Three Marketing Lessons For Indie Game Devs Who Want To Become Market Leaders, Too
If you're an indie game dev and you have no money to pay for marketing, PR, and sponsoring a YouTuber or Streamer...
If you're an indie game dev, and have no idea how to grab a gamer's attention when there's 200 plus new games being released every week...
If you want gamers, streamers, journalists coming to YOU and checking out your game...
Then read this article because you'll learn a simple strategy to help you dominate your market.
Why learn this?
Because Jordan Thomas (who worked on all 3 Bioshocks') said something very important in a recent interview talking about his genre...
Here's the entire quote...
"I think the games space is experiencing a new boom and the simpler your concept is to communicate the more likely you are to find your demographic quickly because they're seeing hundreds and hundreds of concepts at a time. I think that immersive sims traditionally have struggled a little bit with helping people to understand what they're about because they're about many things. They're about a feeling, a cross-section of ideas, whereas a game that is like, 'No—this is just to quote Garth Marenghi—Balls-to-the-wall horror,' it's easier for people to wrap their heads around from a marketing perspective."
You see what's going on? Gamers are seeing hundreds and hundreds of new games, new concepts all the time. How do you cut through all this clutter? How do you communicate your idea more clearly so that gamers can get their heads around your concept, and say, "Yeah man that games sounds great?"
Well, in this article, I want to show you 5 indie games that successfully cut through all the clutter, and got attention.
And then you're going to learn lessons showing you exactly how you can use these insights to help you cut through all the clutter. This isn't just another "top 5" article" made to entertain. The real goal is to help you sell more copies of your video game. So, keep reading, and you'll learn something new...
Here's The Biggest Advantage To Being a Leader In Sub-Genre
Before I show you the list, it's important that you know non-obvious reasons why I picked these games.
All of the games I've picked, not only became leaders in their genre, they also help pioneer their sub-genre. In other words, they cornered their market by almost inventing a NEW sub-genre.
Let me explain how this works. It's easy once you understand this simple concept...
In business, they call this "niche marketing". In video games, I call this "Sub-Genre Marketing".
When Yahoo! came out in 1994, they did it all: search bar, news, shopping, forums. They were one of the leaders in internet search.
Then in 1998, Google was founded. Did Google set out to be a "better" Yahoo!? Nope. They actually did LESS than Yahoo!, and they got MORE attention for it.
Google specialized in just the search bar. They focused on one big feature, and nothing else. THAT is what go them attention: Specializing in one feature, and being really good at it.
When you see the list below, you'll notice all of these top 5 indie games did the same thing: they took a big feature, and they focused on being good at it.
Here's more examples of this "Niche Marketing" concept...
Facebook did it all: status updates, photo sharing, friends list, albums, links. But when Twitter came out, they did LESS and they got attention for it. Twitter focused only on the status update. Sure, they do more today. But when they first started out, they got attention because they specialized in a sub-genre in the social media market.
YouTube does it all: you can watch any type of content you like. But Twitch specializes in streaming video games. Twitch offers less, and focuses on making a niche feature like streaming, good.
It's the same in video games...
The ones that outcompete, get instant attention, are the games that focus on ONE little feature, and do a better job at it than any other game.
Why Does Sub-Genre Marketing Work
This type of marketing works because it doesn't try to convince a gamer to do anything. In fact, this type of marketing works because it lines up with what a gamer is thinking about, anyway.
Think about it this way...
Say you sell shoes. As a store owner, it's intuitive to think you should sell all types of shoes: running shoes, work shoes, dress shoes, hiking shoes, skater shoes. It's smart business, because this is the best way to capture the entire market of shoe buyers.
But now put yourself in the mind of a customer. Say you skateboard, and you need skater shoes. What's on top of your mind is skateboarding -- not work, not hiking, not running. Skateboarding is "top of mind".
Remember this phrase...
Top of Mind...
...because it's important.
Say you see a store called, "Al's Shoe Boutique" or "The Running Room" or "B&E Skate Shop". If you're buying skate shoes, which store is going to gain your attention? The B&E Skate Shop, because running is top-of-mind.
This is how consumers behave in almost all types of services, products, and movies, and video games.
Yahoo! offers you everything from search bar, to news, to shopping. Google, when they first started off, offered you just online search. When online search was top-of-mind, that's where you went.
When Dark Souls game out, they weren't another RPG that offered you EVERYTHING. It was an RPG that only had one difficulty setting: hard. This attracted gamers who wanted a hard RPG. Hard RPG was top-of-mind. And those gamers gravitated to that game.
My point here is, the reason sub-genre marketing works is because it's in line with human behaviour. It doesn't try to convince a gamer to try something that isn't already in their mind. It's lined up exactly to what they are already thinking and already want.
See what I'm getting at here?
People are attracted to what is made for THEM. Gamers will go to Twitch to stream game because it was made for them. People will use Google search because it was made for them. Gamers will play Dark Souls because it was made for them.
People are self-interested. What grabs their attention is what's already on their mind. It's hard to get someone's attention when they're not already thinking of something.
This is why these games below in the list, got a lot of attention. The devs made a game gamers already wanted, but no other game was giving them this experience.
So, let's get to it. Here's the list of the top 5 genre defining indie games that cornered their market...
5. Minecraft -- Place Blocks and Build Anything You Can Imagine
Minecraft's success is the same as Google's success. What I mean is, Google didn't invent the search bar. And Minecraft didn't invent the sandbox game.
But both specialized in one BIG feature, and focused all their efforts into making that one feature great.
Gamers had their pick of sandbox games before Minecraft. There was Grand Theft Auto IV in 2008. Assassin's Creed in 2007. Far Cry 2 in 2008. Fallout 3 in 2007.
All of these games did it all: RPG, action, sandbox, some crafting. But Minecraft took the best part of these games, the sandbox, and focused on that one feature.
Again, it's like YouTube vs. Twitch. Twitch took the best part of YouTube, video games, and made it better by streaming those type of videos.
It's the same with Minecraft. They took the best part of open-world games, the sandbox, and made it better by letting the gamer mine and craft.
The reason Minecraft is part of our mind-share is because it fulfilled a need no other game did before.
Minecraft evolved into it's own niche, it's own sub-genre, and become a leader in it. The game helped pioneer the Sandbox sub-genre.
And no matter how many games are "better" or "different" than Minecraft, they will never outcompete it.
Because once you are known for "inventing" a sub-genre, you will always be the leader. Every game will be following you. It's like Dark Souls. They helped pioneer the Dark, Difficult RPG sub-genre. Sure, there were a lot of RPG games that did it all. But Dark Souls focused on one feature, and put all it's energy and time into making that feature good.
You'll notice this theme happen a lot. For example...
4. Amnesia: The Dark Descent -- No Combat Horror Survival
Before Pewdiepie played this game on his channel back in December 2010, the game was already a success. It went gold by August 10, 2010. And was successfully released by September 2010.
How did this game become a huge attractor? How did gamers, games journalist, and YouTubers gravitate to this game?
It's usually the other way around where a indie game dev is the one seeking out attention. But not with Amnesia. Gamers, YouTubers and journalist were attracted to this game for one small, subtle reason.
Amnesia help pioneer the horror game with no combat, sub-genre.
Again, there were a lot of survival horror games around at that time, in 2010. You had Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Left 4 Dead, etc. These games in themselves helped pioneer the survival horror genre.
So, how did a small indie game company get all this massive attention when they were up against these games?
While all other horror games did it all, Amnesia specialized in one feature, and did that feature very well.
Survival horror games are the anti-power fantasy games. You are sort of like a anti-hero. And what Amnesia successfully did was take this anti-power fantasy even further than no other game before it.
Having a horror survival game with NO combat left the gamer feeling MORE scared and helpless. This game gave a gamer a NEW experience most other big successful games never could: and that was feeling helpless, truly helpless.
Remember how I told you that gamers are always looking to fulfill a new need? One game will satisfy a need. But once that need is satisfied, another NEW need is born. And a gamer will then get bored of that game, or genre, and look for a NEW genre.
New genres promise to fulfil NEW needs. And that's what Amnesia did. It offered a gamer a new emotional experience no other game could.
And they did that by focusing on one feature, and not trying to offer everything to everyone.
Then this feature turned into it's own little sub-genre. Other survival horror games started copying this feature where you try to survive without guns. You have to find a better way than just go gun-ablazing. Games like Limbo, Gone Home, Outlast utilized this feature to help sell their games.
Even AAA games like Alien: Isolation and Silent Hill: Alchemilla, used very little combat to scare the gamer.
This specialization is key to creating your own sub-genre, and becoming a leader. I'll show you 3 steps on how to do this exactly, but let's keep going...
3. FTL: Faster Than Light -- Colony / Resource Manager
Are you starting to see a common theme here? An indie game puts all their focus on a feature. Gamers gravitate to that game because that features offers a NEW experience no other game offers. Other games copy this feature. And a new sub-genre is born.
This is what happened with FTL. People call this a Top-down Roguelike Space Ship Simulator. But, if you analyze this game and why it's so popular, is because of one key feature: colony management.
Managing a colony or resources isn't new in video games. But what FTL did was, they put a focus on the main gameplay feature: colony and resource management.
It's sounds subtle, and like no big deal. But remember, sub-genres are born from these subtle moves.
What I mean is, once game devs looked at FTL and it's most popular game-play mechanic, they started to made similar games.
This idea of managing a colony became really popular with gamers. And gamers wanted more of this type of game-play. That's why games like like Oxygen Not Include, Factorio, and RimWorld are popular, too, thanks to FTL.
2. Super Meat Boy: Twitch Platformer
The obvious reasons why Super Meat Boy got some much attention is because the game had charisma, and a great soundtrack, and great pixel art. But, a lot of games have that, and don't come close to the success this game got.
The non-obvious reason of Super Meat Boys success is because it did something to corner the market.
Remember how I said gamers gravitate to games that are made for THEM. This is exactly what Super Meat Boy did...
While most action games were going toward "accessibility", and making games easier so they could attract more non-gamers, Super Meat Boy did the counterintuitive thing.
It made a difficult platformer game that tested your reaction time.
One of the oldest forms of any game-play is testing out your reaction time. This game mechanic is "hard-wired" into us humans. Having a good reaction time has helped us survive as humans.
And naturally, this is why we love action games like shooters, fighting games, sports games, real-time strategy.
But these games don't really attract non-gamers. Non-gamers don't want to spend hours improving their twitch response.
But, Super Meat Boy wasn't made for that type of gamer. It was made for a gamers who wanted to test their reaction time.
Super Meat Boy was the anti-stream line games made for non-gamers. They made one feature hard, but rewarding. A lot of effort was put into making one mechanic great -- even if it meant scaring away the casual gamer crowd, and the money that come with it.
Again, casual gamers don't care about fine controls that forced the gamer to make split second decisions.
But there was a big enough market that did care. And the game devs took a risk and focused their efforts on attracting that type of gamer.
This game didn't invent twitch game-play. Just like Google didn't invent the search bar. But like Google who focused on one thing (the search bar), Super Meat Boy focused on one thing (twitch response gameplay).
This is how Super Meat Boy differentiated itself from all other games that had pretty graphic, good music, pixel art. They put all the focus on a popular game-play mechanic, and were the best at it.
1. Pyre: High Fantasy Rocket League
Pyre is on the verge of creating a brand new sub-genre: high fantasy sports games. Just like testing out your reaction time, sports are "hard-wired" in us humans. It's because back in our hunter-gatherer days, we needed to learn how to cooperate with others to attain a goal.
Sport games let us fulfill one of our deepest needs: to work cooperatively toward a goal. Again, this human trait has helped us survive. And video games let us express that need that's deep in our soul.
Now, not everybody likes "sports". And that that's because people have preferences to "theme".
For example. Before 1998, almost all RPG games had a fantasy theme. Then Fallout 1 came out with a Mad Max, post apocalyptic theme.
Gamers who were tired of the same old warrior, elf, magician theme, gravitated to Fallout 1 because it offered a NEW way to fulfill their need for fantasy games.
It's the same with Rocket League. It's a sports game, but the theme is different than any other sports game that is out there. The people who don't care about NBA, NFL, or FIFA, still played Rocket League.
Sports are part of our DNA. But a "theme" isn't. Even though we all love sports in some sort of fashion, we don't all love certain "themes".
What Pyre has done, is it evolved the sports genre into the high fantasy genre. It didn't invent the sports genre. It didn't invent the high fantasy genre. But it those two parts together, and created it's own little market.
As I write this, it's August 2017. You will now see an emergence of high fantasy sports games thanks to Pyre.
You and I have just seen an evolution in sports games, and a creation of a new sub-genre. I don't know about you, but the geek in me loves seeing this. It's exciting to see a new sub-genre being born.
Ok, so what do you do with all this info? How can you take what you just learned and help you sell more copies of your indie game?
If You Follow This 3 Step Action Plan, You'll Be Able To Corner Your Sub-Genre and Sell More Copies Of Your Indie Game
You're starting to learn something very important in basic business strategy. This "sub-genre marketing" strategy is a great idea. But ideas are worthless if you don't execute them well.
So, let me give you some guidance on how you can corner your own market. I've put together a 3 step formula you can easily follow.
Please know, this is my personal formula that took me almost 13 years to develop. As you probably know, back in 2005 I wanted to be a web app developer. But everybody was developing apps. So I found my own little "sub-genre" in scanning. I created scanning apps, and scanning services, and scanning tutorials (ScanCanada.ca and HowToScan.ca).
I didn't make apps or web services for EVERYBODY. I made apps and online services for people who wanted to scan their old photos. I cornered a little market. I focused all my design and development efforts into one small "sub-genre", and become number one in it.
The reason I'm telling you this is, because my success is all due to what Google did, what Twitter did, what Dark Souls did, and those indie games above did.
They all focused on a feature, and did it better than anybody else.
So, let me show you exactly how to do this yourself, so you can corner a sub-genre and design a game so it explodes on the market and becomes an instant success...
Lesson # 1: What's The Most Popular Feature In Your Genre? Focus On THAT...
The first lesson is to be aware of what is the most used feature in your genre.
For example, Facebook's best feature was the status update. Twitter took that feature, and focused on it. Yahoo! best feature was the search bar. Google took that feature, and made it better.
Action platformers' best feature is testing your reaction time, or twitch gaming. Super Meat Boy took that feature and focused on it, made it better.
In survival horror games, anything that took away the power-fantasy, made the game scarier. Amnesia: The Dark Descent took that power-fantasy away leaving out combat. This made the game even scarier.
You see a pattern here?
It's almost as if these games are TAKING AWAY features. They are doing LESS and they are getting MORE attention because of it.
And this goes back to my quote from Jordan Thomas...
"...the simpler your concept is to communicate the more likely you are to find your demographic quickly because they're seeing hundreds and hundreds of concepts at a time..."
When a gamer is browsing Steam for a new game, and they have to click through 200 NEW games every week, it's the games that have a simpler idea that will get more of the attention.
It's how Google and Twitter and Twitch and Discord are getting attention. Google simple idea: search bar. Twitch simple idea: video game streaming for gamers. Discord simple idea: Free voice and text chat for gamers.
Of course all of these are offering a lot more features now. But when they first started, their idea was simple. And this is why they cut through all the clutter, and got attention.
But, just because you make your idea simple, you still need to communicate that idea in a way gamers can understand.
And that's all that marketing is: communicating your idea to get attention. Game devs who fail at communicating their idea in a simple way, will fail to gain attention.
So, let me show you how to do this...
Lesson #2: Communicate Your Idea Clearly So A Gamer Knows What They Get
When friends and family see my content, they ask, "will somebody watch your 20 minute video? You should make them 3 minutes."
"Who has time to read a 3000 word article?"
Well, one of the reasons why you're reading this and consuming my content is because I know how people behave when consuming content online.
Nobody will take 15 minutes of their time to watch a video and then decide if they should watch the rest of the 5 minutes. Nobody has time to sit and read 3000 words and decide if they should keep reading.
But somebody WILL take 3 seconds to read a headline, and then decide, "Is this for me?".
Headlines are my secret weapon in getting attention, and getting people to consume my long-winded, long-worded, content.
If you look at sites like Buzzfeed, Reddit, Twitter -- these all survive on headlines. People go here to get quick snaps of info, then decide if they should click the link to read more or watch more.
So, what does this have to do with dominating a sub-genre? How does this help you get past all the noise, so a gamer will click your link when they're browsing Steam?
Well, a headline or a tagline is your key to getting a gamers initial attention.
One of my favourite headlines is from Tower of Guns....
"First-Person Bullet-Hell Rogue-Lite Mayhem"
This is a perfect example of how to communicate a simple idea in less than 3 seconds. It's the same with my examples above.
Back in 2010, if you heard that there is a horror game that has no combat, you'd be interested. Back then, survival horror games were like Resident Evil 1 clones. Not all, but most. So, when Amnesia came out, it was a NEW experience for horror survival fans.
Or if you try to explain Pyre, all you have to say is, "high fantasy sports game".
I know... Writing headlines may seem boring, and not sexy at all. It's a lot more fun making trailer videos than sitting and writing headlines.
But go to Grand Theft Auto V's website. And you'll notice that they are using basic, fundamental marketing... they are using headlines to get attention. They could've easily just put up a site saying "BUY NOW". But they took the time to come up with a headline that gets gamers (and non-gamers) to buy this game.
Ok, this is great and all... you have your sub-genre, you have a simple idea, you have your headline to communicate that simple idea... now what?
Lesson #3: The More You Tell, The More You Sell
Back in 2005 to 2015, it was a lot easier to get attention online. Games like Amnesia and Super Meat Boy and the rest didn't consciously work on a "sub-genre marketing" strategy. No game dev spent hours on headlines. Back then it was a lot easier to get attention.
And just because your indie game has cornered a market, means nothing anymore. Almost every new indie game is trying to accomplish this.
But the ones that are getting attention today are the ones that create content to help them communicate their ideas clearly.
A gamer no longer finds new games by going to the Steam Store, or by reading a gaming news sites. Now it's twitter, podcasts, twitch, youtube, devlogs...
Now, most of these you'll have to pay for. If you want attention on YouTube or Twitch, you'll most likely have to pay for sponsorship.
But there is a FREE way to get attention. And that is to create your own content. Your own blogs, articles, podcast, twitch streams, youtube vids, talking about your game, and it's simple idea.
My favorite saying is, "the more you tell, the more you sell".
And I get it... it sucks creating content. At first nobody reads it or watches it. And it feels like a futile project... why put in all this time and get so little back?
But this is how you start to build your OWN community. Instead of relying on a YouTuber's or Twitch Streamer's community to sell your game, you create your OWN.
So, it is worth the effort. Having your own community of die-hard fans of your indie game is the best marketing you can do. And it's free.
By creating your own content, and publishing your own content via YouTube, podcasts, articles, blogs, you'll start building a community of fans of your game.
Again, it's great to have an indie game that has conred your market... it's great that you can communicate your idea clearly in 3 seconds or less... but to get gamers to buy and play your game, you need that community.
And the best way to build that community, is to do it organically. It's by putting in the effort of creating content. Even if you put out one video or blog a week, in 1 year you'll have 52 pieces. It adds up. And at least one of the 52 pieces will get you attention, and help you build a community.
Ok, what if you don't have time to figure out your sub-genre? What if you don't know how to communicate your idea clearly in 3 seconds? How do you create attention grabbing content that builds a community of gamers who love your game?