Josh Sutphin is the founder of Kickbomb Entertainment, an indie microstudio dedicated to uniquely satisfying action games with a focus on sustainable development.
We launched Kickstarter and Steam Greenlight campaigns for Legacy of the Elder Star this past Thursday. To help drive traffic to those campaigns, we hired a PR company to send press releases and conduct some audience outreach.
On Monday, we terminated our partnership with them.
But this post isn't about stirring up drama. I'm not even going to reveal the identity of the company, because I'm not here to drag their name through the mud. Instead, this post is about how this past weekend taught me an important lesson about properly vetting a PR firm.
What we did
I started looking for PR services about a month ahead of launching our campaigns. I found – and was found by – a bunch of firms offering to write and distribute press releases... but that was it. While press releases are helpful, I felt like to get us through Kickstarter we'd need more, especially since the games press is (understandably) more-than-sick of getting Kickstarter pitches.
Then I got an email from the company we ended up hiring, offering not only press releases but also a sizable social media campaign and audience outreach. I liked the direct access to our audience and the price was right, so I did a little research to see if I could find anyone else who'd worked with them.
I didn't find a ton of information, but what I did find was positive: a handful of testimonials from other indies who'd used this company's services and rapidly cleared Steam Greenlight, and in a couple cases Kickstarter as well. These were reddit posts and independent dev blogs, not anything posted by the company itself, so I felt reasonably confident in their implicit recommendation.
We signed a contract shortly thereafter.
We launched both campaigns on Thursday, with some great initial support from my local community (hat tip to Utah!)
On the second day, however, I started seeing some comments pop up on our Steam Greenlight page complaining about... the PR company. It was a minority of users, but their position was unanimous: they liked our game, but refused to support it on principle due to our partnership with this specific firm.
That... really threw me. :o
I approach business incredibly conservatively, so I'd planned out a bunch of different disaster scenarios ahead of time. But the idea that our PR company's reputation could hurt us – the idea that our PR company would have a reputation with gamers at all – never even crossed my mind.
I did manage to get in touch with a few of those commenters to ask why they had such a problem with these guys. They complained about spammy and/or "shady" marketing tactics, but their complaints were inspecific and nobody could link me to any evidence of the behavior they were complaining about. I decided I'd keep an eye on things over the next few days, but that these complaints were probably just coming from people who flat-out don't like to be marketed to, at all, ever.
Then, this morning, I got a PM from a Steam admin asking me to stop soliciting Greenlight votes with free game keys. This was the first I'd heard about us soliciting Greenlight votes with free game keys... but he included a link, and sure enough, that's exactly what our PR company was doing. (To be clear: they weren't giving away keys to our game; they were using giveaways of other games to solicit votes for ours.)
Once I saw it, I understood exactly why those other people I talked to over the weekend were upset. Not only is this practice really frowned-upon on Steam specifically, it's also absolutely the wrong kind of marketing tactic for a mainstream gamer audience. Furthermore, it sends the wrong message about our game: it suggests that we're making shovelware that needs to resort to these kinds of tactics for lack of ability to sell itself on its own quality and appeal.
This, obviously, is not the kind of message we hired a PR company to propagate for us, and that's why we terminated our partnership as soon as we found out.
What we missed
Now that I know what to look for, it's actually not hard to find many more instances of this particular company using this particular tactic for other games. If it had crossed my mind to vet the PR company's reputation with gamers beforehand, I'd have found this stuff on Google in ten minutes and we never would've signed with them.
My blind spot was that I assumed PR companies were a strictly business-to-business affair. As a lifelong gamer I'd never heard of even one, so I assumed they were like QA and localization firms, disc manufacturers, etc. in that they operate "behind the scenes" and gamers are rarely, if ever, even aware of them. From that perspective, why would I even think to vet their reputation with gamers? Why would they even have one?
So maybe that was a fair mistake, but I screwed up in another way which is absolutely, 100% on me: I didn't research their prior promotions. I went off what they told me they'd do for a campaign, but I never actually dug up other campaigns they'd run before. I never saw any of their prior press releases, social media posts, or promos. All I saw was that they'd do X and Y, and those were two things I needed, and I'd seen a couple positive, independent testimonials, and that was enough for me to pull the trigger. And it shouldn't have been.
What you should take away from this
Your PR company's reputation is officially A Thing. When you're vetting a potential partner, you need to find out if your audience is aware of that partner, and if they are, how they feel about them.
Once you know how your potential partner is perceived by your audience, ask yourself if that partner's reputation is compatible with the image you want to establish for yourself, your team, and your game.
You also should try to dig up some evidence of their past promotions. Certainly find other indies who've worked with the company and ask them directly about their experience, and ask them if they'll point you to or forward you their press release, social media posts, and/or promotions. Don't sign with a partner until you've seen with your own eyes what they've actually written and how they've actually presented it.
And again, once you've seen how they've presented past games, ask yourself if that style and quality of presentation is compatible with your game and your desired image.
Don't just assume that hiring a PR company is as simple as paying whoever offers the biggest press list and the smallest price tag, and don't take positive testimonials on faith alone. This may seem obvious to the more seasoned folks out there, but to be honest, I thought I pretty well knew my shit – I've been a professional game developer since 2004 – and this case still caught me by surprise.
What we're doing now
We've already terminated our relationship with this particular partner, but I do want to be very clear here: I'm not accusing them of any wrongdoing. I'm just saying that their strategy and our company image and values were not the right fit for each other, and that's actually an important consideration for this kind of partnership.
We're early enough in our Kickstarter campaign that I think we can still course-correct. I'm not saying it'll be easy, but I don't think we're dead in the water yet.
Our Greenlight campaign isn't time-limited so I'm less worried about that. However, we did get a stern warning from a Steam admin, and that worries me. It seems there's no way to message him directly or tag him with any kind of notification in response, so I have no idea how or if I can make him aware that we've actually taken action based on his comment.
We've been running our own social media outreach since Thursday and we'll continue to do so. In fact, last night I made some changes to our plan based on its performance over the weekend, and we're already seeing those changes have a positive effect. It's not huge, but it's a start.
I've re-opened my search for PR companies that can help us get in touch with press, but I'm skeptical that anyone can turn around a proper campaign fast enough to matter, since we're already a few days into our Kickstarter. I'll probably just start contacting press myself over the course of this week. It'll be a time-consuming grind since I don't have a big ol' press list, but I know from a year's worth of public showings that our game has strong appeal, so I'm optimistic that we can get some traction that way.
I have batted around the idea of canceling the Kickstarter altogether and then re-launching it next month with a new PR partner and a new promo plan in place. I'd rather not have to do that, but... we'll see.
I'm not trolling for pity votes, but if you do want to help us out, our Kickstarter is here and our Greenlight is here. And if you know of (or are) a really good, professional PR firm that can assist us on short notice, give me a shout!
I hope our story proves useful for at least a few of you out there. Maybe it seems obvious, and maybe we just made a stupid, amateur screw-up. But it sure didn't seem obvious to me at the time, even with all my experience, and I could easily see how anyone else could make a similar mistake. To be honest, I'm still a bit gobsmacked that this was even A Thing, even though I've now fully processed and dealt with it. Game dev is weird.
Anyway, I'm totally open to questions. I won't reveal the name of the company – again, I didn't come here to drag their name through the mud – but other than that, I'll try to answer anything I can.