Flew the Coop: Playing Chicken with Indie Game Marketing

Toronto is developing quite the reputation for being a hub of indie game development, and for good reason: the city is packed with small teams and individual devs making games, some to great acclaim. But for all our creative strength, i worry that a number of our devs are doomed to failure because we, as a community, lack the business sense required to get our games noticed … and sold.

We’re running a lot of game jams in the city. In addition to TOJam, we’ve had Clam Jam, library jam, and the ongoing Game Prototype Challenge led by Jason P. Kaplan, which runs almost monthly. So a lot of small games and prototypes are getting made, but how are they selling? Are they even being sold? Who knows about them, or their creators? If you’re living outside of Toronto, how many Toronto game devs can you name?

Jason P. Kaplan

Here’s one:Kaptain Kaplan himself. (Photo by Brendan Lynch)

Stop Building, Start Selling

i can’t remember who to credit this idea to, but recently someone suggested that instead of running game jams, Toronto should have a marketing jam. The need for us to get better at business was never more clear to me than when Jason announced the release of his first indie game, Flew the Coop, on iOS. i asked him “what’s your marketing plan?”, and he just kind of shrugged sheepishly.

i can haz farm puns?

i know where he’s coming from. The rule of thumb i’ve heard is that for every dollar you spend on game development, you need to spend a dollar on marketing. To begin with, very few indie devs actually bother putting a dollar value to their time. “What was your budget on that game?” “Nothing! It was all sweat equity!” Well, fine … but it costs you a certain amount of money to LIVE and EAT, Mr. Clever. From there, you can find out your annual cost of living. Factor in the number of hours you work in a week, on average, and you can determine your hourly rate. Multiply that by the number of hours you sunk into your game, and that’s the game’s budget.

Let’s say your game took $5000 to make. That’s $5k in sweat equity – “free” money – because you didn’t actually have to produce cold hard cash for development. But if the marketing rule of thumb is to be believed, you now have to cook up five thousand real, actual dollars to market the game … Facebook and iAds don’t accept a service barter. Cooking up that marketing cash is often beyond the ability or appetite of small indie devs. The result is that they release their games, hoping they will somehow magically catch like wildfire through word of mouth because they’re so good, and they’ll be the talk of the town. If you’ve spent even an hour reading articles on the success rates of iOS developers, you’ll know that there are thousands of devs out there still waiting for their ships to come in.

The Holy Grail of 3-Figure Sales

The challenge, then, is to come up with marketing plans that don’t cost any money. You’ve already seen what i’ve done to promote my game portals with The World’s Most Meager Marketing Budget – a miniscule $100 pot and a LOT of sweat equity. My pal Matt Rix, the successful developer of Trainyard for the iPhone, set up a great David vs. Goliath battle when he asked the Reddit community to help him dethrone Angry Birds in the App Store. Zero marketing money paired with a good story (and a GREAT game) rocketed him to the top of the charts.

(and it doesn’t hurt that his beard is dead sexy)

i took a look at Jason’s Flew the Coop and thought “if this was my game, how would i market it with zero dollars?” The game is a Canabalt clone that pits you as a baby chicken running away from a farm, bouncing on the backs of animals and avoiding the inappropriate grasping of farmers. The first thing that came to mind is the involvement PETA had with Super Meat Boy, where they created a parody game called Super Tofu Boy. So i tweeted PETA about Flew the Coop:

i don’t think they noticed.

Make a Suggestion, Win a Free Game!

So! Maybe i’m not the free marketing master i thought i was. Or maybe i’m just not trying hard enough because it’s not my game. But have a promo code for a FREE COPY OF FLEW THE COOP for the reader who can cook up the best free marketing idea for the game by next Wednesday June 22 2011.

Can you really market a game with no money? Or are those who have done it just incredibly, incredibly lucky? Post your best idea in the comments section below, and let’s see what Jason can do for Flew the Coop on a … ahem … wing and a prayer.

Further Reading:

19 thoughts on “Flew the Coop: Playing Chicken with Indie Game Marketing

  1. Daniel Steger

    I have trouble quite understanding marketing for iOS myself. The problem I see is most devs are trying to court apple instead of their players, because they know that apple featuring them is a big deal. Yet there isn’t a direct way to market to apple to get featured. Apple’s attention is most likely garners when a game is both stand out, and has garnered the attention of many smaller sources of attention (blogs, apple dev news, etc). Being a stand-out product may not work on its own, because there is such a HUGE wave of products you can still get lost in the shuffle.

  2. Angelique Mason

    First do simple marketing 101.. send out press releases and kits to target blogs and news outlets that specifically cover mobile apps and indie games. You only need a few bloggers that have a decent size community to post or review your game for word of mouth to take shape.

  3. Sean O'Mara

    My lamest most uninspired suggestion for Flew The Coop is to make a lite/free version. As a teacher all my kids have iPods/iPhones with no music, but gigs and gigs of apps. The trouble is that these kids don’t have credit cards, or money. They could get a taste for the game and ask their parents for the full version later. Either way it’ll create word of mouth. Also, (and I don’t know if the game does this) get the game to have multiplayer online capabilities. If nothing else, the online could just allow them to compare high scores, cuz those high scores are soooooooooooooooooooooooo important to kids (they think people really care)
    -Sean O’Mara #nevermadeagameinmylife

  4. David Doel

    Create a video called ‘Flew the Coop’, that is a trailer for a fake film. The main star is a guy dressed in a chicken suit, and it’s about him moving out of his parents house. It’s shot in a way where it’s trying to be serious but because it’s so poorly acted and directed, it’s funny. Then at the end of the trailer you have a message saying “Buy the game, because the movie sucks” with a link to the game on iTunes.

    I have a background in tv/film production so my mind immediately went there. I actually work in videogame marketing and I agree with you, it’s damn hard for indie developers to get any sort of marketing budget short of having someone else reach out to them who can benefit mutually from it. So it’s really up to them to be creative, but I continue to bang that drum of getting people to pay attention to the little guys, because that’s where all the interesting experiences are.

  5. Michael Todd

    It’s true that lots of us (including me) forget that we’re making products sometimes. And about the worst feeling in game design is making a game, pouring all that effort into it, and then having it fail when you release it, because you fucked up marketing it.

    I’ve suggested making a sell-your-games jam before, but the obvious difficulties are simply pointed out, and I drop the idea for a few months. But the idea of a marketing-jam is interesting. I’ve got to cook something up with that.

    Thanks for the great blog post.

  6. Tim Miller

    I’ve thought about putting money into advertising on gaming websites, facebook, whatever for my iOS games, but I personally never ever click on (and barely even pay any attention to) web ads so I feel like spending my money on ads is like throwing it down a hole. However they say that a person needs to hear about an app 3 to 5 times before they’ll buy it, so it’s possible that advertising, even if not clicked, can help get the name into the back of a person’s mind so that one day they might see the app in the store and go “oh hey I heard about that somewhere, sold.”.

    I have put money into press releases via prweb.com and prmac.com but didn’t see any jump in sales when the releases went live. Still I think press releases are a good idea and I’ll keep putting them out with each of my new games.

    One of the worst things you can do is wait until your app is on the store before you start your marketing. Before the app hits the store you should take advantage of all the free/viral/social kinda stuff out there like posting progress on a dev blog, offering exclusive first looks to the press, rolling out teaser footage in a toucharcade thread, demoing at conferences, getting lots of facebook, twitter and website followers and whatever else you can to to spread the word.

    Anyway, that’s all just tip of the iceberg stuff. Being good at marketing is like being good at programming or art – we can’t just flip the switch from developer to marketer and expect the world to notice our games. The idea of a “marking jam” is a good one and it’s something I’d be interested in attending!

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      Thanks, Tim! i’ve seen those pay-to-submit-your-press-release sites, and they all reek of scam. Is that really the only way to distribute a press release? By paying?

      1. Martin Copp

        We’ve had luck with gamespress.com, their free, and friendly to indies(iOS, XBLIG, etc) and AAA studios alike. Have a teaser trailer? Toss it up there. Updated your game? Put a press release together and fire it off.

        Seems to work pretty well, got us onto Gamasutra and a few other big sites. Although I’m not sure, I feel like a few of the smaller scale sites caught wind of us through our gamepress press kit as well.

      2. Angelique Mason

        you dont need to pay to release a press release in fact I would never suggest paying. You only need to contact the editors of those new outlets and a press kit should be inviting making editors want to share your game with their readers. Editors and community managers always are looking for new content to share with their readers so make the press kit appealing. It is a good idea to start marketing actually before the game is released to build momentum and to ensure that you have editors who are willing to not only review but share your information, you may have to go thru a few before you find takers.

  7. Chris Harshman

    This is really the biggest reason I haven’t really tried to make any indie games, sure I could but to really make it successful it requires alot more than I would enjoy putting into it.

    Really there is no right way to market an indie game like this (iOS or similar or even PC), and really if you look at the games that really became big successes out there, they did so with alot of luck, which is also called being at the right place at the right time.

    If you are looking for a marketing method, for any game like this, it needs to go viral, the quicker the better. If the game isn’t released yet, you need to generate hype for it.

    At least one way this could be achieved, if to start creating videos that aluded to the game through a story, so you basically turn your character from the game into an adventure story with a purpose.

    An example could be a video diary with the chick, maybe starting out with the chick becoming self aware, then going through his emotions and methods for escape.

    I am purposely being vague because it is really hard to nail down a marketing plan in a blog comment.

  8. Chercher

    I think Jason should dress up in a chicken costume and run around Yonge and Dundas square to promote his game. A farmer chasing him would be good too!

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton

      i like this idea. But then again, you’re my wife, so i have to.

      To everyone suggesting that you get your unfinished game out to journalists for some pre-release hype: it sounds like a good idea in theory, but i haven’t had any personal success with it. When i was trying to get the word out about Spellirium, our upcoming post-apocalyptic puzzle adventure game, i contacted eight indie-friendly journos and told them about the game. To a man, they all said the same thing: hit us up again when it’s finished.

      Here are the two things i think i’ve learned about pre-release hype: 1. do it when the game is in final testing, just before it goes gold. Announcing it too early may turn into a Duke Nukem Forever situation. 2. You gotta get the ball rolling on your own, by uploading a trailer to YouTube and other video sites, and by talking to small publications, and then hope that some of the medium-sized fish pick it up from there.

  9. Sina Kashanizadeh

    So mine is a little silly, but different. We always Oscar nominated movies that are “based on true events”. Even if the movie is not that good it will get attention because of the hook that the audience believed it actually happened in real life.

    On the news we always hear about some weener kid inventing a crummy burglar alarm, but the story gets attention because it something unique.

    To make myself clear I am not saying that this game is not good, but I think to create an air of curiosity you can create a “non-fiction” around it by saying how this chicken is a hero and how this game tells the story of his escape. I mean Fargo said “THIS IS A TRUE STORY” but it actually was not. Fourth Kind also stated that as well.

    With this you can create a buzz around your mascot. Also it is so ridiculous its funny.

  10. Mushyrulez

    Definitely, spreading it through a gaming community would be the best idea.

    Problem is, if you’re a regular in those communities and people know you, everybody in the community would probably hear about your game. If you aren’t, nobody’s going to care. Here’s where ‘sweat equity’ may come in – is it ‘work’ to ‘become a part of a community’? I personally think that nobody’s that stupid to join a community for such a reason, but meh.

  11. Ryan Henson Creighton

    Ooh … i’ve got one: Jason, you said that you think young children would really enjoy Flew the Coop. Have you contacted any Mommy Blogs about the game? Have you tried getting on lists of best iPad games for kids? What turns up when you Google that exact phrase: “best iPad games for kids” ? Does your game appear anywhere within the first 10 hits? If not, what would it take to see that it does?

    1. Jason P. Kaplan

      I have contacted a few mom blogger communities and websites that seem to have high clout, and pretty much none of them replied, or made some vague comment about “checking it out” and haven’t heard back since.

      Googling iPad games for kids net some interesting results. There are some collections of websites. I’ll be contacting them, but unfortunately I’ve already sent out all my promo codes to iPhone app review sites (which, amazingly, I also haven’t heard back from, for the most part. Isn’t this their job?) so all I can do is point them in the direction, for now, and if they demand a promo code then I wait until I can generate more (when the unused ones expire in another 3 weeks, or when I push v1.1 my promo codes get restored).

      Otherwise, SEO, I guess?

      I have used all Facebook Ad and Google AdWord credit I had laying around, but I’m reluctant to spend money for the reasons Tim mentioned about. I’ve never drafted a press release, but I think I will for update 1 and try gamespress.com (thanks for the tip, Martin).

      Even something as simple as “run around dressed like a chicken and be chased by a farmer in Toronto” is quite expensive. Where does one even get a chicken costume, and on the cheap? Plus it’s a day away from working and that costs money too (well, sweat, or whatever).

      It was mentioned on Twitter that it takes on average up to 3 months for a game to ramp up to be viable; we’re used to seeing big overnight successes, but that’s rarely the case. My focus is to keep working on making it a better game and of higher value, release more games of high value, and hope to drive in organic sales. At some point down the line I’ll likely either release a free game which will hopefully generate traffic to my pay-for games, or try a free-for-weekend deal on something, or both.

      In any case, each update or release will get a press release, once I learn what goes into one… and I will probably spend some time with video editing software, cutting trailers and attempting to ramp hype.

      I will note, however, that this is not what I wanted to be doing in going indie.

      1. Bane

        Hey Jason,

        Shoot me an email at Bane . Au @ Gmail and I’ll write you a press release and throw in a small story for some PR on a couple of sites I write for. Let’s see how far this goes ^_^

  12. UnSub

    You are trying to create two things at this point: awareness of the title and trial of the title. (Awareness leads to trial, but if only 10% of people who hear of a game actually play it, you have to work on one to acheive the other).

    A ‘lite’ version is a good way of starting out – it lets people trial the game, hopefully give it some good reviews and then maybe even buy the game. An alternative way is to give the first version of the game away for free in its entirity, then produce a sequel that you charge for.

    If you have the time and money to create a chicken suit video, good luck to you, but lots of advertising stunts get tried and few catch in people’s memories. It would probably be cheaper to webcam yourself begging people to play your game and it will probably attract the same level of attention. Unless you are really good at begging.

    The reason you should be calling those editors / bloggers even when the title isn’t finished is to warm them up to you. You are calling to let them know of a title that you will be releasing in two weeks time. Then call them at release. Then call again a few weeks after, asking if they have any feedback about how to improve the game. More than likely these guys / gals get a lot of emails linking to games – a phone call helps you stand out. If one of them reviews it, call them to say thanks and you accept their criticism. It’s about building that relationship that puts you ahead of the 95% of developers who don’t speak to them.

    Ads aren’t the only form of marketing, only the most visible. You’ve also got personal selling (person to person direct), public relations, direct marketing (emails / catalogues) and sales promotion (i.e. short term reason to buy now). Is there another angle here to consider other than dressing up in funny clothing?


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