In Depth: The 10 Ways Indie Developers Fail to Market Their Game

No matter what format, what system or what game you are developing for, there are certain things that can doom your game regardless of how good or bad it is from the start.  While this article is written with a focus on XBLIG’s, much of these apply to any indie game developer looking to make a dollar off of their game. The first step to marketing your game is, and always will be having a great game, but even great games can be lost in the shuffle if you don’t also work the business and promotion end of things properly.

#1: Bad Cover Art or Game Description:

When I was sixteen I was a host for a local restaurant for a brief period of time. My manager said to me, “It is important you dress nicely because you are the first impression customers get of the restaurant.”  Well the same is true for a game’s cover art or game description.  Odds are your indie game hasn’t been fortunate enough to receive hourly post on Joystiq or Kotaku discussing each tiny brand new detail that has been revealed about your game, and lets face it, you don’t have the marketing budget that includes TV commercials with Jonah Hill in them.  This means that 99% of your game marketing is located squarely in your game’s cover art and the game description.  If neither of these catch the consumer they are probably moving on; this is especially true on the XBLIG marketplace.  Good artwork has clear and easy to read text, eye catching art and doesn’t look like a 13 year old girl’s Blogger page (i.e., over crowded and hectic).  More often than not, simple is better.  If you aren’t particularly good at designing layouts, find someone who is.  It also may not be a bad idea to ask you friends if your cover art sucks, they’ll probably tell you if it does.

Simple and to the point.

Once you get them to click on your game with some eye catching cover art, it is important to make sure that your game description is solid as well. If there are typos or the description literally says nothing about your game, you are doing it wrong. Consider asking a friend to describe your game for you, use that as a basis for what to write yourself. Your description should not only explain what to expect (what type of game it is) but make me want to try it (what makes your game awesome).  This is not a good spot for pointless humor unless that is really indicative of your game.

#2: Poor Screenshots (Screenshots not From Actual Game):

I’m sure that you are very proud of your start menu, it took time to set up and you got it just right, but honestly, I’m not worried that there won’t be one when deciding whether or not to purchase your game.  I want to know what the actual game looks like.  Have you ever seen a DVD packaging that had no photos from the movie but instead just the DVD menu? If you did you probably didn’t buy it cause you know that movie probably blows donkey nuts.  Don’t give consumers a reason to believe that your game must suck by not showing them it.  When you don’t post screenshots of the actual game I tend to think you are hiding something, and odds are, the average person browsing the marketplace does too. Don’t do this, ever.

 #3: No Trailer:

How often do you go see a movie without having seen the trailer?  How many times have you gone and wasted hours watching trailers for video games on YouTube?  Now, for some reason, you think it is a good idea to forgo a trailer for your game? It isn’t, and you should stop listening to that inner voice right now (which, on that subject, jean cut-offs aren’t making a comeback either).  You’ve likely spent countless hours, days, weeks, and months making your game.  Take another hour and make a trailer.  Don’t get lazy now.  “But I don’t know how to make a 3 minute video and upload it to YouTube!” you might say, to which I would respond, “How the hell did you make a video game?”  Really though, maybe you don’t have the skills or editing software up to the task; find someone.  Odds are, if you have friends, one of them has a Mac and can do that for you.  Then, upload that trailer to YouTube, hell anywhere that will let you (but especially YouTube).  People who write for game sites, such as CBR, also like to post trailers into their articles when covering a game, so there’s a bonus for you. The Indie Gamer Chick, of IndieGamerChick.com once told me that she frequently has trouble finding enough new game trailers to feature in a semi-regular article (which is also part of the reason it is semi-regular)!

#4: No Website:

You know another great place to post your new fancy trailer?  Your goddamn website.  Whether it be a website for your game specifically, or a website for your little independent development company, have a mother fucking website!  It is 2012. If you consider yourself a business in any way shape or form and don’t have a website than you Sir (or Madam), are a fuck head.  Yes, I said it.  Set up a Blogger if nothing else, find someone who can make a simple website for you (Craigslist is full of web developers who would love to make you a site for very little money (and sell you a broken lawn mower as well). Don’t forget to keep the site updated and full of information, screenshots, trailers, etc., for your game(s)! On top of that, have a Twitter and Facebook page and update it (even if no one likes or follows you). More developers than I can count have not had their game covered on CBR because ultimately, I couldn’t find any web presence for them.

#5: No Contact Info on Your Website:

This goes right along with #4 but it is important enough to set aside on its own.  If I want to contact a developer about their game I’m looking for their website. If I manage to find their site (see #6 for more info on that), I want to contact them.  If you don’t post your email or insert a contact form anywhere on your site so I can do that, I am going to curse you.  Sometimes, I’ll go so far as to get in touch with you via Twitter/Facebook, but you are now making me work harder just to increase coverage of your game.  I have the time to do that (sometimes), some site editors do not and most simply aren’t going to bother.  Don’t miss out on coverage by making it hard (or impossible) to easily contact you about your game.

It is also a great idea to mention or plug your website in the game itself.  The XBLIG They Breathe even went a step further, offering up a special code to get into a “behind the scenes” page on their site about the game.  It was full of interesting information and it got me to go to their site and check it out; if the developer had other games listed as available on there at the time I would have certainly looked into them.

#6: Generic Game Name or Developer Name:

You’ve finished your game, it rocks and it is ready for sale!  Just ask yourself something, if someone searches for your game or developer name on Google are they going to find it?  If you type in your game or developer name into Google and get millions of results, rethink things.  ‘Carnival’ may be a perfect name to describe your game but guess what, it will never, ever make it to the top of Google’s results (and if you aren’t on the first couple of pages you may as well not be there at all), where as ‘Uncle Jedd’s Sodomy Carnival’ may be just as accurate and a whole lot more likely to rank high in a Google search (also, don’t steal the name of my epic new indie game).  Same goes for developer name, again, “Fun Games” may make sense and be descriptive of your game development company, but no one will ever find you.

Parasitus is a name that stands out and is easy to find.

If someone has to try typing in “Carnival, XBLIG, Game, Xbox, Fun Games developer” into Google in an effort to find you or your game, well most people just aren’t going to actually.  You have already failed.  Make your game name and developer name unique.  What’s more, use the same damn developer name on the marketplace as you use on the website. So many times I have seen an XBLIG listed as developed by one name and then when I find the website it says the developer is something else.  This is annoying to me and confusing to the average consumer.  Pick a name and stick with it.

#7: Not Advertising

Now, I don’t mean run out and buy ad space on the Xbox Dashboard or popular gaming sites (though if your game does well enough you should consider it to some extent) what I mean is much simpler than that.  First, have art assets available on your site that people can use.  If someone really likes your game and would like to put a banner for it in their Cheap Ass Gamer signature, than make it and make it available so that they don’t have to.  Second, promote your game in places where you already have a presence.  When I first started CBR, and even still, I posted a lot about my site on Cheap Ass Gamer. I was an established member and contributed regularly, so I wasn’t just some newbie trying to spam my site, and it was accepted.  Much of our initial traffic came from them, and other places I was a regular on, and helped to get the site going. The same principle can work for your game; plus people love to “feel like they know” the creator of something that they are playing/watching/listening to.  Lastly (or thirdly), make friends with other indie developers.  This may sound like I am suggesting that you dance with the devil, but really, other developers are less your competition and more your allies.

When the developers of Fish Craft faced complaints of being an Angry Birds clone they countered by offering critics review codes.

Unless you have made nearly identical games, you are ultimately both trying to reach the same groups of people for the same purpose and it just makes sense to help each other out.  There is a huge community of indie developers and writers who cover indie games on places like Twitter, and by and large they are pretty cool people interested in seeing indie games succeed (even when it is not their own).  Make friends, it will only benefit you in the long run and if your game is any good it will help to build hype for it.

#8: Not Contacting Gaming Site Editors

Don’t expect the gaming world to come to you just because you released a game, even if it is amazing.   If no one knows it is out there than it won’t matter.  Some editors, such as myself, regularly scour marketplaces like XBLIG for new games that look interesting or fun, but many site editors don’t (or don’t have such a focus on indie games in general).  The only way most of these editors, and the writers on their websites are going to know about your game is if you tell them about it.  Send them a press release, yes, but also try to make it fun.  Boring, generic press releases get ignored (trust me) and don’t waste time emailing site editors about a game that is still early in development; sadly most indie games never really leave that stage and most sites won’t bother to cover them till they are more near completion.  Besides, you should be spending your time on making your game great anyway.

One more thing, don’t just throw away your download codes in these initial, un-solicited emails.  Get them to email you back for a code.  I know from personal experience that when I reach out for a code I feel an obligation to write that review, but when a code is just sent my way I may or may not get around to it.  Besides, XBLIG developers only get 50 codes to pass out and if you are sending them to people who haven’t agreed to write a review you are just wasting them.

So to recap, contact site editors about your game, make it fun and interesting when you do so and don’t just throw your review copies away.

#9: Not Submitting Your Game Information to Notable Sites

This kind of goes along with #8 to an extent, but in this case I am not talking about gaming sites like CBR or Indie Gamer Chick.  There are plenty of sites out there that list developer information, screenshots, trailers, press releases and more for games and developers both big and small.  You should be posting your developer blog articles to N4G.com and posting press releases to sites like GamesPress.com.  N4G is used by both content creators and readers alike and Games Press is a major destination of information for gaming journalist and others in the industry.  You would not believe how often I have to create a new tag for an indie game on N4G, meaning not only am I the first person to post a review of the game, but that the developer never posted any info on there either.  These are great places to have information about you and your game seen by large amounts of people, take advantage of them.

#10. All The Damn Whining

Last but not least we come to probably one of the most annoying and irritating things indie developers do.  So your game didn’t sell a bajillion copies and the house you mortgaged to make it is doomed to foreclosure, that sucks no doubt, but whining about it publicly just makes you sound like a little bitch (and a dumb-ass).  Most indie games don’t recoup their cost; even fewer make a notable profit.  There is nothing wrong with trying to make game development a job, but going onto the internet and whining about it the minute your game doesn’t immediately become the next Angry Birds upon release is not only unprofessional it is incredibly unappealing.  Sometimes games are flops, even good games, and if you are making them solely for the purpose of making money then you should just go and try to find a job with a big developer and leave the indie stuff to people who are in it because they enjoy it.  Nothing puts an indie developer on my list (of developers who’s games I now care nothing about) quicker than when they start blaming everyone and everything related to their game for their poor sales. Microsoft doesn’t offer enough exposure! Steam did a massive sale the same week my game came out! Bill Gates touched me inappropriately as a child! And so on.

When Raventhorne underperformed, MilkStone Studios took the blame and worked to fix it.

It is no doubt a setback, but learn from it.  Figure out why people may have not bought your game.  How many of the other nine things listed in this article may you be guilty of?  How far off were your expectations from reality?  Did you really, honestly make a game that people want to buy in the first place? This goes back to why you are making games; if it is for money and money alone you will probably fail in the long term.  If you just enjoy what you are doing, as a hobby, and are wiling to learn and build from what you did before you have a better chance of making it long term.  Thing is though, it is hard to go back and learn from your mistakes when you burn the bridges that got you there by blaming everyone but yourself for your game’s sales.  In the end, all you can do is try.

Now, it may seem like I am coming down kind of hard on indie developers in this article, and to some extent I guess I am, but the truth is, someone needs to.  So many developers out there seem to have a mindset that all they have to do is make a great game and everyone will buy it (but go tell that to the developers of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West).  In the end, indie game success takes a combination of skill, patience, hard work and just plain old luck.

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About Tristan Rendo

I’ve made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.