Inside this article, you're going to learn 3 non-obvious ways how Valve's first game, Half-Life, was able to compete against games like Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem, Heretic -- and come out number one.
And, you're going to see exactly how you can use these 3 lessons to help you sell your own video game. So, first you'll learn the 3 lessons. Then you'll get a 3 step strategy plan. No theory. Just nut and bolts.
You have to remember -- even though Valve isn't an indie developer, they were a brand new company back in 1998, when they released Half-Life.
And... back then, not a lot of gamers knew about them, they had no history of previous games, they were up against well established franchises like Doom and Duke Nukem.
Also, their success wasn't due to a huge marketing campaign. It was all due to one simple strategy that you're about to learn.
So, if you're having trouble selling your game... if your game isn't getting any attention... if you don't have a lot of money to market your video game... then learn these 3 lessons from Half-Life... and get these 3 strategies to help you sell more games, and make good money doing it.
Ready? Here we go...
Half-Life Marketing Lesson Number 1: When Nobody Knows About You, Do This...
I'm not going to talk about how Half-Life revolutionized game play, realistic physics, story, and graphics.
Those are all obvious reasons why this game got attention. No. I want to talk about 3 non-obvious reasons how Half-Life got attention. I want to uncover the real reason Half-Life got so popular and became the number one shooter for its time.
So, let's learn something new...
You probably know this, but Gaben quit Microsoft, and took his money, and began Valve in 1996.
He was up against games like Quake, Doom, Duke Nukem. On top of all that, back in 1998, not a lot of people heard about Valve or even knew about Gaben.
Think about it. Even though Gaben wasn't a starving game dev... and probably had a lot of money from Microsoft to let him develop a video game for 2 years... he still had to start from scratch. He had to somehow get his name out there, despite all the competition.
It's probably the exact same challenge you're facing. You're starting from scratch. Not of lot of people know about you, and your video game. How do you get your name out there? How can your game get attention?
Well, here's one strategy Gaben did (that you can do for free thanks to technology today)...
Back in 1998 when physical magazines were still popular, you would often get a 3.5 floppy disk or CD with a bunch of demo games on it. So, Valve put their demo on one of these disks that were distributed with the magazines.
Now, here's what's interesting about this...
These magazines were also delivered to other game dev companies. Game devs would pop in the demo disk, and play the demos to waste some time or see what's new out there.
And when these game devs played the Half-Life demo, they instantly knew that the bar was just raised.
Brett Douville (long-time programmer for games such as Star Wars Starfighter, Skyrim, Fallout 3, and Fallout 4) explains how back then when they played the Half-Life demo at the office, everybody was abuzz. He explained in one of his podcasts, that back in 1998, this demo was a game-changer, that something like this have never been done before.
This sort of word-of-mouth was happening a lot in game dev studios. Game devs were talking about this new demo, and spread word-of-mouth to other devs, and other gamers.
It was this free word-of-mouth that got Valve the attention. Sure, they had to pay for the distribution of those demo disks, and did some other advertising. But it was the excitement from these game devs who spread word-of-mouth to other devs, and then other gamers, about this new game.
What's funny about this is, the demo was long. It wasn't packed with action. It was the total opposite of any other FPS game. And the demo was basically a cutscene where you're on a train, going to work.
It was a cutscene that you could control or you character -- which was rarely seen back in 1998.
So what? How does this lesson help you sell more video games? What's the real lesson, here? Do you put a demo on a 3.5 floppy, and mail it out to game devs?
Well, let's keep going and this will all make sense...
Half-Life Marketing Lesson Number 2: While Everybody Is Going One Direction, You Go The Total Opposite Way
Before 1998, every top selling FPS game was either DOOM or a DOOM clone.
For example, here's a list of the most popular FPS PC shooters since from 1992 to 1998...
- 1992: Wolfenstein 3D
- 1993: Doom
- 1994: Doom II
- 1995: Hexen and Dark Forces
- 1996: Quake and Duke Nukem
- 1997: Quake II
- 1998: Half-Life
What happened in 1998? Every game before 1998 was a non-stop, shooting gallery. (Dark Forces was a bit more story driven, but it was still a shooting gallery). Then you have Half-Life, and it's the total opposite.
Why did this grab so many game devs and gamers attention? What's the insight here?
You learn that your character had a name: Dr. Gordon Freeman -- who has a PhD. in Theoretical Physics. In all other games, you were DOOM Guy, or Quake Guy. Yeah, Duke Nukem and Blazkowicz had a name. But you were basically the same dude, with a gun.
Also, the name "Half-Life" set the theme right away. You knew without even playing the game, it's going to be a science based theme. Most FPS were about hell, demons, or aliens.
So... one, Half-Life is slower paced. Two, you're scientist with a name. Three, it's based on a science fiction theme.
Now, I'm not saying you need to copy and do exactly all these things. That's not going to help you sell more copies. I'm just setting up the context here. My point here is to show you how Half-Life was different.
And this difference is what got them all the attention. This is the lesson here... it's intuitive to follow the crowd, and copy what everybody else is doing.
But once in awhile, a brand new leader emerges by NOT following the crowd. You see this happen all the time with indie games. Look at Binding of Isaac, or Undertale. These games were NOT "me too" games. They took a whole new direction, and became leaders in their sub-genre.
In lesson number 3, you'll learn why all this is important. Then I'll show you 3 action steps you can use to help you take what you learned so you can sell more copies of your video game.
So let's keep going...
Half-Life Marketing Lesson Number 3: Don't Copy and Become a "Me Too" Game
The reason I'm showing you all this is because the same thing is happening right now, today. Games like Undertale, Bastion, Braid, Minecraft, all went a total different direction.
While most games try to copy or clone the number one game in their genre, some games go in a very different direction.
Another great example is Fallout 1. Before 1997, most RPGs where fantasy based. But Fallout went in a different direction. The game was still grounded in the RPG genre. But it was a post-apocalyptic RPG. Fallout 1 helped pioneer the post-apocalyptic sub-genre.
Same with Half-Life. The were grounded in the FPS genre. But the game went a completely new direction, and into science fiction. The game helped pioneer the sci-fi, story driven, FPS.
While all FPS games were trying to be part of the "Death Match" scene, Half-Life went another direction. They slowed it down. They focused on narrative, and story.
And this little shift in theme and game play got them all the attention because it was so different than what was already out there.
These little subtle "sea-changes" is enough to change the whole direction of what customer will start buying.
From 1992 to 1997, gamers played pretty much the same action packed FPS, Doom clone. Gamers were getting genre-fatigue. Not every gamer wanted this type of FPS. So, when a slower paced, smarter, science-based FPS came out, gamers perked up.
Half-Life wasn't another "me-too" FPS. Sure, it was in the FPS genre. But little deliberate things like giving the character a name, a backstory, a job... Deliberately making the gamer go through an intro where you are slowly introduced to the setting and game play... Deliberately not giving you a powerful weapon right off the start... Was enough to get them attention because it was so different.
This is what I mean when I say the game IS the marketing. Every design decision when making the game was deliberately done so to stay AWAY from what was already out there.
And that's what marketing is all about: communicating to the gamer why your game is different and why they should buy it.
Great marketing isn't press releases, banner ads, advertising, giving money to YouTubers to play your game.
Great marketing starts the second you write your first code. Great marketing is "baked-in" your game. Great marketing is the design, technology and theme of your game.
And, games that seem to come out of nowhere are usually spread through organic word of mouth. And this is the core of what I try to teach. I'm trying to teach you how to market your video game so it sells itself.
So, how do you do that? How can you take these 3 lessons and apply them to your own indie game? How will this help you sell more copies and help you make good money?
Let me show you, step-by-step, next...
Step 1: Avoid Being One of a Million Other Game Devs Competing For The Same Small Piece of The Profits... Here's How...
Think about it this way: you're a small minnow in an ocean. And you and millions of other minnows are trying to grab a bite of the same food. While you and millions of other minnows are grasping at a morsel of food, the wales and the sharks are living it up on the other side of the ocean.
How do you become a whale, a shark? Is it fighting millions of other minnows for a morsel of food? Or what if you stop competing for that little bite, and venture out and look for something yourself?
My point here is, if you follow the crowd... if you do what other game devs are doing... if you try to follow trends... then you only get a small piece of the profits.
This is why I spent all this time talking about how Half-Life went a different direction. Instead of trying to fight for scraps that games like DOOM and Quake left behind, Half-Life went their own way.
They became a whale because they decided they didn't want to compete with all the other small fish that were trying to do what DOOM was doing.
This is how you become a leader in your sub-genre. In fact, it's how you CREATE and CORNER a NEW sub-genre.
Half-Life cornered the Science Fiction FPS sub-genre. While DOOM and its clones were offering gamers Death Matches, and online arena fighting, Half-Life discovered a gap that no game was taking advantage of.
Not every gamer wanted to be DOOM Guy and fight monsters... or fight other gamers in Death Matches. Some gamers wanted to be a Gordon Freeman. They wanted a story-based, Sci-Fi, FPS. And no game at that time was offering that experience. It was until Half-Life came along, and filled that gap.
That's how Half-Life became a shark... a whale... in their own ocean.
And when you create a new sub-genre, you then become that whale... that shark... that owns that part of the ocean.
But you can't just break away from the crowd, and expect gamers to follow you. You still need a way to let everybody know what you're doing -- and why they should follow you.
In other words, innovation and something new isn't enough to get attention.
Let me show how to get attention in steps 2 and 3...
Step 2: Distribute Your Demo to as Many Gamers as You Can (Your Game is Your Best Salesperson)
This goes back to the DOOM days in 1992 and 93. id Software gave away a free "shareware" version of the game to as many gamers as they could. They did this through online BBS's.
id Software even told people that they can sell the shareware, and to keep all the profits.
It's counter intuitive to think that giving away something for free would help you make money. It's counter intuitive to tell other people that they can try to sell your demo and they can keep all the profits.
But this is how you start from scratch. I'm not saying that one day you can't advertise, or pay YouTubers money to stream your game. I'm saying that when you're staring off, in the first few years, you need a different strategy.
And that strategy is to distribute your game to as many gamers as you can. And the best way to get gamers emotionally hooked is through some sort of demo or playable teaser.
Remember, gamers don't know you... they don't know about your games. It was the same with Gabe and his new game Half-Life. They were starting from scratch. They were competing with huge brands like DOOM and Duke Nukem.
How Gabe got attention was by distributing a high-quality demo to as many people as he could. And all it took was the right people to find the game to help spread the word of mouth.
Game devs who picked up the demo disk knew that they were playing something brand new, never seen before. And they wanted to share their excitement with other game devs... and this word ultimately made it to gamers, too.
There are literally thousands of games on the market that have innovated and did something new. But they just sit on the digital-shelf where nobody knows about them. And that's because they sit behind a paywall.
It's almost as if these games say...
"If you want to see what's behind the wall, you have to pay. I promise you that it's fun. Look at our video teaser on YouTube... check out our KickStarter page... read our devlog... but no no no you can't play it until you pay us first!".
Get rid of that pay-wall. Distribute a high-quality demo game to as many gamers as you can. This is your very first step to help you sell your video game. This is how you find gamers who will become your number 1 fan boy or girl.
By getting rid of a paywall, by distributing a high-quality demo, you are making it convenient for a gamer to find you.
Let me explain why this is important in the last step...
Step 3: How To Convert Your Demo Into a Sales
Think like a gamer... think like a consumer. Gamers want to buy your game. They want to pay you and own your game.
But video game trailers, screen shots, devlogs, Kickstarter campaigns are NOT how to motivate a gamer to play and buy your game.
Game devs assume that gamers buy on impulse. But this is incorrect. One of the first things a gamer will do before they buy a game is they'll go to the Steam Store, scroll down, and check out what OTHER gamers said about the game.
Gamers will also watch YouTuber's options... they'll spend hours listening to gamer podcasts... they'll read gamer articles....
My point is, gamers don't buy a game in the first visit. As somebody who's spent 12 years selling my own apps and digital services, I know that this is true for ANY product. People don't buy on the first visit. They often need some sort of social proof before they decide to open up their wallet and buy something.
Sure, people buy things on impulse all the time. Like bubble gum for example. Same in video games. Mobile games are the bubblegum of video games. People will spend 99cent for bubble gum video games.
That's not what I'm talking about.
I'm talking about typical consumer behaviour where people need other sources of info before they decide to buy. And gamers are no different. There are certain psychological steps a gamer goes through before they pull the trigger and buy a game.
Buying is ALL psychological. What I mean is, people buy with emotion... and then justify their purchase rationally.
Motivation comes from an emotional response, not from a logical one. For example, gamers logically know that it's always better to buy a game a few months after its release. The game is cheaper. And the bugs are fixed.
But emotionally, gamers can't help it. They need to buy games on release because of fear of missing out. Gamers will pre-order because being FIRST is one of human's basic needs. Being first and telling people about something new, is part of gaining social status.
My whole point here is, your demo is that emotional hook that a gamer needs to buy your game. Remember, gamers need some sort of social proof before they buy a game. They need an emotional response to help them decide to buy a game.
That's why YouTubers, Streamers, game bloggers are so popular.... gamers need some social proof. They love consuming this content because it helps them decide on what games to play and buy.
And to help you get some of that social proof, the best way is to give out your demo. It's what Half-Life did. They distributed their demo... and the right people found the game. Social proof was spread around through word of mouth.
And remember, your demo is the best way to convert a user into a sale. It's going to be your best salesperson.
Most gamers won't buy on the first visit. Most will leave and never come back. They need to be emotionally invested in your game to be motivated to buy it.
And the best way to get that emotional trigger pulled, is to get them to play your gamer demo before you ask them to BUY NOW... let the GAME do the marketing for you.
How I'll Help You Even MORE...