Focus on the End from the Beginning

Originally posted on July 19th, 2016

I’ve been partnering with indie studios to take their titles to market for the last two years. Moonlighting initially and then full time as of February of this year with my company, Whippering. We’ve shipped three titles so far this year and learn a lot from each release. Hopefully some of those learnings and ways in which we view the market will be interesting to you.

The End

As an indie in today’s environment, from day one you should think of creating your game with the end in mind. Why? Let’s look at grossly oversimplified images of shipping a game years ago vs today as an independent studio.

While shallow, this basic flow is helpful in highlighting the difference. Historically, your biggest hurdle was getting your game in picked up and potentially funded by a platform approved publisher. There are exceptions abound here - e.g. around 2008 an indie didn’t need a publisher to get on Steam so the main hurdle was at the platform stage and getting someone at Valve to notice and approve your game - but generally publishers were the greatest challenge and the gatekeepers to bringing your game to market. Publishers heard many pitches and only selected a small percentage of games.

Today, your greatest challenge has shifted to the very end, which is getting your game noticed by a gamer, your customer, and having that gamer fork over money for your game. There are a number of contributors to this shift. Lower development costs and easier development tools equal more developers out there making more games. Publishers are no longer gatekeepers but are now maximizers (of course I’d say this :). And platforms are a lot more open today. If you look at the biggest “core” platforms, Steam has a low barrier to entry (too low given the current state of Steam’s discovery algorithms but that’s for another blog post) followed by higher but accessible barriers to entry from Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo.

The biggest reason for this shift, though, is digital distribution. Digital distribution is a beautiful thing. The internet has enabled you to take your content, your game, and make it available across the globe. Your theoretical addressable market is anyone with an internet connection. Crazy. More practically and narrowly, your addressable market is any active user on platforms that house the type of gamers that would be a fit for your game. That’s cool. Not without new-ish challenges for sure but still very cool. You’ve likely heard something similar to this many times already: it’s never been easier to make and ship a game and it’s never been more difficult to do so successfully. I don’t agree with the latter part. It’s always been tough to be successful. It’s just now more difficult in a different stage - the end - while being “easier” in all others. And when your biggest hurdle is at the very end, best to plan for that from day one.

Content, Noise, & Audience

In an industry defined by digital distribution, you compete on the quality of your content. Your game has to very good. Full stop. The best marketing in the world will be surface level deep and short lived at best if your game is not compelling. But we’ve correctly heard already that a good game is not enough today. You need rock solid content and the ability to rise above the noise in today’s market. With ever accessible tooling and open platforms, you need to plan on breaking through an ever increasing amount of noise. So your game has to be marketed well. And in order for your indie game to be marketed well, it needs to be uniquely positioned. Successful positioning for your game, and the vast majority of games out there, is dependent on designing with the end in mind from day one. Ryan Clark, creator of Crypt of the Necrodancer, does an excellent job outlining this in one of the best blog posts out there. Ryan details the necessity of your game having engaging hooks - unique and appealing aspects of your game that lead to people wanting to try or discuss it - in order to position your game to rise above the flood of constant new content. This is spot on. (Ryan also does a weekly stream on his Twitch channel where he evaluates top sellers on Steam that is worth tuning into).

Successfully baking in compelling hooks at the earliest stages also lends clarity as to who your audience is. You need to identify your target market. What type of gamers will play my game? The more niche, assuming that niche is large enough to support your game’s financial goals, the better. Don’t try to have your game be a game for everyone. It’ll end up being a game for no one. Know what your game is and proudly own it.

The Pitch

Once you have your game’s hooks it is then time to craft your pitch. Your game’s pitch is vital. It’s short sentence (maaaaaaybe two) that hits on the most compelling hooks and clearly distinguishes your game as something interesting and worthy of attention. It can be terribly tough to decide on and finalize but it is damn sure easier to do that if you have well thought out hooks and have had the end in mind from the beginning. Your pitch should be clear, concise, resonating, and strike a chord. Once in place, it should power your game’s marketing.

From the game’s trailer to its name to its assets on Steam to its presence at events to your email when you’re reaching out to streamers to even its price, your pitch is the foundation. If your pitch and hooks are not authentically baked into your game from the beginning, you will end up fighting a very difficult force when you attempt to shoehorn in unique positioning into your game later in development. It is likely your messaging will be average or muddled. A lack of clarity in messaging suggests a lack of clarity in design. That’s why it is so important to think about positioning and your game’s hooks from day one.

(Note the above is true for indies but not necessarily for AAA games. The marketing and advertising budget for AAA games is large enough where it is possible to overcome a mediocre game that doesn’t have a lot of unique selling points. And there are, of course, exceptions to this for indies as well. Indies that have a very big following or celebrity status don’t have to work as hard on the marketing front as an unknown indie, though they do still have to work in it. Also, having that following or stature suggests that at one point they gained their following by creating something great and well positioned. Another example are games that are just so great that they rise above the crowd without anything else. Thomas Reisenegger from ICO Partners has a stellar GDC talk that briefly hits on this but is chock-full great marketing and PR truths. Definitely worth the watch).

End to the end

Imagine yourself two or so years from now. You have reached the end. Your game is finished. You are about to click “Release App” on Steam (if you think there are a lot of games on released on Steam each day today, wait until July 2018 :) So think hard and critical about this: why should a customer with $15 dollars give it to your game vs something else? That answer needs to be clear as day to your potential customer and to be able to do that, you need to think about this scenario from day one. Then plan, design, and market accordingly.


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