A while back, I watched Indie Game: The Movie and was struck by how much indie game development and indie book publishing had in common. I had the pleasure of interviewing the talented and inspiring indie game developer, Jonathan Blow. Below is the second in a three-part series that discusses the similarities between developing games and publishing books as an indie. Read Part 1 here.
Marketing can be tough for game developers and writers. Both sometimes spend months or even years working on a project, and once it’s finished they have to learn to go out in the public and aggressively market their baby.
In order to succeed, books and games need to be promoted. Game developers and writers both pay for ads and build buzz around the launch of their work. Another common technique for game developers is to go to exhibits, showcases, and conferences. It’s similar to book signings. A popular conference for games is PAX East in Boston.
Blow said he likes to market his games because the people with no connection to the game see what it’s like before it’s released. He keeps a blog to update game industry press on the projects, and he also does press tours. Early on in his latest project, The Witness, he said he sat people down and let them play the early version of the game for a couple hours.
“People really responded to that,” he said.
Press tours help generate interest and open up more opportunities, he said. A while back he was in a giant console launch show for PlayStation 4, an audience with millions of people, and Blow said Sony thought his game would be a good addition to their show.
“I think it’s key to try and figure out PR things to help build this kind of rolling snowball effect,” he said.
For authors, selling a few hundred books a day is huge. For indie game developers, 10,000 sales on launch day is considered a success. However, Blow said expectations differ depending on the platform the game is sold. For example, games on consoles sell for around $10. By selling 10,000 copies, the developer earns about $50,000, after all parties involved are paid, Blow said. But if the developer sells an iPhone game, they would only earn $6,000–7,000 dollars because the game would be priced at 99 cents.
“That’s pretty good sales for one day,” Blow said, “but that drops off pretty quickly and it may also represent a year or more of work. So suddenly it doesn’t sound so good.”
Just as with books, the first few weeks of game sales tend to be the biggest. But just like with ebooks, game developers can run effective sales promotions.
“You might run a 50 percent off sale and get a giant spike again later that’s almost as big as your launch spike for a couple days,” Blow said. “Also, in terms of long-term viability […] the better the thing that you make, or at least the more it spans out to other things, the more of a lifetime it will have. So if you just make a game that’s kind of fun but doesn’t stand on its own in people’s memory, you know two years after you release it there’s probably nobody buying it.”
Indie games and indie books get reviews. Both developers and authors may feel sensitive to negative feedback, and most creators are worried about making bad products. On the other hand, there’s a sense of validation when people like a work.
“Negative reviews are always a little hard,” Blow said. “I’m one of those people that can read ten positive things and one negative thing and I won’t even notice the positive things, and I’ll be very bothered by the negative thing.”
However, Blow said the details he cares about and works hard to include in his games are often not the things reviewers really notice.
“So in a sense they’re not exactly reviewing the thing I made, or they’re reviewing it from a viewpoint that doesn’t see a lot of what I made,” he said.
Blow said he’s also noticed that some games he has not enjoyed have received high reviews.
“The only rational conclusion to draw there is that whoever these critics are that are being collected, wherever, they have different ideas about what’s good and what’s interesting than I do,” he said.
He said he will keep that in mind the next time his work receives a lot of reviews. Instead of focusing on the negative, he will focus on making games that interest him.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of the series, which will cover how both indie game developers and indie book publishers deal with piracy and DRM, work with platforms, and check the quality of their work. Read Part 1 here.