I was lucky enough to be given a speaker slot at the Develop Conference this year. If you haven’t heard of it, the Develop Conference is a yearly gathering of game developers from the UK and aboard. It’s based in Brighton, so it’s a good chance to not only meet with our peers but also eat some ice-cream and perhaps go for a paddle in the sea. Good times. :-)

It was difficult to choose a topic to speak about this time around, as we’ve launched Hogrocket and I’ve been doing literally a bit of everything. I submitted quite a general presentation topic, but the organisers suggested I narrow the focus to just indie marketing. I was more than happy to do this, as there’s so much to talk about in there. As I’ve got a bit of experience in this kind of thing on the AAA, big studio side of the fence I thought I was in a pretty good position to draw some comparisons between the two approaches.

The talk itself is called “Indie Marketing: How to tell the world about your game”. I’ll try to give a brief synopsis here.

Firstly, some background for those who don’t know me personally. Before co-founding Hogrocket I worked as the Studio Communications Manager at a large studio called Bizarre Creations. The company was responsible for some really excellent console games including Project Gotham Racing, Geometry Wars, The Club, James Bond 007: Blood Stone, and Blur. I handled a lot of Bizarre’s community strategy, I ran the web dev team to build the required software, and when Bizarre joined Activision I spent a lot of my time working closely with their Marketing and PR teams.

We made the decision early on with Hogrocket to self-publish our games. This doesn’t mean “we’ll release it and see how it does” – we’re taking the publishing side of things very seriously. We have Marketing and PR plans, pricing strategies, promotional events lined up, and a budget set aside to support this. In this brave new world it’s easy for smaller developers to think “yay we don’t need publishers any more!”. That might well be true, but you had better be ready to perform their functions yourself. Just because the publisher isn’t there anymore it doesn’t mean their workload suddenly vanishes. Those jobs still need doing; self-promotion is absolutely essential.

Think of your audience. Gamers have precious little time nowadays, given that there are more games than even before, on more competitive platforms, with a wider demographic. But it’s not just games – we’re competing with all digital media. There are more movies, TV shows, Internet-based distractions (i.e. websites, Facebook, browser games, Twitter, Skype, etc.). The games industry is competing for eyeballs with everything else, all the time.

In fact, in my opinion the biggest risk to indie game developers right now isn’t a bad review or some other games company competing with you. Of course it’s better to avoid that negativity, but remember those things only affect a slice of your potential audience. The biggest risk is getting lost in the noise and not appealing to anyone. If nobody plays your game then you’re not a game developer, you’re just exercising some self-indulgence.

That said, now is a great time for smaller devs to think hard about self-promotion in a big way. The Internet has enabled choices that haven’t existed before. Never before in history has it been cheaper and more effective to roll out a high-impact plan. You just gotta be smart about how you do it.

If you’re self-publishing then you should be spending 50% of your time promoting your game. If you spend 100% of your time programming then it’ll be wasted effort, as nobody will play it and you’ll die poor and lonely. Remember that, and get talking.

So, the AAA studio method. This is what we employed at Bizarre Creations, and most other big console game developers do things the same way. The main aim is always to inform and enlighten people ahead of the launch of your game. Why bother telling people about your game before it’s released, i.e. before they can spend their money on it? Well, it’s because it’s so expensive to keep your game on that shelf. When selling to retail you don’t JUST have to spend money on things like manufacturing and shipping, but also on all of these other things: box and manual artwork and localisation, account managers and events to schmooze buyers, point-of-sale design, manufacture, shipping and maintenance, and the precious time of your developers. We spent an awful lot of time at Bizarre working on trailers, screenshots, presentations, exclusive in-game content/artwork, etc. all in the name of retail marketing. This is all absolutely necessary when you are selling at retail – you need all of it.

So you get the idea – it’s expensive. There’s also limited inventory (shelf space). That means there’s only a small window of opportunity before your newly released game is pushed to the back of the store and under a pile of pre-owned. When selling at retail you need to make sure your game is purchased by as many consumers as possible in the short few weeks whilst it’s in prime shelf position.

This forces marketeers to have extremely long lead times on their campaigns, as it’s vital that all your fans know everything about your game the second it launches. Ideally you want them to be chomping at the bit to get their hands on your game as soon as it arrives in the shop. If they’re not then you risk losing your sales window. The problems with this are obvious though. How do you work out how much time and money to spend? It’s all based on predictions and past performance. Publishers have got very good at this, but it’s still not based on hard facts and up-to-the-second data. How can it be?

This is also a bit of a pain from the developers point of view. Game features are added to a big PR plan in order to get this long lead time. Week 3 we might talk about car A, week 5 we talk about track Z, and in week 10 we talk about multiplayer. It’s tough for a developer to showcase the game and hop, skip, and jump around some features without mentioning others. As the features of most games are so supportive of one another it can sometimes give a bad impression to split up announcements like this.

Times have changed though. At Hogrocket we’re selling our games completely digitally, with no involvement at retail. This not only means that it’s cheaper for us to setup everything initially, but it costs less overall too. The ongoing costs of distribution are so low they are effectively free, so we can leave our products “on the shelf” forever. This means that (hopefully) we’ll have a long tail of sales which continue to come in many months after we launch the game. This isn’t the case at retail.

As sales will continue over time, our user base will increase over time. All of a sudden there isn’t a huge pressure to make a big launch. We don’t NEED everybody to know everything about our game when we launch it. Instead of carpet bombing the planet with information on our game we can instead be a bit smarter. We can build awareness of our game cumulatively over time, spending smart time and money where it makes the most impact.

In the next part: How Hogrocket are tackling this new era of indie marketing. Coming soon!