I do a lot of Q&As and many questions I get are like “Well game <X> came out of nowhere without any marketing and it did ok, so why even bother?”

That feeling totally makes sense!

There are games released every month that come out of nowhere and rocket up the charts and I feel that same feeling: “Well damn, that seemed easy. What am I even doing?”

Why even bother with marketing? What does it even do?

A while ago I heard this marketer gave a great analogy about how to conceptualize creating products (games) and marketing them. I don’t remember who described it, or even if it is one person who came up with it or if it is one of those legends handed down from marketer to marketer.

Anyway… it goes like this…

The bowling ball vs the feather

Basically your product (in this case a game) is either a bowling ball or a feather. 

When a game is a bowling ball, the moment you release it, it falls down the sales charts so fast. It crashes hard, with a loud thump. You try every trick in the book to get it up the sales charts to the “new and trending” or to get it upvotes and onto the front page of reddit. But because it is a bowling ball, it is heavy and really really hard to move it up. The moment you stop that promotion, down it falls again even faster than you picked it up.

When a game is a feather, the moment you let it go it just floats there, lighter than air. It almost seems like it has some sort of mysterious anti-gravity property. And even if it does sink, the slightest puff, or passing breeze will send it floating back up into the air. You almost feel guilty, you didn’t even have to do anything. A game that is a feather just sits up there on top of the sales charts. You post it on Reddit and before you know it, it’s on the front page.

So what does this have to do with marketing?

Basically marketing is lifting your game up 8 feet off the ground and letting it go. Everything that happens after that depends on if your game is a feather or a bowling ball. Marketing is giving it that little push upwards when it starts to sink.

Marketing is the upward force. Your game is the downward force, the question how much downward is there?

But why even do marketing if you have a feather?

The trick is you don’t know if you have a feather or a bowling ball until you launch your game and give it to the general public. I have seen games that look like feathers before launch but once real players get ahold of it they quickly discover it was actually a bowling ball. 

Maybe your game doesn’t look that great so it feels like a bowling ball until launch but then some sub-genre fan base falls in love with it and promotes it for you and it turns out you actually had a feather it just looked like a bowling ball. 

Because you don’t know, you just have to give it your best shot. Lift your game up as high as you can before you let go. Because the higher you lift it, the better the chance one of those lucky gusts of mind will come by and send it higher in the charts for longer. 

No but seriously, game <x> released with no marketing and it made $750K in 1 month!

Yes, that game did great. It was clearly a feather.

Because there was no marketing, they essentially lifted it 6 inches off the ground, but it was a feather so it hovered for a bit, and then a very very lucky gust of wind (a popular streamer discovered the game) came by and blew it higher and higher up the sales chart. 

I wish we could all do that, don’t forget to look at the opportunity costs. Imagine how much higher that game could have soared if they had done some proper marketing. They could have made 10x more than what they did.

Also don’t forget about survivorship bias. Think of the other feather games that also did no marketing so were released 6 inches off the ground, but that lucky gust never came. For every story of that 1 game that came out of nowhere without any marketing there are dozens of feathers out there that didn’t get that lucky gust. 

If this is your passion project, don’t you want to give it the best chance you can? By marketing your game you are increasing the time it can spend in the air so that a lucky gust can come.

I did everything you tell me I should do but my game still failed! It is all luck!

YES! There is a lot of luck in games marketing. Luck is not knowing when that gust is going to hit your game (like a streamer playing your game.) Luck is your marketing person lifting the game up 8 feet but it turns out they are actually standing on an escalator that goes up to floor 3 so you got 3 stories + 8 feet worth of promotion. Lucky you!

But more often than not (especially if this is your first game) your game is just a bowling ball. There is no shame in that. It’s just reality. When your game is a bowling ball, you can run the perfect marketing playbook, do everything everyone recommends, and the game still fails. That is just how this business is. 

If people don’t want your game, no amount of marketing is going to brainwash them into liking it. Really, I can’t hypnotize people into liking something. There is no magic word I can say that changes people’s minds. They like what they like.

I think failed games hurt so badly because they feel so lonely. It seems like everyone is doing well except you. It feels personal. You believed in this project but how could you be so blind? But that isn’t the case. EVERYONE has failed games because we don’t know what is going to work or not. I always like to read about mobile mega publisher Supercell. They use tons of metrics to quickly determine if a game is a bowling ball or a feather. If it is a bowling ball, they stop wasting effort lifting it. They drop it fast and get out of the way. This is a great article about their process of killing games

Ultimately it comes down to your game.

What it feels like when you have a feather 

I have worked for several publishers who are simultaneously marketing multiple games and you can just sense which ones are the feathers vs the bowling balls. I know it isn’t the marketing tactics or the team’s fault because the same people are working on both games and we are using the same playbook for both.

But the feathers get accepted into every show we applied for and ends up in the “featured” section. Streamers email us asking for keys (and not just the spammers). The imgur posts almost always go viral and the twitter posts get hundreds of retweets and likes the moment we post it. Our daily wishlists stay high even after the festivals end. 

It feels like you can do no wrong. You have the golden touch. It is so fun to market a feather!

And the bowling balls? They are the opposite in every single way.

What to do if you suspect you have a bowling ball

So nobody retweets gifs of your game? Nobody upvotes your reddit posts? You literally give away copies of your game to streamers and not a single person streams it? Nobody asks when it is coming out? Some days you get more deletes than wishlists?

I’ll be honest, those are all early warning signs you have a bowling ball.

BUT if this is your first game, don’t worry. You are just learning. Don’t quit. The first time you got on a bike you didn’t pop a wheelie and then into a bunny hop. You should still finish your game! Don’t give up.

But my feeling is you just can’t add more to turn a Bowling Ball into a feather. No amount of screaming “But we have a level editor! Or we added 1000 levels.” If people aren’t interested in the art or the concept of your game, adding more of it is not going to make them want it. 

My advice is to try and get your game to a beta or release as soon as you can. Don’t spend more money on trying to turn it into something it isn’t. Don’t stretch out the development period, or go into crunch to turn things around (please read about the sunk cost fallacy).

Release it and see. If it turns out you actually have a feather, congrats! You can always update it and add that level editor or 1000 levels. But if it is a bowling ball, then start working on your next game.

Ending on a positive note

One of my most viral tweets ever was this one where I showed this chart indicating how many puzzle and platformers are released and how poorly they sell compared to other genres on Steam.

Here is that chart:

Some indies responded that they don’t care. They are proudly going to march into certain doom despite knowing the poor sales in store for them. “This is the only game I am motivated to make!” they say.

But, having marketed a lot of bowling balls and feathers, it is so so much more fun and motivating to market and make a game that everyone is excited for. You get into every festival, fans write you telling you how excited they are to play your game, every bit of news you post is gobbled up.

That is motivating! That is fun!

So if you are struggling and hating game development… it IS hard (I am not going to lie), but it doesn’t have to be a death march. Being smart about the games you pick and looking at the genres that the Steam audience is excited for and interested in makes the development process so much more fun.

If you are curious how to understand the genres Steam likes check out these resources:

Feather photo by Javardh on Unsplash