Tuesday 7 February 2012

Indie Exposure: Why's it so hard?

This article was featured as a guest post on Games Brief - the Business of Games

Last Friday I was at the incredible Bit of Alright, David Hayward's smorgasbord of indie delights, giving a talk about Indie Exposure. Self-publishing the Greedy Bankers games has taught me a lot of lessons, not least just how much time, energy and creative thinking I've needed to devote to PR and marketing. The problem I've had, particularly with the original iPhone release, is that while it's had a very positive response from those who have played it, getting into the hands of players has been a massive challenge.

In the next few blog posts I plan to discuss the issues involved: why it's so tough to get exposure for indie and mobile games, and my strategies for getting that coveted exposure. So without further ado, let's look at where these difficulties are coming from.

Growing Competition

There are increasingly many developers launching games into the indie space. The rise of free-to-access marketplaces with limited gatekeeping - the iOS and Android app stores, the web and portals such as Kongregate and Facebook - mean that it's never been easier to release a game. In fact, without this I probably wouldn't have been able to operate as a one-man studio at all.

Unfortunately, this also means that if players come into the marketplace browsing for new games, they're increasingly less likely to stumble across your work. You're going to be less visible to the games press for the exact same reason: if you're sending out promo codes and press releases to promote you're game, you can be sure there'll be plenty more developers doing the exact same.

Of course, there's no reason to see other developers as "competition" - at least, not on an individual level. Community and cross-promotion are ways that the ever-populating indie scene can work to your advantage. Indeed, this highlights the fact that you're going to need to get smart, because you're no longer going to get spotted just by being in the market.

Open marketplaces don't facilitate discovery

On platforms such as XBLA and PSN, curated by platform holders, and boxed game releases, curated by publishers, browsing titles is a reasonable way to discover new games. There's few enough to choose from and enough of a guarantee of quality for a player to be happy to browse to find something they'll like. Things aren't the same in the App Store, which is why users almost exclusively look to the Top 20 and Featured lists - the curated parts of the store. If you're not spotted by Apple (an exercise in networking and app design in itself) then you're operating in a space not too dissimilar to Flash portals, but without the instant accessibility.

I've heard it said by fellow iOS developers that reviews don't usually result in direct sales. I personally believe that this kind of coverage adds to a slow-burn of recognition, and reviews can encourage more reviews, more press interest, all feeding into more sales over time. However I do think (based purely on intuition rather than any reliable research) that mobile gamers don't tend to look to app review sites for the next big thing. Even gaming enthusiasts tend to see mobile games as enjoyable throwaway experiences, and as a result it's hard to generate an enthusiast following around your game.

The solution to this is probably to develop an audience around the game in something more niche and specific than the games scene itself. At the very least this should engage some kind of notable audience, and the game may thus gain momentum that can be spotted from outside the niche. But at the end of the day, it's a question of the strategy behind your product; the App Store itself is unlikely to be a sales vehicle in and around itself.

The new gatekeeper

Plenty has been written on conversion rates, analytics and A/B testing, and a lot of it is very good. But ultimately, none of these strategies draw in new users. Knowing how many users I can expect to retain and monetise is useless without a meaningful userbase. This is why engaging new users is so important - because without it, nothing else can happen. In many ways, the user's approach to the App Store has created a new gatekeeper, replacing the gatekeeper that was the publisher or platform holder. It's the exact same on Flash, Facebook, Android and XBLIG.

Much like the old gatekeepers were human-led businesses, the new gatekeeper is a mass of human minds. The gatekeeper may have transformed from a small group of executives into the collective imagination of 60 million iPhone users, but it is still particular and unpredictable in its tastes. You no longer need the gatekeeper's approval to get started developing the game, but you certainly need it to publish successfully.

I read a lot of great articles on indie marketing, and applied the vast majority of their recommendations for Greedy Bankers' launch. There was a Facebook group, Twitter feed, website, blog, trailer, press kit… But all of these had the exact same issue as the game: it was hard to get people to look at them, let alone convert these viewers into new players. The reality is that promoting your game is probably going to be about getting one or two major breakthroughs, rather than having a seamless network of high-quality promotional materials. There are enough products out there with well-maintained social media that it becomes a starting point rather than a solution. As such, successful promotion is probably going to come from some radical new strategy, or a more personal approach that grabs enthusiastic hearts and minds.

Taking on the Challenge of Indie Exposure

Fortunately, in the process of building and promoting Greedy Bankers, and its iPad sequel Greedy Bankers vs The World, I have managed to make some headway on which areas generate interest from new users. There are no simple solutions, and a lot of woolly advice, but I'm starting to see headway being made and the right weak spots to keep pushing at. Here's a rundown of what I hope to cover in the next few weeks:

Focus on your USP
Build on the core unique feature of your game that makes it awesome. Make your USP sing, work out how to promote it first and foremost, and find an audience that is likely to get fired up about it.

That personal touch
Indie studios are in a unique position where we can be real people, and have real and identifiable stories to get behind. New players, particularly early adopters, like to have something to believe in, and indies are in a perfect position to give them that.

Smart and agile entrepreneurship
Think fast, re-strategise frequently, and always look for new ways to break into the market. Getting your game well-known isn't about doing standard things right. It's about doing special things very right.

I'll talk in more detail about each of these in the coming blog posts. Please do comment below and share your thoughts!