GDC 2009: The Art of Promoting Indie

Developers behind World of Goo and Fez explain how small-scale creators can draw large-scale attention to their work.

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SAN FRANCISCO--When it comes to competing with the Electronic Arts and Activisions of the world, independent game developers have a number of significant disadvantages. First, they have to make a great game without the benefit of a multimillion-dollar budget, and then they have to market it with the same financial constraints.

Gabler noticed screens from this level coming up in all of the early coverage of World of Goo, so he redesigned the rest of the game to be more like it.
Gabler noticed screens from this level coming up in all of the early coverage of World of Goo, so he redesigned the rest of the game to be more like it.

To help developers with that very problem, 2D Boy's Kyle Gabler (World of Goo) and Polytron's Phil Fish (Fez) gave an Independent Games Summit presentation on the art of promotion. According to Gabler and Fish, it's an art that many independent creators are not well practiced in, perhaps due to a stigma surrounding self-promotion.

"It's not an effective way to promote your game to just make something and stick it on a download service," Gabler warned. He then referred to Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, and the PlayStation Network as "a graveyard of shattered dreams" due to the abundance of unheralded and underpromoted games released on the services. Although Gabler said that he'd heard of developers on these services--specifically on Xbox Live Arcade--as being prohibited from marketing their games themselves, he stressed that they should push back against such policies.

To prove what can be achieved by a self-promoting developer with a little creativity and even less money, Gabler showed the audience a picture of Amazon.com's regularly updated list of best-selling games, with World of Goo second only to World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and ahead of heavily advertised hits such as Fallout 3.

Set for release later this year, Fez is an unusual 3D take on the 2D platformer.
Set for release later this year, Fez is an unusual 3D take on the 2D platformer.

"It is possible, you just have to be a little bit of a media whore," Gabler said, after acknowledging that World of Goo's tenure on the best-sellers list was brief.

"Marketing is mostly b*******," Fish said. "It's lies. It's big statues at EB Games of the guy from Fallout. You don't want to spend money buying banners or Google ads. What you want to do is talk to people. Talk to the blogs, do interviews, do podcasts, things that are free and will get you great exposure."

Gabler suggested cozying up to the gaming press from indie-focused sites on up, entering competitions such as the Independent Games Festival as much as possible, and giving talks at events like the Game Developers Conference. Gabler noted that not only do organizers let speakers attend the show for free, but the talk itself is also a wonderful promotional tool to get the word out about a game through other developers and in news stories on gaming Web sites. It's also a great platform to show off trailers, he noted, before running the latest trailer for Fish's upcoming Fez.

Though trailers can be helpful, Fish said that developers need to be careful about how they manage hype for their game. Specifically, he said that they shouldn't show things too early. As an example, he pointed to Spore's unveiling at GDC three years before it made it to stores, all the while building expectations in the gaming public that would prove impossible to meet.

Fish encountered a problem along the same lines with Fez. When he decided to scrap and redo a number of the background-art assets for the game, people who had been taken with its original look were vocally upset with the change.

Finally, Fish stressed to the audience that an independent developer is half the story of his or her game.

"That's my game," Fish explained. "There's a lot of me in there."

For more from the show, check out GameSpot's complete coverage of the 2009 Game Developers Conference.

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