Marketing your serious game on a tight budget (5 top tips)

Marketing your game is extremely important. Whether you are a commercial, corporate or educational organisation, it is crucial that your game is marketed and promoted to the correct target audience. We currently live in a world that is saturated with digital content. For example, there are approximately 2.6 million applications on the Google Play store (December 2018) and approximately 2 million applications on the Apple store. With another million published on the Amazon, Windows and Blackberry World stores, your game is unlikely to gain any traction unless you put some level of marketing behind it.

However, unlike AAA game studios who can spend up to $300 million on marketing, the budgets available for marketing educational games usually range from $10-1000 per game.  

For most educational games, this will often mean reduced traction, reduced media coverage and ultimately poor download analytics. However, it is also important to be realistic when measuring the success of your marketing strategy. With a $100 budget, are you likely to gain 1 million downloads – probably not. However, a good marketing plan can increase your download number by 5-10,000 and therefore provide you with a valuable user group and evidence for future grant applications.

 To get you started, we have provided five tips to help you market your educational or healthcare game effectively on a tight budget.

1)    Develop a marketing strategy 

 At the beginning of the project, it is important to draft and formalise a marketing strategy. Depending on the project, this could be included in the game design document or developed as an individual document. The marketing strategy should provide a structured plan of how you are going to market your game throughout and after development. Your marketing strategy should go beyond release of the product and should include an evaluation component. Develop your marketing strategy as a team and identify the group’s strengths for this process. At a minimum, your marketing strategy should include: Proposed release date; game publication platforms; media platforms; social media campaigns; key performance indicators and evaluation strategy.

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2)    Tell your story

 Why is social media so popular and successful? Because the world loves people, loves a story. Exploit this fact during development and tell your story to the world. Who is the project team? What equipment are you using? What is the game about? What challenges are you facing? Have you received any awards, funding or support from external parties? Each project team has a voice (and ultimately this voice will dictate the style of your game), so show this voice to the world and connect to like-minded professionals and individuals out there. These people will not only download your game when it’s finished, but they will continue to support you throughout your career and as you develop further games. 

3)    Use diverse platforms

 When marketing your game, be adventurous and inventive in your use of platforms. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are all very useful, but also try Linkedin, Research Gate, Reddit, Stack Overflow, educational game forums and health forums. In addition to social media, get creative with podcasting, audio and YouTube videos. Make some phone calls and attend an event you would never normally consider. Have fun with your marketing and if this seems overwhelming, stick to the platforms that you feel comfortable with. For example, I am much more effective during face-face marketing so target all of our budget at Game Dr to attending digital health and science conferences. Match your marketing to your personality – trust me it will be far more effective.

4)    Meet the community

 When marketing a digital product, it’s easy to forget the world and community around us. Interestingly, it is often stakeholders and organisations in our local community that can have the biggest impact on our project or game. A great example of this is when I was developing CD4 Hunter for Drexel University in Philadelphia. CD4 Hunter is a mobile game that educates science students on how HIV infects immune cells in the human body.  However, as the game was developed using simple and addictive game mechanics, I explored alternative uses for the serious game in patient engagement and healthcare.  To this end, I found this small local charity called Camp Dreamcatcher who organise an annual summer camp for children and youths affected by HIV/AIDS. The CEO of the charity, Patty Hillkirk and Programme Director Emmalee Bierly, fell in love with the game and agreed for it to be exhibited and used at the 2017 summer camp. This partnership led to local media coverage in Philadelphia and ultimately a radio segment on public media channel, WHYY.  This excellent marketing came from one friendly meeting, sparked by shared interests, enthusiasm and a professional connection based on Philly culture. Always look around and see who is present in your professional and cultural community. 

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5) Stick to your release date

So, it’s time to release your game. You have told your organisation, project stakeholders, partners and social media that the release date is April 1st.  This has been the confirmed release date for 12 months and your followers and organisation have it marked in their google calendars. On March 12th however, the team finds an unexpected but major bug.  When the problem is still not fully solved by March 25th, an email is sent to all stakeholders stating that the release date has been delayed to May 1st.  

This is the biggest mistake you can make in marketing as it not only disappoints your users before they have even downloaded the game, but it also undermines your entire marketing strategy.  You have spent the last 12 months creating a unique voice for your project in the gaming and science/education community. You have gained the trust of your stakeholders, community and social media. You have created a following for your game based on accuracy, education and innovation. A last-minute change of the release date will ruin all of this and ultimately market the game and project as unorganised and unprofessional. 

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help stick to your release date: 1) Do not confirm your release date at the beginning of development, wait until you have hit your critical milestones and then confirm a specific date; 2) Be realistic and transparent about your deliverable. Even AAA studios will release games with bugs and issues (Fallout 76 being a key example of this). If you discover a small bug towards the end of the project cycle, prioritise your release date over its fix – just be honest with your users and fix it for the next build or release; 3) Do a soft launch of the game before your public release.  Publish your game on the app stores prior to the release date and test it with end users. On your release date, the game will be tested, polished and already live for download!

Finally, remember that marketing games and digital products is an art and for some people, is the basis of an entire career.  Serious game developers often have to balance game development with teaching, grant funding, healthcare or research and have minimal time for marketing or game promotion. However, even carrying out a weekly marketing activity during development can make all the difference that will help your game stand out in a sea of digital content.  


Author: Dr Carla Brown is the founder of Game Dr, a game studio dedicated to development of mobile games on science and healthcare. Prior to Game Dr, Carla completed research on digital game-based learning at Drexel University and a PhD in microbiology at University of Glasgow