2008/04/05

Promoting Your Game - Lessons Learned

Update:
This article has been published on MochiLand! I'm famous now! :)


Over the past few weeks, much of my time has been spent promoting my game _dRive - sending it out to Flash game portals around the web with the hope of getting more people to play it. During that process, I made a lot of mistakes and learned some valuable lessons. I thought I'd try sharing my newly gained knowledge here. Maybe it will help you in your next game. :)

So, the following advice is intended for developers of Flash games who want as many people as possible to play their games. If you're using MochiAds to embed money-making ads in your game, or including links to promote your website, these tips should be useful to you. On the other hand, if you plan to make your money from an exclusive sponsorship or by keeping the game locked to your site and surrounded by website ads, then you may find this interesting but it probably won't be necessary.

Step 0 - Make a good game

My advice deals with what to do after you've made a cool Flash game. But marketing is a lot easier when you start with a quality product, so give yourself some time to read over the article How to make a successful Flash Game if you haven't already. Making good games is hard, and it's something you really have to learn from experience, but reading articles can give you a bit of extra guidance when you need it.

Step 1 - Playtest the game

This point may seem obvious to some people, but it's important enough that I'll say it here: You have to test your game out on other people! Watching a new player try your game is very eye-opening. Almost inevitably, there will be lots of problems that you don't notice but will end up ruining the experience for other players.

Playtesting is what turns mediocre games into awesome games. Extensive playtesting is what made the award-winning game Portal great. If you want to learn how to do it right, read Ron's Rules for Playtesting.
  • I'd suggest spending at least a week to playtest and polish your game as soon as you have a working version. Get friends, neighbors, classmates, or whoever else you can find to try out your game while you watch and take notes. Ask them for their feedback, make whatever improvements you can, and then repeat the process with someone new. For the average Flash game, a week of this might be enough. But if you can do it for longer, go ahead. More complex games, especially if they involve strategy, might require several weeks of testing. As long as you can keep finding new players, the more testing the better.

Step 2 - Beta test the game online

What, more testing? Here's the first big mistake I made with _dRive - I tried to spread it to as many game sites as I could right after I finished playtesting. Don't do that.

Instead of spreading the game right away, get as much feedback as you can with a private beta test. Create a site-locked version of your game, maybe even prompting for a password at the loading screen before allowing the game to run. Put this version online where that no one will find it unless they are looking for it - ideally, on your own private web space, or a site like Flash Game License. Then go to a forum that you trust - the one on MochiAds, for example - and ask people to try your game and give you feedback about it.

Different computers, different monitors, different browsers, different players, all will contribute to new problems that you may have missed while doing live playtesting. You want to discover these while the game is still private and under your control, not after you've sent an old version to dozens of game portals.
  • If you are using MochiAds, this step would be a good time to get your game approved so you can start earning money as soon as possible!

Step 3 - Test release the game on a single site


Once you feel like you've gotten enough feedback from the beta test and your game is as polished as it's going to get, you can try releasing it on an actual Flash game portal. This is your chance to test out some descriptions and preview icons for the game.
  • For this first release, choose a game site that is popular enough to get you a decent amount of views and comments for your analysis, but not enough that the game gets noticed and stolen by other sites. I'd recommend either Nonoba or Kongregate. Nonoba is a newer portal and not as big as Kongregate, so you might not get as many useful comments there. But on Kongregate, there are weekly and monthly cash prizes for the games with the highest ratings, so you may prefer to wait to put your game there until you are completely ready. However, if you don't care about the prizes, Kongregate can be a fine choice for your test release.
All Flash game sites like it when you provide a good thumbnail image to represent your game in their collection. You want to make an icon that will attract people's attention and compel them to try out your game. This is an easily overlooked but very important part of game promotion. Definitely have a look at this article on Thumbnail Design for some useful tips.

Another crucial part of promotion is the description you write to explain your game to potential players. Often portals will want both a short, ten word description and a longer one of two or three sentences. Like the game icon, these descriptions must catch the attention of people browsing the portal collections and encourage them to try out the game. An effective description will also prepare the player mentally for what to expect when they play.
  • Surprisingly, many developers don't bother to come up with compelling descriptions for their games. Take advantage of this opportunity to have your game stand out. Brainstorm a bunch of possible descriptions, both long and short, and then test them on people! Read them out loud to people and watch for their reaction. If they look confused, or start laughing at you, that's a sign that you need a better description. On the other hand, if they look intrigued and interested, or laugh in delight, then you're probably on the right track. It can often take days to really come up with something good though, so you might even start thinking of descriptions for your game as early as the playtesting stage.

Step 4 - Put the game on Newgrounds

So, your game is good, people like it, and you're confident that it's the best that it's going to be? Now is the time to put it on Newgrounds. Why? Because Newgrounds is the biggest, most popular portal that lets you instantly upload your games and track their progress on the site. Put your game there and you are basically guaranteed a few hundred views and several reviews in the first half hour after uploading. If your game gets rated highly, you are also basically guaranteed to have your game stolen by a bunch of smaller sites. After you put a game on Newgrounds, there's no going back.

Success on Newgrounds, and by extension success on the web in general, depends very heavily on that first impression. In submitting a game there, you have a very short window of opportunity to enthrall your players and establish a good rating for your game before it disappears into obscurity in the depths of the portal. This window can be as short as one or two hours. If during that time your game is judged to be excellent, awards and recognition will be bestowed upon it. Your highest aim is to have your game showcased on the front page of Newgrounds, where it will reap a bountiful number of views and be stolen by game portals far and wide across the web.
  • If you are using MochiAds, be sure to disable ads for the newgrounds.com domain before you submit your game there! Newgrounders don't take too kindly to ads in their games, and you don't want to do anything that might jeopardize that first impression. If you really want to, you could enable the ads again once your game has achieved the coveted front page, but you might instead choose to think of Newgrounds as an aid to promotion rather than as a money-making opportunity in itself.
If the game doesn't do well on Newgrounds, though, there is still the chance to fix it. It won't get stolen if it has a low score. But it probably won't get chosen for the front page either, even if you manage to update the game with amazing improvements. It's just too late - no one will find it. Still, you can try creating a thread in the General forum, asking for feedback on your game. If you're lucky, you might get a hundred more views and some useful suggestions. But that's really not a good situation to find yourself in. Do whatever you can to get it right the first time.


Step 5 - Send the game to other sites

The last thing to do is to send the game out to as many portals as you can. Some sites have online submission forms where you can automatically upload your game, while others only take submissions through email. You'll be getting your game out there in whatever way you can. This process is described in detail by the excellent article Marketing Flash Games. You must read it!
  • If you're using MochiAds, now is the time to enable it for distribution! Check the box in the distribution settings for the game and upload your final SWF.
You will first need to create a distribution pack for your game. This is a compressed folder containing the final SWF of your game, thumbnail images of all different sizes and file formats, and a text file containing all the information that a webmaster could possibly need while adding your game to their site. The text file I used for _dRive included the game name, file name and dimensions, author name and website, a short description, a full description, game instructions, keywords associated with the game, and my email address. You'll probably want to have at least that much info in yours.

Put this distribution pack online where it can be easily downloaded. That way when you are sending emails to dozens of portals in a row you can simply link to the distribution pack in your email rather than trying to attach a big file for each one you send. I learned that the hard way, after spending entire days just emailing portals one after another with my game. You'll also need to write up a good letter which you can copy and paste into these emails, articulately alerting each portal owner to the existence of your game and offering a link to the distribution pack.
  • This letter should include an enticing description of your game, a link to where the recipient can try the game online, and most importantly, a link to the distribution pack. If there's one website where your game is rated really highly and the players just seem to love your game, link to that one in your email! Portal owners want to add games that their players will like. Show them that yours is one of those games.
Then you just get a list of good Flash game portals and start spreading your game. If you need some lists of portals, try this, this and this. There are more out there, too - just search around.

The End?

Well, there's not much more for me to say here. Good luck in promoting your next game, and if you find this article helpful, make a note of it on your blog or something so I can feel good about myself for writing it. :)

And if your experience contradicts what I say here, please let me know about that too! This is really my first time promoting a Flash game in a serious way, so I'm definitely still learning. But I think it's safe to say that the lessons I've distilled from this experience are some solid and widely applicable guidelines.

Thanks for reading!

2 comments:

Jan_Richert said...

Good article, albeit a little bit on the "well that's obvious"-side. What is it about NG'ers and mochiads?

axcho said...

Thanks. Well, it wasn't quite so obvious to me as you'd expect when I was doing this for the first time, so I thought it would be worth saying. ;)

But yeah, anyway - what is with those Newgrounders, huh? :)