A Crash Course on Marketing Your Indie RPG

October 31, 2019 rpgmba rpgs lessons_learned business

A lot of indie tabletop designers feel real discomfort when talking about marketing and advertising, and I understand why. It conjures up an images of smiley-gladhands with hidden agendas or people weaponizing wokeness to further their commercial appeal.

In short, marketing feels like lying.

I don’t think it has to though. If you want to make a living at publishing I think you should be intentional about how you market your products and shouldn’t just release them and see how they do” or trust that the cream will rise to the top. It won’t.

Marketing is a complex topic (and I’ve never worked in marketing or advertising, so caveat emptor) but for our purposes let’s say that marketing is:

  1. Find out who would (and wouldn’t) like your game.
  2. Get their attention.
  3. Show them why they should buy your game.

So far none of this sounds crazy-fake or inauthentic to me. So let’s break down a few ways you can approach these three steps and hopefully sell more games.

Step one: Find out who would (and wouldn’t) like your game.

I think it’s a mistake to start with the assumption that everyone would like your game (if they like good games!). You need to picture your perfect customer. For Mothership ours is:

That’s a long list right? But I think about each of these types of people and what they want and what they might get out of a Mothership module whenever I’m writing and designing. But more important than this is people that were not interested in as customers. People who probably wouldn’t be a good match for mothership:

We tend not to support this kind of play, and I know these kinds of players. So conversely to the first group, our target group, for our non-target group we try to make it very clear that this isn’t the game for them.

Our books are tiny, have very little lore and setting info. We even say that there is no canonical Mothership besides what happens at your table while you are playing. Nobody makes a game for everyone. Know who you are and are not trying to reach.

This has been made more interesting recently as the political divide increases. A lot of designers are targeting people with specific beliefs or identities rather than interests. If you see a company advertising how edgy or woke they are, this can usually be chocked up to a bid to target people who identify with those values and then target them as customers, no matter the relevance or quality of the content.

Self identifying groups or labels like the OSR, storygames, SWORDDREAM, grognard, etc. actually do help with targeting as you can find a general sense of what the community looks for in a product based on the established classics in the genre.

The point is: know who you’re aiming at.

A note about community: This can be a lonely occupation. Join a community irl and also get involved with people online. Someday you’ll probably need the community’s help and that’s great, communities help out their members. But everyone hates it when you drop in, having never been there before, and spam a subreddit with your kickstarter link. You will go a long way in this industry helping other people get where they need to go. This doesn’t mean you need to be a daily active user on some popular indie-game forum, it just means, go make some friends and get invested in what other creators at your level are doing. In five years both of you will be five years along in your publishing journey, and you’ll both have five years of contacts and experience to lean on. Don’t worry so much about networking up, network down and sideways. The rest will take care of itself.

Step two: Get their attention

This is the part people feel icky about. How do you get peoples attention? There’s a few basic things you can do up front:

A final note on getting people’s attention:
Focus on your timing. A whole bunch of stuff at once in my experience is better than a slow drip. Things move quickly and dominating the conversation for a day is more likely to leave an impression. That being said, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Take the reviews where you can get them and share them when you can. Something is better than nothing. Try your best to have a real launch date and coordinate your blog post about your lessons learned alongside some podcast interviews and a previously requested review.

Step Three: Show them why they should buy your game.

Okay, so you have their attention. Here is where you need to turn potential buyers into actual buyers. This step is about getting people excited about what you made. Hopefully as excited as you are. The simplest step is to work on your pitch. Something no longer than a tweet. Know what stands out about your thing and pressing that advantage. Is this just another dungeon? Why should I care? For me I look for content that will be both useful and easy to use. Toolkits. Generators. Don’t be afraid to show screenshots and spreads or give away a preview shortened version of the pdf. When you’re starting out, I wouldn’t be afraid to have a PWYW version of your core rules (and make money on the modules) or link to blogposts where you workshopped rough versions of the rules. I can’t tell you how many blogs I’ve read waiting for an official release to come out, just skimming through the WIP posts to glean what I can.

This is also where the reviews and the actual plays and the pull quotes and everything you’ve done should be right at your buyer’s fingertips so that they have at a glance, everything good ever said about your game. Be on every platform. Sell in print and pdf. Have print copies shipped to a friendly publisher outside the US. Get into retail if you can. Be on amazon. Exalted Funeral. Be where people are looking for you.

This is a lot easier the more you do it because…

A Line is Easier to Sell than a One Off

This is longer term, but what’s your pipeline? It’s easier to market your second thing than your first because you can leverage the success of your first thing. A line of products can help each other out. If you make one-offs (like Swordfish Islands) you want a reputation for killer unique boutique products. How often do you come out with games? What’s the throughline? What topics are you interested in exploring? Mothership tries with each module to go somewhere we haven’t gone before. Let’s do a more social module. Let’s do a sci-fi megadungeon. Let’s do a city adventure. Each module is our take on a classic, but done in the sci-fi horror easy-to-use style we’re known for.

And finally, if you’re making games you need an email list. No matter what. You neeed to collect those emails so that you can announce your projects to your fans. This is like gold. How do you know if you even have fans? Does the subscriber number go up? Do people unsubscribe? This is insanely useful and doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Get on mailchimp or tinyletter or substack or wherever. Send it out plaintext like a letter to your friends.

Publishing successfully over the long run means honing this stuff down to where you can repeat your success and work to avoid your failures.

For example, Mothership has a brand new module that just came out this week (boom marketing accomplished), called A Pound of Flesh (you can buy it in print or pdf). What mistakes did we make in marketing? Well we did a small release at Gen Con while we fulfilled to kickstarter backers. Then we did a wide release last week. What could we have done better? We could’ve had the wide release come out right after Gen Con. Adam Koebel did a video review of it and gushed about it — that helped get people invested, but they couldn’t immediately buy. We lost some heat over the last three months as people got used to the trickle of hearing about it from Gen Con buyers, kickstarter backers, and pre-order customers. So next time, we’re setting up a better release timeline. What did we do right? Well, it’s a gorgeous useable city kit set on a space station with three evolving storylines for your players to get involved in that push back and change based on how the PCs interact. It’s got new cybernetics rules and tons of adventure seeds so that the module itself can act as a sort of hubworld or campaign starter. We love it and are super proud of it and I hope you check it out.

I hope if you’re reading this you find this article helpful. We’re still learning and I’m looking forward to updating this with new lessons as they come. If you’ve got experience in this area, I’d love to hear what worked and didn’t work for you. Hit me up @seanmccoy on twitter or in the comments below.

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