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At Novy we do PR for games. It’s our job to promote a client’s game so that the press is aware it exists – which hopefully will lead to downloads and/or sales. It’s a fun, rewarding gig, especially when we get to work with truly brilliant individuals.
That’s not always the case, unfortunately. Counting back from my start in Game PR (January 2008), I can safely say that some of the games I represented were uninspired, rushed, or simply misguided. It’s not like developers are trying to make a bad game on purpose; releasing such game is often the byproduct of a lack of resources, talented devs or even external pressure from publishers. However, everyone wants their game to be a huge success. They want news items, positive reviews, accolades, downloads, in-app revenue, the works.
I can't say I was very impressed with Dead Space 3's press release. Read on to find out why
Back in January, I was asked “What do you find works most effectively to spread the word about a game?” on Reddit. My answer inspired this blog post, which focuses on the true impact of a game’s quality and/or uniqueness on press coverage.
There are two levels of magical thinking that may affect game developers when launching a game:
“If you build it, they will come” – I blame Kevin Costner for this one. Heard first in Field of Dreams (1989), it means that a superior game will ALWAYS attract coverage. I call it magical because it’s simply not true. Brilliant games need coverage just like average ones. Sure, they will generate word of mouth early on but that’s not enough. In order to become a hit, a game needs the press behind it. Minecraft, for example, was a huge hit at PAX in 2009. I remember working in the press room and hearing Enforcers first tell journalists all about it, then show it running on the few PAX laptops in the room. Soon enough, dozens of extremely positive write-ups flooded the Internet. They told gamers that Minecraft was the real deal, a once-in-a-lifetime game. Without the press, Minecraft would be a cult hit, but not a true hit.
“All I need is a good PR firm” – Some developers seem to think PR is enough to part the Red Sea. Back in 2009 or so, I had a client that was sure his game would be a major hit. They hired the PR firm I worked for at the time and expected nothing less than greatness. However, his game wasn’t that good in the first place. So the press didn’t show much interest… and we lost the account. Hiring a PR firm doesn’t automatically translate into coverage. That’s one of the reasons why we NEVER promise coverage at Novy – we promise to do our very best instead.
THE GAME IS THE MESSAGE
It shouldn’t be a big reveal that it’s THE GAME that defines the coverage, not the other way around. Marshall McLuhan nailed it back when television was the great disruptor: you can’t separate the medium from the message(s) it carries within. It’s the same for Game PR. I can spend a few hours coming up with the proper messages for the game and/or studio, but in the end the game itself will have its way with the receiver. That can happen in a number of ways:
Screenshots – Screens will inform the journalist of the genre, superficial gameplay (as much can be inferred from a static frame) and visual polish.
Trailer – Trailers go one step further. They are able to detail gameplay thanks to a moving image (think moving trains in the dawn of cinema), soundtrack, sound effects and, in general, the mood or vibe of each title. It’s a well-known fact that trailers can make or break a launch.
Uncut Gameplay Video – I love watching Let’s Plays on YouTube. They allow me to experience a game I might not be able to play at home in a way that was impossible a decade ago. Of course, you’re still not playing the game but uncut gameplay videos are the closest to actually putting the disc in and hitting the start button. If a game lacks audio/video quality, this format will make it patently obvious.
Genre – Traditional genres have been burned in journalists’ minds. They know at once if they’re dealing with an RTS, FPS, turn-based strategy game or RPG. Anything out of the ordinary needs to be carefully explained in the trailer, press release, website and pitch. The last thing you want is a “nebulous” perception of the genre – or worse, materials that lead journalists in the wrong direction. Unsurprisingly, genres often affect coverage. Puzzle games are harder to promote, for example. Casual games are nearly impossible to promote. Speaking from experience, FPS and other action sub-genres (like third-person shooters and action-adventure) are considerably easier.
Press release – I know, “press releases are dead and everything” except that they aren’t. Press releases are an expression of the game and serve as a repository of everything that matters about the launch, from key features to the location of the assets (trailer, screens and logos). They should have personality, style, and take chances just like the game itself in order to succeed. Nonetheless, even AAA games will often make the mistake of relying on boring, fluffy press releases. They might not lose coverage but will certainly lose brownie points with the press. And if there is one thing journalists love to roast publicly, it’s badly written press releases.
Playthrough – Once you play a game from beginning to end, you will KNOW how good it is. Hell, even the first hour is usually enough for console games. A good trailer can trick journalists into playing a game, but getting through it with your own two hands will tell the tale of the tape. Some publishers try to tip the scale by “hosting” reviewers, feeding them restaurant-grade food and placing a PR person “over the shoulder” but even then, if a game sucks, it will get a negative review. Ethically-challenged journos might succumb to such efforts, but everyone else will be equally merciless eating foie gras or playing the game at the office through a devkit.
The game will affect how all the elements above are perceived. The true quality will “seep in,” giving journalists a chance to decide to cover it or ignore it completely. A strong game will often make enough of an impression to warrant a deeper look. If a journalist or reviewer is not impressed, they will pass. In PR, a pass is also known as “hearing crickets” – not replying to the pitch in any meaningful way. Pushy PR people might try to force their way in, harassing journalists with multiple follow-up calls, but I’ve learned that doing so is a serious offense.** The last thing you want is a pissed off journalist.
TIME FOR SOME TOUGH LOVE
We’ll always do our very best to promote a game – every client will get that from us once they sign with Novy. At the same time, we refuse to lie about the game to the press. Once the trailer is on YouTube, the press release on the wire and pitches sent, the game needs to stand on its own two legs.
Every game deserves a fair shot. We only ask one thing: please see your game as a son or daughter. Like offspring, they deserve the very best you can give. They need proper quality assurance, investment, humility and, in the end, love. The only way we will make a game (any game, really) into a success story is if the game is the best it can possibly be in the first place.
Games speak for themselves. Set them loose in the world once they’re ready for it. You’ll find that the press will be much more receptive and, chances are, you’ll be much happier with your PR firm.
If you have any thoughts about this admittedly tricky topic, I’m listening :)
** I was once told that some in the press saw me as “pushy.” Hearing that shocked me to the core. Right there and then, I decided I would NEVER pester journalists if they ignored one of my pitches.