What are the best ways to support your favorite indie game developers? Of course you can buy their games or support their Kickstarter or Patreon, but there's more to it. Some of the following methods are kind of obvious at first, but for people who aren't involved in game development, or the Steam economy for that matter, often don't know of the importance of such simple things like writing reviews. So why not write them all up and explain why they really matter?
I wrote them from the perspective of smaller, non-established indie game developers releasing a game on Steam, because for the well-known ones, the following ways of support happen anyway. There are just a bunch of other rules in play when you don't have direct access to press and YouTubers, an actual player base or perhaps even a renowned publisher.
How you can help
Writing Steam Reviews
Steam changed (and is changing) the way it presents games to customers from an authored, mostly manual exposure visible on the store's front page to a more customer-specific exposure of games giving the customer's prior purchase, search and play behavior. On top of that, games seem to have some sort of relevance measure with a calculation unknown to us developers, but it's clear (and makes sense) that games performing well in the store get a higher exposure and therefore metrics like the amount of units sold surely play into it.
From personal observations, I think the game's rating and the amount of reviews are both highly relevant. For more unknown indie developers and their games, this can be a problem. Regarding the rating, you are probably already familiar with the categories Overwhelmingly Positive, Very Positive, Mostly Positive, Mixed, Mostly Negative, Very Negative and Overwhelmingly Negative. There is a minor caveat though, as games with less than 10 reviews don't get a rating at all. Games with less than 50 reviews have their positive ratings Very Positive and Mostly Positive summed up as Positive and games with less than 500 reviews have their Overwhelmingly Positive mapped to Very Positive. This doesn't only look less appealing, but is critical in getting more exposure (from my experience).
So if you enjoyed a game which has few reviews in general but especially below 50 respectively 500, why not just write one? I mean, you should write positive and negative reviews anyway, so other customers know what they are getting into, but giving games you've enjoyed some love is a good way to go.
In short: review your favorite games in general, but even more so if they have less than 50 or 500 reviews (so they can get a proper rating).
Buying on Release
Games which sell a lot on Steam appear in several places throughout the store, like in Popular New Releases, the Top Seller list and they may even get into the main capsule rotation (the big image at the top on Steam's front page). With this kind of exposure (and a good game), the game will sell more, which in return will increase the duration it stays in the Popular New Releases, the rank in the Top Seller list or it's getting more or longer exposure in the main capsule (all assumptions made via observations). Games which sell even more have more customers spreading the game to other people via recommendations or just friends checking out the game someone is playing. Press, Let's Players and streamers check out the popular releases or top sellers, introducing their audience to the game, which will result in more sales, which in return... you see where this spiral is going.
Therefore, it's much better to sell 1000 units in one day than 1000 units spread across multiple years. I know that a lot of people buy games on a budget (like I do), so most interesting games with a new release may get added to the Steam wishlist instead. That's okay and developers (and Steam) are certainly trying to battle this problem with the concept of launch discounts. So it doesn't only matter if you buy a game, but also when, and near release is a good way to give the game a chance in entering the mentioned spiral.
In short: it's relevant when you buy a game you care about, as a lot of sales during the release can get the developer's game into a cumulating spiral of additional sales.
If I were Steam, I would also take the current amount of wishlists into consideration when choosing a game's visibility during sales like the Summer Sale. Given average conversion rates of games in general or games of the same genre (tags, publisher, developer etc.), it's possible to anticipate the generated revenue and therefore focus on increasing the exposure of games with a higher expected one. In return that means that even if you didn't bought the game yet for budget reasons, a wishlist is still a helpful nudge for the developer. It will also notify you when the game gets discounted.
In short: wishlist games you care about and which you want to support.
Sharing in Communities
Non-established indie developers often have to be very active in promoting their games because obscurity is their enemy number one. There are several ways to do this, like utilizing social media by posting a game recommendation on Twitter or Facebook with a bunch of hashtags. Developers can also pay for advertisement or put the game onto some sort of traffic-generating platform. Steam (of course), itch.io and others generate some sort of traffic on their own.
What most customers don't really know (as I often get asked why I'm not doing the following things), is that most of the actual useful promotion is unavailable to us: we can't post our games on Reddit because self-promotion is forbidden or share it in game forums and communities because of strict non-advertisement rules or in some game's press or Let's Players comment section because it looks desperate. It's not allowed for the very reason it's so effective, at least until everyone spammed these places with their advertisement.
So if you genuinely like a game and are not involved in its development or promotion, are not one of the developer's buddies, friends, financial supporters, colleagues (or something like this), do your fellow players and the developer a favor and share the game in the mentioned places, according to the rules.
In short: share your favorite games in communities.
Contributing to a Wiki
Writing a wiki for a game you are developing is incredible time consuming, I can guarantee you that. So seeing people contributing to the community by adding content to a game's wiki or writing Steam guides and publishing them in the game's community hub is really a godsend. It also decreases the pressure in respect to community work the developer has to do, as a lot of questions regarding gameplay or confusion with game mechanics can be resolved by linking to the game's wiki.
In short: if you want to contribute with some sort of work, add content to your favorite game's wiki or write a guide on Steam.
Recording Gameplay Footage
For every developer who is interested in improving their game, any kind of YouTube video about someone playing is worth incredible much, independent of the video creator's subscriber count. Sometimes there's that "I don't have any subscribers, but I made a small video, perhaps you like it" and my reaction is "45 minutes raw gameplay footage of an actual player I can study to see where the game fails and see what people are actually doing within in my game... as a replayable video with live comments!?". Of course, big YouTubers allow to spread the word, but every video or stream is useful, as bedroom coders just don't have the funds to organize some useful playtesting with lots of people.
In short: even as a small Let's Player or streamer, your videos about your favorite game are super useful for the developer.
There maybe are developers with a super strong vision who design a perfect game from start to finish, but it's actually extremely hard to have any grip on how something turns out in actual gameplay and on top of that, it's often just... not that good. But as a developer, you are so much involved in development, it's hard to spot obvious issues or to come up with a much better solution. There's this classic thing I encountered when starting out with game development where I implemented a feature and the following happened:
- A player writes a mail full of feedback, including "doing X isn't really fun"
- I think: "Okay, he must be one of these players who just aren't into X"
- A player in the Steam forums writes "this and that works, but X is kinda strange"
- "Okay there might me something, but I shouldn't rush it because of two single opinions"
- A player uploads a 30 minutes playthrough on YouTube, where half of the time he struggles (and rambles) about feature X
So if you have feedback about things in the game you like or dislike, share it with the developer via mail, in forums or any other way (in a polite manner, of course). Even if it's already said, it's useful if you second that feedback, because it puts the good or bad feature into another perspective, and in the best cases, some sort of discussion evolves which is interesting to take into account when trying to focus on that good feature respectively when trying to solve the issue.
Non-established indie developers are thankful for that help and, from my observations, are far more open and happy to discuss their games in general. Your feedback is not annoying, so share it if you have some.
In short: give the developers of your favorite game some feedback.
Populating the Community Hub
Customer behavior is a strange science. From the first introduction to the game, often because of seeing a little capsule image on Steam or a video on YouTube... up to actually buying the game, there are a lot of factors to consider: the game's price, trailer quality, the game's description, review count and rating and so on. One of these factors is how the community hub looks like, something I personally often check to get a game's "temperature". Having a community hub full with artwork done by fans, screenshots, videos and a bunch of guides introducing new players as well as exciting comments on the developer's last announcement puts the whole game into another perspective, much in contrast to the community wastelands you often see when games of non-established indie developers get released.
In short: contribute to your favorite game's community hub on Steam (artworks, screenshots, videos, guides, forum posts).
Creating Fan Localizations
During development, it doesn't make much sense to keep the game's localization into other languages up-to-date, especially for a solo developer or small team. But even for fully released games, it's just not financial feasible to localize the game into certain languages. From personal experience, the cost for a localization is often higher than the expected revenue. Depending on the game and its modding capabilities, players interested in introducing the game to a non-English speaking audience often can use modding capabilities to help themselves out. Don't get me wrong: don't offer free localization services to game developers because this work should be paid like every other work, but if you are into writing an unofficial fan localization for a game you want to support, it's a really nice way for helping indie developers out.
In short: create a fan localization of your favorite game.
A nice and friendly comment is incredible motivating for indie developers, especially when they feel like they are struggling to make progress or have an exhausting release behind them. A release of a game (or anything else) often feels like throwing your darling into the void and hearing a nod of appreciation back is often a sign that it was worth it for at least one other human. Often, all we have are abstract download numbers where we don't know if it actually got played and was enjoyed.
In short: nice comments and mails are super motivating.
How you shouldn't help
Writing Reviews for Friends/Colleagues
If you got a key for free or somehow got into a friendly relationship with the indie developer through your support, because you've made videos about his game, supported him on Patreon or similar, please state it whenever you make a review or when you are sharing the game in other communities. Others should be able to judge where the reviewer is coming from. If you are a close friend or game development colleague, just don't do it.
In short: disclose ties to the developer when sharing the game or posting a review.
Fighting Critics in Communities
Sometimes there are trolls, sometimes there are people genuinely not liking the game, the developer or both. It's fine and there is nothing more damaging than escalating discussions in a game's official forums. Even if you are right in defending the game, it just sheds a bad light on the community as a whole. Discussions about a topic can get heated sometimes, but as long as it's not a troll, everyone should be welcomed. For the troll, there is a report function you can use instead. Developers with some sort of community strategy always try to de-escalate an issue by posting an apology followed by possible solutions or ignoring the post altogether, when it looks like someone just has to vent his anger. Counter-arguing turns up the heat and is therefore counterproductive.
In short: don't go into fights in the game's official channels, like in the Steam forums.
Re-Uploading Free or Public Files
It's sometimes meant nicely as a way of spreading the free pre-alpha, demo (etc.) to even more people, but these additional uploads often turn out outdated very quick and may leave a bad impression caused by already fixed bugs. As long as the developer distributes the game through his channels, please link to these instead.
In short: don't re-upload the (free) game somewhere else.
So! Thanks for reading and I hope I either provided you with some measures to help your favorite indie developers or, in case you are one of them, a bunch of tools to give to players asking how they can help.
I'm going to write these bigger blog posts once a week. The previous one was called "Indie Developers as Consumers, not Providers" and is a piece about what might happen on Steam in the near future.