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Five PR tips indies really need
Five PR tips indies really need
July 15, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

July 15, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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The indie "scene" has matured such that being independent is not necessary a raw, outlier move any more, but a viable avenue for doing business agilely, creatively and in a way that takes advantage of new, accessible platforms and funding models.

That's why the question of whether indies need to hire PR agencies is so frequently-raised -- in the competitive but essential arenas of Steam, crowdfunding, and mobile, getting covered in the gaming press can be an important key to attaining the broader social media presence that helps build community and sow a potential trajectory toward popular success.

But there are a lot of advantages for the media to working directly with indies and establishing a personal relationship. We're often kept at arm's length or worse from developers in the traditional system, rarely exposed to the fascinating trials and revelations that come with creating a game. A lot of our coverage comes from negotiating relationships with PR professionals who may want to tell a different story from the one we find most interesting, and playing by their rules can be frustrating.

By talking with indie developers directly, games writers have a chance to learn more about game development, reveal more intimate and personal stories to our readers, and to experience the sense of discovery that comes with finding something magical but unsung, and bringing it to a wider audience.

Working with a PR person or agency can have definite benefits for indies who may be less acquainted with the media landscape. Plenty of PR people are well-established as knowledgeable evangelists, and the media notices their clients, where those developers might have been just another name in a crowded inbox otherwise.

But for indies that want to take their outreach into their own hands, knowing a few key things about how best to build a relationship with the gaming press can make all the difference. Here are some things to know about doing your own games PR that even public relations professionals sometimes get wrong.

We aren't doing you a favor

We love to champion the little guy or girl as much as anyone, and part of the joy in covering indies comes from stumbling upon an underdog story. We know this is your dream, and you've probably sacrificed a lot and devoted yourself significantly to making it happen.

But we don't cover games to help you out, or because it's really important to you, or because you're a cool, hardworking person: We do it because you have an innovation to share, an interesting story to tell, or because you've gained insight through your small-team process that isn't widely shared and that other developers might find neat to know. We need interesting material for our articles, and that's it.

Many indie pitches I've been getting these days include language like "it'd be great if you could help us get the word out," or "could you check out this link to our Kickstarter and Tweet it if you think it's cool?" The media isn't a public partner you charm into helping you promote your game.

In fact, we tend to chafe a little at requests to post your trailer on our website (especially if we work for a site that doesn't do trailer posts, as Gamasutra does not do and never has). Asking us to act like a wire service -- pass this along, spread the word, help us promote our game -- not only alienates the press, but it minimizes what you could be getting out of us: The stories we'd tell or the enthusiasm we'd share if we actually got to talk to you or to play your game.

A lot of the time I only get coverage requests from indies who are running out of time to reach a funding goal, and they're hoping some media coverage will give them that last financial push. That's not something most of us feel comfortable doing for you (outside of rare occasions where we were rooting for you anyhow). There's little I hate more than having my job reduced to "megaphone for your money-raising effort", and I suspect most of my colleagues feel the same.

Consider that the games media is looking for cool developers to tell their readers about and interesting games to keep an eye on -- that's our job, not to give shout-outs or retweets or to do you a favor or to promote you or to bolster your funding effort.

Press materials aren't enough

If my inbox these days is to be believed, lots and lots of indies -- especially those who are on Kickstarter -- do press outreach by leading with a link to the Kickstarter page, or to the YouTube trailer, or ask us to download the images or press releases you've prepared. It's essential to include this information, but that's not the job done. Most of us have inboxes full of press releases and assets, and several deadlines during the day. We might not always have the time to do a thorough read-through of everything you sent.

Emails should always be friendly, personal, succinct and catchy -- you have only a couple paragraphs to strike the press' interest. Some things that make us pay attention are if you or your collaborators have worked on other games we might know, if you have a unique process, tool or inspiration, or if you've tried something you don't think is widely done.

You can do better than the old "It's like [Popular Game], only with [other feature]." Sometimes it does help to have a point of reference to compare your game to, but a lot of times when I read "It's like [Other Game]," my first reaction is "not original" -- I've already played or heard of the game you're mentioning, so why do I need to play and cover yours if its similarity is a main selling point?

Tell us about yourself and what you think makes you and your game special. Bragging or arrogance is a turn-off, but it's not arrogant to confidently explain what you've got to offer. If you believe in yourself, we will, too.

I've had indies pitch me by Tweeting at me and asking me to email them. I usually forget. You should make the writer do as little work as possible to get to what's exciting about you -- ideally you have it all ready to share in one message.

Know who you're pitching

Do you read the games press, and can you explain in brief what differentiates the kind of games coverage one site does from another? For example, Polygon loves to profile creators with a story behind them; Gamasutra likes designers with industry perspective and design insight to articulate, and there are some kinds of PC games that you can just tell are right for a Rock Paper Shotgun Q&A. I'm oversimplifying, but you should have an idea in mind of the kind of coverage you want, and tailor your communication to achieve it.

Plenty of developers -- even big ones -- develop a wish list of where they want to be covered ("I want my game in these three big publications!") but don't think much about how they might appeal to those publications' audiences. Start instead with the kind of story you think might best help your game stand out or that truly represents you and your work, and then think about which outlets might be a fit.

If possible, get an idea of which individual writers might be most interested in your game. I write about relationship games a lot, for example, so I always appreciate when a developer writes, "I know you're interested in games about relationships, so I thought my game might be your thing."

Personal pitches go quite a long way, and increase the chance that you'll connect with someone who might genuinely appreciate what you're trying to do and provide enthusiastic, respectful coverage. It might seem like extra work to do research on games outlets and the people who write for them -- but that time is less likely to be wasted than if you carpet-bomb general information everywhere hoping that it sticks. That mass-mail probably won't even get read.

Have something to show

Contrary to popular belief, most games writers aren't doing their jobs in the hopes of scamming games companies for free copies of things. Whether we get review codes or not, we're up to our eyeballs in games we need to play. We know and understand that every sale is precious to an indie, but if you want us to cover your game, you have to make it easy for us to play it.

I recently received a pitch where the indie promised I would get a free copy of the game in exchange for posting about a Kickstarter -- that's a pretty egregious error. Games writing isn't a contract with the developer to get something, and we generally can't know whether we want to write about your game until we play it.

Yes, it's possible you might give a free download to a games journalist you never hear from again, but that's a risk you have to take. We lock horns often enough with huge marketers who dangle the privilege of access to their clients in a supposed exchange for good coverage. Indies can gain the upper hand by making it easy for us to have a look at your work. Have a demo or press build or review code on hand and make it clear you're excited to share it if the journalist is interested.

If your game is too early for a demo or press build, consider whether it's too early to seek press. Major games publishers have sort of trained the consumer press to a news cycle that's attuned to their announcement schedule, but the rules are different for Nintendo, Rockstar Games, or some long-anticipated AAA sequel than they are for you. A GTA V trailer is worth its own post to most big games sites; a trailer of your first game, sadly, generally isn't, no matter how cool it is.

For indies, your game should be well enough along that it shows its strengths best, even if you have more tailoring to do or further elements to add. We see games in various states of completion all the time, so we understand how to evaluate a game in the context of where in the process it is.

But where major publishers' games will often get several events leading up to release for us to see them, usually (unless we have an existing relationship with a developer) indies only get that one shot, so consider whether your build is ready to show the core of your game at its best. If your planned public demo event would consist mostly of "we'll be adding that later," maybe wait til later.

Don't imitate the big guys

I've already pointed out some ways the press cycle for an indie is going to be different than that of some huge franchise, but it's an important point to drive home: Many indies, particularly those that have worked at bigger studios in another life, operate based on a loose idea of how the industry "does things", which includes teasing "exclusives," issuing formally-penned press releases, or typing "MEDIA ALERT" in the subject headline.

A few of these things are useful for when a big company is dealing with a big media organization, but most of them are odd rituals that persist because people assume they confer urgency or professionalism, and not because they're useful to the people involved. You're indie because you don't want or need bureaucracy.

Don't worry about putting out a press release on time, artificially enforcing some embargo, or trying to promise an "exclusive" (as an indie you want all the coverage you can get, not to exclude anyone). You should absolutely only talk about what you feel confident and prepared to talk about -- it's fine to say "we're not ready to share that now," but never distance writers who are curious about you based on an arbitrary idea about being unavailable.

When in doubt about what you should do, the right answer is always what works best for you and your game, not what you presume is expected or what you have seen others do. Simply being confident, candid and accessible is the best way to engage the media around your work.


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Comments


Jeremy Reaban
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In my experience, many indies don't have trailers on youtube or even a website with any information about their games.

I can't even count how many Minis or PS Mobile games have just shown up on the PSN store with no fanfare.

At the very least you should have a trailer on youtube, a Facebook page, and a press release at Games Press. Twitter probably helps as well.


Also it's quite ironic that "indie" games must rely on not so indie websites (and for that matter, hardware platforms). It's like an indie musician who relies on exposure from MTV, Saturday Night Live, and Clear Channel

There are probably 100s of indie game news sites, most of which will likely be happy to hear from a developer. Traffic to them might not be that great, but most do show up high in search engines when people do a search for your game. (If nothing else, it's better to have something show up besides the inevitable illegal download links that they will eventually show)

And the other thing is, when you are on a platform, like PSN, try to post on the official Sony blog (or whatever equivalent exists). I don't know the hoops you have to jump through to get a post on it, but you're talking to the people who are most likely to buy your game.

Alexander Womack
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When the time comes I plan to make good use of this information! -Good read-

Andy Cahalan
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Great article. It's so easy to get hung up on media strategies and the like, and still get it all wrong! Everyone should also check out presskit() from Rami Ismail of Vlambeer.

dopresskit.com

Johan Wendin
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Very valuable information indeed. You only get one shot at first impressions. :-)

Chris Polus
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I can clearly see the benefits and the useful advice. Being told by the press how one would like to be contacted is priceless. I read through countless articles of this sort as I'm in exact that indie position. New team, no proven track record, we're of no mainstream interest. How do we generate interest for our game, then?

I'd like to offer the point of view from an indie dev team member that sits in the PR chair (if you can call it that). We sent our share of emails. And the hardest part is getting the email address of an author. I spent countless hours, days, months on game websites. Researching writers, what games they write about, and how to contact them. Many publications have some basic info about the date and time an article was published. Sometimes there's a handle for the writer. Clicking it reveals all the article this person's written. Nice, now I know the topic this person usually covers. But how can I contact them? Many sites don't reveal an email address. This is so frustrating. You have to dig deep into the site to get to some imprint section if you're lucky. Maybe there's an email there. webmaster@publication.com is the only one? Seriously? Most of the time email addresses are nowhere to be found so people end up sending it to all addresses they scavenged somewhere. Some sites at least have a "tips" email address where people can hint the site at some new cool thing.

Then, a small article about an indie game doesn't stir up thousands of clicks and views. If it doesn't say "insert anticipated AAA title here" in the title, it doesn't get clicked that much. Many a time our game just gets mentioned somewhere buried in an indie section of a site. The only way to get a mentionable amount of interest in an indie's game is to be in as many publications as possible. It's the mass. Because, of course, nobody is waiting for the next piece of news coming out of our studio. And I perfectly understand that. For us, it's a constant fight to get noticed. We have teamed up with other indies and try to keep and maintain a list of press contacts to which we send newsworthy things. And we try the best we can to send news only to the relevant sites and people, covering our platform and our style of game. But because we have to go for the mass, we cannot research every single press contact on that list and the games they usually cover. Also, people change jobs, genres, publications. Everybody wants to be treated in a personal manner, we do, too. But sending emails to 500 press contacts maybe gets us a handful of articles. No way we could have done the research on every press contact ourselves. It's just not feasible. Sometimes it seems sites don't even WANT their people to get contacted as they're having no means to contact them.

From an indie perspective I'd very much like a roster on a website, where writers show their email addresses and what games and genres they like. For us, this would reduce guesswork, reduce the time of trying to find an email address in the first place and we would have it easier addressing the right person, limiting the amount of useless emails people get when we know somebody doesn't even cover our genre. It's give and take. We want to respectfully use your email address, send all the relevant information to you, but you have to let us find to whom we should send it easily.
Of course there will still be the people not playing by the rules, harvesting emails and sending their project to everybody and their brother with the headline "CHECK OUT OUR COOL GAME - NEW NEW NEW!" But one can't do anything against those people anyway. It's like with DRM. Punishing all that play by the rules is not going to help.

So, thanks for the cool article. And I'd like to think that the press wants to be addressed personally, with relevant information and in a fashion that makes it easy for them. So it would be nice if we'd get the information we need to make this happen, too.

Garrick Winter
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Just wanted to say that I've often had similar thoughts when considering the issue of indie publicity - heck, even any kind of communication where you are professionally addressing strangers on the Internet. These are all excellent points.

Patrick Miller
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I'd say contact editors, not necessarily the authors, as they're typically the ones that make the assignments and decisions about what to cover. And if you can't find an email, Twitter can be a decent second best IMO.

Chris Polus
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That is true. Although, if I had to search for emails, then try and see if the author or editor has a twitter account, I'd be sitting here for years trying to find the correct points of contact. How do I contact Leigh? The name is not clickable. All buttons only want me to like, share, tweet about this article. Not to contact the author. And who would be the editor for this article? It's just very hard for us indies to make what Leigh would like us to do.

That's probably why there are PR firms who spend years building their contact lists and then charge good money to send some media alerts to their thousands of contacts.

Adam Bishop
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I think you're over-stating how hard it is to find contact info. For example, Gamespot's web site says to send e-mails related to editorial, news, etc. to gsincoming@cbsinteractive.com

IGN wants requests sent through their Contact form:
http://www.ign.com/news-tips.html

Eurogamer handles PR in the same way:
http://www.eurogamer.net/contact.php

and also has an e-mail address specifically for news (news@eurogamer.net)

Rock, Paper, Shotgun lists the e-mail addresses of all authors at the bottom of their page and also includes this standard e-mail if you don't know who you want to reach: contact@rockpapershotgun.com

And so on for other sites.

Steven Christian
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There is ALOT of info here as well:
http://www.polygon.com/pages/about

The 'About' page on Kotaku also has the appropriate links.

Chris Polus
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Thanks. How do you get to the news-tips page on IGN? Names in the byline are not clickable. I find a contact page at the bottom, but that's not what I'm looking for. The about page doesn't hold the info. Ah, "Send Us News". OK.

Kotaku About page is pretty nice. Haven't found it, primarily because the footer keeps being pushed down as new articles are dynamically loaded when scrolling down. So it's a little hard to get to. I also wouldn't associate "About" with a "Contact" page to be honest. But OK, fair enough, my bad, they have a page if you know where to look for. That's great.

I don't think web forms to contact a news outlet count. Am I supposed to open up every contact form in a huge list when we're ready to make a press release? How do I format stuff nicely and maybe attach an image or two? Clearly a web contact form is not made to contact specific people with well formatted info. A web form is not compatible with what Leigh says in this article. But Eurogamer, as you pointed out, has a generic email address.

Yes, Rock Paper Shotgun is a GREAT example. They really do it very well and I really love them for that! It's instantly accessible and very clear and transparent.

Polygon? Really? Am I supposed to send news via Twitter to them? Twitter is not compatible with what Leigh describes here in this article. It's a nice roster, yes, a lot of names, no emails. Or did I miss something?

It's possible that I'm overstating it because I really spent a lot of time looking on various websites and I'm a little bit frustrated. But it's not all that easy, either. Truth is somewhere in the middle. It could definitely be better, agreed?

Eric Finlay
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Takin' notes. Excellent post, thank you!

Ryan Olsen
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I've worked on both sides of the media/PR equation and I'm starting to help others with press outreach. The best tip I have for indies starting their own PR efforts is to start making a plan and define some goals early on in your development process. It doesn't have to be detailed, but you need to start thinking about things like this article well in advance.

Garrick Winter
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Really great article. Thank you!

Ian Fisch
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I think that some of this advice is a little too specific to you and gamasutra.

For instance, you value innovation and are annoyed with "it's like this game, except" descriptions. Our kickstarter, Road Redemption, got tons and tons of press BECAUSE it was similar to Road Rash. We played this up in our press release.

Readers like to read about franchises they're familiar with, and most videogame sites know that those are the stories that generate traffic.

E Zachary Knight
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I think that is part of the whole "know your audience" thing. If that is how you want to sell your game, focus your media outreach to press and journalists who share the same likes.

Chris Polus
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I can only second that. We've seen lots of games on Kickstarter which played exactly that card. "We're a mix of Minecraft and Warcraft" -> Insta-win. Our game could not be really put in a corner with other games and we had a very very hard time explaining the game mechanics to people because we could not say "it's like this other game you know and love". So to my eyes it's definitely a benefit if you can relate to existing genres and games. What are you going to buy after all? Something that's like another game you love or something you totally don't know how it's going to play because you haven't seen something like that before?

One thing that's clear is, if you want to make a difference, you have to start very, very early. The more constant you're in the press and show new images, trailers, and are talked about, the more people start to know you organically. It takes time building a brand. It's not built over night.

Matt Hackett
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Suuuuuuuuch valuable information, thank you for your insights!

Christopher Totten
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There's a lot of good advice here. I also think it's vital for indies and people getting into the industry to learn to write themselves. Thinking about games and posting your thoughts in a well-constructed manner gets a dialog going between you and people in the industry. Professionals look at sites like this especially to hear what others have to say about development.

One thing I love about this site is how visible member blogs are, so if you've learned something in your latest project, you can put together a post and it may even be put on the front page. That's a pretty powerful tool for an indie who isn't afraid to take a few minutes in MS Word to talk about their game. Just stay away from sales pitches or "announcementy" type messages - design and development insight is key.

Sjors Jansen
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I wrote a reaction with a different mindset here:
http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/SjorsJansen/20130721/196681/How_we
_do_not_let_our_work_speak_for_themselves.php

Amir Sharar
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Fantastic article, I was meaning to reply the day it went up but posting from my Smartphone is, well, thinking about it has me squirming in trepidation.

I just wanted to add something I've learned. I've been a PR guy for University Clubs (interfacing with local media) and volunteer organizations. I adopted this role because at the same time I was writing for a local paper (doing videogame news and reviews) so I had connections. You'd think I knew what I was doing, right? Nope! Things worked out great but it took a lot of learning as I went along.

I've moved on since then, but not too long ago met a friend who had a similar role and he gave me some advice that I wish I learned in my time in that role. In a sentence it can be summed up as:

"Write the story for them."

Having been on both sides it made a lot of sense. I only consider it part of your PR Swiss Army knife, and not the highest priority in the list of PR things to do, but very useful if you're "stuck".

So you can talk about your game, about your event, about your development team, but in many cases that isn't really new or interesting. In a place like Toronto with a thriving Indie scene, releasing a game on iOS isn't something new. Your local newspaper has likely covered it many times over.

What will always make your story new, is you (or your team), or your situation. There are things about you that might make the story new and interesting. If you dropped out of University, yet became self taught in business and programming to the point where you were able to start up a team and release "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" on iOS, that's a bit more interesting than, "Super Karate Monkey Death Car now on iOS!" Keep the game the same and change the creator's circumstances to "came to US/Canada as a refugee" and the story can be about how living here can afford a person an incredible amount of opportunity.

There are downsides to this, which is why I only recommend it as part of a strategy. Some don't really want the focus to be on them or the team, but rather the game itself. At the same time, self-promotion is an incredibly important part of being Indie (at least, in Indie music, fashion, and movies). Selling your team can help promote multiple titles. Telling your story may result in a writer identifying with you, moreso than "Super Karate Monkey Death Car", giving them enough of a reason to write about you and the game.

Much of this ties into what Leigh mentions in regards to knowing who you are pitching to. You can write different stories for different writers or different publications.

I'll reiterate, this is not for everyone. Not everyone will agree with this method as they would like complete focus on the product and it's merits. Personally I think it should be part of a comprehensive strategy and builds your brand (you or your team) as well as your product.


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