Part 1 in this series: ‘Just Put it on Steam!’ Is Not a Strategy
Audience: Independent Developers, Self-publishing
What: High level overview of the areas outside of ‘make a great game!’ that should be considered before you launch. Not all of these may apply to your individual title, but it’s worth the exercise of considering each high-level area and its implications for your game.
When: Ideally you should be thinking of these throughout the development of your title, and make a special effort to revisit and focus on them no less than 3-6 months prior to launch (for any title which has been in development for more than 1 year).
NOTE: Questions provided are only intended as a kicking off point for brainstorming and consideration, and are not intended to be all-encompassing. Please seek additional information and/or guidance from subject matter experts as applicable.
- Market Awareness
- Regional Considerations
- Marketing & PR
- User Experience
- User Testing
- Community & Social Media
- In-Game Social Hooks
- Quality Assurance
- Customer Support
- FTC, EU, and more
- Alternate distribution channels
- Launch Strategy
- Post-Launch Calendar
Being aware of the current market is an absolute must for understanding how to better develop and position your game. If you’re creating a title that will be up against a lot of competition, knowing this in advance will help you better develop, identify, highlight, and market those points that differentiate you from others in the market. If you’re not sure what you’re up against, you’re doing yourself (and potentially your team) a huge disservice. Put some time aside, research the current market, and check in periodically to revise those findings as the market changes.
- Who am I building this for? Who is my customer, and what do they like?
- Is there an existing market for the type of game I’m creating?
- If not, what do we need to do to prove our value to our customers?
- Are there similar titles available, and if so, how do I compare to the leaders in this space?
- What makes my game unique in comparison to what’s currently available?
- How are similar titles in this space marketing themselves? Who is their customer?
If you’re intending on launching your game to a global audience, you’ll also want to be aware of regional considerations. This impacts not just how you build your game, but how you interact with and market it to your non-native-region customers. Remember: Your customer may not end up being who you thought they were; If you gain a huge customer base in another region, how do you keep those players interested and engaged?
- Do I need to be concerned about ratings? (ESRB, PEGI)
- Am I localizing my title? Which regions? Will I expand into additional regions in the future?
- Are there regional holidays, celebrations, etc that I might want to create content for? (ex. Chinese New Year)
- Are there local regulations, laws and/or restrictions I need to be aware of?
- Am I creating content which might be seen as obscene, inappropriate, or otherwise offensive in another region? How do I ensure that I’m not unintentionally creating contentious content?
- Am I providing customer support for non-English speaking regions?
You’ve made a great game!
…Now how do you get other people to notice? In a market that’s saturated with choice, putting careful thought, planning, and resources into your Marketing & PR strategy can be vital. As discussed in the previous article in this series, ‘just put it on Steam!’ is not a solid strategy. While it’s always fantastic when a game picks up traction and gains a huge following without much effort on the part of the team, counting on that is gambling
- Will I be doing my own marketing & PR? Should I hire an external company?
- How will I be launching the game? How do I help build enthusiasm for its release?
- Do I have a strong, established network to leverage in helping launch the game?
- What assets do I need to create to support our launch? Post-launch?
- Are there any non-traditional, creative, or niche opportunities for marketing the game?
- Will I have a dedicated website for the game? The company? Budget for this?
- Will I be sending out our press release? If so, who am I sending it to?
- How much time am I able to dedicate to Marketing & PR versus bug-fixes, v2, etc?
If you’re launching a freemium game, you’re absolutely going to want to investigate and understand your options with regards to advertising models. I know there can be a bit of hesitation around Advertising, but remember: there are models which benefit both you and the customer. (thankfully enough, these also tend to be among the most effective!)
- What type of ad experience is the best for my players?
- What type of ads do I want to include?
- Do I turn off ads when a customer makes a purchase? (Hint: YES! Save for player activated, incentivized video ads)
- Which ad provider(s) will I work with?
- How much time have I set aside for integrating & testing ad SDKs?
- How do I measure the success of advertising?
In short, how will you make money from your game? Making a game just for fun is fantastic, but if you’re attempting to earn a living from your work you need to carefully consider how you will be making money from it well before you send it out into the real world. For example, in markets such as the Steam store, a premium model is still a viable option for most titles as long as you hit the right price point for your content. However, if you’re launching on the App Store or Google Play Store, you’re going to want to strongly consider a freemium option with an ad-supported and/or in-app purchases. Your game and its audience will help inform the strategy that’s likely to work best for you, but if you’re not thinking this through early in your development it may be too late to change course.
- What strategy is likely to be the most effective for my expected customer base?
- Freemium vs. Premium
- Advertisements: Banners, Interstitials, Incentivized video?
- Ad Partners: Who will I work with?
- What’s the schedule impact of integrating & testing ad SDKs?
- DLC / In-app purchases
- Does the pricing for items change based on region?
- Are there tax implications for selling in different regions?
- Sales: Will we do them, and how often?
- How do I measure success?
In short, what information do you need from your game once it has been launched? It’s much easier to build in the hooks to collect the right data before you ship than to attempt to foist them in at a later date, so think through this area and what would be beneficial information for you to have longer term.
- What information do I want about the game once it has been launched?
- Do I need to develop any in-game hooks for reporting?
- Am I appropriately protecting any personally identifiable customer information?
- Do I have clear policies in place for where and how this information is consumed/shared
- What information will I need to act on?
Outside of ‘how do I make money in the game’, you’ll also want to consider your larger financial picture. If you’re self-publishing and relying on your game’s success for your income, this should be at the forefront of your mind before going into indie game development as your full time profession.
- Am I working on this game full time? If not, how much time am I able to devote each week?
- What’s my expected ship date? (Hint: Add a year…)
- Am I self funding this game, or seeking external investment?
- At what point do I have to return to another source of income, or seek external funding?
- Is crowdfunding or alternative funding an option I’m willing to consider?
- Is Steam early access an opportunity for additional funding for this title?
- How much of my own money am I willing to invest into this game?
- Do I need to seek the help of an accountant in setting up my finances?
- Will I need to hire additional employees, or external vendors?
- How do I measure success?
Technically User Testing, Community, In-game social hooks, QA and Customer Support can all fall under the larger umbrella of ‘User Experience’. However, as these are all fairly large areas, I’ve chosen to break them up into their own segment.
- Who is our expected user?
- How much prototyping will we do?
- At what point do we start soliciting user feedback?
- Is the UI we’re designing suitable for this type of title?
- How much player feedback & design changes will we budget for prior to launch?
- What (if any) accessibility considerations will we make for players? (colorblind mode, different input modes, etc)
If you’re able to do so, testing your game with your expected audience can provide a great deal of feedback and ideas that you might not have otherwise considered. User testing can also help validate or disprove ideas with the target audience before too much has been invested.
- What do I hope to gain by doing user testing?
- Will I be doing any pre-launch user testing?
- If so, do I need to outsource any of the testing?
- How will I respond to and integrate feedback into development?
- How much time will I budget to respond to testing?
- Will we be running a public beta?
Building a great community and social media presence around your game can be a great way to not just build interest in your title pre-launch, but also set the foundation for the long term relationships that lead to great interactions & genuine advocates for your current and future work.
- What do I get out of building a social presence and/or community?
- What social media channels are my expected players interested in?
- Will I interact with the community as myself, or as the company / brand?
- What sort of content will my players be interested in? Who writes this?
- How much time will I spend on a daily basis in building and interacting with the community?
- What assets do I need to launch and maintain my social media channels?
- How will I find and respond to people talking about the game?
- Should I hire an external party to advise and/or help in this area?
- How do I measure success in this area?
Provided you’ve built a great game, building social hooks inside of your game can go a long way to helping spread the word about your new title. With the cost of user acquisition well outside of the realm of possibility for most indie game developers, finding real, innovative ways for your players to easily share the things they love about your game can go a long way towards increasing visibility (and hopefully downloads!).
- What social features would our players actually enjoy and actively want to use? (see: Alphabear)
- Have we designed the content in such a way that it identifies the name of the game to external parties?
- Have we put links to our social channels somewhere in the game that players can easily find them? Better yet, have we made it easy for players to follow us on those channels?
- How much time do we need to budget for integrating and testing social features?
- If we have an official hashtag, have we put it somewhere that makes sense?
- How do we interact with players that use our social features?
- How do we measure the success of our social features?
If you’re not providing enough time for thoroughly testing your game, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Even the most well tested game will discover bugs after launch. ‘It works on my machine’ doesn’t mitigate customer frustration, and shipping an overly buggy game can forever damage developer reputation.
- Do I possess the objectivity to file and prioritize bugs against my own game?
- What do I use to track and prioritize bugs?
- Do I need and/or want other people to be testing & filing bugs against my game?
- If so, who? What’s your budget for this? ($$$ & Time)
- If you’re soliciting bug reports from players (beta or otherwise), how will you collect, prioritize and act against these bugs?
- How much time do I need to devote to bug fixing each sprint / milestone / etc?
- How do I test against a variety of devices, languages, configurations, and installs?
- Will we be running a public beta prior to going live?
- What are the go / no-go criteria for setting the game live / shipping?
Customer support is absolutely critical to maintaining your reputation and establishing customer loyalty. By ensuring you have a solid strategy for how you interact with your customers prior to launch, you can cut down on a lot of the day to day stress. The last thing you want is to receive a high risk customer support interaction in the middle of a flood of other tickets and have no idea how to handle it. If you’re planning for the worst, and implementing the right processes before you launch, you’ll have more time and mental bandwidth to deal with the critical communications.
- How will I be handling customer support?
- Will we do any customer support via our social channels?
- Do we need to budget for tools? (i.e. Zendesk, Desk.com, etc)
- How much time each day will we spend handling customer support?
- How do we handle customer support for players that don’t speak our language?
- How much can we address with FAQs and prepared Macro responses before launch?
- What’s our policy for dealing with refunds? Charge-backs?
- What’s our policy for dealing with high risk communications?
While it can be intimidating to look into the legal aspect of game development, it’s truly one of those cases of ‘better safe than sorry’. A great lawyer can help mitigate your fears, provide guidance, and steer you clear of potential legal red flags before they ever become an issue.
- Have you how to set yourself up legally to take best advantage of the money you’re hoping to make?
- Do I have a lawyer identified that I can contact if I need to?
- Do I have a budget set aside for legal consultation?
- Do I need to trademark the game name?
- Am I worried about running into copyright or other infringement related lawsuits?
- Am I worried about the legality of any function or feature within our game? The marketing strategy?
Note: This area is particularly critical if you feel you might need guidance regarding the FTC, COPPA compliance, and/or EU regulations. It’s far better to spend a couple hundred dollars up front to be certain you’re in the clear than to be hit with a serious lawsuit and/or penalty from larger organizations.
If you’re creating content that will be distributed in the USA or the EU, you need to be aware of and compliant with the regulations set forth by the FTC and the EU. Note: It does not matter if you are physically located outside of the USA or EU; if you are creating content which is in any way distributed in the USA or EU you fall under these regulations and can be found in violation & fined for transgressions. These penalties are not insignificant, so take this area under serious consideration and tread carefully (and seek legal help before you need it!).
- Is my game intended for, or could be considered as targeting children under the age of 13 by an external party? (COPPA)
- Am I collecting any personally identifiable information about our players? If so, how am I using that data? (EU)
- Am I practicing full disclosure in all of our promotional videos, endorsements, etc? (FTC)
- Are there aspects of any of the above that I’m uncertain about? (Contact a lawyer!)
Partners encompass everyone outside of your core development team. Unless you’re developing in a silo, you’re likely working with partners of some sort.
- How do I work with partners that may not be in the same physical location or timezone?
- How regularly do I check in with my partners?
- How much time do I budget to working with partner teams each week?
- What dependencies do I have on partner teams?
- What risks are involved in working with partner teams?
Just because you created a title for a particular platform or distribution channel doesn’t mean it has to live there and there alone forever. If you have the opportunity and the means, releasing on multiple platforms or distribution channels can be a great way to boost your overall audience and sales numbers.
- Which distribution channels is my primary / launch channel? Why?
- What other platforms / channels would be a good fit for my game?
- How much additional work is it to support the additional platform / channel?
- What’s my timeframe for releasing on other platforms / channels?
While your launch may seem like a long way off, it’s always good to keep in mind as even the most seasoned gamedev can massively underestimate the effort needed to release a product into the market.
- When am I ready to launch? What’s the criteria?
- How critical is the timing of my launch?
- Do I have any external dependencies or partners to consider?
- How much pre-launch promotion & marketing will I be doing?
- How hands-on will I need to be for the first week after launch?
- What’s the plan if the launch window needs to move out?
Launching your game is often just the first step in a long product lifecycle. It’s important to consider how you’ll be supporting the title once it’s out in the wild. Not just with regards to actual customer support, but with bug fixes, new features, updates, etc. If you’re not planning the calendar for this work before you launch, it can be easy to get caught up in the day to day firefighting and conversation around your game. Having clear post-launch milestones to work towards is a huge win, and can help keep you on track when you’d otherwise find yourself distracted.
- Am I taking any time off after launching the game? If so, when?
- How much time will I dedicate to fixing bugs that surface after launch? (double it!)
- Do I intend to update the game after launch, outside of necessary bug fixes?
- What’s does the first update look like? How much time is needed?
- Are there major updates / events / or changes we should be planning for now?
If your game relies on any timed, server-based, or regularly updated elements, you’re going to want to plan out your Live Operations strategy well before you launch. Running a game with timed elements can be intense in its own right. If you’ve tied those elements to achievements and/or rewards you’ve increased the risk substantially as these are high customer pain points should anything go awry.
- Who is responsible for ensuring the health of the live tournament?
- How frequently are we updating the tournament / content / etc?
- Do we have the right server/hardware/etc setup to handle a larger number of users?
- How do we scale up? Scale down? When do we make that call?
- How can we test critical case scenarios before they happen?
- How do we handle backups, restores, fail tests and roll backs?
- What do we do when things fail? (Not if, it will happen!)
- Have I appropriately estimated the time & monetary cost of running a game of this nature?
Now, after reading all of that you might be inclined to panic… DON’T!
As with any project, it’s up to you to look at what you need to do, prioritize what you have the resources to do, and build an action plan for covering and/or cutting those aspects that you are not able to handle internally. In short, it’s just like every other part of the game dev experience! If you’re considering these areas and making the appropriate plans along the way, it’s just another part of the larger experience.
You got this. Now go make something great!
Next in this series: Creating Great Social Shares
Questions? Comments? Areas I’ve completely neglected to include?
Drop me a line in the comments, or on Twitter @boopsocial!
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