Category: Articles


Lots going on these days but here’s the first article of 5, covering marketing as an Independent Game Developer! I’m just finishing editing the other parts right now, and then it’ll be digging out my iPad 2 to see if I can get Elusive Ninja running on it. I bought an iPad 2 like a month ago and it’s actually just been sitting in the unopened box collecting dust in my closet because I basically just bought it to test Elusive Ninja on it. I’m hoping the iPhone 5 doesn’t come out anytime soon, I can’t afford it!! haha I heard the screen was going to be bigger and go to the edges of the phone, I wonder if that means the resolution will change…that might be annoying from a gameDev perspective, so we’ll see what happens! Anyway, on to Article I:

INTRO

Hi, my name is Jeff Hangartner! Recently I started a small Indie game studio called Bulletproof Outlaws. I’m an artist working from home and outsourcing the programming, music, etc. I’ve just finished my first iPhone game – Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief. It was officially released on June 6th, 2011. I’ve jumped into the wonderful world of marketing and I’m approaching it from a bunch of different angles and trying various marketing avenues out. I’m fortunate enough (and planned ahead strategically enough) to have some money to spend experimenting with marketing and I figure by sharing what I’ve learned, these marketing articles can help other small Indie Developers who can’t afford to waste money heading down dead-ends and trying experiments that might not pay off.

There are 5 marketing articles:

ARTICLE I – Social Marketing

Using word-of-mouth marketing via Twitter, blogging, forum threads, etc. to build awareness for your game, and a realistic look at the pros and cons of price drops and using microjob services.

ARTICLE II – Traditional Advertising

An in-depth look into the sketchy side of the industry that people don’t seem to talk about like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. Also covering traditional expensive marketing like banner ads and marketing agencies and ad services like AdMob.

ARTICLE III – Game Related & Maintenance

What to put in a Press Kit, using Press Releases, creating screenshots and trailers, etc. Plus how to efficiently maintain everything we’ve talked about so far.

ARTICLE IV – Psychology

How to survive the internal side of marketing as an Indie Developer and dealing with the stress of spending your money, watching sales figures rise and fall, making big decisions, handling critics and pushy marketers, and a big blunt look at how rampant iPhone App piracy is.

ARTICLE V – Optimal Marketing Plan

A summary of everything, condensed down into 36 steps from Pre-Launch to Launch Day to Post-Launch, that I feel make up an Optimal Marketing Plan for an Indie Dev with little to no money who needs to make sure every dollar spent counts.

ARTICLE I – Social Marketing

Where My Game Is At

No beating around the bush: Elusive Ninja is down to basically around 2 sales a day right now. The game itself is a good game, it just doesn’t have any exposure. The reviews from people I don’t know (obviously the first few reviews of any App on an App Store are the Developer’s friends haha) are all positive and I know the game looks great and plays good (I spent lots of time with testers tweaking the balance) and overall it has lots of polish. So I know I’m not working with a bad, low-quality product. Honestly, when I see someone saying “Banner ads don’t work!” and their banner ads were made in Paintbrush and they’re advertising a game with terrible art and unbalanced gameplay, my first thought is “okay, well it’s not that banner ads don’t work, it’s that your game sucks.” I’m also throwing in some knowledge based on other people’s experiences from other articles I’ve read along the way, and Developers I’ve talked to about the whole subject.

Understandably, you might be thinking “Wait, if your game isn’t selling, why would I bother reading your articles on marketing?” haha In these articles, I outline a lot of the mistakes I’ve made and why they didn’t work, so you don’t have to make those same mistakes yourself. I also break down efficient ways to use some of the marketing avenues you may be thinking of trying out, which I learned through trial and error over time. When you’re an Indie Developer, you’re already wearing a dozen hats at once as it is just developing your games. Throwing on maintaining a Social Media presence and running contests and price drops, writing Press Releases…it can all be pretty overwhelming and time-consuming if you don’t have a plan.

Theory

The summary: I’m an optimist, but also a realist. My Indie Dev side wants to believe that the right strategy can lift a game decently high in the App Store, but my logical side knows that expecting to pull off an Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, or Tiny Wings on your first go is a little overambitious. I think it’s possible for a Developer’s first game to hit big, but that you shouldn’t bank on that and that you should expect to approach things from a long-term “piling up” strategy that’s slower, but more solid.

Piling-up would involve stuff like building a brand name for your company, building an IP (your game’s look, characters, story, etc.) that people can become familiar with, cross-promoting your previous releases with your new ones, releasing updates for your game and re-marketing the major updates as if they were new releases, building relationships with the Press, with Gamers in general, other Developers, your customers, fostering a fan-base, rewarding loyal customers, encouraging word-of-mouth advertising, etc.

So while the first game might not do well at first, when the second or third game you release comes out, you can use that as an opportunity to get your first game more exposure or a new boost in sales, etc. The Internet has affected the way marketing works, especially the whole Social Networking concept…I don’t think that being a mysterious unknown anti-social Indie Developer in your shadowy basement is the optimal strategy these days. It’s the equivalent of being the totally impersonal huge mega-corporation that doesn’t interact with the “common folk”. Both of those CAN work, but they’re not really embracing Social Media. It’s kind of like when the Internet first became widespread and marketing consultants would tell companies “you have to have a website, everyone has a website these days! You don’t even need to have a fancy one, you just need SOMETHING out there!” Some basic participation in Social Networking is important. It takes some work, and it’s a slower strategy than just going “I’m going to buy a $5000 ad on the biggest game site on the net and cross my fingers and hope that I make jillions” but by building a Social Media presence you’re rolling a snowball down a hill and watching it build up into a much more reliable marketing avenue over time.

Financial Security

On that note, I think it’s important to approach Indie gameDev expecting to make more than one game and to get your finances in order ahead of time to support yourself through flopping a few games. If you’re financially secure enough to survive 3 flops, you’re in a great position…if any of your first 3 games hits, awesome. If your first 2 games don’t hit but the 3rd gets you attention for the first 2, awesome. If your first game flops, your 2nd hits and gets some attention for your 1st, you don’t have to worry while you develop your 3rd game. But if you approach things going “I’m going to put everything I have into this one game, it’s going to be my Magnum Opus right off the bat” you’re playing a MUCH riskier game.

Now I know that there are exceptions to that, and that ideally you shouldn’t hold anything back and you should put out the highest quality game you can as soon as you can because just from a philosophy/respect point of view you should be doing your best work at all times…plus logically a quality game is more likely to catch on and make you jillions, etc. But from a business stability standpoint, you’re taking a much bigger gamble that way, especially with the way the App Store has changed things. Releasing a game on the App Store, you’re looking at having to release it for $0.99 or $1.99…you can’t release a game for $19.99 or $49.99 on the App Store like you could if you were Konami or Capcom releasing a game on a console. So instead of releasing one huge epic quality game, why not take some time and release a few smaller quality games, until you’re financially stable as a studio, and THEN work on that Magnum Opus when it won’t cripple you if it flops.

Ya, Ya, Let’s See a Sales Chart Already!

Not pretty, eh? I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little embarrassing haha I was hoping I could turn things around by the time I wrote this article so I could be like “How I went from 1 sale a day to 10,000 sales a day” but no such luck…yet!

I’ve sold a whopping 256 copies (haha programmer number!) as of writing this, and the vast majority were at the start when I Launched and that was no doubt mostly my friends and family, Twitter Followers, Facebook friends, etc. buying it. Along the top of the chart, R represents when I got a Review, B represents buying a Banner ad and P represents something Press related (in this case, sending out a bunch of review requests).

256 copies x 1.99 = 509.44 minus 50% (30% for Apple, 20% for my programmer, Derek) = 254.72 actual theoretical money in my pocket so far. Dev costs plus advertising has been around $3,000 so that’s nowhere near enough to break even yet.

You can definitely see that when I “do stuff”, my sales go up, when I “don’t do stuff”, my sales go down. Obvious, but the problem is that “doing stuff” tends to cost money and the timing of “stuff” is important…I’ll get into that in the Reviews, Banners, and Super Combo sections.

Wasting Money

I’ve also admittedly (and at times knowingly) dumped money into certain marketing avenues that were dead-ends and a total waste of money, and I’ll probably do so a few more times before I’m done experimenting. My thinking is that because I have a quality product and I’ve hit a wall, I should explore getting around that wall now while I have some money to do it with and while I don’t have to make much to recover the development costs…otherwise all that’ll happen is I’ll develop another game and hit the same “how do I get it noticed?” wall. If I can at least figure out the weak points in that wall and learn how to chip away at them efficiently now, I can focus a little more strategically when I’m marketing my next game. I consider this a shotgun blast, so that I can figure out the best places to aim the sniper rifle.

Why Not Just Add More “Stuff”?

Some people have suggested adding more to the game, changing the price, etc. but going by the vibe I’m getting from how the App Store market and general marketing process appears to work I honestly don’t think that would do much. I could have 50 different objects to dodge or 5 different ninjas to choose from and I don’t see a way that that would get me any more attention than I’ve gotten…it’s just another stat for the marketing blurb which isn’t getting read to begin with. Now if I added like 100 different objects, 10 different ninjas, 20 levels, RPG gameplay elements, a 5 hour fully animated plot, etc. I’m sure that’d get noticed more, but development-wise that would be a ton of time, money, and man-power, and I’d still be gambling and hoping to get noticed. The easy route would be to just make the ninja a big-tittied ninja chick and put in a Nude Code and I’d get all sorts of attention haha

Anyway, this is getting into theory now. So let’s get back to actual results and data and take a look at the different types of marketing I’ve tried and my experiences with them:

SOCIAL MARKETING

Word-Of-Mouth

These days word-of-mouth is probably the most powerful form of marketing at your disposal. It generally doesn’t cost money directly, like putting up a banner ad does, but it DOES cost time. Word-of-mouth tends to require a lot of building hype, networking with the Press, interacting with your fan-base (even if it’s just a handful of Twitter Followers), participating in forum threads, responding to E-Mails…I truly think this alone can be a full-time job and down the road when I can afford to, I’d like to actually hire someone to handle some of this stuff just because it’s such a massive time-sink and you end up having to check threads, E-Mails, Twitter, etc. 24/7 to keep on top of it all.

On the plus side, while it’s time-consuming to build up word-of-mouth, it’s not torture or anything. You make new friends, you reward fans for helping you out, you get to participate in different communities, etc. It’s pretty fun actually, it’s just that at the end of the day if you’re a small studio you have to consider “How much of my time am I spending doing this, and how much more work would I be able to get done in that time?” You’ll have to balance this stuff in a way that’s comfortable to you.

Why’s It So Important?

I think when you’re starting out, it’s probably the most important category to focus on. Think of it like the gold and wood collecting stage in an old top-down Warcraft game. Sure, making Barracks and Knights and laying siege on your enemy’s base is awesome, but to get there you have to spend some time building up your resources. Unless you fluke out and create Angry Birds on your first go, or already have a fan-base of some sort from other projects you’ve done, you’re probably going to be starting out as a total unknown. Collecting all the gold and wood all by yourself as just one unit would take forever and wouldn’t leave anyone left to build the barracks. By making friends and building a fan-base of Followers, you’re recruiting an army who will help you spread word about your game.

The Angry Birds guys can announce ANYTHING and it’ll be posted on the front page of every game news site that day. They have the brand recognition, studio reputation, and fan-base that demands attention when one of their Press Releases pops up on Editors’ screens and that “ROVIO ANNOUNCES…” headline catches their eye. Plus it’s probably safe to assume that they’ve made a lot of great contacts in the media since Angry Birds first exploded onto the scene. Whether the way this works is good for the game industry in general or not (hope you like Halo, ’cause I hear 4, 5, and 6 are coming) is a discussion in and of itself, but for the sake of keeping on topic I’m not touching that haha I’m not bitter about this at all…I’m just saying: This is how it looks like things work from what I’ve seen, so our question to solve is how can we work within this system as Indies with limited funds and reputation?

As Indies, we generally can’t afford to post a full-page ad on all the top gaming news sites and run promotions where we give away a dozen iPad 2′s. But socializing doesn’t cost us money. Imagine if you had even 100 fans following your game’s development, and each of those people has 100 fans. When you release or update your game, that’s 100 people Tweeting, Facebooking, etc. about your game’s news and now you’re reaching 10,000 people through them that you never would have had direct access to. Now say you’re friendly, out-going, social and polite with various game news Editors and Reviewers that you meet on your development adventures…if a handful of them decide to cover your game because they dig you, well now when you Launch your game, you’re hitting that 10,000 people from before plus all the people who visit those news sites.

Meanwhile the guy who’s making a great game, but sitting in his basement keeping to himself is Launching his game to..well, the handful of people who happen to notice his icon on the New Releases page in the few hours it takes for it to be bumped off there. There are success stories where the Developer doesn’t do anything and word-of-mouth just happens to spread because the game catches on, but that’s rolling the dice and crossing your fingers. We want to be a little more pro-active and tilt things in our favor here, otherwise we might as well just be buying lottery tickets.

Okay, so it’s important to not be anti-social…but where do you begin?

Twitter

Start your Twitter account ahead of time, while you’re still developing your game. Most of your sales are probably going to happen on Day 1, so ideally you want to build up some hype and connections so that on Launch you can get as much exposure as possible and get a nice big clump of buys on Day 1 that get you attention (hopefully from Apple, leading to a Feature, which will lead to more sales!). Twitter is such an instant form of marketing that you can basically watch your news Tweet spread across the Internet as it’s happening, which is pretty cool.

I’m actually super new to Twitter, I only started using it a few months before I started Bulletproof Outlaws, and all the “RT” and “FF” lingo was foreign to me. I’ve got the hang of it now, and here’s what I’ve figured out:

Just Have One Account

Originally I had a personal account, and then created a business account (@BPOutlaws). The problem there was that everyone was Following my personal account by the time I finally made my business one, so to get them to Follow my business account was a chore, especially since for the first bit I was posting the same stuff to both my personal and business account since it was just me working on my business stuff by myself. Ideally the way to do it would be to start a business Twitter first, and then down the road when you have some employees, branch off into a personal Twitter account as well and announce it on your business one. Your business one is the one that’s going to be making you money so if you’re going to have less Followers on one of those two accounts, you want it to be your personal account that has less Followers.

It’s also a lot less work to start with just one account. Maybe other people are better at managing this stuff than I am, but man, I hate having to reply to stuff in 10 different places. And then the people who aren’t viewing your one account don’t see your response so you have to repost it to the other account or just accept that you’ve now got multiple streams of different amounts of information out there and blah blah blah, it’s just super confusing. Consolidate it all into one Twitter account, one Facebook account, and one E-Mail address, all related to your business, and you’ll spend way less time running around.

Go Ahead, Mix Business With Pleasure

Using just one Twitter account also helps you connect with fans on a personal level. Realistically, no one cares about your business account. The general Gamer public isn’t Following you because they’re dying to see “BULLETPROOF OUTLAWS RELEASES ELUSIVE NINJA FOR IOS” in their Twitter feed. They Follow you because they’re hoping to see stuff like “Wired on Redbulls, pulling another all-nighter, but I got the awesome rain effect in! Brain in zombie mode zzzz…” that makes them chuckle or makes them curious, and gives you some personality. By using just one Twitter account, you can mix your business announcements in with your personal stuff and it won’t turn people off because you’re presenting the boring stuff in smaller doses…kind of like how kids hate taking vitamins until you bust them out in Flintstone character form.

Time Your Announcements

Generally your Followers are going to live in or near your time zone. If you’re Tweeting in Japanese, you probably have Japanese Followers. If you’re Tweeting in English, you probably mostly have people from North America. Take into account the time zones of your Follower audience. If I have a big important announcement that’s ready to be Tweeted but I’ve stayed up late working on it so it’s 3am, I know probably 90% of my Followers are sleeping, so I’ll wait to Tweet it till around 8am. I’m in Western Canada, so the people on my side of the country are getting the Tweet at about the time work starts and they first check their Twitter feed for the day, and the people in Eastern Canada are around 2 or 3 hours ahead of me, so they’re getting the Tweet sometime during their boring work morning or just before noon when they can slack off and catch up on Tweeting.

By timing thing this way, I’m maximizing the chance of one of my Tweets catching on and making the rounds throughout the boring workday. If I Tweet at 3am, only a few people will see it, and it’ll be at the bottom of people’s “New Tweets” feed when they DO log in. I’ll still Tweet at 3am, but I’ll Tweet less important stuff.

Another thing to consider is the day of the week. Tweets on a Monday afternoon are probably going to get more attention than Tweets on a Friday evening or Saturday afternoon when people are off doing things for the weekend instead of sitting at their office trapped for 8 hours looking for distractions to kill time with.

Use The Hashtags

I see a lot of random #hashtagging on Twitter, and a lot of people not using them at all. If you’re a dev, throw on #gamedev or #iosdev or #iphone or #indie or any other really common words or phrases that in any way relate to what you’re Tweeting about. I was adding #ninjas and #art on some of my updates. There ARE people who Follow tags out there. Like personally I’m Following #gamedev so when someone Tweets with that tag, it pops up on my Twitter feed. I’ve found a handful of cool new games that way, and picked up a handful of new Followers myself. And if I see something I dig, I’ll Retweet it to help that person out.

If you’re not using any #hashtags, you’re just reaching your direct Following audience, which is good but just not as optimal as it could be. Who knows, you may make a Tweet about music costs, put a #music tag on it, and some composer sees it, digs your game, and offers up their services for cheap. Or you may announce your Angry Birds game with a #birdwatchers tag and tap into a community of people who spread word-of-mouth about your game just because it caught their attention being in some way related to their hobby. This is how Internet memes start…imagine your Tweet catches on as a meme the way All Your Base, Lolcats, or The Starwars Kid did. Sure, it’s a total shot in the dark and not at all likely, but it doesn’t cost anything to throw in a few hashtags just in-case.

It can also help you stumble into communities you didn’t realize existed (like my finding #gamedev), or you may accidentally create a community (as in the case of the totally unexpected but awesome #ims211 explosion).

I tend to tag some of my news with #ElusiveNinja and I have my Twitter set up to notify me whenever it encounters “elusive ninja” in a Tweet. I’ve actually discovered some reviews I didn’t know were out there, eavesdropped and jumped into discussions about my game, etc. this way. Plus Elusive Ninja has a “Tweet your score!” option that Tweets scores out with #ElusiveNinja at the end so if any of those go out, I’ll see them and can congratulate some of them personally, etc.

Join The #IDRTG

It started as a thread in the dev section of Touch Arcade, it’s a big group of a ton of iOS devs. Check out the #IDRTG here! It’s essentially a ton of Indie Devs who all Retweet eachother’s stuff. A lot of them don’t have a ton of Followers, but even the small accounts all add up over time, and it doesn’t cost you any money. Everyone in the group has the intention of helping eachother out because we all know getting initial exposure can be difficult.

Quit Blabbin’ Will Ya?!

Keep your Tweets as short as possible. Shoot for under the 160 char limit by a solid 10 – 20 characters if you can. The reason for this is because if people want to Retweet your Tweet and it’s at 160 characters, they don’t get to stamp their name on it, or they have to post it as a Long Tweet which might not be possible from whatever Twitter service they use, or they have to rewrite or chop out bits of your Tweet to make room. Ideally if you can have a chunk of space for them to attach their own @names to the Tweet, they’re more likely to Retweet it because they’ll get some exposure too if their Retweet or your Tweet is Retweeted (confused yet?).

I actually tend to add #hashtags if I Retweet a Tweet that doesn’t have any on it, because I figure the person doesn’t realize they could throw on #gamedev or #iphone or #freelance or #dinosaurs and get a ton more views of their Tweet.

Use the shortest URLs you can, like those bit.ly ones. But keep in mind you might want to use your company URL just for the name to be noticed. Like if I’m Tweeting a link to a blog entry, I’ll use a bit.ly because it’s a long URL. But sometimes if I know a Tweet will probably catch on or reach a new audience, I want “http://bulletproofoutlaws.com/” stamped in my Tweet so that people see the Bulletproof Outlaws name.

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask

There’s nothing at all wrong with throwing a “PLS RT” at the start of your Tweet. Ideally your Twitter Followers all like you and are Following you because they WANT you to succeed, so this is just an extra little “Hey, I know you guys dig my stuff, but this particular Tweet is important so could you make sure to Retweet it for me to help me out?” request. Plus if your Tweet is Retweeted, you’re bound to run into a handful of kind souls who Retweet it just because they see the “PLS RT”. Save this for the important Tweets though, people probably won’t put up with “PLS RT – Made the best sandwich EVER for lunch, mmmm tomatoes!” for long.

Show Your Appreciation

When you get Retweeted, you’ll see people’s Retweets in your Mentions column. I like to shoot a quick “Thanks to @bob @joe and @sarah for the RT!” after I get a few RTs. This is for two reasons: 1) I really do appreciate the RT, and by thanking them by their @names, they get their Twitter accounts mentioned to my Followers so it helps perpetuate a big cycle of everybody helping everybody get noticed. And 2) Other people see that I thank people who RT my Tweets, which makes them more inclined to RT my Tweets even if it’s just to get their Twitter feed mentioned.

Twitter is really a win/win situation for everyone involved on it.

Return The Favor

I’ll sometimes check out the profiles of people who RT or Follow me, just to see what people are up to and if I see someone Tweeting about their project and I think it’s neat, I’ll RT them out of the blue. This is another reason to be using #hashtags…I might not be Following you, but if you post something cool up and it pops up in my #gamedev column, I might end up Following you or simply RT your Tweet because I want to support you. I’ve picked up a handful of Followers just by RT’ing people’s stuff that I like. Often I’ll add a little comment to the start too, like “Love your art!” or “Great article!” just to show that I actually do like what they put out there, I’m not just spamming random stuff. If someone who’s project I dig gets a good review, I’ll RT that too, in hopes of helping them out.

The Golden Rule pretty much applies here: Treat others the way you’d like them to treat you!

Be A Little Picky

This one’s a toughy. You want to find a balance between RT’ing (sometimes crappy) stuff to help other people out or to be nice, and RT’ing quality stuff. If your Twitter feed is crammed full of RT’ing garbage and news announcements, who’s going to want to Follow you? They’re just getting spammed all day. This will come down to your own personal preference though. I like to just RT stuff that I legitimately think is cool, or even has the potential to be cool (like someone’s Tweet about their game that looks like it has an awesome concept even though the art is terrible).

Twitter is all about the personal connection. We get miffed when we find out a celebrity we’re Following is just paying someone else to Tweet for them because we want to feel like we’re really hearing that person’s thoughts (whether those thoughts are deep or silly). While it’s great to help everyone else out, you also have to remember that you’re trying to build your own following of people who trust you to provide value.

@names Are Important!

Like using #hashtags, it can be helpful to include some @names when appropriate. A lot of people will shoot you a Tweet back with your @name in it when you have their name in yours. And some large Twitter accounts (like for game review sites) seem to have automated services that keep track of who’s Tweeting their @names and they send out auto thank-you’s which means your @name gets Tweeted to their jillion Followers.

I was messing around with Game Maker for fun one day to see what it can do (I dig it by the way, it looks super-powerful and I believe it can export games to the iPhone) and I Tweeted “Re-created part of #ElusiveNinja in @YoYoGamemaker today haha pretty awesome program, looks like it’ll port to iOS soon! #gamedev” Lo and behold, a few hours later @YoYoGamemaker RT’ed my Tweet to their 700+ Followers. They would probably never have seen my Tweet if I hadn’t thrown in their @name.

Follow Fridays

Apparently every Friday people on Twitter go “FF:” and list a bunch of @names of people who’s stuff they dig. I’ve actually never sent out my own FF because I don’t want people to be mad if they get left out of the FF haha But don’t follow my example on this one! What I DO do with FFs though, is shoot out a “Thanks to @bob for the FF!” or if I see a collection of good FFs (like someone else Tweets “FF these awesome gameDevs:”) I’ll just Retweet that FF list.

Facebook

Like Twitter, start your Facebook early. For Facebook I’d recommend having one just for your business stuff and keep your personal one private. Twitter isn’t a big deal to combine because you’re just shooting out text messages, but you don’t want random people checking out your family photos and all that jazz. I very rarely use Facebook, but someone recommended throwing up a Fan-Page for Elusive Ninja so I ended up making a Bulletproof Outlaws account.

The only thing I can really think of to mention about Facebook is that you need 20 Fans to get a nice short facebook.com/elusiveninja/ URL (as opposed to a really long goofy URL). All I really do with the Facebook site is post reviews or big news updates about Elusive Ninja to it. Personally I feel like Twitter and the Bulletproof Outlaws blog is enough, but admittedly I might not be utilizing Facebook to it’s full potential!

Google+

This just popped up recently, and I don’t have enough info on this to make any judgements yet! It looks like it combines Twitter and Facebook concepts, but we’ll have to see how it all pans out once the “ooo a new toy!!” phase wears off and it either dies off or kills Facebook haha

Microjob Services

This is something I had no idea existed until recently. The jist is that there’s a bunch of “for $5 I’ll do Such and Such” sites out there. A lot of the stuff is weird like “I’ll send you a pic of your name written on my boobs!” and “I’ll draw a picture of your dog fighting a robot!” but for OUR purposes as Indie Devs, there are services like “I’ll Tweet any message or link you want to my 45,000 Twitter and Facebook Followers 3x a day for a week.” that I figured we could utilize a bit.

I gave a few a go because hey, for $5 I’ll try it out. Here’s what I learned:

Most Accounts Are Spammy

Basically that guy offering to Tweet to his 45,000 Followers isn’t Tweeting to 45,000 iPhone users looking to buy games. It’s more like the guy’s Twitter account will be something spammy like @GreatOffers and they spam a dozen Tweets an hour to it. Odds are most of the Followers are bots or fake accounts or just people who really aren’t going to be buying your game. The ones that offer to add Fans to your Facebook page add accounts that are riffs off celebrity names and stuff, like, it’s pretty blatant that they’re fake haha

But That Doesn’t Mean We Can’t Use ‘Em

The most obvious way to use this is that Facebook requires 20 Fans on your Fan-Page before you can get a sleeker URL for it…so hey, throw down $5 and you’ve got 20+ Fans and now you can get that better URL right away which’ll be more useful for getting ACTUAL Fans.

Check The Reviews

Other users can review the services they use, so give those reviews a glance to make sure the person offering the service is legit.

Other Services


Just glancing through the main pages of Fiverr.com and UpHype.com here are some examples of cheap services that might be useable:

- “I will design a killer amazing ANIMATED banner for $5”

- “I will draw a cute chibi style portrait of you for $5”

- “I will create this amazing iPad video opening/intro for $5”

- “I will create a voice over up to 10 minutes for $8”

- “I will design a logo for you for $8”

These aren’t things you couldn’t do on your own, but they’re super cheap quick little services. Take a trailer for your game and add a sweet voiceover, stylish little intro, etc. and now you’ve got something that looks a little more pro than if you were just doing it on your own. This is all just stuff that you should keep in mind is out there and available.

The Slippery Ethical Slope

There’s definitely a question of ethics that pops up here. In theory, you could just buy a bunch of fake Fans, a bunch of fake Twitter Followers, a bunch of fake 5-star reviews, etc. which as long as people didn’t realize they were fake, it’d make your game or studio look more popular and important than when you have 0 Fans, 5 Twitter Followers, a couple 3-star reviews, etc.

I’m not here to judge how you decide to use these services, that’s your own decision. For me, I bought a handful of Facebook Fans to get the slick /elusiveninja/ URL, but all my Twitter Followers and Facebook friends and blog commenters and reviews and such are real. This isn’t a moral high-horse thing, it’s more because I want to be able to judge my success accurately…if I gain 50 legit Twitter Followers one week, that tells me that something happened to promote my Twitter account so I can Google and find out if I have a new review up or got a mention somewhere and thank whoever was responsible. But if I had 50,000 fake Twitter Followers I wouldn’t be able to really tell down the road “I’m doing better than I was before!” because I’d have no idea how many of those actually gave a crap about what I’m doing.

This topic is going to come up more in the Reviews section of this article because it was pretty mindblowing to find out how prevalent this kind of thing actually IS these days and not many people talk about it.

Forum Threads

I put up threads in a handful of forums around the net, mainly iPhone game related. Touch Arcade, The Game Forum, Cocos2D, MacRumors, iPhone Dev SDK, and 4 Color Rebellion. I’ve found that either the forum is dead and the thread sits there pretty much on page 1 with no responses because there isn’t enough traffic to the forum for it to really get pushed down or responded to, or if the board is popular, the thread flies off the first page in 10 minutes because there’s so many threads.

Dead forums aren’t the worst thing, if anyone happens to stumble across them, there’s my thread right near the top…but a thread that can stay on, say, Touch Arcade’s main thread page for a few days, is going to get way more exposure. If you sign up, try participating in other threads too, especially on the community type forums, instead of just spamming your own game and vanishing. Some communities frown upon that drive-by-advertising and might ban you.

Bumping

Some threads will gain a solid foothold and stick around for a day or two but that doesn’t seem to be in the thread-starter’s control…once you’ve replied to all the responses in your thread, there’s not much you can do to bump your thread up without it looking like a blatant “BUMP!” post that just gets people annoyed at you. I tend to let the thread fall off the front page of threads, THEN respond to the posts in it, instead of responding as soon as they appear, to maximize how long it’s on the front page. And of course if you update the game, you want to post in your thread and bump it up with the news. I think posting when you get a review is fine too, like “Hey, check it out, IGN just gave my game 10/10, here’s the link!”

Self-Promote In Your Profiles

Make a profile ahead of time. Throw together a couple sentences for a bio, a signature, etc. Because different forums use different formatting (some allow square-bracket tags, some allow full out HTML, some only allow text, some allow only 100 characters for a profile, etc.), I just wrote a complete one in a text file, then cut and paste it tweaking it’s formatting to match the different types I was running into. This sped things up a bit and now if I found a new forum, I could start an account and just cut & paste from this text file with little hassle.

Also make sure your signatures have a link to your game and to your website. Your posts will sit around forever since this is the Internet, so you want links in your sigs so that when someone stumbles on your post a few months from now they’ll be able to click right to your game.

Blogging

I’m a big fan of blogging, especially about game development. There are a few benefits to this:

1) I have a record of my game’s development to look back on someday when I’m an old man.

2) It keeps me accountable for my game’s development…if I slack off and don’t work, I feel guilty that I haven’t updated in a while and my blog readers hassle me wanting updates so I’m forced to get back on track.

3) It helps create a fan-base of followers, who are invested in my game’s success. As people follow along with the game’s development, they start to feel emotionally invested in it, especially if you ask for feedback and run polls on design decisions, etc. These are the fans who will probably help you market your game on their Twitter accounts, defend your game if Reviewers give it crap, rally you up with pep talks if you get depressed during development, etc. The Behemoth is my favorite example of a company that has an epic fan-base…they really only have like 3 games out, but they’re so good to their fans (with shout-outs, contests, merchandise, etc.) that whatever game they put out next will have tens of thousands of people lined up to buy it on Day 1 just to support them. How much better a position are they in than the company with a dozen games out and just 50 Twitter Followers?

4) As a game Developer, I just like to help other game Developers out. That’s why I spend a crapload of time writing stuff like this article. I read other people’s development blogs and often I’ll learn things that I would have had to discover the hard way on my own, and in the end save some time. If I can return the favor for some other Developer through my blogging, that’s awesome to me!

5) Occasionally you’ll write posts that happen to tap into the general public psyche and get linked around the net by people on Twitter, sites like Digg, etc. which will get you a bunch of extra attention and often a few new Followers.

But You Write a LOT, Dude…

Yeah, don’t worry, you don’t have to write as much as I do to build a following haha I just like to write. Realistically all a development blog needs for an update is a couple paragraphs of what’s going on, what’s planned for the next few days, whatever behind the scenes screenshots, artwork, music, videos, etc. are on hand…nothing too epic. In fact, I actually wasted a lot of development time writing the amount of stuff that I did for my blog. I did daily updates that were often multiple screens worth of writing. For my next game I’ll probably strip it down a bit.

So How Often Do I Have To Blog?


I did daily updates because I was feeling ambitious (or foolish, you decide haha), but an update a week is fine. The key thing is that you update things regularly so people know when to check the site, and so that you’re forced to stick to a schedule to stay on track. I’d recommend something like writing your blog entry on a Sunday night or Monday morning and posting it on a weekday. Going by my blog’s stats, for the entire development period I consistently had way less visitors on weekends than on weekdays. I figure on the weekend people are out doing stuff, but weekdays when they drag their butts into the office and procrastinate through the day, that’s the time they check stuff like devBlogs.

How Do I Start?

Set up a blog for free through a service like WordPress. There are tons of templates to get you set up quickly. From there, you’re basically good to go. See how easy that was? Throw up a post announcing who you are, what your game’s about, some concept art and a summary of where you’re at with it and you’ve got your first post already. Link your blog on to your Twitter, Facebook, forum signatures, etc. You want this to be the default place people head to when they’re looking for information on who you are and what you’re up to.

Contests

I haven’t experimented with this too much yet, so I’m going mostly with observations of what other people do here, and just things I plan to do in the future. Contests can be anything from high score competitions, to rewarding people who Retweet your announcements, to fan-art competitions, to “design a boss” contests. Rewards can be anything from shout-outs, to Promo Codes for your game, to iTunes gift cards, to physical prizes like iPads (though you should check the legalities on this) or posters and other merchandise.

You can hold them regularly and repeatedly, like a weekly competition for the highest score that week, or you can hold them infrequently like a random Promo Code giveaway. If your contest and/or reward is interesting, it can pick up some extra publicity and get your game’s name out there. That game The Heist gave away like 10 iPad 2s and it rocketed up to the number 1 spot on the App Store while it was doing that (though I don’t know if that’s the only reason it was successful, I think it’s reasonable to assume it had a lot to do with it). When people win your contests, make sure you give them shout-outs, even if it’s just a Twitter mention!

Price Drops

This is a biggie for iPhone Developers. It’s one of the few ways we can guarantee changing our sales dramatically. If your game is $9.99 and it drops to Free, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a ton of attention, downloads, publicity, etc. But let’s take a look at this category a little closer.

Benefits of a Price Drop

Whenever your price drops, you automatically show up on a ton of “Games on Sale Today!” Apps, websites, blogs, etc. and often it’ll say how much your game normally was and what it now costs. This is a bunch of extra publicity.

Launch Sales

Personally I think a Launch Sale is a good idea. It helps get you some attention and piles your purchases all into the first day or two of your Launch, which can help you get a good foot-hold in the App Store right off the bat.

Temporary VS Permanent

I don’t see a lot of benefit to a permanent price drop, but with a temporary one you have to make sure everyone KNOWS it’s temporary. Imagine you just bought a game for $9.99, and then the next day it drops to $0.99 and it looks like that’s its new price forever. What a kick in the nuts, and if you haven’t left a review yet, odds are the review you DO leave is going to be tainted with the anger of feeling like you got ripped off. Say you don’t own the game yet, and you see it’s dropped to $0.99 and you know that’s a great deal but you’re on the bus or at dinner or someone’s knocking on the bathroom stall door and you don’t have a chance to grab it. You forget about it for a couple days and then when you have downtime you remember the game and go to grab it and bam, it’s $9.99 again. Another kick in the nuts situation, and you’re probably not going to buy it for $9.99 because you feel like the offer was unfairly swept out from under your feet.

If the sales says something like “3 DAYS ONLY!!”, or “THIS WEEKEND ONLY!”, or “NEW YEARS DAY SALE!”, now you know exactly how long you have to get this game at this price. This is especially important in a Launch Sale because at Launch you want as many sales in as short a time as possible to secure a good App Store rank and hopefully get Apple’s attention for a Feature…if your Launch says your game is $0.99 now but it’ll go up to $9.99 in 2 days, people are more likely to grab it within those 2 days.

Learn The Holidays

I’ve never been great with holidays and now that I work for myself and don’t really have a standard 9-5 Monday to Friday schedule, I’m even worse with them. Thanksgiving could probably sneak up and completely blindside me. This was fine when I was just messing around, but while I’m sitting there going “What? No one works today? Why?”, other Developers are having Thanksgiving sales, New Years sales, Back to School sales, Black Friday sales, etc. and getting a bunch of publicity and new users that I missed out on because I didn’t pay attention.

Don’t Get Stomped By The Giants

The catch with holiday sales is that EVERYONE knows about those holidays. So you put your game on sale and sit back to watch your downloads skyrocket, except oops, Gameloft, Capcom, Ubisoft, EA, etc. all drop their $9.99 games down to $0.99. Every game news site covers that news, Gamers jizz their pants over their chance to grab big-name games for super cheap, and nobody notices your game sitting there not just not getting many extra downloads but also making less money for each of the downloads it DOES get.

This is rough, there’s not really much you can do about it except hope not to get crushed under the giants as they stomp around on us little guys. Another time this can crush you is if your game is Launched at the same time one of the giants does a massive sale stomp. All you can really do for that scenario is try to pick weird random off days to Launch your game or run your sales, instead of New Year’s weekend and such.

I actually attribute Elusive Ninja‘s terrible Launch to it coming out on Day 1 of this year’s E3 convention. I was in a situation where I could either delay the Launch for 3 or 4 weeks while the E3 news on every gaming news site finally slowly started to die down, or Launch it literally on Day 1 of E3. I had plans for some promotional stuff at E3 so I figured I’d go that route, but my promo stuff wasn’t available in time and it was just a comedy of errors all-around. If I were in that scenario again, I’d either go the same route but make sure my promo stuff was done and ready to go ahead of time, or I’d just hold off entirely till the next month to release my game. No one cares about a tiny Indie iPhone game when Nintendo is announcing their new console haha

Promote Your Sales

If you’re planning a solid sale, make sure to send out notice about it. Twitter, free Press Release services, any Press contacts you have, etc. The more coverage you get about it, the better.

Free Game Of The Day

There are a handful of services for this, where you hook up with them and they publicize your Free Game event. I haven’t experimented with this yet, but I do know that some places charge money for this service. Paying to give your game away seems kind of silly to me, especially with limited marketing funds. Plus you have to consider the dangers involved:

Dangers of “Free”

So you’ve just put out a $2.99 game. It’s got a bunch of 4-star reviews and a few 5-star reviews. Overall it looks pretty solid, and new users who check your game out tend to buy it. But then you drop the price to Free for a few days. All of a sudden you’ve got thousands more downloads, awesome! Except you’ve also picked up a ton of 1-star reviews. “There shoul d be a rockt loncher!!!!! 1-STAR. will 5-star when u add it.” What the hell? Where’d this come from??

Well, when you switched to Free you attracted a TON of people who would never have played your game, and who, since they didn’t invest any money in the game, don’t really care about giving decent feedback or feel any need to spend more than a minute or two playing your game. I liken it to back in the videogame rental days, when kids would spend their allowance to rent some random NES game for the weekend. A lot of those games were objectively TERRIBLE, but you spent your money to rent it, you have it for the whole weekend and damnit, you’re going to FIND something to like about it to justify spending that money! …and often you DID end up liking the game, when you would have ditched it if you had only played it for a couple minutes for free.

Someone advised that if you drop your game’s price down to Free, expect to go down at least 1-Star in your rating and I think that’s a good rule of thumb to consider.

Free VS Rank

I don’t know if this is still true, but from what I read it sounds like if your game is Free, any downloads you get are awesome but your game is now in a Free ranking list, so your game’s normal Pay rank isn’t affected by all these new users…ie – you could be ranked at 180 on the App Store’s Paid games chart, make your game Free, get 50 million downloads and be number 1 on the Free games chart, but still be ranked at 180 on the Paid games chart when you go back to the normal price.

But does all this mean that Free is ALWAYS terrible? Well that all depends on your goal:

Know Your Goal

Essentially it comes down to a choice you’ll have to make over and over as you market your game: Do you want to get a ton of publicity, exposure, and attention…or do you want to make money?

There’s no right or wrong answer here. Depending on where you are as a studio, or where your game is at in terms of success, or what you’re hoping to accomplish, your goal may change. If your game has just Launched, you probably want a lot of exposure, so a Launch Sale makes sense. After that as sales die off and your rank starts to drop, you want to re-coup your development costs so going back to a normal price and running contests and such instead makes sense. Then one day you wake up and find out you’re getting Featured by Apple and know you’re about to get a ton of attention…so here you decide “Do I want to make a bunch of money?” or “Do I want to shoot for getting in the Top 20?” If you want to make money, you leave your price where it is for the Feature. If you want to raise your rank, you can drop your price and try to lure in a ton of extra users on top of the Feature and hope that propels you up in the ranks to where you can go back to your original price and be making way more money.

If your game was cheap to develop, you might want to give it away for Free just to get your studio some exposure. If your game has a ton of publicity built up and you know you have a jillion people lined up to buy it, you might want to price it at $3.99 to maximize your profits. If your game took 2 years to develop, you might not be able to price it under $3.99 and still recoup the development costs.

Every time you come to a marketing fork-in-the-road, you’ll have to re-evaluate your goal at that stage.

Freemium And In-App Purchases

I honestly don’t know much about these things yet. The potential for profit is huge through these methods, but as a solo Developer who contracts out programmers over the Internet, I don’t really want to mess with this kind of stuff when I don’t have an in-house programmer on demand in-case things are broken and Gamers are banging on my door complaining about money issues haha Down the road I’d like to get into this area just because there’s a lot of potential money in it, though the world of designing In-App purchases that make sense, don’t piss off Gamers, don’t seem unfair or like a money-grab, etc. is a whole ‘nother can of worms to study.

Social Media Sharing

I grabbed the AddThis Add-On for Firefox which puts a little icon at the top of my browser that I can click and get a dropdown list of Social Media sites (Digg, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, etc.) and instantly post sites to those places. I use this for when I get new reviews or put out Press Releases, etc. Haven’t seen anything epic out of this, but someone recommended doing it and it’s quick so I give it a go. I’m sure there’s an optimal way to get a post bumped up on a site like Digg but I’ve never used many of these services till now so I’m not familiar enough with them to say too much.

Skype

If you don’t have a Skype account, grab one. You’ll find a lot of business-types want to talk to you over the phone to make their sales pitch for their services or to interview you, etc. so a Skype account is handy.

CONCLUSION

That brings us to a close on this look at some of the most popular methods of marketing using Social Media. It’s all pretty inexpensive or free, so as an Indie Developer you’re probably going to be using a lot of these. Stay tuned for Article II – Traditional Advertising, where I’ll be covering more traditional methods of marketing that tend to cost money, like paying for banner ad space and using marketing agencies. I’ll also go in-depth into the “seedy underbelly” of the industry, like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. which was all pretty mind-blowing to me when I started running into it and saw just how widespread it is!

- Jeff

Here’s Article II – Traditional Marketing, which covers more of the stuff that actually costs money. Article’s III, IV, and V are fully written, I’m just editing them and adding in pictures to break up the giant wall of text haha This weekend I’m going to take a look at the HD version of Elusive Ninja and see if I can iron out the little graphical glitches in it, and do up my Touch Arcade banner ads so I can get those out of the way! Articles III, IV, and V should go up next week sometime so stay tuned! I’m in the process of moving my website to a new host but it’s takin’ forever, so my site might still occasionally be down, sorry! Should all be fixed soon (I hope!!). :) Anyway, on to the article:

INTRO

Hi, my name is Jeff Hangartner! Recently I started a small Indie game studio called Bulletproof Outlaws. I’m an artist working from home and outsourcing the programming, music, etc. I’ve just finished my first iPhone game – Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief (the App Store link is here). It was officially released on June 6th, 2011. I’ve jumped into the wonderful world of marketing and I’m approaching it from a bunch of different angles and trying various marketing avenues out. I’m fortunate enough (and planned ahead strategically enough) to have some money to spend experimenting with marketing and I figure by sharing what I’ve learned, these marketing articles can help other small Indie Developers who can’t afford to waste money heading down dead-ends and trying experiments that might not pay off.

There are 5 marketing articles:

ARTICLE I – Social Marketing

Using word-of-mouth marketing via Twitter, blogging, forum threads, etc. to build awareness for your game, and a realistic look at the pros and cons of price drops and using microjob services.

ARTICLE II – Traditional Advertising

An in-depth look into the sketchy side of the industry that people don’t seem to talk about like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. Also covering traditional expensive marketing like banner ads and marketing agencies and ad services like AdMob.

ARTICLE III – Game Related & Maintenance

What to put in a Press Kit, using Press Releases, creating screenshots and trailers, etc. Plus how to efficiently maintain everything we’ve talked about so far.

ARTICLE IV – Psychology

How to survive the internal side of marketing as an Indie Developer and dealing with the stress of spending your money, watching sales figures rise and fall, making big decisions, handling critics and pushy marketers, and a big blunt look at how rampant iPhone App piracy is.

ARTICLE V – Optimal Marketing Plan

A summary of everything, condensed down into 36 steps from Pre-Launch to Launch Day to Post-Launch, that I feel make up an Optimal Marketing Plan for an Indie Dev with little to no money who needs to make sure every dollar spent counts.

ARTICLE II – Traditional Advertising

ADVERTISING

Promo Codes

I learned a lotta’ lessons with Promo Codes, lemme tell ya! When your game is approved for the App Store you get 50 Promo Codes to give out. Each time you update the game, you get 50 more Promo Codes. You can’t get more than 50, so once you run out, you’re out. Unfortunately I didn’t do a lot of research on how to use them so I was handing them out like candy at a parade and wasted them. So in hopes of saving you from the same pitfalls, here are some tips:

Press, Not Friends

This is the main advice people give with regards to Promo Codes. Don’t use them to give your friends and family free copies of your game…of all people THEY should be the ones who WANT to give you their dollar or two to support you. Give Promo Codes to the Press. Review sites get a ton of games to review and generally aren’t going to pay to download them all. You want to be able to basically say “Hey, I’ll be happy to give you a free copy of my game so you can review it!” to make it as easy as possible for them to give you a review. You might also want to use some of them in Promo Code give-aways as rewards for contests, or to have popular sites Tweet the Codes out, or to give them out in the Touch Arcade forums, etc.

Don’t Jump The Gun

When you’re new, you might think “I’d better send a Promo Code with my initial E-Mail to a Reviewer because I’m lucky to get their attention for even a second, I want to make things as easy as possible because they probably won’t bother E-Mailing me back to request a Code and then wait for me to send them one, they have so many other games they could be reviewing who probably sent Promo Codes right away”. This is a quick way to lose a bunch of Promo Codes or have them end up in a void where you have no idea if they’re being redeemed or not.

Instead throw a note in the E-Mail saying Promo Codes are available upon request or however you want to word it. Most E-Mails you send out to Reviewers will get zero response so if you’re attaching Promo Codes right away they’re just sitting in someone’s Inbox going unused. I’ve found that the Reviewers that want to review your game will contact you back and request Codes. Some places even warn on their Contact Page “Please don’t send us Promo Codes in your contact E-Mail, we’ll request them if we want them”. I’m pretty sure a solid 30 of my Promo Codes expired unused because I had the mentality described above.

Promo Codes Can’t Be Reviewed

Recently Apple changed things so that a redeemed Promo Code can’t be used to leave a review on the App Store. So if someone grabs your game for free, they can’t leave you a review. This makes it even more important to focus on giving these Codes to the Press who won’t be able to leave an App Store review, but CAN write reviews for their actual websites.

Expiration Date

Promo Codes expire 4 weeks after you request them, so you know what’s NOT a smart idea? Requesting a ton of them on Day 1, which is what I did. :( By the time any Press started getting back to me, and by the time I had found different avenues to reach the Press and found new ways to use Promo Codes, the big chunk of the ones I requested on Day 1 were about to expire. So then I was stuck sending out Promo Codes that would probably expire before the person got a chance to check the game out. It was just a big mess all around.

Used And Abused?

The other unfortunate thing about Promo Codes is that you can’t tell which Codes have been used. If you give someone a Promo Code, you will never know if they used it or if it’s sitting there and still available.

Workarounds

I use AppFigures to keep track of my stats (it’s only $5/month, and the service is awesome and gives you all sorts of stats and graphs). One useful thing it keeps track of is that you can see on any given day how many purchases of your game were via Promo Codes. This is slightly useful because if you’ve only given out a few Promo Codes, going by any E-Mail responses you get and the “what countries were your sales in today” stat in AppFigures you can kind of narrow down which Promo Codes were used…it’s still a lot of guesswork, but it’s about the best you can do.

In thread posts on Touch Arcade, people tend to add “Please post which Promo Code you used” and people will do that, so the Developer can keep track of which Codes are still useable. I didn’t think of it at the time, but you could probably do this when you send the Codes to Reviewers. It’s still an annoying situation, though…if someone decides not to E-Mail you back to let you know they used the Promo Code and you send it to someone else thinking it’ll still work, now that big-name site you managed to get the attention of for a split second because the planets aligned just right, is going “eh, Promo Code didn’t work, next game!” It’s like going to job interviews not knowing if you’re going to have a suit on or be standing in your underwear until you walk through the door haha

Gifting

If you DO run out of Promo Codes, a super ghetto hail-mary solution could be to Gift the game to the Reviewer or whoever. The problem is you can only Gift to someone in your own country, so as a Canadian if an American site wanted a Promo Code and I was out, I’d have to get a friend in America to Gift the game to them. I haven’t done this yet, but hey, we’re thinkin’ outside the box here!

How To Get More?

I’m still on my first batch, but it looks like when you update your game you get another 50 Codes. So it might be worth just doing a minor update with a few bug fixes to get the Codes, but then you’re going through the whole Apple approval process again and it’s a hassle. It used to be that when you updated you basically lost all the reviews you had for your previous version, but just taking a glance at some Apps on the App Store it looks like that’s no longer the case…it’ll just say “(v1.3)” beside the reviews so people know it’s for a previous version.

Banner Ads

“Have business reasons and make business decisions.” That’s something my business coaches drilled into our class. It’s fine to do stuff that seems outside the norm or that other people warn you isn’t a good idea, as long as you have business reasons for doing it. Marketing is the fastest way to drain your money because you can throw it all away randomly picking areas to spend it on and not seeing any results.

Where To Find Ad Space?

Most sites will have an “Advertise With Us” link at the top or bottom of the site where they have some information on spaces and prices, or an E-Mail address you can shoot an E-Mail to requesting that information. I found that a lot of sites sell advertising space through BuySellAds.com…it’s a great service, you get stats and charts and everything. You can even filter the search to just Apple related sites.

Research

I use Alexa and SiteTrail to check the stats of sites, mainly looking for how much traffic they get, what part of the world it’s from, page-views per month, that kind of thing. I’ll also check out the site on both my desktop and iPhone to see where and how the ads are displayed, and I’ll look at what kind of site they are, what their demographic of users is, how often they update, etc. BuySellAds shows how many Impressions a site gets per month, and the Click-thru rates and stuff. Honestly, a lot of it is mumbo jumbo to me but I’ve learned a few things:

Impressions Does Not Equal Clicks

Just because a site is listed as having 5,000,000 Impressions doesn’t mean your banner is going to get more than a few Clicks. If you have to choose between a site about furniture design with 5,000,000 Impressions a month or a site about iPhone games with 1,000 Impressions a month, go with the 1,000 one because those are the people who are actually going to buy your game. If you have to choose between a site with 5,000,000 Impressions but your banner is at the bottom in a rotating banner spot (so your ad is randomly chosen from a group of other ads to be shown in that spot) or a site with 1,000 Impressions but your banner is at the top of the page and doesn’t rotate, go with the 1,000 one. Impressions just means the number of times the banner is loaded, so while it’s being loaded in that bottom rotating banner spot, that doesn’t mean it’s being seen by the user.

Cost

You can get banner ads up for as low as $10 per month at some places. It can also go high, like costing around $300. I’ve found that the best way to judge how good an ad is going to be is to go by the price instead of the Impressions. If there are two spaces and one gets 5,000,000 Impressions and the other gets 1,000 Impressions, but the 5,000,000 one costs $10/mo and the 1,000 one costs $300/mo, odds are the person running the site has determined through their own stat measuring that the $300 one is worth the money in comparison.

Pay Per Click

I honestly didn’t mess with this much because it looks dumb to me. Basically the jist seems to be that you pay X amount of money per Click on your banner. So it’s usually listed as $X per 1,000 Impressions or Clicks. But I don’t see the point to this, because an Impression or Click doesn’t automatically mean a sale. So you could have 5,000,000 Impressions and not a single sale, except that at $1 per 1,000 Impressions you’re out $5,000. If you’re a huge company with tons of money marketing a game like Angry Birds, maybe that’s where it’s worth it, but man, right now with limited funds I’d rather take the $X per month solid number so I can plan out my budgeting and stuff. With that $5,000 I could have a bunch of $300 banner ads all over the place. I’m not really “in the know” when it comes to Internet marketing so there might be a reason behind this concept or an optimal time to use it, but from where I’m sitting as an Indie with not much money, I’m staying far away from this whole concept.

Ad Design

If you can do an animated ad, do an animated ad. They catch the eye more than a static ad. If you don’t have any art skills, hit up a microjob site like UpHype or Fiverr and you can probably get some done up for like $5. I did the art for my game pretty large when I originally drew it, and shrunk it down to fit on the iPhone screen, so throwing together banners is pretty easy. I grab some art and toss it into a layout and I’m done. You’ll find pretty much every site has different sizes and shapes for banners, so be prepared to make horizontal skinny banners, vertical fat banners, square banners, you name it.

Track Your Expectations

Don’t just buy ad space and then ignore it, or casually glance at the stats. When you buy ad space (which you bought because you researched the site and made a business decision to advertise there, right?) write down what exactly you’re expecting as a result of that ad space. Stuff like “20 new Twitter Followers”, “50 more hits to my website a day”, “10 new sales of my game in Italy”, etc. Whatever’s appropriate. Then track what the actual outcome was. If you bought $100 for a month worth of ad space, and your goal from that was 100 new sales that month, and you made 5 sales, you have to consider that either that ad space isn’t something you want to renew, or that you might have to change up your ad design for that space, etc. Basically something isn’t working the way you expected, so don’t pour more money into it until you figure out what isn’t working and why it isn’t working and how to try fixing it.

Don’t Get Hooked

We were warned about this in the business course I took: Remember that while your job as someone marketing your game is to market your game, people selling advertising space have a job too – to sell you advertising space. So you’ll run into situations where you buy some ad space, it doesn’t really do anything, but the person tells you “You have to give it a little time, sign up for another month or two and you’ll definitely see results, that’s just how marketing works”. And it’s not necessarily untrue, but this goes back to making business decisions. Do YOU think it’s a good idea? Do you have any reason at all to expect things to turn around with that ad space? If you do, awesome, that’s fine. The key factor is that if you decide to stick with it long-term, don’t do it because you feel guilted or pressured into it, but because you have business reasons to stick with it.

Touch Arcade

I want to talk about Touch Arcade because everyone knows they’re basically the top dog popularity-wise of iPhone game stuff so I would imagine a lot of iOS Developers are curious about TA. TA is expensive compared to some sites, but they have the traffic and targeted demographic to justify it and I’ve had nothing but a great experience working with them so far. They answered my questions promptly, sent me the information I needed, helped me schedule my ads for the specific time I want, and for the exclusive spots they allow things like rotating through or scheduling different banners, animated banners, etc.

I’ve actually purchased an exclusive ad space for mid-September, a banner in the top of the side column for $600 a week, for two weeks. Steep for an Indie, hey? I don’t actually KNOW what this will do, but let’s look at my business reasons for spending this $1200:

1) They have a massive amount of traffic.

2) That traffic is my exact target demographic.

3) The spot is exclusive so I know my banner will be shown 24/7.

4) The spot is in a prominent location so I know it’ll be seen.

5) The above points are always true all year round, but this is the most important point: I scheduled my banner for September 12th…what’s also happening around September 12th? Everyone is going back to school. What happens for the first month of every school-year? Students are still coming off summer and adjusting to being in a boring classroom, teachers are just starting the curriculum so they aren’t assigning any massive homework and there aren’t any tests to study for, so you’ve basically got a ton of my exact target demographic held hostage for 8 hours a day fiddling with their phones bored out of their minds. Odds are they’ll be txting and gaming on their phones like crazy. On top of that, everyone being in the same class, school, etc., is prime Word-Of-Mouth advertising time since it’s as simple as whispering to eachother “psst dude check out this game” or seeing eachother playing it, etc.

6) With all of that going on, I’m going to probably drop the price to $0.99 for the first week as a “back to school sale” which should drum a little publicity my way when sites are announcing the games on sale for back to school.

7) I might even throw in some kind of high score contest just to encourage people to play.

8) I’ll hopefully have the HD version of Elusive Ninja done in time for this, so I’ll be able to advertise both the current version and the HD version together, and announcing the HD version will let me cross-promote the current version.

So those are my main reasons for doing this. Now it may not do anything at all, I may have just thrown away $1200, I won’t know until it all plays out…BUT, in terms of the prime time, prime strategy, prime location, etc. to BE spending $1200 in advertising, this is about as optimal as you can get so I’m comfortable with the decision I’ve made. I could spend the exact same amount on the same ad space right now, but I wouldn’t have as many business reasons to do it now (school year starting, HD version done, etc.).

I’m expecting to pull a minimum of 1200 sales from those two weeks because right now I’m just happy if my game covers its own development and marketing costs since I’m looking at this as a learning experience. And I don’t think that’s an unreasonable number of sales, going by the stats of the site. If my sales stay terrible, then I’ll look at how I did things and try to figure out what went wrong. If my sales do well, I’ll look for why exactly they did well and try to repeat that success in the future…that could involve buying more ad space on Touch Arcade or expanding on a marketing campaign or running more contests etc., I’ll have to figure it out when the time comes and I have data to make my business decisions with.

Marketing is ALWAYS going to be a crap-shoot to some extent…that’s just the nature of trying to tap into the psyche of mass crowds of people. But when you know you have solid reasons for what you’re doing it’s a lot less stressful and confusing and doesn’t weigh on your mind 24/7 and that peace of mind can be worth a lot in terms of allowing you to focus on your next project and not second-guess the decision you made or panic day-to-day over the money involved. I’ll be covering this more in Article IV of this series which covers the psychological side of marketing as an Indie.

Reviews

Reviews are the big one. Everyone knows they’re important, and a few solid reviews from the right sites will skyrocket you into fame and fortune…in theory. What doesn’t get as much mention is the sketchy side of game reviews that you’ll run into as an iPhone Developer.

Keep in mind that I’m not endorsing any “pay for review” or “pay for download” or “incentive download” systems. I’m also not saying Reviewers don’t deserve a financial compensation for their time and work. I’m just explaining what these systems are, how they work, and what you can expect to be approached with, as a new Developer so that you can make informed decisions. The final decision to use or not use these services is ultimately your own to make, but you should keep in mind that Apple is against people cheating in their App Store so while paying for reviews is no big deal, you could find your App has been rejected or banned if you do something like paying for downloads.

Paying For Reviews?

I suspect that when the iPhone was new, Reviewers were eager to review games and it was exciting just to be a part of the whole new App Store craze so reviewing a sweet new game brought a bunch of attention to your review website…but as time has gone on, things have sort of flip-flopped to a point where Reviewers know that reviews can be the difference between a game collecting dust in obscurity or being thrust into the limelight. From that flip-flopped perspective a review is valuable, and as a logical conclusion of that there are now a LOT of Reviewers charging money for reviews.

On the fishy side, you’ll get contacted by people with sketchy sounding E-Mail accounts saying “Me & my friends will give u 5-Star reviews on the App Store 4 cheap let me know if u want 2 know mor” I’m exaggerating a bit, but only a bit. I don’t see a reason these wouldn’t be legit, there’s not really potential for a big rip-off here…it’s some kid who realized he could make a few quick bucks by contacting small new Developers (odds are he’s not sending that E-Mail to Rovio or Capcom) and it only takes a minute to write an App Store review.

But if you’re going to buy App Store reviews, you might as well go with a little more above-the-table service. Like you can find people who will give you 5-Star reviews for $5 – $10 on UpHype and Fiverr as a microjob and doing it via those websites let’s you cancel the contract or leave a bad review of their service if they try to rip you off. Likewise, you can use a more professional promotional agency site like ComboApp which offers services like “10 App Store Reviews by Independent Reviewers”.

Guarantees

Usually these “buy App Store reviews” services come with guarantees like “all reviews will be 4 or 5 stars, if the Reviewer gives the game less than 4 stars, we ask them to instead submit their constructive criticism and feedback to the Developer so the Developer can make the necessary changes to bring their App up to a 4 or 5 star rating.” If you’re going to go this route, then this is actually a pretty good guarantee to look for…why pay for reviews that might be bad? You’re already crossing into an area some people would consider sketchy, so you might as well get your money’s worth.

Journalistic Integrity

Keep in mind that there ARE Reviewers out there who don’t ask for money, and oddly enough from what I’ve seen it looks like it tends to be the big sites that don’t ask for money and the little sites that do. So don’t freak out and assume every good review you read about a game was bought by the Developer. Also, some Reviewers that charge promise to legitimately review the App, good or bad, and look at the payment as just paying for their time…they don’t guarantee 5-Star reviews or anything (though they may give them). I’m not trying to paint Reviewers as a whole as some unscrupulous lot.

In fact, I don’t really have a problem with Reviewers asking for money, so I’m not casting any judgements here…writing a decent review takes time and there are hundreds of new Apps out on the App Store every day and I’m sure they get sent dozens of E-Mails a day asking for reviews, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for Reviewers to want some compensation for their time and work. I mean, we’re game Developers and the gameDev industry is notorious for people doing unpaid extra work…you can’t really have a problem with that and then turn around and say “But a Reviewer should come home from their day job and put in a few hours that night to write a review for me for free!”

So this section isn’t to whine or complain about how the current review structure works, it’s just to say “Here’s what you should expect to run into as a Developer” because a lot of it caught me by surprise and as a Developer you should be aware of the pros and cons.

App Store Reviews

People want what other people want. This gets into some psychology stuff, but basically we want what everyone else wants. That’s why we read reviews of things before we buy or watch them. That’s why the App Store has a Top 10 list and a lot of the Apps IN the Top 10 list stay there forever. That’s why people buy 5-star reviews for their Apps. That’s why the McDonalds sign says over a billion jillion people served. That’s why celebrities get paid to endorse products. That’s why movies quote “Ebert gives it two thumbs up!” in their trailers. There’s exceptions to this of course, but in general we like to go into things knowing that other people have gone into them already and approve of them because it makes us feel safer with our decision, especially when it involves money.

Now picture this: You’re surfing the App Store and you come across an App that looks decent. It’s nothing incredible, but it seems like it might be fun. But it has literally NO reviews, ratings, etc. It’s like no one has ever downloaded it. Underneath that you see another App that looks about the same quality, but it’s got 10 5-star reviews raving about how awesome it is. Which one are you probably going to feel more comfortable spending your money on?

The same concept can apply to a Facebook Fan-Page. Buy a couple hundred Fans for your Fan-Page for $5 off a microjob site and now your Fan-Page looks popular to people passing through, instead of super ghetto. Personally, I don’t care much about my Facebook Fan-Page so I don’t feel bad about buying some Fans for it because I’ll pretty much never use it for any real purpose haha But be careful because you can get into a slippery moral slope here.

Jumpstarting Your Rating

App Store reviews are probably the most important reviews of all because they affect your game’s App Store rating, and since the App Store is heavily “impulse buy” based, the stuff on your actual App Store page is going to play the most influential part in people’s decision to buy your game or not. Get your friends and family to review your game when it first goes up…yeah, everyone knows the first handful of reviews are obviously the Developer’s friends and family, but everyone does it and it affects your rating (if you have 10 5-Star reviews from your friends and someone throws up a 1-Star review your game will still look decent VS having no friends review it and someone throwing up a 1-Star review). This isn’t necessarily deceitful, your friends and family probably DO like your game, but like I say EVERYONE does it so you might as well not handicap yourself right off the bat.

Buying Downloads

Here’s another fun category. First up, Apple has apparently cracked down on these types of services but for the sake of completeness and since some of the sketchier services might ignore the Apple warnings and pitch their services to you, I’m going to describe them here…plus the concept of “paying for installs” comes up again later in more acceptable forms.

The jist is that you pay $X per download. So say your game is on the App Store for $0.99. You could sign up for a service and say you’ll pay $3 per download. What happens then is a bunch of Gamers registered with the service see that if they download your game they’ll make $3. The end result is you’re paying a ton of people to download your game. This bumps your App Store ranking, which puts you higher in the list on the App Store, which lets more random normal customers see your game, and can help you boost up into the higher rankings. I know of at least one large professional game development company who paid $2000+ to one of these services (their game ended up in the top 10 for a few weeks).

Logically, I figure the key time to use a service like this would be to supplement a big boost of exposure. So you release a new Update, or you get mentioned on a major site, etc. and your sales go up, that would be when you’d want to boost them even higher, VS using a service like this when you have consistently low sales. It’s sort of like throwing sticks on a small flame to turn it into a roaring bonfire VS throwing them on when there’s no initial flame yet.

Incentive-based”

This is basically a more round-about version of buying downloads. The jist is that instead of exchanging actual real-world cash, Gamers who download your game earn virtual currency (“Install Elusive Ninja and earn 25 BananaPoints!”) that they can spend in other games registered with the service, or on services and products their website offers.

Morality and Ethics

There’s two perspectives to look at this from: The perspective of the game industry types (Developers, Reviewers, etc.) and the perspective of the Gamers buying and playing the games.

For the game industry types, paying for boosting your ranks and reviews can be appealing if you have the money. You can justify it all sorts of ways like “It’s just giving me a fair chance because there are too many crappy Apps on the App Store and my game is good but it’s lost in the shuffle so I’m just getting it its deserved foothold in the App Store ranks!” And the “guaranteed 5-Star” Reviewers can justify it with “The Reviewers get paid for their time and the Developer either gets valuable feedback from their target demographic about their game, or they get a 4-5-Star rating on the App Store so it’s win/win for everyone involved!” and I’m not saying those aren’t valid justifications…it all comes down to what you’re comfortable with.

One downside to consider as a Developer is that it’ll be a lot harder to keep track of your success when you’re supplementing it with paid-for success. Sure you have 50 5-Star reviews, but were 40 of those paid for? Sure your game made it into the Top 10, but did it really deserve to get there? And if the game is no good and it just drops right back down off the charts after you paid to boost it up, did you really gain anything besides half a day in the Top 50? If quick money is the bottom line (and that’s fine, I’m not judging), these probably aren’t questions that concern you. But a lot of iPhone Developers are small one or two man studios where the Developers just love making games and want to build a reputation, and those are the people that should think about these kinds of questions before they go this route.

On the flip side are the Gamers who buy and play the games. Downloading a 5-Star game only to find out the 5-Star reviews were all bogus is not only going to make a Gamer feel ripped off, but it’s going to make them more likely to leave an even lower star rating than they would have left if everything was on the up-and-up. It becomes harder to trust reviews when you know someone paid money for it. It also casts shadows over the success of some games, where the fact that services like this even exist can make Gamers go “Why is this crappy calculator App in the Top 20?? They probably bought their way into it!” when that may or may not actually be the case.

The catch to bring us full-circle on this topic is that at least they SAW the game, and they might not have seen it if you were at the bottom of the ranks in obscurity. Plus spending a day in the Top 10 might pay off what it cost to boost it up there.

Personally, I haven’t paid for any reviews for Elusive Ninja yet. I just don’t feel like I need to, I think my game is pretty solid and I’m willing to chance it. Plus I’d rather put my money into other forms of marketing. And I like to track my own success (even if there isn’t much, that tells me I have stuff to work on and kinks to iron out), so skewing the results doesn’t do me much good. Also I’d rather spend money developing my next game than buying reviews and sales for this game since this is only my first release.

But at the end of the day, this all comes down to personal choice on your part as a Developer. You’re going to get E-Mails approaching you with offers for these kinds of services once you get your game up on the App Store and pop up on everyone’s radar. So decide how you’re going to handle things, and if you DO decide to go the route of paying for reviews, downloads, etc. do yourself a favor and set “What do I expect as a result from this?” goals and keep track of whether those goals were achieved or not so you don’t dump all your money into services that don’t even actually help you out.

Apple’s Efforts

I’d just like to take a moment to mention that I think Apple has done a good job in trying to snuff this kind of “tilt the pinball machine” App Store rigging out as much as possible. Cracking down on the buying downloads services, not allowing Promo Code redeemers to review the game, showing you daily stats instead of up to the second stats (so if you get a huge boost you can’t tell until the next day, which makes it harder to time when to boost the system), changing the way ranks are calculated so it’s not just based on number of downloads but also based on playtime, etc. I think these are all ways Apple is trying to level the playing-field of the App Store so that Developers all have a fair chance.

I’m sure there are still ways to improve things, but kudos to Apple for trying, since on their end it really doesn’t matter, they’d make money no matter how fair or unfair the ranking system is but they’re trying to even things out for us Developers. Also, if you choose to try one of these “buying reviews” services and Apple bans your App, you’re not in any position to complain. You should know that Apple is against you trying to cheat the App Store.

Website Reviews

These are often hailed as the holy grail for getting noticed. Elusive Ninja has been reviewed by a couple big sites, a couple tiny sites, and hasn’t made it onto the super big sites (Touch Arcade, Gamespot, etc.). So here are my experiences so far:

An Explosion, Then Silence

Getting reviewed by a larger site creates a big spike in your stats. It’s not just that the site itself is popular and all its users hear about your game, but because of how connected the Internet is now a review on a large site will get automatically reposted to a ton of other sites, Twitter feeds, etc. I have a column on my TweetDeck that searches for “elusive ninja” so whenever those words are mentioned in a Tweet, it pops up on my radar. When I got reviewed by tipb.com there were suddenly dozens of Tweets and Retweets popping up and all day long I got to watch that column fill up and was super excited. Someone told me the review got “syndicated”, which as far as I cared to figure out basically means “posted friggin’ EVERYWHERE”. My sales jumped to an “astronomical” 12-15 sales for about three days (July 5th in the Sales Chart in Article I – Social Marketing), which was a big step up from the 0 – 2 sales a day I was getting before. Visions of skyrocketing upward into millionaire-status and buying a golden speedboat danced through my mind.

A few days later I was back to 0 – 2 sales a day and all the Tweets mentioning the words “elusive ninja” had stopped. :( This is a pattern that happens repeatedly in App Store related stuff. Whether it’s your first day sales, attention from a review, contest promotion, Update releases, controversy, etc. The basic pattern is a sudden spike in sales that quickly vanishes if it’s not nourished with more spikes, sometimes leaving you at a better day-to-day number than before the spike but sometimes not by much. I think it’s best to strategize around this pattern and prepare yourself for it to drop instead of psyching yourself up with visions of golden speedboats (I’ll talk about this more in Article IV – Psychology).

Tiny Sites

As a Gamer and a guy who’s run tiny sites in the past, I love them. But stats-wise, these tend to not really do anything, honestly. Like, it’s awesome to have a review of your game out there, any mention is good mention when you’re building a name and brand and a lot of tiny site Reviewers are cool people who just love to talk about games and you can make some good friends out of it. But realistically in the day-to-day sales stats, a review on a low-traffic website doesn’t have any impact. Down the road when you DO drum up publicity for your game and people do some Google searches for reviews, those’ll be handy if they’re positive reviews, but they generally won’t cause massive exposure on their own.

In terms of paying for reviews, if the site is offering to review your game for $30 – $80, do a little research like I outlined in the Banner Ads section and find out what that site’s traffic is like. How much “clout” does a review with them actually hold? If the site isn’t a huge one, it probably isn’t worth the money. If you pay $100 for a review and it really only bumps your sales up by 3 or 4 sales a day for a couple days, was that really worth it? Again, keep track of your results, especially if you invest money.

Super Combos

Because of the spike-based nature of reviews, it’s better to have a bunch of reviews hit the net in a short period of time VS a good review popping up here and there. The App Store rankings are heavily influenced by mass amounts of attention in a short time, which result in getting more attention, which results in getting even more attention, etc. as you climb the charts. In Article V – Optimal Marketing Plan I’ll talk more about this with relation to reviews.

Sending Promo Codes

As I mentioned in the Promo Codes section, don’t send Promo Codes unless the Reviewer asks for them or you’re risking just throwing them away and they’re a limited resource. And keep in mind that even if you DO send Promo Codes to someone who requests them, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll review your game (I lost a few that way). I even had a little bait ‘n switch where someone requested some Promo Codes, then after I sent them they gave their “Cool thanks, so have you considered purchasing ad space on our site…?” where they didn’t flat out SAY “if you want this review to happen, buy some ad space” but that was the feeling I was left with from that interaction. The lesson here is just to go in understanding that you’re not going to get as many reviews as you might hope for, thus my warning to be frugal with your Promo Codes instead of throwing them around all willy-nilly.

Skip The Personalized E-Mails

This next part might sound kind of bitter, but I swear it’s not meant to be haha Basically when you’re new, and you have no contacts in the Press at all, and don’t know much about marketing services or have money to spend, you’re going to probably default to thinking “I’ll just E-Mail a bunch of the sites that come up when I Google for iPhone game reviews, and I’ll find out the name of the Editors and write a really personalized E-Mail that shows I’ve read their stuff and include my Press Kit and a Promo Code and offer to help in any way to make this review happen, etc.”

Don’t waste your time! I heard back from maybe 2 or 3 sites out of personally E-Mailing a solid 30 of them, and have read similar if not worse stats from other Developers. I spent a long time writing and sending out those E-Mails and it’s no beef against the Reviewer…they can’t respond to all their E-Mails because they get so many every day and a lot of games get lost in the shuffle or aren’t good enough or high-profile enough to warrant doing a review. Hell, they might just not like my game and not want to bother doing up a bad review, and that’s cool too. It’s totally understandable, but knowing this, consider that if you’re going to get the same amount of response from a cut & pasted E-Mail that you will from a customized one, you might as well cut & paste and use the saved time for something more productive.

Down the road you’ll know more people in the Press and have more of a presence, and personalized E-Mails, especially to Reviewers who’ve reviewed your other games, will be worth the extra effort because your name and reputation will hold more weight. Imagine a random new Developer E-Mailing Hideo Kojima saying he likes Metal Gear Solid…then imagine Hideo Kojima E-Mailing a random new Developer saying he likes their game. Which person is going to be more excited at getting the personalized E-Mail?

Different Sites, Different Forms

So you’ve decided to do all these E-Mails yourself, and you’re going to save time by just cutting & pasting a form E-Mail to all the sites. Super! Except you start looking for E-Mail addresses and find some sites have forms to fill out instead of E-Mail addresses. And one site’s form is structured in Such And Such A Way, while another site’s form is structured in Some Other Way. Suddenly what you thought would be a half hour of shooting out E-Mails has turned into a few days worth of filling out various forms and following different submission guidelines.

This can be a huge pain in the butt and even after a week of doing this you’ll probably only have submitted to under 100 sites. So how can we make this more efficient?

Review Request Submission Services

I found a few services that, for a fee, will send out your review request to a bunch of different review sites. The one that sounded the best to me was iSpreadNews. It’s got pretty low prices compared to other sites, and you can customize what exactly you want them to do. Also their response time and customer service were great. I suggest reading their FAQ because they make some good points in there, especially in the “Do you have plans to expand to the US as part of your submission services?” section. Their submission system is also pretty awesome. I discovered them after I had already E-Mailed a bunch of sites by hand, and found that their features like the “1000 char version of your description”, “100 char version of your description”, etc. forms addressed the common differences I ran into when I was submitting by hand.

I went with the $149 “Western Europe” package (303 sites in 9 languages). I felt like I didn’t need “All” because I’m angry at China for pirating my game. haha, no, just kidding. But I figure the 5 review sites in Arabic and the 1 Icelandic site, etc. were probably okay to leave out to save a few bucks since I don’t imagine there’s a huge market of iPhone Gamers in some of these places. The top places are in the “Western Europe” package and that jives with the “number of users” stats research I had to do for my business course back before I started Bulletproof Outlaws. I submitted my request on July 6th, and I attribute the not-instant-decline of my sales after July 6th to this…plus over the next week I was receiving E-Mails from review sites (around 10 total) asking for Promo Codes and such when before that I wasn’t getting any so I know they did actually send out E-Mails. I just wish I had found this service sooner.

I look at it like whether I submitted through the service or whether I submitted by hand, I’d probably get about the same amount of review requests out of it…and I’d rather drop some money and then not have to worry about it anymore and focus on other stuff (like other marketing or designing my next game) than spend a week+ of my time and sanity doing it all by hand. Plus I figure a professional service that focuses on doing this has better contacts and relationships with the sites they’re contacting than I do at this point. Like if I were a Reviewer I’d probably pay more attention to a review request submitted by a professional service than by cooldude69@hotmail.com haha

The Absurdity Of It All

I’d just like to take a second to point out how silly this all is because what I’m describing isn’t even paying for reviews…it’s PAYING for the chance TO PAY for reviews haha Pretty absurd concept when you think about it, but that’s where the industry is at right now and all we can really do is figure out the best way to work efficiently within this absurd system.

Building Relationships

It’s important to build relationships with Reviewers and the Press in general. I’ll talk about how to do this more in Article V – Psychology, but I think that the personalized E-Mails are more beneficial down the road when you have a little publicity and a game or two under your belt and you’ve had a few conversations with various Reviewers and Editors. Those relationships will also start to build themselves naturally over time and as you gain experience and your name becomes more well-known. But at the start when you don’t have any relationships at all, you might as well use these distribution services because nobody knows you from a hole in the wall anyway and isn’t expecting more.

Think of it like the feeling you’d get receiving a generic company-wide Christmas card from the boss of a company you just started working at VS down the road when you’ve been to the boss’ house for dinner a few times and the next year he sends you a personalized Christmas card. You didn’t really expect a personalized one the first year, but it’d seem cold if you got a generic one after you two built more of a relationship.

Tracking Reviews

I got these tactics from a marketing document by Mike Amerson of WET Productions (Developer of My Virtual Girlfriend and My Virtual Boyfriend). I set up a Google Alert for “elusive ninja” and “bulletproof outlaws”. If a new review goes up, Google will shoot me an E-Mail saying “hey, there’s some new sites with these keywords you specified on them, check it out” and I can see when I get a new review or mention of my stuff. This has been pretty cool because I get to keep tabs on how wide word-of-mouth is spreading, and I can go to these sites and thank the Reviewers for checking out my game and answer comments and questions. It’s great for building up relationships.

Another tactic is to set up Google Alerts for games similar to your game. If you make a game about fishing, and you know there are a few other fishing games out there, you might want to set Alerts for the titles of those games because sometimes the sites that reviewed those games will be interested in yours since it’s similar. You may see another fishing game reviewed on some fishing enthusiast website you didn’t know existed but has a bit following, and the Alert brings it to your attention so you can E-Mail them and send them your game to check out. If you’re too lazy to set up Alerts, you can just do Google searches every week and just specify to search by “Past Week” or “Past 24 Hours” etc.

Bookmarking Reviews

I bookmark all the reviews I get. It makes grabbing quotes and links a lot faster than having to Google them out every time. I use the quotes on my App Store blurb and if I made another trailer I’d use them in that. It also gives me quick access to a list of people I might want to contact directly if I came out with an Update or sequel for the game…or if they dig Bulletproof Outlaws in general, I’d contact them directly to let them know about my next project or send them exclusive content.

Marketing Agencies

I covered this a bit in the Reviews section, but there are a number of services out there to handle some of the common marketing needs a game Developer has. Some of them are pretty cryptic as to what exactly they offer and use a bunch of buzz-words and don’t list what exactly their prices are…they’ll “create a holistic target-specific synergistic marketing plan customized to your needs”. Hell if I know what that’s supposed to mean! I didn’t bother contacting any of these companies because I like efficient straight-to-the-point sites.

A site like ComboApp is more up my alley. This lists flat-out a bunch of different services they offer, describes in detail what you can expect for a result, and lists the price. I dig this setup as a Developer…I’d love to have a customized synergistic marketing plan and all, but the reality is I have X amount of dollars, so tell me flat out what can I get for that?

Going through some of the services in their list that I’ve found are commonly offered by marketing agencies, here are the things I take into consideration just glancing at the descriptions and comparing prices and experiences with other similar services:

Comparing Prices

The App Release combo package sounds like a good deal just going by their other services. You’re getting a Press Release written ($183), 10+ App Store reviews ($98), and get submitted to 50+ review websites ($427) for $499. But if you wrote your own Press Release, and hit a site like UpHype or Fiverr for App Store reviews, you could just get the 50+ review request submissions for $427 and save yourself $60. And even then you could use iSpreadNews to submit review requests to 300+ sites for $149, as mentioned earlier. So then it comes down to figuring out if ComboApps is submitting to any better sites than iSpreadNews would, but since these services don’t post up their contact lists (understandably), we can only guess. ComboApps may focus more on North American sites, but if most North American sites expect money for their reviews, you’re back to that absurd “paying a service for a chance to pay for a review” situation.

I’m not saying it’s not worth it, I haven’t used ComboApp and they look professional and are popular and everything and a branded Press Release from a popular site probably holds more weight with Editors than a self-submitted Press Release through a free PR submission service, but these are the kinds of questions you want to think about as an Indie Developer with a limited marketing budget. This comes back to the “make Business Decisions” concept. It’s okay to spend money, as long as you do your research and have Business Reasons for spending that money, and you set goals and track the results of spending that money to make future decisions.

Twitter Mentions

I’ve found that Twitter is generally a flash of exposure. Getting a single mention on someone’s 30,000 Follower Twitter is alright, but often the big sites put out so many Tweets that no one really pays much attention to what they’re Tweeting and your mention gets lost in the shuffle. And then it’s gone within the hour. Something like a Facebook mention stays around for a couple days, and a blog entry or article gets attention for like a week. So if you pay for a Twitter mention from someone, don’t get massive hopes up…if 80% of those 30,0000 Twitter Followers don’t happen to be checking their Twitter feed at that exact moment, they’ll probably never see your mention. How useful would a Twitter post to 30,000 people at 3am on a Tuesday really be? Or a Twitter post at 9am when everyone has 50 new Tweets to go through having just started their day? Or at 2pm when everyone’s busy working and not checking their Twitter feeds?

Guaranteed Major Reviews

This is one I would read closely for detail or ask for more information on, but I could see this being decent. Odds are they’re just contacting the paid review sites and paying them to review your game, and you might save some money if you do that yourself, but hey, it’s time and work off your hands. I’d say the only reviews worth paying for are the ones by major sites with tons of traffic…but even then, it’s a big chunk of money so if you’re going to invest that, keep track of your stats and determine if it was worth it for next time. And share your findings with the rest of us. ;)

Sales/Download Generation

This is basically what I described above with buying downloads, except this sounds more similar to Admob and Flurry App Circle (which I’ll talk about in a moment) where you’re not paying the people who download your game, you’re paying for a higher priority of your game’s name or banner being displayed in their marketing system. So say there’s a website with a banner spot these guys own, if you pay $1 per download your banner comes up 0.1% of the time, but if you pay $10 per download it comes up 50% of the time. Over time you’re likely to end up with a bunch of sales or downloads out of it, but financially you’re probably losing money. Do the math before you try something like this.

Admob

I didn’t see much point to using Admob as an Indie Dev with limited money. Basically you put some money in, state how much you’re willing to pay per banner click (this is your “bid”), and the amount that you’re willing to pay determines how likely your banner is to show up in that Admob pop-up lots of Apps use. I put in $50, set my bid to the lowest possible (4 cents per click) just to see what would happen. Within a day I had my 1,250 Clicks (1,250 x $0.04 = $50) and 238,000+ Impressions (how many times the banner was displayed). Awesome.

…Except Clicks aren’t the same as downloads and there was zero increase in sales that day. So it seems like you’re basically paying for people to load your App Store page. If you’ve got a ton of money to burn, this might be a good way to use it, you can definitely get people to your game’s page, but if you have limited funds there’s just not much guarantee that this’ll pan out into sales to be spending your money on it. Granted my App Store description might just be terrible and someone with a better one might see results, but going by other people’s results that I’ve read, I’m skeptical.

I’d say save your $50 and skip trying Admob if you’re a small dev. I can’t imagine what the results would be if you dumped in like $5,000, but I’m sure not going to be the one to test that out, losing $50 was enough for me haha

If the main problem with Admob is that Clicks don’t necessarily equal sales, then what about a service that only takes money from you each time you get an actual guaranteed sale? That brings us to:

Flurry App Circle

Reading up on Flurry App Circle, I was digging the concept more than Admob. It’s the same idea, you put some money in (though you have to put like $250 minimum in, instead of $50) and set your bid (the higher your bid, the more likely your ad is shown). The difference is that App Circle only takes that bid out of your money per actual sale of your game. They determine actual sales based on something like if the user buys your game within a day of that user seeing the App Circle ad it counts as a sale as a result of that ad. Needless to say, this is a lot more reassuring. You could put $500,000 in there and if your game doesn’t sell any copies, that money stays un-touched.

Another safe way to play this is that if your game is on the App Store for $1.99, and Apple’s cut is 30% leaving you with like $1.40 per sale, and you set your bid to $1.35, you’re still netting a $0.05 profit on each sale. So in theory, you could dump in $500,000 and even if all of that goes, you’ve netted a 5 cent profit on every sale so when you get your money from Apple and balance it out with what you deposited into Flurry, you won’t actually have lost any money…that’s a pretty fool-proof system. The problem, of course, is that $1.35 is super low on the bidding scale. The average bid is $1.50 and the highest bids exceed $4.00. As of this writing, the “Flurry recommendation engine first generates ideal application recommendations to be displayed to users, bidding is then used to determine the order in which applications will be shown.” So if you’re only bidding $1.35, you’re probably not going to be shown that often. But if you’re not losing money on each sale, who cares?

One important thing I want to mention is that you can set a Daily Budget limit, which if you put any money in, you better make sure you’ve got this section filled out. I set mine to the full $250 to see what would happen and didn’t have any problems, but you don’t want to run into a situation where you fluke out and get 50,000 sales but you didn’t set a Daily Budget and end up having to owe that money. From what I’ve read, it looks like you can contact Flurry if you run into that situation and they’re pretty cool about it, but don’t be dumb, protect yourself just to be safe!

So I threw in $250 for Elusive Ninja, with a bid of $1.35 per install ($1.99 on the App Store, so a 5 cent profit with each install). Over the past month or so I’ve had 52,000+ Impressions and 6,499 Clicks, and 6 total installs via App Flurry and because I’m only paying per install instead of per Click my $250 has only dropped 6 sales worth (and Apple will be giving me that money back with a 5 cent profit when they pay out).

The end verdict on this one is that there’s no real down-side to using App Circle if you set a Daily Budget and make sure your bid is low enough to make sure you’re still making a few cents profit on each sale…but don’t expect much from it if you’re using that strategy. If you bump your bid up to like $4.00+ I’m sure your sales will shoot up fast, but if you have a $0.99 game you’ll be losing $3 per install…if you have a ton of money to spend on marketing and you’re trying to boost your sales to pull off a Super Combo, this could help you climb the charts which would hopefully pay itself off, but if you’re a poor Indie this might not be an optimal marketing avenue.

If I had a bunch of money to burn and caught a big bump in sales from some event, and I was trying to boost it up further with a Super Combo strategy and it came down to choosing between App Circle and Admob, I’d go with App Circle because you’re only paying for legitimate installs.

The Almighty Apple Feature

Everyone knows this is the big one. It’s a magical wonderful mysterious instant sales boost that propels you into fame & fortune (for a few days at least), and nobody really knows what the criteria for being Featured is or how it’s determined which App will get the golden ticket. The unfortunate news is that I don’t know how Apple’s Feature system works either, so if you’re reading this hoping to find out how to get Featured, I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you a few things related to it, based on what I’ve researched:

What MIGHT Affect It

This is based on reading about the experiences of people who’ve been Featured, and some basic logic. The jist seems to be that Apple tends to Feature games that make their system look good. Whether it’s that you use a bunch of the device’s features (Game Center, multiplayer, accelerometer, etc.), or that you’re showing off phenomenal graphics (Infinity Blade anyone?), or that you’re doing something totally new with your game design or control scheme that no one has done before (Pocket God, etc.).

On top of that, it seems like a large number of sales in a short period of time gets Apple’s attention. If a game is catching on with the masses, Apple is likely to show it off. It’s possible that a lot of 5-Star reviews may get a game to show up on Apple’s radar, but I couldn’t begin to guess how many you’d need or what ratio of good to bad reviews you’d need. There’s also knowing someone at Apple or getting a specific Apple employee’s attention directly, but if you can do that you’re probably not reading this article. :)

You can find a lot of people’s tips and advice on how to get Featured by doing a simple Google search. There’s all sorts of theories on it that go into way more detail, like creating niche Apps, releasing them on specific days of the week, etc. So just as a final note: E-Mailing Apple directly and asking to be Featured, or reminding them of how awesome your game is doesn’t seem to do anything. I don’t know if it hurts, but it definitely doesn’t seem to influence them positively, going by what I’ve read from Developers who’ve tried it.

New & Noteworthy

When your game first goes live, you’ll automatically get mentioned in the New & Noteworthy section so for a day you get to feel awesome and get a chance for your game to fluke out and catch on before it gets pushed down the charts by all the other New & Noteworthy games. This is a big part of why Developers try to focus their marketing and sales on Day 1, you’ve automatically been given a slight foothold on a silver platter by default that you’ll probably never get that easily again so that’s the time you want people checking out your game.

Prepare In Advance

From what I’ve read, when Apple IS planning to Feature you it can be pretty out of the blue and mysterious. You basically get an E-Mail from Apple saying “Send us a bunch of art at such and such sizes.” and you’re not sure what exactly is going on. But you send what they request off to them and next thing you know, bam, you’re Featured and your sales are spiking like crazy and you sail off into the sunset on your golden speedboat.

…actually, Apple asking for more artwork is NOT a guarantee you’ll actually get Featured, as a few super-disappointed Devs have found out the hard way (ouch!! What a kick in the nuts hey). But either way, it’s good to have this stuff ready to go. Check the iTunes Connect Developer Guide (the “Promotional Artwork” section specifically) for what sort of stuff you should have ready to go.

Plan a Super Combo

So you’ve just been Featured by Apple. All you do now is sit back and watch the money roll in and look up which model of golden speedboat you want to buy, right? Well, you CAN do that, but like I stated earlier, everything in the App Store tends to follow the same pattern of a sudden spike followed by a steep drop-off and back into nothingness. A Feature isn’t necessarily any different aside from being bigger in proportion. Sure, if you get Featured and it dies off you’re probably going to still be doing better on a day-to-day basis than you were before the Feature, but when Rovio, Chillingo, Halfbrick, etc. get Featured do you think they just sit back and relax? Or do they do stuff to help boost their game even further up the charts?

Whether it’s buying a visual revamp of the Touch Arcade website’s background, using a marketing agency to spread massive word-of-mouth, Launching Press Releases announcing the Feature, holding contests for prizes, creating merchandise, adding updates, etc. try to have a general plan in mind for what you’ll do if your game gets Featured. You’ll really only have anywhere from a couple days to a week max to put a plan into action before the magic of the Feature wears off like the Invincibility Star in Mario and you’re back to running away from Goombas…so a little planning ahead of time could be the difference between the Feature boosting your rank to 60 on the charts and then you drop back down to 150 after a week, or the Feature boosting your rank to 60 on the charts and your Super Combo secures you a place in the Top 20 for a couple months.

Crowdfunding

This is a relatively new concept the Internet has created. The jist is that you put up a page announcing you need money for your project, and thousands of people interested in it all donate a few bucks (and often get something from the Developer in return, whether it’s their name in the game or a free copy of the game when it’s done, etc.). The person posting the project ends up with the funding they need, and everyone is only out a small amount of money. It’s a fascinating concept and I might dabble in it myself if I get financially tight and can’t fund a project with my own money.

Here’s a blog with a list of 9 crowdfunding websites. Be sure to do your research before you sign up with any of them.

Kickstarter

This seems to be the most popular service for crowdfunding right now. The FAQ on the Kickstarter website explains everything pretty clearly, so I won’t re-hash it all. Here’s a link to Robots Love Ice Cream’s Kickstarter page that you can use for an example of how to present your project, rewards you can offer, etc. This one made the rounds on Twitter and got some blog mentions and has successfully achieved its $18,000 funding.

CONCLUSION

And with that we conclude the main ways to blow all our rent money on advertising haha They say you have to spend money to make money. Huge corporations like Pepsi, Nike, etc. invest a ton of money into their marketing every year, not even to get instant results but just to keep their brand in the public eye. As Indie Devs we generally don’t have a ton of money, and when we DO make money, we’re eager to hold onto it with an iron grip or invest it into the development of the next game etc., instead of investing some of it right back into marketing to keep feeding the fire. The main thing is just to make sure you do your research and track your results. Have definite goals and if you’re not achieving them, fiddle with your formula. There’s no shame in making mistakes, unless a little research could have prevented them. :)

Coming up: Article III – Game Related & Maintenance, where I’ll cover game related marketing like what to put in a Press Kit, writing and sending out Press Releases, the benefits of keeping a development blog, and some guidelines for maintaining all the marketing I’ve discussed, like keeping your social media presence up, and handling and responding to negative reviews of your game!

- Jeff

Here’s Article III, which covers the poop-load of work involved in creating Press Kits, distributing Press Releases, etc…stuff that we often don’t think will take long, but then it ends up taking an entire day or week of mind-numbing work.  It also covers maintaining everything we’ve talked about so far and keeping up a web presence.  I switched my website host to Site5.com and it looks like everything has switched over fully, so hopefully that 500 Error shouldn’t be coming up anymore.  Let me know if you guys have any trouble viewing the blog!  Anyway, on to the article:

INTRO

Hi, my name is Jeff Hangartner! Recently I started a small Indie game studio called Bulletproof Outlaws. I’m an artist working from home and outsourcing the programming, music, etc. I’ve just finished my first iPhone game – Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief (the App Store link is here). It was officially released on June 6th, 2011. I’ve jumped into the wonderful world of marketing and I’m approaching it from a bunch of different angles and trying various marketing avenues out. I’m fortunate enough (and planned ahead strategically enough) to have some money to spend experimenting with marketing and I figure by sharing what I’ve learned, these marketing articles can help other small Indie Developers who can’t afford to waste money heading down dead-ends and trying experiments that might not pay off.

There are 5 marketing articles:

ARTICLE I – Social Marketing

Using word-of-mouth marketing via Twitter, blogging, forum threads, etc. to build awareness for your game, and a realistic look at the pros and cons of price drops and using microjob services.

ARTICLE II – Traditional Advertising

An in-depth look into the sketchy side of the industry that people don’t seem to talk about like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. Also covering traditional expensive marketing like banner ads and marketing agencies and ad services like AdMob.

ARTICLE III – Game Related & Maintenance

What to put in a Press Kit, using Press Releases, creating screenshots and trailers, etc. Plus how to efficiently maintain everything we’ve talked about so far.

ARTICLE IV – Psychology

How to survive the internal side of marketing as an Indie Developer and dealing with the stress of spending your money, watching sales figures rise and fall, making big decisions, handling critics and pushy marketers, and a big blunt look at how rampant iPhone App piracy is.

ARTICLE V – Optimal Marketing Plan

A summary of everything, condensed down into 36 steps from Pre-Launch to Launch Day to Post-Launch, that I feel make up an Optimal Marketing Plan for an Indie Dev with little to no money who needs to make sure every dollar spent counts.

ARTICLE III – Game Related & Maintenance

GAME RELATED

Website

You need a website for your game, obviously. The good news is it doesn’t have to be anything epic. These days a lot of game Developers simply have WordPress blogs with a page for their game, or a simple one-page website for their game. Make sure there’s a link to your game’s App Store page in an obvious location on your site. Use the little “Available On The App Store” image Apple gives you, people recognize that quickly. Have some screenshots up, your trailer, some marketing blurb, and a link to a Press Kit for people who want to do articles or reviews of your game.

Pay a few bucks to register a domain name like http://www.thegame.com/ that redirects to your game’s website so that you can seem all professional and awesome and people take you more seriously when you link your stuff.

App Store Description

There are a bunch of sites that offer the service of writing an App Store description for your game, but there are also a bunch of sites that offer tips on what you should put in your App Store description. Spend a couple hours Googling for tips and writing your own App Store description up and save yourself the fee someone else would charge. Most of them tend to follow a common structure:

- Catchy first two lines (when the user first loads the game’s App Store page in iTunes, only the first few lines of the description are shown till the user clicks a button to show the rest)

- Quick description or summary of the concept, plot, objective, etc. (exciting marketing blurb)

- Quotes from reviews or awards received (people want what other people approve of)

- More in-depth feature list (more detail on what makes your game unique)

- Contact info (the game’s website, Twitter link, FAQ link, etc.)

My App Store description for Elusive Ninja strays a bit from this and I have like no sales, so don’t use Elusive Ninja‘s description as a guide haha I’m messing around testing different stuff out with this project to see what I can and can’t get away with and where I can break out of the standard formula, but it’s probably at the cost of some sales…so like the saying goes “do as I say, not as I do”. :)

App Store Screenshots

You get 5 screenshots, so use ‘em all up. Originally I was going to just post raw screenshots, but Derek of Ravenous Games whipped up a template to use to make my screenshots look more fancy. I dug the look of it, so I decided to run with it. My Press Kit still has a bunch of raw screenshots for reviews and such, but your App Store screenshots should catch people’s eye. Normally I’m not a big fan of the “tiny screenshot within a screenshot” thing because I want to see the game’s art clearly before I buy it, but I figured the art in Elusive Ninja is large enough that everything is still clear even with the raw screenshot shrunk down a bit. I don’t know if this is a good move or not, people might like plain raw screenshots more, but I like the look of the fancy ones so I’m going with them for now.

VS

Something to keep in mind is that some Reviewers just grab the screenshots for their Reviews off the App Store and might not want to use fancy ones with marketing text on them. Or they might not be ABLE to use them, because if they have marketing blurbs on them and they’re in a review it may look like the Reviewers are the ones that said “Epic Ninja Action!” and such…so understandably they’d probably rather have raw screenshots they can use and stamp their website’s logos or caption text on. So if you’re doing fancy screenshots, make sure you have a link to your Press Kit with raw screenshots in your App Store description.

Trailer

You need a trailer these days. Everyone wants to see a game in action. Keep in mind though, that you don’t want to show too much in your trailer. Better that your trailer is too short and has people curious about your game, than too long and has people bored of your game. I’ve seen a lot of trailers where people just record themselves playing their game for 5 – 10 minutes when the game is a puzzle game or simple action game. If your game’s concept is simple, keep your trailer to 30 – 60 seconds or people will watch your trailer and learn how the game plays and what to expect, and see most of the power-ups or special features, and really there’s nothing left for them to bother buying the game to discover.

Try to get the trailer going as soon as you have nearly-finished visuals going. You want to be building up hype before the game is actually Launched, and a trailer with some cool gameplay footage can help do that, and might get you some feedback that you can use to tweak the game before it Launches.

Do-It-Yourself Trailer

Unfortunately, I was surprised to find that Apple doesn’t really provide tools for making trailers easily. You’d think there’d just be a “record the device when it’s plugged in” button but nope! It looks like the only way to really collect game footage is to run the game in the simulator and record the desktop with some kind of desktop recording program. This isn’t bad for iPhone games that don’t use crazy controls or phone features, but the iPad simulator is horribly slow and I can’t imagine recording footage off it.

I decided to go with SimCap, which is built specifically for recording from the Simulator (ie – you don’t have to crop the final footage or anything). The main benefit to using SimCap however, is that it combines with SoundFlower to record the audio. Basically SoundFlower re-routes your Mac’s audio into SimCap so it gets recorded along with the video. It’s a little cumbersome and I don’t entirely understand the mechanics myself, but all I know is the tutorial was super easy to follow, it was super quick to set up, and it worked flawlessly so I highly recommend it.

I used After Effects to arrange my trailer, but you can use iMovie, Adobe Premier, or Windows Movie Maker, etc. Google around and find a program you dig that you can afford or that’s free. Snip out chunks of exciting game footage, throw some transitions in, some text overlays describing the game’s features, add some catchy music in the background if you weren’t able to record the game’s audio as you played, upload the whole thing to YouTube and you’re good to go.

Outsourced Trailers

A lot of people on freelance sites like oDesk and Elance offer trailer-editing services. You’re probably looking at dropping anywhere from $80 – $300 to have someone else make your trailer, but if you’re not artistically inclined or don’t want to dive into the wonderful world of video editing yourself, it might be worth saving yourself a bunch of time and hassle. A few people on microjob sites like UpHype and Fiverr offer trailer-editing services but I’d be pretty skeptical about what kind of quality you’re going to get for $5 – $10 so don’t set your expectations too high there haha

Press Kit

This is something a lot of Indies don’t think to make. When a Reviewer wants to write about your game, they often want to include some screenshots, or some game art to spruce up their article, or their website has a specific design template it follows for reviews and it specifically needs a title screen shot, a piece of art, and a gameplay shot, etc. On top of all that, honestly from what I’ve seen so far, a lot of reviews and articles are just cut & pasted text out of your game’s description…but hey, no complaints, exposure is exposure! The key thing to understand is that a lot of Reviewers have a ton of stuff on their plates on any given day, especially Reviewers that cover iPhone news because there are so many new Developers with new games contacting them every day…so you want to make it as easy as possible for them to review your game.

What’s in it?

My Elusive Ninja Press Kit is probably a little excessive in places, but I figure better to have too much than too little. It contains:

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\BPO_Logos\

This contains various versions/sizes of the Bulletproof Outlaws logo. Some are horizontal, some are vertical, some are black and white, some are full color, some are PNGs with transparent backgrounds. Main thing is just to have a variety of stuff so people can use whatever fits best on their layout.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\Game_Art\

This has various art from the actual game. Since I did the original art large to fit big iPad screens, this was easy to throw together…I just grabbed some sprites of the ninja and throwing-stars and junk and the title logo and threw them in here. If I had concept art, character designs, etc. from the game, I’d put those in here too.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\Icons\

When you submit your final game to the App Store you have a handful of icons for it, from tiny 57×57 ones to large 512×512 ones…so I just threw those in here.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\Press Release\

Elusive Ninja only has one Press Release so far, but if I make some more (for updates or cross-promotions) I’ll add them to this.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\Screenshots_Fancy\

These are the fancy App Store versions of my screenshots, with borders and marketing blurbs on them. These are great for the App Store because they look good and catch the eye, but you should keep in mind that Reviewers might not want to use them, or might not be able to use them, because if they have marketing blurbs on them and they’re in a review it may look like the Reviewers are the ones that said “Epic Ninja Action!” and such…so understandably they’d probably rather have raw screenshots they can use and stamp their website’s logos on and such.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\Screenshots_Raw\

So with that in mind, these are raw screenshots. There’s only 5 fancy ones, but a solid 20 random raw ones. I figure it’s good to have a variety so that reviews won’t all use the same screenshots. It’s a pain to grab screenshots from a game so in the vein of making reviewing your game as easy as possible for the Reviewers, grab a bunch of screenshots in advance.

The other benefit to including these is that YOU can choose which screenshots are in this Press Kit, so you can make sure that all 20 shots are cool looking scenes from the game instead of someone else just randomly capturing the screen and ending up using a screenshot where your main character is obstructed or there’s some graphical glitch.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\AppStoreWriteup.TXT

For this I just grabbed the App Store description I wrote. I saved it out in a few different versions: .TXT, .DOC, and .ODT (OpenOffice) because I figure some sites allow bolding, italics, etc. and some just use raw text only.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\Factsheet.PDF

This is a big .PDF file (took a while to fiddle with the compression settings to get it down to around 2 megs instead of a ridiculous 20 megs or a super compressed ugly 400k .PDF), saved out with selectable text so a person can just click-drag on it and cut & paste the text off it or click the links. I pretty much copied the layout of League of Evil and a couple other Factsheets in terms of what info to throw on there. I honestly couldn’t say if this was worth the effort in terms of if anyone actually looks at or uses this, but since it’s using in-game art and screenshots it didn’t take very long to throw together and it makes things feel more professional to me so I’m glad I made it.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\Factsheet.PNG

This is just a shrunk down version of the Factsheet in-case someone wanted to post it on their site. I threw a bit of random stuff into the Press Kit that I have no idea if someone would use, because it’s my first one and I’d rather err on the side of too much stuff than too little.

\ElusiveNinja_PressKit\ElusiveNinja_PressKit.ZIP

This is a .ZIP of all the above stuff for convenience. I tried to keep it around 10 megs max. I figure if you know you’re downloading a Press Kit, you’re not going to be mind-blown by it being large but no one wants to download like a 50 meg kit unless it’s for like, Halo. Instead of attaching this kit to E-Mails I just made a customized bit.ly link to link directly to it (bit.ly/elusiveninja_presskit goes to the directory of raw files and bit.ly/elusiveninja_press links to the .ZIP file directly). I was worried that people might not trust bit.ly links so much (especially the ones with randomly generated URLs) so I tended to include both links just to be like “Here’s the raw files and here’s a conveniently zipped up version!”

Exclusive Content

A couple sites mentioned that they’re interested in exclusive content for my future projects. This is something I didn’t think to do, and might not be possible until you have a few Press connections who are actually interested in your stuff. But for the next game I’ll probably whip up some exclusive stuff, whether it’s behind-the-scenes sneak peaks or contests or what-have-you. The website with the exclusive content gets attention from your stuff, and you get attention for being Featured by them, it’s a win-win situation.

Press Release

A Press Release is important for getting word out about what you’re doing. Our business coach recommended putting out a Press Release for pretty much ANYTHING. Realistically, there’s no downside to it since you can use a bunch of free Press Release services. Check out my blog entry where I was experimenting with different services a while back and the results. Looking back, it’s probably better to have too many Press Releases than not enough…at the end of the day, it means your company and game’s name will keep crossing people’s news feeds and that might make them more likely to pick up and publish your Press Release when you have actual big news, VS a company they’ve never heard of before. It also hooks you up with some totally random connections…I got a couple interview requests from people who would otherwise have no idea I existed, off my first Press Release.

Writing A Press Release

I write my own Press Releases because there are a ton of “how to write a good Press Release” articles all over the Internet.  Hit Google up for some because they go into a lot of detail about what should be in a Press Release, what order things should be in, what to make sure to mention or what to leave out, etc.

Outsourcing A Press Release

You can hire someone else to do your Press Release for you, most marketing agencies offer this, as well as tons of freelancers. Personally, I think it’s silly to spend $100+ for someone else to write you a page worth of text about your own product or announcement since you’re the one that’s going to know the most about what you want to announce. Especially if you’re going to put out Press Releases frequently. But if you’re not a very good writer, or if English isn’t your first language, outsourcing the Press Release might be worth the money.

Submitting A Press Release

A Press Release can take a while to submit to a ton of different sites because each site has a different form and different length requirements or ways to divide up the sections of the Press Release, so if you’re doing it yourself expect it to take a good chunk of the day just to submit the thing. And if you hire someone else to write it for you, expect to have to break it apart or re-word chunks of it to fit in the various “100 characters MAX” boxes on some of the sites.

You can hire a service to submit your Press Release for you, which I haven’t tried yet but I think I might try next time, just to save myself some hassle and to see what the results are. You can also submit your Press Release to sites that charge a fee for accepting and posting them, but if you’re tight for money you really can get a pretty wide spread for your Press Release off just the free sites.

Leaderboards

Consider publishing your Leaderboard if you have a game that’s heavily community-based or competitive. Rewarding people at the top of the Leaderboard, holding contests, announcing winners on your blog, etc.

Merchandising

Don’t spend a lot (or ANY) money on this.  If your game hits huge and gets into the Top 10, it might be worth spending some money on it (do your research first!) but if your game isn’t super-popular then no one probably cares about merchandise for it.  But if you have some downtime and you’re feeling artsy-fartsy, consider throwing together some stuff and create a free CafePress store. Put some wallpapers together with in-game art. The guys at The Behemoth make little statues/toys of their characters. Odds are for your first few games no one is really going to care about merchandise, but if it’s quick to throw together and free, and creating it doesn’t take long, it doesn’t hurt to have it available.  I threw some Elusive Ninja wallpapers together for fun, but they were quick to do since I just used in-game art and realistically I know probably no one will use them but me haha

MAINTENANCE

So now you’ve got a ton of stuff out there related to your game. Twitter and Facebook accounts, banners, reviews, a blog, etc. It doesn’t end there! Once you’ve made this stuff you need to maintain it to keep your web presence solid and the information up to date. So let’s do a quick run-through of everything that needs to be maintained and some efficient ways to do that:

Banner Ads

Keep track of the results of your banner ads and try to find ways to determine which ones are bringing in actual sales, not just views of your App Store page or Impressions of the banner. If a banner isn’t reaching the goal you set for it, don’t bother renewing it and giving it a few more months, try putting that money into a banner elsewhere or some other type of marketing. If you’re a small Indie, this is the time to be experimenting because your money is limited. When you’re a big company with tons of marketing funds you can leave a bunch of stale banners that barely do anything all over the Internet, but right now you need your money bringing in the best possible results.

Twitter/Facebook

Stay on top of these! Especially Twitter. Facebook you can kind of let slide aside from responding to comments on announcements or what-have-you. But Twitter is huge right now, everyone is using it all day every day, so you want to make sure you have a presence on there. I’ve slipped a few times and been off-the-grid for a couple weeks and you miss a lot of what’s going on, a lot of chances to Retweet other people, a lot of conversations to participate in and get exposure from, a lot of news about what’s happening in the game development industry, etc.

I installed Tweetdeck on my iPhone and laptop so I can check it on my iPhone when I’m out and about with some downtime like riding the bus or taking a poo, and I leave it running in the background on my laptop so I can have it pop up new Tweets as I work.

Forum Threads

I started using FireFox and the LastPass add-on and it’s pretty convenient. I basically made all my accounts, saved the passwords to LastPass so I could auto-login, then whenever I made a thread I bookmarked it to a Threads section in my Bookmarks. Now I can regularly click “Open All in Tabs” and all my threads will pop up and log in for me so I can tab through them quickly to see if there are any new replies and if so I’m all logged in to respond. This is pretty efficient all-around.

Reviews

When you stumble across new reviews (or articles), take a moment to thank the Reviewer, whether it’s by Twitter, E-Mail, or leaving a comment at the end of the review. This is partly just polite, but it’s also something that helps build good relationships with the Press. They’re taking time to review your game, which helps you out, and it only takes a minute to shoot a quick thank-you message out.

If there’s a comment section and other people have posted opinions or asked questions etc., pop in and answer the positive and neutral comments. This is part of building relationships with the Gamers that have bought or may buy your game.

I’ve noticed that people can leave some pretty harsh comments when they feel like they’re anonymous, but when when the Developer makes an appearance in the comments everyone tones it down a bit. They don’t suddenly start sucking up or anything, and if they have a negative opinion of your game that’s totally okay, everyone has their opinion…but it tends to change the vibe:

randomguy1: “this game sucks ass”

randomguy2: “looks gay”

randomguy3: “waste of money”

Developer: “hey all, I’m the dev who made this game! Just curious what parts of the game you guys don’t like if you don’t mind giving some details? I might be able to fix some stuff for an update, or at least take the feedback into consideration for our next game!”

randomguy2: “didnt buy it cuz it should be 99 not 4.99”

randomguy3: “too easy finished it in an hour”

randomguy1: “(big huge 2 paragraph critique of every aspect of the game)”

Developer: “cool, thanks guys. I was actually worried about it being too easy, but it’s hard to tell when you’re the one making the game ’cause you get used to playing it. I’ll look into releasing a set of harder levels, that might help justify the price a bit more too. Wish I could just give the game away for free, but I gotta’ pay the bills. :)”

It’s not going to magically make everyone like your game or anything, but being friendly and letting people know you’re reading what they write can help reduce the big doggy-piling negativity that tends to happen in these situations. It makes the thread look less hostile to other people who read it which leaves a better impression, and it helps build a relationship with Gamers…and occasionally it can result in some useful feedback!

I’ll get more in-depth about this in Article IV – Psychology.

Trailer

If you have a new event to announce that creates new visuals in the game (new map pack, new characters, new endings), you should throw together a new trailer showing that stuff off. If you have a large game, like say, an RPG with multiple main characters, or a puzzle game with multiple big core mechanics, you could have a trailer highlighting each character or mechanic (Capcom does this kind of thing with their Street Fighter games).

Press Release

Do an occasional Google search for key phrases from your Press Release, just to see where they end up. And write a bunch of Press Releases…as long as you’re writing and submitting them yourself to free distribution services, you’re not spending money, so go for it. You never know which of your Press Releases is going to catch someone’s eye and land you mention on a website.

Press Kit

Update this if it needs it. Like if you put out an update with some new art in-game, throw some of that, or some screenshots of it, into your Press Kit.

Blogging

Do it regularly. We ALL slip at this, so don’t beat yourself up if you miss a few updates. As a way to keep myself accountable I tried updating daily for over 100 days, but I still had points where I missed a few days and had to play catch-up posting 4 or 5 updates on one day. You don’t need to do huge epic updates, it’s more just to let people know you’re still plugging away. I’m being a little hypocritical on this because as I write this I haven’t updated my blog in like 2+ weeks. It’s because I’m just focusing on writing these marketing articles and there’s not really anything to write about aside from “wrote more stuff today”. Soon as I finish this it’ll be back to regular updates, though I probably won’t shoot for daily this time.

Digg, Tweet, etc. your posts if you do something “article”-ish. You never know what’s going to pique someone’s interest. I had a post that was about making rain effects and someone posted it to Hackernews and it happened to start a little discussion on there that got me a ton of website traffic and a handful of regular Followers. If it hadn’t been submitted, they’d never have seen it.

Be sure to allows comments and feedback on your site. For the first while (LONG while) you’re not going to get more than a comment or two here and there with most of your posts having 0 comments, but over time that’ll build up. Be sure to respond to the people who DO comment, because if they took the time to comment on your post, they’re probably going to be someone who’s going to follow your progress pretty closely and you’ll likely be hearing from them again. This is that “making new friends” thing I talked about, don’t be shy!

Contests

Run these whenever you get some downtime and can manage them. There’s nothing wrong with running the same contest over and over (like a weekly high score contest). Over time you’ll come up with new ideas for prizes or challenges and can slip those in there. And if you’re about to Launch a new game, what’s a good idea to boost attention for that game and your old games? Hold a contest for one of your older games where the prize is a Promo Code for your new game!

As I type this, The Behemoth just Tweeted that for every download of their free Pink Knight character in Castle Crashers, they’ll donate $1 to the Keep A Breast Foundation to help fight breast cancer. Not only is that totally admirable and awesome of them as genuinely good people, it’s also going to bring their game a bunch of attention. The Behemoth is really a prime gameDev company to study for marketing and community building.

Merchandising

If you decide to make some merchandise, which again you can do for free with something like a CafePress store, throw together new designs every now and then. This kind of stuff is good for giving out as contest rewards.

Another thing to consider is holding contests to have other people design merchandise. Like a wallpaper design contest or a T-Shirt design contest. There are some phenomenal artists out there who love doing that kind of thing, just as a chance to show off their skills or to kill some downtime.

App Store Description

Update this whenever you add new features in updates, and add short but positive quotes from new reviews you find. Be sure to include what site the quote came from, because the bigger name the site, the better. A movie review quote that ends in “– Roger Ebert” holds more weight than one that ends in “– My Mom” haha

RESOURCES

AppFigures – This service is great. It’s $5/month, but totally worth paying for. You get a ton of data, charts, you can check out all your reviews in all the different App Stores, etc. And you can have it E-Mail you every morning to let you know what your sales were the day before.

Flurry – Throw this in your game to keep track of stats, from playtime and frequency of play to custom events. Like I have an event flag trigger every time someone visits the Get More Games section so I can tell how many people use that button.

AppMetrics (iPhone) – I was using a free App called AppStat Lite to check my Flurry stats on the go, but just switched to AppMetrics the other day. It’s also free and also loads your Flurry stats, so through the day you can check out how many New Users you have and stuff…it’s not the same as actual sales (since the mass amounts of piracy going on screws with the stats), but it gives you something to look at haha

bit.ly – I made an account at bit.ly so I could customize the URLs I shorten. So instead of bit.ly/aBCdeF my Elusive Ninja trailer can be found at bit.ly/elusiveninja_trailer which looks more pro.

Google Analytics – Much like everyone else in the universe, I use this to keep track of hits on my blog. Remember back when people’s websites had little “number of visitors” counters at the bottom of their sites to keep track of that? ahh, I’m gettin’ old.

Analytic (iPhone) – I use this free App to check my site hits on my iPhone when I’m on the go.

Paypal – I’m not a huge fan of using Paypal because it takes a while to deposit money into it, but all the banner advertising and microjob and freelance sites seem to require using Paypal. I found out that now you can click a “Don’t have a PayPal account? Pay with your debit or credit card as a PayPal guest” option at the bottom of the Paypal login you get redirected to and just pay directly with your credit card instead of having to have funds in your Paypal account. Much more convenient!

OpenOffice – It’s free and awesome. I’m writing this doc in it, and I use it for all my spreadsheet stuff to keep track of my marketing costs and results and all that. I’ve been stressing keeping track of all this stuff, so now’s the time for you to get familiar with a spreadsheet program!

CONCLUSION

Thus ends our look at game related marketing and maintenance. This stuff can be pretty time consuming when you’re doing everything by yourself. Ideally down the road I’d like to hire someone to do a lot of this stuff for me. I think a full-time “Marketing Guy” is a good investment once you have the money for it because while this is time consuming it’s all very important. As soon as you let your web presence die off, people start to move on. You can make a comeback, but it’s a lot easier to just pop in now and then and maintain things, and it helps build and keep a loyal community which is vital as an Indie developer these days! …until you pop out a massive hit game and make it big at which point you can then just randomly vanish whenever you want and become a hermit making random appearances here and there and still ending up on the front page of every news site. :)

Next up is Article IV – Psychology. Before I get into the Optimal Marketing Plan of Article V, I want to sidetrack and talk about the psychological side of being an Indie Developer spending money on marketing because I think it’s important to have a strong internal mindset as well as an outer plan to follow. You’ll be pushing large amounts of money around, watching your stats rise and fall, dealing with App Store piracy…there’s a lot that will blindside you if you aren’t prepared for it so I’m hoping the Psychology article will help Indies handle that stuff in a healthy, productive way!

- Jeff

Okay it looks like my site is finally fully moved over. It’s been a gongshow month+ of 404s, 500s, 504s, you name it, ugh!! But now everything should be stable…I hope! Let me know if you have any problems accessing this site! The host I’ve moved to is site5.com and they’ve been awesome at helping me move and get set up, I’m super impressed so far. My Touch Arcade banners just went live on Monday and they’ll be up for the next 2 weeks, so I’ll let you all know what the results are after that period is over! For now, I present you with Article IV – Psychology, where we take an in-depth look at the ups and downs an indie dev goes through when they’re focusing on marketing and building up a reputation:

INTRO

Hi, my name is Jeff Hangartner! Recently I started a small Indie game studio called Bulletproof Outlaws. I’m an artist working from home and outsourcing the programming, music, etc. I’ve just finished my first iPhone game – Elusive Ninja: The Shadowy Thief (the App Store link is here). It was officially released on June 6th, 2011. I’ve jumped into the wonderful world of marketing and I’m approaching it from a bunch of different angles and trying various marketing avenues out. I’m fortunate enough (and planned ahead strategically enough) to have some money to spend experimenting with marketing and I figure by sharing what I’ve learned, these marketing articles can help other small Indie Developers who can’t afford to waste money heading down dead-ends and trying experiments that might not pay off.

There are 5 marketing articles:

ARTICLE I – Social Marketing

Using word-of-mouth marketing via Twitter, blogging, forum threads, etc. to build awareness for your game, and a realistic look at the pros and cons of price drops and using microjob services.

ARTICLE II – Traditional Advertising

An in-depth look into the sketchy side of the industry that people don’t seem to talk about like buying downloads, paying for reviews, etc. Also covering traditional expensive marketing like banner ads and marketing agencies and ad services like AdMob.

ARTICLE III – Game Related & Maintenance

What to put in a Press Kit, using Press Releases, creating screenshots and trailers, etc. Plus how to efficiently maintain everything we’ve talked about so far.

ARTICLE IV – Psychology

How to survive the internal side of marketing as an Indie Developer and dealing with the stress of spending your money, watching sales figures rise and fall, making big decisions, handling critics and pushy marketers, and a big blunt look at how rampant iPhone App piracy is.

ARTICLE V – Optimal Marketing Plan

A summary of everything, condensed down into 36 steps from Pre-Launch to Launch Day to Post-Launch, that I feel make up an Optimal Marketing Plan for an Indie Dev with little to no money who needs to make sure every dollar spent counts.

ARTICLE IV – Psychology

PSYCHOLOGY

On my Bulletproof Outlaws blog I cover some of the psychology behind game development and behind running your own business from home. Right now I want to talk a bit about the psychology involved in marketing and sales, because I think a lot of people just focus on the numbers and data and there isn’t a lot of emphasis put on the mental trials you’ll go through. It’s kind of like playing poker, there’s the actual cards involved and that’s important, but there’s also a lot of mentalities and outlooks you need to develop to handle the ups and downs in the game.

Ego And Attachment

To paraphrase Fight Club: “You are not your sales. You are not your website hits. You are not your downloads. You are not your reviews. You are not your App Store rank.”

Learn not to attach your self-worth to how your game does. This can be really hard to do, because you spent weeks, months, sometimes years, putting your blood, sweat and tears into your game and you stayed up all night, worked every weekend, and fine-tuned everything in the game to the best of your skills…it’s your baby, and you’re finally sharing it with the world and hoping to figure out if you can make a living doing your dream job.

Highs and Lows

Your sales do great the first day, and you get a couple 5-Star reviews and you’re thinking “I’m awesome, I did it, I’m gonna’ be a success!!” and start planning out your next game as visions of dollar-signs dance around in your head. The next day your sales drop down to a fraction of what they started at. And you see a few 1-Star reviews popping up. A big review site reviews your game and says the controls are difficult to learn and the game isn’t long enough and gives it 2 out of 5. You reload AppFigures watching in almost real-time as every hour your App Store rank drops. A week later your game is barely selling and you’re miserable…you haven’t touched designing the next game and you’re thinking about how hard it’s going to be to go back to having to work a full-time job while only developing games in your spare time.

When you attach yourself to your stats, your self-worth fluctuates as frequently as your stats do. You’ll go through so many emotional rollercoasters on an almost daily basis that it’ll be hard to really focus on anything else. You’ll start second-guessing your decisions, you’ll be less motivated to work on your next game, and just in general you’ll do a lot of damage to your psyche that will affect your future as an Indie Game Developer.

On the flip side, even when your game does good there’s a risk. You start getting cocky, resting on your heels to enjoy the fruits of your labor instead of jumping into the next project to ensure you have a long-term sustainable income, starting to feel like you can’t make a wrong decision so you stop doing as much research and planning and start just winging things, and any down-swing in stats you hit is even more devastating because it’s knocking you off a much higher horse than you started out on.

Like the stock market or an epic poker game, your stats will go up and down all the time. If you can keep yourself from freaking out when sales are low, or slacking off when sales are high, you can make rational decisions to handle the situation.

You have to pay attention to your stats, reviews, etc. but don’t let them define you as a Game Developer. If you get a bunch of 1-Star reviews, read them and look for commonalities and try to figure out where you went wrong…was it the art style you chose? Was it the controls? Was it the overall game design or theme? Were there massive bugs that crash the game? And how can you fix these things in the future? Would more play-testing have helped? Should you have invested more time or money into an area of development?

Sure, you made some mistakes somewhere, but that doesn’t mean you’re not cut out to be a Game Developer. Just take it in stride and try to learn from your mistakes for the next time.

My Own Rollercoaster

When I started my Bulletproof Outlaws devBlog out, I was working on marketing it a bit trying to get some exposure to build up a handful of Followers for Elusive Ninja. At one point I got linked on Hackernews and I got like 5,000 hits in an hour. I remember freaking out (in a good way) and being so excited and picturing that being my big break and how it was all going to be so easy from there. I even panicked and called my web provider to see what the prices were to upgrade my site to handle that much traffic. …one day later, I was back to the usual 20 – 40 hits a day.

I spent a day running around like a chicken with its head cut off haha If that same thing were to happen again today, my first response would be “Awesome, that’s a ton of hits…let’s see how long it lasts before I get too excited.” It’s a lot less emotionally draining to keep a cool head about this stuff.

When I put out Elusive Ninja, I had decent sales the first couple days and then it dropped down from there. Instead of panicking I looked at it like “Okay, this sucks, but why isn’t it selling? Hmmm, looking into it it looks like people like it, it just doesn’t have any exposure so no one knows it exists. Alright, so this is basically a marketing challenge: How can I get more exposure for my game?” Again, it’s a lot less emotionally draining this way.

I still haven’t turned things around, but I plan to start my next game and will try cross-promoting Elusive Ninja when I Launch the new game, and I have some Touch Arcade advertising coming up, so I’m still not panicking yet. I’m going to stick to my plan and trust that I’ll either be able to turn things around in the future, or I’ll learn enough lessons from this game that I’ll be more capable of turning my next games into successes.

Some people will say this is just delusional confidence and stubborn optimism, but I think you need a little of both of those things to succeed as an Indie Developer of ANYTHING, whether it’s games, music, film-making, writing, etc.

Daily Reports

A lot of times I wish I could get up to the minute stats on my sales from the App Store and think “if I could see them that frequently I could capitalize on sales spikes better!” and that kind of thing. Realistically though, all it’d do is have me checking my stats 24/7 waiting for the numbers to go up and beating myself up when they don’t. I like the AppFigures service because it E-Mails me my stats every morning, so I know when I’m thinking about it in the middle of the afternoon that I might as well cut that thread off in my mind entirely because there’s literally nothing I can do about it until I get the next day’s sales E-Mails. When I started my Bulletproof Outlaws blog I was checking the hits every few hours on my iPhone. Now I check once a week at the most and it’s a lot less nerve-wracking.

Dealing With People

Your ego and attachment to your sales will also often affect how you interact with other people. Whether it’s how you describe how your game is doing to your friends at a party, or how you respond to a bad review. If your game isn’t doing well and it’s got you questioning yourself, you start getting annoyed at your friends for asking you about your business and you react a lot more hostile to criticism. When you can separate your self-worth from your sales, you can handle these things in a more positive manner and sometimes find a silver lining in that dark cloud.

It’s hard, everyone slips up with it, but it’s important to work on this because, especially in this day and age where we’re all so connected via the Internet and everyone is Tweeting and friends with eachother on Facebook, the things you say and do stick around forever. In small-team Indie Development especially, people tend to talk about the names behind projects rather than just the projects themselves.

Notch, Jonathan Blow, Adam Atomic, Edmund McMillen…odds are if you’re in the Indie scene you know the games these guys are famous for making. Indie Devs tend not to be giant faceless corporations, so you want to try to handle your personal interactions with other Developers, the Press, critics, friends and family, etc. in positive, productive ways. This doesn’t mean you have to censor your thoughts or your views, it just means that you should try to remember to present them in a way that doesn’t make everyone think you’re a dillhole. :)

Building Relationships

Everyone knows it’s important to build relationships with the Press, but don’t forget about building them with your fans, and even your worst critics. Chat with people on your Twitter, check out the websites of people who are following you, reply when people ask you questions (even hard-hitting questions), build E-Mail lists of people to remember to keep in touch with.

My Own Experiences

When I was starting Elusive Ninja‘s development, I got an E-Mail from a guy who was planning to move to Calgary and looking for a game design job. I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t use him, but instead of just ignoring his E-Mail or telling him “Sorry man, not hiring right now!” I sent him back an E-Mail with a list of Calgary game Developers. I know the scene here pretty good, and I’ve researched that stuff before so I knew where to find websites that list that kind of thing, so I sent them his way and wished him luck. He was super appreciative and it just took a few minutes out of my time to build that little relationship but now there’s someone out there in Calgary who would probably be happy to help me out if I needed it down the road because of how I handled things.

When my testers send me feedback about my game, I make sure to respond to their E-Mails point by point and thank them for helping me out. When people Retweet my Tweets I make sure to Tweet a “thanks to @whoever for the RT!” back their way. If someone’s looking for a gamedev job on Twitter, I’ll RT their Tweet to help their resume get around because I have a lot of gameDevs Following me. I’m still pretty bad at responding to E-Mails in a timely manner, but I DO try to get around to them eventually haha

None of this directly affects the sales of your games, but think of this stuff from a longer-term perspective. As you build a reputation up, you start to carry a little more weight and the projects you make tend to get more attention, both positive and negative. It’s infinitely easier to get through tough times when you have a large support base behind you. Plus most people are pretty cool, and making new friends is fun, so don’t look at it as a matter of “What can this person do for me?” but more “How can I leave a good impression on this person so they feel good about our interaction?”

Keep In Touch

In our Business course we were told that the most important thing at a business event isn’t handing out your business cards, it’s collecting other people’s business cards. Because the reality is that most people have too much of their own stuff going on to bother contacting you until they see you as a friend or someone who’s offering something of value to them. Your Twitter Followers will probably give you a shout here and there because you’re offering the value of your game and it’s development and behind-the-scenes stuff to them. But a Reviewer on some huge game news site who gets hundreds of E-Mails a day? If you don’t make an effort to keep in touch with them, you’re probably not going to hear from them again. So shoot them an E-Mail when your next project is going on, remind them who you are, mention that you appreciated their review of your last game and figured they might want a heads-up about your next one, etc.

Value

Relationships tend to work based on value. Whoever’s going to receive the most value from the interaction is the one that’s going to make an effort to stay in contact with the other person. Once you both have a friendship together, you’re mutually giving eachother value so you both keep in touch, but at the start it’s often very one-sided especially when it comes to entrepreneurs starting out as nobodies.

Bob knows Joe is a Reviewer for a big gaming news site and Bob is an unknown so he tries to get Joe’s attention and tries to keep in touch because Joe reviewing his game would get him a ton of attention and exposure (Bob gets the value). A few years later, Bob runs a top game development company and is putting out it’s next multi-million seller hit game that people line up outside of stores for a chance to buy. Now Joe is trying to get in touch with Bob because being able to get an exclusive feature from him would bring his gaming news site a ton of attention and exposure (Joe gets the value).

Ideally you want to form relationships where both sides give eachother value. Bob scratches Joe’s back, and Joe scratches Bob’s back. So when you’re starting out, try to think “How can I give this person value?” instead of “What value can this person give me?” The differences might be as simple as the way you word your E-Mails, or as huge as doing favors or teaming up for cross-promotions.

Dealing With Critics

You’re going to get 1-Star reviews and harsh criticisms. This is just going to happen, it doesn’t matter how good your game is or how big your reputation is. Somewhere out there are people who aren’t going to like what you’re doing, and the Internet gives them the ability to express that to everyone in the world, including expressing it directly to you.

My favorite example from Elusive Ninja is when I put the trailer for it up on GameTrailers. When I got the trailer up on a video site I was like “This is awesome! My trailer is up on one of my favorite news sites!! I’m so happy, I’ve put so much hard work into this, this is the culmination of a lifetime of hopes and dreams and hard work and–” and then a bunch of the first comments are like “Laaaaame.” and “Sucks!” and “Ninjas are so cliche.” and “Yet another iPhone game that’s pretty but has no substance” haha It was a little disheartening to be honest. But at the same time I understand that the Internet in general makes it pretty easy to shoot out gut reactions and using aliases means people tend to be a little harsher than they might be in person, plus on top of it there really ARE a ton of crappy iPhone games out there and people have gotten used to expecting them to not have much more than pretty art so as soon as people see a trailer that has flashes of that it’s like an instant “meh, forget it”.

So I told myself not to stress it too much because even the newest Mario or Metal Gear Solid trailer will have people saying “Looks dumb!”

Then a friend and I were at E3 wandering around the booths and we went into one and I was like “pfft. Sucks.” and then realized there’s probably some dude who set that booth up the night before and stood in front of it, admiring his work, proudly looking over the culmination of his life’s ambitions building a videogame company from scratch and managing to take it all the way to E3 making multi-million dollar games…and then I come along and I’m like “Laaaaame.” and that poor guy is in the back crying that nobody appreciates all his hard work. :)

The lesson here is just to not let criticism get to you. Build a thick skin and don’t take criticism of your games as a personal attack.

Kill ‘Em With Kindness

I talked about this back in Article III – Game Related & Maintenance, but I want to stress it again because it’s important. When you’re getting a lot of criticism it can be hard to keep your cool. Try stepping back from the computer and waiting a few hours or a day before responding to anything negative so that you have a chance to cool down a little. Nothing is worse than reacting really badly to someone’s negative comments. It lets them know they’re getting to you which some trolling types feed off, it makes other people think you’re insecure, it keeps you in a foul mood in your personal life, and it extends the back and forth dialogue until you come off like those people who’s 30-page argument with “cooldude69” has morphed into a debate about the political policies of 3rd world countries in the YouTube comments section of a “dog pooping on a baby” video.

Also remember that you don’t have to respond to EVERYONE. If someone is clearly being negative or trying to goad you into an argument, or just seems adamant in their position that you did something wrong in your game, simply stop responding, gloss over their comment in your response, or respectfully agree to disagree. There’s nothing wrong with an “I don’t know what to tell you man, if you don’t like how my game is looking, that’s okay, don’t buy it! :)” It’s a lot better than perpetuating the negativity.

Decision Making

I covered this in Article II – Traditional Marketing, but just as a refresher: Make sure you have Business Reasons for the decisions you make. It’s okay to make wrong decisions, everyone does at some point. But if you had solid, well thought-out reasons for why you made your decision, you won’t beat yourself up about it nearly as much as if you just wing your decision making haphazardly.

Trust Yourself

Once you’ve made a decision, let it go. What’s done is done. You did your research, you know the pros and cons, and you’ve picked which way you’re going. Don’t stress it, second-guessing yourself all night and worrying about the outcome, there’s nothing you can do until you see how it all pans out. Maybe it works out good, maybe it works out bad, but trust that if it works out bad, you’ll be able to recover. There are very few situations that are truly impossible to pull yourself out of. Each decision you make and each crisis you survive builds your confidence and these decisions get easier over time.

Everyone Knows Best

You’re going to run into a lot of people who give you unsolicited advice on how your game should be designed, how it should look, how you should run your business, who you should hire, how much you should spend on what. Often these are close friends and family members and they honestly have the best of intentions and are trying to help you by offering up their wisdom from their own experiences.

But the main rule about this that was drilled into us in our Business Class is to ask yourself “Is this person at LEAST as successful at what I’m doing as I want to be?” If they’re not, then take their advice with a grain of salt and think for yourself “Does this make sense to me and jive with my experiences?” It sounds a little cold, but part of being an Indie Developer is learning to weed out what is and isn’t useful information. Your dad might be an amazing tool salesman, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about the game industry or running a business. Your best friend might make hobby game projects in his spare time, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything about publishing and marketing a game. On the flip side, if a game Developer like Hideo Kojima gives you some advice, listen to it. This doesn’t mean other people never have good advice, just learn to sort the good from the uninformed.

Even if you have no intention of following the person’s advice, be polite and thank them for their input, then just go ahead and do what you believe is right. :) This comes back to having Business Reasons for your decisions. It’s a LOT easier to avoid second-guessing yourself and to weed out well-intentioned but inexperienced advice when you’ve done the research, calculated the numbers, etc. and you KNOW the reasons you have for choosing Decision A are more solid than the “I just don’t think that’ll work, dude” your friend who hasn’t developed games before is basing Decision B on. He might turn out to be right and you’ll have to hear “See? I told you!” but it’s easier to laugh about that when you know you made the optimal decision at the time regardless of the outcome.

I am, of course, aware of the irony of writing this section in that Elusive Ninja hasn’t really been successful, so you could just write off this entire series of Marketing Articles since I’m not “at least as successful at what you’re doing as you want to be” haha But while my game isn’t a success, I DO have experience taking a game from start to finish, publishing it, trying different avenues of marketing, etc., and I worked in the game industry at an actual gameDev company for 5 years before I started Bulletproof Outlaws, so while I might not have a lot of success (yet!), I DO have experience. ;)

Watch Your Finances

You can’t do anything without some kind of money. You don’t need a LOT of it, but realistically you’re going to have to be able to pay your rent and buy groceries each month at a bare minimum. It’s really easy to ignore your money situation, because when you know it’s not going well you just kind of hope that if you don’t look at your bank account then you’re not really in trouble. But much like accepting that you’re going to make wrong decisions at times, you have to accept that there will probably be points where your finances are low or in the red.

When you know exactly where you stand for money, you can gauge how many projects you can bomb before you’re screwed. You can tell whether you should choose a large project or a small project next, you can decide to scale back game ideas or hire extra help to cram in extra features, you can tell if maybe it’s time to get a part-time job or do some freelance work to help pay the bills or if it’s time to shut things down and go back to a “normal” career.

If other people depend on you (a Significant Other, children, etc.) then this is especially important. You should know and discuss with them “What’s the give up point? How much money am I willing to lose on this before I stop? How much am I willing to go into debt for this, and if I can’t turn it around what’s my plan for paying off that debt?” There’s actually a really awesome Canadian show you can watch full episodes of online called “Till Debt Do Us Part”. I can’t recommend the show enough, it takes really hard-hitting looks at people who’ve gotten themselves into debt and teaches them and the viewers the skills needed to pull yourself out of seemingly hopeless financial situations. Learning to budget properly is a lot better option than having to give up!

Even then though, “giving up” doesn’t necessarily mean never achieving your dream. It just might mean taking a few years to do something else to pull yourself out of a hole before you try again.

For me, I’ve just turned 30 and I don’t have anyone who relies on me for money, and my monthly expenses are pretty low ($600 rent per month, $200 for groceries, $200 for fun stuff like drinking and wing-nights). I don’t have any debt so I’m also willing to go into some debt to pursue this. My cutoff is somewhere around $10,000 in debt before I give up. Through artist friends and general connections I’m making during all of this, if I’m financially tight I can find enough freelance work as an artist to make sure I can pay my monthly living expenses. I’ve got some experience as a bartender and the money in that is great, so I could take that up for a year or two to pay off my debt. And if I want to stick to videogames, there are enough start-ups out there these days and I’m able to re-locate easily enough that I’m sure I could find work to pay off my debt even if it doesn’t pay amazingly or isn’t as fun to work on as working on my own games.

The point is that I’ve planned for the worst-case scenarios and I can pursue my next few games with no concerns or guilt about money lingering over my head stressing me out. I can comfortably invest some money in an expensive Touch Arcade ad because I know exactly what my financial situation is at, and I can tell when to pull money out of certain marketing ventures because they’re draining too much of my funds. It’s important to have this awareness so you can think long-term. I don’t have a ton of money, I’m just really strategic with where I spend it.

Of course if your first game sells millions, feel free to ignore all that and just swim around in a vault full of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck. ;)

Strange Things That Happen

A lot of random stuff starts happening once your game goes live. You’ll start getting a bunch of offers in your E-Mail. Some of them will be legit, some of them will sound fishy, and some of them will be flat out “wtf??” Once your game goes live it triggers a bunch of people’s attention, from marketing agencies to pirates.

Massive Piracy

This will happen the second your game is up on the App Store. You can’t stop pirates. You can invest some development time making your game not work if it detects it’s pirated, etc. but sooner or later someone will find a way around that. Everyone’s game is pirated, so don’t let it phase you…you’re not alone in the piracy boat.

The discouraging part is that usually the piracy happens before the legitimate downloads happen. Elusive Ninja has Flurry in it to track gameplay stats and a couple weeks after it went up on the App Store I was contacted by a guy at Flurry to talk about some promotional stuff. His E-Mail mentioned that my game seemed to be doing great with over 30,000 sales. I was like “wtf?” because I had less than 200 sales at the time according to AppFigures. I checked out my Flurry stats and compared them to my AppFigures stats and…well, compare the two world maps:

I actually laughed when I first saw it because it was so blatant. I had heard iPhone piracy was pretty bad, but there it is slapping me in the face. It doesn’t really bug me because what can you do about it? I remember some guy tracking down who pirated his game and E-Mailing them and getting a big “we pirate your crappy games for justice and honor” response from the pirate himself. It’s all just a waste of energy to me. People will always pirate your game, that’s just the nature of technology. Odds are the people who pirate your game probably weren’t going to buy it so you’re probably not losing any money in the long-run. I wasn’t going to get $30,000 from Asia if it weren’t for those darn pirates messing everything up.

So take it in stride and don’t let it upset you. I decided to use it to my advantage, putting “*** OVER 20,000 USERS! ***” at the top of my App Store description haha It’s technically true, and it makes my game seem more popular when someone new stumbles across it. I considered putting out a Press Release saying “Elusive Ninja passes 20,000 users!” but I figured that’d be a little bit overkill and cross some ethical boundary of mine. :)

Sketchy Offers

There are marketing agencies, distribution services, review services, etc. out there that you can find via Google, but at times they’ll come find YOU. Sometimes you’ll get a legitimate E-Mail from a service who’s name you recognize, and sometimes you’ll get E-Mails that make you go “hmmm…” The first thing I look for is the amount of bad Engrish in the E-Mail haha After that I’ll Google whatever website the person represents to check out if it looks and sounds legit. I’ll Google for reviews of their services, testimonials from previous clients, the amount of traffic their site gets, etc.

I’ve gotten E-Mails from people with sketchy sounding E-Mail accounts saying “Me & my friends will give u 5-Star reviews on the App Store 4 cheap let me know if u want 2 know mor” And I’ve gotten offers from people who clearly threw up quick fake sites and go around requesting Promo Codes just to get free games, with no intentions of actually promoting or reviewing the game.

A lot of the legitimate offers will sound really good, because that’s their job the way it’s your job to write an awesome description for your game on the App Store. And a lot of people will be super pushy with their sales pitch. I find a lot of people like to get you on the phone or Skype, which I’m personally not a big fan of because I like to be able to think out my replies and do my research. Often they call people all day long selling whatever their service is and talking live can be a little overwhelming, especially when you’re developing your first professional project.

Just remember that if they’re contacting you, it’s because they need you. Hold meetings on your terms, turn down offers that don’t benefit you, and let them know you’ll need time to think things over and do your research before you make any final decisions.

CONCLUSION

This concludes our look at the psychological side of being an indie developer. I imagine this Article is the one that most people will skip, but I honestly think it’s one of the most important ones. Going the entrepreneurial route, especially working as a solo Developer can be a long and lonely road and a lot of the battle is more mental than anything else. We can be our own worst enemies, or our own most supportive allies…it all comes down to your state of mind.

In Article V – Optimal Marketing Plan, we’ll take a look at the culmination of all 5 of these Marketing Articles in the form of a list of steps that, based on my experiences, I would follow on my next game to spend the least amount of money and focus on the most beneficial areas of marketing and advertising. It won’t guarantee results or anything, but it’ll help Indie Developers channel their spending into optimal channels for Developers with a small marketing budget!

- Jeff

A little while ago I dug out Game Maker: Studio, brushed the dust off my programming skills (or lack thereof) and started messing around coding a little prototype in my spare time. I wanted something that would be relatively simple and realistically do-able on my own…so no MMORPGs or anything lol This is partly to get back into coding, and to teach myself how to go through all the boring stuff in programming (porting to different devices, learning how to set up in-app purchases, getting my game from Game Maker to the Apple store, etc.). I’m pretty good with coding game logic in general but all the technical stuff is way above my head right now and I’m sure my code is sloppy and unorganized compared to a legit programmer but hey, best way to learn is through experience right? If I keep the project smaller in scope then I should be able to learn as I go without too many tears soaking my keyboard lol So here’s a video of terrible “programmer art”:

So to clarify what’s going on: You switch between two Modes (red and blue right now) as the Color lines and Hazard come at you. If you touch a Color line and you’re in the Mode that matches, you’re rewarded with the Charge Meter filling up slightly, and if you’re the wrong Color (or you hit a Hazard) you’re “hit” and the Charge Meter empties. The Charge Meter is constantly draining, so you have to try to match in quick succession to max it out. Once you max it, you automatically enter a third Mode where everything speeds up and instead of dodging the Hazards you now want to hit as many of them as you can because they deflect back across the screen to the side the enemies are on and damage them. Eventually your Charge Meter empties out and you return to the normal gameplay to begin building your Charge up again.

Here’s a flowchart of the main game loop (made with Lucidchart, which is free and easy to create these with):

I have no idea how to make a proper flowchart...am I even using the diamond ones right?? lol

Since I started working on my own game, in my spare time I’ve been consuming all sorts of game design talks, articles, videos, books (if you’re a gameDev, you need to buy The Art of Game Design…this is a MUST read). Extra Credits is one of my favorite series and I’ll be linking a handful of their videos as I go because I’m actively trying to apply the principles they talk about in my design and I want to talk about how I’m tweaking the design around these ideas to try to make something engaging.

This video on Depth VS Complexity was a big influence because I want to keep the game small in scope so I don’t have a ton of programming to do, but I want the mechanic to have a lot of flexibility so I can keep the player engaged and on their toes and thinking of “how can I use these mechanics I’m familiar with to solve this new twist?”. I also like the idea of teaching the game through the design instead of with a tutorial, so you feel like you’re learning/improving right from the start so I’m planning to try that as well.

Here’s the video on Depth VS Complexity, it’s a great concise explanation:

Another key video I’m trying to guide my design by is this one on Choice and Conflict. Their breakdown of Mario’s mushroom is a great eye-opener and the concept of forcing the player into situations where their long-term goals and short-term goals are in opposition and the player has to make a choice in the moment:

So for actual application of these concepts: My game’s mechanics are really pretty simple. You’re just switching Modes and moving between 3 pre-determined locations. You avoid Hazards until you match enough Colors to power-up and then you chase those same Hazards until the power-up wears off. I realized after I was working on this that this is the same thing Pac Man does…you avoid the ghosts until you find a Power Pellet, then suddenly the tables turn and now you chase the things you used to run from, until it wears off and you have to avoid them again. There’s a little bit of satisfying “aha, I’ve turned the tables on you!” revenge feeling in that moment that I’m trying to give the player.

Now the depth and choice/conflict parts come in how I’m playing with that simple mechanic to create different challenges for the player. Some examples:

1) the Charge Meter drains faster the more full it is. So your first few matches will be easy to get, you can take plenty of time between them with no real consequence. But as your Charge Meter reaches 50% the speed it constantly empties starts increasing. So at 20% full your meter drops, say, 1 block a second, but at 95% full your meter drops more like a block every 10th of a second. This adds a nice bit of pressure because the closer you get to your goal (filling the Charge Meter), the faster you have to play to achieve that, but the faster you have to play the more challenging it is to not hit a Hazard or be in the wrong Color Mode and lose your entire Charge Meter. If the Charge Meter dropped at a constant rate there would be no difference in emotion between collecting your first match and your final match. This should give the player a constant up and down emotional ride between almost succeeding and epic failure, and it makes the pay-off (when you finally max the Charge Meter out and enter Mode 3) all the sweeter. In the end I’m getting a whole bunch of sweet gameplay tension added to that one mechanic, just by simply decreasing a timer.

2) I tried out having no Mode switching, so you would just have one type of thing to touch making the game just “dodge this object and collect this object”, but it didn’t feel complex enough. It was a little too simple and mundane because it reduced a lot of the possible chance for error on the player’s side. Extra Credits mentions that “Depth is bought with Complexity, but complexity also restricts Depth” So I look at this like I didn’t have enough complexity to allow much depth. By adding a bit of complexity, by forcing the player to switch Modes, now they have to stay engaged in what’s going on. At the same time I tried adding multiple Modes, like 3 or 4 different Colors to collect, but that became too cumbersome and frustrating. When the player dies because your game feels too complicated, they blame the game and it feels unfair…when the player dies because they messed up what felt like a simple mechanic, they blame themselves and feel like they wouldn’t have failed if they hadn’t made that miscalculation and they feel like they can do better the next time.

3) With that same core mechanic of “match your Color Mode to the next Color line you touch”, I can increase/decrease the challenge the obvious way of simply changing how frequently Color lines appear and how fast the row itself moves, but because I added the Mode switching I can also increase/decrease it by changing the variety of Colors appearing. So 10 blocks in a row of one Color with wide gaps between them would be extremely easy to deal with. 10 blocks of predictably alternating Colors (blue-red-blue-red-blue) with the same spacing would be slightly more difficult. 10 blocks of unpredictably alternating colors (blue-red-red-blue-red) would be more difficult. 10 blocks of randomly alternating Colors with little spacing between them would be even more difficult. And I can vary things up, so on the 3 rows maybe one row is travelling slower or less frequent than the other 2 rows, but is spawning more complex sequences of Colors, so you have to decide “do I want to risk the trickier sequence to fill my meter quicker (which I may HAVE to if it’s near full and draining faster as discussed in point number 1 above), or do I want to stick to the easier rows and deal with enemies being alive (and risking my life if they’re in an attack mode)?”

I could also create enemies that alter those Color lines, so one enemy blocks off a row entirely with, say, fire that will kill you, so you have to stick to just 2 rows which will add tension until that row is free again because now you can’t bail out to a safe empty space as easily because you don’t have that third row. Or some kind of helper or powerup item could change all the Colors to the same Color so for a few seconds you can match the Colors easily. By combining point number 1 up above and this, I could have a level where no Color lines are spawned, but there’s an enemy or boss who spits out complicated random sequences of 5 blocks at a time…because your Charge Meter drains, the only way you would be able to max it out to attack the boss would be to successfully complete two of those complicated sequences in a row. And when you get him down to almost no health, he may just spit out random complicated sequences of 10 blocks at a time, at a fast speed, so that the only way you can max out to finish him off is to pull off a tricky fast sequence.

So I’m getting a ton of potential depth out of just that one “match your Color Mode to the next Color line you touch” mechanic combined with point number 1 above. The player is only using the same skillset they learned at the very start of the game, but now they’re forced to ask “how can I use these mechanics I’m familiar with to solve this new twist?” which is what I want. Maximum depth with minimum complexity.

4) In the video above, you can see that the big boss monster is constantly moving away from you, but every time you match a Color, he’s pulled back toward you. I’m thinking of having some enemies be affected by your matching Colors like this. So in this scenario, if you don’t keep matching Colors, the boss will get away and you lose. But when you match Colors he’s pulled back toward you and covers up the visuals, so if you pull him in too close to you the game actually becomes more difficult because you have less reaction time to see what Colors or Hazards are coming at you. So as the player you would figure out “okay there’s a sweet spot here, I want to try to keep him toward the edge of the screen but not quite off of it” and have to strategize when you match Colors and when you AVOID matching them. At the same time the player should start piecing together that the best strategy would be to not haphazardly match Colors because the boss will end up too “in your face”, but should instead be to go for maxing out the meter every time (so there’s no wasted pulling-in of the boss before the player enters Mode 3 where he can attack) and letting the boss back off slightly if they aren’t successful at maxing their meter.

Other ideas playing with this “matching Colors affects enemy behavior” mechanic would be the opposite type of boss, one that is constantly coming toward you but matching Colors pushes him away to give you breathing space. Or a boss that “short circuits” and can’t attack for a few seconds if you match enough Colors in quick succession.

5) When you’re in Mode 3, it’s almost like a second game because now you’re able to dole out damage and you have to now chase down the Hazards you were previously avoiding so there’s an opportunity to add depth there too. What if there’s an enemy who acts like the classic RPG enemies that go into a defensive shell mode for a minute and not only can’t be damaged but if you attack them your attack comes back at you twice as strong/fast? So if they enter that defensive mode while you’re in Mode 3 you end up having to alternate between collecting Hazards and dodging them based on the enemies’ state. Or you may see the enemy go into his shell mode and choose NOT to attempt to Max out your Charge Meter until the enemy is about to come out of his shell mode and THEN you want to quickly match enough colors to Max out your Charge Meter so that you’re entering Mode 3 right as the enemy is coming out of his shell maximizing the amount of time you’re in your attacking mode and he’s susceptible to attacks.

I’ve got a bunch more ideas, but the thing I wanted to point out in all of this is that even with all these points written above the core game mechanic is still that simple just “avoid Hazards while you match Colors till you max your Charge Meter then chase Hazards” minor complexity I started with but I’m milking it for a ton of depth and in terms of actual programming I’m not adding a lot to the code itself aside from enemy AI design because I’m not adding more mechanics I’m just tweaking how they interact with enemies.

Still reading? Here are concepts for a space girl and an evil goat for making it this far lol:

I have no idea what I'm doing with sci-fi design but I think this'd be a fun project to practice it on.

Why goats? I have no idea lol I was doodling monsters and aliens and a goat just came out.

So I feel like there’s something in this that would make a fun game. The prototype itself doesn’t have much to it but the idea is there and playing it DOES tap into that feeling I’m trying to create so I think I’m on the right track.

I’ve already been working on revamping this prototype into a cleaner version which I’ll show next time, but I’ve missed writing about game design and gameDev in general so I wanted to start from the very beginning. I’m trying to approach this from a very methodical standpoint where when I’m studying all this game design stuff I’m thinking “okay, how would I apply this to my game? Is there a place for it? Is there something I should be tweaking to align closer to a core principle of game design? Is there stuff that adds complexity for no reason or does everything have a purpose?” I’ll be talking more about this kind of thing in the future as I narrow the design down in detail.

Hope you enjoyed the long read! Check in for more next week, and go watch all the Extra Credits videos while you wait for Santa to bring your copy of The Art of Game Design lol

Two videos for you today. First up is my game’s progress. The major parts of the engine are functional, but nowhere near polished yet. I’m a self-taught programmer, I’ve never actually taken a programming class or anything so I don’t really know what the best method of approaching a large project is. I’m going by what feels right and I’ve ended up basically applying my workflow for art to programming. For a drawing, an artist will usually start out with rough thumbnail sketches that barely look like anything, then when they find one that works they rough it out in pencils, then they clean it up and ink it, then they add the colors. The concept is taking something rough/vague and going through stages refining it down and adding details until you have the final result. Same thing with animation, you rough out the flow of the animation and then slowly refine it from there. So I’m basically dumping a bunch of duct taped sloppily coded ideas down to get someting that’s doing the jist of what I want, and then going back and refactoring that code 2 or 3 times until I have something decent.

No idea if this is a slower process than other programmers use, but I like it because I get to see some rough progress right away which helps motivate me because it feels like I’m accomplishing something (nothing is worse to me than those days where you stare at code all day hunting down a bug or refactoring or working on structural code that does a bunch of work behind the scenes, and at the end of the day the game looks exactly the same as it did before). And I end up with decent enough code in the end. I think with programming you can always do something better and it’s tempting to want to re-write things a dozen times to make them cleaner and prettier, but at some point you have to say “okay this works, it’s time to move on or I’ll never finish this project”. I’m taking the approach of “is this part of the code something I’m going to have to come back to a bunch? If not, then as long as it works that’s fine.” which has been working so far. I’m sure I’ll have to do some optimization down the road and clean some of those parts up, but I’ll deal with that shit when I get to it lol

Everything is still super temporary art (I think that sky background is from some anime) but the engine is my main focus right now. The music notes were just to test particle emitting though I’m debating making her ear things headphones like she cranks up some beats when she fights alien intruders because she gives no fucks and knows she can handle them. The enemies all have AI and Finite State Machines to react to the Player…they’re able to have different behaviors depending on their health and which state the Player is in. When you’re in the Default State you can’t attack, and when you collect enough of the Power Cubes you enter the Powered State and deflect everything back at the enemies to attack them, so in the Default State they can be more offensive and attack more while in the Powered State they’d do more dodging.

Level transitioning works and I have a lot of the boring outer-framework stuff done (although it’s ugly at best right now), so you transition from the Title Screen to a Main Menu, Stage Select, and the game will unlock levels as you complete them and save your progress for you etc. Also everything has customizable speed to it, in the video above the first level you see has the Tracks all moving at the same speed but the second level it shows has two fast Tracks and one super slow Track. So I can control the speed (and spawning frequency) of the Tracks, the Power Cubes, the saw blade Hazards, bullets, etc. which I talked about in terms of gameplay here. This should let me do a lot of cool shit, like having enemies/bosses that can manipulate the speeds of those things on the fly.

I’ve been fleshing out ideas for enemies and bosses and I’ve got them generally figured out. I decided to record some of my process to show how I use FreeMind to do a lot of my planning (not just for gameDev but for writing projects in general). It’s about 45 minutes long, but give it a look if you’re someone who does creative work and is always looking for new planning and organizational techniques:

There are a lot of Hotkeys built in for moving Nodes around and Expanding/Collapsing them etc. to skip around and edit quickly. I don’t even use all the icons spread around the interface, just the basics to get ideas down as fast as possible. You can also see that I’m using the same workflow I use for art and coding: dump down a rough brain-fart version, then go back and refine it in stages adding detail to get the final result. Give it a go and see what you think.

I fleshed out gameplay ideas for all the enemy/boss designs so from here I’ll be implementing them with temporary art. As an artist it’s REALLY hard to put off focusing on the art, but I know the art stage should come last because the gameplay is what’s going to make the game fun to play…if an idea I have doesn’t work in code, I don’t want to be in a position where I’m trying to shoe-horn in art that I’ve already drawn because I don’t want to waste it, or toss art away and have wasted that development time. So I’ve just come to accept that I’ll be looking at the art you see above for a few solid weeks before I get to finally let loose on the art and put it through a massive overhaul/upgrade. Gotta’ have patience, grasshopper lol

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