up to the big day. The buzz machine that builds and builds and builds…

And then collapses as the game is out, and everyone in marketing moves on to the next big game.

This is an expensive, intensive, high risk strategy. It can work, but you only get one shot at it. The AAA industry knows this: it has consolidated into the handful of global publishers that have the financial resources and the risk appetite to take these kind of bets.

To my mind, indies can’t afford to take this risk, and would be foolish to do so.

2. Metrics-led marketing – it’s all about the data

Metrics led marketing doesn’t worry about buzz, PR, nice parties or cool trailers. It is cold-hearted and analytical. It uses Google Adwords, Facebook advertising and affiliate networks to run campaigns to attract users who will convert to buyers.

It is ruthless in the analysis. An affiliate network not delivering? Drop them. A Google ad not performing? Change it. It’s not about being cool, or having fun. It’s about finding customers and turning them into buyers as cost-effectively as possible.

Note that this has nothing to do with metrics-led design, as practiced by most social game developers. Metrics-led marketing draws users in, but the game might be a free-to-play MMO, a traditional hardcore downloadable title or any game that wants an audience.

Cliff Harris, creator of Gratuitous Space Battles and no fan of free-to-play games, is a strong advocate of this style of marketing. He thinks anyone that makes games for a living ought to be good at this stuff, after all:

it’s just like a real time strategy game, except that the score is real money

3. Permission marketing – it’s all about the customer

Permission marketing focuses on building a long-term relationship with customers. It gives a lot away for free and in return gains permission to talk with fans more, to sell them stuff, and to encourage them to share the good news with their friends.

The godfather of permission based marketing is Seth Godin. He has more books on the subject than I can list, but check out Purple Cow, or just subscribe to his blog.

GAMESbrief follows a permission marketing strategy. I give a lot of content away for free. I encourage readers to sign up for my emails by giving away the first two chapters of How to Publish a Game or the whole of GAMESbrief Unplugged Volume 1 away for free. I encourage users to spend money with me on my books, my masterclasses and my consultancy.

Andrew Smith of Spilt Milk Studios has approached it slightly differently. Using Twitter, guest posts and the wider web, he has created a persona that is approachable, a little outside the mainstream games industry, humble and bracingly honest. That breeds a trusted relationship with fans and journalists who respond well when Andrew calls for people to retweet his offers or share his promotions.

The secret to permission marketing is the sense that you are building a long-term relationship with your customers. Your objective is not only to sell something to them; it is to still be selling things to them – the same, named, known person – in five years time. It is something that traditional AAA marketers don’t understand, and even if they did, it might not work for them, because fans want to be talking to content creators, not content marketers.

So permission-based marketing is almost custom made for indies.

Buzz, data or customers? Which approach should I use?

These three approaches are not mutually exclusive. You can use all of them (although it would be expensive and time-consuming).

Personally, I wouldn’t focus on launch marketing. If you are, you are taking on the AAA publishers at their own game. They have more expertise, more resources and more ability to ride the inevitable failures that will occur in a hit-driven industry like games.

I would focus on building great relationships with end-users (and that means that you need to know who they are. If you can’t contact them when you need to – via email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or whatever, then you have a pretty shallow relationship.)

I would supplement that with targeted, metrics-led campaigns, provided that you track the activity and can determine what is effective and what is just so much cash down the drain.

Most indies I talk to about marketing immediately think about PR (a subset of launch marketing) and advertising (an extremely expensive form of marketing).

Stop it. Think like an indie, and use every tool and skill at your disposal to build great, enduring relationships with your customers.

You won’t regret it.


I talk extensively about marketing in How to Publish a Game. Use code get40%off to get, you guessed it, 40% off the list price.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: