Speech About Business of Indie Games

Over the past 5 years or so, I have been asked to give various speeches on game development. This one on marketing is one of my favorites, since so many indie game developers forget that marketing your game is just as important as developing it.

It has been modified over the years to keep up with trends, and I continue to update it as necessary.

Below are the slides and one of the written versions of my speech.

lndie game development is fun and exciting. You get to make what you want to make, without any restrictions.

But, to be successful, you need to understand the business side of game development.

I know, yuck. You’re saying, “Oh, I’ll make my game, it’ll be awesome and everyone will love it.” While your game may be awesome, unless you market your game, no one will even know it exists.

“But, there are so many games that seem to just be successful without any effort.” While that may have been true before the indie game boom (pre-2009) getting discovered by accident just isn’t a good business plan.

The indie game market is flooded. And it’s not a bad thing. It just means that more people are becoming interested in game development and want to create, experiment, and enjoy video games. But with a bigger market, there is bigger competition.

There are some things that an indie game developer should know before publishing his or her first game.

The indie game development industry is relatively new. To make a long story short, everyone, even the AAA publishers, are trying to figure out the market, and understand their consumers. As a result, there’s no sure-fire way to do things.

Is school the right way to go, or just dive in?

Well, that’s a tough question. Many schools offer game programs, but with how fast the industry evolves, it’s hard for them to keep up with the technology. Technology is expensive, and some schools just don’t have the funding. There’s also the issue with there being so many SDKs (software development kits), game engines, 3D software, 2D software, programming languages etc. that schools have a hard time figuring out how to focus the programs they offer. Not to mention all of the different consoles and systems games can be developed for.
To figure out what school you would want to attend, you would need to research the programs they offer, what classes they offer for you to take within their program, and figure out where you would like to focus your skills.

In my experience, I went to college for game art and design. It was worth it, especially since I believe in achieving a full education. But, if I did it all over again, I would attend a local or community college for my general education classes, and then attend the school I wanted to get my degree from. Mostly because most of the schools that offer game degrees are very expensive. My grandchildren will probably be paying for my school loans after I die, with how expensive school was.

An education is important, and I think you should definitely attend college. But, to get into the game industry, you don’t necessarily need a game degree, although it is becoming more common for studios to require at least a Bachelor’s degree, so just be aware of that. Although it is becoming more common for studios to require at least a Bachelor’s degree, so just be aware of that. You do need skills, and proof of your skills.

That being said, there are four things that you should definitely do, if you plan on becoming an indie game developer.

1. Business Licensing
2. Project Management
3. Marketing
4. Press

Licensing for your business is very important. Of all the things, it’s probably the most important thing to do, especially if you plan on selling your game, using in-game currency or in-game ads. Licensing includes registering as a corporation and contracts.

Registering Your lndie Game Studio as a Corporation

“Oh, my gosh. That’s huge! Do I really need to do that?” Well, if you’re just making games for yourself and your friends, just for fun, or for no profit, you probably don’t need a license. But I’m guessing, since you’re reading this, you are interested in the possibility of making a little money.

So, yes. Get a business license. They are not expensive, they will protect your personal assets if you get sued or audited, it makes filing for grants and loans a little smoother, and you can claim your business expenses on your taxes. There are two main business licenses, and probably the only two types you would need to worry about: Limited Liability License (LLC) and Incorporated (Inc.).

As a side note, I am not giving you legal advice and if you are unsure, you should speak to a financial adviser or lawyer about this.

An LLC is the license I got, and probably all you’ll need as an indie game developer. With an LLC, you can get your Tax identification number, or EIN and open a bank account and operate as a business with your business name.

With an LLC, the owners, or members, have limited liability, which means, under most circumstances, you are not personally held liable for debts and liabilities of your company. So, say you have to declare your company into bankruptcy; you’ll get to keep your house and other personal belongings. There’s also less requirements than other licensing options, like no required board meetings, lenient tax plans, and no requirement for extensive corporate records.

LLCs are also less expensive to purchase and renew. The prices and requirement vary from state to state and you’ll need to check with your state’s government website for the requirements and costs to become an LLC.

There is also the Incorporation option. Like an LLC, your personal assets are protected under most circumstances. An Incorporation also tends to have a lower tax rate. However, the applications to become and renew can be on the more expensive side of things for a small game development studio. There are also more expensive tax and accounting services, and other operational procedures that are required.

If your game studio becomes largely successful and you need to start hiring many employees, already having you Inc. license will be beneficial. Converting from an LLC to an Inc. can be confusing and costly. Truly, you will need to decide which license would serve you best based on how you expect your game studio to grow.

For more information about business licenses you can go to your state’s government website and decide which would serve you best based on how much you can afford and what you need. You could also consult a business professional or a lawyer, however they can be expensive.

Contracts, What Do I Need Contracts for?

There are lots of contracts you will need as an indie game developer. Probably the most important ones are your legal documents for the users of your website and games/apps. These include the “All Rights Reserved”, “Privacy Policy”, “Terms of Service” and “User Agreement”. These should all be publicly available on your website. I keep my links to my legal docs in the footer of my website, allowing people to easily find them.

All Rights Reserved

The “All Rights Reserved” is part of the copyright law. It basically states that everything that is within your website or game/app (text, pictures, downloads, etc.) is yours, you hold the rights to use them, and unless otherwise stated, people must ask for your permission to use your stuff. In short term, it means don’t steal my stuff and claim it as your own.

Privacy Policy

The “Privacy Policy” is important because it protects you and your users. This statement declares how you use any information that your users give to you, either on your website or your game/app. It states that you will protect your users’ information and it publicly states what information is required in order to use your service. Win -win for you and your users.

Terms of Services

The “Terms of Services” (TOS) are the rules you declare in order for someone to comment on your website, purchase a product from you, comment in your blog, or other services you might offer. If someone were to break your rules, your TOS would come into play and you would handle it accordingly. A good example is when someone creates a bot in a Massive Multi-Player (MMO) game in order to collect in game currency. Most developers frown on bots and have some form of TOS to deal with the situation, including canceling service to the user.

User Agreement

The “User Agreement” is used for software and is a contract between the user and you. It is sometimes called a “software license” or “end user license agreement”. This contract states that the user will agree to the privilege of using or purchasing your software and promise to comply with all of the restrictions stated in the User Agreement.

Those are your most important contracts. You can find links to mine in the footer of my website, youngstowngamedevelopers.com for a reference. You can also find them on many other game developers’ and publishers’ websites.

The other important contracts that you should have are a Confidentiality Agreement, an Employee Contract, and a General Contract.

Confidentiality Agreement

The Confidentiality Agreement is for anyone working with you on your game. This states that anything created for the game is owned by your company, and not the creator. This protects your company from your employees or contract hires from stealing your intellectual property and claiming it as their own, or any publicizing information that you don’t want released yet. That’s not to say your employees would do such a thing, but it’s always nice to have the document in place, just in case someone goes crazy.

Employee Contract

The Employee Contract is if you hire any full or part time employees. This can state how the pay schedule will work, when the employee will receive pay, any paid holidays, paid sick days or paid vacation days you might have, and other various things. This contract helps you and your employee fully understand what you are offering him or her. This type of contract should also be used with your interns, or anyone else do any work for you.

General Contract

The General Contract is basically the same as the employee contract, but can be used for contract hires and freelancers who do work for you.

Contracts are important, and you don’t need a lawyer to write one up. You can Google search for examples and write one up that suits your needs. If your game is making money, you should seek legal advice on these documents.

Project management is the key to completing your game. If you don’t manage your project, you risk the possibility of becoming overwhelmed, depressed from being overwhelmed and eventually giving up on your project. Don’t get lost on your game dev adventure, manage it!

Game Documents

Game documents are important for 3 key reasons. It will keep you and your team on the “same page”, it sets and (hopefully) keeps your goals, and is needed for presenting your game to third parties.

Keeping your team on the “same page” is always a good thing. Your game document should describe in detail all of your characters, both playable and non-playable, describe the scene for your game’s worlds or levels, and any other detailed information. A game document is basically the same thing as a business document, with lots more details. Having all of the information readily available will help your team know what you want for your game, and hopefully be able to develop it much faster than without a game document.

A game document also helps you to set your goals. You can schedule a once a week meeting (or once a month or whatever works for your team) to discuss what they are working and be able to identify where you are in your project. This will allow you to easily estimate how long things will take to complete, which will allow you to give your investors and fans a more definite release date.

Game documents are also needed for many competitions and your investors. When you enter your game into a competition, a game document helps to show how serious you are, and helps the people judging your game more easily identify with it. The same goes for your investors, although they are probably more interested in you completing deadlines so that they can make some money from their investment.

A game document is always important, and no matter how detailed your game is, you should always have one.

Organizational Apps

Online organizations tools are great, especially if you and your team do not work out of the same office. Trello is a popular one, and the one that I use.

Trello has what they call boards, and you can add cards to your board. This way you can list all of the things that need to be finished in your game before it can be published.

Trello also offers an assignment system allowing you to assign tasks or cards to team members. This will help keep everyone on task, and help you to know who is doing what for your game.

Trello is a great tool to use, and it’s free. All you need to do is create an account, invite your team members to your Game’s board and start assigning tasks. You can find out more about Trello at
Trello.com.

Marketing Your Game

Marketing is very important, if you want to create a fan base and let people know that your game exists. There are many different types of marketing, but I will just focus on the free, or mostly free ways to market your game.

Once you start creating your game, you should let people know that you have started a new project and any updates that you feel are noteworthy about how you are working or what you are working on. This may or may not peek people’s curiosity at that point in time. It’s kind of a hit or miss with that. But the main reason you want to do it right away, is so that when you are ready to have a press release for your game, or getting ready to launch a Kickstarter, there is a history of your game on the internet. If a journalist sees your press release and decides to do a Google Search, you will want more than just your press release to pop up on the first page.

Social Media Marketing

One way to start talking about your game idea is through social networking. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are probably the most popular, since basically everyone has one of those accounts. “Oh, -insert I don’t like to take part in social media statement here-“. Social media is important. Get over yourself and post something about your studio, your game, your work process, whatever at least a few times per week. Also, respond to people when they ask you questions, or leave a comment. People like to know you are a real human being, and not some jerk robot that auto posts.

Tumblr is a sort of blog site, but not really. I don’t use it as much as I probably should, but from what I’ve seen on there, it’s mostly just “fan boys and girls”, at least involving video games. So, what I do is push any blog posts that I write to my Tumblr page, but I also post anything that I may find on the web that I like, that also has to do with video games. This will build up your followers on there, and hopefully, they will also see you posting stuff about your game, become interested, and lead them to become a new fan.

Pinterest is for fan art, art in progress, and photo tutorials. Post pictures of your concept art for your game. People will re-pin it, and then new people will be curious about your stuff.

YouTube is not just for people making idiots of themselves and cute cats playing the piano. With YouTube, you will want to create a Channel for yourself with playlists. Make tutorials, dev journals, promo videos for your game, and anything else (no drinking videos, that would be bad PR – keep it more or less PG-13), and place them in the appropriate playlists so when people watch your videos, that playlist will play all of your videos.

Do not be afraid to let people see you. People want to know you, or feel like they know you. Unless, of course, you want to go the Deathclock way and just become an animated persona. I suppose that is also a possibility.

Your videos will each need a description. Try to use keywords in your description that people might look for when they search for a game like yours. For instance, if your game is a flight simulator, find a smooth way to use the phrase “flight simulator” in your description.

Linked In is great for networking with game developers. It shows your work history, awards you may have received, your education, etc., which allows people to see how experienced you are and what your skills are. Linked In also offers a way for you to make posts, much like a blog, so you can write about what you know in the game dev world.

Linked In is great because it can lead to opportunities with developers from around the world, allowing you to network with developers from around the world. So, maybe the next time you’re in the United Kingdom for a game dev expo, you might be able to bunk at Joe Smith’s house and save some cash, and possibly be introduced to more devs. It’s all about the networking.

Deviant Art is one that I am not a huge a fan of, but many game artists use it as a way to display their works of art to other artists. It is good for that, however, DA is flooded with kids who draw fan art, and sometimes really gross fan art. On the other hand, it can be a good way to find an artist to help you out with your game, for minimal cost, so check it out at DeviantArt.com and decide if it is right for you.

Reddit and other forums are a great place to talk with other game developers about the forum’s topic. I don’t use Reddit much, but I should. Forums are a great way for developers to help each other out with various problems they run into, discuss game topics, and argue about whether or not Halo is better than Unreal Tournament. There are tons of forums on the internet for every topic you can possibly think of. Just Google search your topic with the word “forum” typed after your topic, and you should receive a large list.

“But, social networking will take time away from me working on my game”. You’re right, but not as right as you think you are. There is a wonderful tool called Buffer that you can set up to schedule your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Linked In updates. It’s easy to use, and free. They also offer a paid version which will allow you to use more than just one of your accounts. There are other tools out there, that just happens to be one I use.

Check out your favorite forums once or twice a week, and post some stuff. It doesn’t take long, and will help you in the long run.

For many social networks, there are key times to post things.

• lnstagram from 5pm – 6pm
• Linked In from 5pm -6pm
• Tumblr from 7pm -lOpm
• Pinterest from 8pm -11pm

That’s not to say that you should only post during those time segments, but try to keep your more important things at those times, since those are the peak hours when people are actively on those social networks. You also have to remember, that not everyone is in the same time zone as you. The best way to figure out what time works best for you is to start posting and keep track of what times people are viewing your content through app’s analytics.

Also, don’t expect to get a million followers overnight. That’s ridiculous, and only for Justin Beiber. Let your fan base grow naturally, and they will be your true fans. Learn from them about what they like and want in a game through interacting with them, and you and your fan network will do well.

Paid Marketing

Paid marketing is not always an option, especially if you are new to indie game development and don’t have much funding. But, if you have the extra money to put into it, it can be very helpful.

TV Commercials are probably the most expensive, with national commercials being anywhere from $50k – $1 million. I’m sure some are less, but for primary network television, it can be expensive. Local TV advertising is much less, usually starting at about $300. If you decide to air a TV commercial, research your predicted primary consumer first. When do they watch TV and what shows do they watch? What type of commercial advertising would they like, funny, sexy, serious? In general, unless you are the makers of the next Angry Birds, Candy Crush or Game of War, you probably won’t need or have the funding for a TV commercial.

Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter Ads are a much more affordable option. You can have an ad with a click amount limit, or money spent limit that can be focused on the type of consumer you are marketing towards. You can spend as little as $50 a month and probably gain a few more fans. I don’t consider them necessary for a start-up indie dev, but if you have some extra cash to spend per month, it wouldn’t hurt.

Google and YouTube ads are very similar to the Facebook and Twitter ads. The difference with Google ads, or Adsense, is that they are all over the web, and are based on Google’s tracking of what people are looking for. So, you set a list of keywords that you want your ad to be shown with, and your ads are shown to people who are using those keywords in their searches, at least until your daily spending limit is up. YouTube ads are the same way, but are only played on YouTube videos. A good amount to spend to get a decent feedback for this is between $75 and $100 per month, to start. So, if you have that kind of money to spend, go for it.

A public relations (PR) representative is someone, or a company you pay to handle your advertising, and sometimes your press releases for you. This is very expensive, but if you can find a budget for it, it is totally worth it since you won’t have to do it yourself. Most start-ups do not have a budget for a PR rep, but many PR reps write blogs. lndie Game Girl is one who writes a blog, and writes reviews on video games. She gives great advice, and you should check her out. There are others, but she is one of my favorites. She doesn’t beat around the bush or candy coat anything, and tells you exactly how it is.

Another option is to advertise in Newspapers, Magazines, or other print media. Prices will vary, depending on the size of your ad and what media you are placing your ad in. Local is probably cheapest, while national and/or popular media will be more expensive.

Also, many print media outlets have gone digital, but they still release on a weekly, monthly, or however often they release their issues, basis. To advertise in one of these outlets, you will need to contact their PR rep or advertising agent.

Paid advertising can be very good, but only if you can afford it. Don’t make yourself broke just to get an ad out. If you can’t afford it, just stick to a regularly scheduled social media network technique, and you should do just fine to get you started.

Conventions, Expos, and Events… Oh My!

Conventions are great for advertising and networking. Go to as many as you can. They are a great experience, great for networking, and great for letting people know about your game. There are many types of conventions; big and small, local and national, popular and foreign.

Attend as many as you can, and don’t limit yourself to just game conventions. If your game is a science fiction game, attending a science fiction convention can be beneficial to build your fan base.

There are two ways to attend conventions: either as a developer and get a booth or as a consumer. Some conventions, like E3, you would only be able to attend as a developer, since the convention’s focus is for the press, although, in the past few years, E3 has started letting a limited amount of consumers attend the event. But for most conventions, you can attend as either. Pricing varies, but in general, the bigger the convention, the higher the ticket price.

If you attend as a developer with a booth, make sure you have everything you need. Read the rules and guidelines for the convention to see what they will be giving you with your booth area. Will you have a table? Will they have equipment to display your game, or do you need to bring some yourself? How are you going to decorate your booth? Do you have displays? Are displays allowed? Make sure you find out all of the info at least 3 months before you attend the convention so that you can properly prepare.

If you go as a consumer, bring your game with you and do some guerrilla marketing. What is guerrilla marketing, you ask? It is a more active way of promoting your game at a convention. It is mostly limited to mobile devices or handhelds, but if that’s the type of game you’re making, this will work. It’s a great way to promote your game if you can’t afford a booth, or don’t really want a booth. Basically, you bring a copy of your game on a mobile device or hand held, and randomly go up to people and ask them what they think. Then you hand them some swag, or a brochure about your game and tell them to
download it, support it on Kickstarter, or however you want to interact with them once the convention is over. It’s quick, easy, and sometimes can be more memorable for the person you approached.

No matter how you attend a convention, be like in The Lion King, and be prepared. Always have some swag for people. A pocket notebook with your game’s logo and QR code to download it on the back, a t-shirt to give away, a pin with your game’s logo or character on it, or even a pen with your logo. Any way that you can help people to remember your game when they are done with the convention will help.

You may also want to have some form of a flier to hand out about your game, a CD or flash drive of your press package to hand to any press you run into, and you definitely want a business card to hand out. The business card is important in case that person wants to contact you. You will want two business cards: one for the consumer with your company contact info and info about your game and one for press with your company and personal contact info.

Swag and printed items can get costly to order, so you may want to get crafty and make some stuff yourself. Sew a plushy of your character, make those plastic bead magnets of a pixel version of your logo or character, learn to screen print a t-shirt, 3D print a mini action figure or whatever. Just don’t forget your business cards. They make you look official and professional, and people like that.

The Press

Contacting the press can be time consuming, tedious and confusing. But it is a necessary evil. If you can afford it, pay for a professional PR to do it for you. However, I know most indie game devs (including myself) cannot afford a PR person. So, to help you out, here are some things to know about contacting and writing to different press media.

Television Media

Television media tends to be on the more professional side. When you write a press release to a video game TV station or your local news network, you will want to write it in a more professional method using a standard PR template (company/ game project letterhead, headline, date then info about your game, a quote from someone on the team or some who has reviewed your game, company info and contact info).

I’ve never been on a talk show, but it is considered press release worthy. Send a press release to Steve Colbert. You never know, he might find it amusing and give it a positive noteworthy review on his show. Conan O’brien also does a segment on his show where he plays a game to help promote it. It’s worth a shot, so go ahead and send it.

Reaching out to local network channels should always be professional. In general, they are mostly news stations, so you will need to write the press release to have some kind of meaning to your town, and how what you are making has impact on the town, or how the town has inspired you with your game. Your local press probably won’t care that you are releasing a game, but they might care if you are somehow making a positive impact in your community with your game.

Game networks are not on your regular cable, but on the premium cable channels. G4TV was one at one point in time, but shut down in 2014. I’m not too sure if they still air on cable, but it does still exist. There are also some dedicated shows on YouTube, Hulu, Netflix and other streaming services that don’t air on cable.

You will also want to look for upcoming shows that could be relevant to indie game developing and send a press release for that, or maybe even apply to be on the show. New game networks and shows are always popping up, so keep an eye out for them and send them a press release about your game.

Print Media

Print media is very similar to television media, although there are less and less existing these days. They are on the more professional side of things, most of the time.

In general, any print media you are going for is going to be a newspaper of sorts, but there are some magazines you may want to try out. For instance, if your game has something to do with a comic hero you could contact a comic book magazine for a review.

There are also the options of applying for convention program ads, which cost money, but can be good for your public relations. If you are using a booth at a convention and they have little memos about some of the developers in their program, apply to be featured.

There aren’t as many print media options, and less and less are becoming available, but it does not hurt you to try and get some print press. Many people still read printed material, from comics to event programs, to magazines and even to the few remaining newspapers.

YouTube, Vimeo, Twitch

YouTube (or Vimeo or wherever else the video will appear) is a bit different. There are several types of press on YouTube, Vimeo and Twitch, including the Let’s Play reviews, video cast reviews, personal video blog reviews, and so much more. You will absolutely need to do a little research to who you are sending to and write the press release based on how you think that person might want to receive a press release.

You will also want your own YouTube channel to feature yourself and your games. Create playlists for your tutorials, dev journals, your game’s videos, and whatever else you want to display. This will make your stuff available for the press to find, and it will make it available for you to send as an attachment or link in your press release.

Bloggers and Other Websites

Bloggers and websites are a lot like the YouTubers, except it is written rather than viewed. Just like with YouTube, research who you are sending it to.

Most of the time, you will be sending to someone’s written blog. In general, a lot of bloggers do their blogging in their free time and tend to like a more personal approach. So, be friendly and inviting, and address them with their name.

Writing a guest post on someone else’s blog is also a great press opportunity. When you write a guest post, you will need to ask for permission to write it from the blogger, and then submit the post to the blogger for review. You won’t be writing about you or your game as a promotional piece, but you might write a post about a topic you know a lot about and can possibly help inform others about that topic in game development. This will show people you are a professional, it will help your search engine optimization (SEO), and get your name to viewers that may not have otherwise known you exist.

Podcasts should be done just like a written blog, since most podcasts are done by other pros or fans in their free time. The only difference is you will sometimes be invited to speak with the reviewer/interviewer for their show, most times via Skype. So, make sure your Skype account and your microphone works. Some Podcasts are aired live, and others are recorded to be aired later. It doesn’t really make much of a difference, but it might be something you’ll want to find out before you chat with them. Also, just as an FYI, a podcast is an internet radio talk show, and typically you won’t be viewed, only heard.

No matter who you are writing your press release to, there are a few things you should always do. Your Subject line should contain “Press Release: Your Press Release Headline”. Use proper English and check for typos. You will not write the same press release all the time, you might need to make one more personal, and another strictly professional. You should always send your press release as a PDF and a Word Doc. And, keep a template in Word, so you can adjust and modify it to fit the needs of whichever media outlet you are sending it to.

Will You Be Successful?

There is never a 100% guarantee that your game will sell. You can do all the marketing in the world, but if your game has crap mechanics, gameplay doesn’t flow well, or the storyline is loose, it probably won’t sell. But, if you have your game tested and people generally like it, you have it at a price point where people will want to purchase it, and you have a decent fan base, you might make some money from your game.

All you can do is try. It is a learning experience, and if this is your first time marketing your own game, your going to have a steep learning curve. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t know something, but always Google search your question first, because it is very likely that another developer has asked your question before.

When people review your game or tell you what they want in your game, smile and say thank you. Sometimes people don’t give good advice, but appreciate the fact that they took the time to play your game and try to help you out. Who knows, maybe someone will give you an idea that could help you.

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