Earlier this year I decided to investigate the difficulties and realities of marketing and launching a video game related product. The aim of this experiment was to see if it is possible to find success without the backing of a large company in the video game industry.
Definition of Terms
- Developer: Someone who creates video games.
- Indie: A game made by one or a small group of developers, rather than a large company.
- PUBG: Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds is a PC and Console game.
- Console: A device made specifically to play video games.
- Modder: Someone who edits the code in games to create new content.
- USD: United States Dollar.
- NZD: New Zealand Dollar.
- Crowd funding: A product or business is funded by any individual interested, for either equity, content or products in return.
- Kickstarter: A crowd funding platform for products.
- Patreon: A crowd funding platform for creators and businesses.
- Online Influencer: The celebrities of the internet. People who are famous/ have large dedicated audiences on internet/ social media platforms.
Where do you Start?
There are a multitude of ways in which individuals and companies market video game related products. Large companies like Rockstar have spent in the ball park of 290 million developing and marketing games like Grand Theft Auto 5 (Rockstar North, 2013), even when those titles already possess monumental amounts of brand recognition. That’s not to say that these flashy marketing campaigns don’t provide return on investment. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Infinity Ward, 2011) was backed by TV commercials featuring actors like Jonah Hill and Sam Worthington, which couldn’t have been cheap, but earned 400 million in the US and Uk… in just 24 hours (30 of the Most Successful Video Game Marketing Campaigns Ever, n.d.).
So what if you don’t have the marketing budget of a large corporation and are ok with just making enough to get by. The indie scene is full of individuals doing just that, but even smaller titles that seemingly came out of nowhere, have some form of brand recognition. PUBG (PUBG Corporation, 2017) was created by Brendan Greene, an extremely popular ARMA (Bohemia Interactive, 2006 – 2013) modder and Gone Home (2012), Fullbright’s first game, was made almost entirely by ex-Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007 – 2013) developers.
In the article titled, 30 of the Most Successful Video Game Marketing Campaigns Ever (n.d.), only one of the mentioned games is a smaller, independent title. Angry Birds (Rovio Entertainment, 2009) developers Niklas and Mikael Hed have discussed how they did vast amounts of market research when designing their product and capitalized on endorsements from established brands in order to become the juggernaut successes they are now. Yet a partnership with an established brand doesn’t always guarantee success. According to the University of Chicago, a partnership between an unknown brand and an established brand shouldn’t be immediate, because the unknown brand needs time to build an audience of its own first (Dovijarov, n.d.). Perhaps Angry Birds wouldn’t have succeeded if it hadn’t already topped the charts in Finland and Greece, before being promoted by Apple.
So how would one go about growing this initial audience on their own? How would someone without an established audience or significant financial backing, market and popularize a new product? It would surely rule out traditional marketing practices, like advertisements placed on television, radio or in print. Which leaves one option, online marketing. Pradiptarini (2011) speaks highly of social media marketing, discussing how many companies use social media to improve relationships with existing customers and reach new audiences that were once unreachable.
Yet despite the encouragement to capitalize on such platforms, I’ve personally found they provide less than satisfying results. In 2013 I spent $100 NZD promoting a video through YouTube’s advertisement service. The video secured the 10,000 views YouTube promised, but only 0.1% watched any of my other content and 0.01% of those who watched the video actually subscribed to my channel.
I did a similar test using Facebook’s paid promotion features recently. For $18 NZD Facebook claimed they could expose my recent blog post to between 320 – 1800 people per day, for seven days. The tool also allowed me to focus my marketing campaign on demographics interested in content similar to mine. Over the following week roughly 2000 people were exposed to my article link. Only 100 actually clicked on the link. An argument can be made, that these poor results are actually a reflection of the quality of my products, rather than the effectiveness of social media marketing. Yet how often do you click on a Facebook pop up or continue watching a YouTube advertisement after you’ve been given the option to skip ahead? That then brought me to the idea of online influencers; YouTubers, Instagram Models, Twitch Streamers and Patreon Creators.
Influencers of the Internet
“You are in your mid-30s, single, sipping a coffee at your favorite coffee shop. Suddenly a stranger approaches your table and asks if he can sit with you. Instinctively drawing your purse a little closer, you make an excuse and leave. A month later your best friend tells you about someone she wants you to meet and gives you a very unbiased opinion on his virtues and vices. Knowing your friend has the best of intentions, you agree to meeting this person. As you walk into the restaurant you see the coffee shop guy sitting at a table waiting for you! This time your guard is down because you have the endorsement of someone you deeply trust,” (A New Marketing Royalty: Why Digital Influencers Are on the Rise, 2017, p. 2).
This power of endorsement is why many brands are turning to online influencers. Influencers allow you to focus in on your target audience and share your exciting new product, but with more authenticity. It is also significantly cheaper. Emirates spent a quarter of their $20 million 2016 marketing budget on producing several online ads with celebrity Jennifer Aniston. One of the videos has been viewed 6 million times.
They also provided some free products to online influencer Casey Neistat. They didn’t spend any of their marketing budget on collaborating with him, or ask anything in return. He liked their product and made 2 videos about it. Those videos provided Emirates with 52 million views of free advertising (A New Marketing Royalty: Why Digital Influencers Are on the Rise, 2017).
Perhaps this could be the answer. Perhaps this is how someone could go about launching their new game, without having the capital to build a dedicated consumer base early on. Yes it somewhat goes against the advice of Dovijarov (n.d.), but it seems the only way to get your product in front of an audience without significant financial cost. Now to test out this theory, I’d actually need a product.
As someone without the time to produce a video game for mere academic purposes, I considered other gaming related products that could be finished quick enough to test my assumptions. I also needed to create something with the skill set I already possessed. Since I had experience self-publishing a book in 2014, I decided upon a video game related book. I took inspiration from three core pillars. The Official Pokemon Handbook (Maria S. Barbo, 1999) was an essential part of my childhood. It took all the characters from the Pokemon (Game Freak, 1996-2018) games and provided details like their height, habitat and personality traits. Flanimals (Ricky Gervais, 2004) was a similar sort of book, but included entirely original creatures with descriptions shaped by Gervais’ trademark humor. Rise and Shine (2017) is a 2D run n’ gun by developer Super Mega Team. What makes it stand out, is its satirical mockery of other well-known gaming franchises, poking fun at the likes of Gears of War (Epic Games, 2006) and Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Creative Department, 1985).
I had a marketing strategy and I planned to test it on a book titled…
…Video Game Abominations. The book would be a satirical encyclopedia of famous video game characters, written and illustrated by myself. Although a book, its video game premise would hopefully mean the target audience, level of interest and results of my research, would be similar enough to if I’d tried this experiment with an indie game. Yet even at this point, I still faced adversity. I could write and illustrate the book myself, but not publish it. Even if I attempted to self-publish, the costs were considerably high.
According to Wesley and Barczak (2010) a limited budget may be of benefit. Guitar Hero 2 (Harmonix, 2006) was one of the Xbox 360’s 10 bestselling games, yet it toted a limited budget and aged visuals. What it did have however was a core principle of game design success, ‘easy to learn. Hard to master.’ Lair (Factor 5, 2007) on the other hand, had a 20 million dollar budget, three years development time and stunning visuals, but lacked any actual substance. Perhaps having less to work with can ensure that what is there can be polished and therefore stand out amongst the crowd.
Yet I didn’t even have a limited budget. I had no budget. My entire budget ($1500 NZD) was to be put towards marketing. Then I stumbled across a paper by Ethan Mollick (2014) which highlights the specifics of utilizing crowdfunding platforms. Crowd funding can be incredibly liberating, allowing for success no matter what the geographical location. This was a positive, since I am based in New Zealand but wanted to reach a global audience. Crowd funding campaigns generally succeed by a small margin or fail by a large one. In order to be the former it is important to demonstrate you have a quality product and have prepared well in advance. Established social media audiences can lead to overwhelming success, like in the case of Exploding Kittens (Lee & Small, 2015), a Kickstarted card game with an initial goal of $10,000, which then went on to raise over $8.7 million USD.
Although crowdfunding isn’t quite what it was back when Mollick (2014) carried out his investigation. In the years since, consumers have become extremely wary of platforms like Kickstarter. This can be contributed to projects like Mighty Number 9 (Comcept, 2016). During the 2013 Kickstarter campaign, backers were told they’d receive their copy of the game by April 2015. It released over a year late, looking drastically different to what consumers had originally financially supported, and there were many cases of backers never receiving what they purchased. After this became a regular occurrence, consumers became wary of online crowdfunding, and the platform has waned in popularity and success.
Still, this seemed like the best platform for me to conduct my research, due to limited alternatives. So I had a product, a marketing plan and a platform for my product to launch through.
Do Indies have a Chance in 2018?
I worked as a freelance games journalist for several years, and in that time I saw some great games and talented developers fail. Not because their games were inherently bad, but because they weren’t able to get it out in front of audiences. According to Erik Kain (2014) 4 years ago there were over 780 million games on Steam, the biggest PC gaming, online market place. 36.9% of those games, had not been played or bought by a single user. That should worry any aspiring indie developer.
I conducted all of the research above, for the following investigation. Do unknown indie game developers have a chance? Can someone with no financial backing or pre-established audience successfully market a video game related product?
For this investigation I didn’t have the time or ability to create a game of my own, so, with a budget of $1500 NZD, I wrote and illustrated a book, reached out to publications and online influencers for support and ran a Kickstarter for it.
The book was called Video Game Abominations. It was to be a satirical encyclopedia filled with iconic video game characters. I reached out to gaming audiences, hoping to hit a chord with their nostalgia and funny bones, and crossed my fingers.
The Experiment in Action
It took just a day to write the entirety of Video Game Abominations. Writing comes naturally to me, and with a deep love and knowledge of video games, writing humorous bios for each of the 20 characters in the book was by far the easiest part of the process. The illustrations proved harder. I had experience using the apps Procreate and Animation HD for iOS, to create simple and crude animations in my high school years. I decided I would need to improve my skills if I wanted to market a quality product. I began experimenting with Adobe Illustrator and followed tutorials by individuals like Clay Butler (2012). It took merely a few days to craft the first three illustrations.
I researched and contacted half a dozen companies that assisted in self-publishing. They were based all around the world, from New Zealand, to Australia, to the United States. I eventually decided to go with Bookprinting.co.nz. For the following specifications they offered a price of roughly $6 NZD plus GST, per book, for a minimum run of 400 copies.
- 150 x 115 size book
- Printed 20 colour and 24 mono pages
- 100gsm stock inside
- 300gsm full colour, gloss laminated cover
- Perfect bound
I then went about investigating tips for running a successful Kickstarter. The best advice I found came from Brett Jurgens (2015) and Stephanie Condon (2017). Condon pushes the importance of creating buzz well before launch. She references Andrew Jiang, who speaks highly of the importance of launch day. Four months before launching the Kickstarter for his laptop, the Superbook, he and his team reached out to communities who would be interested in such a product, building an email list of 20,000 people by launch day. They raised $50,000 in 10 minutes.
I didn’t have quite as long to prepare, so I began reaching out to communities and influencers 1 month before I planned to launch my Kickstarter. I reached out to roughly 50 games journalism websites, with social media followings ranging in the tens of thousands to millions. One moderately sized website had a disclaimer upon sending through a contact form. They stated that it would be unlikely to see a response from them, due to allegedly receiving over 400 emails a day. I expected little from this approach, and I was right to. Over the coming months I didn’t receive a single response from any website.
I then reached out to my first online influencer. Like many online personalities they utilized the crowdfunding site Patreon to help produce their projects. My budget wouldn’t allow for some of their pricier tiers, so I decided to reach out to them and form a deal. $1000 USD in return for 3 days of the sponsorship time. I’d also throw in a few free copies of the book if the Kickstarter was successful. I contacted them through Patreon, I contacted them through two different business contact forms they offered and I contacted them through a personal email provided by one of their companies support staff. I waited weeks, but never received any form of reply.
(In the following months we eventually got in touch. The period I contacted them was a very busy time for them. Therefore keep in mind that small businesses are often overwhelmed by large workloads. Contact them well in advance).
I decided to focus on other elements of the campaign. Two of Brett Jurgens (2015) biggest tips are to provide compelling rewards that aren’t costly or labor heavy, to avoid a Mighty Number 9 (Comcept, 2016) situation, and to create a truly captivating promotional video. Your promotional video is at the very top of your Kickstarter page and in most cases is the ‘make it or break it’ element for convincing people to fund your campaign. I spent two weeks piecing the video together. The entire video was animated with art I created in the app Animation HD. I also asked my Grandmother to record voice over for herself as part of the video. While keeping Jurgens’ (2015) advice in mind, I created reward tiers that I thought were interesting but cheap to pull off. I started with a $6 NZD tier where I’d give the backer a shout out on a post-launch live stream. For the highest tier I copied what many successful Kickstarter’s have offered, multiple copies of the book and an opportunity to hang out with the creator, for the price of $1382 NZD. I can’t say I genuinely believed spending time with me is worth that much, but why reinvent the wheel.
Having finalized all other aspects of my campaign, I went back to trying to find an online influencer to help market my Kickstarter. I partnered with two groups of online influencers made up of ex games journalists. What’s Good Games and Easy Allies are two companies that produce gaming related video and podcast content. Both groups content reaches tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of viewers depending on popularity, they also both utilize Patreon. I’d also been a fan of their work for some time. I backed them both at their $500 USD tiers, which worked out to be almost the entirety of my budget. Easy Allies agreed to read out an advertisement for my Kickstarter alongside several other advertisements, during their podcasts in the month of April. What’s Good Games offered the same, but would focus solely on my product and go into more detail. I organised the sponsorship’s so that they would promote my Kickstarter for the first time, four days after launch. This way I could gage how much of a difference their support would provide.
(On a side note, I want to commend both Easy Allies and What’s Good Games for their support, professionalism and understanding during the time that we worked together.)
A few days before launch I contacted a variety of games journalism sites again and provided a press release that gave a variety of details on the product and campaign. On April 11th 2018 I launched the Kickstarter for Video Game Abominations. On the first day the only people I told about the campaign were family and friends. Only one family member ended up donating to the campaign. Over the course of the first week the campaign was reported on by several websites, none of which I’d contacted, was promoted on the front page of Kickstarter’s most popular New Zealand campaigns page and was shared on Facebook group pages related to gaming. Before the sponsored advertisements we managed to raise $488 NZD…
…After 3 days of sponsorship by our online influencers, the campaign only raised an extra $111 NZD.
The rest of the campaign was relatively quiet. I was contacted by several websites who claimed they could massively improve my campaigns reach through paid social media marketing packages. My previous experience with social media marketing made me hesitant but I decided to follow up with some of them. None replied to my follow up emails. I also posted three blogs regarding the current state of the campaign on the Quiet Stories Blog (Bowring, 2018). By the end of my month of crowdfunding I’d raised $1882 NZD, just over 10% of my $15,200 NZD goal.
At first glance it would seem I failed. I didn’t reach my funding goal and my collaboration with online influencers hadn’t helped me market my book. The New York Film Academy (2014) amongst many others have stated that with a developer blog, promotion on online forums and promotional videos on sites like YouTube, you’d be well on your way to a successful promotion strategy. I went further than that, and still failed.
What Went Wrong?
I’ve tried to work out where I went wrong. Perhaps Dovijarov (n.d.) was right, immediately partnering with a brand may not have been the right choice. I compared my results to the story of Emirates and Casey Neistat. What I came to understand, was that you can’t force it. Online influencers do have significant power, but they have to believe in the product, they have to be excited about it. You can’t pay for actual genuine interest. That’s not to say I didn’t succeed at all. It was a small victory. When the Kickstarter ended without reaching its goal, several individuals reached out to me with disappointment. I also found out that a journalist from IGN had personally backed the campaign. I hadn’t grown a massive audience, but a small one, a small one that could grow over time. I’ve realized that there isn’t a secret to breaking into this industry. I can’t decisively say whether someone without an established audience can market a video game related product.
I don’t think it was the fault of the influencers I worked with either. They did a fantastic job on their end. I think I just went about working with them in the wrong way.
In 2018, more than ever, marketing matters very little, and creating a quality product that the right influencers connect with, is the best way forward. It’s a game of chance. Perhaps your first few attempts will fail, so perseverance may be the most important factor to marketing your products. Perhaps the small audience you establish with your first product, will expand with every new attempt you make going forward.
So don’t give up. Take every punch, and get right back up a little faster each time.
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