Last week, leading indie publishers gathered to discuss the state of the market for independent developers during the inaugural Devcom conference in Cologne.
Much of the conversation was dominated by how they approached marketing a game they had signed, and their advice applies just as well to developers going it alone as to those seeking the support of a publisher.
The panel was moderated by Versus Evil general manager Steve Escalante and included Raw Fury founder Jonas Antonsson, Headup Games MD Dieter Schoeller, and Vernon Vrolijk, marketing manager at Good Shepherd (formerly known as Gambitious).
GamesIndustry.biz has distilled some of the advice below:
Plan ahead, and prepare for a lot of hard work
Vernon Vrolijk, Good Shepherd: "The market is the most crowded it's ever been, so the opportunities are there but the reality is that things are tougher than they've ever been. You have to have a clear vision of what you want to do with a game, you can't make that up as you go along. That's a recipe for failure, for both the developer and the publisher."
Identify your game's 'hook'
Steve Escalante, Versus Evil: "My marketing director always asks me, 'Well, what's the hook?' You have to think about how your game is unique. Because the press is going to pick up on that, the community is going to pick up on that. They're going to compare you directly to [other] games and say, 'yeah, it's just this'. If it's not 'this plus...' or if it doesn't have new things added to it, from a marketing point of view it makes it really hard [for us]. It can't just be a reskin. That's certainly something to consider at the beginning of your project."
Vrolijk: "We're gamers. If we get excited playing your game, I know I can get people excited. If I play the game and can't think of anything to say about it, that's a bad sign. It's hard to build from that.
"Is the core gamer in me excited [about your game]? Do I want to invest two years of my life to work on this? If I do, there's magic - but we have to feel that magic together. You can't fake it. If you fake it everyone will notice, in everything you do. Influencers, the players, the press. The magic needs to be organic, you can't force it. You can, but you're not going to help anyone, especially the dev because you're not going to bring them the success they deserve."
Choose your channels carefully
Vrolijk: "Each game is unique is in their own way and require their own approach. Some games look awesome in a GIF, so with that game you can do some Twitter marketing because within two seconds, the game gets everyone's attention. Other games don't. If you have a simulation game, it's hard to make putting something in a barrel look cool with a GIF - it just doesn't work that way. You need to make sure where the audience for your game is, where you should invest the money and that's hard."
Identify your target audience - and only target them
Vrolijk: "You have more tools at your disposal than you've ever had before. You can target to such a miniscule extent who you need to get to. Things like Google AdWords are super powerful. Once you understand your audience, you can work hard on getting them and target them where they live. Doing a shotgun approach, blasting everyone everywhere [with ads] is not effective. Even if you reach 100,000 people, if only 2,000 people actually like that game it's not a good use of your capital. Better to hit 10,000 people where all 10,000 are excited by it."
Don't just repeat previous tactics - try something new
Jonas Antonsson, Raw Fury: "You need to customise what you're doing for every single game. You need to think about the game first and then build around that, not template it and repeat the same stuff again and again. It's all about being smart with the money you have to spend."
Tell your story... but not all at once
Antonsson: "Sometimes it can be super great to leverage the developer's audience out there. Because some of the developers like to tell their stories, they have their following, they have their core audience. They have fans, people that love what they're doing. Building on that and helping them take that to the next level can be extremely beneficial so we also try to lean into that whenever we can."
Escalante: "Think about what stories you have and how many times you can release content. Meaningful content, not just a new screenshot but something surrounding a feature that you guys love. How many times can you do that? Because you need to plan that out - especially if you're going on Kickstarter or doing any sort of crowdfunding. You can end up firing all of your bullets out of your gun because you're trying to get funding, and when it comes around to press time, the press want to know something new. Don't tell all your stories, take a step back and work out who you are as a developer, what your special tech is, what things you can do to get press and influencers excited about you as a studio. You have studio stories and game stories as well."
Don't disregard traditional press - and don't give up
Dieter Schoeller, Headup Games: "Some games don't work with influencers at all. Sandbox games work really well because the influencer can show their personality while playing the game. But if you take a point-and-click adventure game, if people saw the story they won't buy the game. You have to be really careful."
Vrolijk: "One of the main things you need to understand is everybody is busy. If you want someone to help you, you need to think about how you can help them. It has to be a two-way street. What works best is whatever works best for the site's audience. If you have a game that has a hook a journalist can write about, something they can get excited about because they can use it to build a story they can tell their audience, then go to traditional press. If you have a game that is silly, that is stupid fun for five minutes, don't go to traditional press because they're not going to care. Instead, go to the influencers whose community expect that."
"You help them by giving them content that can help get them clicks. That's what it's about, it's about clicks. Get them clicks and they will help you. It's always good to keep pushing, but remember that they have billions of emails coming in. To break through the noise, you need to understand it's a two-way street. You can't just take, because then you're not going to get very far."
Aim for the biggest readerships
Schoeller: "We try to work with both influencers and traditional press. It's hard to get attention from Kotaku, Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun because it's such an overcrowded market, but we've done a ton of press work with smaller sites which had zero impact on sales. You can spend hours and hours on it, you'll get great articles but they will not do anything because you're just on a smaller site that two people read. It's better spend time working with the 20 big pages, taking a tour, visiting them, getting the content ready rather than spending all my time on smaller websites, fan sites. Don't stop trying with the bigger magazines, keep emailing them until they listen. They won't listen every time, but take the chances. It doesn't help anybody if you're holding back."
Understand influencers' audiences before you reach out
Vrolijk: "Work out which influencers are going to like your game because they have their own audiences, they need to think about their own clicks. If you target an influencer that hates fighting games, but you have a fighting game, he's not going to play it. You can beg, you can cry, you can be the nicest guy in the world, but at the end of the day he has his own community. Use things like Keymailer to find who does fighting games and reach out to him. Spend more time trying to reach out to guys that can actually help you, instead of trying to reach everyone."