An Indie Game Studio Goes TikTok: Preliminary Observations

Learning things one 15 second video at a time.

By Victoria Tran, Communications Director at Kitfox Games, an indie studio in Montreal. Currently working on Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us and publishing Mondo Museum and Dwarf Fortress.

Ah, the ever evolving landscape of social media.

A few months ago, Tanya (Kitfox’s captain) and I decided to open a TikTok account for the studio. There are several reasons we decided to, the main 3 for me being:

  1. I’ve wanted to make more video content for Kitfox, but Youtube videos were too much of a time investment, especially considering my workload.
  2. Twitter, while a great platform for reaching gamers and game developers, is a very specific bubble of users. I wanted to see if I could extend our reach, especially when it came to more “visual” platforms (i.e. we’re not on Youtube, Instagram, or Imgur much) and a newer audience.
  3. I have no pride and was ready for Gen Z to absolutely wreck me if I ended up being VERY NOT funny (also I found out I’m on the cusp of Gen Z?? So maybe it’s in my BLOOD to be on TikTok.)

Some background info about TikTok: it was the most downloaded (non-game) app in January 2020 and skews young, with 41% of users being between 16 to 24.

But is it worth the time investment? Honestly... it’s too early to say. Video filming takes up a deceptively long amount of time, and I haven’t gone super viral on TikTok, nor do we have a TON of followers. But we’re not doing too bad either. Who knows, maybe I’ll never be great at it! Maybe this will fail! But the good news is trial and error is the best way to learn.

https://www.tiktok.com/@kitfoxgames

Either way, here are some preliminary musings I’ve had about 3 months in. Keep in mind I’m speaking from an indie studio perspective — not a AAA studio, not a press outlet, not a streamer. There are many successful game-related accounts on there, but I can’t compare with their resources and/or dedicated audience.

Also, this is not a tutorial on how to use it, you can easily Google that!

Stats as of June 2020

  • Time since account creation: 3 months, posting ~1/week (note: probably should post more but I… have no time…)
  • ~1200 followers
  • Highest video viewcount: 24.5k
  • 55k video views the past 28 days
  • 74% female | 26% male
  • Top territories: United States (55%), Canada (21%), Australia (6%)
  • Follow activity most active in early evening (UTC)

Note: It’s not super obvious, but you can switch to a “pro account” in the app settings for more analytics!

So one problem is that I have no idea how to track conversion rates on TikTok. You can’t post direct links in TikToks. And since it’s a pure mobile app, it’s not useful for conversion regarding PC/console games. The app Zombie! Run got a bunch of attention, but, well, it’s for mobile! So maybe this is the perfect platform for mobile games.

BUT! The point of organic social media isn’t usually conversion — after all, it’s notoriously bad at it. It’s for engagement, sentiment value (how much people like your studio), and branding. I didn’t create a TikTok account with the intention of it directly contributing to conversion.

There are several avenues I’ve seen when it comes to game-related TikToks, which have their own pros/cons.

Types of Content

There’s very little overt advertising on TikTok, if at all. Most of it is just a human doing something in front of a camera, or voicing over a thing.

So, while I’ve experimented with more “polished” things on TikTok, i.e. the Boyfriend Dungeon transformations, I’ve only done so after numerous videos of literally just me doing stuff. The fact you can see it’s me making imperfect videos is, weirdly, good I think. (And to be completely honest, the polsihed videos weren’t planned — I just didn’t think about posting Boyfriend Dungeon transformations until a few weeks ago haha.)

In-Game TikToks 📸

I haven’t done many TikToks that featured gameplay footage. Mainly because:

  • It takes WAY more time and effort to capture relevant in-game footage (and may require a certain amount of manipulation/freedom from the game)
  • The in-game footage would need to be funny/on trend with whatever is going on in TikTok
  • Our most popular games aren’t released yet, so have questionable reach/relevancy in the TikTok space

However, if your game is generally well-known, popular, or quite freeform, I think you could do A LOT with this. Just see Astroneer’s TikTok, which has done waaaaaaay better than anything I have done so far. Ahhh. The envy! ❤

I’ve been testing out the transformation sequences from Boyfriend Dungeon (definitely the most “attractive” of all our marketing material) and it has blown my other TikToks out of the water in terms of views.

That being said, the most I’ve experimented with is Boyfriend Dungeon, which is the most young, modern and “trendy” of our games. Just like how some games show better on conventions, I hesitate to use TikTok to talk about our other games like Lucifer Within Us or Dwarf Fortress, because they’re a difficult concept to grasp within 15 seconds and don’t have the same “eye-catching” value.

That being said, do I have some videos ideas to test my hypothesis with this? You betcha! Keep an eye out.

Game Dev/Profession TikToks 📸

One of the two main avenues I’ve focused on for content revolve around game development. I’d honestly love to feature more of the other studio members, but it is currently social distancing time sooo that might not happen for a bit.

“Professional” TikToks exist and can be popular, though I’ve mainly seen them revolve around either healthcare workers or relatable student posts. But there are a few I’ve seen blow up! Places like the Washington Post are brilliant and have definitely found their place.

Gamer TikToks 📸

This is the second avenue of content I’ve tried out, and I figure it’s probably going to be more widely applicable and popular. After all, not every gamer really cares about how games are made.

That being said, when it comes to “gamer” TikToks, I’ve noticed most of the popular ones on the platform are about eSports and/or more traditionally “masculine” games (e.g. Call of Duty) — with the exception being Animal Crossing. I’ve seen A LOT of videos about women complaining about their boyfriends spending too much time on games, which is fair but also GIRL LET ME SHOW YOU SOME GAMES TO IGNORE HIM FOR. Ahem. Anyway.

Other popular gamer TikToks have come from streamer humor, which is content I’m not super well versed in. And, probably, the streamers have some audience members following them on TikTok too.

Marketing TikToks 📸

So this is a landmine I would tread veeeery carefully on. But basically, these are the TikToks I’ve made that are basically direct advertisements of our games.

Like I mentioned before, I think this only works because Boyfriend Dungeon is an inherently silly premise, the name is intriguing, and I am clearly just one person trying my best to use this platform haha. Also I’m being vulnerable here, in my own way.

I genuinely do not encourage people to try doing the same thing unless you’re extremely sure of it, because these depend on being and appearing authentic. I mean it! I didn’t make the above TikTok thinking it was a clever marketing idea. I didn’t script it. I just wanted to see if I could do it in 30 seconds and share my thirst about the characters for fun.

Authenticity and finding your voice (especially on a Brand Account™) is a whole can of worms to explore, but like many social platforms, people can see from a mile away when you’re faking it.

I also did one about the Steam Summer sale, which is EVEN MORE of an ad and was so ready to get cancelled on TikTok. But it went okay! Thank god. I definitely am NOT going to make a lot of similar ones, if at all. Things like these are usually only funny the first time around anyway.

A Note on TikTok

Every platform has fun, interesting aspects to it. But it’d be disingenuous to talk about TikTok without acknowledging that this platform has its own negatives — mainly, a slew of allegations of it being discriminatory in things like beauty/wealth/ableism and race. Relatedly, this is another instance in which our cultures have benefited from the uncredited work of the Black community. (Oh and invasive privacy issues I found out about WHILE writing this, so that’s uh, cool.)

Much likes how Facebook is filled with actual propaganda and privacy issues, and Twitter is rife with cancel culture and hate speech, you CANNOT pretend to be blind to these things if your studio is benefiting from them (and benefiting them in turn). The worst kind of social media marketer is one that doesn’t think about the ethical impact their actions will have or engage critically with the platforms they work with.

I‘m not saying I’m above all this. After all, I’m on the app. I’m also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. And I doubt this will stop any studio from going on whatever new social platform crops up. But I hope that if you do use it, you consider how you can give back.

Takeaways

I have a disgust for corporate bandwagoning onto a social media platform because it’s “where all the kids are nowadays”.

Can’t believe I had to read the words “gucci” and “slay” in 2020

I’m sure when TikTok monetizes more and bigger brands start using influencers for ads the landscape will change, but for now… don’t use it to be “hip”. Don’t use it with a weird hatred for a younger generation you don’t understand. Don’t use it and try to copy my humor/a sense of humor that doesn’t ring true for you.

Use it to better understand how culture changes with technology, how it applies to your studio, and how you can grow with it. And if it doesn’t work for you? If you hate it? Then screw it!

I accept 0 criticism from boomers but 100% accept criticism from Gen Z

But, in short, here are my studio takeaways from the months I’ve been on the platform:

  • Crosspost. While some TikToks I’ve made were “meh” on the native platform, crossposting them onto our studio Twitter has proven to be extremely successful. This is partially due to the fact we just have a larger, more focused following in general on Twitter, but also there’s a certain humor that lands well on Twitter — likely because it skews a bit older. I don’t know what the humor is exactly, but it’s a mixture of professional work ironies, making fun of ourselves, and pessimism. Anyways, point being: crosspost!
  • Be human. In-game content will be the most appealing, but add a human touch to it — either by filming videos of yourself, adding humorous voiceover, or some other creative twist. I’ve seen a lot of successful TikToks that don’t involve humor at all!
  • Aesthetics. A certain level of aesthetic appeal is needed for most TikToks, unless it’s part of the humor (it’s a TikTok stereotype to have a phone tripod and ring light).
  • Music choice is crucial . If your game has a catchy song, you can use it, but listen to what everyone else is using first to get a sense of what songs get used and why. Usually they’re either 1) super recognizable, like the Wii Shop music, 2) have lyrics that someone can lip-sync to/act out, 3) are a bop you can make a dance to, or 4) are a well-known song that someone has added a funny twist to.
  • Hashtags? No one on the app seems to know if hashtags matter or not. I’ve seen TikToks ABOUT not using hashtags and still go viral. I’ve tried using them and not — there seems to be no visible difference in engagement whether I use them or not. TikTok recently published an article on how their recommendation system works, which you can read here.
  • Leave the jargon-y marketing behind. They’re not interested in your logos or call-to-actions.
  • TikTok videos gain views slowly overtime. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, the videos don’t “instantly” blow up and then disappear forever once the hype dies. TikTok seems to like to shuffle in a mix of old and new videos into people’s feeds, and I’ve found our older videos gaining more and more traction overtime.
  • A word of caution. The app is very good at making you feel self conscious about your looks (and I thought Instagram was bad, heck). If you do decide to try it out, have fun with it. I know, very typical advice. But it’s true. It’s not worth it if it gives you anxiety.

Having only 15–60 seconds to make a joke requires creativity and making TikToks takes a deceivingly large amount of time, so if this isn’t something you can handle at the moment or enjoy… there are better marketing platforms out there for you!

If I had to sum up my thoughts on TikTok so far, it’s this: Amazing platform to engage with a new audience, maybe good for mobile games, but do not rely on it for any sort of conversion for your PC/console game. However, it relies heavily on your own creativity and authenticity, which aren’t things that can necessarily be copied.

And welllll… if you are on TikTok…. throw us a follow?

If you this article helped, please consider signing the petitions and donating to the charities for Black Lives Matter Canada.

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Game development posts and thoughts from Kitfox Games. Biz dev, leadership, marketing, community management, art, game design, and more.

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Kitfox Games

Kitfox Games

Games with dangerous, intriguing worlds to explore. Currently: Boyfriend Dungeon, Lucifer Within Us, Dwarf Fortress, Mondo Museum • kitfoxgames.com

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