The Realistic Guide to Pricing Indie Game Marketing

A treasure goblin, commonly seen in Blizzard games

You’re getting ready to launch your next game and you want to know how much you should be prepared to spend on marketing. This article breaks down about what that’s going to be in terms of your own time, and outsourcing costs.

So, what’s the magic number?

It costs about $50,000 to market an indie game.

Now that we’ve opened that can of worms (and now that you know why indie game developers often partner with publishers), let’s actually break it down so that you can see how I came up with it.

In short, I’m multiplying the average value of an indie game developer’s time in the U.S. by the average time it takes to do a specific set of marketing tasks over 3 months leading up to the launch of their game.

And I’m also averaging a market range for individual marketing projects based on my career experience in the U.S. and on some projects abroad.

The big idea here is that the $50,000 number (and its addends), although fuzzy, provide insight as a clue for how valuable marketing might be in relation to your own time, how valuable it might be when considering a publisher, or how valuable it might be when outsourcing.

But before we start calculating projects, I’ll explain my assumptions, so that you understand exactly where I’m coming from.

Please bear with me.

What Is an Indie Game Developer?

The first assumption I’m making is that an indie game developer is an independent games developer, meaning they’re doing it all themselves. Just like indie movies, indie music, or indie books, they’re entertainment businesses who not only create their own products (games), they also sell them.

Indie game developers aren’t just game developers, and they’re not just game publishers – they’re both.

Indie game developers are a group comprised of sole-proprietors, small teams working virtually or out of houses, and small brick-and-mortar companies such as Supercell, who all sell games alongside one another in what’s known as the games industry.

In other words, an indie game developer isn’t merely a person, but rather a business, even if that business only employs one person.

Not what indie game developers look like.

This is an assumption based on the standard of business as defined by the U.S. government, and far more importantly (for the purposes of this article) the standard accepted by the games industry.

This article is for indie games businesses, not indie game hobbyists.

So if you’re interested in what marketing might cost in time, or money, given the standard of the games industry, then read on.

An Indie Game Developer’s Time is Valuable Regardless of Their Earnings

The second assumption I’m making is that the average value of an indie game developer’s time is only useful for the purposes of this article if it’s based on the average salary of a game programmer in the U.S., and by factoring in the added value of someone who’s managing a games business.

The objection to this is typically that some indie game developers make less revenue than others, and so it’s imprecise (or unfair) to measure the less fortunate by this standard.

But the primary problem with that is, it doesn’t change expenses.

Marketing, advertising, and PR agencies probably aren’t going to charge you much different, publishers won’t offer less of a percentage out of pity, and marketplaces certainly aren’t going to throw features your way because life isn’t fair.

An indie game developer’s time has an average games industry value (or market rate) regardless of their earnings.

Remember, the point of this article is to provide an aspiring indie games business insight as a clue to what their marketing efforts might be worth in relation to their own time, or money.

If you don’t accept that your time has an average market value given your earnings, then you’re going to pass out cold when we start calculating how much it might cost to outsource your marketing.

But for those of you who accept these assumptions as reasonable, let’s do some fuzzy math!

How Much Is an Indie Game Developer’s Time Worth?

Here’s the equation I’m using to calculate the average value of an indie game developer’s hourly rate:

(Average salary of a game programmer in the U.S. + Average salary of a game business manager in the U.S.) / 2 * The true cost of an employee / Business hours in a year = Average hourly value of an indie game developer

Alright, let’s go through each of these…

The average salary of a game programmer in the U.S. is $93,251 in the Gamasutra Game Developer Survey 2014, $90,141 on Salary.com (Applications Systems Programmer III), and $73,929 on Glassdoor.

The average salary of a game programmer in the U.S. is $85,774.

And the average salaries of a games business manager in the U.S. is $101,572 in the Gamasutra Game Developer Survey 2014, $116,796 on Salary.com (Business Development Manager), and $81,221 on Glassdoor.

The average salary of a games business manager in games in the U.S. is $99,863.

And the average of those salaries indicates that the average salary value of an indie game developer in the U.S. is $92,819.

Cha-ching!

Now, since an indie game developer owns their own business, they’re responsible for their own taxes, expenses, benefits, and other perks. And because of that we have to factor in that the true cost of an employee is 1.5-2.5x their salary.

I’ll use the average of 2x, which doubles the true value of an indie game developer’s salary to $185,638.

Finally, to find the business (or self-employed) hourly value, I’m dividing by 2080, the number of business hours in a year, to arrive at $89.

The average value of an indie game developer’s hour in the U.S. is $89.

But here’s the problem with that.

This method of calculating value is called cost-plus pricing, and doesn’t take into account the true value of a purchase (or value-based pricing).

Basically, averages don’t take into account that the true value of a service is really only what someone is willing to pay for it. For example, you’d pay more for a snow shovel in the middle of a blizzard than you would in the middle of a heat wave.

Oh, well. I’m not going to account for that kind of value here.

The purpose of this exercise is to give you a good enough idea of what your marketing might be worth, fundamentally-speaking, for the 3 months leading up to your game’s launch. And not to be scientifically accurate about that as it relates to your specific business goals, problems, risks, or personal attitude about it.

It’s up to you to factor in true value. But be really careful. Again, industry standards don’t change just because you don’t value them.

Phew. Alright, it’s finally time to start using this number to calculate some projects!

Pricing a Foundational Indie Game Marketing Plan

All indie games do at least these 6 marketing projects prior to launch: Branding, trailer, website, social media, devblog, and PR.

Pretty much in that order, too.

Granted, there’s countless other game marketing tactics that could be used for your games, we’re going to stop there for the sake of brevity.

To keep things nice and fuzzy, I’m going to round up and use nice, big fat numbers with zeros on the ends. And because that’s how vendors are going to price your projects when outsourcing anyway.

1. Branding

Branding, or brand identity, is your game’s logo mark, colors, font choices, typography, patterns, key art, and any special character/environment art. Each game requires more or less of these elements.

The time it takes to finalize branding elements is typically 2 weeks considering revisions, variations, and additions over time. Not to mention time putting together your press kit or style guide if you use one.

Branding takes about 2 weeks to complete, it will cost you about $7,000 to do yourself, or about that to outsource.

I know, your knee-jerk reaction is probably something like… WHAT?! I can do that in way less than 2 weeks!

And I totally get it. Consider that until you’ve tracked your time down to the hour on all these projects, it may only seem as if you’re doing it quicker, when in reality it’s actually taking longer than you think.

2. Trailer

Crafting a great trailer takes a lot of careful work and consideration. It takes planning, narrative, capturing the right footage, effects, animations, sound design – it’s just not something you can pop open iMovie and push out within a day. A good, solid trailer takes about a week to produce.

A trailer takes about 1 week to produce, costs you about $4,000 to do yourself, and maybe less to outsource.

My friend and colleague, M. Joshua Cauller, makes indie game trailers such as this one for Dimension Drive.

Professional trailers typically take more than a week to make. But I’m cutting some slack for a less experienced indie game developer who hammers one out relatively fast with a good enough end result.

3. Website

This is where things start to get hairy, because honestly there’s a hundred different ways to build a website.

I’m going to assume you’re rolling your own hosting for $10 a month, you did a WordPress install for free, and you’re customizing some $50 theme. This is the most common scenario.

A website takes about 2 weeks to complete, costs you about $7,000 to do yourself, and maybe less to outsource.

Two weeks is pretty standard. Also, consider that over time you’ll be adding or redesigning pages, messing with plugins, tweaking SEO, integrating tools, cutting custom graphics and so on.

The official website for Hay Day

The official website for Hay Day. See, you don’t need a big website.

To significantly cut down on the cost of making an official game website, use my guide to making effective game websites really fast. In fact, it should cut your cost down to about $1,000.

4. Social Media

Social media means signing up for, creating profiles on, and leveraging a hundred, free social networks. Getting on these networks is easy and free, but attaining success with social media is not.

In order to be truly successful on social you’ll do at least 2 hours a day of content creation, engagement, and optimizations. And yes, even on weekends (spend 1 day a week batching most of that).

Social media takes the full 3 months to complete, costs you about $11,000 to do yourself, and maybe less to outsource.

That’s about 10 hours a week for 3 months leading up to your game’s launch, granted you stick to the 1 or 2 social networks that make the most sense for your game (probably Facebook and Twitter), in order to obtain your first 5,000 followers. Now multiply that cost for every game you make, not to mention ongoing social marketing.

The need to eventually hire a reliable Community Manager (for about $50,000 a year in the U.S.) will probably become painfully clear after about a week of doing this work yourself.

5. Devblog

Running a successful development blog means spending a full day every week doing research, writing posts, and promoting them. You could also get sophisticated with this by drafting content calendars, pre scheduling content, and creating custom content.

A devblog takes the full 3 months to complete, costs you about $9,000 to do yourself, and possibly less to outsource.

I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be really hard to do this consistently for the entire 3 months.

Most development blogs don’t put in the time to see the traffic results the want, and that’s why most fail. To significantly increase the results of your efforts, follow my guide to doubling your devblog traffic.

6. PR

PR, or public relations, basically means contacting game and review websites, social influencers, and adding your game to directories. And it’s the tedious work of creating a list, building a press kit, and then sending hundreds of emails, following up, and doing correspondence.

If you’re doing this right and not just spamming canned lists with canned emails, you’ll spend a few days building your list, and about 1 hour each day sending personalized emails. Not to mention interviews or supplying outlets with custom materials.

PR takes the full 3 months to complete, costs about $9,000 to do yourself, and about that to outsource.

The successful Indiegogo campaign for Maguss

My friend and colleague, Racheal Mack of GOPublix, did an amazing job with PR on the crowdfunding for Maguss.

PR is something that can really move the needle in terms of the sheer amount of traffic that comes to your marketplace page at launch, so I highly recommend outsourcing it to an expert.

Choose Your Game Marketing Projects Wisely

These are just the 6 marketing projects that all indie games typically do. I’ve generously skipped over the tens of other projects such as email marketing, advertising, and conferences.

You will spend more or less depending.

Also, if you’re looking to outsource marketing, you’ll find that pricing varies wildly. That’s normal, and it’s because each company has their own perspective on marketing and criteria for pricing it.

The cost to market big indie releases is in the hundreds of thousands over a couple years. And AAA games? Forget it. Look no further than what Activision gambled on marketing for Destiny just at launch.

Because of that, I recommend you focus only on the projects that you feel will give you the best return on your investment.

The Myth of Indie Game Marketing

I often have indie game developers email me asking what I could do for their game that would cost about $5,000, and that would guarantee they’d make way more than double that in sales.

They’ve just spent the last year of their lives racking up well over $100,000 in sweat equity to develop their next best game, between a 2-3 person team, and they’re wondering whether or not it’s going to flop.

They know the alternative to staying indie is signing with a publisher, but they don’t want to sign away any money that they haven’t even made yet. And so they’re reaching out to a bunch of marketing and PR companies to see what they can do first.

Here’s my answer for that really tough question…

There typically does not exist any one thing, or series of things, that I could do to promote your game that guarantees you’ll make way more than double in sales than what you’ve paid me to do the work.

Marketing just doesn’t work that way.

Although marketing always supports sales, it’s rarely solely responsible for them. There’s many other factors involved such as the desire for the type of game you’ve made in a given market, the sales process of the marketplace you’re selling in, the effectiveness of any in-game monetization, and obviously the overall quality of your game.

For example, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (the video game) had all the marketing dollars and expertise in the world behind it, the branding of the highest-grossing film of all-time, the advantage of Christmas sales, and it was available on the most popular console of its time.

And all it did was break even.

The cover for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the video game, for the Atari 2600

The cover for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the video game, for the Atari 2600.

In other words, just like making a game doesn’t guarantee sales, unfortunately marketing a game doesn’t either.

But I get it, you want to know what you don’t know.

And I probably know things you don’t simply because this is what I do for a living, but I’m not some treasure goblin lugging around a bag of gold. Easy wins are rare. Marketing is typically the tedious business practice of optimizing what you’re already doing, and helping you match new projects to your specific business goals, problems, and risks.

I know it’s not as exciting as you’d hoped it would be. But that’s what it takes to grow a successful indie games business.

Your Game Marketing Budget Will Eventually Reveal Itself

It’s impossible to put a certified, and stamped number on your unique per game marketing costs until you’ve already gone through it. Or until you’ve built a big enough indie games company to forecast a budget based on the unique fingerprint of your business.

But even then, one developer’s treasure is another developer’s trash.

You’ll value certain things that other developers won’t. Where you spend two weeks on branding, another developer might spend two days.

So while the $50,000 indie game marketing budget isn’t an exact science, it provides you insight as to what marketing your game might cost, if not in time and sweat equity, then in cold, hard cash.

2 thoughts on “The Realistic Guide to Pricing Indie Game Marketing”

  1. Very good. Through our development company ISO Interactive our clients game is now in beta. He could probably use some of this information and investor for the marketing side. Thanks

    1. Thanks, Troy! Please pass it along. Hope it helps them make an informed decision moving forward. 🙂

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