In the first of a regular series of columns, Failbetter's marketing chief Haley Uyrus tells us about how developers can brand their projects using words alone
Whether you’re an indie dev or a games marketer, once you have a concrete game idea in development, one of the first things you’ll need marketing-wise is branding. In a digital age where everything is search optimised and transmitted through algorithms, the words you use to describe your game are important.
Branding is basically what marks your game as unique and keeps it from getting lost in the sea of all the other games for sale. Considering ICO Partner’s Steam newsletter often reports over 150 games released on Steam per week–it’s important to make sure your game’s identity is crisp and clear–that way it’ll get in front of the right players, streamers and journalists.
Whether you’re writing a store page, Kickstarter campaign or press release, these bits will be the base structure of your branding:
Title: Self-explanatory, but make sure your title Googles well
Tagline: A snippet of flavour text that can expand upon your title
Genre/keywords: Any applicable categories so people know what to expect
Short description/elevator pitch: How to get your game idea cross in one sentence
Long description: A fleshed out version of your short description that can include setting and backstory (if applicable)
List of USPs/game features: Mechanics and other parts of your game that are unique
1 - All Good Marketing Begins with Research
An easy place to start is checking out what’s already on store platforms. Find out not only what your game’s competitors are doing, but also what the latest top-sellers are doing too. It’s just as helpful to find what pieces other games get right as well as what isn’t working for them.
Check internally with your team too. If members of the dev team have different ideas about the game’s genre or USPs, then you’ll know which areas of the branding require some extra work. As the marketer though, it’s your job to weave together ideas from different teams to make a coherent and appealing store page.
If you have a more niche game or one that is hard to describe with current game terminology, looking into descriptors of other creative mediums can be useful. For example, the word ‘horror’ often comes with a very specific idea of gameplay that may not be reflected in games of that genre. Researching film sub-genres can help add specificity to titles in broad games genres.
2 - Brainstorming, or: Why Marketers Always Have Post-it Notes
Now that your brain is swimming with research and ideas, the best thing to do is just get them all out of there. At Failbetter when we were rebranding our game Sunless Skies, we got out giant sheets of paper and post-it notes and wrote down all our ideas for new genres, keywords and themes that we wanted the branding to convey.
At the time we were working off of Mike Rose’s idea of hooks and kickers. A kicker is the unique selling point of your game, and the hook is what will make people really excited about that. So with that framework, we filled out three different sheets, one for Story Hooks (such as: celestial horror), Gameplay Hooks (defining your captain), and Visual Hooks (Queen Victoria...in space).
3 - Create a Monster
Once you have plenty of lists, it’s time to combine it all and see what works. Try it—all of it. It’s okay for it to not make sense as this is still the “it’s okay if it sounds stupid” phase.
For Sunless Skies, these were a few of the short description combinations we worked through:
Set a course to the living stars in your steam locomotive. Slaughter a swarm of space-bees. Hope for salvation. Pause for cricket. A Victorian literary RPG for PC, Mac and Linux.
Lose yourself in a universe of living stars, celestial horrors, and Victorian ambition. Mind your manners. Betray your Queen. Murder a Sun. A story-driven RPG for PC, Mac and Linux.
MURDER A SUN. BETRAY YOUR QUEEN. PAUSE FOR TEA. Survive in an unfeeling universe of living stars, celestial menace, and Victorian ambition. A narrative RPG for PC, Mac and Linux.
In the end we chose:
SAIL THE STARS. BETRAY YOUR QUEEN. MURDER A SUN. Set a course for the heavens in your steam locomotive! Lose yourself in a changing universe where even time can be bought. A Victorian Gothic adventure for PC, Mac and Linux.
We felt this was the best combination for our aforementioned hooks and gameplay. It’s important to mention at this juncture that verbs are important to games branding. The art, setting and writing are of course selling points, but the actions and actual mechanics of the game are going to be what makes it stand out against other games (and other media!). Tell people why they should spend their time playing your game.
4 - Refine and Finesse
As you play Dr. Frankenstein with genres and descriptors, you’ll start to feel which bits work and which bits don’t. Inherently some will be harder than others (for us it was the tagline), but all the research, brainstorming and combining will mean you have plenty of options for each of the different categories. A word you love may not feel right as a keyword, but may fit beautifully in the tagline. More evocative phrases that may not be fitting for a store page may be helpful for a press release down the line.
5 - Let it Rest, then Test
Your brain at this point will be exhausted and empty. Words won’t look like words anymore. Take a break and let everything sit there for a day or two while you get on with other work.
Then come back to it and test it where you can. Share it within your studio and see what they think. Re-check your original competitor research and take a look back at those store pages to see if they inspire any final eureka moments.
If you have a community, share it with them. Whether you share it with a small core group of your fanbase on your forums, do a Twitter poll or allow a sneak preview, going directly to your fans can really help clarify and solidify your branding.
- It’s not set in stone! You can make tweaks to the branding as you continue developing the game.
- Find a balance between illustrative and boring. Being too poetic can muddle your message and being too trite can dampen player enthusiasm. Find a middle ground.
- Be aware of your audience. Knowing what excites them will help you pull apart what makes your game special.