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How developers use TikTok to boost their games

The studios behind Sea of Thieves, Fall Guys and more share the secrets behind their TikTok success

Since TikTok's introduction to the social media marketplace back in September 2016, the video-centric app has taken over the way that people -- especially young people -- consume new media.

This has had a dramatic knock-on effect in all creative industries. The music industry, as is often the way, was the first to recognise TikTok's marketing powers. The fast-format module set up by Bytedance lends itself perfectly to musicians looking to share catchy hooks or impressive melismas over originals and covers. TikTok's creative capabilities have helped launch the careers of Lil Nas X, Ashnikko and even got us all singing 17th Century Sea Shanties in early 2021 (more on that later) and is starting to dramatically affect the types of music being produced.

This meteoric shift in marketing strategy and content creation is now starting to find its way into the video games market as well. What TikTok has provided, especially for smaller developers, is a level playing field. It doesn't matter if you are just one person with a nugget of an idea or one of the biggest multi corporations on the planet. The TikTok content cycle rewards originality, and can propel you to great heights -- if you know how to play the game right.

Bianca Sarafian, Mediatonic

"TikTok is unique because, unlike other platforms, it's not so much a broadcasting tool as it is a genuine way to create content and connect with people," says Bianca Sarafian, community manager at Mediatonic. "Although other platforms like Instagram and Twitter can do that and can transcend outside of just being used for broadcasting from a marketing perspective, TikTok is only acceptable if you are trying to make content and connect with an audience."

TikTok, as Sarafian explains it, is a platform that craves unique content, unlike Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where similar types of content can perform with near identical results. For example, on April 11, 2021, Mediatonic put out indistinguishable posts about a new in-game emote from Fall Guys on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. On TikTok, however, there was no mention of this new piece of content. Instead, the very next day, the team posted an in-game video highlighting a core gameplay experience from the game, rather than an advert for a new cosmetic. It's the focus on in-game action that Sarafian has found most effective on the platform.

"We are very lucky that Fall Guys lends itself super well to those organic, attention-grabbing moments. I had, for example, a really simple video of me going through one of our levels called "ski-fall", flipping and then coming back through it. 160,000 views. Has no trending music or any TikTok trends. You only need ten seconds to show that moment and you don't even need to know the game to watch it and get a bit excited."

This desire for in-game, original content isn't exclusive to the high tempo moments of a Fall Guys either. TikTok can be a vital platform for smaller, more serene titles to gain traction, such as Noio's gorgeous post-apocalyptic landscaping sandbox Cloud Gardens. The game doesn't lend itself to the high intensity, 'OMG' moments Fall Guys does, but lead developer Thomas van den Berg still found a significant uptake in player interest in Cloud Gardens after a TikTok post.

"TikTok is unique because, unlike other platforms, it's not so much a broadcasting tool as it is a genuine way to create content and connect with people"

Bianca Sarafian, Mediatonic

"In the three days following 'Introducing Cloud Gardens,' we sold about 450 copies. At the previous 'steady' rate that would have expected about 100 -- without any other kinds of marketing or sales -- [in that time]. The TikTok traffic contributed to about 4,000 wishlist additions. Even active players saw the same kind of influx, sitting at about three times the normal level before dropping off again in a period of about two weeks."

Cloud Gardens has found success with TikTok, but with all creative ventures it is not a stroll in the park. Van den Berg notes that Cloud Gardens is "still seeing some increased traffic afterwards," but warns the drop off is steep and activity was "back to normal" within a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, his co-developer Eli Cauley has found the platform's demand for original content quite taxing in comparison to other social media platforms.

"On Twitter I could reasonably expect a simple gameplay GIF or aesthetic image accompanied by minimal text to do reasonably well," he says. "However, TikTok seems to demand more formal, narrative-driven content."

He continues: "Additionally, I find I spend a lot more time making TikToks because I have to think about taking gameplay footage, editing it, placing explanatory text over it, and then frequently doing a voiceover to accompany it. While a successful tweet might take me 15 minutes to take the image and write the text, my most successful TikToks have taken me a minimum of one to two [hours] to edit together, and that's assuming I already have a decent amount of the gameplay recorded."

As Van den Berg and Cauley point out, creating a successful TikTok post can be time consuming. But for smaller developers like Noio it can bring much needed attention to a new IP. This attention can expand further, however. If a consistent and well organised campaign can be made, TikTok can become the perfect platform to speak to a community and in doing so grow it. This is what happened with Shotgun Farmers, a delightfully silly arena shooter by Wase Qazi, which took to TikTok like a duck to water.

Developers like Mediatonic continue to experiment with content on TikTok and, while results may vary, they are reaching a large audience

"Developing my game in front of the community has kind of been how I always did it since the Twitch days -- Shotgun Farmers started life as a prototype as part of a game jam on Twitch," explains Qazi. "I had always done Instagram and Twitter too, but not so well. When TikTok started to become a popular platform, I realised there weren't many people talking about making video games on there, similar to how when I started Twitch streaming there was just a small community of us doing gamedev on there. So I started posting almost micro-devlogs to see how it would go. I definitely became addicted to TikTok -- I still am -- like I'm sure most people are these days."

Wase Qazi, Shotgun Farmers developer

What Qazi wasn't prepared for was the influx of followers these micro-devlogs would bring to his page. Compared to his Twitter profile, which boasts a respectable 4,400 followers, his 1.4 million TikTok followers and over 40 million video likes shows just how different the TikTok ecosystem is compared to other social media platforms.

But it wasn't until Shotgun Farmers released on the Microsoft Store in September 2020 that the scope of this following become fully apparent. For the three days following the game's platform debut, it polled at number one on the Xbox marketplace charts, outselling juggernauts like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, NBA 2K21 and Madden 21. For Qazi, even with his colossal TikTok following, this level of success was unexpected.

"I had no idea the Xbox launch would go the way it did," he says. "I knew a lot of people were waiting for a console version, and I was very fortunate to have reached over one million followers on TikTok by that time, so we were preparing for more players then before, but did not expect the launch to go as well as it did. I'm pretty sure our servers were hardly playable for the first few days. It definitely set in stone that I'd be working on Shotgun Farmers for a long time to come."

Qazi, much like Van den Berg, Cauley and Sarafian, found success on TikTok without having to chase the trends. Each of them mentioned in one way or another that chasing trends can be, in fact, counter-productive.

"TikTok was a platform we were always aware of, but very wary of 'getting wrong'"

James Bowden, Rare

"A lot of people in community management talk about the burn out of staying relevant," says Sarafian. "If you are struggling to think about trends that apply to your brand, you have to take a step back and think 'Do I actually have to?' Or 'Does my brand, in its own right, have its own value that it can be giving to people?' That is what I have been doing for the past month, maybe bar one or two trends if that, and all of my posts have been outperforming the trend driven posts."

But sometimes, in those rarest of moments, the trend finds your product. This is where the most startling effects of TikTok on the video games landscape can be found. Where a creative zeitgeist captures an audience so hard that it starts to influence the very games they want to play. This is precisely what Rare's head of community Christina McGrath and social media manager James Bowden discovered when 'sea shanty tok' took over our collective consciousness.

"TikTok was a platform we were always aware of, but very wary of 'getting wrong,' says Bowden. "Conversations about a full launch on the platform were already in motion before January 2021, though the events of that month certainly accelerated our appetite to leap onto the platform." This refers to the start of this year when, either through 17th Century whimsy or the collective madness of the COVID-induced lockdown, the internet became obsessed with sea shanties.

'Sea shanty tok' became one of those rare trends to transcend outside of the TikTok microclimate into becoming a cultural phenomenon, taking over the music scene and becoming the punchline to many a late-night talk show host -- the telltale sign of a trend about to die. For Sea Of Thieves, it became a catalyst for players to seek out their game. In January 2021, the apex of the trend, the average player concurrent on Steam alone was around 22,000, representing a gain percentage of +63% over the previous month and a peak player concurrent of over 55,000 -- the highest since the game's launch on Steam. Across all available platforms, the month of January saw nearly 20 million salty sea dogs logging in, with a peak player concurrent of nearly two million pirates while at the same time marking a 12% overall player gain.

Those are mammoth numbers, though McGrath stresses that Sea of Thieves "had incredible momentum" following a busy December and the launch of Season One launch in January. "So while ShantyTok happening was a nice fun thing with some correlation to our success, it wasn't necessarily the cause," she says.

Though the trend can't take full responsibility for the game's recent uptake in players, the sea shanty influence can be very much felt within its live sandbox, as Bowden explains: "In terms of what we'd noticed [in-game], our core community certainly started demanding that we add more shanties to the game. It does feel like people that have played Sea of Thieves in the past had their interest reignited through Season One, and knowing they could rouse the crew into a shanty just made that desire to set sail once again all the stronger."

Rare tapped into the 'ShantyTok' moment to raise moeny for charity

This sentiment was echoed by McGrath, who added: "With our active players, we've been watching them really lean into the musical side of the sandbox -- the shanty side -- a lot more, which has been a lot of fun. It's been brilliant to see the joy of shanties being enjoyed by so many people, and it's awesome that Sea of Thieves has been part of that conversation."

TikTok's world-shaping, trend-setting platform has started breaking down the barriers between the content and the content creators. It has become the social media platform where said content creators can really understand what their audience wants. The formal wall that other social media platforms allow just doesn't wash here. TikTok is a manifestation of Generation Z's general distrust of the inauthentic, bogus, cringy corporate shill. This has allowed TikTok to become a place for smaller developers to shine and for the biggest of corporations to understand how to market themselves to a new generation.

"We made a huge effort to prioritize the community and their POV when we launched the [Xbox Social Team TikTok] channel," says Devin Moore, Xbox's social marketing manager. "It's not about what we want to tell people - it's about what they want to hear and how they want to hear it. Trends are simply a culmination of that. We want to be able to hear them and participate in the trends we know our fans are excited about -- in an authentic and non-cringey way. Of course, this isn't only type of content we're pursuing but it's definitely a cornerstone of our channel strategy."

Moore continues: "Another high-level effect TikTok has had on our content strategy is to encourage us to be more openly self-aware and poke fun at ourselves more. We launched our channel with a TikTok that acknowledged and 'celebrated' the leak of the Xbox Series S and the community memes we'd seen pop up around it, which felt risky at the time but got a great response. This really helps to show a more human, less formal side."

TikTok, whether intentional or by happenstance, is now a serious part of the creative and marketing process of video game creation. It's a platform that has to be respected, not dismissed as a fad for the youth. All the people featured in this piece have found success on the platform by engaging with it each in unique and innovative ways. Each person questioned here, when asked what advice you would give when using TikTok, had different thoughts and opinions on what makes a successful post. It was Qazi, the most miraculous of TikTok success stories, that summed it up the nicest.

"I think like any other social media, be attentive and listen to your followers, engage them, don't market to them, and genuinely try to have fun making unique content that works on TikTok," he concludes. "New types of content are winning every day too, so don't be afraid to be unique and put your own creative spin on things."

For more advice on how to effictively market your games via TikTok, check out our recently published top tips here.

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