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Indies don't need AAA budgets for effective marketing

Execution Labs community developer Astrid Rosemarin shares tips for how small studios can build buzz without breaking the bank

When it comes to marketing, small studios and giant publishers are not competing on an even playing field. As a community developer with Montreal-based accelerator Execution Labs, Astrid Rosemarin is well aware that the teams she helps get traction are working at a disadvantage.

"An independent developer that releases a PvP fighting game or shooter is still being compared to League of Legends or DOTA or Street Fighter or what have you," Rosemarin told GamesIndustry.biz. "If you're trying to compete in a genre, you're still going up against the AA and AAA studios with a bigger budget. It's pretty much the same with marketing. A consumer only has so much time to look at content on the internet, so at the end of the day, it's all kind of equal in a way."

Rosemarin will be holding a session on "Communities in the Mist, and Other Advanced Guerrilla Marketing Techniques" at next week's Montreal International Game Summit, but she shared a few tips in advance that might help smaller teams make the most of their limited marketing bandwidth and budget. Bigger companies might have more money to throw at marketing, but small studios still have a handful of advantages in the fight for attention.

"[W]e're all relatively small studios, so the narrative around the game development cycle is about the studio itself and the team."

The most basic advantage to being small is that independent developers have the freedom and ability to think outside the box when designing their games, Rosemarin said. As much as that might seem self-evident, the same advantage can extend to the marketing campaigns. Rosemarin said small developers are allowed to consider interesting marketing tactics that might be too unorthodox or not broadly impactful enough for the megapublishers of the world.

For example, Rosemarin said one of the teams from Execution Labs has been working with a psychoanalyst on the game design side because the project involves mental health and they wanted to do the subject justice. Beyond making the game's depiction of mental health that much more realistic and respectful, the psychoanalyst has also agreed to reach out to communities beyond the standard gaming market to get the word out in circles where games simply aren't often relevant.

There's another benefit to being small, and that's the benefit of the doubt if they should ever make a misstep with their fanbase, whether it be (and these examples are ours, not Rosemarin's) the fan furor against BioWare over the Mass Effect 3 ending or blowback to Overkill changing Payday 2's business model.

"The bigger studios just have more resources at their disposal," Rosemarin said. "So when they do something crazy and miscommunicate with their community, I do think it's crazy because they have so much talent on staff and money to throw in their direction to put together a really solid plan and interesting marketing tactics that those of us with smaller budgets just don't have the resources to achieve."

She added, "Luckily for me and the community of developers I work with, we're all relatively small studios, so the narrative around the game development cycle is about the studio itself and the team. And the teams are usually quite small, so they can tell this bigger story throughout development of, 'We're a small team making this game and we're super-passionate. And the reason we're sharing this content online is not just to market the game. It's because we're super excited to be making this game so we're sharing it with you before it's even ready.' It's harder for [a huge studio] to do that because they have all sorts of meetings, rules, and red tape, and a whole marketing department to go through."

One of the key points of focus for Rosemarin is quality of outreach over quantity. She wants to see every developer fostering an online presence, networking within their local game development scenes, and doing what they can to get the word out, but in the earliest stages of the company, it's mostly about building a passionate core from which the fan community can grow.

"I would rather see one of my studios identify five really amazing followers that can really get their teeth into the game and get a feel for it than 100,000 random potential fans that you have no idea who they are."

"I would rather see one of my studios identify five really amazing followers that can really get their teeth into the game and get a feel for it than 100,000 random potential fans that you have no idea who they are," Rosemarin said.

And even though the new wave in game marketing has been focused on YouTube and Twitch streaming, Rosemarin said it's important for small developers not to think about opportunities to get the word out that aren't already overrun by the big players.

"What I encourage with the studios we work with at Execution Labs is not to follow trends, but to identify the best way of reaching your potential audience," Rosemarin said. "So if you have a very beautiful, photo-friendly game where every screenshot looks artistic and different, maybe Pinterest would be a good social network for you to be on... I think the base trend is to do whatever works best for your game rather than focus on gamer communities. Instead of focusing on quote-unquote gamers, focus on interests and large-scale places where you can access people who have similar interests that your game covers."

She also noted that some of the best marketing solutions were never actually intended as such.

"I think Kickstarter is more a community initiative than a fundraising initiative now," Rosemarin said. "Not everyone agrees with me on that, but I think it's not the best place to do fundraising of any sort for video game studios, unless you're super-famous. [The money] is a nice cherry on top, but that money is not enough to make your game."

Rosemarin will give her talk at MIGS 2015 Monday, November 16 at 3 p.m.

Full disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and will be paying for our travel and accommodation during the event.

Latest comments (6)

On Kickstarter, that's exactly how we treated it, and our mayor aim since the getgo. It was the key factor in giving us the necessary credibility and visibility to attract talent, investors, and publishers in top global markets, in addition to 300+ very enthusiastic backers. From our experience, investors and publishers scour successful kickstarter game projects for hidden gems and diamonds in the rough. So I would suggest that indies and small studios do a kickstarter with a $ goal that you know you can achieve (don't aim for $100k or even $50k, think 10-30k, and only if you have enough content, i.e. working prototype, art, etc... to back the ask), and think not to raise a bazillion dollars, but to tell your story in an eloquent and exciting way to people that are looking for just that; if you want to make it and compete, you have to put something together that looks great and professional for very little $$, so focus on your strengths. A good kickstarter is a great calling card, it worked out very well for us in this respect, so I agree with you completely Rosemarin.

Here's ours if you want to see what we did: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/spacerhinogames/breach-td
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Astrid Rosemarin Community Developer, Execution Labs2 years ago
That's a really good point. You'll also learn real fast if your messaging is off: if the way you communicate about the game doesn't make sense/ people can't identify why it's unique. A successful Kickstarter gives you a built in base community from which to grow, among other things.

I'll check out your campaign! I hope everything's going well in development.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development2 years ago
Most indies fail not because they have no decent marketing budget, but because they wouldn't know what to do with it even if they had.

The skill of marketing itself is what people need, and as usual nothing much is being offered by way of help in that regard. That's not so much as ingratitude as it is understanding that good marketing is more about mindset than learned abilities - you either got it or you don't - and it's hard to teach.

So I do a KS campaign. What do I do with mine that means it wouldn't fail like so many others? I mean literally, what do I type, who do I tell? That's what we need help with.
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Dragos-Florin Stanculescu CEO & Co Founder, Holotech StudiosA year ago
FaceRig is an indie software , not an indie game, but still it is crowdfunded, related to entertainment, selling exclusively on a platform meant for games (and built mostly by ex game developers) so most aspects probably still apply.

We've raised a little more than 300 000 USD on Indiegogo two years ago without a traditional marketing budget or any prior brand recognition, even though we're based in an area that was "off the grid" in terms of local connections to the crowdfunding scene, so we must have done something right in regard to Indie-style reaching-out-to-an-audience; here's the campaign link in case you are interested: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/facerig#/ . I fully confirm that things big companies typically don't touch with a 10 foot pole were exactly what have worked best for us in terms of exposure. We've also made plenty of mistakes too along the way.

Many folks involved in the crowdfunding scene have told us that we would have gotten at least three times as much participants and funds on Kickstarter instead of Indiegogo, but alas we are situated in Eastern Europe, and Kickstarter was not a 100% legal option.

Us too went the crowdfunding route for finding a like-minded community just as much as we did for funding. At the time we started the campaign, we already had some options to get the needed money from traditional investors, but we wanted to shape the product with the users for the users with no extra strings attached. Two years later: so far so good, we're still independent, fully launched on Steam ( with the exception of FaceRig Studio which is just around the corner) , our public is at about 200 000 awesome Steam users (which for an Indie Software program on Steam is AMAZING - personal opinion of course, but remember FaceRig is not a game- ) . We're also preparing to branch off from just one channel of distribution, and one platform ( Steam and Windows PC) to more platforms and OS's at the start of 2016 :) . Exciting times :)

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Dragos-Florin Stanculescu on 25th November 2015 1:39pm

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Astrid Rosemarin Community Developer, Execution LabsA year ago
250% agree! Everything you said plus I think a lot of studios (of any size) are scared of thinking outside the box. Make a publicity campaign that is random/ surprising and that would grab attention. There are lots of posts explaining what works/ doesn't work for indies to follow along with but in this saturated market it takes more than just that.

To answer your questions about a hypothetical Kickstarter campaign, those types of problems are literally how I spend my days at Execution Labs. It takes time, work, and people to bounce ideas off of. These things can't be done in a vacuum.
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Astrid Rosemarin Community Developer, Execution LabsA year ago
Congrats! You should (if you haven't already) do a write up about your experiences.

I do think there is a difference between software for game making vs the game itself when it comes to crowdfunding. Even when it comes to commercialization. Unity 3D is used by all sorts of companies, from architecture firms to retail stores to game studios, for example. That being said, marketing is marketing is marketing and we have lots to learn from each other regardless of sector.
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