Video games & TikTok: how to get discovery right
An interview with somebody who knows what's up - and lots more.
[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]
Good afternoon, my fellow travelers in the realm of video game discovery. And apologies if you feel like we’ve already talked a lot about TikTok, the shortform/mobile video social app which sports hundreds of millions of MAUs worldwide.
But honestly, we think it’s such an amazing visual & viral medium for spreading the word about premium video games. So after our first column on it last month, you’re getting more advice on it today, this time in Q&A form.
[PSA: we’re just prepping ‘The Complete Game Discovery Toolkit’, a full-length eBook which will exclusively be available to GameDiscoverCo Plus subscribers, alongside all the other perks. Here’s the cover image - look for it to appear for subscribers in the next week or two, we’ll do a full post explaining it then.]
TikTok: ‘ways to succeed’ Q&A w/Jenny Windom
We’ve now seen measurable and significant game interest/wishlist boosts on a whole bunch of video game-centric TikToks. (These are far better boosts than you might see on ‘mainstay’ platforms such as Twitter, leading us to believe we should all pay far more attention there.)
We thought it was time to investigate more, and after featuring a success story from Unpacking, we reached out to Jenny Windom, who made the viral Unpacking TikTok (246,000 likes!) as a fan/creator. She’s been one of the Wholesome Games organizing team members - so responsible for some of the viral TikToks that have appeared there.
Jenny is also Communications Manager for Rose City Games (The World Next Door, Floppy Knights, Garden Story), an advisor for Kowloon Nights, and Producer for Soft Not Weak (Spirit Swap) - so quite a resume, really. Here’s her take on what game devs can do to improve their TikTok game:
A lot of game devs have trouble understanding how and why some TikToks do way better than others. Do you think it's to do with the game 'hook', or is it OK sometimes just to have a really good-looking game?
As with any visual platform, having a good looking game absolutely helps: if folks don’t like what they’re looking at (or don’t understand it) they probably won’t stick around. But TikTok is more about catching and holding attention for 15-60 seconds, and that’s why I think having a strong hook is more important. Your game doesn’t need to be the most beautiful, if they can quickly understand why they need to stick around.
Bite-sized content seems to find the most success, so you just need to identify your specific video's hook, and focus on that. Answer one question about your game, ask a question of your viewers, showcase one really fun asset, or highlight a particular feature or mechanic: you don't have to pitch your whole game in one video!
Summarizing your game in 60 seconds is a fun challenge and can do very well, especially as one of the first couple of videos you put out, to help with context for the rest of your content. But when thinking about long term content creation, think bullet-points and/or easily digestible bits of information.
Also, each platform has a different style and type of audience, and that’s important to keep in mind! From my experience, the general audience of TikTok tends to be younger, and there is a definite sense of humor and aesthetic to what folks typically create.
At the same time -- at the risk of sounding obnoxiously cheesy -- there are probably hundreds of communities and niches within TikTok, so create content that feels true to yourself. For example: I would NEVER be able to do the quick humor that so many viral Tik Toks have: so I don’t!
Having been affiliated with the Wholesome Games Tiktok account, do you think that 'wholesome'-style games do better on the service than more 'core' titles?
Curation and understanding your own voice is the name of the game of so many social platforms, and TikTok is no exception. What seems to work best is knowing what you hope to create and offer your audience on the platform, and then consistently following through.
The Wholesome Games TikTok, for example, has done a strong job curating a space that highlights games that allows the audience to consistently feel and discover a certain type of experience [like its Before Your Eyes TikTok]. With my personal TikTok, I've cast a wider net, but I still highlight games that, to me, represent "thoughtful narratives and intriguing worlds".
Do ‘wholesome’-style games do better than ‘core’ titles? Anecdotally, the cozy / wholesome content may have a bit of a leg up because, well, folks are already on TikTok to escape the world for a bit, so those types of games may be a natural extension of that desire already. But I don’t think inherently that type of content will always do better!
I do think core' titles I think could (and are!) doing well on TikTok -- especially those that are able to be transparent, open, and human about development! The Shotgun Farmers account, for example, does an incredible job of allowing folks to participate in the development process: they allowed their community to help decide on a new grenade type (the “Lemonade”).
Volcanoids -- a first-person, base-building survival game, is one that comes to mind that is not a ‘wholesome’ game, per se, but seems to have found lots of success by doing a great job responding to comments as well, focusing on showing off features of their game. They began by doing a video summarizing their game, and then followed it up by breaking down a variety of features and sources of inspo.
Landfall Games maximizes and plays off of the humor that their games are known for in their TikToks, and make lots of comedic videos that show off life as game devs as well as silly situations in their games. Among Us is another example of a studio knowing their voice and purpose: using TikTok to both communicate updates to players and highlight whimsical BTS takes on development that help humanize the team!
Again, I think success on TikTok is less about a specific type of game, and finding the way that a) you can sustainably, consistently create content and b) allow viewers to feel connected to what you’re sharing.
Is including both video and onscreen text important to having a popular TikTok? (Is this because some people watch them sound off, or a different reason?)
I appreciate that on TikTok, as a whole, creators and users seem much more aware of putting captions into content. TikTok also has made it very easy to add captions (they’ve recently rolled out a built-in captions feature) as well as additional descriptive text, and it only takes an extra minute or two to scrub through and make sure words are spelled correctly, etc.
While captions and on-screen text aren’t needed to have a successful TikTok, everyone should strive to include closed captions. Not only does it help provide context to any visuals that you have showcased, but it increases accessibility of your content for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or need to have the volume down for whatever reason!
What would be your top tips for someone coming to TikTok fresh as a game creator to stand out?
Here are some of the things I think are most important:
Curate your own feed first. Before posting on my TikTok, I took a week to curate my feed, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I read somewhere that it’ll help the Algorithm (™) have a sense of who your videos should be pushed to initially, if you don’t have an audience. Is it true? I have no idea, but it seemed to work for me? I also took time to get to know the specific niche of streamer, gaming, and indie dev TikTok, to identify songs folks were using, what types of videos were doing well, and brainstorm my own ideas!
One concept per TikTok! Brevity makes for more effective content. While listing out things can work fine (i.e. 5 areas you can visit in game!), know that you’ll have to keep that list quick and simple to understand. My test is if I can summarize my video in one quick sentence, it’s probably fine. If I need more sentences just to summarize it? I’ll try to divide it into multiple pieces of content.
Use vertical videos. While there are some creative ways to get a horizontal/16:9 video to look neat on the platform, from what I’ve heard and seen, they do not perform as well as vertical videos. It may take some wrangling, but it is worth it to try and fill the screen up. If you can’t do a purely vertical video, at least add a background or fill that space with captions so there’s no empty space. And with that...
Use captions. TikTok now has an auto-caption generator, so it's very easy to implement, and helps increase the accessibility of your content.
Don’t worry about polish. Unless you really want to! These videos do NOT have to be edited, with motion graphics, etc. And, if you’re comfortable and able, showing off wacky bugs and broken game moments can be a great way to get folks asking questions and engaging with your game (and then, wham! Impress ‘em with how you fixed that bug, and now your game is super cool.)
Avoid the hard sell. TikTok emphasizes personal voice over overt marketing asks (I mean, does ANY social platform really love overt marketing?!), especially from brand accounts. So other than maybe doing one or two here or there… focus instead on delighting folks, educating them, and allowing them to see your genuine self!
Remember it’s a social platform! And with that, comes all the considerations that come with every other social platform. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Take time away if you find it’s negatively affecting your mental health. Understand they have ethical concerns, just like any every other social platform. So, if you really don’t like Tiktok -- for whatever reason -- don’t force yourself to create content there! Instead, spend your energy fostering an audience for your game somewhere you feel happier about investing your time!
Thanks to Jenny for the very helpful interview! Just a couple of final remarks and links on TikTok: I found tech PR person Ed Zitron’s view of the platform to be thought-provoking, particularly his note:
“The TikTok algorithm is built to inject chaos into the network. The “for you” tab apparently uses endless datapoints to show you things you might be interested in, and doesn’t seem to have an overwhelming bias toward big accounts. The result is that small (or new) accounts can have their stuff surfaced to a giant audience totally at random…”
Maybe it’s not ‘random’, but a lot of game dev/publishers I know have 90% of their TikToks with low(er) views, and a handful with high(er) views, and it’s never increasibly obvious why. But using a recent ‘hit’ TikTok soundtrack is one way to get more algorithmic interest, as Descenders did recently with this goofy TikTok.
(Oh, and if you’d like to read a very long, very erudite, slightly depressing piece on ‘the TikTok generation’ and TikTok influencers, we’ve got your back too! You’re welcome. Tell us how your TikTok experiments go!)
The state of (physical) video game events in 2021?
Pavol Buday, who is running Game Conference Guide and its associated newsletter, did a very interesting Q&A for video game event-goers, working out what might possibly happen post-pandemic - and what’s going on now.
There’s all kinds of answers and charts in the full version. But above are the two answers we thought were key. On the one hand, closing deals/leads got significantly more difficult due to the pandemic/virtual events - 45% of the 285 respondents from 45 countries said it was trickier, whereas only 8% said it was easier!
And then, when it comes to going back to live events, 51% of respondents said they will be very selective about events. Though conversely, 31% are very excited to get back in person. It’s very much split. And in general, people seem to be fine with virtual events for information - except their relative inability to form deeper relationships with business partners.
With major disparities in the vaccination rates of many countries, and 77% of those replying previously visiting international events, safety/travel restrictions are probably going to be the most complex factor over the next few months & years.
Anyhow, read the rest of the survey for more information. And I’d be remiss for not mention that my old colleagues at Game Developers Conference have a super-amazing looking schedule for their own virtual event in July, should you want to try a non-physical event out for size this year.
The game discovery news round-up..
And after that bumper crop of analysis, let’s end out this week’s GameDiscoverCo free newsletters with the rest of the game platform/discovery news:
First, of course, is the report that Valve may be making a Nintendo Switch-like portable PC. Some leaked mentions of ‘SteamPal’ in Steam code spotted by SteamDB’s xPaw led to Ars Technica reporting what it had heard: “an all-in-one PC with gamepad controls and a touchscreen… the SteamPal was built with Linux as a likely target, an idea that aligns with Valve's continued push to make its entire catalog compatible with the open source OS, particularly through Steam Proton.” We’ll see what happens with this, but it’s a fascinating possibility.
100% our sort of thing? That would be Thomas Reisenegger’s 2019 GDC talk, ‘PR Success.gif: How to Get Your Game Across in 5 Seconds’ which is now available on YouTube. Description as follows: “In this 2019 GDC session, Future Friends Games' Thomas Reisenegger provides tips on how to market your game through animated .gifs, as well as platform-specific gif advice for Steam, Twitter, etc.”
Spotted a little more detail about the possible Netflix move into games via this Axios newsletter report: “A source familiar with Netflix's plans tells Axios to "think of it as a smaller Apple Arcade,"… [it] would consist of a mix of licensed Netflix intellectual property and original work commissioned from independent studios, offered to existing Netflix subscribers. The service is far off, possibly launching in 2022, and plans are all subject to change.”
Summer showcase news: the Xbox and Bethesda announce event is now confirmed for June 13th at 1pm PT; looks like the IGN Expo streaming announce show is happening on June 11th at 1pm PT; if you’re having as much trouble keeping up on this as I am, this PCGamesN ‘summer events’ overview seems fairly up to date!
Just a follow-up on adult (that is, very adult) games being banned from Steam in Germany last December - this adult game dev told me: “Last time I checked, it was around 12% of our Steam revenue that came through Germany before the ban. And this is for a game without German translation and only available in English. I imagine it's a higher percentage for those with translation.” So it’s similar to the $ hit many non-adult games would take if Steam China flipped to ‘government approved only’…
Microlinks: Astra Games is a philanthropic venture fund (!) specifically designed for ‘video games that make you think’; in case you missed it, Unreal Engine 5 is a demo-able thing now - and very beautiful, to boot; the Apple/Epic antitrust judge may actually have a decision earlier than August cos she was making a Fortnite hotfix joke when she said that date?! (Judge humor, folks…)
Finally, Sony recently had a corporate strategy meeting. And among the slides, as spotted by DomsPlaying on Twitter, is this great graphic on how PlayStation Plus is scaling:
Other priorities in the strategy document, also noted by The Verge, include “Expand Sony’s first-party titles and franchises to mobile…. Make more Sony games into movies and TV shows…. Grow the PlayStation Network, PlayStation Now, and PS Plus networks.” Interesting to see how the venerable Sony is increasingly oriented around its game IP.
[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and lots more besides.]