While going viral on social media may seem like a crapshoot, I believe there are actionable methods that any game can use to maximize their chances of success. I used these methods to reach 1 million views on TikTok in our first two weeks on the platform!
Card Shark is a 2D adventure game about cheating at cards. Players perform card tricks to win at gambling salons across 18th century France. At the start of Steam Next Fest, we launched the Card Shark Demo and our TikTok account. The wishlist jump from this campaign was greater than any previous announcement or feature. We have many more marketing ideas in the pipeline so wishlist our game on Steam and follow us on TikTok to keep up! If you’d like to talk TikTok and social media, you can reach out to me on Twitter.
As you’ve probably heard, TikTok is already big. Per Hootsuite, it was the most downloaded app in 2021, it's the fastest growing social media platform and it's already doubled Twitter’s global active users while quickly gaining ground on Instagram. As TikTok tries to gain market share, it continues to offer more free visibility and reach than the mature platforms.
Those mature platforms can often feel like this.
I can keep posting to #indiedevhour and #screenshotsaturday, but the majority of people who will see those are other game devs. There’s nothing wrong with game devs but there’s a whole other group of people who are on TikTok instead! Chris Zukowski ranks TikTok as one of the most worthwhile places to invest marketing time as an indie.
So how did I achieve (moderate) TikTok success? This article details how the algorithm works, what content performed well for our game, how I created that content, and takeaways to get your game seen.
I've written a lot here but these are the 6 key learnings that I've picked up from this successful campaign.
1. TikTok is the best social media platform that can give you a crazy number of views quickly without external support.
2. But it's a cruel mistress and only high-quality content will survive.
3. You NEED people to watch to the end of the video - 60% is the magic number.
4. Tailor your content for the medium! Spend time understanding what fits.
5. Be prepared with at least a few strong videos to kick off your account + time to respond to them.
6. Showing your face, narrating with your own voice and being AUTHENTIC makes a video more relatable and compelling.
How TikTok Works
TikTok is extremely algorithm-driven. As soon as you open the app, you’ll be shown a video on your FYP (for your page). From there, your engagement with the video or lack thereof will tell the algorithm whether you want to see more of the same.
Tell the algorithm you like a video by liking, commenting, watching to the end and watching multiple times.
Tell the algorithm you dislike a video by swiping away, not watching to the end or selecting that you’d like to see less of this content.
We need to understand this because not only does it determine what videos you’ll see, but the algorithm also treats these interactions as rankings of whether your video is worth sharing to more people.
The algorithm will share a new video with about 100 people to start out. If a good portion of those people tell the algorithm they like it, it will get shared to more FYPs. If those people interact positively, it will continue to be shared, eventually resulting in a huge run-up of views, very quickly.
But if those first people don’t interact positively, if they don’t hit like, don’t watch to the end or even worse, directly tell the algorithm they don’t like the content, the video will get discarded, never to be seen again. :(
In 21 days, I’ve posted 19 videos to our account, earning a total of 1.25 million views, and 140k likes.
Here’s a graph of our TikTok views over that time.
The 3 most popular videos make up 78% of all views and 83% of likes. This is the algorithm at work. The 3 videos that it deemed worthy got pushed to hundreds of thousands of views while the others all struggle to pass 15k.
While this may not seem like a sustainable way to build a game community from the lens of mature social media platforms, this is normal on TikTok. Most accounts have huge variance in the number of views per video. Posting regularly will slowly build up the follower count and create more committed fans who have a high chance of liking new videos when they see them.
Without any following, 100 views are the norm for a new video, but with our current following at 8000, new videos will at least get a few thousand views within hours of posting.
A rising tide raises all ships! As a brand new account, our goal is to build a following through viral videos.
That being said, my bar for “viral” is pretty high at the 100k mark. For context, our demo trailer - which was posted on the 200k subscriber Devolver Youtube channel - currently has 6k views. 16 of our 19 TikTok videos have more views than that. The quality of a “view” on TikTok isn’t nearly as high, meaning they’re less likely to convert to a new sale, but I think this still shows the power of the TikTok algorithm to reach new viewers.
So the next question is how to make viral videos!
This is certainly not an exact science and there are all sorts of ways to get traction with your videos. People think of TikTok as a place solely for memes, jokes and dances, but it’s the primary content consumption platform for many people. That means that almost any kind of content can find a home on the platform. During our first weeks on TikTok, my FYP had indie dev content, comedic sketches about home life between couples, and videos explaining the war in Ukraine. Our 3 viral videos are an overview of our game, a real life tip related to our game, and a joke response about the Youtuber, Dream.
As you would do for any platform, you need to tailor your content for the audience. The best way to do this is to watch what other games have done to get significant views, and think about how those formats can fit your game.
Remember, we are trying to optimize our content to achieve positive engagement: likes, comments and watching to the end.
With the 19 videos that we have released, I wanted to assess which of the positive engagement factors were most favoured by the algorithm.
I’ve ordered all of our 19 videos by view count and colour-coded them into 4 categories.
The red videos went viral with over 100k views.
The orange videos performed relatively well, reaching at least 25k views. These videos earned significantly more views than we have followers which means that they were positively picked up by the algorithm to some extent.
The purple videos were featured in #womeningaming promoted by TikTok for International Women’s Day. I know that these are outliers for this analysis because the analytics show that the majority of the viewership of these videos are from the hashtag and not from FYP.
Finally, the rest of the videos are in blue.
There is some missing data for videos 3, 11 and 16 because I didn’t turn on analytics until the 3rd day. This is a reminder to turn on video analytics before you start posting!
Let’s analyze this data! Since red and orange videos earned at least 25k views, we want to see if there are any patterns between them, or differentiators compared to the blue videos.
Starting with the video length, we can see that all of the red and orange videos were 20 seconds or less. Around 10-13 seconds seems like a sweet spot for our content.
Originally, I thought that the like/view ratio was very important for the algorithm. However, the data suggests otherwise. There are strong and weak performing videos with high and low like/view ratios. A pattern you’ll see when you start building a following is that your committed followers will hit like on anything they see from you. This will at least get your video out to a few more people, but to really get picked up by the algorithm, you’ll need to convince non-followers to positively engage as well.
Next is the Full Video Watch %. Here we can see that all of the red and orange videos have very high percentages of viewers who watch the whole video. The viral red videos both have over 60% while the orange ones are almost at that mark.
Based on our data, the algorithm weights the Full Video Watch % very heavily. You’ll need to convince close to 60% of viewers to watch your entire video for it to have a chance. However, simply making your video extremely short may not be enough. Videos 12 and 14 are around the 60% mark, but they are less than 10 seconds and therefore have short average watch times as well.
Give a person a reason to watch to the end in the first 2 seconds.
Cover 1 point per video to keep it snappy!
Describe your game in the most impressive way you can, as quickly as possible.
Make new videos in response to comments on your popular videos
Tell a story or a joke (but make sure it hints at a payoff).
Short lists (3 things) encourage people to watch to the end to see all the points.
Consider leaving out key information to encourage questions in the comments like the name of the game, the platform, or price. If your video/game looks intriguing, people will ask allowing you to make video replies
Delivery is contextual. Think about what audience you are trying to reach, what brand voice you’d like to portray, and how that translates to how you speak!
Be authentic! Practice your delivery
Set up a punchline.
Be snappy and fast-paced. Be willing to speak faster than normal but this doesn’t need to be hyper-excitable and dramatic! There are many indie game accounts like Kyle Banks, MadMorph, and Cutie Indie Recs that speak calmly but still have little dead air between phrases!
Keep videos short but not too short 9-15s.
Use TikTok’s auto-caption feature
Edit your video for vertical! If you REALLY need a wider shot, use a blurred video background because it’s more appealing than a black background.
Add personality - personal pronouns, narrating the video yourself + showing your face adds a personal touch.
Note where TikTok UI will block your video. TikTok Rewards at the top right, the like button + video info on the right, and video description + comments at the bottom.
Post often! Every video is a new chance to go viral.
Be ready to post at least 5 strong videos in the span of a few days when you start out. Some people suggest that the first few videos are weighed heavily for your account's performance. If you have already tried without success, I'd consider deleting old videos and starting afresh.
The algorithm will reward you for posting regularly by continuing to promote past successful videos. This promotion will slow down when you stop posting.
Turn on analytics before you start posting! When you start to build a following, this will show when more of your followers are online.
Post your game trailer without any changes.
Simply follow a current trend. Joining a trend is fun when you see how each person interprets it. You’re trying to reach people who don’t already know your game and they won’t understand what makes your interpretation interesting.
TikTok will start by sending your videos to FYPs in the same original posting location! Since I’m in Canada, our early videos have a high proportion of Canadian viewers. I asked one of my colleagues in the UK to post a video and it has a higher proportion of UK viewers.
For many indies, the most popular video will be one that introduces or overviews a new game that viewers have never heard of before. See - Boyfriend Dungeon
The algorithm may take some time before pushing past videos. Our first video started taking off about 28 hours after it was posted.
I use trending sounds as much as I can. I don’t have enough data to assess if they improve performance, but I’ll edit videos without music so I can add a trending song quietly in the background.
I used 4-5 hashtags for each video based on suggestions from other TikTok creators: I’ll almost always use #indiegames, a wider-reaching gaming tag like #nintendoswitch or #pcgaming, another tag to reach a non-gamingspecific viewer base like #cardmagic, #gamedev or #streamer, and finally a general wide tag like #fyp or #funny.
My content creation process
Video Length: 10s
Full Video Watch: 68.2%
Ideation: After our first game introduction video started performing well, the top comment was someone joking about the Youtuber, Dream. It was the perfect opportunity to aim for a viral video because Dream is a popular figure among younger gamers.
Writing: With a general topic in place, I tried to come up with a funny way to reference Dream, while still saying something about our game. It took a few days to come up with a good idea, but it was worth the wait.
“I mean, I don’t know if Dream’s gonna like our game when he finds out what happens to cheaters who get caught”.
I reference Dream by name to provide context without reading the comment reply. Then I use personal language with “our game”. Finally, I don’t finish the punchline with words, and let the game footage deliver. This is matched up with the older popular sound “oh no”, and timed so it drops with the end of the speaking portion.
Video Length: 11s
Full Video Watch: 61.4%
Ideation: This video is the most successful of multiple that connect our game to the real world. One of the coolest aspects of our game is that each of the techniques are used by real cheaters. I present the topic as 3 tips that a viewer can use.
Writing: “3 ways to cheat without sleight of hand. Peek at cards while they’re being dealt, make use of something shiny, or distract them with a cool drink. Do all these drinks and more in our new game, Card Shark.”
The first sentence introduces the topic and the number of points to encourage staying to the end. The second sentence covers all 3 points in just a few seconds. The last sentence gives lots of information in a short time; it’s “our” game, it’s a “new” game, and the game title. about “our new game”.
Video Length: 19s
Full Video Watch: 59.1%
Ideation: This video was to repurpose content made by our Devolver partner, JM. He’s a great streamer and streamed our game’s demo with an accent and wearing a period costume. I chose a funny reaction and shaved off the dead air to cut a 28s clip to 19s.
Visuals: The layout is the game footage at the top and a zoomed in shot of JM’s face on the bottom. I also use a blurred background for portions that aren’t covered by the footage. I add the text in my video editing software but use a similar font to TikTok captions.
Other Content Ideas:
-Can you guess which movie our game is inspired by?
-Among Us tie-in after the Among Us account commented on our first video
-Giveaways and contests
-Answering questions from comments
-Following promoted hashtags
-Reusing old ideas! Since most people are watching from their FYP, reusing old ideas and even old video footage is perfectly fine!
Note: TikTok has loads of popular trends. I’m not a very meme-y person so I have trouble thinking of ways to match a trend with another topic. What I do enjoy is teaching people new things. That’s why I have enjoyed making videos for Card Shark. It’s grounded in reality so talking about the game is also talking about real life. A video is more compelling when you are passionate, so try to find ideas that suit your personality and brand voice!
Is it Worth it?
So is investing all this time in TikTok worth it? I can't share exactly how this visibility converted to wishlists BUT it definitely had a positive impact on our numbers. At the very least, it's the only medium where you can get this kind of visibility for free without ad dollars or an existing follower base. There are numerous cases of indie games translating TikTok popularity into tangible sales numbers and wishlists.
Since TikTok’s algorithm rewards regular posting and pushes multiple videos from an account in waves, I wouldn’t start posting until I felt like I could pump out at least 5 strong videos in the next few days. Until that time, I’d spend time doing research about what videos do well and how I can emulate those for my game. Then I’d get help from my team or peers, brainstorm as many possible video ideas as we could, and pick the strongest ones.
TikTok Guide for indie game devs - Thomas Reisenegger, Future Friends
Seven great tips for marketing your indie game on TikTok - Chris Zukowski, How to Market a Game
Deconstructing Among Us’ TikTok Strategy - Victoria Tran, Innersloth