Indies: Market early and often or "sink into obscurity"

Antichamber dev Alexander Bruce says exposure "is becoming more and more the dominant problem" for indies to solve.

There are a few different ways to look at the explosive growth in the independent gaming scene. But where one indie developer may look at the influx of talent and attention to the market as a rising tide that will lift all ships, another may see new challenges that must be overcome.

Antichamber creator Alexander Bruce is preparing to give a featured presentation this Sunday at the Gamercamp Festival in Toronto, in which he will discuss the factors that combined to make his game a breakthrough success. Speaking with GamesIndustry International, Bruce stressed the increasingly difficult task independent developers are facing in simply getting attention for their work, saying exposure "is becoming more and more the dominant problem that people are having to solve."


Antichamber had a distinctive look without breaking the budget.

Just a few years ago, developers didn't need to worry so much about their relationship with the end users. It was enough for them to have good agreements with publishers or distributors, because those were the people handling the players in most cases. These days, it's all about getting the attention of the end users instead of just a platform holder, Bruce said. Even being featured in a coveted place like the Steam Daily Deals doesn't mean as much as it used to. It's helpful, but Bruce said it only serves as a multiplier on the awareness developers had already generated for their games. And one problem a lot of developers don't seem to get just yet is that any number multiplied by zero still equals zero.

"There are people who are very good at playing to this system," Bruce said, "and if you don't do the same work to compete with them, you're going to sink into obscurity and not be known...You're the one who has to prove to other people why they should care about your game."

Bruce said marketing was a skill, just like programming or designing games, and one that developers should start honing much earlier in the process than they currently do.

"Even though I've got 250,000 sales in six months, to get that, the game needed to be seen by tens of millions of people."

Alexander Bruce

"Think about the first time you programmed a game," Bruce said. "Chances are, the first thing you programmed was not very good. If you leave your marketing effort until the very end, you're going to release your marketing materials and chances are they're not going to be very good."

Bruce pointed to Super Meat Boy and Fez as two games that benefitted from that approach. The developers began talking about those games well in advance of launch, and that gave them time to grow awareness, shape their messages, and figure out how best to garner the attention they needed to succeed. Bruce said Antichamber was the same way; it took him nearly a year and a half of trying to get attention for the title before the buzz finally started to snowball.

That protracted awareness campaign is crucial, Bruce explained, as people rarely make a purchase decision about a game the first time they hear about it. It's typically only by seeing a game come up on their favorite websites or Twitter feeds repeatedly that people finally make the effort to find out more about the title and consider buying it.

"When you look at things like Steam Greenlight and people complaining about needing 80,000 votes to even get onto Steam, it's like, getting 80,000 people to click a button that says yes first of all means you need to have an exponentially larger number of people get to your page in the first place," Bruce said. "And clicking yes takes a whole lot less energy and thought than the next step, which is actually taking out a wallet and paying for things. So even though I've got 250,000 sales in six months, to get that, the game needed to be seen by tens of millions of people. And that's something people don't really understand or take seriously, that such a small percentage of people who saw or heard about the game wound up buying it at the end of the day."

"If you happen to have a couple hundred dollars, I'd say that's your biggest problem. It's not that you need to run a Kickstarter; it's that you need to get more capital under your belt to begin with."

Alexander Bruce

Another thing Bruce said is frequently lost on independent developers is that they don't have to break the bank to stand out. Despite the array of funding options available--from Kickstarter to government grants to publishers--Bruce said it's preferable to avoid taking any of them, calling himself "a very strong advocate of working within your resources."

"If you happen to have a couple hundred dollars, I'd say that's your biggest problem," Bruce said. "It's not that you need to run a Kickstarter; it's that you need to get more capital under your belt to begin with... If you're saying we need $10,000 in order to be able to make this game, I would be asking why you're making this game that needs money you don't have initially."

That focus on working within one's resources extends to ability as well as finances. Bruce said he used to get asked what he would make if he'd been given $1 million.

"My answer was always, 'Probably make something terrible,'" Bruce said. "Because all of the best decisions that were made in Antichamber were made because I didn't have resources."


Antichamber spells out the desired reaction to one of its puzzles.

Bruce didn't have money to hire more people, and he didn't have the skill set to accomplish whatever he could think of, so he was forced to make do with what he had at hand. He arrived at the game's stark and stylistic art style after looking at the other games in Epic's Make Something Unreal contest, and knew he couldn't compete with what some of the bigger teams were putting out.

"My answer wasn't, 'Well I need to get the resources and hire a team and get the skills,'" Bruce said. "My answer was acknowledging that I couldn't compete with it, and so not competing with that, and then doing something completely different and out of left field, but still very good in and of itself."

The end result, Bruce said, is that Antichamber's art style "looks like it was made by someone who thought very deeply about what they were doing along a very different axis than the resources problem" when in fact, it was thinking exactly along that axis that inspired it. And despite the unconventional look of the game, Bruce reasoned it was ultimately more conservative than the alternative.

"That was always less risky to me because when you do things different but do them well, that's automatically something that people are interested in talking about," Bruce said. "But it's also less risky because I didn't have to invest $50,000 in trying to make good art to compete with what else is available and ultimately end up with a poor man's Call of Duty. It cost me nothing to make my art style."

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Latest comments (13)

So much sense, very much the approach we take at Fireproof. Where you can afford not to, don't bother competing.
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Tim Tryzbiak Founder, ootii8 years ago
From the marketing point of view, this is especially true in mobile. Having created a Facebook game and now an Android game, the biggest issue is simply exposure and trying to get visibility. Unfortunately, this is only going to get worse. I've come to respect marketing in a whole new way.
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Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 8 years ago
Yeup, I tried the mobile market with a free game this year, but I promised myself to stay away from it after seeing how bad the visibility is and how hard is to acquire players.
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Show all comments (13)
a friend of mine had a great story from this past summer that seems appropriate for this thread.

It was a hot day in July outside of Philly, my buddy was walking back from getting a quick bite to eat, he noticed the kids across the street had a old fashion lemonaid stand going. Being a sucker for americana, my buddy stopped at the stand, bought a lemonade from the kids for 50 cents and asked the kids how much they made today, they said a little over 26 dollars, he thought to himself, well good for them.
My friend then worked his way back to his little home office to check on his work. He recently had released his third game for android, he decided to check in on todays stats, it then dawned on him... my god the kids across the street selling freakin lemonaid were on pace to make more money today selling their lemoncrap then my friend was going to make selling his game, which was only 3 weeks old!!!

Yeah... so there you have it ... a slice of life of the indie.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 30th October 2013 9:25pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
To make the analogy work Todd, you have to take that lemonade stand and clone it for as many times as it takes to fill the street and then take all that add stick it all up vertically 1,000 times more. And then tomorrow, swap the whole thing for ginger beer.

We have six games on mobile. Three big ones that took a lot of people a long time to develop, and three quickie "lets try this" projects. Those first three still bring in some money, the last three made nothing from day one.

There's no point pissing about "trying stuff out" on mobile. Go large or go home. Once you've gone large, /then/ the visibility problems are now a concern.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 30th October 2013 9:58pm

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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 8 years ago
Great article.
With the current glut of games the marketing has become more important than the development. Marketing is the easiest way to gain strategic advantage by differentiation.
The key is in creating stories that have resonance with the potential audience then communicating those stories efficiently.
People are tempted to throw resources into Facebook, websites, advertising etc without first creating a compelling message.
And mainstream PR is the very best way to build a brand and promote a game. But it takes craft to do well.
(Obviously cross promotion from other titles in your stable is a given.)
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany8 years ago
Best article I've read this week. The industry right now is quite turbulent in general and it's hard to make a stand in the middle of all those indies studios (not only talking about the big ones here) that already have a reputation and "a name".
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Kristian Fosh Director, DreamFever8 years ago
LIkewise, totally agree, feel I spend as much time promoting my game as I do making it!
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Keldon Alleyne Strategic Keyboard Basher, Avasopht Development8 years ago
@Paul: that is an interesting statement. Do you have any idea or thoughts about what the development threshold is in man months?

And what are your thoughts of taking the Google approach of release early and iterate often?
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
I don't think it's that simple. The point I was badly trying to make is that small games just don't sell unless you have the marketing stones of someone like Our match-3 game is better than theirs (imo naturally) but we make about 0.0001% of their income and the only difference is down to marketing. Indies just can't compete on that level.

But with a bigger, "proper" game you can get your early adopters talking about it and start from there. It's still far from easy, but there's at least a chance, whereas with games that are not chatworthy you have literally none at all.
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Neow Shau Jin Studying Bachelor in Computer Science, Universiti Sains Malaysia8 years ago
an easy way for small developers to market their games these days is to attach a console exclusivity, preferably Sony or Nintendo instead of Microsoft, they will make sure you have a few minutes on their E3 presentation, offer advice in making trailers, set up a booth for you in every major gameshows, ensure that you got gaming journalist's attention, and make sure that their social marketing platform like facebook and youtube and blog talks about it as much as possible.

Provided your game presents a genuinely interesting thing. and not a "me too" rip off.
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To make the analogy work Todd
wasnt really an analogy ( but Paul you did make a good one though), it was a real life experience of a friend who one day this summer, came to the realization that he may well not be able to be an indie as a full time job. It sort of hit him over the head when he realized that the litttle kids across the street selling lemonaid were pulling in more profit then he was.

Selling lemonaid as a kid business model> current indie business model in many cases. As in people are able to discover and willing to pay 50 cents for lemonaid, easier and more willingly then they are software

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 31st October 2013 9:03pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development8 years ago
I get that Todd. What I was pointing out is that the part your friend (and most every small mobile devs) was missing from his business was this single line conversation:

"Here Joe, there's a kid down the road selling lemondade old school style. Go buy some and make her day".

When a new lemonade stand opens next to it every 57 seconds 24/7, that little girly aint getting anything either. Unless she gets more word of mouth than the other guys.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 31st October 2013 9:17pm

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