With 15 years of experience in video game development and publishing, Steve Escalante knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to launching and promoting a game.
He presented some of the lessons he learned over the years at the 2016 Montreal International Games Summit. The lessons presented here are specifically focused on PR campaigns and launch windows, but Escalante made it clear that successful game developers use all currently available tools, including their own community, industry events, retail strategies, influencers, websites and wikis, early access, social media as well as crowdfunding.
Ten lessons to keep in mind when promoting an indie game
1. There’s no more indie love
“You’re not getting credit anymore because you’re a one, two or three-man team,” says Escalante. He explains that from a press perspective, it’s not something to write about because a lot of other developers are in the same situation.
To sell a game, a team needs to find a powerful ‘hook’ or angle to attract the media. For example, is a team doing something unique with their community or with Unreal?
A lot of work needs to be done by the developers to come up with interesting facts and narratives about themselves, their studio and their product. “That’s where a lot of indie teams have missed certain things [when it comes to PR],” adds Escalante.
2. No credit for price
It might come as a surprise, but selling a game for cheaper than its actual value isn’t an effective PR strategy. From Versus Evil’s experience, this marketing message does not resonate with the press or the public.
3. The press feeds influencers and influencers feed the press
“Don’t ignore one audience just because you think one is more important than the other. They influence each other equally,” says Escalante. While previews and reviews can convince an influencer to give your game a try, influencers talking about your game can increase the number of reviews you get.
4. Press coverage of your game: the window is exceptionally small
By simply looking at how many PC or mobile games are launched in a given week, it becomes clear that a new title quickly becomes old news. “Here’s the cold reality. If you’re out two or three weeks from launch, the chances of somebody coming back to pick up and review your game are slim,” explains Escalante.
As an example, he compares the launch of the Banner Saga 1 and Banner Saga 2 games. In January 2014, the first game launched roughly against 80 titles. Two years later, the second game launched against over 400 titles. “When you see that, you realize that discovery is the biggest issue,” says Escalante. “If you haven’t created that groundswell with your community, it’s a real challenge to get people to cover your product.”
5. Integrate Twitch features into your games
These features are helpful as they give streamers the possibility of engaging in a fun way with their audience, thereby encouraging streamers to give your product a try. For example, the game Dungeoneers added the possibility of renaming the characters in Twitch, which made it possible for fans to see their name in the game.
“Essentially, players would rename their Dungeoneers after any of their subscribers and followers. By doing that, you would see the chat liven up, hoping that they would make it,” says Escalante. “And, of course, you would check the graveyard and see a whole bunch of followers that you’ve killed. So it became this fun little community thing.”
6. Analyze the titles launching around your window
Beware of AAA titles that are launching at the same time as your game. These titles “will always affect your launch, even though it’s a DLC [additional content created for a released video game] or a completely different genre,” explains Escalante. Their launch takes away press and play time that could have been otherwise devoted to your product.
7. Events help build awareness
It’s often a good move to attend industry events because new players get to try your game. “You can be there and all of a sudden somebody is playing your game, and you never know who these people are, but suddenly it could be an influencer with a million followers. We found this to be true time and time again,” says Escalante. Once this happens, your travelling expenses are very quickly covered.
8. Taking advantage of sales events
One of the first things to remember is to avoid launching a game too close to a main sale event. If you do, it will drive the game out of the sales charts, as they’ll be filled with discounted popular titles.
This could have a huge impact on your game. “You want to be among the top 10, top 20, because that’s going to build organic sales,” says Escalante. Some people play games simply because they are trending.
Of course, the ideal scenario is to launch a game at a time when you can actually take advantage of these sales events. “Maybe it’s better for you to roll out in March or April so you get about 90 days before [the Steam summer sale],” he explains.
Another way to take advantage of these events is to update a game for a specific sale. “You can just do a bunch of themes!,” says Escalante.
In the end, developers should remember that retail is not only about the launch itself. They need to have a long-term plan: “What am I going to be doing for the next 3, 6, 12 months?” This can have a great impact on how people discover, review and adopt a game.
9. Make sure your product is polished before launching it
Even though you may be financially strapped, Escalante’s advice is clear: “Let it bake!” A game needs to be polished and bug free before it’s released. Otherwise, the first impression of the product may be ruined.
Escalante suggests delaying the launch two months after the planned release date. Not only is the game often more polished, but you also gain launch flexibility. This is sometimes all it takes to get the editorial team from Steam or Apple to play and like a game, which can then lead to getting it featured on their platforms.
10. Third-party evaluation
Escalante believes that every team should get impartial feedback on their game, which can help them steer their product in the right direction. He uses the development of Banner Saga 1 as an example: the developers thought it was too easy, but the all of the mock reviews came back and stated that the game’s level of difficulty was too high. This valuable and important feedback helped make the title a success.
Another interesting way of approaching this is to focus on a specific element of the game, such as the console version’s controllers. “You can have a situation where you get bad reviews because the controls themselves are not intuitive,” explains Escalante.
Small details can make a big difference.