The Un-Sexy Side of Marketing: Behind ‘A Dark Room’

Amir Rajan got over a million downloads for ADR. How?

You might have heard of A Dark Room (ADR)for the iOS. For a game that’s just text, it managed to get over a million downloads and without major visibility on the gaming radar.

What caught my attention was the developer, Amir Rajan, and his incredibly transparent journey.

Amir is a remarkable fellow. He’s part artist, part programmer, part writer, and part a whole bunch of other things.

What astonished me the most was how meticulously Amir documented his journey of developing A Dark Room. He documented everything from reaching out to journalists, to his own personal feelings.

It’s freakin’ gold, and should be required reading for anyone entering the market.

Like a good book, I spent a Saturday afternoon poring through Amir’s journey, taking notes and trying to connect what the secret sauce was to his success.

The Million Dollar Question of What Worked

There’s a great quote from John Wanamaker:

It’s never just one thing that gets you results, but a combination of strategies mixed with a little luck. In the space of independent games in particular, marketing has always been a crap-shoot.

So what exactly did Amir do to reach this level of success?

What he did right into Amir’s 2-year journey and his meticulously well-documented sales reports to pull out key insights of what Amir did right. I also reached out to Amir, who graciously offered an opportunity to chat with him on Skype.

First, Amir is amazing at keeping track of data and experimenting, even going so far as to break down his yearly revenue.

Amir even used data to determine his next marketing tactic. Amir analyzed word counts in review, pricing based on sales fluctuations, and tracks his competitors ranking.

Great documentation leads to seeing patterns and understanding what works and what doesn’t.

But there’s another side of marketing that is highly overlooked.

Beyond the marketing advice of “create hashtag campaigns” and “email youtubers your game” is one that is often less talked about — for good reason.

This marketing strategy is not sexy. AT ALL.

There are people who are behind the screen. Think about that next time you’re BCC’ing 100 journalists a cut-and-paste pitch you found online.

The relationships that Amir cultivated contributed to his success.

Let’s address the first method.


Un-Sexy Method 1: Actually Connecting with Influencers to Start the Momentum

Amir built relationships early on, and continued building them as A Dark Room gained popularity.

One of the first influential people Amir connected with was Leigh Alexander, editor at Gamasutra & Kotaku.

The timeline

Nov 18, 2013: Amir connected with Leigh Alexander using the Twitter Handle, @aDarkRoomIOS.
Feb 21, 2014: Amir reaches out to Leigh again.
March 6, 2014: Leigh publishes her interview with Amir and Matthew.

In Amir’s case — it took 3.5 months from saying hello and getting Leigh in his orbit, to finally convincing Leigh that he matters.

This was the first (of many) milestones.

How did he repeat it?

Sept 2, 2014: Amir had a interview with Kaijupop’s Chris Charlton

Sept 6, 2014: Chris Charlton writes an article about A Dark Room

April 20th, 2015: Chris writes a post about A Noble Circle

To this day: Amir and Chris have a few back and forth conversations via twitter

Un-Sexy Method 2: Creating Sticky Connections with Fans

Another strategy that Amir focused on was connecting directly with his fans, even so far so as to tweet as the narrator of @aDarkRoomiOS.

On our call, Amir referred to it as creating ‘sticky connections’. I’m not sure if he got the term from the book Made to Stick, by the Heath brothers (highly recommended), but it’s applicable here.

The idea is to do something that makes people remember you. For Amir, that was going above and beyond the game he created- by reaching out to people online.

One Example: Positive mentions of A Dark Room would send Amir to thank them publicly as the @aDarkRoomiOS twitter handle, or with his own personal twitter account. That extra step creates stickiness.

When visiting Reddit: Amir awards Redditors who mentions A Dark Room with Reddit Gold, a ‘gift currency’, that gives the user all sorts of perks when visit Reddit.

Creating Stickiness, and the Hard Results

Whenever a user thinks of A Dark Room, they’ll remember the small gestures that Amir made.

The results of his extra effort:

You get fun posts like this, with 66 people liking the post (or 66 upvotes, in Reddit lingo).

There are also posts asking for more games similar A Dark Room. It’s a high honor to get comparisons especially when game developers are fighting tooth and nail to even be a part of the social conversation.

Finally, there is the stickiness that Amir creates himself — by crafting incredible posts. In these posts, Amir outlines his process of creating A Dark Room, turning him into a local celebrity in the Game Development scene.

Based on the upvotes and engagement, they’re pretty popular.

Chris Kurr of PocketGamer.co.uk and Gamasutra thinks so too, generating content based on Amir’s posts. (Such as the November 16, 2015 article: Gamasutra: Two year look at Sales.) It doesn’t hurt that Chris was already a fan, since he wrote about a Dark Room a year ago.

Creating Stickiness, and the Lingering Question

To this day, Amir couldn’t figure out what caused ADR to go viral in the UK.

In his sales reports, there’s a huge bump on March 29th, 2014.

Amir has a hypothesis of why this happened.

During our call, he shared that an Australian Professor wrote an online article about the parallels between A Dark Room and Mark Twain’s writing.

Amir discovered that blog post, and sent him a nice email. The following is that hypothesis.

  • That Australian professor connected Amir with his UK associate, an English professor.
  • The English professor asked Amir to speak to his students via Skype.
  • His students were influenced by Amir, who then recommended the game to others.
  • The intimate encounter of meeting the developer led to a “grassroots” marketing, as Amir calls it.
  • That drove social conversations and downloads.

Is this Softer Marketing worth the Effort?

It’s hard to get concrete numbers to measure the ROI (return of investment) to know if relationship building is effective.

Based on what Amir shared with me — those small acts of kindness are paying off fairly well.

Amir’s most recent app, A Noble Circle, was released as an experiment. There wasn’t much in the way of a game. But that didn’t stop fans from downloading it 15,000 times and game journalists from reviewing it.

My Shameless Plug

This article isn’t perfect. I’ve spent 3 weeks digging through the data, trying to find an angle. This frustration had lead to multiple rough drafts and hair pulling.

This is why Amir issued this challenge.

As a thank you to Amir for his time and energy, I want to put this out there:

What am I missing here?

I’d love to know your thoughts. Leave a comment, or tweet it to me via Twitter at @RockyKev.


For helping me iterate this post, a public thank you to:
Marcy Ganoe (www.marcyganoe.com), Oleg Starko, and David Krishbaum, and Lindsey Hayward.

P.S.(can you even P.S. on a article?) It was not intentional to make so many sexual innuendos. :P