The stairstep approach to indie game marketing

I was thinking about this tweet a lot last week

You should really read his whole thread

I write a lot about marketing. One worry I always have is that people will literally do everything I talk about. Which is impossible and not good for anyone. That fear is part of the reason I talk so much about the funnel. I want people to understand the underlying structure of marketing and not think about the individual tactics. Understanding and constructing a funnel is the most fundamental thing. Unfortunately I can’t just keep writing the same blog post over and over that just says “Understand the funnel” “This is a funnel” “Build a funnel.”

Also I am simultaneously writing for folks who are just starting out marketing their first game and large scale developers with multiple games and multiple streams of income. 

Don’t do what Blizzard does 

It reminds me of this excellent blog called “The StairStep approach“. I recommend everyone read it. Don’t dismiss it just because it is about building boring business-to-business software. We indie game developers could learn a lot from it. The gist is: be aware of where you are in the journey towards building your game and your studio. If you are just starting out, the marketing actions you take are wildly different than the actions a studio that has had several hits over several decades.

I always get worried when first time indies reference some marketing tactic that Blizzard did one time. They are on a whole different level from us and we should cautiously study what they do through that lens. 

READ: The Stairstep Approach

Do things that would be impractical for the big guys to do


Derek Yu’s tweet also reminded me of this classic blog post about how when you are in the early phases of building a company, you should be doing things that don’t scale. At the very beginning of your indie career, you should be very hands on with your users (when they consent and ask for it of course). It should be a lot of personal interactions. A lot of 1×1 conversations. Don’t worry if that is something that would never see Blizzard or Nintendo doing. You are small so you get to be very personal with your fans. In turn they will be your biggest advocates that will launch you into the next level. 

READ: Do things that don’t scale

This is what you should focus on, depending on your level

I took 10 minutes and sketched out which marketing activities I would recommend game developers at different scales should undertake. For each level, if the action is not on the list, DON’T do it. For instance, I don’t think it’s worth people’s time to go to a conference until they release a couple games. I also don’t think it is practical to tell people to post on all the social networks all the time. They are just spreading themselves too thin.

So here is my very rough, very quick sketch of a game-developer stair-step approach.

Level 0

Never released a game commercially on your own. Self funded. Have zero network with other indies.

  • 95% of your effort should be focused on releasing and learning what it takes to finish a game. Don’t worry if nobody knows who you are.
  • Super simple trailer that you make yourself that is just a montage of 5 second-long gameplay clips.
  • Attend local (no further than 2 hours away) IGDA or game dev meetups.
  • Posting to 1 (and only 1) Social Network that you really like reading and interacting with.
  • A simple mailing list on the free tier (like mailchimp). Post once a month.
  • Don’t worry about getting a booth at a show, don’t worry about going to GDC.
  • Message people who have left positive reviews and asked them what they like about the game what they can improve.
  • Pay a professional to design your games icon / cover art. Yes the money is worth it.
  • Interacting on your steam forums.
  • Knowing and conversing with most folks who has purchased your game.

Level 1

Released 1 game and working on second or third. Still self funded.

  • Still super simple trailer that you make yourself that just is just a montage of 5 second game play clips.
  • Attend your first conference that is within driving distance 
  • Still only posting to 1 social network that you really like posting to
  • Add an autoresponder to your mailing list to tell subscribers about game #1 and game #2.
  • Pay a professional to design your games icon / cover art.
  • Creating your own Discord server (but don’t worry too much about growing it)
  • Start blogging about your experiences, networking with professionals in the industry.

Level 2

Released multiple games, maybe a publisher or funding deal, existing fan base.

  • Focus on getting wishlists and launch timing
  • Paying for a professional to edit your trailer. 
  • Attending a tier 1 conference like GDC or GamesCom.
  • Posting to multiple social networks with messages that are tailored to that audience.
  • Paid advertising.
  • Really investing in growing a discord server.
  • Paid tier for email marketing platform
  • Hiring a contract or part time marketing person

Level 3

Released multiple published games. Established, well known indie.

  • Full time marketing or community manager
  • Paid advertising
  • Paid booth at a game show (maybe)
  • Paid influencers, paid advertising.
  • Advanced email marketing funnels to sell your backlist.

Your next step:

I don’t know much beyond Level 3. If you are reading this and you are Level 4+ please respond, I am curious what you do. (I am still at the early stages so I can do things that don’t scale like respond to your email that you send me. haha )

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *