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Trends & Insights | Blog

Cracking the code: a guide to social media for indie game publishers

July 14, 2023


Indie games are more popular than ever, but why are so many publishers struggling to achieve success on social media? Here's how to do it.

Antonino Lupo

Senior Content Manager

Gaming is the number one entertainment sector in the world, worth nearly $400bn in 2023. While the likes of Nintendo’s latest Zelda game and Square Enix’s Final Fantasy 16 will likely dominate the mainstream charts this year, the vast majority of new titles comes from a different place entirely.    

According to SteamDB, there were 10,963 games released on digital marketplace Steam in 2022. Of these, roughly half (5,991) were indie games – defined by small teams, often no more than 5-10 people, which operate within extremely tight budgets and scope. 

What they lack in resources, however, they more than make up for in passion and creativity. 

Easier market access, shifting consumer trends, and rising demands for a more diverse variety of experiences, mean indie games are more popular than ever. 

But if that’s the case, why are so many publishers struggling to achieve success on social media?

Indie game developers: the underdogs

Speak to any indie developer and they’ll tell you one of their biggest struggles is marketing their game online to find more players. In my research and experience as an indie games podcast producer, it’s true for nearly 60% of developers.

Besides financial support, marketing is one of the main reasons why indie developers reach out to publishers in the first place. A developer is typically far more interested in making their game than learning the ins and outs of digital marketing.

The consequences of this are easy to see: with over 95% of games on Steam being indie titles, VG Insights estimates that indie games make up 40% of Steam sales – but the figures are greatly uneven, and the median indie game doesn’t make much money in its lifetime, averaging just $1,136. While the most successful indie games in history (including Minecraft, Hollow Knight and Stardew Valley) have generated hundreds of millions in revenue, there’s a whole underworld of game studios that find it challenging to simply break even.

And yet, people want more indie games than ever. Because they’re typically made by a tight group of creative minds, indie games often shine with authenticity and originality, resonating even with the most seasoned players. But while indie game publishers have successfully jumped on this trend, marketing (particularly on social media) remains a pain point for most.

The value of social media for indie game publishers

The value of social media for indie game promotion is abundantly clear in the story of Cult of the Lamb – an indie game (published by Devolver Digital) about building your own cult with cute animals. It gathered millions of impressions and hundreds of thousands of followers across its online channels, thanks to a carefully designed social media campaign.

The most impressive fact about Cult of the Lamb’s success is that, by admission of Devolver Digital Community Strategist Jared J. Tan, all its engagement was organic, achieved without any social advertising.

But Cult of the Lamb is clearly an outlier. There are many games that, despite their apparent appeal, fall flat once they land on social media. At this level, the ‘indie’ label may be seen as arguable, too, given the impressive financial support and backing by the publisher. But one case of viral success is all you need to get a glimpse of the potential of social media, and how far a carefully designed strategy can take you.

As for the games that fall short, there are a number of reasons. One of the most common misconceptions around social media is that it’s primarily a broadcasting tool. This can result in either not enough content being posted on a game’s channel (“Why should we post if we have nothing new to show?”) or not interacting with a game’s community enough.

But social platforms are as much about sharing as they are about interacting and nurturing that sense of community. Most importantly, there is more than one way to do things right on socials – if you know how to approach them.

Strategies for engagement

When it comes to social media, indie game publishers already have a competitive advantage: they own a portfolio of games, made by a number of diverse and passionate teams around the world, each with their own unique stories to tell.

The past few years have seen a rising demand on social media for more authenticity and originality, and there is endless value in leveraging each studio’s unique voice and story to help their games stand out.

None of this can happen without building an online presence through interaction and mutual engagement. Broadcasting is not enough – publishers need to take part in the conversation, and when it comes to games that are still in development, letting their audience be an active part of the creative process is one of the most compelling strategies for success. 

The most successful indie games (Cult of the Lamb included) know how to tap into user-generated content and leverage community engagement to amplify the reach of their game. 

That also means knowing when to harness a thriving creator economy online, which is always supportive of smaller development teams. There are countless gamers and streamers interested in game previews or reviews, and there’s a lot of untapped potential in creating powerful influencer activations in the gaming space to amplify a game’s impact in hyper-engaged communities.

That’s because – and I know it may sound cynical – it’s incredibly easy to relate to indie game developers. ‘Storytelling’ is a term that’s mentioned a lot in marketing circles, but there are very few sectors where storytelling is more relevant than in the indie games market. Leveraging the rising popularity of those stories, tapping into the right community platforms (including Discord, Steam and Twitch), and understanding the inner workings of online algorithms, are all key to social media success.

This approach is naturally supported by a data-driven strategy as well.

Harnessing data for social media success

When Jared J. Tan was designing the best approach to TikTok for Cult of the Lamb, he gathered data from 1,500 videos of indie game studios that were promoting their game on the platform organically, for a total of 70 million views from accounts of all sizes.

His analysis revealed that almost all videos with over 100,000 views had at least 10 seconds of average watch time, and they lasted between 15-19 seconds in total.

Social media algorithms change all the time, but Jared’s findings show that data does make a difference – and there’s a lot of value to unpack in observing what other profiles are doing to tap into a platform’s latest trends.

Whether you’re optimising a Steam page to improve wishlist-to-sale conversion rates, or you’re focusing on the earliest parts of the user journey funnel, understanding and monitoring trends in data can be one of the most powerful tools in driving your social media success.

That includes defining clear objectives and setting KPIs, as well as monitoring results and iterating and optimising over time, so you can follow the latest trends and maximise the impact of your social media strategy.

Cracking the code

In 2021, the global video game market was worth $175.8bn. By 2028, it is expected to reach $413bn. That’s a lot of money flowing in – and estimated to be 3-4x bigger than the music and film industries. 

Harnessing the power of social media has become an indispensable strategy for indie game publishers to stand out, build a dedicated community, and make their mark in a highly competitive industry.

Publishers should be aware that social media success doesn’t directly translate into beefier sales numbers for games. But it can provide a significant ROI, create the best community-building strategy, and prolong the life of a game. In that context, social media can be one of the most precious weapons in a publisher’s arsenal. 

And if you need further proof, my personal purchase of Cult of the Lamb was entirely driven by social media.

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