Indie Dev Diary: Targeting your market

October 23, 2010

Editor’s note: Brad Talton is an independent game designer and developer. What kind of games? Video games? Board games? Card games? Well, yes. His company, Level 99 Games, creates all kinds of geekiness. In a series of columns here at SBG, Brad shares insights into the game creation process. In this installment, he talks about getting the word out about your project. 

At this point in the development, when the modes are laid out and the graphics are starting to come in, it’s important to get started on spreading the word about the game. I’ve learned the hard way that generating excitement isn’t easy, and it doesn’t happen on its own. Posting “here’s my cool game” on your niche blog just isn’t enough to get people involved. Personally, I’m still learning a lot about how to advertise and make a game popular in the pre-release stage, so this section is a combination of what I’ve learned and what I’m still trying.

The most important lesson that I’ve learned about promoting a game is that you can’t do it all yourself. You only have so much reach, and if you’re a cloistered independent game developer like myself, then there’s even less you can do to reach out to the people around you, but hopefully you have friends, colleagues, and just some random associated parties that you can call on for help. This is the best chance to actually spread the word about a project or idea. Hopefully some of your friends will think it’s cool enough to tell others about, and some of their friends will think that it’s cool enough to repeat, and so forth.

My strategy this time is leveraging more social networks, such as Facebook, Twitter and my own site. I’ve also created a teaser site, which has some downloads and additional information about the game. I drop the address to this site just about everywhere I can. I’m also running contests, giving free copies of the app to a few lucky followers once the game debuts.

Games bank on different things for success. Even if you have the exposure to show off your game to everyone, without a hook of some kind, you’re just wasting time. There needs to be some catch that draws people into your game. With some games, like Chibi Fighters (and my older Internet Defense), part of the allure of the game is quirky humor, and I try to bring this out in the marketing. On the promotional site, I’ve tried to make the character personalities the centerpiece of the site, and show the players how much fun they will have by displaying how much fun the characters themselves are having with the game. 

This kind of character-based interest building is especially good for fighting games, like SPCF3, where the players will tend to pick a favorite character and master that specific one. Letting the players get to know the characters deepens their interest in the game, which helps them to have more fun as well as making them more excited about the game’s eventual release. When I work on my RPG, Mystic Empyrean, in the coming months, I’ll use a different strategy—one that appeals to player creativity and the allure of building a world and a persona from scratch.

Giving people a reason to get interested in your game is just another piece of the puzzle. Once they are interested, they need a means to get involved in spreading the word. This usually means something interactive—not just a cool gameplay video or some neat graphics (though these certainly help). Memes, interactive videos, comics, and minigames are just a few of the ways that a developer can get people telling their friends about a game. I’m still investigating a lot of these myself with Chibi Fighters, but there are as many ways to get people involved as there are incentives. 

Ultimately, the developer has to think about what he can give back to the people that are interested in your game. Some common things are status within a forum or web community, actual hard goods, in-game bonuses and rewards, involvement with the game’s creative process, or inclusion in the credits. 

If the game provides an outlet for people to talk about it and socialize, they will. OpenFeint is a free achievement system that provides this very function, and which I’ve included in SPCF3. Including a system like OpenFeint gives me an instant, free community module to plug into my game, and comes with its own range of costs and benefits. For one, I have to host the advertisements of other games on the OpenFeint screen in my app. However, an app can just as easily be advertised within the apps of others using this system.

There is plenty of opportunity for contests and community promotions that are outside of the game. Hidden bonus content or especially tough challenges that will have players asking around for the solutions to unlock or beat can be a great strategy, as can the ability to play competitively online, or competitively at all. Competitive gamers love discussing strategy with anyone they can.

A free or ‘lite’ version of the game can never hurt your cause, and gives unbelievers who are willing to try your game a chance to play it before spending their hard earned money on it. To some people, a demo version says “if you play this once, I think you’ll want it even more,” and shows that the developer has enough confidence in the quality of his work to let people try before they buy.

Of course, not all successful games have free demo versions, either. Ultimately, the question is whether the game is interesting enough that people will want to play it again after playing it once (or playing a portion of it).

There’s very little in the world of gaming that’s tougher than taking your product and showing it to the world. Some people will hate it, some will love it. It’s important not to get discouraged by negative reviews, and to take suggestions and lessons to incorporate in the next venture. If you’re confident in your game, and enjoy it, then someone else will too. Maybe you’ll even make some friends and fans along the way.

Character art by Victoria Parker for Level 99 Games.