Marketing is one of the fundamental skills that I believe most indie developers lack. They put their blood, sweat and sacrifices into their titles and then let them die due to poor marketing efforts.

I’ve been a long time believer in Seth Godin‘s marketing concepts and ideas and as luck would have it, I recently discovered an indie developer who “gets it”. Tom Cain of Smallware. Tom was good enough to agree to an interview to talk about marketing rather than development.

I think every indie who hopes to make a lasting name for themselves should get a kick out of this! So here we go…

The main topic I wanted to talk to you about was marketing and the very interesting choices that your company has made both with your product and web site. I’m a huge believer in the remarkable complex that Seth Godin has been talking about for years and I get the impression that you are as well. The fact that you market your game, Solavant, as “hard solitaire” is remarkable. Picking a niche and servicing it is a concept that most indies don’t seem to get. Can you elaborate a little on your marketing strategy with Solavant and talk a little about how it has affected your results?

Markets can be looked at in different ways. I think this is something you have to train yourself to do if you want to be successful at marketing and it isn’t always easy. I’ve worked in advertising professionally since 1993 and my mentor is a positioning guru, so I’ve had some help and practice. But I’m still learning.

Many developers would say that “solitaire” is a basic simulation, the ultimate casual game, and every solitaire software that has come out since the first is simply a clone. And that’s true from one perspective. From other perspectives, however, you’ll see that solitaire players are a wide, varied group with varied wants. If you can identify a want that isn’t being filled, you can create something that fills it. The product will be successful if there are enough people with that want.

“Hard solitaire” is a want that I identified with Smallware’s Palm software years ago, so I already knew the niche existed. It isn’t a big niche and the players aren’t even looking for the product because they aren’t truly aware of the want until they encounter what fills it. But when they come across it they love it and usually buy it. They know exactly what I’m saying because I’m really talking only to them. Plus I’m the only one saying it — other solitaire products are saying something different.

I know that the response to this interview will be, “Look at Pretty Good Solitaire from Goodsol! They don’t service a specific need or want and are doing great!” How would you respond to that and what differences do you see (good or bad) in your approaches to the solitaire market?

Well, I’d respond that the statement about PGS is wrong. You don’t look at how it is now, you look at it was when it appeared. It did service a want: a polished commercial solitaire game for Windows. PGS was one of the first commercial solitaire games for Windows, if not the first. When you are first in a broad category, positioning works differently — you are automatically positioned at #1 for the category. PGS also had a unique selling point of allowing the player to undo every move in the game. To this day, Windows solitaire will undo only one move back. That was a big deal to solitaire players. Thomas Warfield of Goodsol is a smart guy and improved PGS over the years to keep his #1 position. If he had stopped improving early on, a smart fast-follower could have taken the spot.

Smallware’s experience with solitaire on Palm handhelds was similar, it was one of the first. But developing Solavant for the Mac wasn’t the same situation at all. There were already commercial Mac solitaire games and had been for a while. There wasn’t a first-mover opportunity to be #1 in the broad category. That only leaves niches.

The “bad” thing with niches is that you don’t know if it contains enough interested people. You might develop a product that no one wants. But competing directly with category leaders is almost always the worst thing to do, so niches aren’t really that risky once you’ve decided to go into a category.

There is a lot of value in being the first (and even better, only) one delivering a specific message/product. Can you distill the Solavant message down to 1 or 2 sentences? What’s the core strategy here?

“Solavant is hard solitaire with no easy games, stacked shuffles, hints, cheats or hollow victories — it does absolutely nothing to help you win.”

There’s marketing language in that statement but it’s also the truth, which is a good combination. When you’re in a niche your statements are comparative to the rest of the category. Solavant is a niche player, thus comparative: harder than others because it doesn’t do this list of things.

A position that’s easy for potential players to understand acts like a filter. I want Solavant to intrigue the solitaire players who like more of a challenge. If 9 out of 10 solitaire players just want to relax their minds and don’t want more challenge, then I’m only talking to that 10th player. The other 9 aren’t going to like this game. “Hard solitaire” gets someone interested or not in just two words. This is great for things like Google Adwords ROI. I’m doing a lot of the selling right in the ad itself, rather than on the site after paying for the click.

I should point out that if you go niche, you are choosing to go long-term. A niche product almost never explodes onto the scene. By definition the broad category already exists and has competing products in it. It takes time to build up a niche product. But if the niche is big enough, the product can grow into a big player in the broader category. And if the idea and execution are different enough, you can spawn off a new category in which you are first and #1.

Your game is only available on the Mac. Is that a result of your marketing/positioning choices or a result of circumstances? I could well imagine it being an intentional choice but I’d love to hear your reasons.

It was an intentional choice. First, I like the smaller system markets. People are understandably appreciative that you made something for their platform. Second, I’m from an industry that uses Macs almost exclusively, so I’m familiar with what Mac users are looking for. Third, there aren’t as many competing solitaire games on the Mac, which increases the chance of finding a good niche.

“Hard solitaire” is a very narrow market slice. You’d think that would be okay with the size of the Windows market, but it’s already cut up into a lot of pieces. Solavant took a year to develop. I wanted the least risk for that time investment and the Mac looked like the safer bet. From the respose so far, I think it was the right choice.

Let’s say you were in a position to speak to a group of indie game developers who were about to embark upon their first major projects. What would you say to them? What would be your advice?

Yikes. I’d probably say, “Get a better speaker.”

There are many paths to success. The only one I’m qualified to talk about is marketing, which seems to be one of the least understood aspects of indie game business. Developers often ask, “I know about download sites, search engine ads, forums, review sites, and magazines. What else is there?” There is an expectation of some kind of marketing secret.

I’m going to let you in on the secret — those things are pretty much all there is. If your game won’t market through these media, then it won’t market. Your concept must travel through these to interested players. Hopefully the concept is interesting enough that the players tell other players. Get enough people talking in multiple places and you’ve generated buzz, the marketing Holy Grail, and you’re likely on your way to huge success.

Two product types travel well through media: innovators and fast-followers. All other products usually struggle and pay a lot more money for marketing in the form of advertising. This is because people are interested in new ideas. New ideas get downloaded. New ideas get talked about in reviews, forums and magazines. Old ideas are just that, old — they don’t get talked about much.

“Innovation” doesn’t have to be big or genre-defining, as some developers think. Drill down into a genre and there are opportunities with small, subtle things that people might find interesting. “Hard solitaire” is an innovation by this definition. It’s a small distinction for sure, yet it’s enough to create downloads, reviews and sales. It isn’t big enough to generate real buzz, but there are people out there who are interested.

Despite the anti-clone slant of this blog, “fast-following” is a viable business direction with low marketing cost. It capitalizes on people talking about an innovator. The key word is “fast”, though. Successful fast-followers are usually well funded to provide development speed. The second product to take advantage of an innovation is going to market better than the fifth. So you may want to evaluate your speed before choosing this route.

Marketing rules aren’t absolute. They define what is likely to work, not what is sure to work — they certainly don’t guarantee success. Putting time and money into product development is a gamble. If you build in innovations that give interested people something to say about your product, you’re doing a lot to hedge your bet.

Tom was then good enough to outline a marketing plan. Memorize this!

SIMPLE GAME MARKETING PLAN

  1. Think of a game idea.
  2. In simple language, define the innovative thing that will be different and interesting about your game. This will be your product “tagline”. If you can’t define something, go back to 1.
  3. Create your game while focused on the innovation.
  4. Put the game on download sites with your tagline front and center. If interest is low, go back to 2 and tweak. If interest is non-existant, ditch and go back to 1.
  5. Use feedback from early players to focus product innovation even more and release new builds. If you have multiple innovations in your product, stay focused on the one. Let players and reviewers discover the others on their own.
  6. Do a press release focused on your innovation. Hiring a service to handle this is a good idea.
  7. Ask for reviews from review sites, magazines and blogs. Be sure to point out your innovation and player interest so far.
  8. Use independent ratings and quotes from reviewers and customers in web and magazine ads. These can be expensive, so remember that no one wants to hear you talk about yourself. Focus the ad on your innovation and quote someone else so you aren’t doing the talking.
  9. Remember that you can’t please everyone. Don’t bother trying — stay focused. More people are going to dislike your game than like it. But if your marketing is focused on an interesting innovation, the ones that do like your game will truly love it.

Ben

A keen video gamer and web developer I have been making games and designing websites for many years. Binary Joy is the combination of my two passions.

You can also see me on my personal website, Binary Moon, and try my games from my online game store, Binary Sun

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