Indie games face an uphill battle against the advertising dollars of AAA studios, but with some creative thinking, you can grab attention and generate PR.
When you're promoting your game, you want as many eyeballs on you as possible.
Some routes of marketing are more well-trodden, tried, and tested than others.
The history of video games has seen a lot of outside-the-(X)box thinking when it comes to promotion—not just from AAA powerhouses with million dollar advertising budgets, but from smaller studios and developers too.
Here are some examples of game promotion that range from merely "oh, that's original" to "they did WHAT?!"
Some approaches are very unconventional, but all provide core lessons to learn from, and illustrate the breath of possibilities that exist in the realms of indie game promotion.
It's hard to think of Angry Birds as an indie game given the money-making machine and feature film franchise that it's become.
But not too long ago, Rovio was just a studio in Finland that few people outside its borders had heard of.
Their international breakthrough came in the form of addictive slingshot-driven, bird-on-pig warfare—but Angry Birds itself became successful not just on the merits of its gameplay, but also through clever marketing.
Let's take a look at how it all began:
While it may just look like a trailer, there are several factors worth considering here that made the video above something more significant.
First of all, it's not a video game trailer so much as it is content.
What we mean is that it's something you can watch that has (entertainment) value, even if you're not interested in video games (or this game in particular).
Right from the first frames of the Looney Tunes parody fanfare, it stands on its own beyond trying to sell the game—it's telling a story and building a brand.
There is a little bit of video game footage right at the end to let people know what Angry Birds actually is, but the other thing that was unconventional about this approach was that it flagged the mobile platforms the game could be downloaded from.
Rovio did this after Angry Birds topped the App Store in Finland and Greece. Promoting this platform then led to them top the App Store in over 60 countries and become the top gaming app in the world (also, RIP Nokia Ovi).
The success of this approach (and consequently of the game) meant that Angry Birds went on to promote much more content, fleshing out the world of their game in a way that its simplistic game mechanics couldn't manage.
There's even been more than 100 episodes of an animated series produced since 2013 (plus the major Hollywood blockbusters that followed).
Humble Bundle has become such a massive brand, it's easy to forget about their beginnings as an indie promotional tactic.
Although they may have spawned imitators since, when they launched, the concept was unique in several ways. Up to that point, Radiohead's In Rainbows album was probably the only notable example of a "Pay What You Want" model.
Whilst Radiohead only featured their own music, indie developer Wolfire Games enhanced the concept, making sure to bundle games from multiple studios together to broaden appeal and creating a link to charity, thereby giving extra reasons to buy.
By making it easy for gamers to decide how much they wanted to pay, how to allocate funds to the developers and charities, and ensuring freedom from DRM, the bundle became a massive success.
It was so popular that its creators spun it off as a completely separate company by the time the third bundle rolled 'round.
To date, the ultra-successful model they've created has raised over $150 million for charity.
Humble Bundle is not alone in proving this point. There are other powerful examples of the selling process or distribution path helping a game stand out.
These include This War of Mine, which generated masses of PR by giving away free Steam keys to those who would usually pirate the game, and the Indie Megabooth providing games the opportunity to capitalize on strength in numbers (and save costs) by sharing booth space at expos.
The more potential games there are to see in a booth, the more potential gamers or publishers might stop by—and the more the indie games featured ultimately stand out and benefit by pooling their resources.
Get creative. Consider unique ways that you can package and sell your game or items, and you stand a chance to stand out among the competition.
Everybody loves free stuff, but when it isn't really free, things can get very interesting.
Ask yourself just how far you're willing to go for something free. Then, ask yourself how far you're willing to go if the freebies are really, really cool.
When people are willing to do something ridiculous in the name of a reward, odds are that some media will pay attention and spread the word about it.
Did you know there's a primary school kid in America answering to the name "Dovahkiin" (aka The Dragonborn)?
On the eve of Skyrim's launch, Bethesda ran a contest offering "a Steam key that will grant you... every ZeniMax/Bethesda game - past, present and future - for life" IF you happened to give birth on Skyrim's release date (11.11.11) and legally named your child Dovahkiin.
Needless to say, this stunt generated a large deal of coverage, but Bethesda wasn't even the first to attempt it.
Way back in the distant year 2002, Acclaim decided to promote their game Turok: Evolution by getting their brand out there in a big way.
They offered $10,000 to the first parents to name their newborn "Turok" on the game's release. Full-grown adults could also get in on the fun—any Brits willing to legally change their name to Turok got £500 for their troubles.
Both promotions required the newly-minted Turoks to keep their name for a year (enough for publicity at launch, but not enough to permanently scar anyone).
The lesson here isn't specifically "ask your fans to name their child after your main character," but rather "ask your fans to do something fun and/or unusual (that will generate PR for you) in exchange for a reward."
The rewards don't even have to be particularly costly, but something exclusive or special that carries value for the winner(s).
Just don't try getting them to eat cat food... Nintendo already did that.
Until recently, promotional content has either had no in-game utility (e.g., physical goodie-bags bundled with pre-orders or Kickstarter reward tiers) or been timebound to the release of the game.
Now, blockchain technology offers a way to generate interest, raise funds, grow your player base, and provide your followers with content/rewards they can use—before your game is even released.
Whereas monetization or fundraising for development used to rely on publishers, followed by platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo, it can be run entirely independently with blockchain assets—and net you a lot of community excitement and press coverage into the bargain.
A long list of in-game items can be tokenized on the blockchain, from characters, weapons, and skins to early access tokens, real estate, pets, games, and even in-game currencies.
These assets can be delivered to players immediately, beginning their engagement and anticipation of your game. They are also tradable, allowing backers to compete for collections or trade p2p, whilst you can collect the added benefit of commission on those trades.
One indie game, The Six Dragons, raised $90,000 in 24 hours by selling exclusive blockchain-based weapons with varying degrees of provable rarity via their online store.
When you're promoting your game, it's worth remembering that people generally don't like being marketed to.
That's one of the things that makes the previous lesson about generating content so powerful—it allows you to communicate with your audience without making them feel like they're being exploited or sold to.
However, with deadlines abounding and small teams and budgets, you may not have the luxury of churning out a steady stream of content that you're happy with.
Sometimes, you just wanna make some ads and concentrate on building your game.
Don't fret! Take a lesson from the creators of indie hit Super Meat Boy: If you're going to advertise, don't pretend what you're doing is anything but advertising.
Super Meat Boy's knowing approach to adverts certainly stood out from the crowd.
This gleeful mockery was perhaps borne from the disappointment they felt when they went through hellish Crunch developing the game to meet a spring promotional deadline for XBLA, only to receive much less promotion than had been agreed to.
Nevertheless, their game became a huge hit, and the anarchic early-90s game-ad parody ads they used went a long way to getting across the game's tone and the studio's philosophies.
It's worth remembering that in gaming, unlike many other industries, people are often fans of and loyal to the creators, not just the end product.
By showing awareness of all the cultural tropes around game adverts (or gaming culture in general), you show yourselves as people, not a faceless corporation.
If you're able to deliver in-jokes about the very act of game advertising, people are more likely to feel you're participating in the wider gaming culture and not just trying to make a quick buck.
Going meta in your promotional approach can make the difference between people feeling like they're being marketed AT (that's bad) and being marketed WITH (that's good).
So, why not embrace the tropes of game adverts?
People might resent you if they know you're selling to them, but if they know that you know that they know (that you know that they know), they might see it as less cynical. Y'know?
And of course, you can always indulge in some good old fashioned product placement!
This can take many forms, whether it's an innocent background plug, an actual commercial, or product placement so aggressive the audience is actively paying to play an advert.
It may be tricky to strike up deals with international FMCG vendors like the AAAs can manage, but you could always parody this and offer some cross-promotional opportunities with small local businesses.
P.S. This one is very silly and prone to backlash if not executed perfectly. Don't say we didn't warn you!
Game development is a creative field, and so is game promotion, as the above examples demonstrate—all of which provide lessons worth considering when it comes to promoting your own indie game.
Beyond conventional advertising strategies, it's worth putting in a little extra thought and creativity to stand out in a crowded market.
Give these unconventional approaches some though as you develop your own unique marketing approach:
The fun thing about taking unconventional approaches is that if they get seen, they get noticed and work beyond the limits of carefully scheduled and timetabled marketing campaigns.
The only limit is your imagination.