PAX South and What I Learned about Marketing Independent Gaming

So PAX South has come and gone, and I had a total blast just like everyone else. For the first time in Texas, PAX did their best to give video game fans something that those who live in the Southern states could only experience if they did a long trip up north to Boston or Seattle. While checking out all of the booths and attending some panels, I learned a great deal…whether it was directly from a person, or indirectly from attending a panel. Just what did I learn from my first PAX convention?

#1.) Independent Gaming Companies are making some awesome games…

But you already know this! This is a no-brainer…and if you’re a gamer, you know that there are some awesome games being made by independents right now. I had tons of fun checking out all of the games from the independent companies, especially Starlight Inception from Escape Hatch Entertainment (@escapehatchent) – which I’ll admit I’m biased because I love Starlight Inception. Escape Hatch has a new game coming out based in the Starlight Inception world called Starlight Tactics that is a hardcore turn-based strategy game where you pilot your vessels and aim your weapons in a total open-space galactic plane interface. Using the touch-based interface on a tablet, It really made me feel like I was the navigator on a Federation Starship from Star Trek.

Mish Mash Machine (@MishMashMachine) has created “Raising Hell”, a fun platformer where as the demon “Damian”, you have to escape Hell before it freezes over. It’s very addictive and if you’re a big historical myth guy like myself, you’ll find endless amounts of humor in this premise. Dodge angels, fire bazookas, and teleport all over the place while Snowmageddon hits the 9 Levels of Hades*.

*I don’t think there’s just 9 levels of the game, I was just making a funny.

Desert Owl Games (@DesertOwlGames) was showing Poxnora (@poxnora) to the world – an already popular independent game that takes Magic: Duel of the Planeswalkers and turns it into the battle strategy game it wishes it could have been – a collection of miniature gameplay, Fantasy RPG and Customizable card games into one visual and tactical feast for the eyes and mind, Joystiq recently did a piece on Poxnora, calling it the “coolest online card game you’ve never heard of”…but that’s changing. Their game content is constantly evolving with new creatures and cards, and they’re easy to find either on their website or on Steam.

What’s great about PAX, if you don’t already know, is that it’s also a place for tabletop games as well. A passionate games designer named Will Stateczny of Topwise Games (@TopwiseGames) has created this funny new card game called Monkeys Need Love Too, where if the idea of being a monkey trying to escape a perfume lab and flinging poop is a fun night to you, then you should definitely check out this game.

#2.) A lack of local spotlight…

While I mentioned Escape Hatch, Mish Mash Machine and Topwise, I was a little disappointed at the lack of a local spotlight for San Antonio developers on the exhibition floor. Microsoft had a small exhibition area for independent programmers based out of Texas, but it was small and it was ALL of Texas…with maybe 5 to 6 indie companies at most on display – not including Escape Hatch, who are based in Austin and were there on their own dollar.

PAX really could have done more for the local scene – these small guys are hustling like mad trying to make their dreams a reality, but so many of them didn’t even make the cut. PAX South was a prime opportunity for PAX to make use of its brand and bring together so many new programmers, designers, businessmen, etc… to start the foundations of new games and new companies. I understand that much of the space was needed for the bigger companies that made it out, but there was so much space available in the gaming section of the convention. For a city that is priding itself on building its start-up scene, this could have really benefited San Antonio even more  – I hope PAX South 2016 opens the door for more independent gaming community people to come together, especially in the San Antonio area.

3.) Independent Gaming Companies Have Issues Getting Noticed…

All of these great indie gaming companies have a similar problem – getting the word out to people about their projects. When I was talking to president of Desert Owl Games Arthur Griffith, I was able to pick the brain of an independent who has built up his fanbase to make Poxnora one of the more popular indie titles online. His secret isn’t so much a secret but a tried and tested method of building a community the old fashioned way – inviting people to join, and cultivating the fanbase of the Poxnora and Steam forums into a strong group of vocal supporters. It is slow and methodical, maybe a bit too slow for most “on-demand” people, but when your fans feel like they are a part of the system and not just another stat, they become loyal supporters of your product. Word of mouth, healthy communication, strong selling point, and viral content – Desert Owl should be one of the benchmarks most indie start-ups aspire to become within their first 5 years of creation.

From the people I talked to on the exhibit floor, many of them considered marketing their game secondary and was using PAX as a way to get the word out – play the game at a game convention, seems like a good idea – and of course it’s a great one. But I also thought it was interesting to see how many of these companies either didn’t know how or didn’t have much time to market their games, but this comes as no surprise. As a game designer, you want to design games, not market them. You can’t get the word out on a project without having something to show the world first, and this usually means having a finished game to show them before starting up buzz. However, in my opinion most gaming companies who go this route are missing a small boat that could lead them up stream fast – but I realize this stems from two important issues:

  • Lack of time – When you’re up late from your day job trying to code your latest project, the last thing you’re thinking is “How the heck am I going to get people to buy this?” You want your project done, why be on Twitter when you could be debugging the next level? It’s totally understandable, but if people don’t know what to look for, how are they going to know to give your game a try? If “word of mouth” or “I’ll get to that later” is a reply, you could be missing out – not giving even social media a small chunk of attention now can lead to a number of different issues, including slow sales that never evens out, difficulty in differentiating yourself from the competition, allowing yourself to see what the competition is doing next and even legitimizing yourself as a gaming company.

This is kind of a “cart before the horse” issue, but when you have the problem of needing to build the cart beforehand, you have no time to purchase the horse. But there’s a lot of ways to get around this, including outsourcing to companies who do this for a living.

  • Lack of know-how – another issue I ran into is simply, people know about the tools of the trade, but don’t know how to use them. Again this is of no fault of anyone, programmers and designers are meant to program and design, not create buzz and drive sales to their game. Everyone knows that social media is a great tool for this kind of thing, but not many people know exactly how to use it properly. Some common questions or statements I received when chatting about this was:
    1. What do I post? – Blogs, updates, memes…ask questions to your followers, reply to them, build your community by making them feel like they are a part of something great. When your game is released, they’ll be even more hyped to try it, and pass on that hype to others.
    2. When do I post? – This information is widely accessible on the internet. Just type “social media peak hours” and you’ll find every social media site and the peak hours to post on them.
    3. We really don’t have much info to pass along – There’s a ton of different things you can write about, it doesn’t even have to be game related. It can be stories, anecdotes, anything you can think of…now combine that with a few retweets from like-minded followers and suddenly you have a stream of content for your followers…
    4. I just don’t have much time to update my blog or social media – Like I mentioned about, this is an actual legit issue. Who has time to do these things when you’re coding, designing and debugging?

There are a ton of resources available to designers to help market their games, social media being a huge hype engine that can get the ball rolling before the game is even released. With consistent organic content constantly being updated, an independent company’s followers can increase via hundreds of percent in the first 5 months of joining just Facebook and Twitter alone, never mind adding Google+, Reddit and other means of spreading the word.


Game Developers – I’ll be writing a Part 2 to this blog about what you can really do to create your own online marketing plan to capitalize on all of the resources you can use to get the word out on your games!

Stay tuned!


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