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The Secrets of Promotion for Indies

January 3, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Erik Sebellin-Ross, an independent marketing consultant specializing in the game industry offers this practical guide to promoting your indie game.

The first step to building sales for your game is generating buzz. And the first step to getting that buzz is promoting your game to journalists, bloggers, YouTube entertainers, and all other relevant influencers.

Because without them writing about your game, Tweeting about your game, discussing your game on YouTube, talking about your game on their podcast, or mentioning your game in any other digital, print, or audio format, damn few people will ever hear about it. And if they don't know about your game, they won't buy it.

What you're about to read is a breakdown of a fundamental, tried-and-true process followed by PR people the world over. It outlines what you need to do and say to get attention for your game. So let's get to it.

Journey of a Thousand Steps

This promotional process is called outreach. And it is simply a matter of telling influencers about your game so they can tell their readers or listeners or watchers so, in turn, their followers will learn about your game, become interested in it, and with luck, buy it.

So where do you start?

First, you create a list of relevant influencers. By relevant, I mean influencers who would be interested in your game and who have a sufficient number of followers. The next section will tell you how to create this list.

Second, you write pitches to send to influencers. A pitch is an email designed to create awareness, generate interest, deliver information, and build excitement among influencers so they can pass this awareness, interest, information, and excitement onto their followers. The final section of this article covers how to write and deliver a pitch.

And, third, with luck, you get sales.

And One List Shall Rule Them All

To reach out to influencers, first you have to find them. And not only do you have to determine who they are, but you need to find their contact information. Such as their direct email address. And their direct telephone number. And even their Twitter account.

And, note, this contact information has to be direct because, almost always, any message left in a general telephone mailbox and any email sent to a generic will be universally and sadly ignored.

To create a list of influencers, list every newspaper, magazine, blog, and any other venue you want to speak about your game, from Eurogamer and Joystiq to the technology journalist at The New York Times even to Yahtzee. If you are not sure if the venue is worth your time and effort, determine how many followers they have. For newspapers and magazines, look for their circulation number in their advertising kits (look online in the advertising section). Aim for a minimum circulation of 200,000.

For bloggers, look for their monthly traffic numbers using sites such as Compete or Statsaholic. Aim for a minimum monthly traffic figure of 25,000, but keep in mind these sites usually understate traffic, so use them with skepticism.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Matthew Burns
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Erik, thank you for this great article. As an Indie, I need real and pertinent information on how to promote a game I currently have in development. It is my hope that by using information like what you have provided and passed experiences of a game launch (quite a few mistakes), I will be more successful this summer.

Erik Sebellin-Ross
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My pleasure, Matthew. I'm sick of reading all the theory-laden articles that leave the reader to figure things out on their own, so I'm hoping this will be helpful to people.

Question for you -- is there anything else about marketing you'd like to know about? PR is just step one, after all!

Matthew Burns
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Yes Erik, I agree about the theory-laden articles.

I wish I could ask you an intelligent follow-up question about marketing one's indie game, but I just do not have one now. The sheer scope of 'marketing' is immense; but I love a challenge.

Perhaps later as I delve deeper I could ask you a question or two?


Erik Sebellin-Ross
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Of course! Look me up on Facebook and fire away.

Matthew Burns
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Thank you sir.

Thomas Happ
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I maintain a giant Google doc of people I've yet to contact, people I want to contact, contests, marketing links, etc. It helps me to remember what I've done and what I've yet to do.

Brian Stabile
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I will tell you that having an active presence on Twitter was the best thing we here at Astro Crow have ever done. We've been able to effectively communicate with so many other indie studios and just game industry people in general.

Follow us @AstroCrowGames

Will Burgess
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Great read Eric; I enjoy the no bullshit approach. It will definitely help quite a few people in the industry, indie or otherwise!

Keith Nemitz
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Thank you, for this. It's particularly timely for my game, '7 Grand Steps', demo going public next week.

I've been active along the lines you recommend, but because I've been bad at forecasting deadlines, I've jumped the gun more than once. (offering buggy alphas instead of betas) Still, the gameplay is unique and absorbing, and I still have decent rapport with several influential journalists. (all bloggers are journos, in my book)

The hardest part is finding the right bloggers for my game which defies a lot of conventions. Part god game. Part historical sim. Part I.F. Part spreadsheet game...(not too much, though) What do you get when you cross Oregon Trail with Civilization but it's casual like PuzzleQuest?

I don't know how to describe it effectively either, but the game sells itself when played. See the difficulty?

Erik Sebellin-Ross
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I know where you're coming from, Keith. Your pitch should try to build an image in the journalist or bloggers mind about what they can expect. I wouldn't try to be too all-inclusive for fear of confusing people, though. I think saying "Oregon Trail meets Civilization, but casual" says A LOT.

Simon T
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Excellent practical article, thanks Erik!

Jonathan Blow
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I am sorry to have to say it publicly, when the author is present, but this is bad advice. An indie who does PR this way is very likely to have their game just get buried like usual.

I think it is important to call out bad advice because when people unwittingly follow it, thinking it is good advice, it does real damage.

Bloggers get bombarded by emails, about games they don't care about, just like the emails suggested in this article, all day every day for their entire lives. You don't want to play that game; it is a losing game.

I have spoken before about what I think is the effective way to do things. Here is a summary:

(0) Make a game that people will actually care about -- that stands apart from the crowd and really gives people something they do not usually get.

Most indies do not succeed at rule (0) and so everything hereafter is not useful. Do not bother doing any of the following steps until you do a good job at rule (0).

(1) Talk to the people on the internet about your game, in a truly substantial manner, about what is interesting about the game. (You know there are many interesting things about the game because of rule (0)). You may reach some press / bloggers / influencers this way, but that is gravy. The goals are:

(2) Build a community of people interested in your game.

(3) Learn how to talk about the game. Learn how to explain the ideas in a captivating way. (Learning how to talk about games is a general skill you can build, but even once you have it, each individual game has its own things about it that you learn).

(4) Observe how people respond to what you say about the game. Use this to better understand your community and better understand your game.

(5) Once you have a community of people interested in your game, you will find the press automatically paying attention to your game and what you say about it. This is because (a) they want to write about what people are interested in, and you have shown that people are interested; (b) once they take the time to look at your game, they maybe find it interesting, because of course you did a good job at rule (0).

(6) When talking to the press, Keep It Real. Be an interesting person, tell the truth, don't self-censor very much, don't try hard to look professional. Again, the internet is full of amateurs trying to look professional. It smells lame, and if you do it too, you will smell lame. If you say things to bloggers that they didn't expect, and that they enjoyed writing up, they will want to talk to you again.

(7) Finish your game and release it. Now you will not have a problem getting attention.

Maurício Gomes
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I think Erik approach might work, for some genres and sizes of games...

If you are not doing hipstery stuff, and instead making "normal" and "average" stuff that people still want to buy, then I think your approach will not work.

For example: some of my biggest competitors are people that did completely average, non-innovative and normal stuff, but they did it early (ie: when the target market was starting) or they did it well (ie: highly polished), and over time they amass some good success, and even get launches featured on mobile stores (app store, google play, amazon, ovi, etc...) but they did it with a solid product, but not one hipstery enough, and not the sort that attracts a community either.

Sometimes your product IS the plain old professional boring, and then you need to resort to plain old boring professional tactics.

Aaron San Filippo
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@Maurício: if your product is "plain old professional boring" - then the energy spent trying to get anyone to care with these methods is probably exponentially less productive than the energy it would've taken to just make a better game.

If your game isn't interesting enough to get anyone's attention, but you're still intending to put it to market, then there are many better ways to go about it than spending your days sending emails to journalists.

Rob Graeber
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How do you build a community? i.e. for Braid or your upcoming game. A forum? A blog that people can follow? An emailing list?

Maurício Gomes
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There are markets that what matter is be professional, not be different.

For example card games gone digital...
Or some sudoku implementations you see on mobile phones...
And so on.

You won't see a "community" around "sudoku 3000" but you will see journalists talking about it if it is solid enough.

Erik Sebellin-Ross
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PR vastly increases your chances of successfully marketing your games. The more things you do, including many of your points, the better. But don’t discount PR – it is one of the best, tried-and-true methods.

Without PR, you risk the possibility that no journalist will ever discover you. If they do use PR, your game can be exposed to tens of thousands of people. That’s tens of thousands of potential sales.

That’s why you should use PR.

Keith Nemitz
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Comment on items 1 and 2. This is import work, but just talking about a game won't build a significant community. These days you have to supply a demo. Even awesome preview art gets trampled by the rush to play something new.

However, supplying an early demo carries a risk (remember we're talking about an amazingly good game that "stands apart from the crowd") of being copied, especially a unique core game mechanic. The risk is another product (possibly produced by a company with marketing capital) may steal your thunder, even if it isn't a clone. Personally, I think the risk is low, but if it happens, it could be devastating.

Not talking about copying now. Jon, you did not supply a demo of Braid or Witness, to the general public. Braid's initial word of mouth exploded because of the IGF win and journos who played the private demo. (am I mis-remembering that?) I don't think this article is bad advice, when it was a part of your success.

Matthew Burns
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Graham Luke
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Erik, he's not saying an indie should not use PR. That's just his attitude you're focusing on. His attitude is aggressive. He is saying the kind of pure PR approach you are suggesting doesn't work well with games that don't have "meat" to back it up with. Indie games are often unproven, built by people who are unproven, marketed by the inexperienced (at marketing). His suggestions seek to address these issues. Your ideas are valuable I think, but they do have a flaw, which he has pointed out.

Your email example read hollow to me too.

Andrew Sum
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Thank you for this truly helpful advice. I really agree with you on rule (0). I think that's the most important part!

Natascha Roosli
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I have to agree with Jonathan on this. While the PR/Media Contact list is an important step it's old school and with the amount of press releases and pitches journalists get every day it's almost impossible to get their attention unless they already know you.
Not to mention I have been told several times only this year at several GDC events and other conferences that Journos do NOT like to get direct emails from random PR. It's of course different if you know them personally but other then that, using the shared, general contact email means that several sources do see your attempt to contact them.

I am a firm believer of building communities, and gain fans and friends. Connect with people that like what you do because it won't only help you in the end with building interest and exposure but also with your overall development. Being yourself is an important part of this, since your community will learn what you stand for and what your goals are.

Anyway, I sound like a broken record after Jonathan's post but I whole-heartedly agree with what he said (and have said the same on several occasions and during several events myself :)). A good example was the whole outcry about the app store changes and how to gain exposure after that. Same motto applies: Create a community and a following around what you do because a community is your most valuable asset as a game developer.

So in between the OP and Jonathan's reply the best result lie in using all the mentioned options as best as you can.

Also, for anyone interested: I shared your general media contact list on our website. Obviously I do have personal contacts as well which I didn't' share. All the info shared was compiled from the net. (

Erik Sebellin-Ross
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That's a nice looking list, but seems (to me) to be unnecessarily time consuming to manage for an indie developer trying to promote themselves. Rather than use all those checkmarks and X's, wouldn't it make more sense to create multiple tabs in the spreadsheet to cover individual platforms? For example, list iOS reviewers in an iOS tab, PC reviews in a PC tab, generalist sites like IGN would go under "General" etc.

I think we'd all prefer to spend more time coding/designing/composing/pitching rather than managing our spreadsheets :)

Natascha Roosli
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Hmm weird, for some reason I can't write a reply to you directly Erik:
I actually had it that way before but the issue is that a lot of gaming sites cover all different platforms (minus the mobile online sites). It was, to me at least, more convenient to consolidate everything in one place and use filters in order to see which of the sites are targets for specific type of games (specially since we develop for all platforms).

James Yee
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Honestly I think a lot of these ideas (Both the Community up and the PR poking methods) work well for all Kickstarters as well not just Indie Game sales. Good stuff to share. :)

GameViewPoint Developer
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As with most things in life it's who you know that counts. Having said that there's no better way to get to know people without seeming desperate, than making a great game. Yes it's true there are many games that are released that do well financially and are not very good, well that's not your concern because you probably don't have the brand/financial backing/media backing that they do. No, concentrate on what you CAN control, and that's the quality of your own game, everything will flow from that.

JJ Jonasz
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I think this is okay general advice, sure don't skip out on sending press releases and messages to bloggers/review sites, but I wouldn't really count on this as much of a promotion strategy. It kind of reads like you will get covered if you follow these steps, which is misleading. The odds of being covered are very slim, you can increase your odds by building a relationship with the press, but even then it's all just a roll of the dice. You can have a great game, send beautifully written and witty emails with great screenshots and videos to every blogger/reviewer on the planet, but in the end these people are just too swamped (and if they aren't then their audience won't help you anyways).

I would recommend Jonathan's approach of building a community as more worthwhile. Make your own blog, start a discussion, start a forum, team up with people who already have a following.

Then again, I don't really know what works. I've been doing this for a few years, even got to the #1 game spot on the Mac App store and still didn't get any press from any major sites. Everyone's got great advice, and they think just because it worked for them that it will work for you. Unless you have a major brand or celebrity status, it really just looks like complete and utter luck to me.

Jeremy Reaban
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Not all indie games are created equal though. At the risk of being offensive, some indie games are well, "hipster" and so will automatically attract more attention in the gaming press (and among indie game enthusiasts) than regular games that regular people play (like the solitaire used in the example).

This method is more suited for the non-hipster stuff.

As someone who writes for a very small gaming site that covers niche stuff, you'd be surprised how often smaller companies don't even do the very basics - website about their game, screenshots, etc.

If you want coverage for a game that isn't the coolest kid on the block, try to find sites that show up highly in search engines and show up in gamerankings at least. It's not metacritic, but gamerankings reviews do show up on the Gamefaqs/Gamespot database, a pretty large website

Rami Ismail
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So here's my perspective: do Every. Single. Little. Thing. You. Can. Possibly. Do.

Seriously. What Erik writes in the article is valuable, actionable advise. Having a press list, making friends in the press, going to events - all that is just as important.

Building a community is important. Having a good presskit with great media, having an interesting story angle prepared is important, knowing your game and its elevator pitch, knowing your audience is important, knowing what makes your game special is important. Knowing what you're marketing for is important. Is it brand awareness? Game awareness? Pushing sales? What are you trying to achieve, what kind of people do you want to reach and how are you going to reach that? Is it through press? Casters? Community? Pamphlets in nearby supermarkets?

But please, don't go 'building community' for a game you worked on for a month and are releasing for $0.79 on Android. Actually, just don't do that for any project with a shorter turnaround than three to six months. If your projects are that short, focus on an overarching brand instead with community. For the game, just step to the press with why they should care and why you're the right person to create the project. They won't bite you for trying.

Everything is important in marketing, and there's no scientific approach to it. Good marketing is about people, after all, not games. The games are secondary.

Emppu Nurminen
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While I do agree your point of uselessness to create communities for games with few months to live, it's bit sad to see how developers overlook their own branding to make the community with the games they do. Surely people liking the developers in personal level will stick with them, but especially with casual audience it's real headache to trust any developers producing so various games in general.

Aaron San Filippo
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So, Rami and Jonathan's advice is kind of interesting, because they're both successful developers, and because the advice is so different.

I feel there's a sort of danger in saying "do everything" because you can go kind of crazy, and lose sight of what matters the most: making the game into something really great. This is especially true when the people who are busy "doing everything" are also critical pieces of the team needed to finish the game.

We experienced this a bit at Flippfly this fall: It's really easy to get caught up in making a website with a forum to try and "build a community," and it's really easy to spend days trying to craft a "marketing story" and get the press to notice it, and it's really easy to spend weeks on a promo trailer for your game when it's not actually done yet.

The thing is - if your game is going to have a decent shot, people need to love it when they play it, and they need to tell their friends. The press writeups are just this happening, but on a slightly bigger scale. We were thrilled when Rock, Paper, Shotgun wrote about our Race The Sun game - it drove about 2,500 people to our website, and we made about $200 in preorders. This was great - but then it died off after that.

At some point we realized: We can spend all this energy on actually getting the awesome features in the game that are in our heads, and then the people who *do* take the time to play the game (it's on Kongregate) will do a lot of the work of helping it spread.

So my new PR strategy, for now: Finish the damn game. Then go crazy trying to get people to notice.

Javier Cabrera
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We had pretty good press when we released CYPHER (RockPaperShotgun, IndieGames, GameZebo, Kotaku Barzil, UK, USA, PcGamer, TheVerge, etc) but because we are down in Argentina we missed all the PR contacts a live event has.

I advice everyone, not only to do what this cool article says, but also to GET OUT of the office/studio/home and go to PAX, GDC and every other live event you can. You can't rely on communities and online marketing only, you need to go face to face with the press and more importantly, the people. Face to face wins every time.

You can spend all day long on the forums and you won't make even 5% of what a news outlet can get you, and if these guys find your game interesting enough, then it's a job well done.

If you have to make an elevator pitch, then you're done. THEY should be knocking at your door trying to know what the game is all about. An elevator pitch means your game doesn't looks interesting so you need to get them interested in less than 40 seconds.

Impossible. Better work on something they will be interested from the second they see a screenshot.

-- >> Indie Dev Tips! << ---

Daniel Cook
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A bit late to this. I would say that for the games I've worked on, the majority (90-95%?) of traffic comes from non-press and non-PR activities. Press is one of the most publicly visible forms of outreach to informed folks like ourselves, but for online games it provides a minority of the traffic.

The rest comes from:
- Having great original games.
- Using this as a starting point to form good relationships with various distribution folks.
- Being on a lot of distribution platforms to find the ones where your game clicks.
- Using distribution and fans to build up a self sustaining community.

In terms of where you should put your energy, I'd put 90-95% of your efforts into those 4 items.

Other notes about press:
- Some platforms are more sensitive to press and PR: Steam and XBLA from 4 years ago.
- Some are less sensitive: Flash portals, iOS, Android, Big Fish, Amazon, your website.
- Press is ephemeral. You get a brief spike that falls off quickly.
- A series of good press hits will yield traffic in the 1k-10k range. With current lower prices on games and low conversion rates, you often need consistent numbers in the 100k - 1M range to make a reasonable living.

We'll still keep doing press because it is one great type of conversation to have. But it is a conversation that is more for the developer's benefit than for the benefit of the game. I like talking about our games to a specialized, generally educated audience, independent of the practical value.

take care

Matt Hackett
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I've been keeping "establish a good relationship with a gaming influencer" as an ongoing task in the back of my mind for months now, and it's really been stressing me out! I appreciate your insights because they suggest I can continue to just focus on honing the craft without feeling like I'm neglecting something critically important.

Good stuff, thanks Danc!

Martin Redmond
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Thanks for the article.

I wanted to say, I think it's ridiculous to think that making a "good game" is sufficient. Most of my favorite games are barely known, even those released by major publishers. Also, if that were true there would be no franchise iterations ever.