Game design doesn’t sell games. Sorry. No, what sells games is the promise that that game offers, articulated by its designer. If the promise is good, it doesn’t matter that the game is bad; that’s what got the Fallout RPG into the ICv2 top 5. But whether the game you designed is a work of art or a slapdash ashcan, sorry, you’re still going to need to market it.
The Trouble with Marketing is either that no one knows how or no one wants to. I tend to believe the second of those two items; plenty of game designers don’t really know how to write but they manage to hire someone for that in most cases. No, marketing, in addition to being its own skill which is challenging to learn, really turns people off. It reminds you you’re selling something, it makes the whole process feel less like art.
I’m not here to say you can’t just create art and let the chips fall where they may, you absolutely can and plenty do. That said, you better be ready to appreciate those 5-10 sales on itch.io because that’s all you will ever get. If you want a wider audience, even if you’re giving the game away for free, you need to let people know it’s there, what it is, and why they want it.
The marketing tools most game designers use are the obvious ones, the free ones. And although this is perhaps a bit too flip, there is an element of truth to the saying that when something is free, you get what you pay for. Direct marketing on Reddit or Twitter is an iffy proposition, because even when you don’t attract the wrong kind of attention for being a “shill”, you’re often, as Seamus puts it so eloquently, ‘screaming into the void’. Even if you’re blessed with a Twitter account with thousands of followers, link conversions tend to be low and sales conversions lower still. You can use analytics to target the sort of tweeting that nets you the best conversion rates (and in fact you can and should do this with any marketing), but this provides incremental results for what can be a lot of work; there’s a reason companies have entire marketing departments. This is not to say that social media marketing doesn’t have a place in what you’re doing, but it can’t stand alone.
Content promotion tools can be a lot more effective, provided that you’re creating enough content to build an audience with. Substack and Patreon use subscription models, but in both cases you’re only going to get subscribers if you’re providing enough content and marketing that content somewhere for people to find. If you’re trying to sell a game, or maybe two games, this model may not align with what you’re actually doing and/or willing to do.
Enter Kickstarter. Much maligned, especially after their weird announcement of a vague foray into blockchain tech, Kickstarter is still one of the most effective tools a game designer has in their arsenal to amp up the exposure (and sales conversion) of their game. While there are other crowdfunding tools out there they all simply pale in comparison to Kickstarter; most designers who’ve moved saw noticeable revenue hits to their campaign numbers, and those who haven’t bridged the gap mostly with their own aggressive marketing and ad buys. While Kickstarter still requires you to do the work when designing your campaign, the amount of TTRPG Kickstarter campaigns that succeed, quality honestly notwithstanding, is impressive.
And then, of course, there’s the older, simpler (though not easier) methods. You could send me your game. While Cannibal Halfling has a mere 1100 followers on Twitter, both the markedly increased longevity of a blog post as well as the site’s credibility (…we have credibility, right?) mean that a review is going to generate significantly more conversions than a Tweet or Reddit post. And while this is an invitation for any and all of you to send us games, I will readily admit that a larger site like Dicebreaker or Gnome Stew will do even better. If you want to get even more old school, there’s the con circuit. Gaming cons have a captive audience of gamers, and that gives you a chance to both capture some eyeballs and network with other designers who can help you expand your reach or improve your game.
Networking is definitely a part of marketing, but it is merely a part. If there’s one mistake I see over and over again within the indie RPG space, it is the conflation of networking with building an audience. It’s great to have other designers that know and like what you do, but if you want to sell your game you’re going to need to sell it to more people than just other designers.
The RPG world, especially the indie RPG world, ascribes to what I call the Amanda Palmer method of audience engagement. Back in 2013, when her pop culture star was brighter than it is now, Palmer released a TED Talk called The Art of Asking, which would later become her memoir. The talk centers around audience engagement and the idea that you should ask the people already invested in your success for help. The financial example of this, though, is striking. Talking about record label economics, Palmer said, in short, that you make the same amount of money getting 1000 people to give you ten dollars as you do getting ten people to give you a thousand dollars…and that is exactly how successful indie Kickstarters work. Consider the Kickstarter campaign for Mothership. The campaign to bring a boxed set of Mothership to print raised $1.4 million from roughly 15,500 backers. I’ll first note that any backer count above 10,000 is immensely successful in indie spaces, and Mothership was immensely successful because of the audience building and engagement around the game that occurred prior to the Kickstarter campaign. That said, if you do a little math you find that the average ticket size per backer was $90. That means that, despite a $29 digital tier and a $59 basic boxed set tier, a backer more often than not sprung for the $99 deluxe edition or $199 ‘Megabundle’. That’s the sort of engagement that designers aim for in Kickstarters, and I think it’s in part because they know that reaching a broader audience is incredibly difficult. Magpie Games, arguably one of the best, most prolific RPG Kickstarter authors, still only reached 6500 people with their campaign for Root which, though not as high-profile as their more successful Avatar Legends Kickstarter, still seems like it should have been able to push through that 10,000 backer resistance level that usually only established companies manage.
What these campaigns do have in common, though, is that $90-$100 ticket size. Between the sort of audience which wants to spend money on a product before it’s out, and the fact that all of these campaigns were known quantities in some way, it’s easy to capitalize on the fact that gamers as an audience are usually pretty receptive to giving creators more money. They want to feel like they get something for it, of course, but broadly the audience has no trouble with fairly high prices as long as they like the thing they’re getting and the people making it. Thing is, though, that this receptive audience is small. Avatar Legends, the largest TTRPG Kickstarter in the site’s history, got 80,000 backers. That puts it on par with existing titles like…Zweihander. GURPS of all things has sold over a million copies. Traveller crested 80,000 books sold back in 1979 (admittedly all books, not just core rules). And, if you go by Wizards of the Coast’s estimate, 80,000 people is about 0.2% of the TTRPG playerbase.
I’m not trying to say that designers and publishers are wrong to take the ticket size approach. Breaking into a larger audience is difficult, and butts right up against Wizards’ own player retention marketing (which is, surprise surprise, way better than any marketing pretty much any other game designer brings to the table). Marketing to new gamers in any material way honestly takes a better onramp to the hobby than we have; RPGs broadly aren’t accessible enough to allow a merely curious adult to learn and play on their own. To be fair Dungeons and Dragons isn’t either, but what Wizards has in the D&D brand is a cultural phenomenon with enough cachet to get interested people to overcome the middling rules writing in order to join in. And while I don’t know what could unseat D&D in that regard, I do know that even within the smaller, extant TTRPG market, brand does matter, even if you aren’t D&D.
The D&D brand is monolithic in TTRPGs, but it’s not the only success story. Call of Cthulhu has an enduring legacy which has powered seven editions of the game. The marketing success of Cyberpunk 2077 was so great that Cyberpunk jumped back into the ICv2 top 5 before Cyberpunk Red even came out, meaning that Cyberpunk 2020 may have been the oldest top 5 selling RPG in the history of ICv2’s listings. Of course, if you can’t make your own brand store-bought is fine; Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs were number three behind two flavors of D&D for basically the whole time the product line was being supported. While licensed RPGs do get derided they both generate sales and open the hobby to peripheral gamers who may not have bought in otherwise. Even the power of licensing existing RPGs is evident in the product strategies of many medium publishers; Twilight:2000, Traveller, Paranoia, and Rifts all brought renewed success when different companies tried their hand at redesigning them.
The real question when it comes to brand is how to make harnessing good branding accessible at all levels of the hobby. Sure, you won’t necessarily be able to buy a great license (though they aren’t as expensive as you might think), but even without that external equity marketing is still about brand building. Possum Creek Games is a great example of this because the types of games they make are so consistent. From Sleepaway to Wanderhome to Yazeba’s Bed and Breakfast, Possum Creek’s portfolio all exhibit a similar style and play philosophy, thanks in large part to their lead designer. I’d go so far as to argue that the latest game’s success, even in the face of headwinds like switching to IndieGogo, was in no small part due to the fact that the game leaned in to the same stylistic elements that made Wanderhome successful, making it easier to convert backers from the earlier project to the later one.
And that’s kind of branding in a nutshell: Your products should be known for something. The more you put out, and the more consistently ‘you’ the things you put out are, the more repeat customers you’re going to have and the more high-ticket customers you have. But just like everything else, it’s neither a panacea nor is it completely required. Consider Coyote and Crow: while lead designer Connor Alexander had years of game industry experience, he had neither a design brand nor many lead author credits. Even so, with the help of smart marketing to both TTRPG and Native audiences he lead Coyote and Crow to over $1M in funding, an absolutely incredible number for a first Kickstarter.
There are two angles to marketing a new RPG. The first, tried and true angle, is marketing to the known TTRPG world and trying to get a few people to give you money, preferably a fair amount of money. The second is to try and create the new best ‘first RPG’. The problem with the second is that literally no one has done it successfully. The default first RPG is still the literal first RPG, Dungeons and Dragons, and nobody, in any material way, has ever changed that. So, the trouble with marketing, in RPGs at least, is that you’re stuck marketing to an audience that is pretty sure they already know what they like. This is good news for those still working at Onyx Path and Catalyst, because games like Shadowrun and those in the Chronicles of Darkness ecosystem wouldn’t enjoy the sales they do without their histories and brands behind them. On the other hand, if you’re trying to do something new, the road is mostly uphill. There’s no right way to do marketing for an RPG, but you have to do it. Writing Tweets, buying ads, finding reviewers, schmoozing at cons, these are all ways to get eyeballs on your work and, depending on what you’re writing and what audience you’re going after, different methods will be better or worse. But if you actually want to sell your game and build an audience, you’re going to have to market your game somehow. This is true for everyone, though. Job seekers must write cover letters, novelists must write queries. You, the game designer, must tell the story of why your game should be played (or read, or put on a shelf). And if it’s imposter syndrome stopping you, fear not. I can almost promise you: a worse game than yours has been released, and made its creator money. With that in mind, go shout from the rooftops, after you figure out which rooftops work best for you.
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