Our Marketing Strategy…Or lack there of
This is part 2 of a blog post about our journey through the Steam Greenlight process. If you haven’t read part 1, please do so here: http://www.bombsheltergames.com/getting-greenlit-ten-days-60-and-no-followers-part-1/. It will help provide context.
This being part 2 I am going to focus exclusively on our marketing approach to getting our game Greenlit. To summarize: It sucked. Terrible. We had no plan and it showed. As I mentioned in the previous article, I threw the game on Greenlight on a whim. I never thought we would be accepted so I figured I would just use Greenlight itself as a marketing tool for my Humble Store page. When we started to get votes and find some success, panic set in. I became terrified that I was going to blow this amazing chance of getting on Steam so in a flurry, I blasted as much out to the world about our game as possible and I’ll break that down for you below.
Disclaimer: I have no marketing experience at all. I market the game out of necessity. This means that what you read below is not the opinion of a trained professional. It is of a developer with social anxiety fumbling to get eyes on his game, then curling up in a ball and having a panic attack.
Our General Marketing Approach:
Greenlight campaigns are about getting eyes on your product. Specifically, people who own Steam accounts. Steam makes it difficult to vote for games on Greenlight as you not only have to own an account, but have to own a game as well. If you think about it, this really eliminates about 95% of the people you know. Yes you have your group of friends, perhaps even colleagues, but that will get you maybe 20 votes, maybe less. You have to get people who care about your content to get on your page. You may think “well steam has 125 million active users, I don’t need to market outside.” Of those 125 million, how many do you think visit Greenlight on a given day? Of those, how many are browsing the recently added section (which you are only on for 3 days)? And of those that do, how many will actually like your game? The answer is far fewer than you think. Just ask yourself, when was the last time you went on Greenlight to upvote some random jackass’s project? For me, it was never. So don’t rely on the natural traffic of Steam Greenlight. As I mentioned in the previous article, after day 3 when your game is buried too far into the recently added list, no one will find your game unless they are looking for it. So the key is to get people looking for it.
Below, I have listed the main approaches I took for marketing from least effective to most effective.
Reach out to Streamers/Youtubers/Reviewers:
After the panic and the realization that I had no marketing strategy, I set out to blast our game to everyone. So I asked myself: who likes games and has an audience? Streamers! Streamers love talking about games, it’s what they do! So why not talk about my game and get those 100,000 subscribers to all come to Steam and vote for my game. My main issue was that I hate steamers. It’s not personal, I just never got why I would watch someone play a game and make jokes when I could do the same thing at home, but while actually playing the game. I had never been on Twitch or a similar site so I had no idea about who I should send my game to. Luckily a quick google search revealed a glorious site/human being by the name of Pixel Prospector and his/her sister site http://videogamecaster.com/. Pixel Prospector has dozens of useful lists and I encourage you to check out each and every one, but this site, Video Game Caster, lists off hundreds of streamers on Twitch and YouTube.
Video Game Caster was very useful. Check out more here: http://www.pixelprospector.com/
So, list in hand, I went down the list, personally emailing about 50 streamers. All in all took about 4 hours or so. I tried to be as appealing as I could, doing a minute or so of research on each of them so as to not appear to be some random guy emailing them. Of the 50 I reached out to, 2 responded. Of the 2 to respond, neither had time to stream my game, but liked the idea and would be much more willing to do so when the game came out.
Side note, there is a great service that I am using now called Key Mailer (keymailer.co) that actually automates this process. It posts your game to their database for streamers to browse and request copies. The unfortunate part of Key Mailer is that it requires you already be on Steam to use it. So no help for Greenlight.
So 50 emails and 4 hours later, no progress… I could have reached out to more, but I figured I could get better results elsewhere.
After the failure of the streamer approach I decided to reach out to as many news outlets as I could. I reached out to about 20 different game news sites which you can see in the image below. Many of them were big time outlets which I knew would never pick us up (like Kotaku or Rock Paper Shotgun), others were smaller outlets devoted to Indie Games which I thought might take interest. I decided to phrase my pitch in a subtle, somewhat deceptive way. Instead of broadcasting to these sites that I was releasing a game on Greenlight, which they probably get 10 emails a day, I tried to give them an idea for an article. I leveraged the fact that my game was very violent against all of the real-world violence happening across the globe. I posed the question “Is now the appropriate time to market an overly violent video game?” I thought in the wake of mass shootings in Germany and the US it could be picked up. This may seem like a moral grey area, using a tragedy to push your own game, but I actually thought that the question I posed was worth asking. I think an article like the one I posed would benefit the general public. I believed it so much that I posted my own thoughts on the subject on our Greenlight Discussion page which you can read here: http://steamcommunity.com/workshop/filedetails/discussion/726659377/352788917752868423/
Of the 20 outlets, none bit, and no articles were written.
The only article posted was one I wrote myself and that was distributed through http://www.gamespress.com/. This site simply broadcasts game related press releases to its members.
A glimpse at the spreadsheet I used to organize which outlets/forums I had reached out to
While I found little success with the news sites, I did get a good amount of response from our forum posts. I reached out to dozens of forums that pertained to our target demographic. Our game was an homage to old flash stick figure videos so I hit up forums on Newgrounds, Stickpage.com, penny arcade, and dozens more. Again, instead of just blasting out “VOTE FOR MY GAMMMMEEE” I phrased it differently. I posted my game with the addendum that I was just looking for feedback about how to make it better. Then, the only link I posted was to the Steam Greenlight page. This way, they had to go there if they wanted to have a look, and since they were already there, why not vote?
People on forums are not generally receptive to begging for votes, so don’t phrase it as such. You are also not being disingenuous as you probably do want feedback (or at least you should). Many people wrote back, plenty of people also wanted to help or be hired. I can’t speculate as to how many votes this turned in to but it was nice to see people engaged.
Our forum post on Newgrounds.com
Far and away the most successful bit of marketing came from IndieDB.com. Indie DB is a community for you to share your progress while creating your game and get feedback. You can share demos, images, videos etc. It is no coincidence that IndieDB gave us the most success as it is the only site that I had an existing relationship with. We had been using IndieDB for about 4 years for various games and have posted the entire process of developing Ballistick on it. The best part about IndieDB is that every time you upload a new image, video, what-have-you, it places your game on the top of the “Games” page. Also, whenever you post a new news article, it places you on the front page. This can get you great exposure for minimal effort and no cost. And if you are like us and have been using it throughout your dev process, you have all the assets right there. We also used IndieDB to host our demos for download.
Our IndieDB statistics after about a month of idling. We got to the top 50 games during our push.
Apart from IndieDB we also posted the game on as many of these types of sites as possible. Sites like GameJolt, Itch.io, create-game.com, gamebrew.io. Unfortunately we hadn’t built relationships with these sites so they were not nearly as successful.
I’m placing social media in its own section because it is its own beast entirely. Unfortunately, due to the lack of planning for the Steam Greenlight campaign, most of our social media work was far less effective than it could have been. We only had about 150 Facebook likes and 200 twitter followers when we decided to start marketing. This is garbage. You need to be developing your Twitter and Facebook followings much farther in advance, because if you spend your precious Greenlight time trying to build a following you are wasting time where you could be developing your social media campaign.
Between Facebook and Twitter, we were far less successful on Facebook. Almost all of our likes came from our immediate social circle and we could not extend it no matter how hard we tried. Our posts were reaching as little as 50 people, with only 1-2 people interacting with it. We posted new content such as images, videos, etc. no one cared. Surveys? No one cared. We didn’t do any giveaways or events. Those may have been more successful. I have no idea. Truth be told, I still have no grasp of how to grow a Facebook audience and it is something I am looking forward to learning more about.
Only 53 people reached, and 2 likes! One of which was my fiancé. The only share was my personal account. Not a good Facebook campaign.
Apart from our own Facebook page we joined as many indie dev groups as possible and posted our game there. Again, we didn’t just beg for votes, we posted asking for advice and feedback and then slipped in the Greenlight link almost as if it was an afterthought. The only way for players to learn about the game was through the link provided so, maybe they threw votes our way. This was much more effective than our standard Facebook page and helped me get involved with some really great communities. I am a bit bummed that it took me so long to join these groups as I have really grown to like them.
Admittedly, when I started marketing on Twitter I had no idea how any of it worked. Lucky for me my colleague was much more familiar and we were able to get some great traction with it. The key is hashtags and interacting with other Twitter users. If someone tweets at you, retweets you, likes a tweet, it is an invitation to talk to them. Send them a message, tweet at them, strike up a conversation. You have nothing to lose and it helps build relationships. Hashtags are also unbelievably important. Without them, your tweets will only reach your followers. With them you can reach millions. The most popular ones we used were #indiedev #gamedev and #madewithunity. Each of these gets picked up by a lot of bots and retweeted. We also tweeted during certain events like #screenshotsaturday (where indie developers share their screenshots) and #indiedevhour (Wednesdays 2-3PM EST). Each of our tweets would get 10-20 likes or retweets.
Another policy we had with tweeting was that we only tweeted out content. We didn’t beg for votes again and again. We offered something interesting for the recipients to engage with to build the value of our product. Begging doesn’t build value. We threw the Greenlight link in with the content so it was the best of both worlds. We also did retweet bait, where we would tweet things at certain big companies that we knew they would retweet. If @Unity_3D retweets you that ½ a million eyes on your game. While we never did get Unity to retweet us we did get some smaller companies.
Shameless retweet bait, was retweeted by Hutong Games
Everything I have written about so far has been 100% free advertising (minus the opportunity cost of your own labor, but let’s ignore that for now). We at Bomb Shelter Games did delve a bit into paid advertising with mixed results. We really didn’t want to spend any money on this. We don’t make games for the money. This is not our full time profession. We all have regular full time jobs. We make games for fun. So with that in mind, we set aside about $60 for paid advertising. I reached out to various sites to see what that would get me and let me tell you: $60 gets you absolutely nothing. A simple ad on sites like IndieDB, Rock Paper Shotgun, or Penny Arcade will run you thousands of dollars. I almost choked when I got the price quotes. This goes to show you how little I knew going in. But that doesn’t mean you have no options with this price range.
Facebook seemed like an easy choice for advertising. Everyone uses it. Everyone loves it. It basically controls the universe. So we slapped together an ad with a video and it linked to our Greenlight page and waited. We targeted males ages 18-30 who like stick figures, new grounds, or flash videos. I initially gave it a budget of $80 but immediately reduced it after we got 18 clicks at the cost of $0.80 a click. That’s almost $1 a click! Completely absurd and far less effective than I ever hoped. So I then reduced it to $5 a day budget for the next 5 days. By the end we had received 128 clicks at the cost of $44. That’s about $0.35 per click. Even if everyone who clicked voted, that would still be far too expensive for my taste, and I guarantee that no more than 5% of the clicks converted to votes. It is very hard to get someone to vote from an external site because the barriers are so high. Logging in dissuades a lot of people.
Our Facebook ad breakdown
Indie Video Games:
Our second paid venture came from some digging I did while researching news outlets. I came across IndieVideoGames.com which promotes indie games for free. Nice of them to do. But while there I opened up their Patreon page (a site where you can donate to people) and saw that for a donation of $20 a month they would feature your game on their homepage on the side bar until you stop donating. I’m not sure of the traffic the site gets but their twitter has 6K followers and their Facebook has 600 likes so it can’t be too bad. Plus, $20 for evergreen front page exposure is pretty unheard of. So we hopped on that. Again, I can’t tell you how much success it had but it had a high potential for a very low investment.
Our ad on IndieVideoGames.com
Side note: I also wanted to mention that during this process of outreach people will approach you for advertising opportunities. Be very careful with these. Do not get scammed. Make sure they are legitimate, and if they are, make sure that they will actually benefit you. We were approached by many advertisers on twitter. Emo Kylo Ren approached us asking for $100 for a single tweet across three accounts. This came to about 500K followers, but how many of those would see the tweet? Of those, how many have steam accounts? Of those which would like our game? And of those, which would log in and vote? If the answer is fewer than $100 is worth to you, then don’t do it, simple as that.
Pay for Votes: One of the last things we considered was paying a service to get us votes. This is explicitly banned by Steam but it is awfully tempting when you feel like you have nothing to lose. We looked at whosgamingnow.com and for the cost of 1000 steam keys or $200 they would share our game to their Steam Group and post it on their Greenlight section. This seemed like a very big grey area in terms of Valve’s policies. Before we had the chance to decide, the game was Greenlit and we didn’t give it another thought. We may advertise with them after the game launches but that is a different thing all together. I have nothing against this site. I was just worried we would be banned for participating in it. They also all but guarantee your acceptance but there are games on there that have been up since May. Do what you think is right, I’ll just say: tread carefully.
General Observations and Reflections:
With the main campaign concluded, here are some of my general thoughts and takeaways about the whole thing.
Incestuous Advertising: A lot of our outreach was to groups where developers could come together to post their game for advertisings sake. Groups like Indie Game Promo. While this is great and encouraging to the advertiser, this is really empty marketing. The members of those groups are fellow advertisers and they generally don’t have a fan base that’s interested in looking at your content, just showing off their own. You can find some success going vote for vote with other developers but this is a very slow process that Steam actively discourages.
Build your fan base early: I cannot stress this enough. The most success we had was with sites where we had preexisting relationships. When you have fans to work with you can spend your time targeting them, rather than trying to build them. Plan your marketing very far in advance. Have a strategy. Get involved in forums far before you need votes and stick to it. If you can devote someone specifically to marketing, all the better. If not, motivate yourself to do it, especially if your livelihood depends on game sales. It doesn’t matter how good your game is if no one ever hears about it.
Have a nice looking website: Currently our website is trash, so it was not something we wanted people to go to. It was actually a hindrance and we tried to avoid sending people to it. Don’t let this happen to you. Have a snappy website that really sells the quality of your game. You can see ours at http://bombsheltergames.com but it is not good.
Anxiety: The last point I wanted to make is a personal one. I suffer from fairly strong social anxiety where I have a very hard time reaching out to complete strangers. I was afraid that by emailing these people I was bothering them, or that people will hate me for posting on their forums. I emailed Kotaku and had a full panic attack from it. Take it from me, you cannot let this stuff get to you. It is completely irrational. You are not bothering people by emailing them. If they don’t like it, they will delete it/ignore it and you will never know. If you are afraid that people will say mean things about you or your game, I will tell you right now, yes, they will. Fuck those people. Accept it and move past it. If they have constructive criticism, take it, if they are being mean for no other reason than to get to you, ignore them. They suck. If you want your game to succeed you have to suck it up and do this. Marketing is what will pay your bills and get your game in people’s hands. Why else do we make games if we don’t want people to play them?
So there you have it. My journey through Steam Greenlight. As I mentioned in my last post, a good measure of how good your marketing campaign is how many votes you get after the third day on Greenlight. We got very few votes after day 3 do this clearly wasn’t that successful. It may not have been pretty, effective, well organized, or even respectable, but through some miracle, the game was Greenlit.
If you have gone through the process and want to share your experience, please do. And of course, I wouldn’t be following my own advice if I didn’t use this opportunity to market my own game here and now! So buy my shit: http://store.steampowered.com/app/518620/ or don’t. You do you.
Ballistick releases Oct 15th 2016 for PC on Steam and the Humble Store.
Thanks for reading!
PS Here are some great links for helping market your indie game. Read them before you start, unlike me.