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How to Succeed as an Independent Game Developer Using Social Media

Posted by Jason on June 24, 2017 at 11:30 AM

Daunting though it may seem, marketing your independent game is no different from promoting any other product. In the Dark Ages of the internet, you may have required a middle man just to get your game situated somewhere online, and even then there was no guarantee that it would find an audience, that it would attract attention or make you money. Happily, with the advent of mobile gaming, and with various social media outlets amping up the word of mouth factor, it is now possible to ensure that your game receives the attention it deserves, and even to take home a bit of coin for yourself.

First thing's first: make absolutely sure that sure your game is something that you're proud of. If there are bugs or glitches, revise it. If it's not something that excites you or if you wouldn't recommend it to a hardcore gamer friend, redesign it. If the concept or gameplay feel stale, reexamine your approach. If you haven't even started your game yet, do not despair: look around for inspiration. Think about the games you're addicted to, the ones you can't get enough of, the ones that make you feel like a kid again. These are the games you'll want to emulate, but emulate them with a twist that will set your game apart.

Independent gaming has a surprisingly long and rich history. Consider 2008, when games like World of Goo and Braid took the internet by storm. These games weren't the most complex or the most flashy, but it was evident from their gameplay that the designers were passionate about their work. When the iPhone App store opened up for business later that year, it marked the dawn of a new era of increasingly independent, free-spirited, and competitive game design.

Unfortunately, because the business model of the day was underdeveloped, great programmers and lousy ones alike wound up getting stiffed on payments. New developers offering high-quality products got washed out by the sea of inferior developers cranking out subpar products, and the consumer was at a complete loss as to how to separate the glitter from the dross. Marketing was still a foreign concept for developers during that Wild West era of gaming expansion, and it remains so for a surprising number of would-be designers to this day.

Whether you've finished your game or not, it is important that your game has a footprint before it is finally released. Think of it like a party. If you let everyone know about the party just as you open the front door for the evening, nobody will show up. People like advanced notice; people have lives, and schedules, and other games they would like to play. If you have a game in the works, potential players will appreciate advance notice -- as well as the buildup and the suspense that come with it -- and will approach your game with eagerness, expectations, and open minds. If you wait until after you've released your game to start bombarding people with promos, there is the risk that they will mistake it for a relic from a bygone era. With so many gaming options, gamers are reluctant to drop money on an unknown entity, especially if the game itself is perceived as outdated.

Ideally, you'll want to start marketing your game the instant you have put together a demonstration of how your in-game world will look. If you can program a sequence that captures the essence of your game, this is sufficient to share your game with the gaming world. Don't panic if you are nowhere near to being finished. The important thing is that you have laid the groundwork for later marketing. Future promotions can build upon this first glimpse and, even if the final game winds up turning out completely different from the preview, you can only gain attention by sharing it with the world. By keeping everything on lockdown, your official release might land with a thud.

What fits the bill for a first promo? It can be a Photoshop screenshot of the in-game environment, a fully fleshed-out level of gameplay, or a brief demonstration to give the user the feel of the physics of the world you've so courteously created for them.

Don't stop there: as you continue to plug along and expand upon the demo, update your audience with new levels; expose them to new quirks and augmentations of gameplay as the stages progress.

Of course, it isn't enough just to start spewing data all over the internet. You'll need an organizational core, a home base where people can go to check up with you. If your game attracts interest, you'll want people to easily be able to bookmark your page, to keep checking in, to be able to ask the designer questions about this game they're looking forward to playing.

To that end, you will definitely need a website. This does not necessarily entail a personalized domain name, though that would certainly be ideal. Update your website on the regular so that potential users do not mistake it for a fossil.

Attached to the website, you should consider keeping a development blog. This lets potential users keep up with the progress you're making. They experience the thrill of watching a developer in action, get to see you work out the kinks as you bring the game closer and closer to completion. Use a casual tone on this page: you are engaged in a conversation with your audience; a developer is no more mortal than he or she is during the development process. You'll want to post with regularity, but not so often that the audience begins to worry that you are not working on your game at all.

You'll have to forge yourself a social media presence. Get on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram -- whichever networks you are comfortable with. It might seem obnoxious, but people respond to this sort of promotion. If they know you personally, they might view this as doing a favor for a friend; if they know you secondhand, they might get curious and plunge right into the world offered by your game. Social media is scary powerful and it's impossible to overstate its utility in the world of game promotion.

Cut a short trailer for your game. Do not let it exceed one or two minutes in length: this is not the next Star Wars prequel. Expose your audience to enough of the game to where they think, "Gee, that looks fun." By the end of the clip, they should be left wanting more. A trailer can be shared easily and expediently via social media, and if you create enough buzz with the trailer, you'll have a captive audience on the day of release. Feel free to splice together multiple trailers. More trailers equal more buzz.

Let's zoom in a bit on social media. Generally speaking, Twitter is the platform that is most conducive to effective game marketing. With Twitter, you have the ability to connect directly with media outlets and developers. Though you don't want to go around begging these people for attention, if you see a trending topic of a subject of conversation that your game might fit into, feel free to make a casual aside to the game you've designed. Sometimes this works; often it does not. In either event, it doesn't hurt to try.

Be mindful of the time of day: Twitter, like everything else, has a rush hour. In fact, Twitter has a lot of rush hours. In general, Twitter is at peak usage from 11 AM until 11 PM in the Eastern Standard Time Zone. So as to avoid having your posts buried, be sure to post one promo in the morning and one in the evening to cover your bases. This is one further reason why it is so important to develop at least two trailers -- this way you can avoid spamming your audience with the same link over and over again.

Resist chasing after every Twitter gaming contact you can find. Confine your list of followers to those whom you genuinely admire and respect. By emulating the masters of the art form, you, too, will take on that form, grasshopper. By putting yourself in league with half-baked developers, you might fall in with the wrong crowd and find yourself pummeled with bad advice. Quality over quantity. Your audience doesn't care how popular you are; they care how fun your game is.

If Twitter isn't your thing, you may want to try a smaller niche. IndieGaming on Reddit is a captive audience: subscribers are either developers themselves, or are people who are eager and willing to test out unfinished or recently finished games.

Be sure to connect your website to your social media accounts. Your media blitz should be an all-out, coordinated assault that fits together into an integrated whole.

Thus far, we've been grappling with means of online promotion. It is, of course, possible and indeed desirable to promote your game in the real (i.e., outside) world. Attend conventions like IndieCade, Indie Mega Booth, and PAX. While these gatherings do charge a price for admission, the chance for face-to-face connections with potential collaborators or customers is well worth the fee.

Burn CDs, print flyers -- make this a full-on multimedia assault. The more potential customers have to remember you by, the more likely it is that they will check up on and eventually purchase your game.

By venturing out into the gaming community, potential customers and collaborators will come to know you as a personality. This will render your project all the more vivid in their memory, and increases the chances that they'll be clamoring in line (online!) on your release date.

Crowdsourcing is a two-pronged sword that can be extremely advantageous for an aspiring developer. For one thing, it serves the obvious purpose of procuring funds for development. For another, it is an excellent way to promote your game and build up that pre-launch hype. It puts you in touch with other programmers and developers with whom you can collaborate on joint projects in the future.

Depending on how high your aspirations go, it may be wise to notify a press outlet or two. Indie games are increasingly en vogue, even with mass market publications, and if you're willing to take a shot in the dark, it's possible that an indie zine might write a feature on your game. Act casual. No pressure. Don't panic. Talk to whoever you get on the line as though you're talking to a fellow gamer, because that is precisely who he or she is. Don't treat the release of your new game as the Second Coming: let the game speak for itself. You will know plenty of rejection by going this route, but don't let it get you down. Just one sip of success from print media will give your game a vast audience that all the online promotion in the world might not be able to match.

It's hard to tell whether we've arrived at the Golden Age of Online Gaming, but the options we're presented with certainly do make it feel like it. As your game nears its release date, consider Alphafunding as a means to let your fans explore and test out your game. Steam Greenlight commands an expansive audience of experienced gamers, and is a great way of connecting with people who are as passionate about gaming as you are.

Let's take a step back, here. All of the above has concerned the marketing of your game. Marketing and publicity are no doubt exceptionally important if you wish to see your game thrive, and if you expect to receive any remuneration for your efforts. That said, it is crucial that you do not lose sight of the forest for the tree. Make sure that your game works; make sure that it is true to itself; make sure that it satisfies the vision that you set out with. Do not release your game if it is not ready to be released, and do not gloss over bugs or glitches, even if you consider them minor. Whether you expect to make money from your game or not, it is still a work of art, and no work of art should be exposed unfinished to its audience -- not unless, like, you plan on dying midway through.

Also keep in mind that you are working in a crowded field, and that that field is only growing and expanding. Independent gaming is a competitive arena, and there is no guarantee (even if you follow the steps I've outlined above) that you will encounter any sort of success at all. You may attract a few downloads and get paid nothing for them. Your game might turn out to be a sleeper hit, but the profits won't outweigh the development costs. Your game may even become a local sensation and spread, for a brief time, through word-of-mouth in such a way that it earns you a whopping one-hundred dollars. But for every semi-success story, there is its opposite: you may wind up impressing nobody other than your mom, and she's impressed by everything you do. Circumstance is beyond your control; in the end, your game and the demand for games will do battle and it is impossible to tell what will come out of it.

In the meantime, approach the programming process with joy and vigor, make the most out of your game, and take heed of the instructions I've outlined above. All is chance when it comes to marketing, but through careful attention to the dynamics at play, you can sculpt and mold that chance to your advantage.

Categories: Gaming and other topics, Promotions

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