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What indies might be able to do to weather the ludicrous marketing storm, and a mini Frozen Synapse update...
Posted by Mode7Games on Jun 15th, 2010
Visiting the Village Podcast Returns!
Let's kick things off with the latest episode of our podcast Visiting the Village, which has returned after a long hiatus!
If you want to send me any questions for the podcast, please do so on Twitter.
Frozen Synapse Videos: Mode 7's Selection
Here's our selection for today's video: a spirited Secure match between SFLegend and Grimmsy...
Quick Dev Update
Matt has apparently fixed the annoying "persistent explosions" bug! This was one of our most annoying visual glitches: pleased to see it (hopefully) gone and delighted to report that we should be able to tick some more of these irritations off the list soon.
Ian is working on some of the new features for the next patch that I talked about last time. After those are in, he'll move on to bug-fixing.
I am writing this (narf!) and hopefully going to return to some audio work soon, but at the moment I'm having to focus on marketing for reasons outlined....now...
Indie Games vs. E3
There's a huge amount of news exploding into the games scene currently, what with E3 seemingly back to its full power as a giant many-headed beast that overshadows everything anyone tries to do!
This means that it's a tougher time than any (except Christmas) for indies who are trying to build up word-of-mouth for their game.
You really have two options:
Option 1: Try and Compete
I could take a massive chunk of the budget we have to market Frozen Synapse, fly to LA, get a small stand and shout at people all day. That's a lot of time and expense but more importantly it does not work in isolation: we wouldn't sell more pre-orders if we did this.
And do you know what? It actually pisses me off quite seriously, because I CANNOT see the ROI. Ian and I watched Microsoft's press event yesterday, which was an amazing spectacle: we loved the over-the-top Americana; the mix of slickness and pure nonsensical amateurism. And the fantastic dancing.
As I mentioned to Ian, the thing I don't get about these events is that they're targeted to games journalists. GAMES JOURNALISTS. Have the PR's running them ever MET any games journalists? All the journalists I know like the following things:
1.) Actually playing the games they're writing about
2.) Having time to talk to the developers about their motivations, and ask detailed questions
3.) Possibly drinking alcohol / having a cup of tea / otherwise doing something fairly relaxing at the same time
That's IT. I've never met a journalist who has said, "You know what? I'd cover this if you flew me to some island, bribed me with free stuff and then took me to a Rhianna concert." I've never met one who has said, "Actually, I would be far more likely to write about this if you put me in a huge theatre and then shouted 'YEAH WOO GOLD MEDAL GOLD MEDAL GREAT JOB TIMOTHY' at me for two minutes while pretending to play a mocked-up demo of your own game.'"
I actually just don't get it. I mean, I know people like being TREATED and having NICE THINGS - that's obvious - but surely there's a limit? I've asked pretty much all the marketing people I know about this issue and they shrug and just go, "Well it's impressive, isn't it?"
This is what I think is happening, and as I have never worked in a large company, it's all just a set of assumptions ...
1.) The marketing budget is handed down from on-high
2.) The marketing budget is pretty large, because management need the products to succeed and they don't want to be blamed for under-capitalising them.
3.) The marketing managers have to find a way to allocate all the money, so they follow the conventional wisdom and spread it widely across the marketing mix. They stick it in PR, online video content, online advertising, press and public events, print advertising, TV and movie advertising, brand tie-ins and other random stuff they come up with (shaving their logo onto dogs etc.)
4.) Some of this is devolved even further: they hire brand consultants and bespoke PR agencies to do weird stuff (the shaving dogs again).
5.) Here's the kicker: over 50% of the marketing activities are NOT ROI-driven. They are just all *total* punts. I've met people from the kind of agencies that work for big publishers: some of them won't even give you a report about what coverage their activities generated. I promise this is true: they will just take your money, do WHATEVER they want irrespective of the results.
The marketing people are competing to do the biggest and best MARKETING: they're not competing on sales.
Does a big E3 presentation accomplish its goal if the goal is "saturate every online news site for two days"? Yes. Could this be accomplished for a fraction of the cost? Almost certainly. Is there, therefore, any actual business reason to put on such a lavish costly event? No.
I would LOVE to be proved wrong on that, by the way. As I've said, I don't know what I'm talking about from first-hand experience here. I would love someone to show me a cost breakdown from an event, and then point directly to sales figures, leads (or even, actually, coverage) that it generated. I know people in the mainstream industry, and I will be grilling them on this!
Option 2: Do What You Can
So while indies are busy being nuked out of the water by huge companies' wasted marketing budgets, what should they be doing?
Frozen Synapse has now been covered by a lot of bigger sites, like Eurogamer and Joystiq. I'm still aiming for every single well-known site out there, but I can't really do anything until after E3. Indeed, someone from a very popular site politely asked me to get back in touch with him after E3: even if you do get people's attention around this time they are simply too busy.
I've tried some other PR approaches - here's me being interviewed about the music for the game - which is all very well and good, but nowhere near as valuable as big coverage from a mainstream gaming site.
So I'm now suspending my PR until it's over. I just think there is absolutely no point competing with several days of over-funded nonsense.
We try very hard to support and encourage word-of-mouth about the game. The first thing we did in this direction was try to make a fun game! On top of that, we have our instant YouTube export feature, our Twitter account, Facebook page, fortnightly podcast (mentioned earlier) and this blog. We're also working on building in some in-game integration with Twitter and Facebook, so you'll be able to tell other people when your ranking goes up in-game, you share an interesting video, or something else worthwhile occurs!
You're aiming for something called, terrifyingly, MINDSHARE. You have to make people aware of your game, then interested in it, and then give them a proposition which will actually make them buy it.
That leaves advertising, which is a very difficult topic among indies. Also, advertising a pre-order is difficult, because you're asking people to make a commitment to buy something which isn't finished, so the untrackable factors which might cause someone not to buy are increased. I know that people DO buy the pre-order from our adverts, however. Just telling someone about the game doesn't mean they have to buy it straight away: they can go and read reviews, join our mailing list and wait for the full version - the choice is theirs. This is why I don't feel that advertising during the pre-order stage is wasted - on a low budget it takes time to build up awareness, and if more people have heard of it when we launch our full version, then that will work out better for us.
We do some advertising via Project Wonderful, which is one of the best ways of getting low-cost advertising to certain demographics (people who like reading web comics). I'm also looking into Google Ads (which people have recommended but I've never personally had much luck with) and also Facebook Ads (which seem very expensive compared to everything else).
Advertising is very technical and time-consuming, and time is something you don't have a lot of when you're a small indie developer.
I haven't talked about distribution here, because that's a whole different discussion. Suffice it to say, that it is very important that indies try to secure good distribution, and rest assured we are still doing everything we can to try and makes sure that Frozen Synapse will be available on Steam! I don't need any more people to mail me and let me know that's a good idea!
What are we missing here?
Now, it might well be better, if you have the multi-million dollar marketing budget, to splash it everywhere. That might be the best way of achieving mindshare. Here's my recent experience with the iPad for example...
1.) I went past an Apple Store (now there's a phenomenon in itself) saw a big advert for it, went in and was immediately able to try one. It was ok, but not anything I'd consider buying; I can see the appeal for a lot of people though: many people, on trying it, would want it.
2.) The same day, I saw two huge billboard adverts for it.
3.) Three days later, I went to London and saw a load of adverts for it on the Tube.
4.) Yesterday, a journalist on Twitter made a joke about it *during the Microsoft press conference*.
5.) I saw someone on TV holding one this morning.
Owning a retail store (!), billboard ads, blanket-coverage PR and product placement are all tremendously expensive and very difficult to track in their own right. But yet, here I am, someone who ESSENTIALLY does not care about the iPad and won't be buying one, talking about the iPad. Saturation has its value, and I think things multiply above a certain point.
The question is, can an indie with a tiny budget like ours ever hit that point? The term "share" is interesting - at the moment the big boys are slinging their money around and don't want to play nicely! We'll be back as soon as they run out of steam.
I've normally saved my big marketing blathers for places like Gamasutra, but I hope you've found this interesting! It's a very important topic and indies often get blamed for "not doing enough marketing" or doing "rubbish marketing" so I thought I'd let you guys in on the process a little bit.