I came across a pretty interesting article today. The quick summary is that marketing was found to have three times more effect on revenue than high review scores. They don’t cite any numbers, but to be honest the result doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been thinking about making a for-pay game for a while now, so I’ve contemplated that side of things quite a bit. Spending as much 50% of my time on self-promotion is something that makes quite a bit of sense. Things are not too different on the freeware side of the fence, by the way. Where you get linked from is what determines your download count, much less than how good your game is.
The sad truth is that for most games spending one hour on implementing more features or polishing the game quickly becomes sub-optimal when compared to spending an hour on talking about your game. If you pay attention to the indie game scene, then you’ll find that all of the latest “big” hits were by people who are masters of self-promotion. Jonathan Blow, Ron Carmel and Kyle Gabler all handled the PR for their games very deftly. I doubt that they would be as successful as they are if they didn’t.
So what are we to do, as people who love playing and making games? One answer is to just ignore the marketing side and focus on making great games. This is the answer a lot of developers pick, mostly because they either don’t realise the importance of PR or can’t be bothered. As a result, a lot fewer people see their work and they can’t fund their next game. What’s the point of making an amazing game if nobody sees it?
Another possibility is to play the marketing game and scream your lungs out about your work. Once you get over your aversion to talking about how great you are, it’s surprisingly easy, actually. All you need to do is have an unshakable confidence that your game is friggin great and to view the whole thing as a matter of survivial. Unfortunately, you’re still spending the time on marketing when you could be making something cool.
The third answer, and the one I like the most, is community building. If you can build a group of people who are consistently interested in your work, then you have an audience that’s already paying attention to what you have to say. Of course, this is not a magic bullet. For one thing, building a community takes time and hard work. You won’t neccesarily spend any less time on community building than on marketing. Secondly, you actually have to care about your audience when you do this. This is not something that you can outsource to a PR company. Lastly, and this is the one that concerns me most, is that niche communities tend to have extreme tastes. This will probably restrict what you can do as a designer. Do you think that Tarn Adams could quit making Dwarf Fortress and work on a horse petting sim, while still getting donations from his fans? I think not (of course, the great thing about Dwarf Fortress is that he could probably include a horse petting sim somewhere in there).
Maybe indie games developers should form some sort of promotion group for cool work. There’s already some of this, informally, but it could be juiced up a bit. For example, if Jonathan Blow is making something neat, I could direct people who pay attention to my work to his site. That way audiences get to find interesting new things and developers get a sort of co-op marketing.
What do you guys think? How can an indie game developer balance making cool games simultaneously with details like eating and having a place to live? What part do game players have in all of this?