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New school marketing for old school games

Flinthook developer Tribute Games knows marketing is at least half the battle for success, and even retro games need to keep up with the latest promotional trends

In its six years of existence, Montreal-based Tribute Games has released five games, the most recent being this month's roguelike platformer Flinthook. One might think Tribute would have a marketing routine down after so many projects, but as co-founder Jean-Francois Major told this week, things move much too quickly for that.

"It's definitely not the same as when we launched Mercenary Kings [in 2014]," Major said. "We're learning the hard way that blogs, IGN, GameSpot have less impact than they used to. Now it's mostly streamers and YouTubers that really influence sales. What's interesting is with Mercenary Kings, we sold tons of copies at launch because we got featured on those big sites, and then it kind of dropped off. But with Flinthook, we got featured on all those sites again, and now streamers are slowly starting to pick it up, and now we're seeing our user base grow slowly. Every time there's a bigger streamer that plays the game, it helps our sales."

That's not to say Flinthook flopped by any stretch. In fact, the game made it to the top of Steam's Popular New Releases module on the front page during a week where retro mindshare was split between releases like Full Throttle Remastered, The Disney Afternoon Collection, and the console launches of Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap.

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One big change since the launch of Mercenary Kings has come in how Steam curates its storefront. Major said that three years ago, new releases on Steam were guaranteed to be featured in a module on the front page for 24 hours. But the accelerating number of releases made that approach unsustainable, so Steam changed the key module from "New Release" to "Popular New Releases," which Major said changed the way the studio launches games.

For example, Tribute didn't put Flinthook up for preorders on the service, instead encouraging people to add the game to their wislists. The reasoning, Major said, is that the Popular New Releases module doesn't take into account a game's preorders when determining whether or not it should be featured, so it's better to risk losing some of those preorder sales in order to have a larger number of day-one sales to push a game to the top of that chart and (hopefully) help it stay there. (A Valve representative did not return a request for confirmation into its methods for selecting games to surface in the Popular New Releases part of the site.)

"It's really weird, your day one is not necessarily a deal-breaker if you don't succeed."

While Flinthook did top the chart, Major said he was a bit sad it didn't stay there longer. Regardless, the experience bolsters Tribute's belief that the dynamics of marketing through streamers and YouTubers and the changes to how storefronts feature games has ultimately lessened the importance of day-one sales.

"It's really weird, your day one is not necessarily a deal-breaker if you don't succeed," Major said. "That's something we've been struggling to grasp and get better at."

It's another in a long line of whack-a-mole problems the industry has presented to Tribute. Even as problems the studio initially struggled with (like reaching out to the media or establishing contacts with platform holders) have become almost trivial, new challenges keep popping up.

"Now we're still trying to figure out how to market our games," Major said. "It's been constantly changing. What do we need to focus on? Over the years it's changed. Stuff you did the previous year on another title might not work, or it definitely won't work for your next title so you have to figure out the next way to market your game and get it in front of as many eyeballs as you can. That's the big time-sink we didn't really account for. Marketing your game is probably 50% of the battle, if not more."

Every game is different, and Major said there's no single approach to marketing that will solve every problem. For Tribute, the goal is to focus on a handful of checkmarks that will maximize their game's success. Right now, that means a lot of work on getting the attention of Twitch streamers and YouTubers. And while he expects that trend to get bigger before the industry moves onto something else, he doesn't know what the next big avenue for indie game promotion will be beyond that. However, one possibility could be crowdfunding.

"Because there are so many games coming out every day, I think we're going to focus more on bigger, flashier titles."

Tribute has some experience with crowdfunding, having Kickstarted Mercenary Kings back in the platform's golden age of 2012. And while the campaign was a success, it didn't leave Tribute eager to return to the platform. The studio blew past its original campaign goal of $75,000 and raised more than $116,000 for the game. However, after Kickstarter's cut and the cost of backer rewards, Major said they had about $50,000 to put toward development of a project that he estimated would have had a budget of maybe $700,000 if the team had been paying themselves salaries at that point.

"It was worthwhile because that was kind of our only option, but it was a lot of work and I don't think the Kickstarter budget was big enough to make a game off of," Major said, adding, "I'm not really against Kickstarter, and I think someday we're probably going to go back to it, but we won't have the same goals in mind. It will probably be more about getting people to start talking about our game, getting them excited about the title and getting brand ambassadors, people that are really vocal about the project they Kickstarted who will want to share and be proud they backed it before it was even a thing."

A return to crowdfunding for the purposes of marketing is one hypothetical tactic Tribute may turn to in the future, but the studio has more concrete plans in the meantime. Quite simply, Major said the company will keep putting out retro efforts in the Mercenary Kings or Flinthook mold with an aim to make the best game of the genre in whichever year they come out.

"Because there are so many games coming out every day, I think we're going to focus more on bigger, flashier titles," Major said. "[Tribute's first game] Wizorb did pretty well in 2011, but we found out with Curses & Chaos and Ninja Senki DX that [small titles] don't do as well with today's standards. They're good games, but it's really hard to get any attention because there are so many flashier games, meatier, chunkier games that come out today, so that's another aspect we'll try to focus on."

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