More often than not, I’m asked questions by indie developers about bringing external help in. This lesson of Indie Marketing For N00bs will deal with marketing professionals, public relation firms, publishers, and who you want on your side. An alternate title to this lesson would be: “PR Gurus, Publishing Pros, and Community Managers, Oh My!”
All of the lessons before now focus on the assumption that you’re on your own. But, you’re only one person. Your team, whether it’s small or larger, may not have the ability to focus on the particular tasks of managing the social media or sitting down to crack out a press release masterpiece. It’s OK to need help. Everyone should have someone that knows what they’re doing, knows the ins and outs of the game being made, the industry itself, and how to get the word out properly. Whether it’s you or someone else is the question to ask. They are your writer, your voice, your relations with the public, and your metaphoric face.
Publishers Are Not Always The Infallible Fix
Let’s get Publishers out of the way, because the most common question I get when people ask for advice is “Can you get me a publisher for funding and marketing?”
This predisposed and panned need is due to misconception that all publishers are end-all, be-all and will save a game from doing terribly. This, as stated, is one of the easiest mistakes that developers can get themselves into. Indie developers go head first into finding a publisher, but should be more picky because each publisher has their own tools, needs, and requirements themselves.
When most people think of publishers, they think of the big names like Activision, Valve, or the countless first-party options out there. These fine folks aren’t the publishers that you’ll be looking for. They comb through thousands of games a day to find the diamond in the rough that will be their poster child of indie in a sea of junk, if they are even looking to add an independent game their their repertoire. Many of them, like Blizzard (under the proper name Activision Blizzard), develop games internally and publish those. Let’s face the facts: World of Warcraft was not an indie game.
Now, there are some better alternatives out there. But, they’re not always this almighty publisher that people believe they should be. First off, most indie-based publishers are not going to fund your game. Some will, if they find something they truly and wholeheartedly believe in, but all-in-all, the publisher is there to do one thing: publish.
Some indie publishers, like Team17, New Blood Interactive, or Digital Devolver, have their own internal public relations and marketing departments or have their own methods to get what you need. Some will even personally invest in your project and are all self-contained to your liking. But, that’s not all of them and the likelihood that you’re chosen is not very big.
Some publishers, like Apogee Software LLC and Digital Smash, are there to help give resources and help liaison the needs of publishing to niche platforms, but don’t have the funds to personally invest. As a developer, understand that this is still a viable solution if you’ve never published before. All options take a percentage of royalties, but these guys might be less inclined to take both the arm and leg to help you. However, they may be able to help get marketing professionals on your side on the back-end or get you properly set up for a crowdfunding option success.
Some publishers will, at times, treat their acquired development teams as pets. They feed you, they talk you for walks. But, you better not leave any presents on the carpet or chew up the couch pillows or you’re in for as hell of a time. They will set your deadlines and your timelines. They will be your wake up calls, your drill instructors, and your nannies. You jump when they tell you to and there’s no real problems. This is how half-assed games come out on deadlines, where bugs are fixed post-release. If you feel that the game should be developed at your own pace, a publisher may not be your answer.
Just remember: Publishers are not always necessary, but if you get attached to one, it’s definitely a good idea to know what you’re getting into and what to expect for each.
There is no I in TEAM
What do Marketing people do? This is a question that a lot of developers really have no idea how to answer. More often than I would have ever thought, devs believe that marketing and PR people are in charge of finding funding for the project. I’ve even been asked how well I can program before because they thought “Marketing and PR” had to do with programming the game somehow. All of this is wrong.
Where some marketing folks can also specialize in these topics, that’s not the point of a marketing person. You need someone to market the game, get it out to the masses. Someone that can help set the tone for the entire brand you intend to show the world. In larger companies, each of these people even are separate from each other in different roles. As an indie, you may not have that luxury to have a PR manager, marketing manager, brand manager, and community manager. So, you need a well-rounded person to do as much as they can.
Enter: The On-Team Marketing Manager. This is your go-to guy to handle community efforts, writing press releases, or focusing on creating and enforcing marketing plans. This will be one of the most hard-working people on the team since they wear so many hats. With that being said, don’t overwork them. Create a plan (you know, a marketing plan) and let them implement it.
This can also be an opening to mention interns. Bringing in your own intern off the street has its advantages. You can mold them and shape them to how you want them to fit into your puzzle, especially with everything you’ve learned from the lessons I’ve given. It gets tricky without money up front to pay them salary though and they can quit pretty quickly with no backing behind all the work.
If you don’t pay, there’s a high chance they won’t stay for very long. Consider figuring out a budget to pay a marketing person to help, even if the budget is technically zero. They’re not there to work for free, or the possibly empty promise of being paid on the “back-end”. Back-end paying is when nothing is given up front and the share of the revenue is given after the release of the game generates profits. Offering someone only back-end payment for hard work will probably get you laughed at more often than not.
If it's firm it means it's ripe, right?
Many developers take on the age old mentality of having someone else do it for them. Hiring a public relations or marketing firm is incredibly common and a solid choice among both the indie and AAA developers. A firm will generally assign you an “account executive”, which will dedicate time and focus on you and your needs that you have paid for. They’ll usually have multiple clients that they are involved with and will split their time to each evenly.
The real question involved is if you’ve found a valid firm or someone that’ll give you the runaround. If you feel like the price is not right, for instance, you might be correct. Many firms will over charge for minute tasks. Many of them will want a huge chunk of the share of back-end. Get a fair percentage and you know you have a good company working with you.
Just remember that almost all firms will want some sort of payment up front. Sometimes they can work with you a little, but they are a business and can’t take on a bunch of free, volunteer jobs. They have to eat and keep the lights on too.
Many of these firms will treat it like a job instead of a passion. The very best firms will emotionally invest in your game. Be friendly to the developers, “like” or “follow” the game on social media, be more than just professional. These people are more interested in making lifelong partnerships and networks than dropping you the first sign of trouble. They want to help, give advice, and consult. They generally want to see you succeed. They cross their fingers for you and hope for the best. Additionally, success stories look better on their track record than a botched game, so personal investment helps keep them on track as well.
In any case, find yourself a good team for your game. If it involves a marketing consultant, a PR firm’s account executive, or even a publisher to keep you on track, it doesn’t matter. A good team will be cohesive and work together to get the job done, whatever it takes.