Tips for Launching Your Indie Game on Steam in 2017

You MUST be excited!

You’re launching a sexy new game this year and rapidly approaching is the day that you’ve been waiting for (and possibly also dreading) – launch day!

It’s a stressful time for developers, particularly indie devs who may be working with a limited (or non-existent) marketing budget and might never have launched a game before.

There’s a lot of conflicting information out there – “experts” telling you what to do or what not to do (when, in fact, they’re probably basing that advice on what worked for them, when that might not necessarily work for you). I see this all the time in marketing circles. It’s easy to attribute one-off success to x, y and z tactics that were employed, but actually being able to measure what worked (or at least, determine what affected “success”) is very difficult. It’s a rookie mistake to make – confusing “tactics” with “strategy”.

Tactics are actions that you can employ to achieve objectives. They’re very functional things. Tweeting is a tactic, for example.

Strategy is different. Strategy drives, flavours and shapes the tactics you use. It’s creates substance and is purposeful. It understands what it is you want to achieve and moves you towards those goals. If tweeting is a tactic, strategy is what defines the messaging, the targeting and is what has led you to the conclusion that Twitter as a channel is the right tactic to use.

It’s easy to go through the motions with marketing tactics without any real purpose behind them. How many conferences have you been to that haven’t furthered the objectives of your game launch? Sure there are other benefits to be had, but as a tactic, exhibiting at an event isn’t a de facto route to success. Similarly, I’ve seen indie devs practically narrate their lives on Twitter, while their sales are flat-lining. If you have generated more tweets in 2016 than sold units of your game, then perhaps it’s time to reassess why you are using the channel at all.

The point is, these tips are tactics. Simply doing them isn’t enough. You need to decide why you are doing this stuff and how it help your business. Developing a strategy is a much broader topic (one that I will endeavour to cover at a later date), but for the time being, here’s a few more tactics to add to your arsenal.

Define the positioning statement for your game.

This is important as it will go on to influence a lot of things for your Steam launch;

  • Short and long copy for the Steam store.
  • Early Access FAQs
  • Slogan / tagline for artwork and branding.
  • Your hero image
  • Contents of your press release
  • Your website copy
  • Social media posts

Writing an effective positioning statement is a good exercise to help you refine your proposition. Many people underestimate the importance and impact of having a consistent message communicated across all of your channels – it really does affect how you are perceived by your customers. Getting this right will mean that anyone referring to your game (press, influencers, players) will hopefully do so using the narrative you have set. This is very powerful.

Use this exercise to explore what’s unique about your game and why people would likely buy it.

Pick your launch date carefully.

There have been a number of retrospectives published in 2016 that noted that some times of the year can be bad to launch an indie game.

Nearer the end of the year can be particularly tough – lots of AAA games are out in time for Christmas and they will be the focus of quite a lot of press and social media conversations. Considering how tough it is to launch an indie game at the best of times, you probably want to avoid the busy season if you can. That’s not to say it’s impossible to launch an indie game in the Autumn / Winter season, but it’s a move that should be planned for (and not just assume everything will be the same as other times of year).

Similarly, keep an eye on Steam sales. I saw an example of an indie game launched in October – while the Steam Hallowe’en sale was running! That was just madness! Not only did they lose out on free exposure that Valve provide (the homepage had been taken over for the Hallowe’en promotion so new releases weren’t featured as prominently), but their customer base just wasn’t interested in anything other than Hallowe’en deals.

That’s a serious blow to both their primary distribution / promotional channel AND their potential customers were less-primed to buy than they may have been a week later! Rookie marketing mistake right there and it probably cost them tens of thousands, if not more. As you’d imagine, the game isn’t doing too well now – it was dead on arrival and the studio will find it very difficult to resurrect it.

Volume of sales and press coverage within the first days and weeks of launch can hugely influence the success of a game. Give yourself the best shot at success you can. Coming back from a failed launch isn’t impossible, but in many ways it can be tougher than the launch itself.

Inform opinions at launch.  Or try to change them afterwards.

Pre-launch, it’s unlikely that people will have formed an opinion about your game. Launch is your relatively small window of opportunity to influence what people think about it and what happens during this period will go on to shape the life of your game.

If players go into a new game with the wrong expectations, then the backlash can be brutal. In some cases, the studio can weather this storm (e.g. Hello Games with NMS or Daybreak with H1Z1), largely because they’ve sold enough units to sustain them (and also the game itself, while poorly received, is actually good).

Indie studios don’t have this luxury. They often lack the finances to survive without some degree of commercial success and indie games can have a limited scope / appeal which further limits their options. If the worst happens within a few weeks of launch, then the aftermath can be fatal. Even a few dozen negative reviews can leave a lasting stain of the perception of your game and studio and that will seriously reduce the amount of sales they will go on to make.

There isn’t a great deal of data on this subject as there are lots of other factors at play. But having launched several Early Access titles and worked in digital marketing for many years, I’ve seen just how much small changes to copy or to the design of a website can greatly affect sales conversions. Much of marketing is about giving yourself the best shot at success at any given time – for indie devs that’s during your launch window..

You could realistically have hundreds of thousands of visitors to your Steam store page and other digital properties during your launch window. It’s easier to give them a good first impression, than try to change all of their minds at a later date.

Don’t be concerned about having your name in lights.

Indie devs can spend a lot of time contacting the main games press and then frustrating themselves over not getting any coverage. It is disheartening, sure, but is it the best use of your time?

There’s only a handful of “main” games press websites, but there are hundreds of low and mid tier blogs and review sites that can do great things for your game. They don’t have the readership of the big names, but they do usually have a following and building a relationship with them can be really beneficial.

Many big brands (outside the games industry) are now using this approach to compliment their other marketing activities. They’re rolling the dice and hoping that upcoming YouTuber will make it big one day and due to the relationship they established early on, the brand will be in a better position as a result.

Which is largely bullshit.

The reality is, the “big influencers”, whether they be press or Youtubers, are tough to actually influence directly. The barrier is too high (in terms of cost, time spent, relationships needed, etc).

Getting your press release in front of lesser-known journalists, reviewers, bloggers and streamers can often yield much better results. And it’s not just the additional reviews or coverage that helps (although there are direct benefits to these things). What it does, is start building momentum around what you are doing and that is one of the ways you can achieve success with the bigger names who often use lesser-known media as a source of tips for their own work.

It can be easy to fall into the trap of targeting “big name” media and overlooking the rest. But this isn’t a particularly strategic approach to marketing (and in many cases, it’s nothing more than vanity marketing). By taking a more rational approach, you can give yourself the best shot at success.

In a world where the number of new indie games launching is increasing but the press coverage they can get hasn’t, the industry desperately needs to explore more options. Curation of games on Steam is a big issue and the press face a similar issue of not having enough time (or desire) to cover everything.

There are lots of great “influencers” out there that might cover and help promote your game – they may just not rank on Google, or be shared within your social group, or have lots of subscribers or even be known to you. Then again, is your unlaunched game performing any better?  Maybe you could help each other out.

Just a thought.

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