We get a lot of emails from people who want some advice about video game PR. Here's a tip: hire us, you cheap jerk! Sorry, sorry... that's probably not the best way to get business. Admittedly, we do like getting paid to dispense advice, but I guess there's some value in sharing years and years of expertise for free. In this case, we'll offer a bit of insight into how you should go about getting media coverage for your video game, and rather than just spouting off crap that makes me seem smart, I've combined said crap with a bunch of real, useful tips from the people who will actually be giving you the coverage: games media.
Your game is revolutionary, we know. Your team is passionate, and that's fantastic. You should realize that every pitch media get will contain claims about the game's awesomeness, and it's up to the media to tread through the crap to find those games that are worth writing about.
"There are so many 'triple-A' titles that we have to cover -- mostly because that's what drives our traffic and what are readers generally want -- that there's simply not enough time to focus on all of the indies," says Nick Chester at Destructoid (who has since gone on to become "one of us"!). You can make it easier on them by actually being clear about why they should cover your game, as Chester mentions: "I think we do a pretty decent job of trying to shed some light on what we feel are promising titles, and that's usually a result of a unique gameplay hook, maybe an eye-catching aesthetic, and sometimes who the development team is."
G4's Eric Eckstein also notes the overload that media experience and how important it is to make your game or news pitch stand out: "All too often we receive news alert after news alert about a relatively small feature about a game, and unless that title is AAA, it most likely won't warrant the attention you feel it deserves. At worst, it could make media tune out the important information about your game, even if subsequent updates are more interesting."
If you're getting ready to announce a new game, you really need to sit down and define what it is that makes your game unique, and build your entire PR campaign around that feature list. If you can't come up with a good list of things that help your game stand out, then you might want to go back to the drawing board... or start reducing your sales expectations. If you want attention, you need to warrant the attention.
One of the key principles of (good) PR is to make sure you're pitching the right people. You'll be much more effective in getting coverage and not looking like an idiot if you do a bit of research ahead of time. It seems like common sense, but even the most seasoned PR reps are occasionally guilty of blasting announcements to people who just won't care.
As TechSavvy Global CEO and Lead Technology Analyst, Scott Steinberg, says, "Nothing’s more frustrating that a quickly thrown-together pitch, or interruption while on deadline as someone attempts to sell me on a topic that’s so far outside of the scope or interest range of what I even cover that it’s embarrassing."
"You want me to respond to your pitch?" asks Adam Biessener, Senior Associate Editor at Game Informer. "Make damn sure it's on my beat, for one thing. I get more emails than I can count about headphones and controllers and virus software and all kinds of other crap that's tangential to my job at best. And for goodness' sake, learn what it is I do before calling me for a follow-up.
"Any freshly minted communications grad can put together a three-paragraph press release from the sell sheet the marketing guys sent over. Knowing who to pitch what stories to is where PR should be providing its own expertise."
"We're all passionate about specific genres and I think you can pick up on it quickly if you pay attention to what each editor writes about," adds Destructoid's Hamza Aziz. "For instance, I can talk night and day about an FPS whereas I'd rather go swim in a pool full of sharks than to have to talk about a JRPG." If you pitch the wrong game to the wrong editor, you're increasing the chances your pitch will get ignored... or, possibly worse, the coverage could be negative because the writer isn't a fan of the genre or is unfamiliar with it.
It's natural to be really excited as you pitch media on that dream game you've been working on for two years, but you have to be able to condense your passion and excitement into a few concise sentences that will get your point across without requiring the person you're pitching to read through a novel. "When announcing a new feature, marketing initiative, program, whatever, make sure it's clear, concise and to the point," says Eckstein. "The subject line should include the game title and the context, and that first sentence should spell it out without too much hunting in the copy."
Joel Johnson, Editorial Director over at Kotaku, notes, "The number one thing that works for me is a short--I'm talking one-line--email from someone about what they're wanting to pitch. It's a subtle thing, but I respond much better to "Hey, Joel, would you be interested in checking out NEW GAME (it's a GAME GENRE for PLATFORM)?" than I am with a great big generic pitch *or* a sleazy 'Hey Buddy!' thing that doesn't actually tell me anything about the game at all."
Indeed, a common problem among young PR reps is a distinct lack of brevity... uhhh... an abundance of wordiness. Something of that nature. Remember that most top-tier media get hundreds of emails a day from people just like you, so if you expect them to read through a 500-word diatribe about your game, expect that email to find its way to the trash real fast. The goal of your pitch is to get the writer interested... so just give them enough info to decide whether they want to find out more. The same can be said for press releases, as mentioned by X-Play's Blain Howard: "Keep press releases short and to the point. As a former PR professional I understand writing releases is part of the day-to-day but please keep it short. Quick hint, if it takes up more than one page (including boilerplate) that is too much."
The ever-handsome Justin McElroy at Joystiq shared a similar thought: "Just gimme the news and (this is key) toss a link to gameplay footage in there so I can educate myself a little bit and I can take it from there. If you want to link to a release I can comb for details, that's usually helpful too."
Steinberg sums it up well: "... be capable of communicating key concepts in 15 seconds or less – if you can’t communicate your elevator pitch that quickly to those whose daily job it is to make sense of it, how are we supposed to do the same for the general public?"
Summer used to be a great time to get attention for games that wouldn't otherwise be able to compete for headlines among AAA titles, but with the rise of digital distribution, there's really no "down time" in the games industry. There's always a big game right around the corner, and if you want to maximize the impact of your PR efforts, you need to pay attention to timing.
What should you be looking out for? Nick Chester has some tips: "Who else is currently pushing for coverage? What big titles are creeping up for release? Pay attention to gaming news, preview, and review cycles; there are always lulls. Look for people posting about cakes and game-related mittens or something -- that's probably a good time to get in front of people with your product."
You need to also realize that it takes a certain amount of time for things to get done right -- yeah, you can drop a line to some writers on the day of your announcement and say, "Hey, I have this game coming today," but you're playing with fire if you wait that long to secure coverage. Print outlets and TV programs tend to have longer lead times, and you need to know what those lead times are if you want to get the best possible coverage.
Approach your targeted media nice and early, and don't worry so much about embargoes or leaks. If you're working with respected media, there's a certain amount of trust involved, and if you give them a heads-up on new assets, a game announcement or anything else, you'll not only start to build a stronger relationships, but you'll be increasing your chances of getting high-impact coverage. Rushed pitches make for rushed coverage.
"If you can give us a genuine new, unique angle on your game before any of our competitors, I'll be much more attentive," says Kotaku's Johnson (that sounds dirty, but it's not). "Not that we expect you to not pitch anyone else, but just being frank: real exclusives always make my ears perk up."
Blain Howard's thoughts echo Johnson's: "Exclusivity is big to me. But the exclusive doesn’t always have to be big. Do we want to announce your AAA title on our show before everyone else? Yes. All the time. But if that is not possible give us something like a new level, character or piece of news that we can use. This is for everyone’s benefit, so we can drive more viewers to the TV and you can have more eyeballs on your game."
It's often a careful business, this whole "exclusive" thing. From the PR-rep perspective it can actually be a bit complicated: over the course of a few years, you want to allot a fair number of exclusives to every outlet, lest your blatant, reprehensible favoritism show through. I used to think that media got really offended when a competing outlet scored an exclusive, but I suppose that may not be the case.
But if you keep giving one outlet big exclusive stories, don't expect their competitors to line up to give you some love. As Howard explains, "If you are going with another site / outlet for an exclusive just let us know. We understand that it is a business, and though we want everything to ourselves, we know it is not 100% going to happen that way. Let us know so we don’t find out on our own, which is not a good feeling."
At some point very early in your PR campaign, your strategy of securing media coverage with your cool game features and wicked-looking bullshots will start to falter if you don't actually get the game into media's hands.
"The best rule of thumb I can give is to do your best to make it easy for media to play your game and get it to them as early as possible," says Eckstein. "I know it's potentially money out of an indie's pocket, but they should send code or a disc to media, if not a retail boxed copy or digital distribution redemption code."
If you're not a major publisher or developer with an established, highly-anticipated game, you need to make it as easy as possible for media to play the game. Eckstein adds, "Asking people to inquire if they're interested in receiving a code/copy adds an unnecessary step to getting your game in front of someone who is potentially going to cover it."
Early in my career I basically screwed myself forever by responding quickly to media inquiries. Now it's expected - send Tom an email and you'll hear back. It just becomes a bit of a hassle for me when I'm trying to enjoy a nice Tuesday-afternoon beer, y'know? Anyway, that's not a bad thing at all for media, and you should do everything in your power to be responsive to their requests.
Eckstein stresses the importance of being available: "... be ready and on call after sending out a release to field questions or be available via email, phone, IM, Twitter, etc. for a follow-up. It's frustrating for media to have their interest tickled, and then be unable to receive timely answers to their questions. We're *ALWAYS* on some sort of deadline, and if we can't get what we need from you to develop a story, we're moving on to the next one."
Joystiq's McElroy agrees: "I can't tell you how many times I've tried to get more info on a fresh release and discover the contact is MIA (or, better yet, on vacation). Also, if you use chat clients, make sure you're on them when you send a press release that has your contact info on it."
"Having a game that's worth a damn is still the biggest thing, though, as much as PR types probably don't want to hear it," says Biessener. "I would think that most people in positions similar to mine have a pretty good nose for sniffing out the crap without wasting too much time. If I'm going to play ten minutes of the game and decide it sucks and isn't worth covering, don't pitch it to me in the first place. You should know better."
This is really the single most important factor in getting good media coverage. A great game will get positive word of mouth, and media will actually come to you asking for coverage. It's a great feeling when a major outlet asks to cover your game without the requisite pitch, and that's only going to happen if you've developed a great game.