The very best independent game developers apply the same degree of adaptability to the promotion of their game as they do to its development. To jump-start your promotional activities, increase your network, and gain inspiration, we urge you to strongly consider trade shows, developer conferences, workshops, and networking events. Even if you arrive with only the briefest demo, or proof-of-concept presentation, attending can provide you with greater knowledge and experience, more insights into the industry, and lead to greater market presence and status for your game.
It won’t be easy if you’re already operating on a shoestring, but try to leave something in the budget for events and festivals—advice that Roger Paffrath, a Brazilian producer and co-creator of the side-scrolling platformer Little Red Running Hood* readily endorses. Writing at indiegames.com, he said: “Hands down, [attending events] is the best way to show your game to other people, and start networking with other developers and press.”
Alberto Moreno of Crocodile Entertainment, the creators of Zack Zero*, says his one big regret is not starting his promotional efforts sooner. “After passing [quality assurance] QA, and a little under one month before game release, we began to think about [public relations] PR … If we could turn back time, we would begin by establishing press contacts way in advance.”
At gamedevelopment.tutsplus.com, Robert DellaFave—game designer and project manager at Divergent Games—recommended that all indie developers consider events as a key part of their promotional plan. “Despite the theory that all game developers are vampires who dwell in dark basements, getting out into the light of day and attending public gatherings is one of the smartest things you can do to promote your game. I promise you won’t turn to ash.”
Find the Event That’s Right for You
Deciding how to approach events can be difficult—there’s a dizzying number to choose from, while travel costs and time commitments will vary by event. There are less formal and more frequent game dev meetups almost everywhere, including India and Brazil, for example. More formal events include the Chinese Game Developers Conference in Shanghai or the big Game Developers’ Conference (GDC) show in San Francisco. From IndieCade in Los Angeles to London’s Rezzed, or from Paris Games Week to Germany’s Gamescom, you could possibly attend an event every week of the year if you could travel the globe.
“I would recommend a combination of gaming and developer events, and obviously there are hundreds of them out there,” says Patrick DeFreitas, Software Partner Marketing Manager at Intel. He points newcomers to GameConfs.com, which provides a calendar of gaming-related events broken down by country.
Be smart about your selections, and be serious about choosing your targets. If you’re on a tight budget, you can hook up with dozens of fellow PC developers at one of hundreds of global game development meet-ups, and talk face to face with developers at a similar spot in their developer’s journey. If you bring a playable demo you could attract lots of local interest, and you could end up promoting your game with only an investment of time.
Alternatively, you can mingle with the game-playing public at larger gaming-industry events, like PAX, GDC, and DreamHack. These offer a much wider scope, and attract thousands of attendees—but the challenge is to not get lost in the crowd.
Figure 1: Conferences such as GDC offer insights into what the biggest names in gaming are doing.
The more intimate nature of Intel® Buzz Workshops makes them a great source of information relating to technical elements such as cleaning up game code and optimizing your programming. You can also learn more about distribution channels, consumer metrics, and other business topics. These workshops are usually limited to a few hundred attendees, so you won’t be overwhelmed.
Figure 2: Intel® Buzz Workshops offer great networking opportunities, and are not overwhelming.
The key point is to consider shows and conferences in terms of the possibilities they offer. If you’re just starting out, you may want to hit local events first, because they’re easier and cheaper to attend. When you’re ready to invest in a more expensive show, do your research first. Andreea Vaduva is a marketing, PR, and community manager for the stealth platformer Black the Fall*, which was created in Bucharest, Hungary, and set in a dystopian communist dictatorship. The game was promoted far and wide and, in an article at LinkedIn.com, Vaduva looked back favorably on attending ten events in one year, and recommended using the Promoter app calendar for research. “Before submitting your game to a competition or accepting an invitation, always check online to see how many attendees are coming, what other developers are saying about it, etc.,” she said. Considering Black the Fall won Best Indie Game at Gamescon 2016, it’s good advice.
The big events offer you the opportunity to rub shoulders with your biggest competitors. You might also meet studio executives and publishers that appreciate what you are trying to bring to market. Your goal is to get a feel for the industry, beyond what you’re reading online or via social media. At these events you get to see what future the industry is planning for itself, listen to some of the star names in gaming host classes, and give talks. You’ll come away with your own personal viewpoint on the state of the industry and where your game fits, plus some contacts for when your game nears completion.
Don’t Waste Your Time—Plan Ahead
If you’re the only person to plan around, the good news is that your schedule is easy to control. The bad news is that everything rests on your shoulders. You’ll have to plan your social media presence, your technology for playing the game demo, and your personal calendar.
Most indies bring a laptop with their code so that they can maintain flexibility in their day. Laptops and personal devices are fine, but strip out anything personal on your device, such as exotic ringtones, interesting browser histories, embarrassing photos, or disorganized desktops. And always make backups.
If you have the benefit of being part of a larger team, you need to work out how to divide your time in order to cover the most ground. One or two of you can hustle to meetings with the laptop containing your game, while the others attend talks and classes relevant to their role in development. The likes of GDC in San Francisco, for example, and the Develop Conference in Brighton, England build entire tracks of expert talks and presentations around visual arts, programming, audio, business, and more. You may want to have someone else dive deep on a single track, while you bounce around and hit key topics from name-brand speakers, for example.
What you don’t want to do is attend events with the goal of tracking down some particular individual at all costs. Experienced, sought-after conference notables come with a schedule already in place, and probably have an admin or assistant to ensure it stays that way. You can’t plan to go to an event with a goal of simply stalking them for that perfect moment. That is a waste of your time, and likely to end in disappointment. Plan your time to be as productive as possible, and don’t rely on serendipity.
If your goal, however, is to meet a certain kind of person, there is certainly value in attending shows, even without prearranged meetings. You could take your game to an event such as TwitchCon if you’re just starting out on your promotional journey, and are looking for exposure within the streaming community and their millions of fans.
Figure 3: TwitchCon is a great venue for getting noticed as you start your promotional journey.
At TheNextWeb.com, reporter Lauren Hockenson described TwitchCon’s Broadcaster Alley as “The gallery of Twitch success stories.” She met up with broadcaster CohhCarnage, a former student of game design who left before completing his degree to become a full-time streamer, and now has sponsorship deals with Intel, Razer, Aorus, and Madrinas Coffee. He says he’s never seen anything so uniquely focused as Broadcaster Alley.
“Every single person you meet… has a vested interest in something that you do, too,” he said. “Everyone is cordial and nice, and enjoys Twitch. It’s not like any con I’ve ever been to at all.”
You might not be able to get time with the biggest streamers, but showing your game to lots of smaller streamers, who then go on to feature it on their channels, gets you a foot on the promotional ladder. Don’t forget, some of the smaller streamers could go on to be incredibly successful in the future, so building a relationship with them early can pay off later.
Bring Your Code and Show It Off
Ideally, you want to take a code sample that shows off your game’s vision. That doesn’t necessarily mean a finalized edition, or even a whole level, but it does mean something that allows people to understand what you’re aiming for. You have to give people enough information to communicate to their audience why they should care. You need enough of a sample to show a publisher your vision, and you need a big enough demo to allow fellow developers to provide input on how well you’re executing your idea. Developers and publishers understand the process of game creation, and are used to seeing games that are nowhere near finished, so don’t worry about not having something final to show.
DellaFave says it’s never too early to start marketing and promoting your game. “Instead of waiting until the eleventh hour, follow this general rule: Begin your marketing campaign the moment you have something that illustrates the fundamental mechanics and look of your game,” he advised.
Be aware of any content restrictions particular to the country hosting the event you’re attending. Do not bring a demo that includes content that violates local laws or corporate guidelines regarding game content, particularly if you’re at a public event that admits children and teenagers, and your game includes material aimed solely at an adult audience. Take this responsibility seriously.
How to be Part of a Booth
Renting space at game events is beyond the budget of most independent game developers. Partnering with larger companies, or applying to be part of a dedicated independent game booth (such as GDC’s Indie MEGABOOTH), is a good alternative. Landing a booth presence gives you a certain status, saves money, gives you a solid base for meeting people and scheduling appointments, and more. You’ll have to work up front to get accepted, so having a personal network that includes representatives of major gaming companies can ensure that you’re aware of deadlines, commitment levels, and content restrictions.
If you can do it, the effort could make a big difference. Dustin Hendricks, founder of Last Life Games, is the creator of the side-scrolling platform game Trial by Viking*. He took the plunge, purchasing booth space at GDC, and described the experience for GamaSutra.com. “I was able to get like three months’ worth of polish just out of watching people play, watching where they get hung up, and [hearing] some stuff people mentioned that might make it even cooler.”
Figure 4: The Indie MEGABOOTH is perfect for promoting your game on a small budget.
Make sure you budget for your own accommodation, transport and sustenance—don’t assume that being accepted as part of a booth equates to a free event for you and your team. Also, don’t assume that there will be enough free food lying around to forage for your needs.
The Indie MEGABOOTH requires you to submit your game in advance for consideration. This is common practice, and the extra boost of a deadline may jump-start your creative juices into a productive roll.
If that deadline blitz isn’t enough of an incentive, consider what’s at stake if you win a category. The annual Intel® Level Up Game Developer Contest, for instance, can provide category winners with great exposure, such as showcasing at PAX West. Winners get a new marketing bullet to add to promotional materials, and a great reason for a new press release, a new Tweet, and an update to their landing page.
Figure 5: Winning the Intel Level Up Game Developer Contest means cash and marketing support, as well as recognition.
The payoff can be huge. Dean Dodrill of Humble Hearts decided to lock down his content and polish up a submission of his action role-playing game (RPG) game Dust: An Elysian Tail* for the annual Dream.Build.Play event. “I had low expectations, as this would be the first time anyone outside of a handful of play testers actually played my experiment, so I was quite surprised when I won the Grand Prize,” he wrote. Three years later his game was a headliner of the Microsoft Xbox Live* Arcade (XBLA) Summer of Arcade event.
Network Like Crazy
Don’t be shy once you’re actually at the event. Think outside of the box when it comes to showing off your game, so attendees will remember you. Be active on social media, and mention as many people, players, and companies as you can—they’ll likely return the favor and share your Tweets if you mention them.
The Phantom Compass team rushed to pull together a GDC prototype for a unique game combining RPG elements and pinball—Rollers of the Realm*. Once at GDC, they got right to work. “We set up meetings with potential publishers and barked ‘RPG pinball’ to any passers-by with a press badge. Almost all were immediately intrigued by the concept, yet couldn’t wrap their heads around how it would work. This turned out to be a great recipe to start a dialogue,” they said in their postmortem.
Contests are a great example of maximizing your booth time. Mini tournaments can get the public dialed in and playing the game, and can generate tremendous buzz on the floor. Recording those sessions with industry luminaries, or enthusiastic booth visitors, makes a great new promotional asset that you can share.
For inspiration on taking tournaments to the next level, consider the efforts of Gamelab, creators of Gangs of GDC*, a massively multiplayer mobile phone fighting game, just for GDC. It was a “wonderful little gumdrop of fun,” they reported, that also provided an inspiring experience with mobile technologies.
Handing out t-shirts, business cards, game keys, and flyers describing the core features and idea of your game can provide a lasting connection. Make sure you have something for people to remember your game by, and don’t be cheap. A poorly produced t-shirt or meager flash drive communicates a negative message long after the show is over.
If you’ve never spoken at an event, and worry about standing in front of a crowd, take some time to watch others do it. See how prepared they are, and imagine yourself up there. Follow along, and take a few notes about how you could do the same thing with your story.
Figure 6: Talking about your game in front of an enthusiastic audience is a great way to get inexpensive exposure.
Maybe your background is your story, if that’s what inspired you. Some examples:
- A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who creates a title around forensic science
- A wilderness guide who builds a challenging survival game
- An art therapist who shows how to paint with emotions as colors
Your passion and enthusiasm for your vision are your key selling points. Still, public speaking isn’t for everyone; if it’s not for you, consider other ways of getting your message across. Post-event parties are numerous, and include those hosted by large gaming companies, as well as smaller, more intimate social events arranged by groups of fans and developers. Use these events as a means of meeting like-minded individuals. Remember to bring high-quality business cards; printing them yourself is dangerous. Darius Kazemi, blogging at TinySubversions.com, describes a system for taking notes on who you talked to and what they said. Guard your reputation, and stay businesslike, especially in the face of free drinks.
Figure 7: Use events to network and make new friends. Remember to bring business cards, and stay professional.
Follow Up After the Event
The event might be over, but that doesn’t mean your work is done. If you met with influencers, and showed off your game to them, you should jot down their comments. Even if the coverage is negative, take the time to engage fairly and in a professional manner. What you don’t want to do is argue or fight back, no matter how tempting. If someone has taken the time to play your game, you owe them the courtesy of accepting their feedback. One bad reaction is a data point, and hopefully you’ll find something constructive in their view.
Also, it is totally acceptable to follow up with a polite piece of correspondence reminding relevant parties of your meeting, and asking if they need anything more from you to help them produce coverage. Keep in mind that influencers see a lot of new games at events, and they might not have gotten around to covering yours yet.
Finally, when you’re in a position to look back at the event, reflect on whether it was a success, in order to help you in planning for your next outing.
“Did you leave that event ultimately feeling as though progress has been made in anything that you’re doing personally as a developer, an entrepreneur, or an artist?” asks DeFreitas. “Did you feel like there was any sort of advancement or progress made with respect to your game getting out there? And if you can say ‘yes’, then it was really worth going.”