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  • How We Launched Our Game With No Marketing Budget

    - Miles Tilmann
  • [This article originally appeared on]

    Hello! I've been making or marketing games at Pixeljam (probably best known for Dino Run) for 14 years now, and I'm going to try and distill our latest launch experience (Nova Drift, a theory-crafting 2D arcade shooter) into a single article. I should mention though that only about 4 of those last 14 years have really been focused on marketing, and the other 10 were spent just making games and *not* marketing, which is also valuable because you get to feel firsthand the effects of doing nothing.

    The 3 main things I want to talk about are...

    1. Growing the bubble

    2. Content creators are our friends (especially the smaller ones)

    3. You have to believe

    The first half of this article will be thoughts on marketing, and the second half will be what I actually did with those thoughts and what the outcomes were.


    We all know that we live in our own bubbles, but from my experience everyone thinks their bubble is bigger than it actually is. This can be a real problem when putting together a marketing plan though... it's best to assume that 0.00001% of all gamers know about your project, because that's probably accurate unless you are getting published by a well-known company or have tons of marketing budget.

    My job is to expand the bubble as much as possible. Every time someone sees or mentions our game on social media, streams it, posts on Youtube, tells a friend, sees it in a digital store, etc, the bubble grows a tiny bit. If someone just saw that the game exists, that's good... it's unlikely that they will buy it right away, because we all know that's not how it works. They need to see it over and over. They need to think *it's a thing*. It needs to take up enough mindshare for them until they can't ignore it anymore... that wonderful moment when one's thought process goes from "I've been hearing about this a lot" to "I need to try it". Depending on the person this can take 5 seconds to 5 years.

    So how do we grow the bubble without a budget? Work, lots and lots of work. Full-time work, if you can swing it. But work is only part of the equation:


    MARKETABILITY: this is the inherent potential of a game to sell based on its own merits, with zero marketing. It's not exactly "quality", but more like:

    Quality * Catchiness * Timing

    Quality: This is very hard to quantify, but one can get a good sense of this as more and more people play the game and give feedback.

    Catchiness: does it have a hook that will make people talk? Can you understand what's great about the game from a screenshot or short video? Is it "meme-y"? Does it stream well? Does it allow the player to have moments that youtubers and streamers will want to make multiple videos about? I'm not suggesting anyone make games that ARE catchy, but one should not be surprised if they don't think about this and then no one talks or posts about their game.

    Timing: Was the game released when no other games like it were available? Was the genre on the rise or decline by the time it was released?

    Chances are we think the marketability of our game is higher than it actually is, since we made it. One gets gets a better sense of this once the game is thrust in front of people who don't care about our feelings, aka the people *outside* of our bubble.

    Here is my (obviously biased) evaluation of the game we released:

    Quality: High. I didn't make the game, so that helps me be more realistic. The dev is a good friend of mine, so that counts against my opinion though. Total strangers tell us it's great and we have a 99% positive review ratio on Steam (as of writing this article), so that's a good sign we're on the right track.

    Catchiness: Medium. The game does have surprising and delightful moments that stream well, but it can't compete with games that consistently produce meme-worthy comedic or crazy moments that celebrity youtubers will post about. There are no jump scares, you can't really insert your own personality into it, it rarely has any laugh-out-loud moments. It's just solid arcade action with a very high degree of weapon customization, which is where most of the catchiness comes from. People find that it "surprises" them with how deep it actually is, which actually means we need to adjust our marketing strategy - they should realize how deep it is BEFORE they play it...

    Timing: Games with this control scheme (rotate & thrust, like Asteroids) and degree of weapon choices are pretty rare, so we didn't really have much competition in that regard.  Risk of Rain 2 surprise-launched the day after we did, so that probably dinged us a bit, but there's no way to avoid something like that. There are 100 other games launching on any given day, so you really just have to pick a date based on your best guess and hope for the best.

    Okay, back to the larger equation:

    EFFORT: This is the time one actually spends thinking and acting to get people aware of their game. Every game is different and therefore needs to be marketed differently. A good marketing effort involves knowing why your game is different and how to talk about those differences to various types of people. Most of this work is probably going to be reaching out to Streamers, Youtubers and Infuencers, which I will collectively call content creators.

    LUCK: The L-word! The one factor that can make or break a project. It truly sucks that this is enough of a factor to put into the equation, but it has to be in there. If you don't have a major indie publisher or some other muscle, you have an extreme uphill battle ahead and you are going to have to get lucky. The nice thing is that the more you grow your bubble with EFFORT, the more likely you are to get LUCKY.


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