In a previous post I wrote that the primary mistake that game makers have often made is lacking a marketing story behind their games, and how that reflects an attitude of thinking of your players as distraction-seekers rather than would-be members of your treehouse. Even when they accept this, the follow-on mistake that game makers then commit is that they try and create a fake story at the last minute. This is every bit as bad as having no story at all.
The core of why they try to do this? In essence it’s because that’s how PR has worked for 30 years, and it seems like everybody’s been doing it that way, and game makers often still think that their audience lives in TV-land. When an elder celebrity of the games industry gets up on a stage and talks up a big innovation, they tend to attract a lot of press attention. Lesser mortal developers then think that this is how it’s done. Be like the legend and you become the legend.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) this is not so. In a social media world, true celebrity is quite rare and tends to attract an impermeable air of authority only by having an unassailable reputation. Unless you actually are a legend from back in the day, you have to talk to players like real people and not try to be full of sham and spin.
The breakdown of the PR-ing of games happened to Sony, and it started with them claiming that some animated footage pretending to be Killzone 2 was actually the real game at E3 (which set off a veritable storm of believers versus unbelievers), and then the following year when the less-than-spectacular truth emerged, three little words hammered the nail in: Giant Enemy Crab. Giant Enemy Crab (and associated memes) show exactly how a PR approach can fail utterly.
What Sony failed to comprehend at the time was that the game-playing audience had moved on from being a broadcast-only environment, where magazines acted as the arbiters of authenticity, to a conversation environment where gamers directly talked to each other. Exposed to that sort of sunlight, the seeds were sown by interested amateurs and professionals in the conversation that Sony were basically making up a story. And they got burned very badly as a result.
Old-style PR attempts to basically tell a television-friendly story. In most cases it does not work. Some people have the charisma to set the world on fire, such as Steve Jobs with his iPad, but those that do also have to deliver on a track record of being amazing every time. The story has to be authentic because they, the public, have so many more tools at their disposal now to call you on your bullcrap.
The PR industry is built largely on getting the right contacts in the journalistic media, selling the key journalists on a vision (the preview, the junket, the time with the celebrity etc) and then exercising control-of-access to make sure that coverage is benign. This used to work really well.
Nowadays, it looks foolish. Nowadays, it’s the viral BAM! video after Microsoft’s E3 conference in which they bragged about being able to see the underside of an avatar’s shoe. Nowadays it’s the obsessives trawling through the frame-by-frame footage of Milo (the Natal demo) and declaring that it must be at least a bit fudged. Nowadays it’s Onlive’s original claims of their service being seriously questioned on day one (starting with speed of light issues) as opposed to when it’s released.
The thing about the internet is that while it’s better at spreading previews than magazines ever were, it’s even better at spreading gossip. Gossip is more interesting. News blogs like Gamasutra and Gamesindustry.biz spread information, but gossipy blogs, Twitter and a thousand forums are populated with armies of geeks ready to pick apart the bones of every announcement.
The temptation is to regard those people as the enemy, and to keep them at arm’s length, but actually they are both foe and friend, and the difference between their reaction is as simple as this:
Are you being authentic?
Are you speaking honestly, from the heart, and with no bull or cod-phrasing attached? Are you telling them the real story of what your game is and why you’ve made it? Are you telling them about a genuine passion that you have and which you have reflected in your work? Or are you making stuff up?
If you are being true, you’ll quickly realise that the game you’ve made actually has to be truly great. It has to be sexy, and the only way it can be sexy is by you making a game that you really believe in. Those questioners out there want to be members of your treehouse, but only if your treehouse is built of oak. Make a great game that you really believe in. Tell them the truth. Be authentic.
If you are they will love you for it.
Lie and they’ll find you out.