Karen Lee, Indie Game Marketer

Level with Me is a recurring interview series that focuses on demystifying the various roles in the video game industry and equipping the reader with resources to start working towards that job.

Mana Marketing's work space

Mana Marketing's work space

W

hen was the last time you visited a marketing agency's landing page, only to see that their call-to-action button is a reference to Diablo? Along with another UBC grad, Karen Lee started up their own company, Mana Marketing, which has been busy helping to get the word out for indie games. Her job has common ground with a similar role at a AAA game studio, but the quick bustle of indie game development comes with its own Super Meat Boy-hard challenges for any marketer. Since last year, the two-person Vancouver company has taken on a myriad of clients that range from Metroidvanias like Dark Flame to the Vancouver-made Iron Tides as well. I was able to steal her away from navigating email chains and proofing copywriting long enough for an email interview about her job at an agency with an exceptionally cool-ass name.

Tell me about yourself and what you do.
Hey! I’m Karen and I do indie game marketing at Mana Marketing. I’m based in Vancouver, though we mainly work with international clients. I’ve been in marketing all my life, and for the past year, starting and running Mana Marketing has been an amazing experience.

Was there a catalyst that helped you decide that this is what you want to do?
Kind of—I used to work in a sports marketing agency that worked with major brands. Agency life can be tough and the hours are crazy. Events happen on weekends, clients may contact you outside of work hours, and you may find that you don’t have very much work-life balance. But, I found my work there to be very rewarding. There’s something about stepping back and taking a look at what you’ve managed to pull together for a campaign that’s really satisfying. Although I enjoyed my time at that agency, I wasn’t super keen on the sports industry. So I kind of got together with another student at UBC and began brewing the plans for Mana Marketing. I like to think of Mana as pulling my agency experience, startup experience, and love for gaming into one!

Geeky alliteration FTW

Geeky alliteration FTW

What did your friends and family say about this when you first started?
My dad is a more traditional Asian dad, so he wasn’t very into the idea of me going out and starting something new. He’s now warmed up to the idea and supportive, so I’m very grateful for that. My mom is a gamer at heart, so she was on board from the start. I actually didn’t tell a lot of my friends what I was doing initially since I wanted to have more concrete plans before sharing it. Those who now know about Mana Marketing have been supportive and encouraging! 

How does your day-to-day look like?
We get into our office at 9 AM each morning and do a quick recap of what we’ll be working on. We’re a small team, so we do two campaigns at a time. This essentially splits our days into two 4-hour chunks that we’ll dedicate to each campaign. Oftentimes, our clients aren’t local or even in the same timezone as us, so we’ll get messages and questions outside of our usual work hours. Sometimes a streaming event for a client may happen on the weekend. It varies a little every now and then!

What are the most useful skills for this job?
There’s a good variety here.

Firstly, project management and event planning are two big things that help with keeping you centered around a campaign. Making sure things get on time after laying out what needs to be done is vital. For us, we usually don’t have that much time with a game’s campaign so we’ve got to squeeze in everything we can in a manageable and realistic timeline.

Community management is also important. You’ve got a media list of both publications and content creators. It’s not about shooting out email blasts—you’ve got to make sure that the people on your list feel they’re being included and that it goes beyond just an exchange of games, articles, or videos.

There’s sometimes an issue when games don’t end up playing how a writer or a content creator expects it to, so you’ve got to find a good way to resolve the issue on both ends so that the writer/creator understands what went wrong, and the suggested changes to be done are communicated to the developers working on the game.

Aside from my own personal work experience of being a community manager and a coordinator at a marketing agency, business school has helped with building up Mana Marketing. The gaming industry is a lot more relaxed in terms of how people talk and interact, but in order for someone to trust you, you’ve got to have good business etiquette underneath the casualness. You’ve got to prove that you’ve got everything together and that you can successfully execute a campaign on behalf of a client. I think the Sauder School of Business has helped a lot in terms of teaching me how to go about managing various aspects of a business (to name a few: marketing analytics, business writing, presenting the business as well as summary reports to clients) while keeping good business acumen.

At the VRTL Summit just last weekend.

At the VRTL Summit just last weekend.

How has being in Vancouver helped this job?
Oh man! We’re so lucky to be located in Vancouver! There’s a thriving indie scene here with lots of talented people either working on their own indie games, or actively looking to contribute their skills to indie projects. Some groups to check out if you’re in the city and are interested in the gaming industry would be Full Indie, Vancouver Mobile and Social Games, and Women in Games Vancouver. You’re sure to meet lots of passionate and interesting people! They’re also often willing to share their experiences so it’s a great learning opportunity too.

For the most part, we make sure that the game is in a marketable state. If it isn’t, it’s no use taking on the developer. You’ll just end up with abysmal results, unsatisfied clients, and unhappy gamers who tried the game before it was ready.

How would you differentiate between yourself and someone in a similar role for a AAA studio?
One major difference is the length of time that we’re in a game’s journey. We wish we could be on for longer, but we know our target market and how much resources we can both afford to give (time vs. money) to get an aspect of marketing done for a game. Perhaps it’s the fact that we know how limited of a time we’ve got with a game, but we always dedicate our full attention to a game when they’re on with us and we’ve worked out the best order to get everything done within that time frame.

How did Mana Marketing settle on a one-off fee for a business model?
There’s a lot of ways to bill customers in agencies. One of the more popular methods is to bill by the hour. But we opted not to do that. We know that our target market are indie developers, and their budget is more constrained. By settling for a one-off fee, it’s clear from the get-go how much their team will be spending when they’re with us. We also make it clear what they’ll be receiving in terms of services—or the devs will specifically let us know what they want and we’ll come up with a proper quote for them. In a way, all the cards are on the table for both sides and we’ve found it works well—especially for indie devs.

sidequest

Plug a great industry resource!

For me, I’m always looking out for indie developer postmortems. These are a goldmine because they’re essentially case studies. Some of them are thinly veiled advertisements for games, but a lot of them have really genuine takeaways.

I usually read them off Reddit, but Gamasutra has good ones too. Want a few to start you off? Try out this recent this Poncho, this not-so-recent one on System Shock 2, or if reading isn't up your alley, watch this amazing video postmortem from the creators of Crashlands from GDC.

Don’t forget to read the comments to also see what others think about the piece. Do take the postmortems with a grain of salt, since hindsight bias can be very real.

What does Mana Marketing look for in games to potentially work with?
For the most part, we make sure that the game is in a marketable state. If it isn’t, it’s no use taking on the developer. You’ll just end up with abysmal results, unsatisfied clients, and unhappy gamers who tried the game before it was ready.

How ready a game is for marketing varies depending on the stage the game is in. For developers who are releasing a game’s first beta/alpha, the standards are definitely lower and in our messages to the press or content creators, we make sure they know it’s early on in the game’s development. If a developer is looking to launch on early access, then the bar jumps higher. And then higher still for a game doing a full release.

For the most part, if the game is complete (given the stage it’s going through) and the devs have a budget for us to work with that fits our price range, we’re good to go! We always make sure to play the game we take on. But unlike publishers, it’s not our job to reject games or judge them with too harsh an eye. We’re kind of an alternative to publishers. If the developer knows what they would like us to do and we’re able to do it for them, we do our best to market the game!

Are you guys taking on any interns now or in the future?
I really wish we could! We’ve discussed this at Mana Marketing previously, and there’s definitely extra work to be done. A lot of the times, since we’re such a small team, when we’re working on campaigns, it basically leaves no time for our own business development. The thing is, we’re not comfortable bringing on someone when we can’t adequately pay for their work. It’s hard to ask for a constant commitment and someone’s skill and time when they’re not being fairly compensated monetarily. Hopefully, we’ll have the budget for an intern or an extra team member in the near future!

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.