A post from Nicholas Lovell yesterday on how to market your indie game highlighted three possible approaches: (1) Launch-focused publicity, (2) metric-driven advertising and (3) permission marketing. The third reminded me of a quote by Seth Godin:
Don’t find customers for your products
Find products for your customers
The idea of permission marketing is to build a following by finding a cause that early adopters care about. Then build a platform to share your ideas about that cause, the gift of which gains their permission to talk to them some more. Then gather customers together to form a community and build products that speak to the community’s needs but which also push the envelope of their expectations. So the community will act as your marketing channel to the outside world.
That’s the general idea. Does it work for games?
Do They Care?
Finding games for early adopters supposes that they exist in the first place. It also supposes that they want to congregate, that they are paying attention, and that they are reachable in some form.
If all these things are true then you have customers who care. If not, then you have customers who don’t care, don’t congregate, don’t pay attention or are not reachable. (Perhaps un)surprisingly, the majority of players fail on one or more of these criteria.
Here are some examples:
Don’t Care: In the culture of Poker, players are not passionate about different venues (like casinos or sites) and venues have a begrudging relationship with their best players. Players spend a lot of time testing systems to find the best moneymaking schemes or offers, and they have no real compunction about taking advantage. The reason is that Poker is all about the money and that overrides more refined concerns.
The only product that these players want is Poker, nothing else, and the only improvements that they want are ways to make more money. It’s not a market filled with early adopters, and the only permission marketing that works is blogs and courses designed to help Poker players improve their strategy.
Don’t Congregate: iPhone players don’t talk to each other at significant scale and seem happy to simply buy and play apps as they find them on the App Store. This is why iPhone game reviews have very little impact on sales.
The players are therefore highly amenable to Fruit Ninja, Cut The Rope, Tiny Wings and other games whose core idea is governed by one simple and natural dynamic and instantly communicable. However more complicated or indie culture games tend to have a tougher time.
Don’t Pay Attention: While Facebook gamers congregate in vast numbers, they pay very little attention to their games. If a game is not actually in front of their face or in their Notification feed then they drift away. Players even often forget the name of the game that they were playing.
Facebook is a highly distracting environment, which is why Zynga spends a fortune on advertising to retain customers as well as acquire them. They literally have to keep advertising Mafia Wars to Mafia Wars players to remind them that it exists.
Not Reachable: In the console industry there are barriers between the developer and the player. Those barriers come from publishers as well as platform holders through a variety of contractual and physical bindings, and their objective is to achieve customer ownership. Microsoft don’t want Xbox customers to be EA customers. There’s also no value for either of them to hand over that relationship to a third party developer, and lots of risk to their own marketing story if they do.
Journalists try and bridge the gap, so some developers achieve a fame of sorts, though nothing in comparison to the number of units they sell were they working in another medium such as music. Media outlets like magazines and blogs rely on advertising dollars and PR goodwill, so a complicated system of previews and commentary has emerged.
While players are very interested in games, they tend to have a warped view of what actually goes on in the industry. As a result, a huge number of developers work in a segment of the industry to which permission marketing just can’t reach.
Publications like to make out that there is a them-and-us casual-and-hardcore division between players but that’s not really the case. Rather, there are muggles (the undifferentiated casual or social gamer who’s not really paying attention and doesn’t care) and non-muggles who split into dozens of tribes.
Different tribes intermingle in complicated ways. Some are very familiar with each other, while others really know nothing of each others’ existence. For example:
Adventurers: Who fondly retain memories adventure games of old, and who want nothing but point-and-click games featuring fish-in-lock puzzles.
The Retro PC Gamer: The sorts of folks who have found Minecraft and given Notch all of their money.
Civ Gamers: The kind of player that enjoys nothing more that building and warring at a genteel pace, the Civ tribe is quiet but surprisingly dedicated to its chosen genre.
Roleplayers: Blizzard, Jagex and a number of other companies make a tonne of money from players who love nothing more than to dress up as a digital half-orc and go off a-dungeoneering.
Space Traders: Likewise, the tribe that loved Elite and now loves EVE Online is a very specific group of people whose interests are all about mining, trading and forming interstellar corporations.
The Industry Tribe: Sometimes more sophisticated games find a home because they become an industry darling. Game Dev Story, for example.
And so on.
There are lots of tribes, obsessed by everything from board games to crazy 2D Japanese shooters. Some are tiny, others are huge. Some are locked to one company, others are open.
Tribes Aren’t Blank Slates
Jim Rossignol of RockPaperShotgun recounts an interesting story of player rights in EVE Online. Some groups of players in the game are unhappy with CCP (the developers) over the quality of the last few game expansions. They are also annoyed that CCP is working on other games while these problems go unresolved.
As Jim tells it, the players dislike that their subscription money is being used for games that they don’t care about. CCP’s tribe feels that the company is taking its permission for granted. Finding games for your players doesn’t mean that any game will do. It’s a relationship with a tribe that has formed for a reason. It exists for its cause, and treating it as a totally fungible group is a sure way to a slow decline.
Even mighty Nintendo found this out recently when it tried to convince customers that 3D was a big deal worth a premium price. The Nintendo tribe is not a technology-focused tribe, but rather a gameplay innovation tribe, and their biggest gripe about the 3DS was (and still is) that the games for the platform are merely average.
Nintendo, unusually given the streak that it has been on for the last five years, seems to have misread what its tribe would want from 3D and why they would care. Hopefully it has realised this and won’t make the same mistake with the Wii U.
A General Strategy
Many developers have attempted to be indies without permission marketing and have found it hard going, particularly on platforms that interrupt the ability to have a dialogue with customers. However there is a way in, if you have the patience.
While the iPhone is very muggle-friendly, groups of passionate fans will show up to participate in the platform for games that they already have a relationship with. Canabalt, for example, is a game that started life in Flash and then became an iPhone version. Alien Hominid and Super Meat Boy are games that did something similar before landing on the Xbox. World of Goo came from an indie project and later graduated to Steam and other platforms. Minecraft will be coming to console soon enough.
What do all of these examples have in common? They found adopters (often by chance) who congregated, paid attention and were reachable. Where did these adopters live? The open web.
The open web is where Subreddits exist, Newgrounds lives, Twitter tweets and Google searches. It is uniquely suited to community formation and regularly acts as a staging ground for early ideas that then launch into other platforms. If you plan to market using permission, then the open web is by far your best bet.
Here’s a simple list of to-do’s:
- Be or become an insider in a niche
- Find out what its chief cause is
- Build a platform (as in a website or blog) to talk to that niche.
- Talk to them a lot. Push for the cause. Expect resistance.
- Build a community. This aids formation of a tribe.
- Build a game that speaks to the tribe
- Give the tribe the means to evangelise about the game
Alternatively find yourself a PR and try and get into glitzy launch marketing instead. I suspect you’ll find that even tougher but if it’s more your style then go for it.
Don’t, however, do this:
- Have an idea for an indie game
- Make it to as small a scope you can imagine
- Launch it on the iPhone or Facebook and hope to find a tribe with it
- Tweet about it a lot in the hope to ‘build buzz’
I often see developers, some of them good friends, try this approach but increasingly I think it’s futile. It relies on creating a cause, which is not something that a developer can do very often.
It happens sometimes, but only because of the creation of a founderwork. Most games are not founderworks and are speaking to a tribe that already has its own ideas about what it wants. Chances are that your game is not a founderwork, so don’t try and create your marketing strategy on the hope that it is.
Find games for your players, not the other way around.
(Note: Apologies. I mistakenly published an early draft of this today, which might be in your RSS reader by now.)