Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Trouble With Blog Posts - A Blog Post

Marketing for indie games has to start on day one. Most of us don't have a marketing budget or know how to target and effectively reaching an audience. So we are left to play the long game: without consistent updates, indie games are forgotten. 

William and I both know how to make games. However, blogging, or more aptly marketing, feels like swinging at a piñata. Sometimes we put our backs into it, sometimes we swing gently searching for our target, but we are always swinging blind. 

There are troves of information online for how to market an indie game. A million different sources offering their advice on how to make waves. Yet the most significant marketing pushes the two of us have had seemed to come out of nowhere. One week a blog post we think is great gets a couple hundred views. The next week a blog post about personal struggles or one about ridiculously fundamental AI, gets thousands of views and loads of people reaching out and commenting on Reddit. Google analytics offers absolutely no clarity. So we just never see it coming.

Awkward development cycles

Developing substantial content to post about is also time-consuming. For example, I made those death particles this week. It's a half finished effect. The particles behave very specifically. I won't go into too much detail on that because someday it might make a decent blog post. The important thing here is that this half finished feature took time to develop and bug test.

Precious time spent on something that isn't interesting or complete enough to base an entire post around. It's a feature I wanted in early, something I plan to tweak throughout development to make deaths feel fair and impactful. But it isn't something I can use to market my game this week.

In an effort to pump out something more interesting, I started quickly developing some environment art. This is entirely unnecessary at this point. I would benefit a lot more from creating more enemy types, interactable objects, and bug fixing. Who wants to read about bug fixing? A few tiles in, I realized that these were going to take awhile to finish. Time I didn't have before this post.

There is this pressure to constantly be developing something worth showing off, making it easy to neglect things like testing and polish, but polish is what makes for a great game! The vast majority of legendary game developers have talked about the grueling process of restarting, refurbishing and meticulously upgrading every feature of their game. 

Journey: an incredibly polished, way over budget. legendary game.

That sort of endless polish is often uninteresting to post about. how many "quick update" blog posts have you passed over with an eye roll? They aren't grabbing, they don't expand an audience, they don't even sustain an audience. Thoughtful content filled updates are what do those things. The sort of blog post that takes a solo developer months to make. Not to mention the backward and rushed development cycle.

Even after that month, you may happen to post at the wrong time of day or with an intro not catchy enough to hold readers' attention or maybe even a title that just isn't appealing. Suddenly all that work reaches a negligible group. However, without that sort of effort, you're almost guaranteed to gain no followers. Except when you randomly do, for seemingly no reason...

It gets easier, right?

Right now my game is mostly just dodging and jumping off blocks. I get why that isn't spawning armies of followers. Once I have art and a decent chunk of gameplay, I imagine it will be easier to grab people's attention. Even so, when to post, where to post, how to post: all a mystery. A mystery answered with endless anecdotal evidence offering entirely contradictory views. 

One thing is for sure: we have to work together. As an indie community, we need to be pooling our fan bases, expanding through team work. Here's to hoping everyone manages to figure this out so all of the amazing games out there have an opportunity to be seen by the masses. 

William's Comment: 
When we first started this blog with a regular schedule, I think the main way that I expected for development to be affected would be in my feeling an extrinsic motivation to meet milestones every two weeks.  Meet a milestone, have something to write about.  Sounds great, right?  How could that fall apart?
It's a constant issue in my life applying timed milestones on things that aren't my full time job or getting my degree.  Making any assumption that I could get anythin g done within two weeks on a major project is how my previous project (before it got put on indefinite hiatus) was a series of nothing posts about how I'm totally making the AI guys it's just taking a little while but it'll be done next time I swear.  It gave me a real understanding of the Taco Bell down the street that never gets the Freeze machine fixed, but they promise every week that this is the week I'll get delicious frozen lemonade.
It's like 110° outside! Gimme my damn frozen lemonade!
 However, it seems like the more that Gabe and I talk about the purpose of this blog or certain elements of our games, there's a bit of a rift in our intentions.  Gabe seems to be really focused on marketing, whereas my focus lies on documenting the process.  I don't think that I ever expected for this blog to do quite as well as it currently is.  My understanding was that marketing is something that is pushed hard on the butt end of development when there's a really clear understanding and demonstration available for what your product is.  Gabe often asks me while I'm developing or writing how this will translate to marketability and appeal to a paying audience (and understandably so, because this effort needs to somehow result in money to legitimize the huge chunks of our lives we sacrifice; I don't want to paint him as a money-crazed cartoon capitalist).
For me, I've tried developing for the sake of targeting large audiences or optimizing payout and, frankly, if that were my goal I wouldn't be developing games.  I've seen games that push advertisements and constantly make connections through indie game communities fall completely on their faces, whereas games like LISA: The Painful RPG or Undertale, with very minimal marketing in comparison, exploded onto the scene and got tons of attention.  Gabe's piñata metaphor is apt, but sometimes you're swinging and there's just no piñata there to hit.  Trying to develop for the sake of marketing kills a lot of my enthusiasm because for me developing is mostly artistically self gratification.  Like any art, it's good to master the technical aspects of what makes it appealing or "correct," but once you've mastered them you can distort them as you please.

This is in no way an attempt to imply that I'm superior to Gabe or that what he is doing lacks artistic integrity.  I'm just that spoiled kid who, when it comes time to play something for the enjoyment of others, loses focus and walks away to do something else. 
So that's where my idea for what the blog is to me comes from: this isn't a marketing tool first and foremost: it's documentation of what Gabe and I are doing that I had expected would be mostly overlooked now, but will give insight and opportunities for reflection when our games enter into the major marketing phase.  Best of all, in terms of marketing at least, it will give people a vast resource of content to look into and obsess over if the games really do catch their eyes.  A behind the scenes look, to help people who have become interested in our output to contextualize the games they've found interest in. 
But, again, much like my approach to making games, my approach to understanding the blog is just that: it's what I would enjoy reading such a blog for.  If I could read the inner thoughts and commentary behind some of the more interesting indie games I've played, I'd do so for hours.  And I hope that's what's offered here.

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  1. I find your post is inline with a lot of my own experiences. I tried blogging daily on a personal project, had a team of bloggers sharing the load to post ever Friday, and had a project that I was on that posted when and if there was something interesting to post, and the unfortunate truth is, clearly, that all of the successes are anecdotal.

    I am reminded of a recent tweet about rappers, where they have songs about how noone would talk to them when they were broke, and now that they are rolling in the dough they won't talk to their broke friends. There are many friends I have had along the way that "made it" and fell off of the earth, and it's tough to really understand how these people who have figured so much out and achieved so much don't reach back out to help their fellow Indy developer.

    A rising tide carry all boats.

    But then again, just as our time is quite limited, once you break out of Indy into a corporate gig or are picked up by a publisher you are no less busy. You may even be encumbered with legal devices.

    Have you two given thought to cross posting or a collective blog? Reddit is helpful for pooling such posts, but it might help to also share interesting posts from others from Reddit in an effort to create the rising tide that we both wish for. Have you given any thought to how to address this issue, in ways that a collective mind can work towards improving.

    Maybe a blog where you "purchase" front page time by contributing to sister projects in meaningful and objective way - something like https://colony.io

    Anyway, good thought provoking article. Good luck on the project, I'll be watching, at the very least.

  2. Thanks so much for the kind words Bob! Hopefully this blog can be platform for the kind of transparency your talking about. If we happen to stumble upon something that works, that information will most certainly be shared.

    The bigger collaborative blog is an awesome idea. I think were both a bit too busy to moderate something like that presently. However, guest posts on this blog would be doable and really cool.

    I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts as we go!

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