Games - especially indie games - can live long in the hearts of their fandoms. Today, building a community around your game is equivalent to marketing it and keeping it as relevant for as long as possible.
How can Filipino-made indie games build a strong community around their work, and how can they keep fans engaged, from building hype up to launch and beyond?
The fifth Project PIGI talk covers insights on marketing your game and how to build a community around your releases. Our distinguished panel of speakers includes Chris Natsuume (Boomzap), Regina Supapo (Secret 6), Monika Guballa (Altitude Games), Lord Gostingtian (ThinkBIT Solutions), and Ryan Sumo (Squeaky Wheel, Paradox Interactive). In a conversation led by Niccolo Manahan, we explore how indie games can ramp up their marketing efforts by building a unique and genuine community around their development, launch, and continuous service and engagement of fans of their game.
How much of your time and budget goes into Marketing?
Chris: Not nearly enough. I’ve yet to meet a studio that has said, “We put too much effort in marketing.” I would argue that a good 50% of your success is going to be based off of marketing. If you’re serious about selling games, you need to respond to that with closer to 50% of your production - more than you might have imagined. The biggest failure of our 17-year-old studio is in marketing.
Xiao: At Secret 6, we have a very small in-house marketing team that handles both the service and product side of the company. In terms of time spent doing marketing and branding, it’s different from the time spent on production work. It’s hard to put a number on it, but the impact of the marketing effort is clear. Our team has a production background and had to learn marketing from a grassroots approach. It always feels like you can do more.
Ryan: I share the sentiment that you will spend more than you think you will. Most teams don’t even have that kind of budget, so you need to have some sort of marketing into your development schedule. What we used to do was regular video devlogs for our games. The best thing you can do is schedule those kinds of activities to update your fans and interested followers. Make GIFs of your game and share them on Twitter. There’s a lot you can do, just get into the habit of sharing something about what you’re doing to catch people’s interest.
Monica: From my experience, the budget comes from the marketing management. It’s up to that team to decide what would be the best use of the resources. You have to try to focus on efforts that are low cost but high value. For example, bigger companies with bigger budgets would hire specialized marketing teams. They’ll have one person for user acquisition, one for content, and one for community, but smaller teams may have just only one marketing person or even have the product or project manager handle that on the side. Designers already keep in mind how to make the game marketable with the player in mind. Know who your players are and start building your presence there despite not having the budget yet.
Lord: We operate in a small team for our F2P, so I’m generally the one who handles the gaming side operations and the marketing side of it as well. Initially we didn’t know what we were doing. But the way we did it eventually since it was a F2P game was that we would have regular updates on it. So every quarter we would release new updates and what we would do is that with each update, we would look at our analytics and usage and other high level KPIs such as RPU (Revenue per User) and we would do small UA tests.If it did go in a positive direction, then we would see whether or not the spend was better than the revenue that we acquired. But currently, although we have improved it, we haven’t really been able to tip the scale where it’s actually going to make the cost principle a lot less than value. But we do have those really small spends with every release that we do that we can actually use that data to know what to improve in the game. Of course, we are working on a very limited budget as well, and what I’m realizing is that we should’ve probably looked for a publisher instead rather than spend so much time and money on trying to do it ourselves then seeing that we might just be burning a lot of it.
When is it the ideal time to build a community and start marketing your game?
Chris: I think one thing we need to be clear about is that we shouldn’t confuse advertising and marketing. Advertising is part of marketing, but there’s a lot of stuff that’s involved in marketing that doesn’t look like Reddit ads or Facebook ads, or blog posts. One of the larger parts of marketing and probably the most important bit of marketing that you will do in the entire process of your project is figuring out what the hell you’re building. There are titles that you are going to build that will be intensely difficult to sell, because there’s not an audience for it, the audience is difficult to reach, that sort of thing.
So when we talk about when does marketing start, marketing starts when your team sits down and talks about “what’s our next game gonna be?” That’s the actual start of your marketing. A solid 50% of your marketing is going to come before you’re going to have your first prototype built because you might or might not have built something that people want.
So the actual answer to that question is, there isn’t that huge of a difference between marketing and production than you think there is. Marketing is inherent in every stage of the production process, and then later in the production process, you start doing things that you think of more as marketing, which is closer to advertising. Now I’m going to go out on Discord, or I’m gonna put together a Steam page and start collecting wishlists on my Steam page. Those things we understand as marketing, but if you’ve screwed up all those steps leading up to that, then none of that’s gonna work. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but I’ve learned it the hard way.
When you have a publisher or somebody in the process who can say, nah, we can’t sell that, it’s much easier to cancel the project or make changes to the project. But where you’re a small indie team, you just believe in yourself and just keep going. That’s bad marketing. You think of it as bad product design, but it’s bad marketing.
Ryan: Jumping off from Chris, I think basically what he’s trying to say is, you need to start off thinking about developing a game that is marketable. I have a quick anecdote that might explain this. For our first game, called Political Animals, was a political strategy game that was very much a passion project for me. We thought it would be marketable but it turns out it really wasn’t.
So the next game after that would be running out of money, so we had to really think about what is a game that we want to make, but we also think that people would buy or we could market better. And we ended up with a game called Academia School Simulator, which is basically a management game where you run your own school, and so the very basic thought process of that was we knew that games like Prison Architect were selling well. Not everyone has been to prison, but most people have been to schools, therefore, maybe let’s make a school building simulation game, and that probably has a good chance of selling well. And that’s what we made. And so at least from the very beginning we thought, ok, this has a chance of being a marketable game and a game that can support us and make us money.
Chris: I’d like to add one little thing to that if I can. It’s not just about what can sell, it’s about what you can sell. In the story Ryan just told, he had experience building and marketing those kinds of games. And so, it’s not always just looking at the charts and say, oh, this is hot right now, and we’ll go make one—you may not have the right team for that. And so, there’s part of that process that goes like, do we have the team that can make and market this game. In Ryan’s example, he had a very good first step before that process. So it’s not always a case of go look at charts and see what’s going well, and going, oh, this is doing well so we’ll go build one of those—you might not be the right team for that. So that’s something to be though about as well.
Xiao: Before I answer that, I guess Chris and Ryan were able to cover how marketing your game starts with the product side, or when you figure out what that product is because that’s the foundation that will ultimately tell the marketing team how to market that product as well later on. But when it comes to community building specifically, at least in the story of projects and data, we started pretty early. We were raw alpha ESGS 2016, we had no marketing. It was our first time seeing the prototype that Gene made, and we were gunning to just showcase it in the upcoming local convention that was gonna be big and just show it to people and see what they think. So in a way, that was what Chris was talking about, showing your game out there, seeing what people think. I think we’ve seen also some of the players that found us at that time continuing to support us up until now.
So I can’t say what we did was smart—definitely wasn’t strategic, because we didn’t really have that big roadmap ahead of us, like, you’re going to enter a very competitive market, and you haven’t been discussing this yet, but timing is a big factor as well. I mean, in the last five years, you’ve seen the FPS scene growing now like Valorant. Of course we’re not competing with triple A titles. So, when it comes to community building though, just segueing out of projects and data because we’re learning, we’re growing, and of course we’ve served the Discord community and been doing a lot of community engagement activities, obviously online, and of course planning to integrate something in-game for the community as well.
So it’s a lot of trying to be pragmatic when it comes to resources, whether these kinds of activities—because some activities can impact production, especially if some of the activities that we’ll have have some in-game-related things that will happen. The big factor to community building can also consider production time. So when it also comes to community building, you also have to think about what makes sense for your schedule, who’s doing the community building, who’s interacting with the community, is it the devs themselves because the devs are also jumping into the community part, that’s time spent not doing the actual development work. So it really depends where you are in your production, when you want to start building your community.
We’re focusing mostly in the market that we know right now, and that’s one of the things, at least specific to our case, because our primary focus in community building right now is in the Philippines because it’s the market that we know, and we don’t have publisher. We may expand, we’ll see how that goes.
Monika: For me, it’s always better to start as early as possible, even before your game launches, because you want to gauge if there’s interest in the game instead of finding out too late that there’s no marketing for it. And at the same time, even if nobody knows about your game yet, but you would like to start posting dev blogs or updates about the game, you can just start putting it out there and let the community grow from nothing to something. Because eventually your community will serve as your brand ambassadors, like when launch day comes, they will be the ones telling their friends, “you should try out this game, I’ve tried it in beta, these are good developers, you can try this out.”
Also just to add to what Chris and Ryan were saying, even in the early development stage, when you’re making the pitch or the game design doc, you’re already identifying who your target audience is and what are their player motivations so based on who those people are you have to figure out what platforms you would like to build your community on. For example, competitive games, they prefer to be active on Twitch, Steam, Discord, but a more casual audience would be more active on Facebook, and would not go on Twitter. You don’t have to promote yourself on all of the platforms since that will also stretch you out too thin and just focus on which would be more relevant to your players.
Also, for me, I would like to reserve the usernames early, like when you have a game name already, get all the usernames. Even if you’re not planning to use it. Because I had an experience that there was an account using the same name as our game name and it was not related to us, so as early as possible, reserve it, even if you don’t plan to use it. Like I’ve made a Tiktok account for one of the games even if we’re not planning to use Tiktok.
Ryan: Just to go back to what Monika said about sharing stuff early, we did the same thing for Academia School Simulator, and we shared something when it was really bad. So you can search for Academia School Simulator Dev 1.1 and it was so basic like we showed something as soon as we could and even then there were already people showing interest in the game. So it was a good indicator for us, like, even in this really primitive state. I think one thing that you can take from that is if you post a really basic idea for a game and people start sending requests, like “is it gonna be like this?”, that means you’ve already kind of hooked them. They have ideas of what this game could be, so that means they’re excited about the potential of this game. Now, whether or not you’re gonna live to that potential, of course, is another thing. But the fact that they are excited about the idea of the game is a clue that you have something that could do well if all goes well.
Monika: Even if you’re showing a very basic or primitive view of your game when you start getting that feedback and they want to change certain stuff, it’s still easier to change things rather than later on when it’s already polished and you have to go back to the drawing board and you have to change things. That is going to be more costly for the studio.
Lord: Coming from the question, I would actually have to completely agree with Chris’s point where marketing and product go extremely hand in hand and you have to do your market research well before you actually start doing anything on the product because it’s going to be very costly when eventually you realize that your stuff doesn’t sell and you spent so much time and effort already on it. Did we ever market it too early?
So what’s interesting with Brawl Quest is that we wanted to try to create a local Filipino brawler and get local artists to collaborate with and we tried to capture the market, the fans of their artwork or their comics. Actually looking back at it, it was the completely wrong move, ‘cause looking at the metrics of mobile games, South East Asia as a region isn’t exactly the best target because of lower CPM rates which just means that for each person who watches the ads it’s a lot less, and conversion rates are already low.
So if we actually had that insight very early on, of course we wouldn’t have had that angle, but of course when we did have those collaborations, it did turn into conversions. People actually bought the boxes? Whether or not it was too early, we actually onboarded this content creators one or two years ahead of when the event was scheduled. So it was really something we had in the pipeline. So we kinda had it when we were developing it as well, we already had that angle to it. Then again, maybe we should have tried something else.
Having been at an actual gaming convention or conference, how likely are you to recommend its effectiveness to indie game developers? Or when is it the right time to go for a gaming convention booth?
Monika: I think going to conventions can be worthwhile but it really depends several things like what’s the purpose for going to the convention, status of your project, and how much resources you’re able to spend, at the same time what kind of convention is it, is it a B2B conference, are you there to look for publishers or network with other developers, or just a consumer convention, like do you want to showcase your game or get beta testing feedback. So if your purpose is to get the game tested and you have an MVP build ready, it could be very useful and you could be able to see how actual people play, like people with fresh eyes, if there are any pain points in the first time user experience or if there are certain bugs that you don’t normally see but they are able to replicate it. And if you’re going there for sales and you want people to install the game or you’re there to get registrations like to sign up for a newsletter.
So it really depends what your purpose is there and gauge the type of event or the status of the game. If you’re there to connect with media or Let’s Players or content creators, that would be a good venue, but you have to select the bigger conventions because not everyone would go to smaller conventions so you have to decide carefully because there are a lot of conventions every year. Well, before the pandemic anyway.
Ryan: Every developer’s experience would be very specific but just from our previous experiences for example, with Political Animals, we had a publisher and he was willing to spend to bring us to PAX in Seattle with the indie megabooth and then we also were at a large games conference in the UK called the EGX. This was for Political Animals, again this was the game that flopped. So our experience there was really great and everyone who played the game was really hyped about it and really excited, we got some pretty good coverage, like we were on Eurogamer even, and it didn’t really matter. I think in general, there was this article that I remember someone sharing how conventions can be tricky because they can give you a false sense of security. Everyone at a convention who has gone there is usually pretty hyped to be there and they’re gonna try your game and they’re just kind of excited, to be around these cool games.
When they try your game, they’re gonna be like, aw, this is so cool, this is gonna be so great, then they’re gonna forget about your game because they’ve gone onto the next thing. You’re not really sure that any of their experience with your game is gonna stick with them. And so many developers can be led to believe like, “oh, our game is really great and people really responded to it,” expecting that to translate to their launch, six months down the line, and that really doesn’t. It can if you’re very careful or very smart about what you’re there for, like, if you’re there for their emails for your mailing lists so that you can communicate with these people who liked your games when you’re close to launching, or are you there for press, it’s a good opportunity, although our experience has been like, even a larger games press doesn’t really have an effect on our bottomline, at least.
In general, I think that in terms of ROI like how much money you put in and how much money comes back for going to a convention, you’re not going to make that money back. But you do gain other things, people playing your game and enjoying it, it’s an excuse to travel, and you get to meet other game developers and you get to learn from them. It’s also very good to see people play your game and their faces lighting up. There’s a lot of reasons to do conventions but I think especially COVID has shown it’s not really necessary to make a business out of making games. That’s how I feel about conventions in general. Very cool to go to, but especially for indie games, can be tricky, and probably not worth your time and money.
Chris: I’ll start by saying that I stopped counting the number of game conventions I’ve been to at a hundred. One thing to keep in mind is, there’s basically two kinds of conventions. There’s business to business conventions and business to consumer conventions. When Ryan was talking about PAX, that’s largely a consumer convention, they let anyone who wants to come in in, lots of them are gamers, they’re there to have a good time.
B2B conventions are usually publishers, media, developers, and those are gonna have a very different flavor than a business to consumer convention, you’re not really gonna build a booth with a bunch of Christmas lights and that’s not really the way it works.
So that’s a very focused reason that you might wanna go to conventions: I’d like to find a publisher, I’d like to meet other people in the game industry. It’s also where, as you’ve been in this industry longer and longer, it’s where all your friends hang out. A part of my social life is to go to game conventions and meet up with my game developer friends and share information about what’s been good for us and what’s not been good for us: for that conventions are huge, and that’s largely B2B conventions. B2C conventions, the ones where you’re going to show your game to fans, I’m not as excited about those. I’ve done the math on those and how much it costs me to fly somewhere and stay at a hotel and eat while I’m there, and keep in mind this is time that you’re not back home working on your game.
When you add all that up, like ok, here’s a list of emails that we got for people who are interested in our game, alright, it cost me this much money to go there, divide that by the number of emails, well shit, I could’ve gone to Facebook and bought ten times as many people via ads on Facebook. If I’m going to go sell my game, I think it’s an incredibly poor investment.
I do think however, Ryan amd Monika made a good point though: if you wanna watch people play your game, that’s a great place to do it. If you wanna know how they don’t like your game, it’s when they put the controller down and quietly leave without making eye contact. That’s when you know, “my game sucks.” When you know your game is good, is when you have to tell somebody, “hey, I need to tell you to stop playing ‘cause there’s a line.” That’s when you know your game is good. Until that point, your game is not great, and if they leave without talking to you, your game sucks. That’s how you know how that works.
Just one last thing I will mention, big shoutout, ESGS is a good convention and it’s run by good people and you guys should all support it. It’s part of the Philippine game industry that really deserves more love than it gets, so my big shoutout to Jobert and all the people that run that, that’s a good group of people.
Lord: We have been very active with conventions prior to the pandemic. We have been going around from ESGS, Level Up KL, GStar in Korea, TGS, and I’d have to agree—you need to have a strategy when you go there, and there are always going to be two sides of it. There’s a specifically, let’s say for the game shows, there’s always going it be the B2B side, so there’s going to be like a speed dating type of matching where you talk to different publishers and try to pitch them the game and look for publishers.
With regards to doing B2C, when we were starting out with a game, we really used B2C, the triple booths, the indie booths, to do testing: user testing, checking out if they actually understand the tutorials, and really watching people play because of course, the people within the studio, the whole team has probably played your intro, your tutorial, like a thousand times already but it’s a good place to look for new fresh eyes to try out the game and that’s invaluable as information for you. So that’s a good angle to go it.
For the B2C ones, on the bigger conventions, I wouldn’t really suggest going there, ‘cause you’re really just going to be overshadowed by these extremely big companies with really big booths. Well, they do have indie sections, but unless you’re there to just get good feedback, you probably won’t be able to get sales as much, if that’s your goal.
Xiao: On-the-ground, live, in-person events, generally, I would recommend, but, as the rest of the panel has said, it depends on what your goals are in going to these conventions, and so after going to these conventions, you can determine whether it was effective or not, and if you’ll continue to go to these conventions and so it becomes a more intentional approach. Not all conventions might fit you or your games because the audience might not be there, so doing the research about that convention first is very much important. Ask your fellow developers, “hey have you been here, how did it do for your game,” “oh, it was primarily mobile so, for this convention we didn’t go there, since our game’s on PC,” so ok, we would probably pass on that because conventions cost money, although sometimes they do have more low cost, maybe even free opportunities for indie.
Before 2020, Project Xandata again has been in ESGS and PGF and we do different activities on ground to add another layer of experience to our booth, and we get lines in ESGS, and that’s kind of exactly the reason why we’ve continued to pursue this game. We see the excitement, we feel, see hear, the excitement, and we get a lot of coverage also from the press, we use ESGS, at least, ground events for us, have been effective when it comes to networking with the press, which is your earned network in a sense. So it definitely has a pay-off, of course, it costs a lot of money. So really know which conferences or conventions would work for you.
Lord: I actually wanted to add to that. We actually got lucky with one of the conventions. So it was specifically Level Up KL, so we were working on a mobile game, and apparently, Apple and Google send reps there, so we were able to keep in touch with a Google and Apple rep, so we could actually contact them for features. So our game gets featured on Google Games and Apple Appstore through our contact there. So I guess you could get lucky but don’t bank on it.
Ryan: Getting lucky isn’t a good business plan. Just some examples before we move on, I did once mention that we got our publisher for our first game by going to a convention, so it does work, and two, we would actually subsidize our cost of going to a convention by selling Steam keys during the event. That’s one thing that you can do to kind of subsidize the cost of going to a convention.
Chris: I will add one last thing. We joke about you can’t make luck with a business plan. I will say, almost every bit of business that I’ve done over the last seventeen years of Boomzap if I trace it back, it started with somebody I met at a convention somewhere. It was some guy who knew some person who worked at a company who needed a project, and maybe when I actually got that project put together, that was an email or phone call, but if I trace it back, it happened at a convention. So if you’re gonna be in the business of games, you need to be meeting the people who are throwing around money in the business of games, and that means going to conventions. That part of going to conventions is huge and I can’t say that strongly enough. If you’re going to find users for your games, I’m really down on that, but that doesn’t mean I’m down on conventions. That, “Hey, we got lucky and we met that one guy,” that may be lucky, but it never happens if you aren’t out there looking.
What is your last piece of advice (in any aspect of building a community)?
Monika: You mentioned specifically, reaching out to the press. Start building your contact list early, even before it’s time to promote, build the relationships, not just an email contact. Meet them in conventions, if you’re going, and look for people who would be interested in your game, not just who’s in the bigger news websites or gaming websites, like look at what games they’ve played, what games they’re reviewed, and actually personalize when you start reaching out to them.
When you build your contact list, sort them by genre or platform because you wouldn’t want to contact someone who reviews mobile games about a PC game and they would be very pissed off if you did email them something like that, it would be obvious to them that they were just a copy/paste message. Add notes when you build that contact list: provide them with a complete press kit or streamer kit, make it easy for them to promote your game. Have a press release so they can just publish the news as is, give them a Steam key or a press copy of the game, be creative with your hook: you should include it in your email subject because they do get a lot of emails every day. Just provide trailers, images; just make it easy for streamers or content creators.
Ryan: I guess my advice is figure out what you can do or what you can commit to and commit to it, and don’t be too affected by what people say, like, “oh, you should be on this.” Just for example, for Academia, ever since we launched it, people were saying, “you should be on Discord, why aren’t you on Discord?” I just don’t like Discord in general because it’s too stressful for me, to feel like I have to respond to questions live, so I mostly prefer forums. So yeah, we were fairly successful even without Discord. Now, would we be more successful if we had our own active Discord? Probably, but we didn’t have anyone on the team who could really devote their time to managing Discord. So it wouldn’t be pointless to try to do it. So basically pick the medium of communication that you’re most comfortable with and whatever it is, just make sure you stick to it, that you’re present there, and always kind of make sure that you speak to your viewers or your players on a regular basis, even if it’s not 24/7.
Chris: First, it’s really easy to get caught up in, like Ryan said, “I’ve gotta do this, I’ve gotta do that, I’ve read some articles and they said you have to have a Discord, and this and that.” I would, before you do anything serious about marketing, ask yourself, am I adding to the life of the people in the community by doing this thing? Is this gonna make the lives of the people in the community better?
There needs to be the other side of it where you’re actually offering something to your community by being a member of the community. For instance, recently, we found that a lot of people really like having early access using the beta version of the Steam game to go in and test our game and play with our game ‘cause it makes them feel powerful and makes them feel like super users to go in and get to see that content before anyone else gets to see it. That, for them, is better than just having the game. Something’s been added to playing the game for them. They enjoy that. If your marketing efforts, whatever you’re doing, a Reddit post, or Discord, or whatever it is that you’re out there doing, if it’s not bringing joy to your users, stop doing it, because nobody likes being sold to. They like being part of a community and they like these marketing efforts that are actually fun and interesting to them.
So that would be my biggest advice on building the community and doing a marketing effort: you need to figure out how your marketing benefits the people that you’re marketing to.
The second thing I want to say is, 90% of this is bullshit. You think I’ve got to go out and get these streamers to play my game, or I’ve gotta get Eurogamer to do an article: Ryan just said, he was in Eurogamer, it didn’t bring him any users. In many cases, all of this stuff that you think is good marketing, it’s the tail wagging the dog. After the game is popular, the streamers go pick it up. Streamers don’t wanna play unpopular games. They want users, they only get users if they play games that people know. I’m not saying this is always true, but a whole lot of this is really overhyped. I can show you 50 games that had all of that (reached out to streamers, great press coverage), and they still failed. And I could show you 50 games that didn’t have any of that that did very well, but I have to say, all the games that did well had pretty good marketing assets on Steam.
I would look very carefully at how you do your marketing on Steam because that’s where most of your users will come from, if you’re on PC. If you’re on mobile, same goes for the mobile stores. Most of your users are organically gonna find you through the store, and if you’re not set up on the store well with a really great video, with really great screenshots, and really great marketing assets, and reviews of people saying how they love your game—if you don’t have that, everything else you’re doing is silly. It’s not always the case, but it’s been more that case than you really want it to be. And I think that’s the sort of dirty secret of all of this. So those are my two big points.
Monika: Can I add to Chris saying that marketing assets are very important. I think the most important one is the video, the trailer, because people do not read, so just show them something visual, like show the gameplay, and just put all the info in the description of the video, the links, so that the video would serve as the gateway to everything else, where you’re doing your marketing. So if you’re doing blogs or livestreams, all of the links are under that one video because that’s where they’ll go to first.
Chris: I’ll add one other thing. Not only do they not read, when they’re watching videos, they have the attention span of gerbils on cocaine. They are not gonna watch very long videos, they don’t need to hear the whole back story of your game and learn about the name of the demons. What they wanna know is, “is this a game that I enjoy?” And to know that thing, they need to see screenshots and gameplay. They need to see exactly what your game looks like, in-game gameplay, and they look at that and they go, “yeah, that looks like fun, that’s what I wanna play,” now they click into your game and now they go play it. I see a lot of beautiful videos that have 30 seconds of story building and animation or whatever, and you’re like, but where’s the game?! Most of you people who are gonna play your game, I don’t care how beautiful your story was, they’re gone. If I wanted to play Ryan’s game, that video, I’m gonna see people walk around, it looks a little like prison builder, yeah ok, I like this game. The minute I see that, a person who likes that game, that’s a good video, because now I understand what the offer is. As opposed to, I watched 30 seconds of you telling me a story and I still don’t know what the game is. That’s a huge mistake that people make in making videos. Don’t get me wrong, I know this because I screwed that up myself.
Lord: The description on the listings is part of the algorithm instead of the people. So I guess in terms of giving advice, do market research early. There are a lot of resources online that you could actually look into. For Steam, there’s Steamspy, so you could actually look into the volume of the games that are using specific tags, how well they sell, who these games’ publishers are, would your game fits well with the folio of the publisher and you can target these people.
There are also publication sites that do show some good numbers on CPMs by region, by country, who you should be targeting. Try to look into how to incorporate that when you are developing your game so that you can get more guided on what you’re building rather than going in blind. You think it’s going to make money because you like it but when you look at the charts, it’s a genre that’s too saturated already and you’re probably not gonna stand out amongst your competitors. I would just really recommend trying to take some time and check what’s available and what’s online.
Xiao: With content creators, I think you have to consider not just the creator themselves but who their audience is, and if their audience is kind of a match to your target audience. Also with a creator, whether or not they could also add something unique to your game or add value to your game in terms of helping you build your community in the long run. And also apart from that advice, just to reiterate what Lord said about doing your research, know your product, know your market, just really do your research also as early as you can so that along the way you can manage your targets and your expectations with your resources and capabilities, and learn from your different marketing efforts along the way so don’t get too pressured with all that’s happening already.
It really just takes lots of practice, trial, and error, so don’t be afraid of failure, try things out, and put yourself out there, that’s pretty much it too. And there’s a good newsletter, Game Discoverability, so there’s also that, to immerse yourself in different things that are going on in the game discoverability space, which is marketing.
Is it fine to create a game towards a unique or innovative path (especially due to not being skilled enough to develop a marketable game) or will it be too risky?
Ryan: It’s fine. If you’re asking permission from us, then, there’s no one who’s going to give you permission to make a game that you want to make. If the question is whether we think—there’s two things here: are you making a game that’s just…there’s a game inside you that needs to come out? Versus, are you trying to make a game because you need to make money ‘cause it’s how you want to support yourself, those are two different questions, and if you just want to make a game that you really believe in, because you need to make this game, then that’s great!
If you need this game to make money, I would say that it’s very risky to try to do something too unique or too innovative, especially since this person is admitting that they’re not skilled enough to make a marketable game. Find the Venn diagram of like, what is the game that I wanna make vs. what is it that I can actually do, see what fits in both those circles, and focus on that.
Chris: I’d like to talk about the other half of that question which is about not being skilled enough to make a marketable game, and I’ll give you a very specific example. I was pissed off about the middle of this year at one of our games not performing as well as I thought it would, and looking at other games that I thought were inferior games, and I said, y’know what, screw it, I don’t care, I’m making a game, I’m calling it, I Love Finding Cats, I’m gonna take a bunch of pictures of cats, I’m gonna Photoshop them into some backgrounds, and I’m gonna let the user click on the cats, and I did this in Anchor. And I was upset and I was like, screw it! Just put some cats in, that’s all they care about. And we made it.
I Love Finding Cats: It was the most successful game we released all year. It did very well. People loved I Love Finding Cats, they said it was some of the best art we’ve ever done, literally cats Photoshopped in the stuff we pulled out of Shutterstock. It was not a game that required any meaningful amount of skill, or artistic talent—I don’t want to say our artists’ aren’t good, we made a nice cat game, but this wasn’t something that took an incredible studio with an incredible level of polish to build, this is something we built quite straightforward, and it was very successful. And we have shipped I Love Finding Pups, also successful, and now we’re working on I Love Finding More Cats, which we’ll release in January. And here’s the thing: I don’t wanna say it was a bad game; they’re good games and I’m proud of the team for making them, but play them: this wasn’t something that required an enormous team to build or some enormous level of game development skill, so the idea that a small team or inexperienced team can’t make a marketable game: not true.
Ryan: In the same way that Chris said that part of the success of Academia was my understanding of that genre and my connection to the previous prison architect game, y’know, you built a studio that has been making these kinds of games for more than a decade.
Chris: Yeah that was a particularly easy game for us to make because we know how to make hidden object games, but I actually live in fear of some random person in some random country going, really? You can make money that easily? I’m gonna make an I Love Finding Cats myself! It’s just a matter of time before that happens, probably someone on this panel, I don’t know. But someone’s gonna do it very quickly.
Monika: Unique is good because that means you’ll stand out in the market. Innovative is going to be kinda tricky because if it’s going to be new technology or if you’re merging different genres, maybe the players would not get your game right away because it’s still too out there, but some successful games started that way. For example, Pokemon, it’s an established gameplay and combat style but there’s always going to be the first game of a certain genre. It could be that game if you start it. But if you’re worried that you’re not skilled enough yet, it’s going to be a risk, but, like Ryan said, are you doing this for money, or are you just doing this for a hobby or is this your passion project? If you can afford to spend time, if you’re not skilled enough, it’s gonna be a lot of experimenting and making some mistakes along the way, if you’re going to spend months or years, if you’re ok with that, I’d say, go for it.
As we continue through our series of game development talks, we would like to invite aspiring game developers to register for Project PIGI and jumpstart their careers and passion. You can view the full session on how to build a community and market your game here.
Written by: Kenzie Du Games reviewer and journalist at VirtualSEA.