How to Build an Audience for your Indie Game
If you work hard making a game, do your best to get people to play it too!
It is a well known fact that professional indie game developers make very little money on average. Excluding the occasional breakout hit games, many developers never receive a paycheck, let alone create a profitable release. Imagine tens of thousands of hours of hard work resulting in absolutely nothing — a tree falling in a forest for no one to hear. It’s all too sad!
It gets even worse. There is a large number of fun, free-to-play games that expect you to pay them nothing and simply want players to enjoy them. Sadly, they receive little to no attention at all. Itch.io has over 300,000 games in their library, many of which are likely game jam submissions, made by small teams over a weekend. I can guarantee that you have not heard of over 99% of the games listed on their website — but they are unique, innovative, and fun!
While this is depressing to consider, this raises a very important question, “How do I get the word out about my game, and get interested people to play?”
Consider Your Game’s “Curb Appeal”
The first question you should ask yourself as a game designer is, “Is my game appealing?” A successful game is well polished and easily attracts eyeballs. You need to be able to convey your game’s core mechanics, what make’s it special, and leave players wanting to see more — all with just a few screen shots.
Creating a unique, compelling game begins at the pre-production stage. Prototype your game first so you can iterate and hone in on what makes your idea fun, or scrap it altogether. Check out my in-depth article about prototyping your software for more information. It’s a very important step that many do not put enough effort into!
Polish is very important — this includes tactile feedback, flashes, screen shakes, particle effects and more. Believe it or not, your average gamer can discern whether your project was given the proper TLC based on the inclusion or lack of polish, even in a simple screen shot or GIF. Always put your best screen shots forward when advertising your game, and give it the proper curb appeal.
Build Your Network
If you already have a following online, you are starting with a major leg up! Followers, friends, and connections are all audience members waiting to consume your content, and potentially play your game. If you are starting with little to no online presence, you will need to build it up from rock bottom.
Get involved with the indie game developer scene online. Twitter is your best friend — you will find no small number of independent developers in the very same position that want to build their own network. Follow games that are interesting to you, as well as indie game developer aggregator bots and human-driven accounts. They will retweet based on hashtags, so make liberal use of #screenshotsaturday #indiegamedev #madewithunity #indiedev #gamedev #indiedevhour and #garagedev
Don’t count out other game developers as part of your player base. Showing interest in and playing other developers’ games is a great way to communicate a shared interest and entice them to check out your game in turn. From there your network can organically grow and gain players waiting to give your game a try.
Social Media is Your Friend
Social media and building your network goes hand-in-hand in today’s world. It goes without saying that you need Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube presence, just to name a few. These are your free marketing channels that you are remiss to go without.
Get the word out about your game early. Once you have anything worthy of showing your followers, do it immediately. Consider timing your deliverables to be met on or right before Saturday, as #screenshotsaturday is possibly the most popular game development tag on Twitter. Make sure those deliverables are appealing to look at, and send that as an update to your fans.
Be ready for feedback, some of which may not necessarily be constructive. A few naysayers’ messages are a small price to pay to get actual criticism and grow hype around your game. When your game eventually releases, gamers will have gotten morsels of your game, like an appetizer for the main course. They will be hungry to go out and buy and play your game!
Remove All Barriers to Entry
This goes without saying — don’t make it hard for potential players to get to you or your game. If you are making a small, free, game jam game, make a WebGL build! You are 10x more likely to get players in the door if they don’t have to download anything to try your game. Put a link to the game directly in your tweet or story, so they know where to go. Use Bit.ly if your link is too long.
If your game must be a downloadable client, consider a free release if you are just starting out as a game developer. Recently the game “Helltaker” has gotten immense traction because its a well-polished, fully encapsulated game that cost $0. The developer, vanripper, released a sketch book and soundtrack as additional paid DLC, which is a smart way to suggest players donate to your cause.
Make your game playable on as many platforms as possible. Target PC and Mac as soon as you release. Linux support is greatly appreciated, even if your player base is not necessarily in that demographic. Put your game on as many marketplaces as possible, including Itch.io and GoG games. If you are worried that players are viciously loyal to steam, bundle a Steam Key with the purchase (it won’t ruin your sales don’t worry). If you are going for a console release, try to time releases on all your target consoles at once.
TL;DR — Remove all barriers to entry for players to get to your game!
You may notice that I have not mentioned paid advertisements as part of building an audience. Ads are a great way of expanding an existing audience, but the investment in ads, especially for small independent teams, is not worth the cost unless you can safely estimate how many users will you gain. It’s definitely not something to do for your very first game!
If you are interested in creating indie games, please check out some of my other articles that may be of interest!