Don't Feel Bad About Promoting
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If this hasn't already been detailed, I'll "spill the tea" now - indie game dev is only sustainable if you learn how to market. If indie game dev is only a hobby for you, that's completely fine! If you're like me though and want to create games that can support you financially, then marketing has to be pursued in some capacity.
At this point, you likely feel this is quite blunt, and I completely agree. While I don't disagree with the advice of marketing games well, I think the mindset around it hasn't been discussed as positively. When I picture "marketing," my mind immediately jumps to spammy ads, annoying sales people, and fake content that feels disconnected from the consumer. This level of marketing is generally frowned upon, and rightfully so! Marketing is an essential part of the indie game dev dream though, so we all find ourselves at a crossroads for how to promote our games without coming across as pushy or desperate.
How To Market Well
Here are just a few of the tips I've experimented with in promoting games through positive means:
- The 90/10 Split
- Foster Your Love For Games
- Be Genuine
- Respect Each Community You Target
Let's dig into these more deeply now!
The 90/10 Split
This idea recognizes that your growth with the community you build is not simply a transactional relationship, but one that brings people together and helps one another. With the 90/10 split, you set up this mindset that 90% of what you communicate with people is helpful or inspirational content, and the other 10% is actually marketing your game. This approach greatly helps ease concerns for constant marketing that can otherwise annoy people. Here are just a few examples:
Write a blog like you're reading now! You can offer your tips and tricks in navigating the indie game dev journey. You don't need to be the most experienced developer out there (I'm surely not) - offering your own perspectives can help other indie game devs set themselves up for success. You could discuss your strengths, weaknesses, recommendations, overcoming roadblocks, detail technical aspects, and many other topics.
Start up a Youtube channel! Perhaps you love organizing tutorials, creating clips on technical tricks with your given game engine, posting devlogs that showcase the day-to-day game dev duties, playing games, etc…
Set up a Discord server or other similar platform to connect with people! Find communities that align with your game dev goals, and build relationships with people that you find interesting.
These are just a few examples, but the general aim is to find ways to "give back" to the people who will support your game in the future. It makes your content more valued, and builds a brand behind your game that people appreciate rather than ignore. The 90/10 split doesn't need to be exact or measured in some way - just be conscious of how often you talk about your game versus actually connecting with people.
Foster Your Love For Games
Money is great, but I doubt that's the only reason you got into indie game dev. You create games because you love playing games, and that's such a beautiful thing! In that case, we all want to make games that we know others will enjoy. That may be through the emotional stories told, the engaging gameplay mechanics that excite players, or even the atmosphere that transports people to a whole other world.
Use this energy as part of the promotion behind your games - don't feel bad about marketing your game, when one of your goals is to entertain people.
If you want your games to bring joy, then marketing is needed in order to reach those people. The messaging behind your game can either be direct on this point, such as wholesome games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing, or it could be more subtle. In either case, promote because you believe that your game will entertain players, and that is what inspires you to continue developing.
This runs parallel with community building for your target audience. Players will be excited about the updates and news surrounding your game once they become invested in the idea. It's not a direct step from "here's an ad" to "buy my game," but instead a growing attachment to the game as they hear more about it.
Invite players to check out your game as you know they're the perfect audience for it. From there, scale it to the point where you no longer feel you are advertising, and are now communicating the different ways in which people will fall in love with your game.
Saying "be genuine" may feel obvious, but it's worth repeating! You'll likely feel bad about promoting your game when you communicate in a way that distances yourself from the target audience. This may be personal, but there's a certain lost appeal to AAA games from big-name studios, because everything is done meticulously at the user-facing level. Every statement made seems to be solely saying "buy this game/DLC" and fails to understand the customer beyond their wallet.
One example I feel that breaks this mold well is the team behind Minecraft. For those invested in the community surrounding it, I think you'll agree that Mojang Studios does an excellent job at feeling connected with their audience. Their blog posts are full of puns, their devs are actively discussing design approaches on Twitter, and their events always pivot around the idea of "community." Even with such a large fanbase, they are able to achieve this tight-knit, closer feeling with their fans that feels genuine. They aren't afraid to joke about mistakes (looking at you Phantoms!), and are open to feedback where applicable - I swear this isn't sponsored in any way, and I'm simply just speaking from what I've observed, but I think this captures the point appropriately.
As indie game devs, we are in a special spot where we are able to be genuine and open with the communities we build without severe risk. In this, it's worth making the promotions of your game more personal, detailing the processes behind your game and the honest work it takes to create the ideal product for players. Of course, this comes with the declaimer that your communications should still be professional and thought out in advance (unless the game dictates otherwise).
Find ways to connect your game to you as the developer and the audience you are seeking. Be truthful in that you are aiming to make a successful game as an indie dev that you want people to support, and you'll find that most people will admire that passion.
Respect Each Community You Target
Your future players will likely not all be gathered in one spot, waiting for you to announce your game on a single platform. In order to reach the most people, you'll want to target as many platforms as possible. With this comes the caveat that not every platform can be marketed the same way. Coming up with a single gameplay gif and spamming that across every social network will not have the intended result. Platforms are designed for different modes of communication, and each one has unspoken rules for how to interact effectively.
The best course of action before promoting your game on any platform is to examine similar posts, and become familiar with the type, style, and formality behind each user's entry. The goal isn't to copy exactly how other users communicate, but to understand how to get the most positive reception to your post that users can easily identify with.
One tip I highly recommend (and this is geared more towards forum-based platforms) is to reach out to the moderators of each community. In a short and sweet message, communicate what you're aiming to post and ensure it appropriately fits within the community. This not only gives advanced information to make sure your posts are accepted, you can get a better impression of the forum by how the moderators respond.
Overall, it's completely understandable if you are hesitant about promoting your games as you don't want to "annoy" the people you reach. The best approach is to change both how you view marketing and how you implement it in a way that doesn't come across as spammed, disconnected advertising. Mix your promotion by connecting with others and supporting the game dev community, recognize that you're sharing your game with the goal of providing entertainment, and market your games in a genuine, respectful way. There's no single correct solution as each game is unique, but hopefully these tips can help steer you in the right direction - I wish you all the best of luck!