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Indies must learn to love marketing

Praying for discoverability to magically get better is no excuse for sending your games out to die today; marketing is a key development skill too

"Who the hell has time to do that?", asked the piece we published this week about a Quo Vadis conference panel on indie developers and how they use social media to gain exposure for their games. It echoed directly comments from the panel about various - admittedly time-consuming - social media approaches being used by or suggested for indie developers. The original comments may have been partially tongue in cheek (I don't know; I wasn't at the conference) but even so, they reflect a sense of frustration that will be familiar to many indie developers, or to those who work with them in any capacity.

The root of the frustration is this: "I'm doing this because I want to make games. Why am I expected to do all this other incredibly time-consuming crap that isn't making games? Just let me make games!" It's a frustration that expresses itself in various ways - annoyance at the specialist media is one often encountered, as is a more directionless frustration with players themselves; but it's all dwarfed by the sense of anger many developers feel about Valve's Steam, Apple's App Store and Google Play. If only those companies would do their job properly; if only they'd fix discoverability, then developers could focus on making great games and stop mucking around with all the other stuff.

"Fix discoverability." There's a phrase to toy with. It's pretty much one of the most fundamental articles of faith of videogames (and media in general) right now that discoverability is "broken" and that someone needs to come along and "fix" it. This belief runs all the way from plucky indies in their bedrooms to millionaires behind mahogany desks. Rob Pardo, a man as close to industry legend as it's reasonable to be, preached the "fix discoverability" gospel just this week in an interview on this site; if the platform holders don't do it, he warned, someone else will step in and steal their lunch. Fixing discoverability is a thing that must inevitably happen, the gospel says, because discoverability is broken and that means there's a disruptive advantage to fixing it.

"When you grasped freedom from publishers, you implicitly gave up that right to say "I just make games, I don't want to do all this other boring stuff"

I get where this comes from; it comes from a deep sense of longing borne from the fact that discoverability is, indeed, completely rubbish. In an extraordinary sea of content, the likes of which has never been seen before, getting even the most exquisite and perfect game, book, song or other creation to be seen, heard, played; it's damned near impossible. Everything drowns in the mire. Floating to the top and becoming a huge success is a total crapshoot, or so it seems. When things are this terrible, surely someone's going to come along with a fix and make things better?

Maybe. Maybe this is just like the Internet before Google came along and applied clever algorithms to let us actually find things; maybe there'll be a New Google (or hell, just the old Google doing something cunning and brilliant) who'll figure out how to let us find great games and books and songs. That's what developers generally cling to as a dogmatic belief; a clean, tidy, engineering solution, an algorithmic saviour to fix the mess we're all in.

Maybe not. Maybe the truth is altogether harsher; that although discoverability is terrible, it's not actually broken. It's simply terrible because that's the new reality; because there's so much stuff out there; it's terrible because the walls have fallen and the gatekeepers have been toppled, and now anyone and everyone can make a game or write a book - and therefore, most of them bloody well seem to have gone and done so. It's terrible because there's no machine, no algorithm, that can say "yeah, this is a good game, this is a good book"; you need, at a fundamental level, to be discovered and loved and promoted by a reasonable number of real humans before any machine intelligence can seize upon that kernel of adoration and turn it into a clever algorithmic recommendation, and it's that first hurdle at which the vast, vast majority of games and books fall.

My belief in the latter outweighs my firm desire for the former, personally; but in a sense, this is all philosophical. We could have a good discussion about it down the pub, over a pint or seven, with wagging fingers and high-falutin' claims regarding the cleverness or otherwise of surprisingly subjective things you can get algorithms to do with natural language and whatnot. Then we'd all wake up in the morning with hangovers, having entirely forgotten the solution to the world's problems (well, perhaps just the App Store's problems) we came up with somewhere in the depth of our cups the night before, and discoverability, in the here and now, would still be absolute, irredeemable bollocks.

Which means that, in the here and now, developers who don't or can't find time to do all that annoying stuff, all that not-making-a-damned-game stuff, are sending their games out to die.

Here's the thing; indie developers have, for the most part, kicked publishers out the door, changed the locks and danced around the living room with Diana Ross' "I Will Survive" pumping out at top volume, and god, it felt good. The fall of the gatekeepers, digital distribution, the opening up of tools like Unity and Unreal; it's given developers the ability to take back control of everything, the whole process, to make games without asking permission from anyone or answering to anyone.

That's great; it's genuinely the thing that makes me most excited and happy about the direction of games over the past five years and the decades to come. It's not, however, a great big bag of freedom. It's also a great big bag of responsibility. Publishers aren't just parasites, even if their behaviour at times has strayed into that area (and those are the times that make the news, that get discussed in-depth on NeoGAF and that probably end up being a brilliant investigative article by Simon Parkin many years later). Publishers did stuff, important stuff, and if you're an indie developer you don't get to just ignore all that stuff and still expect to make a living; when you grasped freedom from publishers, you implicitly gave up that right to say "I just make games, I don't want to do all this other boring stuff."

"Marketing is more than half of a publisher's budget; I'm not saying it should be half of a developer's time, but I'm certainly saying that the answer to 'who has time for that' should generally be 'you do, I hope'"

Top of that list? Marketing. Sorry, dirty word, but there we are. Most publishers spend more money marketing games than they spend making games. That horrifies developers, but it's a perfectly logical and rational calculation. Whatever you've spent making the game is completely lost if the game sinks into obscurity upon release. The marketing dollars you spend don't just return themselves in sales, they're also the only way to redeem the developing dollars that have already been spent. Sometimes, this makes weird things happen; games that are completely finished by the developer don't get released because the publisher loses confidence, and everyone thinks it's crazy ("it's finished, why not just release it and make some money") except the people who know that most of the budget is marketing and that by not spending that, the publisher is saving themselves from throwing good money after bad.

Does this sound like it has a parallel in our brave new world? I think it does, because I think that what publishers face in this sphere isn't a long way from what indie developers face in terms of discoverability and visibility of their games. You finish your magnum opus, and perhaps it truly is brilliant - and as a developer, you feel like that's your job done, and you just want to get it out there and watch it succeed. If you're really wearing both of your hats, though, your developer hat and the one you snatched from the publisher's head, you know that your job isn't even half-done at this stage. Marketing is more than half of a publisher's budget; I'm not saying it should be half of a developer's time, but I'm certainly saying that the answer to "who has time for that" should generally be "you do, I hope".

This isn't to say that social media is the perfect solution to the discoverability problem; discoverability is still going to suck. Maybe it'll always suck, maybe it won't; but right now it does suck, and as an indie developer, you probably don't have the kind of big fat marketing budget required to soar above the noise. What you do have is your talent, your authenticity, a direct line to game fans all around the world, social tools of all kinds to put yourself out in front of the world and, yes... Your time. Unless you're fabulously wealthy, your time is pretty much the only asset you have; everything else is just a tool to project your time out into the world. Use those tools - and find the time. While everyone is drowning in the discoverability mire, it's only those who learn to kick most strongly who will find their way to the surface.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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