Marketing: The Indie Dev’s Achilles Heel

I’ve been having a lot of fun recently reading game post-mortems from indie game devs. Like the name suggests, post-mortems are basically articles by game devs looking back after their game is released,  going over what went wrong and what went right.  A few collections of them can be found here and here.

As I started reading through these I was going to write one of those “5 mistakes every first time indie dev makes” lists, but going through more and more stories, one problem stuck out more than any other: marketing. A depressing number of the post-mortems went essentially like this:

  1. Small indie dev gets an idea for a game;
  2. Dev + a few friends work for months or years on said game, sometimes at great cost to their personal health and finances;
  3. Game is finished and goes up on Steam, no one finds out about it, game fails.

Part of this seems to arise out of the fact that many devs treat marketing as a bit of an afterthought, believing that making a quality game will automatically result in press coverage and sales. When their game finally hits the market many of them seem to have an “Oh shit!” moment, realizing that’s not the case, and that marketing the game is a job in and of itself and a far bigger time-sink than they thought it would be. Atillo Caroteuento, the developer of bullet-hell game An Oath to the Stars puts it pretty bluntly in his post-mortem:

Most importantly, what you really need to understand and always keep in mind, is that nobody cares about your game. I thought that, having worked in famous game studios and having a lot of cool promo art would ensure coverage, and I was wrong.

You’ll need to chase people and journalists, create an amazing presskit and a lot of social media work just to get them to look at your page for 10 seconds. It’s exhausting…

Many indie devs find essentially beholden to media coverage and twitch streams to get any traction in the marketplace. Without those, their game is essentially dead. This is neatly summarized by game dev Hugh Monahan in the post-mortem for his game Brigador:

This is what selling an indie game is like … Media coverage, both press and YouTube/Twitch, largely determines both how high your sales peaks are, as well as how quickly they decay. When all mention of you or your game disappears from the internet within a few days, you don’t have momentum so much as a flatline.

Making games takes a toll. Brigardor dev Hugh Monahan before and after his game was completed.

It’s kind of sad to see this kind of thing, especially because many of these were quality games with good reviews, and just seemed to fail because they couldn’t rise above the noise and get any exposure.

I guess the lesson is that if you’re going to take the plunge and spend months or years of your life making a game, make sure you spend some time planning out how you’re going to sell said game as well.

One thought on “Marketing: The Indie Dev’s Achilles Heel”

Leave a Reply