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  • A Marketing Strategy For First-Time Developers

    [01.14.21]
    - Sam Barham
  • For first time indie developers, successfully selling a game - your own game - is hard. Forget the actual making of the game; that's a clear path in comparison to the many other things you need to know and do when selling the game you've poured thousands of hours into making! Though there are many talks and articles that cover this topic, I want to discuss what I believe are the most important steps I took on my way from being a solo hobbyist working alone in an attic, to owning a small(ish) studio with a bright future.

    After about 2 and a half years of work, two of which was as a solo-ish developer, we shipped our debut title Before We Leave (a non-violent city builder) in May 2020; less than one month after NZ had emerged from it's first Covid-19 lockdown. Now, Before We Leave has sold 50,000 copies - success achieved! 

    Before my adventures in game development, I was a software developer for 20 years. I've worked in everything from graphics for live sports broadcast to motion capture for children's TV, to being the Dev Ops Architect for an educational website. I also spent a couple of years working with a small game studio, helping them create games for larger clients with specific briefs. All these experiences prepared me well for some of the challenges of making a game - but certainly not all of them!

    I'd also like to briefly acknowledge how privileged I am - I'm a middle-class cishet white male from a relatively wealthy country, meaning that I have access to a lot of opportunities that others might not have. Please take my advice with a grain of salt, and know that certain things will change for you depending on your life circumstances.

    Start local

    Arguably the most important step I took to ensure Before We Leave's success was entering Kiwi Game Starter (KGS) in 2018 and 2019. KGS is an award and competition for NZ game developers that are just starting out, usually run alongside the annual NZGDC conference. Submitting a build of the game and the feedback I received was valuable, but what really helped me was working on the other things I had to submit with it; an analysis of similar games, a budget, and a marketing plan.

    While none of what I submitted worked out exactly as I estimated (the game ended up costing about 5 times as much to produce as my initial very naïve estimates, for example), the exercise of doing the analysis was a foundational step in the journey I was taking. One of the KGS organisers commented that the fact I'd engaged with this boring (yet crucial) paperwork is one of the things that made me stand out in the competition - I was one of the 4 finalists the first year I entered and I won the competition the next year!

    Around the same time as KGS, I also attended the ProIndieDev online conference - a series of talks created by veteran developers discussing how to be successful making your own game. Luckily, the talks covered the same topics I found useful when working on my KGS submission which helped solidify my knowledge. I recommend ProIndieDev, or even a conference like GameDev World; anything that helps you learn about the business of making games. I know that you just want to make your game, but even being aware of this necessary analysis and paperwork will help you in many different ways. It's important to have this understanding and knowledge! 

    From my first Kiwi Game Starter entry in 2018, something amazing and unexpected happened - a successful game developer who was looking to ‘pay forward' their success came to me and offered to fund development of Before We Leave! This meant that I could move to developing full time, and allowed me to hire an artist and a PR person.

    Obviously something like this doesn't happen often, and this random act of kindness is what allowed me to seriously develop Before We Leave from 2018 onwards. However, I don't want to focus on this point too much - though the investor changed the velocity of my path, it was the actions that I took in things like preparing for the KGS that really set the direction - doing the research, doing the paperwork, being realistic about my chances and my costs, trying to learn what all the aspects of game development were and how I might go about doing them.

    Announcement

    The next important step on the journey was in June 2019, about nine months after my Kiwi Game Starter success. I'd been working full time for about 6 months, and it was time to announce Before We Leave publicly. Like every indie dev, I knew this announcement would need to make a whale-sized splash (pun intended), since this would be the first time prospective players would be hearing about Before We Leave. In order to achieve this I focused on three things: PR, the announcement trailer, and a Discord server.

    PR

    First, I recognised that there was no way I was going to be able to do effective PR for the announcement. PR is 99% research. If you truly want to learn it, you can do it yourself but finding a freelancer eases the burden a lot. So I found someone (by happening to see them tweet about being open for freelance games PR work!) who could help getting my announcement to all the important places - the main gaming news websites in particular. They were also super helpful in advising me on what to work on to make the ‘surface' of the game as good as it could be and designing the best announcement trailer we could.

    In case you haven't met the term before, your ‘surface' is the most visible parts of the game that make the most difference in helping an undecided player to decide to buy the game. For example, your thousand years of in-depth written lore might be awesome, and might be a great hook to keep someone playing the game after they've purchased it, but it's unlikely to convince someone to buy the game initially! Working out what was ‘surface' for Before We Leave - things like the way planets assemble as you explore them, the way the clouds move and the overall art style - and concentrating on them in the announcement was one of the keys to making it as noticeable as possible

    Make a compelling trailer

    We worked together for several months slowly refining the announcement trailer to be as good as possible. Getting your game's announcement trailer as perfect as you can is vital. 

    We needed to achieve several things:

    • Showing players what the game was about, and 
    • Drawing people in immediately. 

    These two must-haves can be tricky to implement into a single trailer! Generally, you have around 5 seconds to grab a player's attention before they'll stop watching your trailer - and even if you get their initial attention, you've got another 10 seconds to convince them to keep watching. Think very carefully about what a prospective player watching your trailer would enjoy seeing, and in what order. But at the same time, tell the player what they can do in game. Show them what the experience they could have looks like.

    Now, that said, you need to be very selective about what you show - I know that the details of your intricate combat systems are fascinating (and once a player has bought your game and soaked in it's ambience they'll probably agree), but leading with that in your announcement trailer will kill it deader than a headless fish! Additionally, thinking about the right piece of music for your trailer and researching other trailers from competitor games will help you immensely. 

    But fear not! Capturing in-game footage and editing video these days is pretty simple -  I use OBS and DaVinci Resolve personally. 

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