You’ve heard it a million times: the game industry is overcrowded and the marketplace is saturated. There are a hundred ways to approach this conundrum and stand out in a crowd, but for the smallest indies (let’s say nano-scale developers), many of these approaches still surpass a reasonable time and resource investment for one to two person teams.
So Much to Do, So Little Time
There are so many games which fly under the market’s radar because there’s simply too much content out there. As others have said, gamers are no longer limited by their wallet, but by their time. It’s gotten to the point where even game reviewing has become white noise: everyone’s a critic and everyone has a blog or YouTube channel.
I know this from personal experience. Following the launch of my most recent game, I received dozens of press inquiries from around the world. The majority of these were YouTubers with fewer than 1000 subscribers, who featured content exclusively in languages other than English (not that I held that against them, but my game centered around text-based humor without international support).
With saturated markets, saturated reviewers and a never-ending stream of fresh releases, what must nano-scale developers do to have a chance in a market growing against them?
Enter Two-Tiered Releases
A growing trend is two-tiered releases, primarily thanks to Early Access. While many have abused the EA tag to release incomplete content with no intention of completing it, others have found it to be the perfect hybrid between a paid proof-of-concept demo and catalyst for community growth.
As we know, a strong community is the greatest asset for titles unable to fund large-scale marketing strategies. While it’s easy enough to share some screenshots and gameplay footage on social media, it takes lots of luck to stand out and attain some level of virality.
You need to put your money where your mouth is. Teams that are incapable of seriously investing in marketing and community growth must release their game as soon as they have something substantial enough to warrant a fair price. This should be a major milestone to aim for. (Note: this doesn’t work with certain types of experiences, and by no means is this a suggestion to oversell and underdeliver. Be realistic and sensible with what you release and when you release it).
Other than a playable version of the game, your trailer needs to be refined to perfection. Screenshots and write-ups are easy; encapsulating the essence of your game into 30-60 seconds of video is not.
Your “second release” is what matters most. Treat it as the real launch day. Now that your game has been out for some time, you should not only have a lot of organic exposure and feedback, but also a cemented public presence as “the team behind the game”.
Between launches, be public and responsive to community feedback, and funnel existing audiences into a central community for the highest quality content. At this point, resume normal community-building operations (release notes, updates, exclusive gameplay videos, etc. are all initially released on your proprietary network). Now you should not only have some revenue coming in, but you’ll be able to reach out to journalists with proof of value and hard facts on why covering your game is worth their time.
Before the initial launch, design to be discoverable and focus on the core (i.e. most effective) ways to gain public traction. Between launches, get the word out any way you can. Watermark your screenshots with your community url and share them everywhere. Post as much visual content as you can on relevant social networks. Keep the quality long-form text content isolated on your proprietary community while sharing links on social networks.
Ultimately, your timeline should look something like this:
- Prepare proprietary community
- Focus on core mechanics and player experience, refine gameplay and official trailer
- Announce initial release on social networks and gaming communities with trailer
- Prepare screenshots, gifs and gameplay videos
- Release and re-announce on networks from #2
- Share assets from #4 and create more as the game develops; repeat
- Announce and perform a “real” release
- Reach out to bigger news outlets with existing user metrics to sell opportunity value
With Steam Direct effectively destroying the value of “New Releases”, launch day is no longer about your 15 minutes of fame in the marketplace. You need to design around being discovered manually. Articles and reviews are great, but there’s a surprising amount of value in being included in “Best X Games for [Reason]” lists. Getting included in content which features better-known titles is a powerful way to piggyback on the success of others.
Again, this isn’t a suggestion to abuse any marketplace or social network. And it isn’t meant to encourage underselling limited content or building “money grab” projects. As long as you take the project seriously and remember that you’re personally and professionally accountable for your work, it shouldn’t be hard to stay above any short-sighted tactics.
Additional questions spring to mind if too many studios begin effectively releasing content with two “releases” already planned, but it’s hard to anticipate how these strategies could affect an already volatile market.