According to VG Insights, more than 50% of indie games on Steam have never made more than $4,000, but the top 1% make more than $7 million. Whether you are an avid gamer or an interested bystander, you’ve probably heard of Steam.
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This digital storefront, which launched in September 2003, evolved from a simple portal to a gaming hub where you can review, buy, and contribute to the development of games. To give you an idea of Steam’s initial interface, here’s what it looked like 18 years ago:
Imagine it’s 2003 and you have limited internet access and slow download speeds. Here enters a platform that was seen by many gamers as a threat to PC gaming. On the other hand, some saw this as an opportunity to distribute indie games alongside the bigger players. Fast forward to 2021 and indie games are redefining their reputation with a vocal, enthusiastic following made up of passionate gamers and talented developers.
History aside, the findings from VG Insights don’t align with this claim. Despite publications like PC Gamer now having dedicated ‘Indie’ sections, the truth still remains: the profit margins for indie games are still small and few indie games have seen commercial success.
It’s been an uphill battle for indie games but in the last five years, studios and freelance developers have utilized advancements to create console bestsellers that rival games produced by bigger studios. This should serve as inspiration for any developers looking to create an indie game this year, but how do you know when you’re ready to market that game?
In this in-depth guide, we outline best practices around App Store Optimization (ASO), working with gaming influencers, and launching dedicated social channels like YouTube. For our full take on indie game marketing, jump down to our infographic that has all the information and takeaways.
What is an Indie Game?
An indie game is a video game created by individuals or smaller development teams that don’t have the financial or technical backing of a large game publisher.
One popular example of an indie game: Minecraft. It’s arguably the most successful indie game to date and even earned a Guinness World Record*: the best-selling video game with 200 million sales as of May 2020.
The game was even the subject of a Ph.D study in 2011. According to Alex Leavitt, a Ph.D student at the Annenberg School of Communication, the success of Minecraft was due to free marketing. The survey sample revealed that one-third of the participants had heard about Minecraft through friends while another third learned about the game from YouTube*.
With the internet booting up to change the world, software developers were faced with new challenges and a new industry: video game publishing. The games and experiences that were created in basements and bedrooms suddenly had clout. The graphics had potential, and for the first time, major publishers like Microsoft, Sony, and EA had credible competition e.g. game developer James Schmalz and his company, Digital Extremes.
This later led to developers — both independent and mainstream — meeting at a crossroads: collaboration to the left and competition to the right. The moral of the story is that in 2021, a mutual respect now exists. Indie game developers are now able to embrace real opportunities to launch their games for consoles, not just PCs.
Why Do Indie Games Fail? 3 Pitfalls to Avoid
The question still remains: why do indie games fail and how can developers try to avoid this potential fate? Here are three common mistakes made and how to sidestep them.
No Marketing Spend or Strategy
Before you even get started, you’re probably curious and concerned about the allocated budget to market your indie game. First, there is no ‘right’ amount and success is not tied to a specific budget. You won’t be more successful if you have a high budget just like you won’t be unsuccessful with a low one.
Having said this, it’s understandable that you will not be flush with cash your first year or even first few years. For veteran indie games like Minecraft, the advantage of being the early bird is likely one of the reasons for their success. The thrill of the new is almost always going to catapult lucky entries to the front of the line. That is the exception to the rule, though. For most indie games, you need to create your own luck and marketing strategy.
Another good tip: use free channels like social media and gaming newsletters to market your game, even when your budget eventually allows you to pay for channels. Regardless of platform — mobile, console, PC, or all three — you need to engage in marketing so your audience will understand why your game is worth buying.
No Engagement With Relevant Platforms and Channels
With so many great gaming platforms and channels, how do you know which ones to connect with?
There are two must-have platforms for every indie game strategy: Twitch and YouTube. Here’s how these platforms win at engagement and why optimization is essential.
- Twitch: Since 2011, this video live streaming service has acquired millions of users. According to the official Twitch site, 7 million (and counting) unique streamers go live every month and there are 30 million average daily visitors. When integrating with Twitch, developers are able to engage with viewers and streamers through influencer campaigns, extended gameplay, merchandise, and in-game incentives.
We recommend making your game Twitch-friendly in the development stage. This could include using Twitch’s API in your game and reaching out to existing streamers to have them test your game. By optimizing your game for this platform at the early stages, you’ll also optimize your chances of streamers finding and broadcasting your game.
- YouTube: In the last 16 years, the online video platform has generated a loyal following — more than two billion users. While it might seem obvious to track down the streamers who have the largest share of that following, don’t dismiss ones with smaller audiences.It’s more important to identify streamers who enjoy the genre that your game falls under, and play games on the platform/console that your game is designed for. Similar to Twitch, make your game YouTube-friendly at the development stage.
No Long-Term Plan for the Game or Story
Here’s a common gaming myth: if your first game is a success, a sequel is definitely going to sell just as well. As tempting as it might be to update and polish the original version, we recommend going back to the drawing board.
One of the main reasons that gamers are attracted to indie games is the originality. Bear this in mind as you plan your long-term strategy for your game and its story. The people who search for indie games are buying into the originality to have a unique experience that isn’t offered by the major studios and their games.
Use this insight to fuel your creativity, particularly when it comes to your long-term plan for your game and its story. Without the pressure of having to create a polished sequel to your original, this will free you up to create another game that delivers exactly what your audience wants.
Must-Haves for Indie Game Marketing
In 2018, the indie game market was valued at roughly $1B on Steam alone*. This is encouraging for new and established developers, and an important reason not to just wing it. Follow these marketing must-haves on your way to indie game success.
Assemble an Epic Trailer
Think about the last time that you watched an eye-catching trailer and how excited you were for the official launch of that product, movie, or game. The trailer is your game’s best chance at making a great first impression and the asset that you absolutely need to get right.
The trailer, on its own, is unique: it is one of the only assets that combines exciting music, stunning imagery or animation, and a clear call-to-action. If you create an epic trailer, and can highlight all this in less than two minutes, you’ll have successfully completed your first marketing task— sparking interest in your game and creating a buzz. Here’s a checklist we recommend:
- Write and plan your trailer’s story ahead of creation
- Start out using free, easy-to-use tools to create your trailer
- Highlight gameplay and tease key events in your game
- Don’t forget about the audio
- Take your time and don’t rush production of your trailer
Above all else, create the trailer that you would want to watch. One example that we love: Forgotten Fields. Released in April 2021, and available on PC, Mac, and Linux, this game is about a struggling writer who journeys back to his childhood home before it is sold.
There are several things that are great about this trailer: the story is interesting, the graphics are eye-catching, the audio used is calming, and the gameplay is explained clearly. Based on the trailer alone, it feels like a fun game to play after a long day at work.
Build Up Dedicated Social Media Channels
If you have a mobile device, it’s very likely that you have a few social media apps downloaded. Social media is no longer just a nice-to-have, and in 2021, there is no escaping its power. We recommend creating dedicated social media channels as well as social buttons on your landing page for an interconnected user experience.
Remember that each social platform has its own vibe and audience. As we mentioned above, it’s important that your game is Twitch- and YouTube-friendly during the development stage. Yet this is only the beginning. These channels need to be utilized during the marketing stage, too. Here is some insider information on the various social media channels:
- Twitter:According to the social platform, there were more than two billion tweets about gaming throughout 2020. This is a 75% increase YoY and almost 50% increase in unique authors. This engagement is a step in the right direction, but Twitter is not the channel to use to market your game. It’s the channel to get people’s attention.
That’s exactly what Rebecca Cordingley, indie game creator of Ooblets, has done on Twitter. With almost 50K followers, Rebecca implements Twitter activity including offers on Xbox, game updates, and invites to test the build of the game.
Use Twitter to gain the attention of stakeholders such as publishers, streamers, and journalists. We highly recommend that you create a free Twitter account and follow these key stakeholders, particularly the latter.
Once you know who operates within your indie game circle (e.g., journalists who enjoy playing games in your genre), make sure that you nurture these relationships. It’s also important to make a note of relevant hashtags and use them as often as possible.
- Instagram: This visual channel lends itself well to showcasing a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at how your indie game operates. Indie game Profane MMORPG offers stakeholders, including potential gamers, a unique look at its studio with Dev Fridays, monthly updates and community events such as an Ask Me Anything chat on Reddit. These are great examples of utilizing the Instagram platform to grow your fanbase.
Instagram is also a great channel to share your trailer, highlight updates to your game, and post about event appearances. Like Twitter, be sure to use relevant hashtags.
Create Beautiful Press and Marketing Assets
Every indie game developer is likely to have their own thoughts on what to use as marketing and press assets. Keeping in mind that you don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to market your indie game, there are two very important assets to prioritize: your trailer and screenshots.
Your social media posts will gain much more attention if they have beautiful screenshots to accompany them. Take as many high-resolution pictures as possible and then take more. You’ll probably only use five to 10 pictures, but having a full database of pictures means more choices.
Ensure that each of these pictures tell a different story, but not the entire story. At every stage of the marketing process, you want to pique the interest of your audience. Keep in mind that the resolution of these pictures must work for social media, magazines and online articles.
Last, but certainly not least, you’ll want a high-resolution copy of your game’s logo. This logo should feature across all your game’s channels, so make sure that it reflects personality.
Let’s look at what’s inside the presskit for Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion.
- A dedicated Dropbox account where your files are hosted
- An ‘Art’ folder with hi-res images of all the characters
- A ‘Logo’ folder with hi-res files of the game’s logo
- A ‘Screenshots’ folder with hi-res screenshots of the game’s highlights
- A one-pager with details on the game such as release date, developer and a brief synopsis of what the game is about
In addition to having a great game title and website, the ‘Presskit’ call-to-action is right at the top. When you click on the link, it takes you to a dedicated Dropbox with folders for the logo, screenshots, and art. Make it as easy as possible for the press to find these assets and be sure to label folders and files clearly to avoid any confusion or unnecessary questions.
Once you have a full package of assets to market your indie game, you’ll be able to answer requests from journalists, streamers, and other key stakeholders who want to know more. One thing to remember: like your social channels, your external messaging must be consistent. The last thing that you want to do is confuse people just as your game is gaining traction.
Optimize a Mobile-Friendly Landing Page
Your trailer has done its job: your game is getting the attention of streamers, journalists, and other relevant people. Within your social media profiles and marketing/press assets, your call-to-action should include a link to your dedicated game landing page. This landing page should include the following:
- Links to app stores
- Buttons to social media accounts
- Testimonials from game reviewers
- Further calls-to-action
The viral video game Among Us from the team at InnerSloth has created a great mobile-friendly landing page for players.
When you land on the Among Us landing page on desktop or mobile, you’ll see that everything that you need is right there: a synopsis of the game, the trailer, the download and buy buttons, screenshots and a link to an offer on Steam. Whether you want to buy the game or buy merchandise, everything is in one, easy-to-use place.
Of course every landing page will be designed differently and the buttons/links will have different placements, but overall, this is a great example of a fun, engaging landing page that delivers.
When It’s Time to Market An Indie Game
In the early days of indie games, you could almost always get away with little to no marketing strategy. The idea that there were unique games other than the ones developed by big studios was exciting and new. In 2021, the same excitement that gamers have for indie games has evolved and matured slightly. They are no longer ‘new’ but they can still be exciting.
One thing to note: timings for marketing your indie game might be different from your competitors. Don’t feel pressured to market your game earlier than you feel your game deserves. There is no ‘right’ time to market an indie game, and it’s more important to do your market research, test your game, optimize all touchpoints and create stunning assets for your trailer, press kits, social media channels, and app stores.
Marketing an indie game requires almost as much time as creating the game itself. To help you understand the main priorities when marketing your indie game, we’ve included advice on what to prioritize, who to engage with, and the power that both of these steps have on your game.
The Importance of App Store Optimization (ASO)
This is really the very first step to marketing your game effectively and successfully.
App Store Optimization is the process of optimizing your game app in order to rank highly in the search results of the App Store and Google Play.
With more than six million apps available to download, the competition is fierce, which is why ASO is so important for indie games, especially during those early days. Your game will not always appear in the app store, either. The other six million apps (and counting) all want their time in the spotlight, so the time that you do have needs to count.
If your aim is to reach potential gamers in the app store, here are three things that you need to optimize to be visible:
- The game’s title, keywords, and description: Bear in mind that Google Play users are likely to use different keywords from those who use the App Store. Use as many relevant keywords as possible in the name and description but don’t repeat keywords.
- Visual components within the store:One of the keys to help improve visibility on both stores: A/B testing. It’s important to test screenshots in the store but you should also test the icon. Whether it’s a negative or positive result, don’t discount the value of testing all visual components, not just screenshots.
- App ratings: It might seem like a good strategy to get as many reviews and ratings as possible. However, for ASO, it’s about quality and Invite people who engage the most with your game to rate it in the app store, rather than just anyone. Additionally, don’t just use ratings and reviews to bolster your numbers. Read them all, respond (where possible) and take note of the common callouts that are mentioned.
Remember: this should be your first step when marketing your game. Further efforts won’t matter if you don’t first optimize for app stores. Also, don’t feel like the work is done once you’ve optimized the first time. Take the time to create a plan for ASO, because it’s an important part of your game’s visibility and long-term success.
4 Influencers Who Know Indie Games
There’s another important part of your game’s visibility and long-term success: gaming influencers. Here’s how serious we are about this: according to Mediakix, brands are set to spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022
Instagram is leading the way for brands and influencers. In fact, nearly 79% of brands primarily use Instagram for influencer campaigns compared to 36% who use YouTube. While YouTube is more than half as popular with brands, it’s actually the most important for indie game marketing.
Before we jump into four influencers who developers should work with and follow, let’s look at a game that utilized YouTube and earned an engaged community and sales: Star Citizen.
The game has been in development since 2012 and in that time, it’s accumulated almost half a million followers on YouTube. This is a great example of how a studio committed to YouTube and followed a regular upload schedule to engage regularly with its community.
One video that received justifiable attention from that community: a video to mark International Women’s Day. However, the influencers weren’t YouTube influencers but female employees at Cloud Imperium Games. The video received more than 24,000 views and 408 comments. A great example of how showcasing influencers — both internal and external — adds value.
For those times that you want to collaborate with influencers — and you absolutely should — here are five names that you should definitely have on your radar.
1. Get Indie Gaming
YouTube followers: 106K
Who they are: An indie game video producer, countdowns curator, and reviewer. This channel has weekly and monthly roundups of the best indie games. It also offers hidden gems and recommendations.
Twitch followers: 12.4K
Who they are: A Twitch streamer who plays a number of indie horror games. Robin uses the chat function to help gamers and uses Discord to inform her followers of her activity plans.
Twitter followers: 74.4K
Who they are: A community for game developers. IndieDB features news, downloads, insight, and media from indie game teams.
4. Indie Game Lover
Instagram followers: 11.2K
Who they are: Danielle (AKA Kitty) loves to share her passion for indie games and help developers show off their work.
These four influencers highlight various approaches to indie game marketing. Whether you work with these influencers or others, they can provide a great opportunity to reach your audience through the power of active and engaged communities.
You can also find these active and engaged communities following gaming magazines, events, conferences, and webinars on social and online. There are so many opportunities to collaborate and interact with indie game supporters, so don’t limit yourself to just one.
Final Words: Be Creative
It’s now time for you to market your indie game. In today’s fast-paced, competitive market, it’s as much about discovery as it is about stunning visuals. Your budget doesn’t have to be substantial to make a significant impression on the app store, streamers, and journalists.
Use the talent, creativity, and innovation that fueled your initial idea and arm yourself with everything that you need to stand out from the crowd. Gaming is about entertainment and telling that compelling story that makes playing fun and shareable.