I was looking at Manifesto Games yesterday. It’s a publisher for independent developers. That sounded pretty odd to me. The point of starting an independent developer, in fact its very definition, is that you are independent of publishers.
A publisher brings three things to the table: up-front funding, distribution, and advertising. For a large game this makes sense. Very few people can afford millions of dollars to fund their own game. Very few people have the connections or money to distribute and advertise their games. You might be looking at an upfront cost of $20M to develop and $10M to publish and advertise an AAA game. If the game sells a million copies you make a nice profit. Otherwise you take a loss. The publisher model is based on gambling. Take this risk many times. Most risks will fail while a minority of blockbusters will pay for the failures. It’s actually a tax-advantage for them because the losses are written off against the profit from the successes.
With independent games, you fund yourself. Distribution is easy – let people download the game. It’s not that hard to rent a server and put up a hyperlink. So the only thing left that a third party can offer is marketing. I wrote to the CEO of Manifesto, Greg Costikyan, asking about this.
We’re very early stage, but hopefully, we (eventually) bring a number of things to the table:
1. Exposure to a community of indie game enthusiasts to whom you might not otherwise be exposed.
2. Yes, you can do your own promotion and marketing, but this isn’t something that most independent developers are good at, because it’s not a core competence; we think we can do that more effectively than (most) indie developers by themselves.
3. We don’t ask for exclusivity–if you want to sell it yourself off your own site as well, feel free. The question then becomes: Does selling through Manifesto cannibalize my sales, or does it provide incremental sales I wouldn’t achieve otherwise?
That’s a judgment you’d have to make, but I think we will be able to demonstrate that we can help partners achieve larger sales than they would otherwise.
Like he said, the question is will the marketing they provide offset the unspecified portion of your sales they take? It’s hard to say.
According to “Marketing without Advertising” (and I agree or I wouldn’t cite it) word of mouth is the cheapest and most effective form of advertising. Sending out ads to disinterested parties is the most expensive and least effective form of advertising. Large companies do this because they already have covered the other forms of marketing have the excess cash to do it. Because large companies are so large, the cost per unit to advertise is relatively small.
As a simplistic example, lets say McDonalds runs a 5 million dollar ad in the US and they have 500,000 stores. Then each store only pays $10 for ad. Even if 99% of the people who saw the ad didn’t care about it, it will still be financially viable to run the ad. 1% of all the TV watchers in the US is a lot of people and will make more than $10 in profit for each store.
For an independent game developer your sales will probably range from a few hundred copies to 10,000 copies if you are a huge success. It costs from $2000 to $10,000 to run a banner ad on a site for a month. I’ll let you do the math, but consider that banner clickthrough rates are generally less than 1/10th of 1%. Of people who click on your banner, most will not buy the game. I won’t bother making up numbers but I will say that at small levels there are much better ways to get returns on your investement. For example, spending that $4000 on some nice new music or ship models will more likely generate better retention and sell-through rates and greater total sales.
The other thing to be aware of is that getting more eyes to see your game early on is NOT necessarily a good thing. When I released RakNet I had more unique visitors in the first month than I ever had since then. All those people that looked at the initial release of RakNet now have an opinion formed about the library and it’s unlikely they will revisit the library just because it’s now at version 2.4. Yet version 2.4 probably does not have a single line of code the same as in version 1.0 and has many times more features. It’s more stable, literally thousands of times faster, and takes something on the order of 25X less memory. So again, when we are talking about low budgets it is much more sensible to spend all your money improving your product than it is getting more people to see your initial release.
That is not to say that marketing is not important. It is, and there are ways to do it that make sense. One is building up your business. Find what the customers of your first game like and try to sell them your second game. Another is a newsletter. People who like the kind of games that your company make can get periodic updates of news games that you release. Another is in-game references to other games, such as showing a list of games in your exit screen or putting links to your other games in the startup menu.
A lot of this information comes from my favorite pair of websites:
A pyrogon Postmortum
which is commented on by
A shareware Life
This kind of marketing is effective, but is not something a third party would be able to do.
What can a third party do?
One option is nearly free advertising (such as hitting up review and news sites). I used to run a gaming website and know that connections do matter. It makes the difference between your game release posted on the front page of Blues News to being some unknown entry on Game Hippo.
The other option is the portal model. Suppose that Manifesto advertises 100 different games, and that they have some standards for what they will advertise. A site with 100 different good games is a pretty good draw to people, especially if that site advertises itself and puts its own promotions before that of the developers, such as Real Arcade. The problem with this is that your game only succeeds if the portal markets it. And according to the Shareware Life:
By putting their entire destiny in the hands of the portals, Pyrogon put the success or failure of their business into the hands of people who simply did not care whether their business succeeded or not. The entire burden of selling their product was put into other people’s hands
In summary, if you want EXTRA sales from using Manifesto as an advertising source, for a game that has already been released, AND they give you all the customer information it may be worth doing.