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

What ( I think) I know about advertising, as an indie game developer.

People have asked me about this topic. I am not an expert, but I’ve done a lot of research, probably spent over £100,000 ($160k) on advertising, so I must have learned some lessons. here is my beginners guide to indie advertising.

Advertising can be based on two strategies

Advertising to sell stuff…

Strategy #1 is the ‘buy my thing now’ strategy. It is tricky, it is effective for some products, and not others, and may depend on price. When was the last time you saw an advert for a box of matches? Never. Because they are too cheap to absorb any advertising cost, are considered a commodity (all the same), and are purchased rarely. All 3 factors mean ‘don’t advertise’. Something we can learn from this is ‘don’t be a commodity’ and ‘don’t be cheap’. if you have a $0.99 iphone game and want to read my ad strategy, my answer is ‘don’t advertise’. It costs more than $1 to get a sale through ads, you are fucked. Also, if your game is ‘generic shooter #33’ don’t advertise. You have no unique selling point,.

lets assume your game is somewhat interesting, and it’s priced at $10. lets do the maths. Assume we can get reasonable quality traffic at $0.10, and 1% of them buy the game. That means we break even (more or less) on our ad spend. Clearly there are three factors at play:

  1. Earnings per sale
  2. Conversion rate.
  3. Click cost.

You can adjust any of these to make the maths work. Not all advertising options yield the same results. You can get some $0.10 clicks where 1% buy, or some $0.20 where 4% buy. You can do the calcs there yourself. And if your product is really pricey, things get easier. People selling accident claims legal advice might pay $20 a click. It’s worth it to them.

Note that we are talking very short term with this sort of stuff. You are showing 1,000 adverts, getting 23 people to click on them, 1 of them buys and there you go. This is very simplistic, and nothing close to the whole story. The 22 who didn’t buy now may buy later. they may tell someone else. They may buy on a different PC (untrackable) the true return on investment for such ads is usually higher than it looks. Plus the 977 who didn’t click still saw your ad. All the above applies. they may have clicked before, and seeing the ad reminds them to buy/buy later/tell a friend. This all helps.

In other words: If your tracked revenue from an ad campaign isn’t higher than your costs, you just might be suffering from leaky tracking, you *may* still be winning. It’s hard to tell. My tracking suggests it can be 90 days (maybe more) between someone clicking an ad, visiting my site, and buying a game. If you tried and rejected advertising, did you take that time-frame into account?

Advertising to raise awareness…

Strategy 2 is more subtle, and more fascinating. It’s a long term game. Do you know the last advert you saw for audi? or ferrari? or skoda? I doubt it. Which car is associated with success and sex appeal? It’s the ferrari clearly, but this is buried deep in our brains, by association. The fascinating thing (and I recommend ‘the advertised mind‘ or ‘seducing the subconscious‘) is that we have zero defense against this kind of advertising. It works. It has to work. It only does not work on the brain damaged. The reality is, our brains learn by association. Daddy appears and says ‘daddy’ and we create or strengthen the association between thsoe things to recognize him. Mommy points at the sky and says ‘sky’ and we associate the blue and the clouds with ‘sky’. Ferrari has a supermodel sit in a ferrari and we associate ferraris with sex appeal and excitement. We don’t get a special brain bypass that recognizes advertising as false associations.



This is where advertising comes in that is not focused on the direct click and purchase model. This is a long term game, but worth playing. Every man who gets a well-paid job and buys a ferrari in their forties has had 40 years of persuasion by ferrari to get to them to that point. FORTY YEARS. Apple don’t sell you an ipad with a single magazine ad, you’ve been told apple are cool for years, decades even. Few of us indies think that long term.

On the more approachable side, think of it like this… Are you advertising ‘cool indie game’ to get someone to buy it this week, or to raise the ‘awareness’ of the game, so it has more perceived value in six months time in a sale, or as part of a bundle. I recently ran some site-takeover ads, and if I look at the cost-per-click and sales bumps, I just burned all that money. I didn’t burn it though, the equity of that ad spend is currently stored in the brains of the hundreds of thousands of gamers who saw it. They don’t even know it, but in a years time, when looking at that same logo in a daily deal, they are more likely to buy the game.

In practical terms…

Lets say you are persuaded advertising works, and you are going to do it. Where do you start? Well there are a ton of options, some more complex than others…


Google Adwords is the most well known, and the most complex by far. It is not for the feint-hearted. The complexity is insane. personally I recommend going for the display network, and ignoring search unless you have a very specific niche or can associate with a very specific group of keywords. The #1 key to adwords is to ‘NARROW NARROW NARROW’. The effort is about telling adwords where NOT to advertise. I pick only a select few countries (where I get sales from), only english language, depending on the game, I may specify gender (although thats mostly ignored). I may also specify age. I definitely pick a list of placements, don’t let google choose where to place your ads as it will be entirely on flash-game spam-sites they call ‘made for adsense’ (MFA). These are generally a waste. If your game is a PC game you cannot select ‘only show on PC’, but you *can* select a -100% mobile bid adjustment (yeah it’s nuts). Note that if you make phone or tablet games, you can specify exact models to show on.

There is a lot of complex options under adwords. you can link it to analytics, set up goal conversion, and track the conversion rate, have multiple ad variants and let google auto-optimise, and so on. I tend to keep it fairly simple and use a manual cost-per-click model. I aim to get clicks for around $0.30 or less, depending on the game I’m promoting. Note that google has very strict rules about ad text. I got an ad banned for saying ‘mac’, without apples permission. If your display ads take a while to be approved, email and complain, then they get done :D

Another tip:  adwords uses your max CPC as your ‘vote’ on how confident you are as to the relevance of your ads. I have sites where I bid $1.00 a click, but I’m never charged that. (But I keep checking in case a rival shows up and I end up paying it!). Don’t assume adwords is fire-and-forget. You should check your campaign daily if you can. Start with a small budget and work upwards.

Direct-Site purchase

This is a pain, but it is best for the brand-awareness stuff. Site takeovers can cost a lot. A thousand dollars a day isn’t unheard of, but smaller sites will charge less. This is where the site re-skins its backdrop just for you. This gets you past some less-fanatical ad-blocking, and certainly gets noticed. This method is good for type #2 (brand awareness) stuff, because you can slap a big phat game logo right at the top of the page where every surfers peripheral vision will clock it. This is great for awareness, but don’t expect great click-throughs. This is a long term thing remember.

If you only have $1,000 to advertise your game don’t do this. This is for people with $10k+ ad budgets who want to pummel their game name out there. What is the downside? Well it’s ‘negotiable’, which is the worst part of advertising. basically you email the site and ask for a rate card. They send you a work of fiction that is up there with the best work of Dickens or Austen. You then laugh, and say it’s way too much, they reply with a ‘special rate’ that is already 50% lower, you umm and arrr, they play a poker game with you, and it all descends into a tedious monty python haggling sketch for a few emails until you either walk away (always be prepared to) or you strike a deal. It can still be worth it, but you MUST haggle. you MUST.

You can also do direct deals for smaller campaigns, with stuff like banner-ads.Unless you buy a LOT, or the site is one you MUST target, and they don’t use adwords, I’d say it’s more hassle and accountancy waffle than it’s worth.

Note that some sites run time-based takeovers (per-week, per-day) others work on CPM. See below…


The most common banners are leaderboard (728×90) rectangle or ‘MPU’ (300×250) or skyscraper (600×160). Other stuff is rarer, and less use for games. I did some tests using animated vs non animated rectangles and found no difference in click-through rates. This is a leaderboard ad:


Ads are generally sold on a CPC or CPM basis. CPC means ‘cost-per-click’ and you pay for every visit to your site, regardless from where or how crap it is. Don’t pay more than $0.30 maximum, and aim to be much lower, unless your own stats prove otherwise. I tend to run CPC campaigns on google, CPM on reddit and time/CPM based on site takeovers.

CTR is click-through rate, the percentage of people who see the ad, who also click on it. It’s pretty low :D


All reddits funny comics about their ad process are out of date. they basically sell at $0.75 CPM regardless of subreddit, budget or CTR, which is a bit strange. It can be worth doing, if you have a relevant ad, good subreddit and thus a decent CTR. Your game has to suit reddit’s crowd obviously. Note they take 2 days to approve ads, so you need to plan in advance.


The strategy here is kinda different. You can run conventional ads on facebook, but personally I find them crap. What *does* work is boosting your facebook posts with fixed sums of money. So if you have 4,000 facebook fans, you can advertise to them, AND their friends, for $X, which is actually quite a good idea as it’s fairly cunning targeting. Make any facebook post, then click on the ‘boost this post’ link to set any budget you like. It’s very easy. The silly downside is facebook rejects any post where the post graphic is > 20% taken up by text, even if it’s a logo. I have no idea why they do that, but be aware, and have some facebook post-approved images to hand you can set to be the post-image.



There are other options, I’ve used blogads many years ago, and game-advertising online, and many direct site deals. Your mileage may vary a lot. You might just have ‘one of those games’ that doesn’t do well with ads, or it might be the special secret ingredient you never knew you needed. Don’t blame me if you waste all your money!  I guess my TL;DR would be ‘advertising works, tracking it is not straightforward, you need to experiment to find the right network, know *why* you are advertising’.

Good luck!


5 thoughts on What ( I think) I know about advertising, as an indie game developer.

  1. Thanks for a great post.

    Can you clarify what you mean by this one:
    “The silly downside is facebook rejects any post where the post graphic is > 20% taken up by text, even if it’s a logo.”

    1. tonic:

      “Ads and sponsored stories in News Feed may not include images comprised of more than 20% text.”

      I’m guessing it’s because Facebook’s software scans adds to make sure they’re not selling adult services / inflamatory / otherwise against the ToS… and of course, it can’t scan pictures, so they want to stop people simply writing something silly and screenshotting it.

      Just a guess, though!

  2. Cliff, I’m sure you keep stats of CTR and whatnot for your blog/RSS feed. Would you be willing to share anything about those numbers or if you feel the blog drives eventual sales?

  3. This is the most comprehensive post I’ve encountered on the subject of advertising indie games. I had pretty much written off ads as something for the AAA level only and big budgets, but I’m reconsidering that now. Thanks for giving me a few starting points on this.

  4. First of all, I am a big fan of your games, mainly Democracy games, I understand you need the money but I am very poor, I can’t buy the game.

    I would like to ask you, if you could make Democracy 1 free to play.

    Sorry if many people ask this. It was not my intention to spam in your blog.

    Also sorry for my terrible English.

    Hope this message isn’t lost in the middle of the others.

Comments are currently closed.