Ask yourself this simple question:
"How did I discover my favorite game?"
Regardless of what your favorite game is, there's a good chance that you were initially drawn to it by a carefully executed game marketing campaign.
All creators want their games to be played, but building an amazing game has minimal impact if players aren't aware it exists.
For indie games, the battle for attention is intense, with competition fiercer than ever before. Steam alone has over 30,000 games, half of which came out in the last two years, and this number is steadily growing.
With those statistics, you have to ask, "How can I attract players to my game?"
The last few years have seen numerous excellent indie game marketing campaigns that can serve as example and help you fine-tune your own approach.
It's important to keep in mind that marketing is much more than just buying ad space or getting good reviews—it's anything you can do to tell the story of what you've created to an audience that listens.
Here are five games that captured awareness by approaching marketing from different angles in the way they chose to tell their story, leveraging everything from general streamer culture to specific game design decisions.
Firewatch is a first-person narrative adventure game set in the Wyoming wilderness, where your only emotional lifeline is the person on the other end of a handheld radio.
Developed by Campo Santo, Firewatch utilized a content-driven marketing campaign focused on quality over quantity—and sold over 500,000 copies in its first month of release.
When Firewatch was first brought to the attention of the masses in 2014, all they had was a reveal trailer. On paper, the game sounded boring; packaged as a single player adventure game where you watch over a forest. But the trailer hinted at something more, leaving viewers curious and eager to find out what happened.
Check it out:
"We had to balance the mood. It should feel totally like what the game is like without giving away what the mystery part of the game is."
— Nels Anderson, Campo Santo
Prior to launch in 2016, not much else was done to promote Firewatch aside from a few more videos and another trailer—a carefully planned strategy, according to the game's designer Nels Anderson.
Unlike most indies that bombard audiences with feature-filled trailers, frequent screenshots, and development blogs, Campo Santo capitalized on the mysterious aspect of their story and took the less-is-more approach.
This mystery posed a challenge in reaching out to Let's Players, but rather than asking streamers to avoid certain actions that could reveal the game narrative too early, Campo Santo seized the opportunity to create a new build specifically for streamers.
In just a few hours, they put together a spoiler-free build with all of the Firewatch atmosphere but none of the revelations, and carefully targeted streamers and YouTube personalities to try out the narrative, content-driven game. As a result, hype and intrigue continued to build, which evolved into audience interest when the game launched.
Marketing is the art of getting people interested in the story you have to tell. Campo Santo knew that if you tell your entire story right away, you lose the attention of your audience. Even if you aren't developing a narrative-driven game, you don't want your players to have seen everything before they decide to download—the promise of discovery is a powerful motivator.
Maintain a sense of mystery in what you reveal, and you can keep them interested.
Initially developed by Davey Wreden as a Half Life 2 mod, The Stanley Parable is a first-person exploration and storytelling game. After forming Galactic Cafe studio, Wreden relaunched The Stanley Parable as a standalone game in 2013—and sold over 100,000 copies in the first three days.
So how did Wreden's first game launch with such massive success?
Custom, personalized demos.
Like Firewatch, The Stanley Parable was difficult to talk about without spoiling, so the team aimed to create engaging, spoiler-free content that was enjoyable and fun to experience in its own right.
This content included five cryptic trailers, as well as a custom demo. Essentially a second version of the game, the demo was written in the background during the main game's development and playfully avoided just about any semblance of gameplay while using re-purposed assets.
Ultimately, it was played an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 times prior to launch.
"For an extra two months work, we get an entire second game's worth of press. That seems like too good a deal to risk going without."
— Davey Wreden, Galactic Cafe
Going above and beyond a custom demo build, Galactic Cafe also created personalized demos for streamers, like this one for Steam Train:
By replacing three simple narration lines to include a custom welcome, Galactic Cafe got streamers #hyped before the demo even got started. While personalizing took some extra work, this little effort went a long way, helping rack up millions of views for The Stanley Parable prior to launch.
At the end of the day, you're always going to be marketing to people, and more often than not, via people as well.
In a world of mass-produced content, personalization can really cut through, shake your audience out of passive observation, and win them over to your side.
War-themed games generally follow a broadly similar formula: strong, stoic, skilled soldiers shooting, glorious victories achieved by heroic deeds and getting the most kills. War is portrayed as an adventure, and enemies are clearly defined.
This War of Mine is different.
In This War of Mine, you play as civilians with no military background; your goal is simply survival. Based on the experiences of Bosnian Civilians during the 1992-1996 Siege of Sarajevo, it is punctuated by a palpable sense of dread and vulnerability.
The mechanics and gameplay are nothing new, but the unlikely perspective the game is story is told from—a civilian's—makes it stand out.
Emotions are a universal language, and Polish 11 bit studios' story resonated internationally.
They drew upon those emotions by clearly conveying the game's themes of tension, desperation, powerlessness through all of their marketing and promotional content, along with the game's perspective-shifting tagline "In war, not everyone is a soldier."
"This War of Mine was to be the ‘rebel’—questioning the well-established status quo by introducing gamers to a new perspective on war."
— Patryk Grzeszczuk, 11 bit studios
In addition to a new game perspective, 11 bit studios also took a new approach in response to illegal downloading.
Facing piracy early on, the team saw an opportunity not only for PR, but also to support their community. Sympathetic to players that might not be able to afford the game, they posted free Steam keys on the Pirate Bay with a thank you note encouraging a purchase.
The gaming community lauded this approach, which turned into widespread coverage—aka free publicity.
This War of Mine used a unique perspective in a common setting to breathe new life into a saturated genre, and the public took notice. The game broke even in two days, and more than 4.5 million copies have been sold since its release.
If you tell a familiar story from the same old angle, it risks blending in with all the others. But if you find a fresh perspective or new voice to communicate, it can subvert expectations and make people sit up, take notice, and tell others about it.
"The first person shooter where time moves only when you move."
That's the tag line for Superhot, an FPS puzzle game where—spoiler alert—time progresses only when your character moves.
This simple summation, and a prototype to back it up, were all Superhot Team needed to capture attention, blow by their $100,000 Kickstarter goal in a day, and launch an award-winning game.
Born from a 7-day FPS challenge, Superhot was originally released as a free prototype browser game. Following a surge of interest around the demo, Superhot Team decided to release a full version of the game and use Kickstarter to fund it with a massively successful campaign that earned more than $250,000.
This prototype was created in 2013. Most of us had no idea what we're doing and haven't made games before. It exploded on the internet all the same, and has since been played by millions of people around the world. We were awestruck by the reception, and somehow - with your help - we managed to bottle this lightning.
It should come as no surprise that players love playability. It's a great marketing tool and can help convince your audience that a larger scope of the game will be worth paying for.
Unlike the intrigue of previous examples, Superhot explicitly conveyed what the game was all about through their snappy summary and free-to-play prototype. But mystery or not, the prototype left players wanting more—and helped Superhot Team sell more than 2 million copies.
Like an elevator pitch, you don't have long to explain your game to your audience. Catch their attention with a concise, accurate, and easily-interpreted tagline that sells its uniqueness—and back it up with a demo of the tagline in action.
We live in the age of User-Generated Content (UGC), and those that realize this are those that are best able to multiply their marketing dollars.
Opus Magnum is a puzzle game developed by Zachtronics, which won the prize for excellence in design at the Independent Games Festival (IGF).
However, it wasn't just their level and game mechanics design that was ingenious and worthy of praise—their social design was also a crucial aspect of the game's success.
The game's creators, Zach Barth and Matthew Burns, made sure that whenever a player came up with a solution for a puzzle, they would be able to export their take on the level easily and simply in the form of a GIF.
As an open-ended puzzle game in which players control the Transmutation Engine to generate various alchemical processes, the same end goal could be achieved through innumerable different paths, incentivizing players to share their efforts.
The beauty is that any level can be readily shared by a player, whether it was because they thought they had figured out the most efficient path, or deliberately constructed the most convoluted method possible.
Other players could try to beat the solutions in GIFs, or use them as intuitive walkthroughs if they got stuck on a level.
On Gfycat alone, there are around 4,500 results for Opus Magnum GIFs, and more are to be found on other image hosting sites and forums across the blessed interwebs.
By allowing gamers to easily generate and share their own content from within the game, the Zachtronics team ensured that their player base would spread Opus Magnum's gameplay far and wide—and encourage curious observers to pick up the game and try to one-up them with GIFs of their own.
While they were recognized by the critics at the IGF, it's fair to say it's the G-I-F that made them famous. (Sorry, that was too tempting to pass up.)
A similar principle of embracing UGC was exhibited by indie über-hit Minecraft (although obviously, directly replicating Minecraft's success from the same principle may be a tall order).
Unlike some publishers that restrict user-generated content, Mojang allowed people to create monetizable videos without any threat of removal—creating a virtuous cycle of constant new content with the Minecraft name attached, attracting new audiences and players.
As of May 2019, more than 5 million Minecraft-related videos had been uploaded to YouTube and racked up 436 billion views, a significant number of which are from user-generated videos.
Especially for indie games and studios on a budget, word of mouth is the best free marketing campaign strategy possible.
Give people a reason to talk about your game, tickle their imaginations, encourage them to create and share content—and let them do the marketing for you.
Running an indie game marketing campaign can be difficult for a number of reasons, from budget constraints and unfamiliar gameplay mechanics to a lack of established profile.
While it's a given that your project should have a unique quality, the challenge is to grab your audience's attention in the first place so they can actually learn about that uniqueness.
The five games mentioned above surprised, delighted, and intrigued with their marketing.
They created viewer intrigue through custom-built demos and streamer enthusiasm with personalization.
They subverted genre expectations by communicating from unfamiliar but accessible perspectives and provided snappy summaries backed up by free gameplay.
And they recognized that happy fans sharing their gameplay experiences are one of the most powerful weapons to have in your game marketing arsenal.
Whether you decide to use these example strategies or formulate entirely creative new ways to market your game, we look forward to seeing what you create.
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