What NOT to do when marketing your indie game

You're told over and over what you should do - but what should you avoid doing when trying to sell your game to players?
29/6/2022

Game marketing is one of the hardest things you’ll do as an indie developer. Depending on your scope and budget, landing a successful publisher relationship may be more difficult, but marketing will suck your time, energy, and potentially a lot of money with little more ambiguity in return than anything else. Like most indie creators, I love the actual making of my game, and I feel largely in control of the end result. I know quality and fun when I see it, and I’m well aware of my title’s shortcomings. By investing time you can almost always fix these things, but marketing is a black box that has few effective tools to track progress. Without enough data points, any metrics are questionable. If a great game has no audience, is it still a great game?

So! Do we give up? Of course not. We are making these games because we want to share them with people and give others some of the same joy we find in making them. So we keep trying, as I have, doing marketing at the same time as building my games for the last four years. I have tried many different channels and techniques, and I haven’t hit on a winning formula yet, but I can at least tell you what hasn’t worked for me, and in doing so maybe it will save you a little time and effort.

Knowing your audience: what is your demographic?

When you first decide to make a game, one of the things you should ask yourself is: who is this game for? This is your demographic, and whatever group of people you’re focusing on, you need to find out where your demographic hangs out. A bus station billboard in rural Sweden is no use to a game made for inner city youths (and vice versa!). In my case, we are trying to build games for the discerning premium indie connoisseur who enjoys original gameplay and high quality, creative music. We sell our games with rare user experiences, and a lot of functionality for a single price, up front. We want you to sit down on your sofa and enjoy this game while you focus on it, though occasionally you may be mastering your skills on a long train or plane ride. Based on spending habits, experience, and affluence, we are after that lucrative 22-34 year old with disposable income. Probably male, most likely single, and living in North America.

From this we find that the channels where our the bulk of our demographic hangs out is most likely Twitch, Reddit, or Steam itself. However, this is no secret - so these channels are crowded both with ads and content creators. From our previous Twitch reference, we can see that lots of people watch streamers playing games on Twitch and to a lesser extent, YouTube and Facebook. But just because someone with a following playing your game has views it doesn’t mean you see conversions.

A flurry of streams near our release on Steam created a higher number of engagements on Twitter. But how much of this led to the sales we had in the same period? Unknown.

In 2020 we worked with six streamers in both the Japanese and North American markets to promote our game Hexagroove. The majority of our sales come from Nintendo Switch, and with the storefront being so many steps away from a web browser it’s almost impossible to know the source of those purchases, but looking at sales within a seven day period of all these streams, little increase in revenue was observed. We also offered promotional copies to the streamers’ followers as rewards to incentivize the audience, but that did not result in any change. We weren’t working with the biggest streamers on Twitch, but nonetheless there were hundreds of concurrent viewers in each of these streams. My theory (though I have no data to back it up), is that the allure of watching people play games is the individual’s personality or charisma, and has little to do with viewers actually looking for games themselves to play (and even if they are, remembering to buy the game later after the stream). So I’m dubious whenever someone tells me influencers will convert. Pressuring marketing and influence management agencies for data to back this up is usually brushed under the carpet and the conversation topic changed.

Trying to grow a social media following

I’ve been told by various other marketing gurus that building a social media following and more-so ads are the key to growing your user base, but as we’ll see, I have yet to see that be the case.

Twitter

A fair number of impressions for a single tweet. But did it drive any conversions?

Personally I’m a fan of Twitter because from my perspective it is the closest to a “pure” relationship you can have with your fanbase. Yes, it has far fewer users than Facebook and Instagram, but the algorithms are a bit more straightforward and it’s not quite as commercialised as Meta’s offerings. Consistently what I hear is that the advantage an indie dev has over the larger companies is authenticity and approachability. Yes, we are a four-person studio and when we post about us playing Mario Kart at the office or having a small company picnic, these things are not staged. We are just a handful of dreamers working on a shoestring trying to bring something fun, beautiful, and honest into the world and pay the rent while doing it.

So I’ve put most of our time into Twitter campaigns trying to increase our reach. I’ve tried paid ads (easy to track clicks), constant posting of varied content over a several month period, and using hashtags, none of which created any appreciable gain. We do have a very small, passionate group of superfans that help with retweeting our content from time to time, but our growth has gone up in spurts at only a few points, and most of that was artificial.

We have partnered with platform influencers, podcasters, and other indie-related personalities on Twitter with a larger follower base than us. This is usually with people who have a 10x to 30x greater follower count. Most of these are giveaways with the condition of a retweet and a follow to enter the raffle. At first, the follower growth was considerable, but after every giveaway we lose about 10-20% of those new followers as it was obvious they were only there for the freebies. And in doing this same kind of contest in successive quarters, we’ve attracted fewer new followers each time (even alternating the product and the promoter), which seems to indicate there is a fixed group of people on Twitter just to enter contests and win things, and we have a progressively greater percentage of that group all the time (diminishing returns).

Finally, there is a community that believes participating in indie game related hashtag events will grow your follower base, but we have not seen that to be the case either. #followfriday #screenshotsaturday #trailertuesday and the like are more populated by devs themselves than consumer. Let’s be honest, we devs spend most of our time making the games, not buying other peoples’. So in this again we find ourselves not reaching our demographic. You occasionally find someone who has a viral or highly successful post with a large number of interactions on their new hot gif, but I’ve observed the interaction there is proportional to the content. RPG homage, sprite based art, cute girls and anime style content, these sorts of things draw considerably more engagement when you look at the trends.

Facebook and Instagram

We have tried paid ads and hashtags on Facebook and Instagram but seen absolutely zero growth on both of these. This goes back to my belief about where the audience hangs out. If you are making a free to play or mobile game, these may be much more worthwhile channels to exploit. But even using Facebook's targeted ads to reach our demographic, the number of followers we have on these platforms remain to be only my personal acquaintances +/- 10 people.

Reddit

But what about Reddit itself? If the demographic is there, why not focus on reaching the customer? Reddit is a walled garden that takes a long time to gain any traction on (karma), and like most brute force marketing, requires a constant interaction of genuine, supportive feedback for others to rise above a level that most accounts will ignore or downvote you on. Unfortunately this is a time (and creativity) investment I just can’t handle with the other 5000 things I need to do running my studio, making the game, and feeding my family.

We tried the “shortcut” some other indie marketers swear by and running paid ads, with adjusted strategies over several years, but have yet to find any combination (video, static image, text, alternate subreddits) that produced any kind of return.

So, in summary...

Knowing where your audience hangs out is the first step, and there is somewhat certainty in that data, but beyond that point, you are quite often stabbing in the dark. If you are like me and working on the “old school” idea of a polished, original game, sold for a single price with the promise of not being badgered in the future, you have some ideas of where to start (or in most cases, not). I’m still a believer that one day we’ll strike gold and raise above the noise of tens of thousands of other developers and find our sustainable niche. Until then, I’ll keep making games I love, and keep trying to tell you how awesome they are. Good luck!

Do you need help bringing your video game to the world? Media Foundry is here to help - get in touch and see what we can offer you.

David Guiseppe Ventura
David is co-founder and Creative Director of Ichigoichie, a media production house and games studio located in Stockholm. His work has led him developing indie titles second and third party titles in Japan and Sweden. He is currently at work on his next title, the strategic puzzler Backbeat.

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