You've patched in to the enemy's security system: get ready to make your plan. Frozen Synapse is the ultimate strategy game: you have full control over your strike team, directing their every movement. At the same time, your opponent is plotting to defeat you. Plan your moves, then hit the "Execute" button: both you and your enemy's turns are executed simultaneously. Bite-size, hardcore strategy with a striking sci-fi aesthetic.

Post news RSS Indie games vs. E3: who shall triumph? Also featuring Frozen Synapse!

What indies might be able to do to weather the ludicrous marketing storm, and a mini Frozen Synapse update...

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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

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.


Try to compete with a marketing budget of millions is suicide, those big distributors games only got marketing as product been its games bellow average in quality.
But dont let your game just get vanish from the midias, make even small announcements and made it be published together daily at those famous sites.

good luck.

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Mode7Games Author

We'll keep doing everything possible, don't worry!

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E3 is streaming on many sites, and even live on channels like Spike. It's for more than just game journalists these days. And when you're there, having flashy experiences like this make the experience more lively and fun. Game journalists like games, which is why they get to play them after the 2hr conferences, visit the booths in the halls, the private shows, etc.
Game journalists don't like drinking alcohol in a relaxing environment, they like doing it at a lavish multi-day party.

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Mode7Games Author

OK, point taken about the shows streaming live to the public - that's certainly a factor in this.

"Having flashy experiences like this make the experience more lively and fun" - yep, agree there, but again the possibility of 80/20 rule, surely?

"Game journalists don't like drinking alcohol in a relaxing environment, they like doing it at a lavish multi-day party." - getting a bit more tenuous now. I think most of them just view it as a random perk and don't connect it much to whoever is doing it for them.

By the way, I'm not denying the validity of having *any show* or *any consumer event* - I'm interested in the point at which you take that premise and launch your rocket into the far-off galaxy of "let's spend millions on this and who cares if we make it back"?

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Mode7Games Author

"- If, at the end of the day, the games they sell don't outweigh the cost of those fancy PR things they will no longer do them"

Yes, I'm not arguing that they spend more on PR events than they can recoup from revenue, just that, perhaps, they spend too much on them and, perhaps, there is no reliable way to know the APPROPRIATE size for them.

"- [blogging vs. a PR event]"

They don't do these events to save time on blogging! Developer blogs and lots of community interaction are commonplace now for AAA titles as well. If they have a metric by which all of their marketing team can save time, then again, I would be really interested and love to see it. I just don't think they do.

So my key question really is should indies be running around getting investment to scale up and hit bigger marketing targets, or should we be continuing to plug away in the manner that we're doing?

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I think you were pretty spot on for a few things.

But the thing is that E3 is all about the hype. It's not about content. It's about showing 2 seconds of something unplayable, that journalists can hook onto and speculate about for a page in their magazine. I'd say that it reflects the fact that games are getting a bigger and bigger 'mainstream' audience, but it's basically been this way for a long time afaik.
Essentially it's about the dream, which is often (not always) spoiled when you sit down and actually play a game you've been self-hyping for a few months (DIII had better be fan-effin-tastic haha). I've always kind of enjoyed it to be honest.

Also, the jab at marketing companies was a bit off. It's possible that some don't do proper research and analysis of markets and market impact, but they're not very good companies. To make sure you'd do it properly though, I imagine you have the market analysts, who work together with the marketers to give you results.
Saturation definitely apply, but probably not to the degree that it works for brands like Mac, Coke and Mc D's uses it.

One thing I think though, is that you should look at what little pieces make up the success, thanks to the hype, of some of these games, and maybe try to take some and put it into Frozen Synapse. Frozen Synapse is basically pure gameplay, but it needs more hooks to pull in more people (eugh, I know).
With some good ones, I think you can continue to plug away, and get some more coverage. I don't think hitting bigger marketing targets will do anything for you at all - assuming you've got some good points of interest (you already have the unique gameplay down A+), just mailing a cd version of the game, maybe a nice poster, to some journos (re the 'bribing' aspect : P ), and continued online 'saturation' should do the trick.

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Mode7Games Author

"But the thing is that E3 is all about the hype."

Yep, definitely true. Again, how much is worth paying for hype! We certainly tried harder than most to do this with our game - we teased our first concept art just like a big publisher would do.

"Also, the jab at marketing companies was a bit off. It's possible that some don't do proper research and analysis of markets and market impact, but they're not very good companies."

I think people would be genuinely surprised if they knew what went on. Yes, there is great analytics-driven marketing happening, but it's still the overwhelming minority.

"One thing I think though, is that you should look at what little pieces make up the success, thanks to the hype, of some of these games, and maybe try to take some and put it into Frozen Synapse. Frozen Synapse is basically pure gameplay, but it needs more hooks to pull in more people (eugh, I know)."

That's a very good point - we're not a very content-rich game. This is a massive advantage when it comes to development, but a total hinderance when it comes to PR. With the single player coming up, we'll have a whole new load of things to preview and talk about, though. Also, we've just been able to get hold of an artist who is very experienced with preview / marketing assets so we'll be using him a lot more in the future!

Mailing crap to journalists - yes, it's something I've thought about. So far, when we've actually been able to GET someone's attention (DESTRUCTOID, come on!) we've managed to get coverage. As an indie, you don't have the press list with every journalist's home address on it, so it's Catch 22 - someone has to talk to you in order for you to get them to talk to you...yes. Anyway, like I said, I'm still knocking on every door. Even IGN, who don't talk to anyone and I'm concerned may not actually exist! Just joking IGN, just joking.

Anyway, cheers for your comment - some food for thought in there, defo.

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Just a thought, you have ok 3D models you're using for the characters right? A bit of non top-down action would really put things into perspective, even if just for a little intro video. It doesn't have to be part of the gameplay.
A free demo would probably be really good too, once you've gotten things polished to your satisfaction.
But I'm sure your new guy has it covered.

There's also some other ideas regarding the game...
You might have most of this covered in your thoughts on single player, but I don't think it can hurt to just drop them in here.
- Characters you're attached to, that really die/ get injured if they're shot, Longer turns/ extensive levels, Scenery variety, Different types of enemies (eg patroling, resting etc, opposed to constant offensive), customizable item setup.
Being able to choose to give everybody silenced pistols or just rifles before going into a big complex would be amazing.
And then to suddenly be dropped into the jungle for the next level, would be even better.

Just some thoughts
Since you probably didn't have enough work already (;

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Mode7Games Author

We have looked at incorporating a bit of flashy 3D - that's WIP right now. I'm a tad wary of this, because I don't want to complicate the message and make people assume that the game is hybrid 3D / 2D in some way, but I agree it could look good and would add a bit to trailers etc.

"Characters you're attached to.."

Yes, I want this in some form, definitely.

"Longer turns/ extensive levels"

We're really actively not going to design a different game for SP. It is most likely going to be strongly based on the game people are playing in MP right now - we just simply don't have the POWER to design a whole different game.

However, I'm definitely interested in level size. We'll see about that.

"Scenery variety"

Looking into that one.

"Different types of enemies (eg patroling, resting etc, opposed to constant offensive)"

I have to say this is probably unlikely.

"customizable item setup."

Again, probably unlikely but we're not ruling anything out. This isn't a game that would work well with customisable / upgradable weapons - you have to know the capacity of the units; as we've said before they're more like board game "pieces" than units really.

SP is still brewing at the moment while we finish off MP. We absolutely can't get into the situation where we're adding huge amounts of different gameplay - just trying to prepare people for that now - but we are definitely going to work hard on making something we think is incredible based on what we have now.

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For the first person bit, I didn't mean flashing up the 3D at all. Just switching to a different angle with what you've got now. I know none of your models are made for that purpose, but I still think it would be worth a shot.

I can see that you don't want to have to change much, but I'm not particularly interested in a SP which just mimics the multiplayer, just so you know.
I was assuming you had the framework set up, and it would be quite easy to start adding new elements (even if it is just a bit of green foliage in a level instead of a blue wall, or having some of the AI do nothing until a shot is fired).
In any case, I'd rather you didn't release a SP set of missions at all, unless you've had the time to make it different to MP. You can probably market the MP fine on its own at the moment.

I made a little example of 'stuff' (:

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Have you considered a Steam release and "Free Weekends" for the beta?

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Mode7Games Author

We are talking to Valve and doing all we can.

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Good post and its nice to know there are others that see the absurdity in many things our society does especially when money is involved :)

Just stick to your roots and keep plugging away. E3 is nice and all but since its so much in such a short period. Much is over looked and forgotten in the crazy game fest. while having a steady stream of different sites bringing up your game on the slow days will do more for an indie like yourself imo.

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Mode7Games Author

"a steady stream of different sites bringing up your game on the slow days"

That's a good way of putting it, and basically what we're aiming for. The hard thing is just simply having enough to talk about to keep bringing the bloody thing up! We've got some plans though.

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Frozen Synapse does what 2k's Xcom don't..


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Mode7Games Author

It was great timing they announced that just before our beta came out!

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This was a good post, it's a shame that it's harder to get some info about good indie games than to see new trailers of over hyped AAA title I don't care about.

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Mode7Games Author

It's just because indies are crap at getting the word out - but we're improving, slowly but surely!

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INtense! Staff

Wow brilliant post, cannot believe I missed this (caught it in RPS comments). I've got to say you are spot on in your assessment here. e3 for a big company makes sense, since it is one time in the year that they are pretty much guaranteed that all press (and a good percentage of the gaming population) is tuning in.

It is also the reason why games fail... they don't focus on ROI, think they can throw a lot of money and sales will result. 10 years ago I wondered how the newspaper industry survived... I mean they sold ads at premium prices with 0 metrics (just x readership). Fast forward to today and the internet has metrics so you can see exactly who responds to your ads and ad prices have plummeted as a result, and newspapers all over the world are in trouble.

First you need to think about all the social services (twitter, world of mouth, facebook etc) and make sure the people you have convinced to pay, spread the word. Next, coverage on game sites is therefore great so keep pushing for that... Most important is coverage in places where people are purchasing (i.e. Steam, Desura etc). Once you have done all you can there, then start looking at paying for stuff.

Moral of the story you have to identify who is going to buy your game and get it in front of them. Do anything it takes, make friends, shameless plugs, get a speaker spot at a conference like GDC etc.

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Mode7Games Author

Thanks! We're doing all we can social-network-wise to build buzz and focussing on PR at the moment.

Ads are happening and will happen more in the future - they are very important for indies and a lot of companies neglect them - we're still working on finding the right approach there.

And yes, distribution is key...

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Most high-profile editors at the Escapist magazine have been booing the E3 in the recent days. They're really ****** off about it for similiar reasons as the ones you wrote. Even the boss/publisher of escapist is bored by the E3. Shamus even literarily wrote "without the E3, everyone would be better off".

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