In some ways, we live in idyllic times. For the majority of us, we don’t have to toil away in fields for twelve hours a day, six days a week, in order to get enough food to survive the coming winter. Food is abundant. The winters are tolerable. Work is often more boring than difficult. It can even be fun if you enter a field you’re passionate about. Heck, YouTubers can make a pretty gosh-darned good living by playing video games, making art, or winning online pokies, and recording / streaming them to their audiences.
Other people, however, can make a living by making those video games in the first place. It’s its own kind of dream job, in a way. You ever dreamed of making your own Mario? Pokemon? Final Fantasy? Tomb Raider? These days it’s easier than ever, thanks to the glut of tools, resources, engines, and distribution platforms.
That doesn’t mean that making video games is easy by any stretch of the imagination, though. You’re still gonna have to put in hundreds of manhours coding, debugging, playtesting, plus who-knows-how-many additional hours needed to get art, animations, music, and sound effects into the game. If you’re not going solo, then you have to take time out of you’re work to coordinate with them.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to get rich-quick with little time or effort. Flappy Bird is the perfect example of an infuriatingly simple game that raked in millions of dollars. However, don’t expect to be Flappy Bird. That’s the exception, not the rule.
The truth is, there are thousands of video games being released every day, and only a handful rises out of the sea of sludge that is the indie-games-market to any kind of notoriety. Many of them manage to earn enough money to pay the bills and then have to get right to work on the next game to not be homeless the following year.
So how do YOU stand out enough so that your game takes off? Rarely, the merits of the game itself are enough. More often than not, however, you need to build an audience. To build an audience, you need plain and simple marketing.
How an Indie Dev can Market
Now, it probably sucks to hear that marketing is almost a necessity in order to find any kind of success as an indie games developer. After all, you became a game dev to develop games, not advertise. Unfortunately, this is just something that you’re going to have to put in the legwork to achieve.
However, this doesn’t mean that you have to do anything extravagant. Oftentimes, you can start building an audience through good social media management. Different developers like to do different things, but you can start by posting updates to Twitter, sharing screenshots and gifs to Reddit, and you can even have dedicated Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik-Tok pages.
An increasingly popular trend is to record dedicated dev-logs to YouTube. These are edited video logs (vlogs, if you will) that provide regular updates of your game’s development, which can start building a community that gets to know YOU personally and builds a connection between you and your game even in the earliest prototyping and pre-alpha stages of development. I highly recommend checking out the following channels for examples:
- Dani (Very Energetic)
- DevDuck (Very Chill)
- Game Endeavor (Informative, Chill)
- Lets Talk Game Design (Informative, Witty)
- Goods (Motivational)
The following YouTube developers also have already created successful games and attribute a lot of that success to how they’ve marketed it:
- Thomas Brush, developer of “Pinstriped” and “Neversong”
- David Wehle, developer of “The First Tree”
Thomas Brush puts out videos regularly about various aspects of game development and has very informative videos across the board. David Wehle, meanwhile, did a GDC talk titled “No time, no budget, no problem: Finishing The First Tree,” which is about this very subject of marketing, game development, and motivation.
Speaking of GDC…
GDC, or Games Development Conference, is an annual get-together of video game developers, artists, publishers, and just about everyone connected to the field. They also have guest speakers who come and give presentations. These speakers can be anyone from the head of a successful studio to an independent 3D Modeling artist who thinks they have something constructive to say about video games. These talks are uploaded to YouTube, and they’re a goldmine of invaluable information and just genuinely interesting stuff.
However, there are a couple specific ones that I’d like to highlight.
First is one I already mentioned: David Wehle’s talk, titled, “No time, no budget, no problem: Finishing The First Tree”. It contains invaluable advice about how to manage working on a video when you’re constrained by familial obligations, a full-time job, and you’re own sanity. More relevantly is the breakdown of how David Wehle managed to successfully market his game and build his audience single-handedly to a successful day 1 launch.
The second talk I recommend watching is Jake Birkett’s “How to Survive in Gamedev Eleven Years Without a Hit”. Jake Birkett describes his journey as he switched to full-time game development from a job in programming. He and his wife got by making Match-3 games for various casual game platforms. What’s interesting is how he managed to continually make money from these games even years after releasing them.
He’d create, say, a Christmas themed Match-3 game and then every year request that the casual platforms promote it around the holidays, driving up sales again. It’s a fascinating alternative to the “traditional” indie game-dev route, and while I personally wouldn’t go for it, the talk itself is absolutely worth checking out for the sake of learning how it was accomplished.
And lastly, the third talk I want to highlight is Jeff Vogel’s talk, “Failing to Fail: The Spiderweb Software Way”. Now, you probably haven’t heard of the studio Spiderweb Software before. It doesn’t exactly have the same notoriety that Activision, Ubisoft, Nintendo, or Sega has. Spiderweb Software focuses on creating very niche, retro RPGs (although can you call it retro if the company has been making them since 1995?). These are point-and-click RPGs, like the original Fallout, with huge, dense stories and infinitesimally intricate mechanics.
Basically, Spiderweb Software’s games appeal to such a niche subgenre of video games that they’re basically the only studio in the market for it. While they don’t have an insane number of fans, the studio’s audience is tight-knit and loyal. It’s like a sort of club of like-minded gamers who are eagerly waiting to buy whatever the studio puts out next.
Not every studio is going to be able to build that kind of audience, but if you think you have something special that you’re very passionate about, there are bound to be plenty of others who are just as passionate about it as you are. This kind of loyalty / word-of-mouth marketing is the key to Spiderweb Software’s success- or at least, the fact that it has so far failed to fail.
So those are the three talks I highly recommend you check out when trying to figure out how to get your game to your target audience. However, that’s not the only way you can take advantage of GDC in order to market your game. You could actually go to GDC (during a non-pandemic year, of course) and actually show off your game!
You can set up on a table, with even just a laptop and a controller, and invite people over to sit down and play your game. You might just find that these people will enjoy the game enough to purchase it on release, or at least be able to provide some valuable feedback to improve your game with.
An important aspect of releasing your game is… how you release your game. Where’s the best place for people to go to buy, download, and play your game?
Well, the biggest platform is probably Steam. Valves juggernaut of a games platform barely has any competition in terms of sheer audience size, and that huge audience is important. If you can get enough sales to start making the front page of Steam, then you’ll be rolling in that cha-cha-ching. Steam has its drawbacks, though. The low bar to entry means that Steam is constantly being flooding with literally thousands of new games every day, so getting YOURS to stand out is no mean feat. That’s why you have to build your own audience, because just putting it up on Steam just won’t cut it.
There are alternatives to Steam, however. The Epic Games store is a new alternative that’s eagerly trying to be Steam’s competitor. It has a few advantages from the developers’ side too. For one, you get a much larger cut of the sales than you would on Steam. That being said, the Epic Games Store has a much smaller audience, far fewer features for its users, and some iffy ties to China (if that’s something you care about).
There are also some smaller, more “indie” platforms, such as itch.io, GoG.com, and the Humble Bundle store. Each of these has its own advantages and drawbacks and definitely should not be dismissed out of hand even when compared to Steam.
Also, remember how I said Steam was the largest? That’s probably not true compared to the userbase of the Google Play and Apple App stores. Mobile gaming is its own behemoth of an industry, for better or worse. Again, it has its advantages and drawbacks. The biggest advantage is some very easy distribution of cheap games to a huge amount of casual gamers. The downside is that not only will you be competing in one of the most overcrowded markets out there, but you will also be in direct competition with some of the scummiest, most manipulative game developers on the market.
So I guess the bottom line is, find what works for you, is appropriate for your game, and will lead to success. Fortune favors the bold and all that.