Succeeding in today’s highly competitive games market takes more than hard work and a brilliant game. You need a marketing strategy as carefully crafted as any game design, and a plan for differentiating your game from the thousands of others on the market.
That’s especially true for independent game developers who don’t have the active fan base enjoyed by well-known brands and franchises, or the financial resources to go toe-to-toe with established gaming studios. The good news is that plenty of channels exist (that won’t cost more than time and effort) for getting the word out about what you’re doing.
This guide explores a classic marketing framework called "the Four Ps". Use it to evaluate your game’s commercial potential, take stock of the competitive landscape, set strategic goals, and create a plan for achieving commercial success.
Figure 1: The Four Ps of Marketing framework.
The Four Ps Marketing Framework
The Four Ps concept originated with Procter & Gamble* more than a century ago. Then, the Ps were price, place, promotion, and packaging (because the product was always soap, but the packaging differentiated it for different consumer segments). Later, as companies began to apply these new marketing methods to more complex products, the “packaging” P gave way to “product.” Fast forward a couple decades to Neil Borden. Borden, a professor at Harvard Business School, coined the phrase Marketing Mix in the early 1950s, referring to the ingredients of marketing campaigns. The best-known marketing mix evolved from Procter & Gamble’s Four Ps.
If your inner marketing maven is whispering, “Wait, aren’t there seven Ps?”, the answer is yes. Three additional Ps (Physical Evidence, Processes, and People) are often included in the marketing mix when dealing with service-oriented businesses. While some might argue that subscription-based games are essentially software-as-a-service businesses, we’re going to restrict our focus to the Four Ps marketing mix and how it applies to indie game marketing. We’ll provide practical advice on how to use those Ps to gain visibility, as well as sales, in the increasingly crowded games space.
Using the Four Ps
For game developers, the Four Ps let you evaluate and plan using this simple matrix:
- Brand name Packaging
- List price
- Revenue model
- Personal selling
- Sales promotion Public relations
- Coverage Assortments Locations
- Inventory Transportation Logistics
To get started, look at each of the Ps above, take a high-level view, and ask yourself:
- Product: What sets my game apart from other games (gameplay variety, quality, design, other features)?
- Price: What revenue model should I use; what price should I set (list price, discounts, subscription, free)?
- Place: What are my distribution options (online download, streaming, in-store, channel partnership bundling, and so forth)?
- Promotion: Given my resources, what are the best ways to attract attention (via the web, social media, relationships with key influences/YouTube* gamers, trailer videos, events)?
Mutually Dependent Variables
An important aspect of the Four Ps is that each component is interdependent — they go hand-in-hand — and you’ll need to plan and use them in combination with each other.
Markets rarely stand still, so you’ll need to commit time and energy to monitoring and adjusting your plans to keep each ingredient in your marketing mix aligned and in-tune with current market conditions. If any one of the Ps falls out of step with the others, don’t hesitate to re-evaluate and adjust accordingly.
If that sounds daunting and time consuming, don’t worry. It’s more straightforward than it might sound. For example, imagine you’re busy coding when you get a Slack* message telling you that one of your distribution channels is experiencing a temporary outage. You were about to post a very prominent banner on your website linking to that channel. Rather than direct traffic to a site that’s down, you could delay posting the banner, or direct potential customers to other outlets during the outage to help maximize sales.
Yes, Your Game is a Product
Creative individuals — game developers included — take great pride in their creations. So much so that many find it difficult to think of the fruits of their labor as a product with commercial potential. Embracing that idea, however, is an important step in making the transition from being someone dabbling in a fun hobby to someone committed to generating income from making a product that other people will pay to experience.
Thinking of your creation as a product has another advantage. Emotional attachment can cloud your judgment and, while being passionate about what you’re doing is great, being brutally honest when it comes to making business decisions is best. The sooner you start thinking of your baby/labor-of-love/awesome creative experience as a product, the better.
With that in mind, ask yourself: Is your product unique in the marketplace, or is it familiar?
- A unique product is something original, unproven, and unfamiliar. Assuming enough people share that perception — and it’s fun, engaging, and priced right — it could have commercial potential.
- A familiar product is something similar to existing games — perhaps a reinterpretation of, or a variation on, a trendy genre. If your product is perceived by enough people as better than what’s on the market, it could have commercial potential.
Every product has advantages and disadvantages. Understanding what these are in your product’s case is very important to being able to craft a plan aimed at convincing people that your product is worth playing and buying.
Here’s where the Product component of the Four Ps can help you catalog and quantify your product’s strengths and weaknesses, as compared to its competition.
Create a table and list the top five or ten products you’re competing against, then create a list of the strengths, weaknesses, and distinguishing features of each. Keep your list at a high level — use broad strokes to define differentiating factors. No one will care that one of your algorithms is 25 percent more efficient than an algorithm in your game engine, but they will care that your graphics look better than those of other games on the market.
An often-overlooked feature is the length of time that it takes customers to play through a game. If you know this, make a note of it for each competitor game. It’s a vital statistic when it comes to pricing your product, which we’ll talk more about in the next section.
|Product||You||Competitor 1||Competitor 2||Competitor 3||Competitor 4||Competitor 5|
Table 1. Sample table for competitive analysis — determining your competition’s strengths and weaknesses.
In addition to evaluating how your product’s strengths and weaknesses stack up against the competition, you need to also take into account your product’s life cycle. At each stage of that life cycle — from pre-release to beta testing, up through launch and its end of life (or the release of its first sequel) — you’ll want to have a good understanding of the challenges present at each specific stage, and have a plan for dealing with them.
Key to accomplishing that is knowing your intended audience, and tailoring a story that presents your product’s value proposition in the following:
Words — Describe your product in terms that emphasize its primary selling points, and what makes it stand out. Be consistent in how you use gameplay-specific jargon and character names.
Pictures — A picture is worth a thousand words, so emphasize the best things your product has to offer. Gameplay screenshots should focus on attention grabbers: epic battle scenes, monsters, vehicles, puzzles, and so on.
Videos — Game trailers are extremely effective ways to pique the interest of potential players. Keep trailers focused on communicating what makes your product a blast to play. Gameplay videos by you and key influencers are another great way to attract attention.
Behind-the-scenes interviews, webcasts, and blog posts — Let your audience watch as your product develops. This builds a pre-release fan base, while you and your team become a part of your product’s value.
Deploy these words, pictures, and videos everywhere and anywhere you interact with potential customers—on your website, social media, download and streaming sites that carry your product, and YouTube Gaming*. Use every digital channel available to you in this regard.
It may seem obvious, but price refers to how much someone has to pay for your product. What’s not always obvious is that your product’s price should be based on its perceived value in the market, not simply what it cost to produce and distribute. A product with a price that’s higher or lower than its perceived value won’t live up to its commercial potential. In fact, some would say it simply won’t sell. It’s crucial to understand what your target audience thinks of your product.
Gaining that understanding requires you to take a dispassionate look at your product and its competition — all the things you did when evaluating your product’s strengths and weaknesses. Add to that evaluation by surveying the prices — and revenue models— your competitors are using. If possible, look back 6 to 12 months at any promotional discounts they may have offered, when they offered them, and under what circumstances. Lay that information out in another table:
|Price||Competitor 1||Competitor 2||Competitor 3||Competitor 4||Competitor 5||You|
Table 2. Sample table for determining the pricing factors of your competition.
If you’re able to track list prices and discounts for six months or more, put those prices on a timeline that lets you spot seasonal pricing and discount trends. For example, identify whether discounts are common during the December holiday season, or if they are timed to coincide with popular gamer events and tradeshows.
Comparing revenue models for competitive analysis purposes can help you to gain a better understanding of your pricing strategy. Tracking pricing and discounting also lets you see how practical considerations might impact such things as net revenue and cash flow. For example, distribution channels typically take a percentage of the total price of a product. For your business, you’ll want to know what that percentage is, and, for your competitive analysis, it’s helpful to understand that percentage when making revenue comparisons. Comparing net prices, not list prices, tells you what your intended audience is actually paying for similar products. For business planning, knowing whether a particular distribution channel sends payments once a month, once a quarter, or on some other schedule is also helpful.
The last factor in Table 2 is for tracking revenue models, and tells you whether your competitor’s earnings are based on:
- One-time payments (download content pricing or DLC pricing) — Players purchase the product once.
- Subscription fees — Players pay a recurring fee to access the game online.
- DLC pricing — Players purchase additional content and upgrades that enhance their game experiences.
- Subscription fees — Players pay a recurring fee to access the game online.
- Episodic pricing — Players pay to access individual episodes or a complete season of a game.
- Microtransactions (in-game purchases) — Players buy keys to unlock features and additional powers.
- Free to play — Players don’t pay anything up-front, but pay to avoid in-game advertising or pay for an enhanced game experience, extra content, and more features.
- Bundle pricing — Bundling lets you get exposure for your product and extend its life by selling it along with products from other developers.
Read reviews and end-user feedback to get a sense of how much value customers place on your competitor’s products. Play games similar to yours or, if your game is truly different from anything on the market, find and play other unique products, with an eye toward the value being delivered.
Setting the right price
There’s no one right way to price products, but there are plenty of pitfalls to avoid. One common mistake is believing that price alone drives sales. That idea leads to the notion that undercutting your competitors by offering a familiar product at a lower price will guarantee that people will buy your product over theirs. That’s often not the case. More importantly, setting an initial price that’s too low can hurt you. Unless you announce that your starting price is an introductory special offer, and will be raised after a predetermined period, it can be difficult to raise the price after it has been set low.
Another common mistake is to base pricing solely on the time you and your team invested in making your product. It’s one thing for building contractors to base their fees on time and materials, but, for game developers, audiences rarely know or care how much time and loving care went into creating a game experience. Gamers care whether your product is fun, entertaining, and worth the time and money spent playing it. In other words, the key to putting a price on your product is to align it with the market’s perceived value of your product.
Questions to ask yourself:
- How much is the market willing to pay?
- How much are your competitors charging?
- How long will it take customers to play your game?
- Are you offering a discount at launch, and plan on raising the price later?
- Does your list price leave room for future promotional discounts?
Similar advice on pricing best practices is offered by Steam*.
Discounting dos and don’ts
Discounting your product’s price can play a valuable role in extending its shelf life—boosting sales when they’re flat or declining, as your product matures in the marketplace. You need to be careful, however, when timing promotional discounts. Offering discounts too frequently can undermine your full retail price. For example, potential customers may resist paying full price, or any price, because they expect you to lower the price in the near future. Even if that future never comes, your sales will suffer as people wait for the price to come down.
Try to avoid discounting as a knee-jerk reaction to slower than expected unit sales. That kind of emotionally driven behavior can undermine the market’s perceived value of your product. Instead, have a pricing strategy in place that specifies when to offer discounts and under what circumstances. For example, you might create a pricing strategy that offers a discount during a holiday season, when a lower price could attract attention from gift shoppers. Similarly, offering a discount on your primary product in advance of releasing new content can help seed the market, and drive more interest in your upcoming release.
Keep in mind that discounts don’t have to be purely monetary in nature. For example, at launch your introductory price could include additional content — “a USD XX value” — at no additional cost, for a limited time. After meeting a sales target, or after a certain amount of time has passed, you can start charging full list price.
Free to play
At the other end of the pricing spectrum sits taking a free to play approach to pricing (an option made popular by titles such as Candy Crush Saga* and World of Tanks*). Free to play generates revenue from in-game purchases (power-ups, customized objects, and so on) or from up-leveling to remove advertising. Free to play has been adopted by many established game studios, in part to combat piracy. Many publishers favor episodic pricing, an approach that combines one-time pay with a subscription fee, in the form of season passes. These passes can cost nearly as much as the original game, and give players exclusive access on a limited-time or one play-through basis to certain elements of the game, along with bonus features.
Think of promotion as any activity that’s designed to drive sales. For indie game developers, offering a discount is promotion, as are activities that start conversations and build relationships with the gaming press and key influencers within the gaming community. Exhibiting at a tradeshow or speaking at an event are also types of promotion.
If you’re wondering how that differs from marketing, think of Promotion as an ingredient of the "marketing mix", along with Product, Price, and Place. In other words, marketing can exist without promotion, but promotion doesn’t exist without marketing.
When planning a promotion strategy, use "What you need for game promotion" section as a checklist divided into three categories:
- Assets to create that will help you promote your product any time, and on any channel (see the Place section, below).
- Things to be doing on an ongoing basis.
- Events to participate in to promote your product.
To help you plan an event strategy, create a separate document with a timeline that includes vital details such as deadlines for submissions, load-in/load-out dates for exhibitors, deadlines for making travel reservations, and a schedule for producing targeted press materials (press releases tailored for the event, new game trailers, and so on).
What you need for game promotion
- Logo — An icon image that instantly communicates what your product is and is not.
- Gameplay screenshots — Pictures that emphasize the best things your product has to offer.
- Trailers — To get potential customers excited to experience and buy your product.
- Messaging text — Tell your game’s story in a sentence or short paragraph, and create a few bullet points that emphasize your product’s key selling points.
- Gameplay videos — Showcase your product by focusing on scenes that will entice people to want to learn more about your product, play it, and buy it.
- Press materials/playable demo(s) — Have these always on hand and ready to distribute when the opportunity arises.
- Build relationships with key influencers, YouTube gamers, and streamers — Enlist the aid of others to spread the word about what you’re building and how cool it is.
- Establish partnerships with other brands — Force-multiply your promotional results by also employing the marketing muscle of established businesses to help you get the word out about your product.
- Blog about how development is progressing — Let your audience see what’s happening behind the scenes to get them interested in the end result. Turn yourself, and your team, into a part of your product’s key selling points.
- Refresh content on your social media channels (Facebook*, Instagram*, YouTube*, and so on) — Build a fan base and create excitement over your product.
- Build and maintain an email list of potential customers — Spark interest with the goal of converting list subscribers to paying customers.
- Build a website and refresh its content to continually build excitement about your product as it develops — Attract attention, generate interest, and make it easy for people to take action — read reviews, play a demo, watch trailers, subscribe to your email list, and purchase your product.
- Tradeshows (Game Developers Conference, Electronic Entertainment Expo, Intel® Buzz Workshops, PAX, Independent Games Festival, and so on) — Exhibit and speak to increase awareness and attract interest from potential customers and the gaming press.
- Gamer meetups — Meet potential customers and get them excited about your product.
- Contests Intel®Level Up Game Developer Contest — Get valuable feedback from notable industry judges, raise awareness, and possibly win valuable prizes.
What about advertising
There was a time when product marketing was synonymous with advertising. For indie game developers, however, the costs often outweigh the benefits — depending on where you choose to run an ad campaign. For example, social media ads are relatively inexpensive, and may be worth the effort and money spent on them, but placing ads with more traditional media — print and television — may not yield enough returns to make the cost and effort worthwhile.
If you do choose to advertise, target your ads carefully. You want to reach as many people that fall within your target audience demographic as possible. Digital delivery media — such as YouTube — let you pick the age, gender, parental status, and household income of those who will see your ad. Placing an ad in a popular, general-interest print publication that covers games as part of its editorial mix may put your message in front of a lot of people, but it’s unlikely that they all play, or care about, games.
When in doubt, ask yourself if what you’re planning to spend will result in enough potential sales to make the cost worthwhile.
One of the most effect ways to spread the word about your product is to enlist the help of established and respected gamers who actively share what they’re playing with the gaming community. These YouTube gamers and streamers can be an elusive bunch, but building relationships with key influencers whose interests align with your product is a great way to build an audience.
Partner with established brands
Building relationships with established brands — companies whose products align with yours — is a great way to expand your promotional activity in ways you normally would not be able to afford. For example, some companies may invite you to exhibit in their booth at prominent industry events at minimal or no cost, other than your travel expenses.
Public relations (PR) — should you hire a pro, or DIY
Unless you’re extroverted and love to interact with people — including complete strangers — you may find it challenging to directly engage in many of the activities professional publicists typically handle for their clients. Hiring a PR firm, however, can be costly. If you can’t afford to hire a pro, consider teaming up with a friend or family member who’s comfortable building relationships, storytelling, and being persistent. The effort you and your promotion-oriented friend/family member/partner put into public relations can pay off significantly.
Whether you’re doing PR or someone is doing it for you, before contacting influencers and the press, know their niches, and respect them. When you’re building a PC game, don’t contact people or publications solely focused on mobile games. When telling your product’s story, keep sight of its key selling points, but be careful not to oversell it in the process. Let others draw their own conclusions about its quality.
Places where people can buy your product are the focus of the fourth P. With so many digital distribution channels available, plan on leveraging all of the available channels, assessing them as your product matures in the marketplace. Do the same with any physical places where your product can be purchased.
Table 3 can help you catalog all of your distribution channels. As you start planning, use the table as a checklist. As your distribution network grows, be sure to track your market coverage, and spot gaps in your network. As you start selling product, track your sales. And, like the other three Ps in the marketing mix, diligently monitor each category and adjust your marketing mix accordingly.
|Place||Channel 1||Channel 2||Channel 3||Channel 4||Channel …|
Assortments (OEM bundles and
partner distribution channels)
|Locations (brick-and-mortar stores)|
Table 3. Record your distribution channels
Online outlets for distributing your product fall into two categories: places you can set up yourself, and places other businesses run with which you can partner. The latter usually involve a straightforward sign-up process for joining a partner program.
Places that should be on every indie game developers’ must-have channel list include, but are not limited to:
- A website — Be sure your site — either for your company, or dedicated solely to promoting your game — includes prominently positioned calls-to-action (that is, download, purchase, play the demo, and so forth).
- A Facebook page — Be sure to include links to your website, your YouTube channel, your product on YouTube Gaming, your Steam landing page, and information about any other place that’s promoting your product.
- A YouTube channel — Provide a place where people can watch your video trailers.
- A YouTube Gaming presence — Post gameplay videos of your product made by key influencers and gamers, not your team.
Assortments, or game bundles, are another way to get your product additional exposure. By packaging your product, or a partial version of your product with other similar titles, you can piggy-back promotion and sales efforts with other developers.
Crowdfunding sites offer another channel for both selling and promoting your product. While you’re still developing your product, crowdfunding sites let you raise money by selling promotional items (t-shirts, bumper stickers, and so forth), offer early access to betas, or playable demos, and so on. They can also be a source of news when, for example, players leave glowing feedback, or your fundraising exceeds your wildest dreams.
Getting distributed in a large brick-and-mortar retail outlet can be challenging for indies with no proven track record. Boutique game stores often have a highly dedicated clientele. Teaming up with boutiques whose customers align with your product can be a very effective alternate retail strategy.
Getting inventory from here to there
Use the last three categories of Table 3 — Inventory, Transportation, and Logistics — to track available inventory, shipping and transportation services (and costs), as well as any related logistics. Even if you’re selling digital keys to download a compressed package containing your product, or to unlock your product on a streaming site, use these categories to help ensure that each of your digital channels has what they need to effectively distribute your product.
When used correctly, marketing strategies and promotional plans based on the Four Ps can help you get your game in front of the right people, at the right time — giving you a better chance at achieving your sales and profit goals, while building customer satisfaction and loyalty. To do that effectively, devoting time and effort to marketing and promotion is necessary. How much time is enough? Our recommendation is to spend a minimum of 20 percent of your time marketing and promoting your work. Without marketing, it doesn’t matter how much hard work and brilliant design went into your game. If people don’t know it exists, it isn’t likely to generate much revenue. With the right marketing, however, the sky’s the limit.