Smart marketing for new video-game releases starts from the beginning, with a well-designed product.
"You have to make a really fun game that's engaging ... and players are excited about talking about it and sharing it," says Josh Nilson, chief operating officer of Vancouver-based East Side Games.
Other industry players say the growth of free and "freemium" – get the game free, then pay for extra functions or levels – makes design even more important.
"The world has really changed because of this freemium model," says Ray Sharma, founder and president of Toronto-based mobile game developer XMG Studio Inc., who adds that 90 per cent of his company's revenue came from paid games in 2011, but 90 per cent came from freemium games in 2012.
Freemium games make money by selling in-game supplements – such as virtual goods – and from promoting other products within the game and getting paid when someone downloads them. Once people invest money in a game they'll spend time with it before giving up. But when it's free, says Joseph Lieberman, a game marketing consultant based in Philomath, Ore., and author of The Indie Developer's Guide to Selling Games, "they don't have a high level of commitment." So if they don't like it in the first few minutes, you've lost them.
Standing out also depends heavily on user reviews and downloads, making metrics important, says Alex Sakiz, president of Montreal-based Gamerizon, which sells games such as Chop Chop Ninja around the world.
Gamerizon wants to know not only how often customers play and for how long, but where they stop. If many of them quit in the same place, that suggests it's too difficult and the game needs to change. Gamerizon constantly tweaks its products in the belief that even if it has 95 per cent of a freemium game right, "the 5 per cent ... is enough to ruin you."
Responding to user comments and reviews also gets players more engaged, says Purnima Kochikar, director of business development for Google Play, games and applications at Google Inc. "They know that their voice is being heard."
Where magazine reviews were once the big score for developers, Mr. Lieberman says, "where the big money is now is attracting the attention of YouTube-casters." At least one YouTube video led to single-day sales equalling the game's launch day, he points out, so creating games that look interesting on the video-sharing service pays off.
Short, developer-produced videos called trailers have been a mainstay of game marketing. They're still important, Mr. Lieberman says, though less so than other tactics as they emerge. XMG invests significantly in trailers, Mr. Sharma says, because they're a good way to communicate what a game is all about, but "it doesn't really seem to make a huge difference to users."
It's possible to make a good video for $200 to $1,000 in a couple of days, Mr. Nilson says.
Services such as TapJoy and Chartboost let game developers cross-promote their titles within games made by other companies. Users who download a game within another game get benefits such as virtual resources, and the developer with the title containing the ad gets a commission.
Successful marketing depends on smart, engaging ads, Mr. Nilson says. East Side Games likes to tie ads to themes – at this time of year, for instance, an Easter theme. Eye-catching icons help too, he says. Nothing is surefire, so "try stuff. Don't spend everything in one place."
Games played on social networks such as Facebook rely heavily on players telling friends what they're doing. Early games made players seek help to achieve goals, but Facebook has cracked down on that annoying tactic, Mr. Lieberman says, so now developers encourage players to brag about their accomplishments.
In terms of competition, the larger marketing budgets available to big companies are a luxury, not a necessity, Mr. Sharma says. Mr. Lieberman says smaller companies focus on promoting specific games, while larger ones can spend dollars on building their brands – which probably helps unit sales, he explains, but not necessarily profits.
Games by big companies tend to dominate "best of" lists because they are more complex and have better art, Mr. Lieberman says. Yet smaller companies account for a sizeable share of sales on mobile devices and PCs, though less on game consoles such as Xbox and Wii, which are complex to develop for and demand splashy visuals.
The realities of marketing vary among the different gaming platforms – PCs, online and mobile devices – and even between different mobile platforms. For games on the Windows operating system, the big hurdle is getting on Steam, an online game store and community that Mr. Lieberman says accounts for about 80 per cent of that market. But Steam rejects more than half of independent games, he adds. While it's not the kiss of death, failing to make Steam means a developer must work harder to sell.
Getting featured on Apple's App Store is similarly crucial in the iPhone market, Mr. Lieberman says, while Google's Android is more fragmented, making it easier to get placed but forcing developers to court multiple publishers, such as the Google Play store and Amazon's Appstore.
A game's popularity – measured in downloads – is a significant factor for the prominence it gets in the app stores. What else matters isn't clear. Mr. Lieberman says people who make placement decisions are probably influenced by online comments and news about games – and direct pressure from game developers can't be ruled out. "Any time you have a human in the equation persuasion becomes a factor," he explains.
There's also the global marketplace to consider.
China is the world's largest smartphone market with more than 300 million Android and Apple phones, says Henry Fong, chief executive officer of game localization company Yodo1 in Beijing. "If an indie developer localizes a game so it has Chinese text and cultural elements, the chances at success and profit are a lot higher."
Developers should also consider payment methods. North Americans favour credit cards, but other regions are more cash-oriented, so gift cards that can be purchased with hard currency are popular, as well as with billing through carriers.
Specific tactics aside, Mr. Lieberman says game developers make two crucial mistakes: One is not thinking about marketing early, because marketing considerations should influence game design. The second is giving up easily. Even if the first game makes no money, "the marketing of a successful indie company is really about building on your user base."