Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Expos and shows vs advertising

I was rambling to someone a few days ago about advertising and risk, and something hit me about indie attitudes to risk and promotion.
I know a lot of indies who never do any advertising. I don’t mean word-of-mouth promotion, tweeting, updating facebook and sending people press releases, that’s PR, it’s not advertising. I actually mean paying for banner ads, and search advertising, and even print or video adverts. For most smallish indie teams, the advertising budget is zero.

it’s easy to work out why. Advertising often seems to give a low Return On Investment (ROI). You can do your best to measure it’s effect, using tracking cookies and lots of charts and graphs. I do a lot of that myself, and just about manage to be sure that I am getting a small, but measurable ROI. The problem is that it only really works accurately for your direct sales. if you run $1,000 of banner ads on and then track 500 visitors from clicking them to your site, and then witness 50 sales and calculate it as $1,000 then you know you got your money back. The problem is, if steam + impulse + gamers gate is 80% of your sales, you might be ‘losing’ a lot of those potential buyers to those sites, and be selling extra copies but not knowing it. All stats checking can do is tell you people left the site, not if they then bought elsewhere.

Theoretically, you can work out the proportion of your customers who buy direct, and use a multiplier that implies that the other visitors did buy. So if 80% buy elsewhere, and you got 20 sales, you can infer 100 total sales. You then need to take into account the publisher cut, so those 80 portal sales are really 56 or so direct sales. Plus you don’t get the email address, they are probably ‘worth’ 50 sales… I digress…

The point is, it’s complex to know if you are getting your moneysworth. It’s even harder when you consider tracking view-through clicks (people who saw the ad, didn’t click, but visit your site magically later), people disabling javascript, using 2 PC’s and seeing the ad on 1, the sale on the other, and the word of mouth that arises from the ad impressions. Plus there is the reminder effect (“That reminds me, I must buy that game…”) purely from impressions.

Now if you read this blog a lot, you will know all this. What I’m basically saying is ‘the ROI from advertising is difficult to calculate’. And on that basis we can all forgive all those indies who never advertise.

But hold on….

Most of the non-advertising indies are passionate believers in Expos, conferences and trade shows. They attend them all the time, with promotional T-shirts, big projection screens, multiple PC’s, lots of leaflets and demo CDs. I haven’t heard of anyone giving away home-made cookies on their expo stand yet, but they should do…

You can tell my argument from here I’m sure. Tracking a sale from a banner ad is really HARD, and vague, and ultimately you kinda have to ‘have faith’ in the power of advertising and be prepared to spend $10,000 on it before you can really tell if it’s going to work for you. Sound scary? Tracking a sale from giving out a free T-shirt at an expo is really ++++HARD v 2.0 with extra bacon and double cheese, and by the time you factor in your plane tickets, booth hire, pc hire, power surcharge, t shirts and cookies, you eat through $10k just as fast.

So why do indies, (especially the more hip and young indies) vastly prefer expos and networking over advertising? I think it’s down to the ‘feelings’ associated with them. Advertising is something big evil corporate people like EA do. Something old-school. Old-fashioned and for people stuck in the past. Expos and shows are for the young and trendy people who are undermining the system from within. It’s cool. Indie Game: The movie had some footage of fez at expos, it was cool. They didn’t show them setting the budget sliders on an advertising campaign. That would not be cool.

But I ask you, does it matter how a promotional technique ‘feels’, or does it matter how well it actually works?  Advertising is much more controllable. How many people from the UK have seen your game at the Expos you attended? How many from Spain?  Did you pick the date of the expo? And so on…

6 thoughts on Expos and shows vs advertising

  1. Disclaimer: I’m no game dev, but a web dev. But I direct a Local User Group in my city, and I think I can draw some paralellisms from observing my community.

    I would say expos are favored because people enjoy them.

    That is the main reason for going there – meeting people with issues similar to yours, with whom you can have interesting conversations about your craft.

    An expo builds team morale. PR, networking, and sales, are just icing on the cake.

    “Pure” marketing, on the other hand, is perceived as you said: tedious work that doesn’t pay.

  2. I think an expo may have greater impact on sales than you think. It does not matter how many customers see your game on the expo. It is all in the number of game journalists that see your game on the expo and write about it.

    A (p)review at a major gaming site is probably where the money’s at. I think that someone writing about your game would do more than search ads.

  3. Kikito and Bram hit most of the points I wanted to make, one more point is that a show makes for a good goal for motivating the team. We worked like crazy to have a release ready or a demo working for comic con or pax every year.

    Then we’d stay later making buttons to give away…

  4. Expos can also provide very valuable feedback from players and/or press who haven’t seen the game before. Not sure how much it really helps sales directly, but the feedback can help produce a game with fewer snags in the early game (i.e. demo period), as well as potentially a better game overall.

    One reason I don’t think very much about advertising (not that I make our team’s decisions about it) is that I’ve seen helpful PR like a glowingly-positive-front-page-article-on-Kotaku produce only very-minor gains in sales for less than a day. If that won’t make a big difference, what could a banner ad or search ad do? Maybe I’m wrong, it may be that more ads = more ongoing sales (keeping the game in the minds of players, etc), but that’s where I’m at on it.

  5. > “Theoretically, you can work out the proportion of your customers who buy direct, and use a multiplier that implies that the other visitors did buy. So if 80% buy elsewhere, and you got 20 sales, you can infer 100 total sales.”

    Why not keep track of your day-to-day sales numbers. If you run an ad for a week, you watch how those sales compare to an educated guess about what kinds of sales numbers you expected. Then calculate the gap. For example, if you’re getting 10 sales per day and then you run a banner ad for a week. You watch the sales numbers for that week (and maybe a week afterwards). If you’re still getting 10 sales per day over the whole period, your ad probably didn’t do anything. If you jump to 15 sales per day, then you can assume the 5 extra sales were caused by the banner ad.

    Of course, if something unexpected happens over the same period – like a good review in on popular game site – then you don’t know how much should be credited to either.

  6. Unfortunately it’s more complex than that. The ad-clickers might downlaod the demo, and add it to a mental wishlist, then buy the game three months later in a bundle or a sale. They may ask for it as a birthday/christmas present and get it months later. Or they may even note the game quality but decide it’s not for them, but they will then buy your next game.
    I reckon counting direct sales boosts in a short period is only a fraction of ads true impact.

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