The other day I had two dramatically contrasting experiences: In the morning I attended Digital 2013 where I watched Edward Rumley, COO at Chillingo, a division of Electronic Arts, give a presentation entitled ‘Games Strategy: Publishing Indie Mobile Games in Today’s Competitive Marketplace’. His impressively bleak presentation championed the idea that in an ever-crowded marketplace mobile indie game developers can never achieve the publicity levels needed for success without the help of a publisher.
That afternoon, with Rumley’s forbidding words echoing in my ears, I visited the Apple Store in Glasgow to check out their new billboard marketing campaign which features the independently produced and self-published app Wave Trip from Scottish independent studio Lucky Frame. What my experience at the Apple Store shows us is that Rumley’s dismissal of self-published indie games is baseless.
Stepping over the obvious irony of asking a major publisher to talk about indie games, and some of his more outrageous comments (“Just because I publish my book on Kindle that doesn’t make me a published author” – tell that to EL James), I found his presentation to be profoundly negative in its outlook, implying that if you work on your own you have simply no chance of finding an audience. It inspired me to dispel some of the myths around PR and Marketing of indie games (or in fact any artistic product). This is not a comment on whether or not you should use a publisher, Chillingo or anyone else for that mater; it is just designed to give you a starting point to promote your work.
I have been working as a PR and Marketing Professional for just under 10 years. I began my career working at a private art gallery and from there have worked for a range of public and private arts organizations across the UK including New Media Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland and most recently as Head of Marketing at Dundee Contemporary Arts. In addition to this, since 2008 I have worked with Lucky Frame as a Communications Consultant to help them plan and implement their PR and Marketing strategy for games such as Pugs Luv Beats, Bad Hotel and Wave Trip. Experience has taught me is that if you have a great indie game, and you want to self-publish, then you can get the publicity you need to be successful.
Hope is not a Strategy
One of Rumley’s more chilling statements was the most accurate: hope is not a strategy. This isn’t ‘Field of Dreams’, you are not Kevin Costner, if you build it they will not come. The App Store is littered with the dead corpses of apps that were never downloaded and whose marketing strategy was built on a wing and a prayer. The good news is there are some simple steps you can take to get your work out there.
It’s not what you know
Publishers, like Chillingo, have contacts books filled with the names and details of all the key influencers in the business. For success to come a-knocking you need to get together a list of key journalists, bloggers and influencers in your field. Chances are if you’re a hyper-keen engaged indie developer you already know who you need to target, but it’s definitely worth taking some time to do a little research. Publicity often has a snowball effect, and if this is your first project it is just as important to get on small blogs as it is to have a feature on Kotaku.
Most medium to large size organizations pay for contacts databases which are constantly updated, so it is simple for them to find that all-important email address or phone number. These systems can cost several thousand pounds and certainly take the legwork out of promotion, but they aren’t essential, something I learnt as Marketing and Audience Development Associate at New Media Scotland. At that time the company only had three employees and had just received a significant funding cut from the then Scottish Arts Council. We didn’t have the money to pay for a press database, so instead I spent an afternoon calling the switchboard of all the national newspapers and relevant magazines and broadcasters and asking for the name, email address, and phone number of their arts correspondent. This took three hours and at the end of the day I had a spreadsheet of 20 key contacts in my subject area. The next day I sent out a press release and secured coverage with several major outlets. (NB New Media Scotland has since gone on to secure new funding and moved to a new home at the University of Edinburgh find out what they’re up to at mediascot.org)
Building a contacts database isn’t hard, it doesn’t need to be expensive, it just takes time. That was several years ago and now collecting contact information is even easier with online contacts and tools like Twitter and LinkedIn. We used this exact same strategy to build the contacts list for Lucky Frame and for our last game we secured coverage in The Verge, Touch Arcade, Eurogamer, and much more.
Once you have a list of contacts you need something to send people. Journalists from bloggers to lead writers for national newspapers need a clear and concise piece of text to explain what your work is about. There are lots of tools online to show you how to write a basic press release, my favourite is this post written by Katie Cowan at Creative Boom.
It’s Nice to be Nice
It is essential you nurture your contacts once you have them. Always where possible use a named contact and don’t continually spam people with information. Talk to your contacts like humans, read their work and show an interest in what they tell you. Never get aggressive when people ignore you or write up a bad review (there is no such thing as bad publicity after all). Be in it for the long haul and remember that relentless positivity is the name of the game. And always say thank you when you get a review or write up, even if it is less than flattering. Remember it’s nice to be nice!
A Picture Tells a Thousand Words
Strong images and video are just as important as a good press release. It may be a cliché but a picture tells a thousand words and more than anything a great image or snappy video is going to sell your project. Try to make images as eye catching as possible and make sure that you offer a variety of file sizes that will work in print and online.
Lucky Frame could be said to be founded on a university video project that unexpectedly went viral. We’ve tried to echo this quirky approach to every Lucky Frame video since with mixed success but it’s always useful to give people a way to visualize your project. Don’t be frightened to think outside the box: you might find yourself in a in a cold hall chasing a group of cute but naughty dogs; or in a public park with your company founder dressed in a homemade cardboard suit; or at the depot of your local bus company; or strangest of all in a toilet with one of your more adventurous friends.
But you may well set the spark which sets the internet alight and either way it’s definitely a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Fortune Favours the Bold
Don’t be frightened to sell yourself. Where most artists who choose to self publish fail is by being too modest and too shy. Nothing beats getting out there and talking to people, both online and in person.
No publicity is bad publicity, something we learnt early on at Lucky Frame when we applied to appear on BBC business reality show Dragons’ Den. At the time it felt like a high risk strategy, the chances of getting any funding were low and the chances that Yann would make a fool of himself were high. But the opportunity to get the company name out there in front of a primetime TV audience was too good to miss. Even though we didn’t get a deal, the next day we were contacted by representatives from several major British games companies. The resulting consultancy work kept Lucky Frame afloat for a year, ultimately leading to the production and release of Mujik, the company’s first iPhone app.
Think Global, Act Local
Promoting your game face to face is just as important as online and you don’t need to be in London, New York or San Francisco to meet people interested in indie games. There is lots going on in local communities all over the UK which you can get involved in: for example Nottingham Game City are inviting developers to come and show off their work at monthly club nights and at DCA we hold regular Drop in and Play events for local developers to showcase their work. There are also a whole host of hackdays and Maker Faires out there where you can get out and meet people. Don’t just do game focused events, if you try and reach out to the wider community you are bound to reach a larger and more diverse audience.
Local people are the biggest champions of things made in their community; everyone wants to see the guy or girl from their neighbourhood succeed. If your game is going to make it you will need all of these people cheering you on, in person and online, to get your voice heard. So get out, meet people and tell them about your work.
Getting Noticed by the Mother Ship
Getting press might be easier than it first appears but what about Rumley’s claim that you need a publisher to secure a much-coveted feature on the App Store? Again this is not true, Lucky Frame have been featured by Apple and so have many others including: Simogo for Year Walk and Beat Sneak Bandit; Firebox’s The Room; and Super Hexagon by Terry Cavanagh.
No one can claim to know how to get that elusive Apple feature, but buzz does help. At Lucky Frame we certainly credit our ability to get publicity as helping us get noticed by Apple (for more information on this read Yann’s post detailing all the numbers and coverage for Bad Hotel).
Free is too expensive for some people
So you have a game, you’ve got some attention and you’re ready to launch, but how much do you charge for it? You’re desperate to go full-time making games but the freemium model makes you uncomfortable.
People like Rumley maintain that the age of the premium game (where the customer pays upfront for the product) is dead. According to Rumley even making your game free to play is a bad move as “Free is too expensive for some people”.
At Chillingo they advocate releasing freemium or paymium titles as a way of increasing revenue. Rumley did not address the ethical questions around games structured in this way, something the UK government is now investigating, and more importantly from a game designer’s standpoint the freemium model can devalue game creation in general and leads to badly made games. For more insight into this read this outline of Bennett Foddy’s presentation at GDC on “Why Fremium Sucks”.
Let’s not kid ourselves – making money is important. Being a struggling artist in a garret sounds super cool but having enough to eat is fun too. If you make your game freemium or paymium then perhaps you have a better chance of financial survival. But it’s just as important to make a product you are proud of and one that is an awesome game – if you don’t truly believe your game is good then you won’t be able to convincingly shout about it.
If you are weighing up these two options remember there are still indie premium titles making a name for themselves in the market place (Year Walk, The Room, Minecraft etc). Arguably the freemium/paymium model is touted by companies like Chillingo because it works for large publishers. They have huge ad spend and design the games entirely around “gems” and IAP. They have the knowledge and ability to deliver that model. Indie developers should use their biggest advantages to their benefit – their ability to think originally, create brand-new concepts and be fully engaged and excited about their work. Don’t take the publishers on at their own game – make something people will want to buy.
According to Rumley, Chillingo likes to work with developers who are only a third into completing their game because they have the expertise needed to polish down your game’s rough edges. Chillingo can smell what sells, they know what an audience wants and how to shape your game into that product. He also advocated never releasing a beta version of a game.
For me this approach stifles innovation, suggesting that games shouldn’t challenge conventions or people’s expectations. If all games used this approach then it would lead to a lack of variety and ultimately decrease the potential audience as customers searched for more exciting ways to spend their free time and cash.
A Word on Advertising Spend
I’m not naïve, Rumley’s model for success does work, if you sign with a major publisher then it is likely that your game will be a success. A company like Chillingo can put budgets that most indie studios can only dream of against ad spend, you don’t need to spend afternoons tracking down the contact details of a mobile gaming blogger in Newcastle when you can globally carpet bomb every major gaming site with ads.
The ultimate flaw in Rumley’s presentation was that it was a sales pitch for his business rather than an insight into the world of publishing and indie games. In order to sell us Chillingo he presented a vision of a world in which publishers hold all the cards and the individual artist is left relying on their grace and favour to polish, promote and sell their product. This may have been true 10 years ago but the world is changing.
There is More Than One Way to Skin a Cat
I am not saying you shouldn’t work with a publisher, rather that publishers are not the only answer. My suggestions alone won’t necessarily get you thousands of sales, your project still needs to be great and you need a bit of luck, but these ideas will certainly help you on your way. Have confidence, tell people about your work, get involved with your local community so that your not relying on hope as your only strategy for success.