The How and Why
By Thomas “@chaibypost” M
As a game designer, you might want your little corner of the internet. If you think of yourself as a storyteller, this is a place to do some storytelling about yourself and your work. If you think of yourself as a publisher, then there are a number of hard-headed practical reasons for carving out a website for yourself – it’s a handy introduction to potential new readers, it helps with marketing and search engine discoverability, and on and on. A linktree or an itch storefront do some of these things but they can’t do them all.
So if you’ve come here looking for basic advice on how to start your website for free or very cheap, you’ve come to the right place!
Buying a Domain (Optional)
You can think of a website as having two parts (not true, but a useful lie): a host and a domain. A domain is the name or address of the website. This website’s domain is sandypug.school, for example. These cost money (don’t let anyone trick you into thinking you can get them for free). But probably for that very reason, they’re the first step in making a website that looks professional to people and search engines like Google. Differing domains have different prices. Domains ending in “.com” are cheaper than “.games” domains, for example.
If you want to buy your own domain, I recommend Porkbun which has worked very well for me and has good customer service. Other places that I’ve used are GoDaddy and Hover.
It’s important to remember that technically, you only lease a domain. So all the listed prices are for one year by default. So if you want to hold onto your domain forever, it’s probably a good idea to set it to auto-renew. You can always turn this off later.
Last thing: It’s generally good to buy your domain separately from your host – it’s usually cheaper and easier to switch hosts later. You’ll have to map or connect your domain to your host. But it’s simple and every domain seller and host will have guides to help you. But if you’re really keen on doing as little set up as possible, then choose your host first and buy the domain through them (if you’re using something like WordPress or Zyro) and they’ll handle the connecting. For the same reason, I don’t recommend using the website builders or hosting that domain companies will try to up-sell you on, they tend to be more expensive and worse than other products.
Hosting Your Website
Like I said, the second part of the website is the host. The host provides all the infrastructure you need to have a website – the server space, the security, the interface to add content. The usual business model is to give you some basic features for free and then charge you for more if you want to start using your website more seriously.
Sidebar: Okay, listen up. If you are not afraid to get messy with web skills (and you shouldn’t be!), then another solid and totally free option is to host a static site via something like DigitalOcean. It is more complicated but it also gives you total ownership of your site in a way none of these other options do.
Link to download: https://1drv.ms/u/s!AvRdvEfKHeOMjifAaQ_-zhEjEec3?e=6eJWUh
Alt Text: the home page of WordPress that says “the world’s most popular website builder”
Here’s a little secret: I’ve written articles like this before. The only common option between those articles and this one is wordpress. In fact, I made my first blog 15 years ago and it was on wordpress. WordPress is a fundamental part of the infrastructure of the open internet at this point. But it’s had a tough time over the last few years as it tried to pivot from a blogging platform to a website builder. It got stuck with a foot in both worlds for years. It was messy. But the site has mostly turned the corner on that. It has a huge number of themes and also has the best support and help of all of the options on the list. It also comes with blogging built in.
The free version lets you have a site with an address like “example.wordpress.com”. If you pay a small annual fee, you can replace this with a custom domain you bought.
If you go in for the paid plans (the prices are relatively reasonable and vary by geography), you get access to more advanced features. But if you’re not interested in editing themes using CSS or running an e-commerce store, you can stick to the free one. WordPress’ customer service is quite good but it’s only available to paid users.
There are a few downsides: Because it has more features, it can seem more complicated than other sites. Think of the difference between Photoshop and Paint. WordPress is nowhere as complicated as Photoshop but it is much more complicated and clunky than other options on this list. But with this complexity comes more customizability and the opportunity to learn a program that powers a large chunk of the internet. It also can sometimes take longer to load than simpler sites.
How to get set up:
- Create an account.
- It will offer you the chance to buy a domain now. If you don’t have a domain or don’t want one, click “choose my domain later”. If you have a domain from elsewhere, choose “use a domain I already own”.
- Later on, wordpress might offer you a domain free for one year. You can take them up on the offer but I don’t think you’ll let you move the domain to another host without paying for it.
- Then, it’ll take you to the pricing page. If you want to use the free plan, click the option right under the heading.
- Then, it’ll ask you to select a theme. Spend some time here but know that you can change very easily later. If you’re not sure, I recommend starting with Twenty Twenty-Two. It’s the default wordpress theme.
- You can change your theme at any time by going to Appearance in the left menu and clicking Themes.
- After this, you’ll see a page like the one below. There’ll be a brief checklist of things to do like giving your site a name and so on. But the key section is this “Edit Your Site” button here where you can go and start editing your site and putting up your content.
- All the content on this page is in the form of blocks or elements. You can edit these blocks by clicking on them. To add new blocks, just look for the + sign that appears in between blocks.
Alt Text: Screenshot of the wordpress pricing page.
Alt Text: Screenshot of the wordpress dashboard
Alt Text: Screenshot of the carrd homepage which says “build one page sites for pretty much anything”
Carrd is probably the easiest and quickest website builder you can find. It has a limited set of features but that’s honestly what makes it such a good choice for anyone making their first website. You pick a theme, you can add or remove elements from a small menu, and then after that it’s all just a matter of text and images.
The free version lets you have a site with an address like “example.carrd.co”. But its real killer feature is that you only pay 20$ per year to access all of its Pro features. This is a great price and if you bought a domain, it is totally worth it.
The main downside is that the websites can look a bit same-y. The main way you customize the site is in terms of what colours, images and text you add to stock templates. So make sure you spend some time to make your site feel like your own.
Also, carrd is a “one page website” which means that everything on the site loads as soon as you go there. It might seem like there are other pages hidden behind a menu but that’s smoke and mirrors. This is useful because if you build a carrd site with lots of things – pictures, embedded widgets from itch, etc – it can start to slow down the normally zippy load time. On the other hand, it also means that once the site is loaded, navigating through the menu happens as fast as lightning. Another thing to point out is that carrd could disappear any time – this isn’t a knock on the site, just a fact about new companies on the internet. Keep a backup of your content somewhere!
How to get set up:
- On the homepage, click “Choose a starting point.”
- It’ll offer you options of themes with categories like Profile, Landing Page or Portfolio.
- Profiles tend to be the most basic. Just a picture, some text, and links outward.
- Landing Page is business talk for “the first page of your website that acts as marketing pitch for the business”. You’ll see this is almost every tech company – the ones that still need to make a marketing pitch at least. The home page is something that reads like an ad, as you scroll down. Look at wordpress’s home page, for an easy example.
- Portfolio is a great option if you have lots of visual content to show off. If you’re a game designer, your covers totally count. So check these out too.
- Once you select a theme, you’ll be allowed to edit the text and images directly. When you hit publish, they’ll ask you to make an account.
- If you want to add something to the theme, there’s a button with a + on it in the top right corner which will let you add more stuff.
- In carrd, each little piece of the design is called an element. Every element can be customized. Like if you want to customize the button, you’ll see this menu on the left.
- The menu has three tabs: the first tab is the main one (so for a button, this is where you can put the link to the page that the button should open), the second tab is for editing the appearance like colour, and the third tab is animation. Feel free to ignore the third one if you’re just starting out.
- To link your custom domain, use this article
Alt Text: Screenshot of the carrd editor.
Alt Text: Second screenshot of the carrd editor page.
Alt Text: Screenshot of the zyro homepage which says “flawless templates, easy editing, no coding required – that’s Zyro”
Alt Text: Screenshot of the zyro editor
Zyro is a beautiful website builder that is on this list solely because it offers a similar experience to Squarespace and is much cheaper. Squarespace is everywhere, their marketing is everywhere. It’s definitely a premium service but it comes with a premium price tag.
Zyro’s website builder is as good as Squarespace and works a lot smoother than WordPress at the moment. It’s owned by Hostinger which is a large hosting company so it’s probably going to be kicking around for a while. Its themes are much more varied and dynamic than carrd, and look a lot more like a professional website. Of all the options, I think Zyro is the one that looks the best just right out of the box.
The downside is it doesn’t have a free version. But the price varies by geography I believe so take a look. I have only used it briefly so I don’t know what issues you might face but it seems like a solid product so far.
What Should Go On Your Website
If you’re publishing games, there’s a few standard things that should be a part of your website.
First, an About Me section. For a lot of people, About pages are the most essential page on the internet. If you’re at an unfamiliar website, you look for an About page for answers. This page should simply and clearly tell me who you are, what you do, and what I can do on this website. This page should also have all the ways to contact you (that you want to put out there). Email is ideal but whatever you’re comfortable with!
Second, a store or portfolio. By store, I don’t mean you need your own e-commerce shop. I mean, you need to showcase your games – use pictures and provide all the necessary information that someone looking to buy a game might want to know. To actually pay for the game, you could link them to another website like itch or drivethru or gumroad. (Though if you do want to set up an actual store, go for it!)
[Many of the services mentioned in this article have free store-front plugins you can explore to easily make your own webstore. This editor recommends Ecwid! – Ed]
Third, optionally, a sign-up form for your mailing list. If you’ve got a website, you should probably start a mailing list. If you don’t know how, this is my next article so watch this space!
Now, here’s the thing, all of this information could be one page – your homepage. Like the website for Trophy, for example.
But, usually, homepages are designed as a snapshot into the website as whole. They have some information from the about page and some information about your games and so on. But usually these are just summaries or snippets. If your readers want to know more about any particular thing, they click something and they get taken to the full page with all the information.
Take a look at Avery Alder’s site buriedwithoutceremony.com for an excellent example of what I’m talking about. It has a small “about me” section right at the top followed by a small window into her games. Another great homepage is the Sword Queen Games site, which also features a blog and some links to Actual Plays.
So that’s my last tip, look at other websites (not just in games) and see what they’re doing and see what you like. It’ll give you some ideas. Like if you look at Tabletop Hotdish, they put a big testimonial from a client right up there. Testimonials are powerful stuff so if you have some, use them. The SPG carrd has a webring of other designers’ sites that might give you some inspiration.
Good luck! If you have questions at any point, don’t be afraid to google them. You’re adventuring down a path that many have walked before and they’ve left their answers for you to find!
Thomas’s game design work can be found at https://notrueindian.itch.io/, and you can sign up to his indie games newsletter at substack