Marketing vs. skills

Marketing vs. skills

13/09/2021
indiedev

Recently someone sent me an e-mail asking me, roughly, that given my recent posts it seems like I don’t value marketing that much. And given that marketing is such an important part of being an indie developer, what gives?

Why do I place such a low amount of value in activities like building wishlists, sending keys to influencers, building a community with a Discord server, and all the other tried and true activities that every indiedev should do if they want to have a chance at success? Is it because I’m now financially secure and so I don’t have to worry about any of this anymore, or is it something else?

High vs. low quality games #

You want to make successful indie games. So you can look at this problem from the following perspective: how far away am I from making successful indie games and what’s the least amount of effort I need to spend to get there? In my opinion, the answer to this question will generally revolve around improving the quality of your games rather than improving the quality of your marketing.

If you spend time improving your game you will get much closer to a successful game than if you spend time improving your marketing, because for most indie developers, their games are just objectively bad. Even my game is objectively bad in multiple ways. For instance, someone did a redesign of my game’s UI and this is what some of it looks like (these likely won’t be used as they are anymore, which is why I’m posting them):

These are just objectively better screens than anything I have in the game right now. For most indiedevs improvements like this one are going to give you much more bang for your buck than anything related to marketing.

You should think of marketing as a multiplier on a game’s base quality. If the base quality level is high, then optimizing for marketing is the thing to do that makes the most sense. But very few indiedevs are making games of high base quality, and so that’s not the thing they should focus on. I’m definitely not making games of high base quality, as SNKRX just looks like garbage, and most games I’ll release in the near future will similarly also look like garbage. So I really don’t need to worry about marketing that much because there are much more solid gains to be had elsewhere. For instance:

Screen composition #

The reason the gifs above look objectively better than the UI I have going on in the game now is because they just are composed better.

In my opinion, easily the best thing indiedevs can do to improve the quality of their games is to learn to become more attuned to how well a screen is composed. Artists are generally going to be better at this than programmers (although this is not always the case, as there are plenty of artists who just can’t put a good screen together), but programmers can also learn to pay attention to this and at least develop a solid taste for it.

It’s very hard for me to pinpoint exactly what makes a screen well composed, but generally they’re just better balanced. It has little to do with the quality of each individual asset. You can have games with assets that look amazing but that are composed poorly, or you can have a game with very simple looking assets but that are composed well.

But the main thing about screen composition is that a well composed screen will pass most people’s visual quality filter at a glance. If you look at a screenshot/frame of a game for 1-2 seconds, you can already tell if you think it looks good or not. That’s mostly about the screen’s composition. So improving this skill has obvious ramifications to how well your marketing efforts will do, since if the game passes more people’s filters, they will be more likely to share it and so the game is more likely to get a better response whenever you post it online.

Let’s look at a few examples. Below there will be 7 images of 7 different games. All you have to do is look at the images for a few seconds and try to get a sense of which ones look the best and which ones look the worst. Here we go:

Done? Try ranking the images now. Like 4th > 1st > 3rd… etc. I’ll give you some space to not bias your ranking, so scroll down once you’re done.

My personal ranking is 5th = 7th > 4th »» 2nd > 1st »» 3rd = 6th. Meaning, 3rd and 6th images are the worst, while 5th and 7th are the best. I would guess that for most people at least these extremes would be similar, while the middle might have more variation. Why exactly are 5th and 7th so much better than all the others? It’s just better art, but it’s not only better art, the art is composed properly on the screen. For instance, the 4th image has very simple looking art, yet it’s better than the others because everything comes together properly on the screen. 1st and 2nd images are the types of games that really don’t pass for me, despite individual assets actually not looking that bad.

All of this to say that improving this skill, especially as a programmer, is going to be much more valuable than anything else. I have very little artistic talent, but I can still attune myself to this somewhat and this attunement will yield results whenever I have to compose screens of my own, even though because I’m not really an artist the results will still be subpar and easily made better by someone who’s actually skilled (as the UI example shows). And this is not the only skill you can improve that will yield high results. The speed of your development, all techniques involving juicing things up, learning how to find/pick/create good sounds, etc. It’s endless.

Small game strategy #

Knowing this, that there are so many avenues of improvement available and that they will all yield much better results than focusing at all on marketing, the thing that makes the most sense to do is to choose a strategy that will help you increase these gamedev skills rather than one which optimizes marketing. Or to put it better, the amount of effort you put into marketing should be proportional to how much you can gain from it.

If the game’s base quality is low, then marketing’s gain will be low, and so the amount of effort should be low as well. That’s what I did for SNKRX, and my marketing for it was just very low effort high potential gains activities, like posting it on reddit, Hacker News, and so on. If nothing came out of those activities then fine, I would have just moved on to the next game and kept focusing on improving my skills.

Worrying too much about wishlists on a low base quality game, for instance, is a waste of effort and time because the game is just not that good, and so no amount of marketing can really help it. It’s much better to release tons of small games, increase your skills, and get feedback from the universe more often so that you can direct your efforts in a more focused manner depending on how people respond to your games.

If you have an amazing, high base quality game, sure, spend 1+ year building wishlists. Otherwise, don’t. And since the majority of indiedevs don’t have amazing high base quality games, the majority of them shouldn’t really spend that time on it, in my opinion.

Financial security #

Another question asked by the e-mail was if I reached these conclusions because of my new-found financial security. The answer to that is no, as I already had these opinions formed before SNKRX got popular, except there’s some nuance to it.

I was already somewhat financially secure before SNKRX and there was no pressure on me for any of my games to make me any amount of money. If they made additional money then great, otherwise I would have been able to just move on and keep making games. I definitely think that you should always develop indie games (and do any creative activity pretty much) with some financial security behind you, and if you don’t really have that you should work on fixing that first if you can.

Trying to be creative while having to worry too much about financials leads to poor decisions, since if you’re insecure in that way you’ll tend to look at things from a short term lottery perspective, and you really can’t do indie games from that perspective. There’s a lot of randomness inherent to the environment and when that’s the case you have to be look at it like a poker player, in that you make the best decision possible for each hand but you have to understand that even though odds might have been in your favor it’s still possible that you’ll lose that individual hand. But if you keep making the right decisions in the long term then everything will likely turn out well.

Risk #

This is why I highly disagree with people who really focus on wishlist building, because it’s a perfect example of this sort of short term lottery type of risk mitigation that disregards the reality of the situation, which is that if the game is not that good then spending that much more effort building wishlists for it is a huge cope. It’s this middleground solution that’s not getting you anywhere, it’s just an excuse that’s helping you remain mediocre without aiming for higher skills because you can “mitigate the risk” by building wishlists. It’s a subpar, suboptimal solution to the complex problem of becoming an objectively better game developer.

Often times in life you have situations where the correct decision is either 0 or 1. You either do something in a very limited fashion or don’t do it at all, or you do something in a very maximalist and expanded fashion. In these situations the middleground is always going to be the worse option because the math of effort spent for results gained just doesn’t make sense. This is going to be especially true in fields that have inherent randomness to them, like indie game development. This series of tweets explains this idea perfectly:

Essentially you either want to do very short games (in terms of development time spent) of questionable quality, and this should be the case for most indie developers, or you want to do very long games (in terms of development time spent) of very high quality.

If you can’t reach that high quality then the more time you spend on your low quality game, the closer you’re getting to the toxic middleground of risk aversion where everything is a cope. You don’t want that, so avoid it. Build your skills up while doing short games, and once your skills are good enough you can think about spending more effort on marketing.

End sidenote #

One month ago I got really angry at this post and the discussion around it online. I was able to control myself and really not comment on it too much, especially not comment on it on Twitter, so even though I was upset it wasn’t that bad.

Very rarely do things make me angry online anymore though, so when something does it usually means that there’s some unresolved conflict there. I thought very long about why exactly this discussion got me so angry, and at first I settled on it just being: “I think this is wrong advice and the fact that everyone accepts it so casually made me angry”. But that’s a fairly handwavy conclusion. There’s tons of people giving each other wrong advice I see online and it never makes me angry. Maybe it could be that because it’s so close to me, since it’s directly in my field of expertise, I care more about it so it will naturally have a higher chance of making me angry. And that could be the case, but…

I think it’s more likely because it goes against my very deep need to conquer randomness. I really like environments that have lots of sources of randomness and where if you act correctly in the long term you will likely come out successful. I used the example of poker earlier and that’s a very good and limited instance of that. Artifact, which is a game I really like is also a very good example of it.

Indie game development is such an environment, so when I see someone giving others advice that is overly conservative like “don’t do small games because of the algorithm” it just really ticks me off. It’s like when you see someone play a game in a way too conservative manner. Is that going to work? Maybe. But it’s going to be really boring and time consuming and you’ll likely stop playing the game before getting too far in it.

As Hot_Domme said, there’s no avoidance of risk either way. So it’s going to be much more fun and interesting to go either 0 or 1 and to avoid the toxic middleground of risk aversion. I was able to clearly realize that this was the reason why I got angry as I was replying to the e-mail that someone sent me, so thanks to that person for the questions. So yea, this entire post was just me going to therapy with myself I guess.

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