How to market your game XBLIG style – Part 1

During my brief tenure at Armless Octopus, I’ve come across my fair share of great titles, as well as others that aren’t so good. Some of these great titles end up not selling so well, meanwhile a lot of the poor titles sell like hot cakes (Perfect Massage, anyone?). There is nothing that breaks my heart more than to find a game with so much potential, and witness the developers pour their heart and soul into it, only to have it fall flat on its face due to poor marketing. I find that a large number of developers tend to have incredible programming or computer skills, but lack those in the field of social interaction. As an aside, Robert Boyd also did an excellent article on marketing your XBLIG on his Gamasutra blog.

I’m not saying you need to be oozing with the charisma of Ryan Seacrest, but there are a few key points every developer needs to know when promoting their title. We’d like to share some of the best marketing practices we’ve witnessed up to this point. In order to market your games successfully you need to be proactive, and not reactive, and here’s how:

Network

It all begins with your ability to network with others. Get out there, talk to people. It doesn’t matter if it is other developers, publishers, marketers, PR guys, venture capitalists, or the guy down the block. Make your name known. Use LinkedIn to get connected to others in the industry. It’s an invaluable resource for networking, as you can see how others are connected, and you can get your name out there in a professional manner. One of the first things I do upon meeting someone is look for them on LinkedIn to gauge their professional credentials. Having a Linkedin not only lends to your credibility, but also makes it easier for others in the industry to find you. Furthermore, a number of groups catering to specific fields (level design, specific engines, programming) are available for you to meet others. Job postings, assistance, and other networking opportunities are some of the hidden gems you’ll find in these groups.

Generate buzz….early!

At the beginning of your development process, after you have your design docs in order (you do use design docs, don’t you?) and a  working demo, you should start to promote your title. This could be something as simple as a short press release explaining what will be included in the game, key features, the platform(s) it will be available on, and a tentative release window. I mention that this should  come AFTER you have a working demo (not necessarily one for the public to play), so that your key features are solidified as working within the game. There’s nothing worse than banking on a few features as a selling point, only to not be able to implement them because you didn’t have the capabilities.

You are your brand!

Sell it! During the Indie City round table event at GDC run by Deejay of Binary Tweed this exact question came up: “When creating an indie game, should you promote yourself, or your game?” Why not both? Especially with studios consisting of a single individual, or small groups, it is essential to sell yourself as well. This is how you will be known. Donald Trump said something along the lines of “If you don’t speak of your good deeds, then who will?” The point is, no one is going to promote your work but you.

Make a website for yourself. It can even be a free WordPress one, but as long as you have something! I sat in for a GDC panel two years ago where Jakob Minkoff of Naughty Dog preached the importance of making your own site. From then on it was my goal to have one up and consistently maintain it. This is your small corner of the internet, your portal where others can come to learn more about you as an individual. Your site is one of the single most important things you can do to promote your game. It allows you to gauge whether or not your are spreading your presence on the internet simply based on the number of hits each day. Furthermore, it allows others to get a peek at the man behind the mask; listing your hobbies, interests, and previous experiences is essential for starting conversation. The more easily others can relate to you on a personal level, the better off you will be. Take a peek at my site if you haven’t already and learn a bit from it. I’ve taken the best aspects I’ve found from everyone else’s sites and combined them to create my own. Key features to include:

  • News – your involvement within the gaming industry, whether it is events your attending or plan to attend. Update it frequently, as it displays your devotion to your craft and where people can find you
  • Resume – both in downloadable form (whether as a .pdf or .doc) and viewable on the webpage
  • Personal and professional work This is your opportuntiy to display items not necessarily related to your game, but outside work as well. Who knows, someone may connect with you on a level outside of gaming based on your past works in a different field.
  • Contact information – Enough with those pages which make you enter fields of information to e-mail you, Web 1.0 called and said it wants 1999 back. I want to know how I can call you if I have to, how to find you on Twitter to stalk you and your work, or how to drop you an e-mail if I have a lot to say. Don’t want your number out there? Make a Google number – it’s free!

I cannot stress this enough. There is nothing more frustrating than a developer asking for a preview of their upcoming title, only to have zero supporting information for the preview. It makes the journalist or PR person’s job exponentially easier if they can quickly glance at a document that has all of the pertinent information for your title.  These belong on your website as well. Google “how to write a press release” and generate a few. The journalist will appreciate it and remember this the next time you ask for a review. What do you think the press is talking about the whole time they are being those close “media only” rooms at conferences? Why bad press releases of course. We never forget those.

Quality

Taken straight from Robert Boyd’s post, “Spend some time making sure that your name, box art,  screenshots, and trial  experience are all of the highest quality. These are your greatest selling tools so take  advantage of them. I can’t speak for  everyone, but we generally go through about a dozen different  versions and variations of box art before ending up with the  one that we decide to use in the final  game.” Create something you will be proud of. Don’t rush it out of it’s not finished. That doesn’t necessarily mean follow the Valve motto of “It’s done when it’s done,” because you’ll never release your title, but be confident that it is the best work you are capable of producing at that point in time. Ultimately – be proud  of your work. You never know whether or not the things you’ve said or done will come back around at you.

Promote your studio

A three-person team that does an excellent job of this is Ska Studios. They all wear many hats, where Dustin Berg is constantly updating the website, including daily updates as minuscule as who is sick , is active on Twitter, and networking in the community. Self-proclaimed art unicorn Michelle is creating props such as the violence hammer to be used at events when she is not creating the studio’s in-game art. They even have a mascot in their lovable black cat Gato. (That’s spanish for cat 😉 ) What I’m trying to say here is that the studio emits personality. You know who they are, how well they mesh, and you’re there for every step of the journey to the next game. That’s how you build a fan base, and it’s what fans want to see. Berg also created an excellent developer diary video which shows the inner-workings of the studio as well, which was well received. This leads me to my next point….

Cross promote!

Hey, it works, as seen by the Indie Winter Uprising which initially started from Robert Boyd and Ian Stocker teaming up to cross promote one another’s titles. Seek out another developer who you may have something in common with and see what you can do to help each other out.

Another good idea is to find someone who has a skill or talent you don’t have and create a reciprocal relationship. Perhaps you’re a great artist or a Photoshop ninja, but couldn’t manage to piece a trailer together if your life depended on it. Why not approach someone who can create great trailers and ask them to make one for you? If you’re tight on funds, you could arrange to offer your time to create a Photoshop ninja masterpiece of your new friend’s title or generate some art assets that they may have difficulty with. Many musical artists contract out their work this way. Stephen White is an excellent example of this; on his site you’ll find all of the musical tracks he has worked on, broken down by game title and readily available to stream. Now visitors who may initially have just been interested in his music can see how it has fit within the titles by looking into the developer whose site he has listed above the music and asking how their experience working with him was. Boom: Networking and cross promotion, all in one shot.

Get to know the game journos

These guys will serve as your conduit to the outside world. Ones who have been around long enough have connections, and know a guy who knows a guy. Make your games and information available to them so they can play it, review it, and spread the word. Afterwards, you can link back to their coverage of your program on their site, and (again) cross promote one another’s work. Remember to keep it professional though and don’t become overly friendly – it is important for them to maintain journalistic integrity without stepping over the line and becoming to close. However nervous you may feel when asking them to cover your title, remember; it’s their hobby and/or job to do such things. In most cases they would gladly do so.

Meetups

Meetups are an outstanding way to to meet others who share a common interest. The website meetup.com is a great resource to not only find others who share those interests, but offers the ability to start a group of your own as well. I’m a member of the New York Gaming Meetup, where we meet once a month at the AOL Ventures building to share thoughts and ideas. Generally it begins with a developer pitching their product on a projection screen to the  crowd which consists of venture capitalists, journalists, other developers, or just those interested in gaming. From there we have a  Q&A session, followed by food and drinks. There are other meetups geared just toward specific game engines, such as Unreal. Why not start one of your own if there isn’t one in your area?

Create trailers early!

A trailer serves a couple of purposes. First, it generates awareness and buzz around your product. Epic Games recently did this with the release of their Samaritin demo, displaying the power of Direct X 11 the next month’s release of the Unreal Development Kit. The trailer generated news not only for being good, but for being leaked early! Take a look for yourself, and once you’ve picked your jaw off the ground I’ll continue my story. Post it on your YouTube page (which is displayed prominently on your webpage as well, right?) and let people know about it. Be sure to include key items such as your studio name, features, tentative release date (Ex: Fall 2011), and your web address.

Second, trailers allow you to gauge interest and intercept feedback on your title. How are people commenting on it? What do they enjoy most about it? Least?  After you’re pretty far into the development process, it would be wise to make another trailer, thereby updating the community to the most current features and appearance of the game. This should be the end product, and what customers have come to expect.

Use the Twitters

All of the cool kids are on it, why aren’t you? If you are already then you should be using it to promote your work. Make your handle something easy to remember. It’s difficult for people to remember how to spell your name when it is Xo_1337_hXX0r. Another item developers don’t utilize enough is to create a banner for your Twitter page. The background of your page should consist of a sidebar with your your name, contact info, and web address.

While on the topic of Twitter, it really expands to all forms of social media. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a few photo galleries of your product on Flickr, or your own Facebook page. While you’re at it, remember those press releases I mentioned before? Throw them up on Gamespress.com – who knows who may stumble across them and whether or not they’ll catch fire. A Facebook page for your title couldn’t hurt either. I mean Crosse Studio did it for all of their lacrosse games and they got a few people to join

That concludes series 1 of a 2 part feature for how to market your Xbox Live Indie Games. We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions below. I’m sure there are few points we’ve missed, so feel free to let us know what else you would like to see included. Check back next week for part 2!

Posted on by Dave Voyles in Features, Interviews, xblig

About Dave Voyles

Dave is located in Philadelphia, and works as a Tech Evangelist at Microsoft. He's coordinated the Indie Games Uprisings on Xbox Live, wrote the UnrealScript Game Programming Cookbook, Made an XBLIG game, and is currently doing JS / HTML5 dev for browser base games. You can follow him on Twitter, at @DaveVoyles