Action Arcade Adventure Set
Diana Gruber

Chapter 18
Tips for Marketing Games

Your gaming career is taking off! What do you do now? Make some money, that's what!

Have you finished your game yet? If so, it's time to think about how you're going to sell it. After all, you just spent countless hours and your entire life savings perfecting your masterpiece. It would be nice to get a return on your investment. How can we make money as game developers? Let's talk about some of the ways games are marketed.

Retail Games

This is usually the first place game developers look to market games. Those colorful boxes on the store shelves are very appealing. If you could get your product in one of those boxes, you would surely make a mint. Your friends would be jealous, your mom would be proud, and you could retire, right? Maybe. Let's look at the numbers.

Suppose a retail game publisher offers you 10-percent royalties. Is that a lot of money? Consider, that's not 10 percent of retail, that's 10 percent of net. So if your game sells on the shelf for $39.95, the publisher is selling it to the distributor for a discount, say 50-percent off. So you're getting 10 percent of what the publisher gets, or $2 per box.

Suppose your game sells moderately well. You sell 10,000 copies the first quarter, 5,000 copies the second quarter, and then the game goes in the discount bin. After that, sales trickle in for a few months, then stop. How much money will you make?

10,000 x $2.00  = $20,000 first quarter 
 5,000 x $2.00  = $10,000 second quarter 
 1,000 x $ .50  = $   500 third quarter 
                  $30,500 total returns 
Thirty thousand dollars? Is that all you're going to make on your masterpiece? That doesn't seem like very much, especially if you've worked on your game for a year or more. You could easily invest that much money just in artwork and music. Unless we can improve those number, it's possible that you could actually lose money on a retail game.

The Royalty Equation

There are two parts to the royalty equation: the royalty percentage itself, and, just as important, the amount of distribution.Game developers need to ask their publishers some important questions, most important are the ones about distribution:

It's important to remember that the shelf life of a retail game is relatively short. If a game doesn't perform well in the first two quarters, chances are it will never perform well. It will be replaced by newer, hotter games. Sometimes it's the fault of the publisher that a game didn't perform well, other times, it's the fault of the game. For example, the game may not have been well designed or thoroughly tested, or it may have been rushed to market before it was ready.

A common mistake game programmers make is to sign an exclusive contract with a small publisher without bothering to find out what kind of distribution they can expect. Some publishers are optimistic about their ability to get a product on the shelves, even though they do not have a proven track record. It's heartbreaking for an author to have a retail game sell less than 5,000 copies because the distributor didn't do a competent job promoting and distributing the game.

One way to make sure this doesn't happen to you is to ask for a performance guarantee. The contract can state that the author will make a minimum of $20,000 on the game in the first year or the publisher no longer has the exclusive right to market the program. For the exact wording of a performance guarantee, talk to a competent attorney.

Working with a Publisher

Not all retail publishers accept submissions from outside authors. Some game companies prefer to do all their development in- house. Others will accept "affiliated labels," and also do in- house development. It's hard for an outside developer to compete with the in-house programming teams with their big budgets (often as much as $1 million or more), and access to valuable resources, such as artists and musicians. If you're an independent developer, you may get some help, but you won't get the priority treatment the staff programmers get. If you're working with a publishing house as an outside developer, don't be afraid to ask for development money. If your game is good enough, you can get either an advance against royalties, or a straight development advance, which you won't have to pay back.

Perhaps your goal is to work as part of the in-house development team. This can be a rewarding career. You'll work with some of the smartest people in the industry, you'll have access to the latest technology and resources, and you'll have job security and benefits. You'll also have some other problems. If you get a regular salary, your royalties may be small or nonexistent. You probably won't own the copyright on any of the software you develop, since it will be written on a work-for-hire basis, and you won't have creative control of your projects.

Be careful when you deal with retail publishers. Make sure they're reputable, and ask the important questions we discussed earlier. Talk to other authors who have published games with the company, and find out if they were happy with the results. Shop around a little. Try to find a publisher that will not only accept your game, but will do a good job of marketing your game for you. Look for a publisher that you can have a comfortable relationship with, so that when problems arise (as they always do) they can be worked out agreeably. If you feel friction between yourself and your publisher at the beginning, find a new publisher.


Shareware is almost the direct opposite of retail software. As the author, you own the software, including all the copyrights, trademarks, and code, as well as the right to license the game to others. You make all the creative and marketing decisions, and you shoulder the risks. You market your game yourself, fill the orders, do the technical support, and you keep all the money. Games are not copy protected, but are passed around freely, and your customers participate in the distribution process.

Does Shareware Work?

Shareware has evolved over the years. These days, shareware distribution is more efficient than ever. Distribution networks can get your program on thousands of bulletin boards practically overnight. Shareware vendors are selling shareware on disks, CD-ROMs, pay-per- download services, vending machines, and every other distribution medium you can possibly imagine. Users are better educated than ever on the meaning of shareware and their responsibility to pay for it. The shareware industry is growing up.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible to make virtually no money in shareware. It happens frequently. An author will release a game, and registrations will trickle in at the rate of one or two per week for a period of years. Other authors will make a phenomenal amount of money in a very short period of time. Shareware, like all other marketing channels, yields mixed results depending on the product. What are the characteristics of a successful shareware game? In my opinion they are:

1. Distribution

Some people will tell you this is the most important part of shareware marketing. These people are usually shareware vendors who want your permission to sell your program. They will tell you the three most important factors to a shareware program's success are distribution, distribution, distribution. I would disagree with this emphasis. If a shareware game is good enough, it will automatically get excellent distribution. If it is a lame program, you can boost up the registrations by putting extra energy into the distribution, but you will reach a point of diminishing returns--you can spend more on uploading ZIP files and mailing out disks than you will get back in registrations. Distribution is important, but it will not make up for an inferior product, or a product without registration incentives.

2. Quality

As the shareware market becomes flooded, quality is more important than ever. Shareware users are becoming more sophisticated and pickier about the programs they register. A boring game with CGA graphics will not get any registrations, no matter how much distribution you get. Since all your users are trying your software before buying it, they will be a tougher audience than your average shelfware customer. Think about it this way. A software buyer who buys a game in a store will probably buy it based on how appealing the package is. They will take it home and install it, and they will try very hard to like it because they already paid for it. The shareware user, on the other hand, has gotten your game from a collection of several hundred or perhaps several thousand games. They get to try your game before committing themselves to buying it. If the game is not as good as they had hoped, they will simply download another one.

3. Registration Incentives

This is the trickiest part of the shareware equation. You want your users to register, and you must give them a reason to do so. The best reason is "more of the same". In the case of games, the winning strategy appears to be the trilogy method. This is the strategy pioneered by Apogee software, where a game is broken into three parts. Episode 1 is distributed freely through shareware channels. Episodes 2 and 3 can be purchased by phone or mail order from the company. This strategy has been a phenomenal success for Apogee, but how much longer will it work? Now that there are so many games on the market, will the user buy episodes 2 and 3 from you, or just download episode 1 of somebody else's game? Withholding features in a shareware game in order to get more registrations is known in the industry as crippling. The word carries unfortunate negative conotations. Crippling can be carried to the extreme (register this word processor and get the vowels!) but there is ample evidence that giving away too much in a shareware program will have a negative impact on the author's profits. Use common sense when designing registration incentives. Give the user enough of a game to make it playable, and then offer something of value in exchange for registration.

4. Program Design

Timing is important with shareware games. You have about five minutes to hook the player's attention. If he is not playing and enjoying the game in the first five minutes, he is very likely to delete it and move on to something else. Keep your opening cinematics brief. Let the player start playing right away, and let him have some success immediately. Early game levels should be and easy and addicting. Characters and artwork should be colorful and appealing. Your goal is to grab the player's attention and keep it. How long the player plays is also important. If you give away too many levels in the shareware version, the player will play the game for several weeks, and then get tired of it. If you give the player too few levels, he will play the game for several hours and then decide registering it is not worth the money. Finding the right balance of difficulty, levels and playability is an art form, and if you can master it, you will do quite well at shareware.

5. Legal Considerations

The user is not the only person who you should concerned about. There are people who will want to sell your shareware game for their profit. The shareware vendors can be your best friend, or they can drive you crazy. Either way, you need to protect yourself. Have a legally binding license agreement distributed with your shareware game. I recommend game developers allow the shareware version to be distributed freely as long as no money is charged for it. Some shareware authors allow catalog and BBS distribution without permission required. However, these days, most authors require written permission before allowing shareware to be sold in stores. The reason for this is, many authors are getting royalties on versions of their games that are sold in stores, and they don't want to see non-royalty versions of their games competing with royalty versions. If you are not sure how you want to handle the retail distribution question, just have all the shareware vendors contact you before selling your game in stores, and negotiate each contract on an individual basis. Talk to other authors and see how they are handling vendor relations and retail contracts. If you have questions about copyrights and license agreements, talk to a lawyer.

Running Your Own Shareware Business

If you want to market your program as shareware, you had better be prepared to give your shareware business your long-term attention. You'll need to fill orders, answer technical support questions, interact with vendors and retail publishers, copy disks, mail out upgrades, and so on. These activities will continue indefinitely, because once you release a shareware game it's released for good. There's no way to recall a shareware game after it has been released.

Packaging for a shareware product is traditionally simple. Users like to receive a disk with an attractive printed label. A printed manual is nice, but not always necessary. A catalog of other games and related products is good for generating more sales.

The ability to accept credit cards over the phone will improve shareware registrations, as will a toll-free number and a technical support BBS. These things are not strictly necessary for a start-up company, though. Many authors have started out of their basement with nothing more than a dot-matrix printer and a personal phone line. Watching your shareware company grow from a tiny one-person startup to a major corporation will be very satisfying.

Running a shareware business is time consuming and will decrease the amount of time you can spend writing new code. The alternative to marketing your own shareware is to work with a shareware publisher. Apogee Software, Epic Megagames, and MVP software all publish games in shareware and retail channels. If you have a good game and you're not sure you want to handle the details of marketing it yourself, you may want to submit your game to a shareware publisher.


Rackware, also known as low-cost retail (LCR) software, is a relatively new phenomenon in the software publishing world. The LCR market evolved out of the shareware rack vending market. Shareware on racks in stores became controversial when the authors noticed huge numbers of disks were being sold, but they were not getting proportionally more registrations. Some authors speculated that it is too much to expect users to understand the concept of shareware sold in stores. When was the last time you bought a product in a store and brought it home only to discover you owed more money? Shareware vendors defended the practice, telling the authors to give it more time, and the shareware buying public would catch on. Maybe they have or haven't, but as of this writing shareware in stores appears to be decreasing and is being replaced by low-cost retail software.LCR software is licensed programs, often the registered versions of shareware program, that users can buy in stores in a low price range. LCR software has been compared to paperback books. The software is mass produced and sold in chain stores, book stores, grocery stores and gift shops--virtually anywhere that has room for a rack. The software sells in the $5.00-$10.00 price range, and the author gets a small royalty on each package sold, usually in the range of 40 or 50 cents per disk.

That may not sound like much, but the distribution is massive. Also, the shelf life of an LCR product tends to be longer than for regular retail games. Where a retail game may sell for six months, a rackware game may sell for years. This is a very favorable situation for the developer. Some authors are discovering they are making very good money on low-cost retail racks.

Another advantage of rackware publishing is the ownership of the program. The copyrights, trademarks, and code all belong to the author, as well as the right to license the game to others. In many cases, that means a game is not marketed exclusively through one publisher. The author may put the gane on one rack or several racks, or may change racks, or may market the software simultaneously through shareware and rackware channels. A single program on a single rack will usually generate a small return for the author, but several programs on several racks can produce a very good income.

When designing a game for LCR distribution, keep your buying public in mind. The average K-Mart shopper will not spend a long time evaluating your program. They want something that catches their eye so they can throw the box in their cart and move on to the next aisle. Familiar games, like card games, do well. Family oriented games and children's games have a good market, as do shooting games. Screen shots on the outside of the box grab the buyer's attention. To be successful in LCR channels, a game must have mass- market appeal.

Rackware contracts can be exclusive or non-exclusive, shareware or non-shareware. The author should be careful when entering into exclusive LCR contracts. If an author signs an exclusive, non-shareware contract with an LCR publisher, then he should be sure that the level of distribution will justify giving up other marketing opportunities. The author should ask for a performance guarantee, with the understanding that if the vendor fails to sell a certain number of disks in a certain period of time, the exclusive contract becomes a non-exclusive one.

More Marketing Strategies

Opportunities build on opportunities. Typically, the author will submit a program to the rack vendor. If he accepts the program, he will arrange for packaging and distribution. Some authors pay careful attention to the packaging of their games. You can generate sales of related games by enclosing a coupon in the box. You can also write an online catalog of all your games and put it on the disk. Don't ever pass up an opportunity to promote your other products! You want to know who is buying your games, so you can sell them more games. Now you are in the mail-order business. The customer list you will build up this way will be a valuable asset. Your best source for sales of future games is the people who have bought and enjoyed your games in the past.

You can market games in several channels simultaneously. You can release a shareware version of the game, and distribute that through shareware channels and also on royalty shareware racks. You can take the registered version, with more levels, and put it on all the non-exclusive LCR racks. You can make a special version, with different levels, and call it a deluxe or private label version, and put it on an exclusive LCR rack. You can change the name and the artwork, and re-release the game with new levels again the following year. You can mix several smaller games in game packs, and put different combinations on different product lines.

Sometimes you can find royalty CD-ROM deals. These involve putting several non-shareware games (or registered versions of shareware games) on a CD-ROM disk and selling it through mail order or retail. The vendor manufactures and markets the disk and sends a royalty check to the author. When a royalty is involved, this can be a favorable deal. When there is no royalty on CD-ROMs, watch out! Are you going to make any money? People who buy collections of 1000 or more shareware games on a CD-ROM may not be your best source of registrations. Instead of registering a game they like, they will just play it for a while and then move on to the next game. Some authors dislike shareware CD-ROMs, but cooperate with them anyway, because BBS sysops love them. Shareware authors depend on BBS sysops for distribution, and if the sysops want CD-ROMS, the authors think they have to go along it.

An innovative idea that seems to work well for some authors is the pay-per-download service. Users log into an online service, download the registered version of a shareware program, and the cost of the program is charged to their credit card. Prodigy offers such a service, and authors report being pleased with the results. Authors also report good results with CompuServe's SWREG service. This service takes registrations and charges the user's credit cards, then passes the information along to the author, who sends a disk to the user.

Where to Go For More Information.

As you can see, there are many ways to market a game, each with it's own special opportunities and pitfalls. The suggestions in this chapter will help you get started, but if you really want to be successful at marketing games, I suggest you look around for more information. One of the best sources of information is other game authors. You can meet them online in places like the CompuServe Gamers forum and the Software Creations BBS. There are also several trade associations that can provide information. Contact information for these resources is listed in Appendix C.

As a closing note, I would like to thank you for reading this book, and wish you success in your gaming career. I expect to see lots of wonderful games developed as a result of this book, and I hope yours turns out great! Good luck and happy gaming.

Recommended books for game developers


Cover | Contents | Downloads
Awards | Acknowledgements | Introduction
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6
Chapter 7 | Chapter 8 | Chapter 9 | Chapter 10 | Chapter 11 | Chapter 12
Chapter 13 | Chapter 14 | Chapter 15 | Chapter 16 | Chapter 17 | Chapter 18
Appendix | License Agreement | Glossary | Installation Notes | Home Page

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So you want to be a Computer Game Developer

Copyright © 1998 Ted Gruber Software Inc. All Rights Reserved.