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Opinion: When talking to the press too early can hurt you
Opinion: When talking to the press too early can hurt you Exclusive
August 3, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

Releasing trailers and expository information about your games too early can hurt your sales, says Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield in this op-ed from the August issue.

I recently watched a trailer for a game by Diego Garcia and Emmett Butler called Heads Up! Hot Dogs. It's an amusing iOS game about dropping hot dogs on people's heads as they walk by at various speeds. Some of them bounce up and down, making it tougher for the dog to settle. Cops try to shoot your hot dog out of the sky.

The game has a nice art style, good music, and seems like quirky fun, if a bit light. As soon as the trailer finished playing, I thought "I reckon that's about 99 cents. I'll go buy it." I went to the App Store and found...nothing.

Turns out the game isn't due out until fall 2012. The trailer got coverage on a few major blogs, and for a game of this size, that's about all it's going to get. By fall, who will remember the little game about dropping hot dogs? Even if I do remember it, will I still want it then? Will Kotaku want to write about a game of this size a second time, no matter how quirky? With the press, your first shot is when you convey the excitement of a New Thing. After that, the thrill is gone, and at best you'll get a "remember that game? It's out now," if that.

The pace of the game world is speeding up, and the window of opportunity for promotion is changing accordingly. I think that for indie games on PC, iOS, and Android, the bulk of your marketing should thus be after the game is already on the market.

A Small Case Study

My friend Tim Rogers of Action Button Entertainment released a game called ZiGGURAT on iOS about four months ago. Before the game's release, he kept putting out hints about it - releasing trailers, images, and the like - and he would always have people asking where the game was. After all, he had been talking about it, so clearly it must be out, but the people looking for it couldn't find it, so there must be some mistake.

99-cent App Store games have become the impulse purchase of the game market. I don't want a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup right now, but when I'm in the checkout line waiting for the pink-haired old lady in front of me to take out her checkbook, it starts to look pretty compelling. When I'm avoiding work for five minutes to look at a video of a new game, that's my checkout line. I want to buy it right away, and I don't want to be told to come back later.

ZiGGURAT had two spikes in sales, which were related to two favorable reviews from larger publications, and a postrelease YouTube mock infomercial Tim created. The most important lesson is that while Tim did a good job promoting the game before its release, the major sales came when promotions hit postrelease - not when the game first went on sale. In his case, releasing too much good information to the press before the game was out might actually have hurt sales.

It's been well established that any barrier between the game and the player is a significant loss of revenue. In the case of Heads Up! Hot Dogs, I thought it was interesting enough to buy. But how will I remember to check when it's released? If industry blogs never talk about it again, or nobody links it to me once it's out, I won't know. What if the developers used up all their goodwill with that first trailer push? Will potential players even remember the name?

A Notable Exception

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is an exception in a lot of ways, but we'll just talk about the trailer here. The team released a teaser trailer well before the game came out, and it got people excited. The difference is that S:S&S EP has a very defined visual and sonic style, and the video was all about tone, not gameplay (in fact, it barely even told you what the game was). Unlike the Heads Up! trailer, the S:S&S EP trailer had a voice and a direction, but no detail.

Here, then, are my ideas for the modern world of iOS and PC indie game marketing.

If your game is high-concept: Tease it with video. Establish a tone and authorial voice for your game, and present developer diaries in that voice. Don't be too specific, and keep all communication with the outside world in the game's voice. After the game is out, promote further in this manner, but also discuss your game frankly in your own voice as well. When you're releasing game updates, return to the "game voice."

If your game is anything else: Do not release an expository trailer before your game's release. Tease it with images and sounds, but don't show a trailer. Keep your public info to just your loyal followers, fans, or friends. Do accept feedback, and discuss your game publicly and answer questions if asked - it's always good to let people feel involved in your work - but don't release a trailer or do a real press push until the game is out. After that, go wild, do anything you can to get noticed.

In the world of triple-A games, building buzz is still the name of the game, but that's because you have to have a big brick-and-mortar launch, and you need to be at the front of players' minds when they enter that GameStop. But for smartphone, PC indie, and other smaller-scale platforms, you won't have the budget to get tons of trailers into their brains. For most games, you've got one shot to get people excited. Make sure your game is out when it comes.

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Maria Jayne
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I think the lesson here is don't be a small time developer and try to copy what the big publishers are doing. You don't have the marketing budget, game content or the connections to advertise large scale over a persistant length of time so don't.

Diego Garcia
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Hey Brandon, good thoughts. It's definitely a challenge for small independents (especially new ones, like us) to know when they should announce. For us with Heads Up! Hot Dogs, it was a matter of not knowing how people would react to the idea, and just wanting to get the news of the game off of our chest.

On some level, I agree that we did a little too much a little too early. We weren't really expecting the response to our trailer, being relatively unknown developers planning to release our first commercial game. We announced only on our personal social networking sites, and everything kind of took over from there. And now, yes, I do feel like we got a bunch of people pumped about a relatively small game that they won't see for a few months.

That all being said, the announcement and positive response has done a few major things for us. First of all, it's given us a massive boost in motivation to build out the game into something much fuller. We made this game for us with no real expectation of financial gain, but now it's clear to us that we have something people will pay for. Because of that we're going to work even harder to make it worth paying for.

It's also put the game on the radar of some people in a position to help us. We're new devs with barely any connections - it would have been easy for Hot Dogs to get lost in a pile of e-mails had we been actively seeking a publisher. Despite our intentions to self-publish we may have another option now. That's all because we released an eye-catching trailer early and someone felt it would be worthwhile to reach out to us.

So basically, yes, a spring announcement for a little game to be released in the fall is probably too early, at least with a full trailer like we did. But I would advise against developers holding back their game news for the sake of getting picked up at the right time. That's likely because I'm a naive indie dev who thinks a business-first mindset is basically the worst thing for someone who wants to make fun, interesting games, but that's yet to be seen. Do what feels right, love your game, and be excited about it. That's what we've been doing and will continue to do.

Diego Garcia
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Also Ziggurat rules everybody get it nowwwww

Brandon Sheffield
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frankly, I hope this discussion will help you - my advice now would be to make your second press push very different from the first. What shape that takes is up to you, but realize that simply releasing a second trailer is not going to work, you've got to strongly differentiate yourself, because again, the idea is a smaller (and that's not an insult) one.

I do applaud you for making the game for yourself though - I wrote a whole other article about that!

Andre Priyono
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Hi fellow indie dev.
I really appreciate your comment here.
I believe that we as a developer should talk more to press and gamers.
They deserved to know latest info about our upcoming game͵interesting story behind the game͵characters of our game͵etc.
But as an indie͵ we must present it in unique and creative ways

Sean Albert
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You have a really good point, nobody will remember this game in the fall. I would even argue that a reputable source of game news wouldn't remember this game almost two months after the trailer was released. It's definitely not memorable enough for a writer to create a snarky piece disparaging indie game developers that want to get some early feedback about a game that I'm sure they put a lot of effort into. Right?

Oh wait... sounds like someone is still hungry for Hot Dogs, eh?

Todd Boyd
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At the same time, it all depends. tends to regurgitate these sort of all-too-early trailers and design/mechanics previews repeatedly throughout the lifecycle of a game's development. This sort of exposure can turn potential buyers off, as well, if they get sick of hearing about something they can't purchase in the foreseeable future.

Aaron San Filippo
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I agree about the trailer. When I see a trailer, I expect to be able to buy the game when I'm done watching it.

I wonder if the distinction between games where you should talk early or not is a little more subtle than whether the game is "high concept" or not?

There are easily-forgotten games, and there are games that stick in your mind, that you anticipate spending a lot of time with, or that you'll easily recollect. The hot-dog dropping game is clearly a fast-food kind of thing, but there are lots of "indie" games like Minecraft where the developers find success by *constantly* talking about them, and even providing playables all throughout development. Dyad seems like another example - people were playing this months before release, but it was an awesome game so everyone was eager to keep talking about it on release.

kevin williams
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Great observations and another great feature - very timely.

I think the 'Milo'/KINECT story was another example of going to the media with no real structure. As is these Kickstarter campaigns. Many players do not realize that kickstarter funding means the game starts development, and they still have to wait 24 or 36 months for any completion (let alone having to wait till 2015 to see the VR HMD being proposed!)

All this aside we have to also say that media pressure (hype) has been overpowering recently - a hunger for new content to address a collapse in sales and product placement, can force some magazines and media services to fight openly over having a 'exclusive' over their competitors (way too many resources).

I think that we will pay a high price for the expectations generated by those Press Event trailers at E3 this year - already we have seen a number of the high expectations crushed when players actually got to play ZombiU rough Alphas', and who knows what will happen if Watch Dog turns out to be sub-par.

Is it not time for a structure to be put in place regarding the reporting and coverage of new releases - to avoid the media being hijacked to act as an illegal share-price booster, but also to protect the readers, who if they become too disillusioned will leave the sector in droves and recreate the conditions that led to the 1984 crash? (PEGI gets a reviewing standard equivalent?)

Craig Stern
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Where's the data? There's no lesson to learned from rampant speculation.

Kristian Roberts
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Yes, heaven forbid that we should use simple logic to solve any problems...or, y'know, to have productive discussions.

K Gadd
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How do you propose getting concrete, comparable data for something like this? Do you really think it's possible to control all the variables involved?

Steven An
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As Diego has pointed out above in the comments, it may hurt your sales, but it can help in other things which are important as an indie dev.

Diego Garcia
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@Daniel Steckly Yes, sales are imperative to the success of a developer. But calling them the most important thing is a little misguided and unfortunate, I think. I'd say the most important thing, to me as a developer, is the quality of my work and how it makes me feel, and how the players who are playing it feel.

Again, I'm naive and idealistic and not a businessman. That's just how I feel.

Charles Weng
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Since I posted a comment about LucasArts today, I may as well continue with a similar train of thought:

Five years ago Bioware, carrying the goodwill it earned with its brilliant series of single-player RPGs, stoked the fires of gamelust with its promise of bringing its beloved Knights of the Old Republic to the MMO multiverse. It made its announcement with a series of CGI videos so well produced, people were actually begging Bioware to make full-length feature films.

I may be veering off-topic here, but in this example Bioware (and EA) didn't just talk to the press, it talked to everyone who walked into a Best Buy or Gamestop and saw its point-of-purchase videos.

This more or less started the trend that only major publishers with AAA titles can have the marketing resources to tease the public for so long -- with trailers, web content, and trade show appearances -- before the actual product, now looking a bit dated, gets onto player's screens.

The public, and by extension the press, have short memories. If a fraction of the resources spent on those protracted marketing campaigns would be diverted to game development and post-production quality assurance, games would be released sooner, more frequently and keep the consumers genuinely interested.

James Hofmann
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Even if you manage to get sales on hype, that's not an enviable position as a business. Pre-release hype builds your n months/years of work into, at best, a few weeks of sales. Within a big company it can be justified as a way to build a franchise, but an indie usually isn't trying for a franchise, and in any case that would imply a whole pipeline of releases that is completely impractical.

Everything after the release is derived from other marketing merits of the game - whether it has word-of-mouth appeal, inherent discoverability for the target audience, long-term player retention, regular updates, etc. One of Minecraft's biggest marketing strengths is that it draws in huge, consistent crowds for the streamers and casters, so they continue to run it extensively - and thus become a tool for its marketing - even if they themselves are tired of the game.

David Phan
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So is there any agreement or thoughts for when it is "too early" for a preview video and when is it "just right" for a preview video? Selfishly, I'd like to know what people think the timeframes for iOS should be as we just soft-launched our first iOS title a couple of days ago.

Thanks in advance!

Lex Allen
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I think the only way it could be too early is if you don't have a solid theme, story, characters, etc. I think you should be mostly finished with the design stage at least.

Lex Allen
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I think the only way it could be too early is if you don't have a solid theme, story, characters, etc. I think you should be mostly finished with the design stage at least.

Patrick Roeder
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Then we have....

Lex Allen
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This is the WORST possible advice that I have ever heard and goes against all current knowledge of selling indie games. I would encourage you to read my blog post on this:

I started advertising my game a year before and guess what! A lot of people know what it is, they have been waiting for it, and they have bought the preorder.

If nobody knows what your game is then (beep, beep, beep) you lose. Advertising works, and people need to see your game multiple times before they take any action on it.

If your marketing strategy is to get people to impulse buy, than you lose. Most people aren't going to do this because they don't have money, they are busy with something else, they have to think about it, etc.

Do not overestimate impulse buys. You need to create buzz! That means you need to show people your game and not let them have it. People want what they can't have, get excited, and start talking about how they want it and can't wait.

I actually wrote a blog post about this here:

One of the biggest mistakes I made on my first games was hiding everything about it and not doing the marketing. Don't make the same mistake.

Christopher Plummer
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I totally agree with Lex.

As a small time developer, or any small business for that matter, you're not going to have the connections or resources to generate "Word of Mouth" buzz in a way that reaches a lot of people in a small amount of time. Therefore it's extremely important that you create ample opportunities to reach new and old fans throughout your game's development cycle.

Be practical; tell the world how amazing your game is every chance you get; deliver on it; and let the Press worry about covering the best releases. Who knows, you may discover that your $1 game is really worth $5 to 40% of the people you would've sold it to anyway.

Gary Dahl
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As the world changes, it's important to question conventional wisdom. And I think Brandon makes a great point here. Thanks for sharing.

Lex Allen
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No, no, no! If your game is not ready to sell then you create a newsletter sign up, or some way to connect through Twitter or whatever, but you cannot be afraid to show people your game. Without a publisher, having a community ready to buy the game when it comes out is extremely important.

GameViewPoint Developer
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I can't find any merit in this argument, the whole " I went to the App Store and found...nothing. " thing is solved in one easy step, the developers put a great big "COMING SOON" in the trailer which cannot be missed.

2nd, my own experience is the greatest buzz about your game is at launch time, and then it trails off (unless you can release new content), the best way to build up that buzz is to talk about the game as much as possible pre-launch, then you do another push at launch, and you hope that everyone likes your game and it's able to grow by itself from that point on-wards, if it's not then all the promotion in the world is not going to help.

Daye Williams
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I wouldn't say releasing too early is the problemo, its the timing + pacing of your community; if you rely on only game sites to really push coverage then any date can be too early to release anything because before you know its time to release & you relied on the power of Kotaku? Sword & Sworcery is different than this so to bring it up, we have to put those two games on the the same level & I don't want to do that..

Mathieu Halley
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This has been mentioned already, but I'd suspect that a major factor in the effectiveness of a pre-release push would be the nature of the content presented. By that I mean that while quality gameplay footage implies a complete game that I should be able to buy now, a collection of concept art or a more ambiguous trailer is less likely to breed that false hope.