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To Tweet or not to Tweet: Social media and the indie

Can you afford to turn down the opportunity to connect with consumers for free?

How did you end up here? Many of you will have clicked through from GamesIndustry.biz's front page. For a large chunk of you, however, you'll have found yourself digging into this piece thanks to social media.

Almost every writer in this field has become both accustomed to and, in the best cases, positively embraced the propagation of articles via Twitter, Facebook, Reddit et al. Case in point: I can pretty much guarantee that, minutes after this article goes live, everyone from friends and close family through to distant relations and even my milkman will have seen a link to it pop up in their feed before the day is out. It's both to the benefit of a writer and that of the site it's hosted on that this article get eyeballs.

Developers are in the same boat. As much as social media has become a vital cog in the wheel for the games press, so too is it an increasingly core element for games developers - and the reason why is essentially identical: gamers use social media just as much as anybody else. For the developers whose lives are just as invested in the major social platforms, it's been a boon.

"It basically started as a way to waste time while waiting on level data to build while employed at other people's companies," the man behind indie hit Thomas Was Alone, Mike Bithell, told GamesIndustry.biz quite candidly. "I found out later that I was annoying the hell out of folks I worked with for tweeting so much. But, hey, it seems to have worked out in the long term."

"I found out later that I was annoying the hell out of folks I worked with for tweeting so much. But, hey, it seems to have worked out in the long term"

Mike Bithell

Indeed, task anyone with citing an indie developer in the UK who is known for having a grip on how best to utilise social media and, chances are, Bithell will come somewhere near the top of the list. Though he notes Thomas Was Alone made its debut "before I had much Twitter visibility", he's also acutely aware of the kind of advantages a prominent place on social media afford him. A privilege which, in years gone by, could have been out of his reach.

"I love to be able to speak to my peers and players in a direct way, not relying on third parties - PR or news sites - to filter anything I want to convey to players," he added. "The day I realised a news announcement made direct on Twitter got more eyeballs than some of the mid tier games sites...that was the day I realised the power and opportunity Twitter holds for me."

Despite Bithell's enthusiasm for direct contact with his fans, there are PR agencies that have utilised social media on behalf of developers to great effect. Natalie Griffith founded PR specialist Press Space in May 2013 after stints at other agencies and 12 years at Blitz Games Studios, establishing the firm's PR and marketing department in the process. It's experience she now uses to underline the importance of social media to the studios she works with today.

"For me, social media activity isn't a bolt-on function where a third party can simply push out pre-defined messages," opened Griffith. "It's an organic, reactive process that can only effectively be done by someone heavily involved in the studio and really clear about its strategy and vision, so I only take on social management for another company if I've that level of involvement with them."

Of course, the very fact that Bithell, Griffith and others find it necessary to make the case for social media in games development is because that, without naming names, there are developers aplenty that either use Twitter and other platforms in a perfunctory manner, or simply not at all.

"there's really no excuse these days for simply hooking up your Twitter fed to automatically dump every tweet into Facebook. They're very different beasts"

Natalie Griffith

"The main failing I see is not one of tone but one of understanding the strengths of each different channel," continued Griffith. "I know it can be hard for small teams to fit social media time into the hectic schedules, but there's really no excuse these days for simply hooking up your Twitter fed to automatically dump every tweet into Facebook. They're very different beasts and if you're going to have a Facebook account then use it in a bespoke way."

Fellow PR guru Stu Taylor of Dead Good Media also notes that many indies take a rather cold approach to their use of social media, failing to take advantage of their independence and, instead, tweeting in a very 'corporate' manner. "From an outside perspective, it might be a case of thinking that's how they should do it, because the big corporations tend to be very dry and robotic so as not to upset share holders or end up sparking a social media drubbing," concluded Taylor, noting that even active social media studios sometimes fail to understand how to best measure its impact. "I still remember a developer years ago being obsessed with Facebook 'likes' and judging the success of our PR campaign based on how many more likes they received on their game page every time we put out a press release. The fact that these were two wildly different things and audiences was clearly not of interest to them."

One thing Taylor, Griffith and Bithell all expound is a sense of honesty. There is of course a danger of a developer revealing too much about their personal life - or simply boring their audiences with status updates focusing on what ready meal they're eating for dinner that night - but one studio that has made the most of the ability to be open with the audience afforded by social media is Vlambeer. Indeed, right now the Dutch studio is developing its latest release, Nuclear Throne, under the watchful gaze of its fanbase - via regular livestreams on Twitch.

"I think that a very central theme to Vlambeer is to try and be open and transparent about the realities of game development, In that regard, it was almost inevitable that social media would be central to our studio," Vlambeer's Chief Executive of Business and Development Rami Ismail told GamesIndustry.biz. "In fact, the first time the name 'Vlambeer' was ever used in any official capacity was when we opened our Twitter account. At that point we hadn't even registered a website or a company."

" There's an inherent responsibility to having a podium, and I think making sure that people are aware of the implications of their words is not too much to ask"

Rami Ismail

To Ismail, being open is an advantage and helps build trust with gamers as it "makes you accountable, and that means you don't get to get away quite as easily with delays and nonsense." He continued, "There's an inherent responsibility to having a podium, and I think making sure that people are aware of the implications of their words is not too much to ask of those that benefit from their social media. As an example, I quickly learned not to tweet about how great 'dropping out of school' was, because my tweets are also read by people in countries in which education is literally the only thing that separates kids from a life of homelessness and poverty."

The other 'risk' is that the games press, ever eager for a quick story, can pick up on seemingly innocent tweets and spin them into some sort of declaration. Bithell notes that the fact that his tweets have routinely ended up forming the basis of stories on games sites has made him "more conservative and careful in what positions I make public."

"More than one a buddy has messaged me privately saying 'ah, so that's pissed you off, right?' in response to a more diplomatic public tweet," he continued. "I also have to remember the risks of bringing negativity to the feed, I'm in a position to really do damage to other indies if I publicly argue with them, so I try to take any of that sort of thing away from public spaces."

More serious has been occasions when public spats on Twitter have had a direct impact on a developer's business. In 2013, a now infamous confrontation on the social network between Fez designer Phil Fish and Marcus Beer of GameTrailers not only resulted in the (temporary) departure of Fish from Twitter, but also the cancellation of his latest project. The recent rise of GamerGate - which, amongst other things, alleges an all too cosy relationship between games developers and journalists - also has the power to taint a developer's reputation. It's, perhaps, understandable why many indies simply don't want to get wrapped up in the world of social media. Negative messages can spread just as quickly as positive ones.

"I think there's no faster way to learn about the implications of your words than to have people respond to your statements"

Rami Ismail

"I am very transparent in my working relationships and disclose early and often," added Bithell on the subject. "Integrity is very important to me - no one wants to be seen as a jerk. Also, games journalists sort of rock, they are nerds who like games. I'm not going to apologise for chatting with them in a public space."

"I think there's no faster way to learn about the implications of your words than to have people respond to your statements," added Vlambeer's Ismail in sober fashion. "I guess in that way, social media has been a tremendous source of education to me."

Social media, then, undoubtedly isn't 100 percent win-win - the risks of making a foul up in public that can spread across the internet in quick time are real. Developers who use it fully are always likely to make mistakes - mistakes that, owing to the power of the web, can spread across the world in a matter of minutes. But as Ismail notes, said mistakes can make a developer better at his or her job in the long run. So, if we accept that investing in Twitter and the like is, in the broad scheme of things, to an indie's advantage, how best can they utilise it?

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"The best indie accounts for me are the ones that strike a balance between professional and casual," stated Griffith, "The awesome thing about the indie scene is that people can finally get to see behind the curtain and get to know the personalities and the stories behind the games they love. So sharing that journey with people, the peaks and the troughs, the lessons you've learned, as well as the fun non-work stuff that builds up a picture of who you are, will create something that people will really warm to and want to engage with. Bottom line is, it's about being a genuine and generous person and making sensible judgements about how to engage with people. In the immortal words of Will Wheaton, don't be a dick."

Taylor of Dead Good Media agrees, claiming that effective use of social media "isn't rocket science." He continued, "It does make me smile how people can make a fortune selling social media courses and tuition - fair play to them. I think a lot of it is common sense and just having a basic understanding that the smallest thing can make a big impact, good or bad."

For indies that are reluctant to embrace social media for whatever reason, the suggestion that using it effectively has not only changed the way the games industry works, but helped form entire studios and games that, without it, may not have existed may be one suggestion many find too radical to swallow. Nevertheless, ask Rami Ismail where Vlambeer would be if the studio didn't use social media and you get a succinct reply: "Vlambeer would not exist today."

And his response when questioned as to what he would say to developers unwilling to use social media is equally eloquent. What advice would he give? How would he convince them to take advantage of the opportunity? We'll never know. As Ismail puts, quite simply, without social media he'd "have a hard time reaching them."

Latest comments (15)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Would've been useful for tips about how to grow that media. Everyone starts with zero followers, how do you get more?
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Simon Smith CEO, thumbfood LTD4 years ago
Good article. I've been seeing a lot of good social media work from FuturLab recently around the release of Velocity2x. They have been paying attention to twitter, retweeting things about the game, interacting with followers promptly, and running competitions for free posters etc. This has spread the chatter about the game and I then saw friends talking about it and recommending it, which encouraged me to play (and love) the it. Also, their twitter feed has a personality and is obviously done by someone close to the game who loves it.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Simon Smith on 23rd September 2014 12:42pm

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Simon Smith CEO, thumbfood LTD4 years ago
Social media is something you have to work at, to research and see what things work. Don't be afraid to try new things but also don't post too much or it gets annoying. People don't seem to mind how much stuff you tweet or retweet, but they don't want to see a Facebook post from you more than every couple of days. There's plenty of research into this sort of stuff that you can google easily enough. I'll also echo Natalie's important point that you should tailor your post for each different outlet. Auto-tweeting Facebook posts or vice versa is not cool and looks lazy and like you don't really care about your social media audience.

I used to help operate the social media for APB: Reloaded and we had 750k Facebook followers. I researched online into best practises, made sure the post formatting was optimal, the text wasn't too long, the hashtags were correct etc. One top tip is that people like pictures more than words. If you want to communicate something use a picture with short supporting text and you will get more likes/retweets. Videos are good too but keep them short - this is why Vine's have become popular, people like getting their information quickly.
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Show all comments (15)
Pascal Clarysse Executive Consultant, Scale-Up Consulting Limited4 years ago
@Paul Johnson: hey mate, I think the point of the article is more to answer the dilemma "shall my studio establish presence on Twitter or not?", at the higher level. Would you believe it or not, I still encounter many developers who doubt it! So in that respect, I welcome this piece about the best-in-class examples. This being said, Rami and Bithell are naturals. For some, communication and figuring out new media may not come that easy indeed. The next step after deciding "I'm doing it" is "how do you go about it?" -- you're right about that. And it can be paralyzing not to know.

With the above in mind, if you (or anyone else for that matter) are interested, I have a Social Media Memo on file. For lack of a better place for now, I've uploaded the stuff as is to my Google Drive and made it public -- hope this helps (someone):
https://docs.google.com/document/d/1QVUO96WfldZdYIEqRuirLYVpobP0o3zZ3AG4WXg4lmE/edit?usp=sharing

(disclaimer: I wrote this doc for internal use, so there's no fancy lay-out here. Just dry information, typed in my own words, without much polish or anything)

(open invite: it's of course perfectible. Anyone with good social media experience, tips, advice, feel free to contact me on twitter or google+ about opening you editing privileges or simply to drop me a line that could be added.)


History: I started drafting this for internal purposes in 2012. I was mentoring a junior PR manager at the time (in gaming industry), and since I don't like repeating myself when facing recurring mistakes, I quickly set out to write a list of our own "best practice" (so to speak; it's of course not "objectively" the best). I've worked with many different companies as a marketing consultant in the meantime, and I kept sharing the memo with clients and close connections, while updating it over time, with what I learned from practice and more experiments, from confronting it and discussing it with new people, by monitoring platform changes, and like Simon Smith above, educating myself by reading other people's tips on blogs and whatnot. Apparently, people who have read the guide find it useful so I was thinking of making it public one of those days anyway.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Pascal Clarysse on 23rd September 2014 1:04pm

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@Paul. I think Paul brings up a very important and relevant point. Tweeting itself isnt hard or rocket science, what is hard is getting an audience to know you exist and to become engaged. Plus add to the fact that in this world its all about perception, how one is perceived and little else. Case in point... If you are a small gaming company and you have a tweeting account with only a few dozen followers, you are doing yourself no favors with having this account, you look feeble, unpopular, and would be better off without an account in the first place.

Yes we all have to start somewhere, but as Paul points out, the question is.. how does one quickly grow?
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@Paul; you just got one more ;-)

One way to get more followers is to follow those you think would likely follow you back. Let's see if my theory works on Rubicon Development...
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Igor Galochkin Game Programmer 4 years ago
We've had all those social buttons (F, T, G+, even Vkontakte) for a whole year, with 20k downloads of our games per day. At least a million people must have seen all those social buttons in my games. And so far only 100 Facebook likes. I thought of stopping posting to Facebook at all because even if all those people who liked us would go and download all our games this would make less than 1% of our DAILY downloads. Same goes for a website. It all feels like a wasted marketing effort.
What only works for small guys is ASO. I hope someone gives working tips how to fix this situation but that's so far the experience I had.
Maybe F/t/G+ work well if the user gets some kind of in-game benefits for sharing/liking. But this only works for some game genres, e.g. multiplayer farming simulators.
It also seems to me that social works well with games which are already popular, just as part of already existing success.
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@Igor, 20 k of downloads a day is impressive, perhaps if/when you find time you could share your story of how you came to be able to attract so many downloads a day. Inquiring minds and all that..
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Mike Bithell Design 4 years ago
Hey Paul, Mike here.. the chap above :) (@mikebithell on twitter)

To answer your question, you take part in discussion and chat with players and peers on there for about 5 years.

Growth on twitter is, as you might expect, exponential. It speeds up significantly as your audience grows.. I currently get a 1000 or so followers a month, with very little effort... big news or a game release gives that a bump.

There's no trick to it, beyond being a useful and interesting source of info. My timeline is mostly me talking about the game industry news of the day, talking bollocks, answering questions, promoting cool games by other people, and of course promoting my own stuff.

There's no magic trick, and be wary of anyone who offers one. Twitter is a channel, and you're the content. If you're interesting and provide value to followers, you'll see growth.
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Igor Galochkin Game Programmer 4 years ago
@Toddy Sorry I guess I formulated it wrong :) We used to get 20k free downloads/day across a total of 14 apps on GooglePlay and 14 apps on AppStore, and now, after recent search algo change on AppStore and the start of the school semester it's more like 10k per day. It's educational games for kids (we publish under the dev name "Hedgehog Academy"). It has been moderately successful, at least me and my wife can live on that but we couldn't hire anyone long term for sure with that kind of business. For sure, social stuff didn't work. My wife runs a group in Vkontakte where she used to regularly post professional articles about preschool education (as she is a child psychologist), but in the end she has just 3k members who hardly ever downloaded any of the games (at least I don't see any download spikes even of the free versions of the games when she posts ads in her group). Paid ads in Vkontakte in groups with 1+ million members have been similarly unsuccessful - hardly anyone bothered to go and download anything, instead they like cute photos of babies and cats which they will "like". We didn't figure out how to post paid ads in Facebook, Facebook seems like a total mess to us, and even more Google+. On Twitter we don't post anything at all since we have 5 followers at most.
Nothing we tried for marketing worked except standard optimization of app description and titles, and even there it never worked for English (as it's heavily crowded) but rather for Russian and other less important languages. I struggle to keep up with programming and updating/releasing games as well as coordinating freelance artists/translators, there wouldn't be any time to provide content on Twitter or anywhere (I think that's the common problem for small devs), while hiring someone who could do that professionally would just increase dev costs and create obligations while hardly increasing revenue, at least it feels that way.
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Igor Galochkin Game Programmer 4 years ago
@Todd Btw a good point about looking unpopular. I used to think that "every bit helps" so why not have social accounts if you can (kind of "let's see if it works" thinking). But your point - that having a poor account with a poor number of followers may just be worse than having none - sounds interesting. On the other hand, if you already have such an account and have posted there for some time it would be awkward if you just decides not to post anything anymore (since it's a waste of time) because the people who follow you may wonder why your account is dead while you still make games. Meaning that one will have to keep posting at least some basic things like "hey, we've released a new game!" Same with the website: no one will visit it but you'd have to make landing pages for your games anyway. One thing I heard about business is that one should stop doing stuff with doesn't increase profit but in this case with this social garbage it's a "lock-in" situation: once you've started it, you may have to spend at least some time on it from now on.
And, say, you removed your social accounts - but there still will be people with older versions of your games where there are still those social buttons which now lead nowhere..
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
@Kim: Thanks Kim. I thought I was already following you, trying to avoid launchin my next game at the same time as yours like last time! :)

@Igor: That matches our experiments with social too. You need so many people to notice the effect of having many people, that you already have enough people.

@Pascal: Thanks for the article, very handy!
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David Canela Game & Audio Designer 4 years ago
Thank you for sharing, Pascal!
Personally, I'm in that akward zone where I have only few followers. However, even so I've already had complete strangers follow me or favorite my tweets and now I have a channel to reach those people, something I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. So I'm not sure if I agree with the concern of looking feeble, it seems preferable to me to not being seen at all, after all. Or am I missing something?
oh, I'm @CinnoManGames , by the way ;)
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Simon Smith CEO, thumbfood LTD4 years ago
One good tip to kickstart twitter is to just follow other people - many of them will follow you back and you will appear in their friend's recommendations. Try to follow relevant people though, not just anyone.

I'm @vauncey by the way :-)

Another idea - wouldn't it be great if gi.biz displayed people's twitter handles with a clickable link next to their profiles in comments. This would be a great way to link up.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Simon Smith on 24th September 2014 11:52am

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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup Studios4 years ago
Twitter is like a massive global networking event. It's a place where you can not just listen in on other devs and journalists, but approach people you've never met and chip in to their conversations. As long as you're polite and friendly rather than begging for favours you will slowly accrue followers, but as Mike says you have to supply interesting content. Or at least be funny!

I've got to know several other devs via Twitter and met up at shows or socials - and I've witnessed many conversations about solving technical issues, filling job vacancies or arranging speaking engagements on Twitter. Give a little, and you should get back.
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