Thousands of games come out, with thousands of dollars in marketing. How are you supposed to compete with that? How do you stand out… with a marketing budget of $0?
Let’s talk a little about the strategies we use at Kitfox. For some context (and you can understand what resources we have/do not) — we’re a team of 9, released 5 games, developing 2, and publishing 2 more. It’s my full time job to do the community, PR, events, marketing, social, etc. Tanya, our captain, helps out with marketing and any key decisions.
Among all these projects, one thing has remained: we haven’t paid for ads, influencer deals, most of the PR has been done solely by us, etc. It’s $0 marketing.
Or… is it?
So the first thing we need to talk about is the fact that there is no such thing as $0 marketing. Any time, resources, networking, or abilities spent on promoting your game counts as money being spent on marketing. I have a salary. Time spent prepping for an announcement costs money. So on and so forth!
Why do I bother pointing this out? Because failing to account for these things in your budget and time management means your plans may swing wildly out of control. But also to combat the idea that “free” marketing is somehow not worth putting a lot of consideration into!
Briefly I wanted to talk about what a lot of marketers refer to as the buyer’s journey — some of you might have heard of the marketing funnel. This is kind of an updated version.
I bring this up because whatever marketing activity I’m doing, I’ll keep in mind where the marketing activity I’m doing fits in. For example, tweeting about our new game is in awareness while our newsletter updates go into consideration.
I like to take mental notes of this because if not, you might not realize all your marketing activity is skewed and mainly just focused on one phase. For example, maybe we do a lot for the awareness phase, without much put into the purchase phase. You need to balance your marketing and see where it all fits for context. Cool? Cool.
I could write a whole blog post about how important it is to know how to frame and differentiate your game among the sea of games. Oh wait, I did!
Here’s the thing though. A lot of the time when we say you should have a “unique” game, a lot of people get caught up thinking this means they need to make an Extremely New Game Idea. But that’s not what we mean. It doesn’t actually have to be ~the most unique game in the world~ . What we mean is that you need to form your marketing in a way that makes it seem unique to the player’s mind.
Dwarf Fortress, the most unique but also not unique but also very unique game
And “being better” isn’t the key point here either. Avoid just trying to compare yourself to other games in your strategies. Not a lot of people are interested in what’s better — everyone wants to know what’s new.
Now — one of the hardest hooks to nail is the “hook” of a game. This is basically the initial sentence or pitch you’ll hear about a game AKA how you’ll capture someone’s interest and hook them into learning more. I’m going to talk a bit about it here because I find that’s the one people struggle the most with.
What game is this?
The thing is, you could probably fill it in with any number of games. Boyfriend Dungeon, Hollow Knight, Dead Cells, The Messenger, etc. They’re all viable games you could use to fill in the blank.
My favorite thing to do is to remove your game name (and all proper nouns) from the description. Replace it with a game that is a competitor/similar to yours. Is it basically indistinguishable? Then you need a better hook. Looking at your competitors and seeing the hooks they used may also prove useful. Did they work? If they didn’t, why not?
If you need some help making something unique, take out everything you would usually use to describe your game and try to describe it again WITHOUT THOSE WORDS. (E.g. no using the words story-driven, puzzle, narrative, mystery, action, metroidvania). Does it still sound interesting enough to play? Is it easy enough for a non-gamer to understand? Can you embed a feeling of excitement or intrigue into the customer when they read it, even before they start playing?
A description taken straight from Crypt of the Necrodancer. Note the simplicity.
As a marketer, you NEED to have the ability to think like how a customer would. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking everyone understands your game because we’re surrounded by game developers and like minded game enthusiasts. But not everyone is like that!
And when you’re ready to test if it’s a good hook or not? Do A/B testing on social media! Pitch your game to people at events! Tell your non-game friends or family! Is it a sentence that’s easy enough to repeat?
tl;dr : Hook Strategies
- Simple, mass appeal
- Market research for viability
Note that your hook should actually refer to some core part of your game though!
Alright, so now we’re on the store page portion of your game.
It’s always good practice to assume that people are too lazy/have no time to actually scroll through and read what’s on your page. So you want to optimize the first impression as much as possible, meaning you should put a lot of attention into:
- Game title. Make sure you do your research here! Find a game title name that’s unique, catchy, easy to remember, easy to spell, and most importantly, isn’t going to compete with something with more influence on Google. (E.g. having the same name as a popular book, or something.)
- The first few screenshots. For a variety of reasons, many people don’t actually have the time or patience to watch through your trailer. Make sure you put the most interesting and best screenshots first, to capture their attention.
- Steam capsule. More on this below.
- Your hook. We just talked about this! Put this in the short description of your game at the side.
- Tags. The Steam algorithm loves proper tags — make sure you tag them with the most relevant ones to have your game pop up alongside similar ones. (I don’t think the “Indie” tag itself is very explanatory or useful, so I wouldn’t include it here.) Don’t over tag either! Spamming your game with all the tags will not make our Algorithm God happy.
Your Steam Capsule
So one of the things we have to consider is how your game looks when someone is casually scrolling by it.
This is where your Steam capsule comes into play. Here are the different iterations of the Boyfriend Dungeon ones.
From left to right: Capsule A, Capsule B, Capsule C.
Our first one, Capsule A, is mainly “romantic”, but doesn’t really reflect much about the game other than the name. It did well in attracting attention in the beginning, but that was likely because it was new and the Boyfriend Dungeon game announcement was new.
Capsule B came after, where we tried to focus it more on “combat”. But it didn’t do so well, likely because of its dark colouring (and sort of blending in with the Steam background) and wasn’t instantaneously recognizable from a distance.
The current one, Capsule C, features people, which we thought would be more attractive (as people connect more with faces) AND it’s bright and stands out from the crowd. So far it’s done better!
Click through rates can vary quite a bit, so we often check every few weeks or so. Keep in mind lots of factors can effect your CTR — game title, news, choice of image, etc.! Keep an eye out on the Steam back end, which breaks down how you’re gaining traffic and from where. And don’t forget changing them for big updates like DLC are a valid strategy too!
What exactly is a good CTR anyway, and how do we decide when to switch it out? I asked a few local Montreal indie studios for their CTRs and compared it with ours, and it seems like 2% is the the minimum you’d want as a CTR at any point in time.
Lifetime CTR for some of our games. *Note Moon Hunters is the only game that’s out right now.
Mondo Museum’s CTR is quite high. This can be for any number of reasons, though at the time of recording it, it was quite a new announcement and lots of museum-related people were clicking on our links to see it. Additionally, not very many games have the word “museum” in them, which is probably quite intriguing.
You can see Lucifer Within Us is JUST below the threshold, which might mean its capsule isn’t attractive enough. It’ll likely be swapped out soon.
Now… is 2% ACTUALLY a good minimum CTR? Honestly, I don’t know.
Info provided from a couple other Montreal indie studios I asked.
All I have is data from our studio and a couple from dev friends, and I haven’t seen any other stats about CTRs for other games. We’ll never know if no one talks about it though, so here’s just my side of it. I’d love to hear yours!
Okay, now that you’ve solidified your general impressions on the community at large, it still matters that you tailor your messaging depending on the group you’re appealing to. For press, I’ve boiled their goals down to three basic things. Keeping these in mind will hopefully increase the likelihood that your game will get news coverage.
- Interest: they have to personally be interested in your game or genre that you’re pitching to them.
- Angle: depending on the outlet or journalist, having an “angle” in your messaging will be appealing to them. After an, having a good angle drives clicks to a news article. Maybe your game has a deep, personal story attached to its plot. Maybe it’s a relatable experience someone on the team went through. Maybe your game has a 16 year long history. It could be many things — whatever gives your game personality and flair.
- Newsworthiness: this is what you normally would expect from news stories for clicks. Things like exclusive sneak peeks, new trailers, launch dates, and other marketing beats that people get excited for.
At Kitfox, we strategically make sure to never show and/or talk about certain aspects of the game until it was time to announce it to the press first. This usually means community updates are slower and I suffer trying to make content, but in the end it’s usually worth it.
There are lots of resources on how to write a good press email, but as a quick breakdown of our specific strategies, we focus on two small but important touches:
- Having the catchiest email title possible. After all, if they don’t even click your email, it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside. Try to avoid using all caps and exclamation mark overuse though — some email clients filter it as spam.
- Personalization. Even a small sentence at the beginning of your email works wonders in creating relationships, makes it seem like you’re aligned with their goals and less like you’re just spam emailing people. Something as simple as “You’d be interested in [GAME] because [REASON]” is good enough!
Remember what I said about keeping the goals of the person you’re contacting in mind? Yeah! Let’s talk about influencer goals!
- Entertainment: Streamers/content creators have to personally be interested in your game, but consideration for their audience is also warranted here. For example a Fortnite streamer MIGHT be interested in your narrative game, but their audience might only like watching Fortnite. Because technically their audience is their income, this may mean they won’t cover your game.
- Reactions: If your game has shareable moments about it, this will be attractive to them! Think things like horror games, wildly difficult achievements, sad personal moments, etc. These are times that cause strong emotional reactions in the influencer, and can be clipped or referenced in the future with their audience.
- Experiences: If your game allows the audience to experience and interact with something alongside the influencer (e.g. chat can play along in the game or influence the outcome somehow), then this gives your game higher appeal.
To be clear, our games thus far haven’t been very “streamable”. Being heavily narrative in nature, it was easy for them to be spoiled or just a long read. But even minor things like being able to rename villagers to chat usernames made a world of difference for The Shrouded Isle.
As I’ve said, we can’t afford sponsorship deals as an indie. While it might not seem like a lot, just the possibility of a game key is enough to build that connection with influencers.
Here are some of my general tips on working with influencers and creating good relationships with them:
- Tune in whenever you can to streams. Can’t tune in at the moment? Watch it later and tweet at them thanking them!
- Aim for mid-tier, game relevant influencers. Keep in mind big influencers don’t necessarily correlate to conversions or game purchases. If their audience isn’t interested in experiencing the game for themselves and watch solely for the influencer’s personality, that’s not what you’re looking for.
- Watch who you give keys to. Not only to avoid key scammers, but also to support those that you actually WANT to support. Is their content in line with your values? Are they treating you with disrespect? It’s more common than you think.
- Be genuinely kind when you work with others. Life isn’t a series of transactions waiting to happen — whether an influencer is small or large, treat them with respect. (Honestly this applies to more than just the influencer section.) I promise it can pay off.
Potential customers/players have their own goals too! This is the last triangle, I swear.
- Entertainment: So yes, of course they have to be interested in your game, but also it’s YOUR job to frame it in a way that connects with them. You won’t catch everyone, but you need to generally know what a player in the genre you’re developing in is interested in, or what their problems with other games are.
- Experiences: Chances are when someone plays your game, they want to be able to share their favorite moments with family, friends, or their online communities. So whether it’s the ability to easily share replays, connect with others, or tell ravishing tales of their conquests… keep the ability to share stories in mind!
- Worth: More than with anyone, you’ll have to prove your game is worth their time and money. Back up your pitch to them with reviews (if you have them), fantastic screenshots, retweet people chatting about the game, etc. Expose them to things that’ll convince them your game is worth the effort.
Attracting People to Your Channels
One of the first problems anyone runs into with social media is just getting people to following them in the first place. There’s no magic to it — building a genuine, engaged audience will take time. (DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT buy followers EVER.) And it’ll be hard when you don’t even have a game announced yet!
But what are some strategies you could employ?
- Events. These cost money of course (again, $0 marketing is a lie), but if you have any local, cheaper events, those are good too! Get them signed up to your newsletter using a pen/paper, iPad, anything. Have a giveaway if they follow you on Twitter. Get creative!
- Cross promote with other studios. It’s likely an indie that’s making a game in the same genre as yours will have some audience crossover. Retweet each others stuff, strike a deal, whatever. Don’t overdo it though!
- Literally plaster it everywhere. Make your social media as easy to find as possible. On your website. Trailers. Your Steam page. After every single update. At the end of your demos. Wherever! Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t give them like 6 links to follow. Narrow it down for them and provide 4 max, preferably less. No need to overwhelm and look spammy.
At the end of the Boyfriend Dungeon, players are prompted to sign up for our newsletter.
- Provide exclusives/lead magnets to your channels. Give good reasons as to WHY someone should follow you on Twitter/join your Discord/sign up for your newsletter/like you on Facebook. Does Twitter get the latest up-to-date news? Do Discord members get to talk to devs? Will newsletter sign ups get a free wallpaper? You need to give unique, exciting reasons as to why someone would follow you.
- Remember who you’re appealing to. Things like #gamedev and #screenshotsaturday are for fellow developers/aspiring ones. You can still use them, but if you’re trying to capture attention outside of dev circles, don’t just rely on these.
I need you to know though — social media isn’t everything, even if it is extremely everything. In fact, social is notorious bad at converting into clicks or sales.
According to AdWeek, 0.7% is the average conversion rate for social.
I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to COMPLETELY rely on social media. You need to balance your marketing activities. It is good for many things though — if you remember our modern buyer’s journey from the beginning of this post, social can play a role in all of those parts. Viral tweet? You just got awareness. Retweeting tons of articles with 10/10 reviews about your game? You’re getting them at the consideration phase. Doing some fast customer service via Twitter? That’ll keep them in the loyalty loop.
So now that we know that social might not be the best at conversion, what is a good conversion rate, anyway?
Extremely generally, 2–5% is a pretty good conversion rate. This is how you can wittle down which social platforms are working for you, if you track them carefully enough.
Choosing What Works
Whenever I would go to marketing talks, I would go and be AMAZED at the things people did you capture attention and be inspired to do the same. Except uh, I had no time. And it’s my FULL TIME job! So what I do instead is experiment around, fail a bit, succeed a bit, and see what works. Then I narrow it down to a handful of things I can focus on and do REALLY well at.
According to Steam, these were our conversion rates from social media, in terms of link clicks.
*Note for Boyfriend Dungeon, conversion rates are lower due to initially directing to the Kickstarter instead.
Look at that ABYSMAL Facebook rate. This is how you can see what’s worth your time or not — put effort into your social channels and track how much return you get on them. Once you see the trends, you can focus your strategies and ration out your time better.
Based on our success rates, this is what I focus on the most. If I had more time or ability to focus on
Reddit/imgur, maybe I would! Who knows!
Again, this is based on having little time and lots to do. If you have a full team ready to work their butt on social, please do! I’m jealous!
The newsletter doesn’t really count as social media, but it’s going here because it falls under the consumer goals portion.
According to Mailchimp, this is their industry average for Game newsletters.
Keep in mind their data covers anyone from tiny developers to AAA ones, which have wildly varying budgets and resources to put into their campaigns. These numbers are still a good thing to keep in mind to see how well your own newsletter campaigns are doing, and to have some sort of idea of what “success” could look like. The more data you have, the more you can see what really connects with your audience.
Now, here are our newsletter open/click rates, as compared to the industry average.
You’ll see that our click rates are quite low in this graph. I’m not worried about it though — the majority of the emails sent here are merely monthly updates about our game. At this point, the links in them mainly just direct to Steam or Twitter. If they’ve signed up for the newsletter, they’ve probably already wishlisted it on Steam.
The one peak above the industry average rate was due to a game being released, hence the sudden change. Again — are these amazing rates? Who knows! There isn’t too much data out there from other indies, so take our success(?) bar with a grain of salt.
Alright, so one last marketing thing.
Indies, in particular, have the advantage of adding moments of joy. These are the human moments that make people talk about us fondly.
Very legitimate Boyfriend Dungeon review I added to our Steam page.
Being able to insert little moments of joy are fun, exciting, and cute. But! Don’t just copy us. Every studio has their own unique flair, and it’s up to you to find out what that it is.
Side note: I know these seem slightly random, but there’s always a reason when I tweet silly things.
Do you tweet silly things? Have Discord secrets? Do wild competitions with your community? Do weekly challenges? Have incredibly responsive developers? Manage to do weekly streams? Have the best Reddit posts?
It can be whatever you want. It’s your $0 marketing plan.
Might as well have fun with it.