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The War for Attention: 3 Challenges Faced by Indie Developers in Promoting Their Games

25 Jul, 2023

Promoting games for indie studios is a complex and exhilarating task that demands special efforts and a strategic approach. Unlike large developers, indie studios face several issues. However, overcoming these obstacles is what enables small studios to stand out amidst the competition in the gaming industry.

Competition with major studios

Competing with major companies that spend millions on advertising their products, such as Take-Two Interactive, creators of the legendary Grand Theft Auto series, and Activision Blizzard, known for the captivating world of World of Warcraft, poses a significant challenge. These companies had enormous budgets for advertising their games, like Take-Two Interactive spending $169 million on advertising their games in 2019 and Activision Blizzard spending $397 million.

But the games of these companies not only have huge budgets but also recognition. While they acquired recognition through substantial resources, smaller studios must begin by building their brand recognition.

Lack of recognition

One of the main problems faced by indie studios is the absence of a recognizable brand. In the sea of gaming products competing for players’ attention, creating a unique identity and brand becomes a critical factor for success. Establishing a strong brand helps attract attention and increase player loyalty.

Indie studios can use various tools to create and develop their brand, such as social media and gaming communities, where developers can actively engage with players, share news, concept art, conduct surveys, and receive feedback. Blogs and game development diaries also allow them to connect with players, discuss the development process, and share intriguing stories, fostering trust-based relationships.

Limited budget

Limited budgets are another challenge indie studios encounter. Without significant financial resources, developers must efficiently utilize the available means to promote their games. It is crucial to develop a unique marketing strategy to achieve maximum impact with limited resources.

Campo Santo, a studio that promoted their game “Firewatch,” provides a great example. When they first revealed Firewatch to the public in 2014, they had only one teaser trailer. On paper, it sounded mundane: a single-player adventure game where you observe a forest. However, the trailer hinted at something more, leaving the audience curious and eager to find out what happened.

Developed by Campo Santo, Firewatch employed a content-oriented promotion focused on quality rather than quantity, resulting in selling over 500,000 copies in the first month of its release in 2016.

“We had to maintain the mood. There had to be a feeling like in the game, but without revealing its mystery.” – Nels Anderson, Campo Santo.

Unlike most indies bombarding their audience with feature lists, frequent screenshots, and development blogs, Campo Santo capitalized on the mysterious aspect of their story, adopting a “less is more” approach.

This mystery posed a challenge when reaching out to Let’s Players. Instead of asking them to avoid specific actions that might spoil the game’s story too early, Campo Santo decided to release a demo version specifically for streamers. In just a few hours, they created a version without spoilers, containing all the atmospheric elements of Firewatch. Carefully selected streamers and YouTube bloggers experienced a narrative-based playthrough of the game. As a result, excitement and intrigue grew, leading to increased interest from the audience upon the game’s release.

Marketing is an art of intriguing people with the story you have to tell. Campo Santo knew that if they revealed their entire story at once, they would lose their audience’s attention. Even if you don’t develop a story-based game, you don’t want players to see everything before they decide to download it because the anticipation of discoveries is a powerful motivator.

Campo Santo dedicated considerable effort to developing a unique promotion strategy, leveraging the strong aspects of their own game, and ultimately achieving significant success.

As of 2023, Firewatch has sold over 5 million copies across various platforms.

By learning from the experiences of their competitors and considering their game’s concept, developers can craft a unique marketing strategy perfectly suited to their product. However, it’s essential to remember that successful promotion begins during the game’s development, gradually piquing the interest of the audience with each new update about its creation.

Competition with major studios
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