Go Big and Go Indie: The Untapped Potential of Indie Games Collaborations in Marketing

Thought Leadership

Global Head of Gaming, Rachel Rakowski says that exploring partnerships with indie game developers can open brands up to huge untapped creative potential. In this piece she looks at the opportunities that indie studios offer in terms of creative opportunities for brands, and how they should go about forming a successful, collaborative relationship.  

Over the course of my career as a marketer, I’ve heard brands say the same line over and over again; “we’re the biggest brand and therefore we must work with the biggest game” or some version of “go big or go home”. This is of course, before the conversation of licensing fees rears its ugly head once again, introducing brands to the harsh reality that in fact, that “biggest game” you want to work with also requires “the biggest budget” you’ve ever put together. Shocking, I know.

It’s usually at this point brands either do one of two things; try to negotiate with the rightsholder and struggle to find purchase, or give up on gaming altogether as it’s deemed “too expensive” to be worth it. Either way, brands see this obstacle and throw in the towel, and I don’t blame them. When the licensing fee alone can cost upwards of seven-figures, and that’s before you even begin to put together the budget for the marketing campaign itself; I can understand why brands get cold feet and walk away. Especially now, in a time where marketing budgets are tight amid economic uncertainty, very few brands can afford to throw down that amount of cash just to play the game. 

Which is why instead of giving up, I instead encourage brands to change tact. If you can’t go big, why not go Indie?

Before we go into why you should look at indie games for your next brand activation, it’s important to understand what an Indie Game even is these days. Make no mistake, indie games are no longer a couple of guys designing low poly games in their mom’s basement. In fact, the only differences between an indie game and a AAA game is the budget, team size, and at times, the time it took to produce that title. 

It Takes TwoImage credit: Hazelight Studios/Electronic Arts

It’s important to note for those more learned in the games industry, graphics are no longer a key defining feature of a AAA title. With tools like Unreal Engine 5 becoming easier to use and high-quality, ready-made assets being available to buy online, it’s become even easier to build visually stunning indie titles. An indie game is simply a game made by a smaller team with tighter budgets by a lesser-known studio. For example, It Takes Two, a Game of The Year winner with fantastic graphics, gameplay, and high-polish made by Hazelight Studios is in fact, an indie game title.

Thus leading us back to the topic at hand, why aren’t more brands working with indie developers? I understand the allure of working with AAA developers such as Epic Games (makers of Fortnite) who boast more than 250 million monthly active users. But there are other options – and while indie games may not have the quantity of users, they will often have the quality, with thriving, engaged communities. 

Image credit: Epic Games

Which brings me to why indies games are such a strong choice for brands. Not only do they have some of the most passionate communities in gaming today, but these games also benefit from having much smaller, nimbler teams which make it easier to build custom experiences with. While building a custom game experience in a AAA game can easily take upwards of 10-12 months and cost quite a bit in dev time, indie games can do it in considerably less time and for less cost. This allows brands to step into gaming in a big way, without the steep investment. Making it particularly appealing to those making their first foray into the gaming world.

The creative opportunities are endless. Work with a streamer or creator on an activation or challenge, create exclusive in-game skins, items or characters (like the McLaren X Rocket League collaboration), create exclusive DLC content or quests sponsored by your brand. Partnering with an indie game opens up a whole new world of possibilities, so brands really should be grabbing these opportunities with both hands.

There’s only one major consideration you need to be mindful of when partnering with an indie developer: time. While indie games have incredibly engaged communities, you really need to strike while the iron is hot in order to find success. With over 12,000+ new games releasing on Steam alone each year, the buzz around indie games can come and go quickly to make room for the next big thing. It’s akin to following trends on social media. You have a limited amount of time to get in on the action, or risk being late to the party. But take it from me, if you get it right, it’s one party you really don’t want to miss.

A shorter version of this piece was originally published on Campaign US here.