Today we’re talking about budgets, joy!
Marketing doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, you can launch a game without spending a penny, providing you’re willing to really put the work in and make some sacrifices.
However, even a small amount of money up from zero will give you more opportunities and advantages than spending nothing at all.
For the sake of simplicity in this post, when I talk about marketing budgets I’m talking about money you’ll be spending on external factors, like hotel rooms or freelancers. I’m not talking about the cost of your own time.
Now, classic questions of “Do I need to spend any money on marketing?” and “How much?” are very hard to answer, because they depend on so many factors, from what skills you already have in your team, to the type of game you’re making, to things like your team’s geographic locations (Pro tip: It’s a lot cheaper to attend PAX if you live in Seattle or Boston).
With that said, here’s some advice I think applies to most studios.
I have zero gold. Can I really be successful?
The answer, generally speaking, is yes you can.
If you start early enough and put enough of your own time into marketing, you can ship and sell a successful game without spending anything at all.
There will be some things you’ll be missing out on, but the main challenge with a completely zero budget approach is that the main way you’ll be saving money is by doing absolutely everything yourself.
Think of it in terms of development. Sometimes it’s easier to download something from the asset store than to create everything from scratch, but that often costs money. If something costs £200 but saves you twenty hours of work, is that worth it for you?
Marketing isn’t often so neatly segmented and purchased from a store of course, but when you’re operating with no money at all, you can expect to ‘pay’ for that by spending time you may have spent on your game itself.
There are also some things you’ll simply miss out on that could help your game, like events, which are nearly impossible to do without any money at all.
You’ll also need to be honest about your skill set, and rely more on contacts and, if you can, favours. If you don’t know how to make a good trailer, you’ll need to want to try and enlist a friend to help, or book out time to learn the tools.
The takeaway here is that zero budget marketing is not impossible at all, but it is going to involve more time, compromise and planning than having some money in the bank. The good news is that there’s no single up-front cost or free that you absolutely have to spend for your game to be successful if you’re willing to put your own work in.
Keep in mind though that this is why ‘zero budget marketing’ is a myth. I mentioned at the start of this post I’m not including development time in my figures for simplicity. The reality is that, with this method, you’ll pay, you’ll just do it with time rather than straight up cash.
So if I do want to spend money, how much should I spend?
As mentioned above, any ‘marketing budget’ here doesn’t include your own time, only things you’re going to spend money on externally, like freelancers to work on marketing assets, or events.
With that in mind, a lot of this depends on so many factors that it’s impossible to give a perfect, single answer. But that’s a cop-out, so let’s throw a reasonable figure out there for a solo developer or small studio working on a game in 2018/9: £1,000 – £3,000 is a nice start.
£1,000 is enough to start to make a difference. It’s the difference between attending an event or not. The difference between having someone make – or at least help with – a trailer or not, and so on.
The upper limit is more of a guide. It’s where you might find yourself tempted to start spending money on things like advertising that may not always have a good pay-off, and if you have a budget of over this, you may already be considering hiring an agency to help you with launch.
A small budget is harder to manage than zero budget because you want to try and get everything you can out of that pot.
The best way to spend a marketing budget for a small studio is to use it to fill in your skill gaps.
Not sure how you’d go about making an amazing trailer for your game? Hire somebody to make one.
Need help with contacting influencers and have no real networking experience? Hire a freelancer before launch to handle contacting the press.
Think your game is great but you’re lacking in a critical mass of player feedback? Consider going to a local expo.
With a small budget like this, you might not be able to get every single thing you want from your marketing, but if you use it effectively you can save a great deal of development time – and probably stress – and come out with some great assets or contacts you might not have had before.
We’ll do a whole blog on this at some point, but it’s generally best to steer clear of advertising at this level of funding. Advertising is very tricky to get right, and if you’re hoping to get a straight return on your investment with a small budget, it’s very likely you’ll be disappointed.
When do I spend all this money?
The later the better.
While you want to be doing marketing from day one, you generally don’t want to be spending any money until much closer to launch.
If you have the money to go to one show, you want it to be the one where your game is nearly finished, not in a pre-alpha state that will change twenty times before you launch.
If you have some cash set aside for an amazing trailer, it’s your release trailer you want to spend the money on. It may be tempting to spend on an announcement, but if your game isn’t out for two years, people will forget all about it.
There’s usually no reason to spend marketing money in the first half of your development. Things like a website, press kit and development log shouldn’t really cost any significant amount of money unless you’re doing something really fancy, and even then it might be better to refine that fancy website a little further down the line, too.
Keep in mind though that development isn’t so simple and things might come up that may force you to consider spending more at the start. For example, if an early build of your game is accepted to be shown for free at a big show like PAX, it might be worth spending that money on flights and hotels even if your game won’t be out for a while.
Feature Image: Rollercoaster Tycoon 2 by Chris Sawyer (Probably my fondest memory of trying to manage a budget)