Marketing is one of the most important aspects of a video game’s development cycle. Hundreds of games are launched each day, and those that fail to market themselves effectively will quickly find themselves lost amongst the crowd.
Thankfully, there are several tried-and-tested strategies that can help you understand how to market your indie game and set you on the path to success.
This article includes:
- Understand your project
- Tell your own story
- Research your competitors
- Write an elevator pitch
- Networking and community
- Establish trust
- Update your marketing assets
- Prepare a press kit
- Endorsements and testimonials
- Updates and DLC
- Need more help?
Understand your project
The first step to any successful marketing campaign is to understand the value of your product. How can you tell other people what’s so great about it if you’re not even sure yourself?
You need to know which aspects of your game are worth shouting about, and just as importantly, which bits aren’t.
If you’re making a 2.5D platformer in a rubber hose animation art style, these are already unique selling points. Don’t waste time focusing on your double-jump mechanics (not unless they’re the best damn double-jump mechanics of all time).
Let’s take Rayman Legends as an example: which aspects of the game would you say are worth shouting about?
- The unique, hand-drawn, cut-out art style
- The game’s emphasis on music and rhythm
- Multiple different characters to play through the levels with, in single player or in co-op
Little wonder that these three elements were the main highlights in the game’s pre-release trailers.
Rayman Legends, developed by Ubisoft
Tell your own story
Here’s a marketing expression you may have come across before: ‘People buy people first and their products second’. The idea here is that if you’re a likable human being with a story to tell, people will want to support you, even if your product isn’t something they’d usually buy.
As an indie developer, you’ve been on a unique journey:
- Maybe you dreamed of becoming a game designer at a young age, struggled to break into the industry, and decided to go it alone.
- Maybe you’re making a spiritual successor to a game that you loved as a child that AAA developers have neglected for years.
- Maybe your game was made to raise awareness of a societal issue, or supports those with special needs.
You’ll need to decide how much of yourself you’re comfortable sharing with the world, but if you can create a human connection, you’ll create an audience that’s invested in your success.
Research your competitors
Market research is a key component of any marketing strategy. If you were developing a AAA game, you’d need to understand who your audience are, where they are, and how to reach them. Indie developers don’t tend to need to be that granular.
The most valuable form of market research you can perform is actually on your fellow indie developers.
Studying their approach to marketing, the techniques they use and how they interact with others on social media platforms can help you understand what works and which elements of their marketing approach you should roll into your own campaigns.
Write an elevator pitch
Picture the scene: the CEO of a major game publisher has just stepped into an elevator. You dash through the crowd and slip between the doors as they slide shut, and you’ve got a three-floor trip to pitch your game directly to the big cheese. What are you going to tell them?
This is where your elevator pitch comes in: a short, punchy description that explains your game as succinctly as possible.
An elevator pitch will also help you better understand your game’s biggest selling points and help weed out bad ideas. If you struggle to describe your game in one sentence, and make it sound amazing, you need to consider whether you're making the right game.
Here are a couple of elevator pitches used by indie developers in the past:
- ‘Majotori is a narrative trivia game where your ignorance can ruin people’s lives.’
- ‘Spiritfarer is a cosy management game about dying.’
Majotori, developed by Majorariatto
Networking and community
This is the bread and butter of indie game marketing: social media platforms, forums like our own GameMaker Forum, and fellow indie game developers are all vital resources for building your community and raising awareness of your game.
Building a following on social media takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s vital work for indie game marketers.
The golden rule of social media growth is to reply. Get involved in conversations, add value to them, use your platform to spotlight others, and make your account a place where like-minded people can come and share their views.
Interact with fellow developers, discover which hashtags and trends your posts should be tagged with, and make sure your pinned posts, comments, and Tweets feature the important links to your website and product pages.
Building a community is a long job, but remember: if the best time to start was yesterday, the next best time is today.
Building trust within your growing community is essential for indie developers. You need to show your players you’re in this for the long haul, especially if you’re planning on launching a Kickstarter campaign or going Early Access.
Creating and managing an attractive website is one way to establish trust, but websites aren’t cheap. If you’re looking for free ways to build trust, maintaining a bustling social feed or two is every bit as good.
The important thing is to stay active. There are hundreds of games vying for your audience’s attention every single day: if you go silent with no advanced warning, people will start dropping off.
No-one’s expecting you to check in every hour, but regular updates and a weekly blog post go a long way to sustaining long-term interest in your project, and in building a dedicated community.
During the launch of Super Smash Bros. for 3DS and Wii U, director Masahiro Sakurai uploaded a new screenshot to his Miiverse community every day to keep the hype-train rolling.
Initially, Sakurai left the images un-captioned, but as the ‘Pic of the Day’ series went on, he began tagging his uploads with important information about the game’s mechanics.
Super Smash Bros. For Wii U, developed by Sora
Update your marketing assets
Sakurai’s ‘Pic of the Day’ series brings up another important point: updating your followers on the game’s development is great, but they’ll also want to see the progress every once in a while.
Whenever you release new marketing materials like artwork or gameplay trailers, make sure you update relevant pinned messages, your website, and your asset libraries, too.
The assets you released three months ago may not reflect the improvements you’ve made since then, and the last thing you need are reviewers and media outlets featuring old assets in their write-ups.
Prepare a press kit
As you near release day, you’re going to need to get your game in front of as many people as possible. That’s where reviewers and influencers come in.
Before you reach out, you need to have a press kit prepared. Press kits are a page, document, or folder of resources that cover everything a reviewer needs to know to accurately cover your game.
Your press kit should include:
- A description of your game and its story.
- Release details.
- Promotional images for the reviewers to use in articles, thumbnails etc.
- A clear outline of any embargoed information that you don’t want the reviewer sharing with their audiences.
- Contact details should they wish to follow up with you for interviews or support.
Journalists are busy people. So are Twitch streamers. If you want to get their attention and curry their favour, you need to do as much of the heavy lifting for them as possible.
Endorsements and testimonials
Now you’ve got your press kit, it’s time for a spot of influencer marketing.
Endorsements and testimonials from high-profile websites, reviewers, and streamers are huge trust signals for your game. If Eurogamer and SuperButterBuns like it, players are more likely to give it a try themselves.
Be sure to do your research and only reach out to relevant platforms. Scott the Woz doesn’t stream, Caddicarus doesn’t make individual game reviews any more, and Push Square only reviews PlayStation releases, so make sure you pick your targets carefully.
If you manage a few nibbles, make sure you get yourself a quote that you can use in your marketing material.
Aside from hunting out reviewers and streamers, try reaching out to popular influencers and other indie developers on social media. A Retweet could put your game in front of hundreds of thousands of new users who wouldn’t have found you otherwise.
Spyro: Reignited Trilogy’s Snoop Dog partnership
Discounts are a post-launch tactic. If you start cutting your game’s price before it’s even launched, your audience may start to worry that the price cut is indicative of a troubled development.
When your game is out in the wild and benefitting from all the hard marketing yards you’ve been putting in, a well-timed discount can help generate renewed interest just as the post-release buzz begins to die down.
Your first few discounts should be attractive enough to convince those hold-outs who were waiting for a sale, but not so significant that they upset those who paid full price. You wouldn’t want to back a game at $20 at release, then see it discounted to $6 two weeks later.
A well-timed discount can reignite interest in your game and put it front and center of the Steam storefront for even greater coverage. By that time, you’ll have accrued a few reviews from your community that help convince any newcomers that it’s a deal worth taking advantage of.
Steam store discounts
Updates and DLC
Updates, patches, and downloadable content (DLC) are another set of powerful marketing tactics that can put the spotlight back on your game post-launch.
DLC in particular gives fans of your game a reason to stick around and support your project. Patches and updates don’t quite carry the same marketing oomph as DLC, but demonstrating a willingness to maintain your game after release fosters trust amongst your players.
After all, if it looks like the developer doesn’t care about their game now it’s out on digital store shelves, why should players buy in?
Need more help?
If you come alive at the thought of coding and designing but shudder at the thought of marketing and community-building, you might want to consider working with an indie game publisher.
Publishers can help lift the marketing burden from your shoulders. They often have well-established relationships with influencers and event organisers that they can leverage on your behalf, or even offer cross-promotion with other games.
Check out our interview with Super Rare Games for more information on the advantages of working with game publishers.
Make your next game with GameMaker
The GameMaker engine might not be able to market your game for you, but with in-built support for exports to every major PC, mobile, and home console platform, including PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch, it can certainly help you find your audience.
Some of the most successful indie games of all time were made with GameMaker, including Undertale, Spelunky, and Webbed.
Finally, don’t forget to check out our article on how to generate best-selling video game ideas if you’re looking for a little inspiration ahead of your next project.