So marketing is...Well marketing is marketing. Everyone says it requires a completely different skill set than developing a game does and that could not have become more obvious to me over the course of making Spaceslingers. So here I'll try to explain some of the hard earned lessons I learned while making and marketing Spaceslingers for $0:
(View this post in all its original glory here: A Pre-Post-Mortem About Marketing)
Flashy, beautiful stuff rules all. In real life and in games. This sucks, and it means that a lot of potential developers are going to be disappointed, but it's true. If you want to market stuff, it has to look good, gameplay/mechanics/coding chops be damned (not saying that it's literally impossible to market something that looks terrible with good gameplay or awesome mechanics, but it's the equivalent of jumping out of a plane without a parachute...Sure, it's possible to survive, but will you?)
Unfortunately for me, I am not an artist, I'm a game designer. I tried my best with the Spaceslingers artwork, and while I'm proud of what I managed to achieve all by my little lonesome, a proper artist definitely would have elevated the look of the game. That being said, I was working within my specific budget and hiring an artist was 100% outside of that budget. I did what I could with what I had and if I had to do it again, I would go down the same route. Still, it did not make marketing easy.
Probably the most marketable thing I did was take this screenshot of my level editor:
It shows the gravity (the angle of the lines) and the time dilation (the colours of the lines) of a bunch of paths you could launch on. It's intriguing and science-y and a lot of people liked it. That being said, it led to roughly around 20-30 wishlists all up (based loosely on wishlist timings). Not much at all. In fact, nothing in the big scheme of things which leads me to lesson 2:
If you want to make a commercially successful game, where you earn a proper compensation for your development time, the much quoted number is around 5 to 10 thousand wishlists. Once you start trying to market your own game, alone, with no budget, you'll realise how big that number is. It requires a consistent effort, day in day out, working with quality material to even attempt to approach that number. In fact, if you're working on the game more than you are marketing for the majority of development, you're kind of not doing marketing right. A 50/50 split between development time and marketing time is what is usually quoted as being necessary and I would go so far as to say marketing might need more time than that. As an aside, I did not approach that number of wishlists. But I learnt a lot about how I might try to next time.
Now 50/50 split might seem like way too much time marketing but think of it this way: You've gotta find those wonderful points in your game, those unlikely, serendipitous, beautiful moments that showcase your game at it's best. You've got to find them multiple times a week (different ones each time). Then you've got to record them. Edit them into a flashy format (whether it's a gif or a youtube video). Make them really sparkle. Then you've gotta figure out what leads to the best metrics...Is Twitter good with video? How does Reddit handle screenshots? Are you likely to get interaction on Facebook by posting a gif? How many clickthroughs did you get from each? Was the 2-hour editing process worth that number? Etc, etc. Hope you're keeping tabs on all this stuff because I wasn't. I posted what I thought was cool whenever I found it and it was not an effective marketing strategy. Learn to read metrics and probably keep a database somewhere with all the stats.
How do you reach your audience? I had the most trouble with this. Spaceslingers is kind of a puzzle game, but it's also kind of a speedrun game, but not really fully either of those. It's not action perse, but it does have tense moments. It's also comedic, really difficult when you are new at it, and the concepts it explores do not come naturally to people (can you guess what path a ship would take when it bounces between two blackholes and then goes near a hypothetical "whitehole"? You can't? Welcome to 99% of the human race!)
Trying to explain what was fun about it without actually having people play it was really difficult and I had a huge amount of trouble with crafting a message that really sold the game. I definitely should have thought a lot more about this before diving into the development. But, like most indies, I was smitten with the idea and just started doing it.
Unbeknownst to me, at the time, there are a lot of puzzle games being released on Steam, and they have a very low earning rate (look at the first graph on this page: https://howtomarketagame.com/2020/10/19/steamgenres/...In fact, just read that whole site, it's excellent). Now, Spaceslingers isn't really a pure puzzle game, more a speedrun physics puzzle game, which is a little bit different I guess, but in any case I was launching a game that was in a highly populated genre with a very low earnings potential. Which is bad (or rather, it would be bad if I was relying on Spaceslingers to do well, but that wasn't my primary focus...My real goal with it was to learn how to release a commercial game which I accomplished). If my goal was pure profit, then I definitely should've done more effective market research before deciding to push through with Spaceslingers.
Even when I finally had what I thought was an effective message for the game, the question arises: Where do I post it? Starting out as an unknown indie developer, you don't have facebook or twitter followers, you don't have a subreddit waiting to eat your game up, the internet does not care about you at all. So what do you do? Post it on game dev forums for all your developer friends! Or rather, that is the exact opposite of what you should do. It's by far the easiest course to take and I think it's the path a lot of aspiring developers take (including myself in there). After all, who's going to be the most willing to like a well crafted menu system, or a showcase of that awesome scrolling text system you coded from scratch? Fellow devs are! But actual players won't care...Players want to know why your game is going to make their life awesome after they buy it. I learnt about this trap while I was doing the marketing research, but I still fell into it a fair bit. It's just too easy.
What you should be doing is talking to as many players as possible who like the genre of game you are making and finding out how they learn about games. Are there any secret subreddits you didn't know existed? Is there a random forum out there where those players all congregate to share news? Is there a specific hashtag the players use when looking for new games? Find your audience because they won't find you. If you don't find them you'll just be screaming into the wind and maybe, very occasionally, a passing leaf will be blown off course by your incessant yelling and land on that wishlist button. But that won't happen nearly enough to make anything approaching a profit without good messages targeting your specific niche.
Make a presskit and have a centralised place that you post everything online to. Mine is this website (although I didn't get that right; I moved over from a standalone Spaceslingers site to RefresherTowel Games as I neared launch, which definitely had an impact on traffic I had built up). However, a presskit is a great thing. Write one. Right now! Have a read of mine here: https://refreshertowel.games/spaceslingers-presskit-3/ but also, I just blatantly copied Vlambeer's presskit() design, so go over there as well and learn from the true masters.
Having a presskit was super helpful for me, it gave me a great way of mentally collating information, it let me immediately and easily share information about the game to any press who were interested. In fact, it's the fourth most viewed page on my site, sitting just behind the Spaceslingers page itself, and it's ahead of the Spaceslingers devlog (which surprised me, as I assumed most people would be more interested in reading about the development than checking out an official presskit document).
By keeping all this information in the same place, it makes it much easier for people to find your game, rather than finding one piece of information on forum X, another in twitter thread Y, another on site Z and finally links to your game on your facebook profile. Organise and centralise and give people a consistent place to visit again if they are interested.
So, you got some people liking tweets and commenting on a few forum threads of yours, maybe some reactions in a few discord servers. How do you drive them to your centralised place? How do you make sure they stay engaged? How do you get them to share stuff that showcases your game?
Give them content. Not screenshots, not sweet descriptions of stuff, but actual valuable information that they could use in their life.
For instance, let's say you're creating a fighting game where all the fighters are wooden puppets called, uhh...Wrangling Wood. Why are you making this game? Because you secretly love woodworking! Use that!
Write a blog post or tutorial about what tool bits you've found to be the best, or how to handle a lathe like a pro (I don't know anything about woodworking if you can't tell), or create a video walk-through where you craft one of the puppets for real from a chunk of wood. This is shareable content. This sort of stuff will keep driving traffic to your site for a long time. People hate feeling like they are doing marketing for you, but they love sharing cool bits of information with their friends!
Of course, it might feel like there's no angle like that for your game, but it's just a matter of thinking things through. There's going to be some passion or inspiration you are drawing from to create the game. That passion, as a topic, will extend beyond the domains of your game in some way. It's in that extended domain that you should be able to find something to teach or interest people that still relates to your game.
A real example is my blog post: Creating Sweet Particle Effects in GMS2. I was having a lot of fun experimenting with particle effects while making Spaceslingers and I was finding new uses for particle skills I'd learnt in previous projects. So I did what I enjoy doing; I made something to help other people. A detailed tutorial on how to go from nothing to some pretty cool particle effects and also some tips on the process of creating new custom effects. Then I posted it on reddit, a few forums, twitter, and facebook, and bam...A few thousand views in the first few days, which led to the highest clickthrough rate from my site to the Steam page for Spaceslingers in the entire development period. And it's kept going...Nowhere near as strong as in that first week but still a consistent stream in the 100's of visits each week to that tutorial and a few percent of them clicking through to Spaceslingers. It was definitely the best use of my time marketing-wise.
That's about it. I wanted to write this all down while the experiences were still fresh in my head just after launch instead of waiting for the traditional few months and then doing a post-mortem. The titular pre-post-mortem.
This post is, in many ways, the true goal of Spaceslingers. I wanted to learn the ropes. I wanted to find the pitfalls I would fall into and mark them out for myself. I wanted to see what I would find most difficult and what points I could do well. How Spaceslingers did commercially was a lot less important to me than how much I managed to learn along the journey. After all, expecting to hit a home run commercially as an unknown indie dev with a $0 budget releasing their first game would be more than a little insane (the last little lesson you can take away from this post).
So plan carefully, expect to spend a lot of time trying to market your game, don't expect commercial success with your first (or second, or third) title and have fun! It's why we're indie devs after all. We want to make unique, interesting and sometimes spiky experiences. The kind of shit you won't get from big studios with accountants and tons of corporate inertia.
Thanks for reading through this giant of a blog post! Oh, and if this has been helpful make sure to head over to the Spaceslingers page and plop down a purchase