THAT ONE LETHAL MISTAKE OF INDIE MARKETING

  • 12 December 2013 | AUTHOR: | CATEGORY: Game Design



    During one of his presentations, Brian Baglow said that if you were not interested in marketing your indie game, then “you have a beautiful soul, and we have nothing to talk about”. Everybody else, I hope you’ll find this little blog post useful.

    A lot has been written on indie games marketing, and the fantastic Pixel Prospector is your one stop destination. Seriously, it’s a gold mine without guards. However, despite all of that info available freely I keep seeing the one puzzling mistake that indie devs repeat over and over again. It’s the way they describe their game to the gamers.

    I’ll use a very specific example very soon…

    Indie Marketing Lethal Mistake - Header

    …but for now let’s imagine an extremely gory First Person Shooter in which you fight post-apocalyptic mutant hordes.

    Here’s what you would usually find on the developer’s website or their Steam Greenlight page:

    – Unique and engaging gameplay
    – Multiple game modes
    – Fifteen different levels
    – Dangerous enemies
    – Robust multiplayer

    You think I am exaggerating? Go to Steam Greenlight, click on a few random pages, experience madness.

    I mean congratulations, mister developer – you are already better than some devs who slap a Chinese Wall of text on the page, forgetting the invention of paragraphs, let alone bullet points. Still, you are not selling me anything here. You are actually sabotaging your own creation.

    Let’s start with a simple experiment. If your game is described by the bullet points like these, read them to someone who has never heard about your game before. Wait five minutes and ask them what the game is about. Then wait five more minutes and ask them what was the coolest thing about the game.

    This is going to be a very one sided conversation, mind. To save on time, you may just as well read the bullet points to the chair you’re sitting on.

    Why?

    “Unique and engaging gameplay”. This is meaningless. Not just because not many developers exist that would say “Yeah, my game is a clone and the gameplay sucks”. But mainly because I, the reader, do not trust you. I don’t know you, and even if I did, you’re advertising your own stuff, so yeah, “of course” it’s “unique and engaging”.

    When a book has a quote on the cover from Stephen Kings that says, “It’s a good, gripping book”, okay, I may go for it. It’s not his book, he has enough money not to sell his quotes if he does not believe in them, and he’s a good writer. But if it were a quote from John Smith, on a book written by John Smith… I mean, do you see how ridiculous that would be?

    “Multiple game modes”. A lot of games have multiple game modes. Some have fifteen modes in the multiplayer alone. This is nothing special. More importantly, this is, again, meaningless. Maybe you do have multiple modes, and they all suck? It is not unheard of, you know?

    “Fifteen different levels”. How big are the levels? How much time do I spend in a level? How different exactly are they from one another? If you think I am going to use the “meaningless” word again, you are absolutely right. It’s like trying to sell a movie by saying it has ninety scenes. Uhm, great?

    “Dangerous enemies”. Call me crazy, but I think that most enemies in video games are dangerous. Also, they are kind of expected in a First Person Shooter. You may just as well pimp the fact that your game has a menu.

    “Robust multiplayer”. And we’re back to the question of trust. Also, as a gamer, I am expecting your multiplayer to be “robust”, I demand nothing less. Finally, if you think this is the best you can tell me about your game, then I think your game does not really have anything awesome to offer.

    So… Yeah.

    Luckily, a lot of developers talk to each other and learn from each other. Some time ago, a certain small studio, Nimbi, asked other devs what they thought about the promo shots for their new game, Deadlings. We had an honest discussion, and in the end everyone has learned something of value, I believe. I thought it would be good to share this example with the world, with permission from Nimbi, of course.

    So here goes. Let me go back in time and replicate our feedback loop here. These are not direct quotes, but this is more or less what I said to my buddies at Nimbi. And on that cue, let’s torture Deadlings one more time. For science!

    Deadlings

    Don’t tell me it’s „unique”. Do you know this saying that “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else”? Exactly.

    First, every single game is unique. Even if it’s a 99% clone, it’s unique. Even if it’s a 100% clone with a different title, technically it’s still unique.

    Second, “unique” is meaningless fluff. Unique HOW?

    Avoid fluff and weak marketing that everyone can smell from miles away. “Unique”, “fantastic”, “enjoyable” game that is “tons of fun” tells me literally nothing about your game, but tells me a lot about your lack of confidence and makes me suspect you’re hiding something.

    One exception: as I said it before, when it’s a quote, it works. If a well known figure says“the game is fantastic fun”, slap that on your front page. Just don’t do these quotes as said by “Johnnie on Facebook” or “The Creator of the Game”. It was cute once, ten years ago.

    Deadlings

    Okay, okay… What. The. Hell. Does. That. Even. Mean?

    Do you seriously believe that you will have my attention by being confusing? “Don’t impress me, convince me.” You won’t be able to do that telling me stuff I cannot process and remember.

    Also, it’s always nice when the text matches the screen. I’m not seeing any catching on that image, and I am not seeing any brains.

    Deadlings

    Proof-read your marketing slogans. Sadly, no one cares you’re not a native speaker. I know this from experience, writing most of this blog and all.

    Also, “4 Different Gameplay Styles” is completely meaningless. If I tell you I have four presents for you, they might be four bottle caps, or four Lamborghinis.

    First, why does this feature matter? We all know tons of games that have just one gameplay style, and they’re totally fine and extremely successful. Is your design so conflicted that you cannot decide what the game is truly about, and you try to hide this under multiple gameplay styles?

    Second, different HOW? Is one of these styles something I care about? I don’t know, and you didn’t make me care.

    Deadlings

    This is the most cliché bullet point that a lot of game developers use. It’s not the end of the world, and some games might benefit from it, especially when the gamers understand clearly what the game is about. “50 new Angry Birds levels!” – that I get.

    But I don’t understand this. This can mean 100 hours of gameplay, or 50 minutes. I don’t know what a “level” is in your game. Is it one screen puzzle, or is it a large map, or is a chapter of the game?

    So, this was the first batch of marketing shots. Now can anyone tell me what this game is about? I have no idea. What’s the hook? I have no idea. What do I do in the game? I have no idea. Why should I choose this game over literally thousands of others? I have no idea.

    The guys at Nimbi returned to the drawing board and came back with the second batch of shots. Some improvements in a few areas, but a few new problems appeared as well. Let’s see.

    Deadlings

    Confusion returned with a vengeance. Okay, we do get a bit more info (“Use four types of zombies to solve puzzles”), but it’s not something we can really use and process. Take a look at Bonesack in top left corner. Why is he called Bonesack? He’s not really that different from any other zombie, is he? And what does Bonesack do? All I see is that he can walk, but it’s not really a ground-breaking feature, is it?

    The same goes for every other character. I would remove the yellow text in the middle and devote a short line to each character. “Crawl into tight spots as Creep!” and this sort of thing.

    Additionally, the font is way too small for the AppStore, even in the web version, let alone on iPhone or iPad version.

    Deadlings

    That is …actually pretty good. I’m still not quite sure what Arcade Mode is all about, but I do get a clearer understanding of what I do in the game nonetheless. I can relate to what I am seeing here. Angry Birds is like that, right? First strategy (take your time to aim), then action (press the button to explode a bird at the right moment). So even though Deadlings is nothing like Angry Birds, at least now I have something to latch on to. And I like plan-execute games.

    However, what about people who don’t really play games often? What does this tell them? Not much, I’m afraid.

    Probably a better version would be two bigger headers (“Strategy Mode” and “Arcade Mode”) and short description lines beneath them. These lines should describe the action in a cool way. What’s more exciting: “Engage in various activities as Batman” or “Fly over the entire city and break bones of your enemies as Batman”?

    Deadlings

    No. No, no, no.

    “Intuitive Controls” is not a feature. It’s your goddamn duty. It’s like advertising that your game “does not have game crashing bugs”. It’s funny if your game is a competitor to Battlefield 4, but even then – still not a real feature.

    “2 Difficulty Modes” – we’ve been through that. Not only it does not really tell me anything (what modes? Normal and Hard? Easy and Hard? Or different playstyles?), it’s actually kind of weird. When a game has a difficulty setting, it’s usually three modes at minimum.

    Deadlings

    What a combo that one is… Confusing, meaningless, suspicious slogans. “Lots of fun”? Do you know a developer who advertises their game as “Not really that much fun”?

    And so we arrive at the third, final batch. Is it perfect? No. But things are finally beginning to click.

    Deadlings

    Phrasing might a bit awkward, but at least there’s an emotional hook here for the very first time. And even weak or average emotional hook is better than no hook at all. There’s a reason Mario is rescuing the Princess, you know.

    I’m going to be helping Death make friends. Cool.

    Deadlings

    We’ve lost the info on plan-execution dual gameplay, but sometimes you lose a battle to win the war. “Tricky experiments” tells me what kind of gameplay I can expect: challenging, with some degree of freedom. “Planned” tells me there’s something for the brain here. Also, now I get that zombies are my test subjects. Cool.

    No, wait, do I? We have not introduced zombies yet, have we?

    Deadlings

    The question was asked and immediately answered. We don’t know what each zombie does, but the guys have realized that AppStore images are not that large, so it’s wiser to focus on larger font and just the main feature rather than details of each activity.

    At least there’s a promise here – emphasized by the images – that each zombie does a different thing. Note we don’t have to write “four” (types of zombies), because we can clearly see four selfies. And them zombies are likeable, so that helps in this particular case.

    Still, not quite sure what you do in the game…

    Deadlings

    Oh, okay then, now I know.

    At this point, after mere three shots I kind of got get the game now: I am experimenting on various types of zombies in a challenging environment, planning my moves ahead, forced to think how to avoid the dangers of a labyrinth full of traps.

    Still, one big question remains: what I am doing it all for? What’s my ultimate goal in the game? “Making friends” for Death is vague – it’s nice little emotional beat, but how does that translate to my big in-gameplay goal?

    Deadlings

    I now sort of know that I will be sacrificing zombies left and right, and that’s great. But how does that make Death happy? Surely not by me delivering zombie souls, because then the gameplay goal (beat challenges) would be in direct clash with the story goal (make Death happy). So what’s happening here?

    Sadly, I still have no idea. This can either be a good thing (it may make me download the game to check it out, as I’ve seen enough interesting hooks already to be somewhat curious and want to learn more) or it can backfire (confusion is rarely your friend in marketing).

    The answer can be found in the teaser, but I wish it was in the shots as well!

    Anyway, the third batch was definitely an improvement, and I hope I was able to explain why. Of course, I am merely scratching the surface here, and if you’re serious about the marketing of your game, head over to Pixel Prospector now. Never-endings props to these guys.

    Also, thanks to Nimbi Studios for being such good sports, not being afraid of critique, and allowing me to go public with this stuff. The steel hardens in the fire, no pain no gain, what does not kill us makes us stronger – all that jazz.

    Good luck with your game, friends!

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