It's never been easier to release a game, but it's never been harder to get people to pay attention to one. Hundreds, if not thousands, of new games are released every day, not to mention the deluge of streaming content and life's many other time sinks.
A week before the release of Before Your Eyes, an emotional story about a family in crisis where players physically blink to move from scene to scene, the game was under the radar. Then, the TikTok account for Wholesome Games, an organization that promotes "uplifting, thoughtful" games and runs the Wholesome Direct streams, posted a video about it.
The video went viral, garnering more than 1.5 million views in a few days. By comparison, Before Your Eyes' launch trailer has 65,000 views on YouTube. The development team's big hype tweet on the day of release has a little under 200 retweets.
"Nobody on the dev team even used TikTok at the time," said Before Your Eyes lead designer Bela Messex to Waypoint recently. "It was a real eye opener so to speak."
But what's important about places like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter is how one thing leads to another by accident and design; these are platforms where people riff off each other. Because while the Wholesome Games video was big, the one that came after was bigger.
TikTok user @nintendostaff, whose real name is Myree Co and who signed up for TikTok at the start of COVID-19 last year out of boredom and curiosity, found the Wholesome Games video and vividly remembered "getting teary-eyed and chills" from the brief 38-second clip and immediately opened Steam to add the game to their cart. When the game came out, she streamed their reaction on Twitch and condensed some of that into a great 10-second video.
"I posted the video on TikTok a few days after streaming it and only got 200 views within the first two hours," said Co. "From there, I thought, 'oh, well, this didn't get the attention that I thought it would.' I closed the app for a good five minutes, and I opened it again, and I saw my notifications blew up instantly, from 300 views to 12.3k out of nowhere. It was a big shock to see how much attention it got in a matter of seconds."
It would surpass a million views in a few days, and currently has 4.1 million views.
"It gave me confidence that Before Your Eyes could be enjoyed by Gen Z," said Messex, "which I was unsure of prior to release."
But, again, the nature of virality is that one thing can lead to another. Traditional marketing is blasting advertisements in front of people and hoping for the best, but these days, people can see through that. Going viral is alchemy, not science, but it's also far more effective, and this is what kept happening to Before Your Eyes. The Wholesome Games video (1.5 million views) led to the @nintendostaff video (4.1 million views), which itself directly caught the eye of influential and regularly controversial YouTube creator PewDiePie. PewDiePie ended up making a video playing Before Your Eyes that currently has more than seven million views.
"It felt so surreal to know that one of the biggest YouTubers I grew up watching had featured me in one of his videos," said Co. "Hearing that he gave me credit for introducing him to a game he highly enjoyed was something that is completely beyond my wildest dreams."
That broader sentiment of not being familiar with TikTok is common, as is the natural desire to try and tap into an obviously large and passionate audience. A recent TikTok for a cute upcoming adventure game, Omno, went viral and hit 1.9 million views. As a direct result of the video, the game was, among other things. wishlisted on Steam more than 2,000 times, drove 120 people into the game's Discord server. These are tangible benefits.
That TikTok was cut together by indie games marketing firm Future Friends Games co-founder Thomas Reisenegger, who specifically spent COVID-19 trying to grok TikTok.
"I decided to set myself some lockdown goals to keep busy and one of them was to go TikTok viral," said Reisenegger. "I’m quite into making videos and a lot of my work is based on social media so I thought it would be a fun thing to try and figure out."
Reisenegger has gone viral a few times on his personal TikTok, the most popular being a video viewed two million times where he's genuinely shocked at the revelation someone might use a pair of scissors to cut up a pizza cooked in the oven. (I, too, have used this method!)
What's specifically unique to TikTok is how the platform wants regular and completely unknown people who do something clever and interesting to blow up. It's a lot harder to go viral on YouTube when you only have a few subscribers. That's much easier on TikTok.
"The first reaction we get when suggesting [a developer] to go on TikTok with a game is that people think it’s 'baby stuff' or an app 'where teenagers dance,'" said Reisenegger, "but it feels that this perception is changing."
It's also, frankly, cheaper and easier for a normal person—developer or fan—to make a TikTok and roll the dice. You don't have to hire a fancy marketing firm. This is exactly what drew Riley Dirksen, the designer of Slappyball, a game where "it's hands playing volleyball."
"In 2018 I released my first solo game, Graveball, and it did terribly," said Dirksen. "During development I spent a TON of time trying to build a Twitter following and do marketing through Twitter and I think it did literally nothing. So for Slappyball, I wanted to try something different."
Dirksen, like a lot of older folks who feel TikTok is beyond them, "considered it an app primarily for teens to make dance videos." (And to be fair, Dirksen mostly hates social media in general, having deleted a Facebook account years ago and reluctantly using Twitter.)
He watched a single TikTok video promoting a different game, but otherwise did no research and admitted to having "no idea what I was doing." Dirksen propped up "wobbly phone stand" out of totes and paperclips and played the game live while talking. The video didn't feature fancy high-quality game footage—it was his computer at a slightly awkward angle.
The video has been viewed 31,800 times, drove "a ton of traffic" to the game's Discord server, and resulted in people adding the game to their Steam wishlists, one of the most crucial metrics for a game on Steam. (It allows you to notify people when a game is released, or for people who wishlist after it's out, notify them of sales and other news.)
For his last game, it was considered a "huge success" if a tweet got nine likes.
"I couldn't post on any reddits because most have a no self-promotion policy or an account age/number of posts requirement," he said. "My tweets get five likes each. My YouTube teaser trailer had like 100 views. I literally didn't know what else I could do without a budget."
"Whether or not your game is successful ultimately comes down to pure dumb luck," said Aggro Crab art director Nick Kaman.
Aggro Crab most recently released Going Under, a humorous dungeon crawler about exploring the "cursed ruins of failed tech startups." Kaman also took it upon himself to get obsessed with TikTok, in the hopes of getting more people to pay attention to his games.
"Unfortunately it’s a myth that great games market themselves," said Kaman, "so if an influencer decides on a whim not to play your game or a press outlet decides not to cover it, that can completely ruin your launch momentum, and then it's gg. That really sucks for us, and for every indie studio, because we have mouths to feed and a company to run!!"
The opposite of a game in need of more attention by trying to ride TikTok algorithms is Among Us, the multiplayer deception game that became hugely popular during COVID-19. Among Us didn't get a TikTok account until last December, well after Among Us had cemented itself alongside games like Animal Crossing and Fall Guys had come to define pandemic games.
The video game industry is a little under two weeks away from the start of E3, its (typically) annual event in which game companies spend millions of dollars preparing fancy and professional trailers and stage shows to impress gamer wallets. Among Us is one of the most popular games of the moment, and its TikTok videos are charmingly amateurish.
They're also created by a single person: community director Victoria Tran, who is often front and center in the Among Us videos on TikTok, sharing interesting data about what players are doing in the game or teasing an upcoming update. There's nothing slick about them.
"Since I work in the indie sphere I knew I didn't need our content to have the same polish you'd expect from say, a AAA studio," said Tran.
Slick? No. But crucially, they feel down to Earth and instantly relatable, aka the heart of TikTok. They also frequently feature Tran's face, which Tran admitted would feel a lot weirder on other platforms. Imagine the PR person for Call of Duty tweeting their face every time.
Unlike games like Before Your Eyes or Slappyball, Among Us was already really big when its presence was added to TikTok. Tran said a TikTok going viral certainly "makes a dent" in sales but mostly it all falls into that larger and more amorphous bucket of "awareness."
"It [TikTok] has an engaged community that thrives on word of mouth, and has an audience that isn't limited to our usual bubbles," said Tran.
But at this point, TikTok probably isn't a bubble. Former President Trump may have tried to ban it for reasons that still remain unclear, but TikTok is now a foundational part of the modern social media landscape alongside places like Instagram and Snapchat. It's stuck around long enough that people who dragged their feet on understanding it are changing.
"I didn't get on the actual app until I decided it was too big to ignore as someone whose work is creating trailers to market video games," said editor Derek Lieu, responsible for crafting trailers for games like Half-Life: Alyx and Firewatch. "I figured even if I wasn't going to be making TikTok videos for clients, I should know enough about it to offer advice or insight if a client asked me about it."
Lieu specifically pointed towards the viral TikTok for the game Omno as inspiration.
"The game videos on TikTok are much more raw, by which I mean it could just be made by filming a computer monitor with a phone and adding on some text which is automatically read by the computer voice in the app," he said. "There's a certain amount of jank that I think is the aesthetic of TikTok videos which feels proportional to how short the attention span is on the app. I'm sure there are accounts out there putting out incredibly polished content, but I feel like that could be like over dressing to a casual party."
It's interesting to search TikTok for what games and companies think it is or isn't important to be present there. Call of Duty, for example, hasn't posted a video since 2019. Activision, the publisher of Call of Duty, seems to have an account—it's not verified—but hasn't posted anything. Nintendo? No. PlayStation? Yep, and their most popular video is one where they make fun of themselves for starting a TikTok. In other words, it's all over the place, and likely because TikTok requires people, games, and brands to be human and personal. That's hard!
"The ironic 'oh nooo we're on TikTok now ugh' move is a tired one," said Tran.