DISCLAIMER: If you do not “believe” that privilege is a thing, or whatever, I have neither the energy nor the eloquence to convince you otherwise at the moment.
Earlier this week there was a bit of a flare-up in the broader indie games community that I think has happened before, and will probably happen again, and it goes something like this:
ESTABLISHED CREATOR: “I don’t understand why all these new developers are whining that nobody liked their first game. It took me 10 years to make a game people liked. Shut up and work harder.”
YOUNG TURK: “Don’t tell me to work harder. I work insanely hard as it is. Sorry I didn’t start from such privilege, asshole.”
A lot of indies don’t want to market their games and I tend to agree with them. Marketing is a bad word and a shitty thing. It has been selling us stuff our whole lives. When I see a billboard yelling at me to try the new CrunchMeatwich 5000 for just $2.99, I clench up. Most of us do when we’re sold something. It’s an uncomfortable spot that we don’t want to put anyone else in. “Hey, try this it’s free! TRY IT!!!” makes us feel like we’re not artists but instead, hucksters. It’s a distraction from what’s important: our work.
I’m right there with you. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You don’t have to “do marketing”. This isn’t french fries, paper towels or cleaning products; it’s art! It’s whatever you want to express for whatever goals you have for your work of art. The real problem is how we’re looking at what the rest of artistic mediums do for “marketing” and thinking that’s the only way.
Movies are the number one influencer of videogame marketing and videogames in general. Trailers, stills, websites and the rest. Two titanic entertainment industries that separate making the damn thing and telling people about it in just about the same way. Movies might even be worse…
When a studio takes on a film, it’s usually tasked with doing all the marketing. I think it’s been this way for a long long time and this carries through in videogames. It’s absurd that an incredible movie with an amazing director doesn’t have creative control over the trailer; essentially a film. They worked hard crafting 120 minutes of film, surely they might have a vision for the 2 minutes that tells people about it…
That’s not to say there haven’t been great trailers executed by directors… But as you watch, think on the last movie trailer you watched that felt honest and indicative of the film’s flavor like these do below. It seems (unsurprisingly so) that Stanley Kubrick had a heavy influence on his trailers:
Official Trailer for The Shining
Official Trailer for Dr. Strangelove
Official Trailer for A Clockwork Orange
But clearly, he wasn’t involved in this one: A Clockwork Orange 40th Anniversary Edition Trailer
And that’s not even that bad of a trailer by anyone’s standards. But clearly it’s dishonest, after seeing the three directed by Kubrick himself. Your trailer, your screenshots, your website your… whatever, is an extension of your core work. Treat it as such. If it’s not working, try again.
So why do we default to the old concepts of “marketing” and “marketing teams” to tell people about our work? Those are old and weird and they don’t work for us anyhow. If a game is made with an indie spirit, that will shine through if the same soul is put into everything surrounding the game itself. If you make a trailer with dubstep because you saw a talk about dubstep’s effect on game sales, well, you’ve sold your soul and you’ve made the mistake of “marketing” your game.
Most recently I released Threes with Asher. We searched for a single sentence for 8 straight months that would describe Threes. We went through hundreds of name ideas. I sat up in bed many nights thinking what would make sense for our “trailer”. The “tagline”, the trailer, the screenshots, the pull quotes and the website all needed to be tiny. We didn’t know that until a couple months before release. Just as I remade the art for the game dozens of times, the extensions of the game itself had just as much energy poured into them.
For the duration of your works development, search long and hard for what makes it special. That beating core of phosphorous hidden inside that makes your eyes widen when you finally see it. It’s never not taken me the whole time and it’s never not felt amazing when after dozens of concepts and false-starts I finally Get It and everything is in its right place. The rest is the easy part. Making the trailer, the website and the screenshots. It’s The Discovery that takes months.
It feels great because we’ve managed to make our game that much richer outside of the space it resides in. It feels honest. When you get it, and you put in the work, it’s the opposite feeling of “marketing”.
A lot of folks in the community know me for my graphic design approach, but this applies to everyone. Whether your game is about an interpersonal relationship, classism or desserts, the same search for the soul of your work applies. It’ll look, feel and taste different than anyone else’s work and that’s the whole point. Your game should be an extension of you and let that same expression extend out into how you show it, or maybe how you don’t.
You don’t have to be Stanley Kubrick, you just have to be honest and brave. Below is an incredibly honest, soul-bearing trailer, undoubtedly directed by Tommy Wisseau. It seems to give away all the major plot points of the movie, and yet it hides just enough of the beautifully bad yet quiet moments littered throughout that make it worth watching. Oblivious or not, Tommy made this trailer with the same passion and vigor that is imbued in The Room itself.
Use your limits. You had them when you made your game. Maybe they’re different when it comes to a trailer, but they’re still there to guide you. Making a videogame is incredibly technical and involves some of the core skills involved in creating trailers, websites and screenshots. Plus, we live in the internet. It’s not all directly applicable, but the execution of these things should be much less trouble then, say… for a novelist.
I’m not saying this is easy stuff. I’m not even saying we even have the kind of time required. But if you’re letting yourself off the hook because you “don’t know how” or hate “marketing” you’ve missed a step in the process of bearing your soul through your artworks.
Stop selling your game. Show it.
Thanks for the kind words. :)
You don’t have to do company or Steam stuff, just make a game. The harder question of “am I mainstream?” will come later. Sooner if you’re lucky.