How to talk to the video game press in 2013
I gave a talk at GDC Europe today titled "Getting Your Independent Games Noticed in 2013". The talk focused around getting the press to notice you and check out your game, and featured survey results, tips and tricks, and generally plenty of information about the dos and don'ts of flogging your game wares.
What you'll find here is a written version of the talk, complete with slides and survey statistics. If you attended the talk in Cologne, thanks very much for coming, and I hope it was worth 25 minutes of your time!
I'm going to start by analysing how you prepare to get noticed by the press even before you begin to real assault. It's just so much harder to get people to sing and dance about your game now than it was a few years ago. I remember back when I started writing for IndieGames.com in 2009, we'd get around five emails a day and I'd say we wrote about most of the stuff we received. By 2011 I was getting 20-30 emails a day from devs, and now it's just crazy - there's so many studios who want to get their stuff out there.
So your number one priority when getting your game out there to the press is to stand out from the crowd. And there's so many ways you can do that, but I see developers on a daily basis just making silly errors -- things that on the surface don't appear to be that big of a deal, but when editors are getting dozens of emails a day, all it takes is one silly error for them to hit the delete button on your email, ignore your tweet, and click away from your website. You have to give them a reason to feel like they have to keep checking you and your game out.
So before I go on, I didn't want to stand in front of you and tell you a bunch of stuff that I think is right, only for it to turn out that my take on getting noticed isn't actually the same as anyone else's, and I end up just giving you loads of rubbish information.
With this in mind, I put together a survey several weeks ago, and I asked games journalists to fill it in.
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We're talking journalists at small games sites, massive sites, mobile games, PC gaming sites, part timers, full timers, the works. I got 116 responses in the end, split very evenly between small sites, medium sites, and big sites. And I'm going to fire information your way, and use the survey as proof that I'm not talking rubbish.
Before you do anything, there are two significant basics that you need to have down:
1. You need a hook
The slide essentially speaks for itself here, so I won't go into too much details. Suffice it to say, you need an angle about either yourself or your game that sets you apart from everyone else, and can the basis for news, rather than just "I have a new game coming out."
The examples you can see here range from fairly simple hooks -- made in QBasic, developer is an architect -- to more long and winding hooks that can really be molded into an interesting narrative that truly sets you and your game apart. Obviously not everyone has travelled around the world while making a game, or spent over 2000 hours on a job application, but it's not necessary to have such a large hook, just as long as you have something
2. Build connections
Again, the slide mainly speaks for itself, but the bottom line is that you want to makes it impossible for the person you are contacting to ignore you, simply because they know in some capacity, and feel like it would be incredibly rude to skip your email, tweet or whatever else.
OK, so these are examples of where this technique has helped a handful of developers to get noticed by myself. I talked to John Ribbins of Roll7 at Develop Conference last year, when he approached me to have a chat and show me his latest iOS game. Although no coverage came from that, I made a mental note to remember John, and over the course of the year, I saw him pop up in my Twitter feed every now and again.
Earlier this year, I saw a game called OlliOlli
announced for PS Vita. I may not have clicked to check it out, but I spotted that Roll7 was the studio behind it, so I clicked through, and it looked ace. Then when I was at this year's Develop, Tom Hegarty of Roll7 tweeted me, asking if I wanted to play. I met up with him, tried the game, and it was amazing. I chatted with both Tom and John for ages, and afterwards wrote about the game. I'll no doubt be checking it out and talking about it at launch too.
So you see, simply by taking the time to chat with me last year, John's latest game is very much on my radar, and I've seen plenty of other places talking about it as well, as a result of having met the team and talked to them.
I used Imp Paired
as an example of the hook earlier, and I'm using it again now, because developer Nicholas Lister has managed to get both points down very well. We talked via email after he asked me for some advice, and then he managed to pick me out of a crowd at Develop Conference, and shove his game at me. Again, it's another title that is on my radar because the developer made the effort to talk to me about himself, and find a hook that worked for him. That being said, he probably could have done with starting a lot sooner, as his game is now out, and I haven't seen a huge number of places covering it.
And JW from Vlambeer is an example of what happens when you both make great games and build connections over the course of a few years. By the time he and Rami Ismail put Vlambeer together in 2010, JW was already well-known for his zany style, both in his games and in his emails. By being an indie game scene figurehead before starting Vlambeer, JW helped to put the studio in a position where, from its very first game, its games were already being covered.
To wrap up what I've just been saying in a nice, neat turn of phrase, you're looking for your "hook" and your "line", which can then be used to land some coverage. If you do these two things successfully, then the chances of you getting reported on are so much higher. Do not estimate the hook, line and sinker.
OK, so you've done all this - how do you actually go about talking about your game? I want to first show you some bar charts and stats and other exciting shapes to give you an insight into the inboxs that you are looking to invade.
A lot of journalists say they get way too many emails each day - I know I personally do, I get dozens and dozens - so I wanted to see if this is the case across the board.
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This chart shows the number of emails that each person from my survey receives on a daily basis. Nearly 50 percent get less than 20 emails a day - that's really not that many, if we're honest. So clearly a lot of journalists do have time for your correspondence, and can reply back to you, and should be able to check out your game, right? So compare this chart to this one:
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This is how long the journalists who responded say they spend on each email on average. Nearly 40 percent said they read emails for less than 20 seconds each, and more than 75 percent spend less than a minute.
Imagine a journalist is reading through their emails with their finger hovering over the delete key, and they are quickly scanning each one, taking in what it has to offer, and killing it within the space of a few seconds - in a large number of cases, this is what is happening. You have to give them something that interests them in those brief seconds. They clearly have time to check your game out, as we saw - now just make them want to choose your game to fill that time.
So let's talk about the perfect email that is going to do just that - although you shouldn't think about this stuff as just email territory. This really covers everything - the way your treat your emails should be similar to the way you treat all your media correspondence. Just keep all of this in mind for everything you do when trying to get the word out.
Be personal! I can't say this enough times - you aren't a massive company. Stop trying to act like one! Big companies have internal PR teams and marketing spiel because they are huge, and one person can't speak for a company with hundreds of people in it without passing information around for checking. Use your individuality and your personality.
Personalize every single email - and I mean every single one. I know it will take ages, and I know it will be the biggest chore in the world, but this is the success of your game and your studio we're talking about. The biggest turnoff is seeing an email drop into my inbox that is clearly a copy/paste job. But you know, if you've followed my rules from earlier, and made relationships with these people you're emailing, this shouldn't be so difficult. Obviously you can't talk to everyone, but still, the fact that you should already have talked to a lot of journalists in some form should make further correspondence a lot easier.
Use my name! If I see an email that starts with "Hi Gamasutra" or "Hi IndieGames.com editors" or "Dear Sir" or just fires a press release straight out, it's so much easier for me to pass on it. Honestly, if an email to me starts with "Hi Mike, how's it going" and a reference to maybe something we talked about on Twitter, or something you've said to me before, or just generally being polite and nice, how the heck can I ignore you? I can't! I have to get back to you! You've got me cornered!
And that's the key right there - you can really up your chances of getting a response if you just talk to me like a real person, and a friendly person.
One caveat - faking it is dangerous. I've had emails where the person has started with my name, asked me how I am, so far so good - then said something like "I love Independently-Speaking, it's such a great read." That's my personal blog that I barely ever update, and there is no-one in the world who loves it, not even me. Don't fake it - be a genuine person, and that will come through
It's the same with tweets - I've seen tweets where someone has said to me "Hey, really love your stuff, hope you can check out my game!" and then I click on their Twitter feed, and they are spamming that same line to every journalist they can find. This does not work - in fact it does more harm than good.
Also, don't forget to use your hook as your narrative! Remember that hook we were talking about? Use it as the selling point of your game to journalists. We desperately want a story, and if you give us a good one, we'll lap it up.
To emphasise the hook point, I just want to show you part of the survey I did - I asked "What is more likely to make you pay attention to an email from a developer?", gave a bunch of options, and asked journalists to rank them in terms of importance.
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So what you see here is the results ranked in order of importance - the ranking takes all votes into consideration and tallies them up. And up top by a long shot is "An interesting developer story" - aka the hook. If there isn't an interesting angle, or backstory, or anything that fleshes out news about your game and makes it more than just "here is a new game that looks the same as other games", then I'm already not interested.
I know that sounds harsh, and your game could be quite similar to other games yet be completely fantastic, but I'm sorry that I'm most likely going to miss out on it. Somebody writing about your game needs something to make the post special, and "Indie game X is coming out" often doesn't cut it.
Looking at the other top picks:
"A Steam code" and "A link to download the game for free" -- just give your game away. Don't ask if someone wants a code, or hide them away. Developers who already have notable releases and success can do that, because every scrounger wants one, and it makes sense to perhaps hold them back and consider your plan of attack. But when you're starting out and trying to get discovered, just get the game out there. Just throw it at people.
Think about it this way - if you give a copy of your game to someone, and they write about it, and just one person buys it based on that article, then it made sense to do so - most likely, that person asking for a copy wasn't going to buy the game anyway.
"A link to a YouTube video" - Trailers are so important, but here's the thing - your video needs to be fantastic. "Good" or "great" won't cut it - your video needs to be the sort of production that could go viral. If you aren't any good at making videos, consider asking for help from someone else. There's so many talented people out there who would be able to make your game look amazing in a video. Sure, it'll cost you, but it will (fingers crossed) end up being worth it for so many reasons. The press will post about it because it's so simple to make a quick news post about a video. People will post the link on social media. It'll get spread on forums. You need a great video game trailer, and if you can't do it yourself, get someone else too.
If you are going to do it yourself, look at all the indie game trailers that have the most hits. What do they do right? Great fitting music, a good length (no longer than 90 seconds usually), actual action
from the game, not menus or text or anything like that. Show the game, not logos and all that rubbish!
I also asked journalists to give specific things that they look for in a good email or correspondence. Some notable responses can be found in the above slide, and these do a good job of emphasize some of the elements I've already mentioned.
Here's one of those word cloud things that everyone loves so much - I threw all of the journalist responses in, and ended up with this:
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Here's some of the larger words picked out:
"Just" - people mainly saying "just get on with it." Don't mess around, and just get to the point!
"name" - this is what I was saying about being personal. Use names, because if you don't, you've already lost.
"Press release" - this is actually people saying that they'd rather have a personal email than a press release. Every mention of "press release" is saying this.
"website" and "video" - this is people just saying what they feel is definitely required in an email from a developer. In this case, links to both a website for the game, and a video on YouTube.
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Now let's look at what you should be avoiding. It's not just OK to personalize your emails - you also need to get to the point. We saw before that the vast majority of press don't spend much time reading each email, so you need to get in there fast, deal out the information, and get out.
Say hi, and then in the same breath explain what your game is, and what your hook is. By the end of the first paragraph I should already know why I want to read the rest, because otherwise I'm not going to read the rest.
Looking at the survey, you can see way out in front is "Big walls of text, not to the point quick enough", which is the point I was just making. There's no mathematical formula for how long your email should be, but if I had to say a length, I'd say three/four paragraphs should be your max. You can also add more later when the person emails you back - they might say "Oh, that backstory to the game's development sounds really interesting, can you give me more information on that?" and that's when you hit them with the long version of the story. If someone has asked for information from you, that's when you can go longhand, because you know they want
to read it.
Most of the rest of these are then focused on the personalized angle we've been talking about. "Impersonal text", "Wrong name" "Obvious copy and paste job".
You'll notice down the bottom that the one that people cared least about was "You don't know the person or the company" - in other words, even if you're an unknown, it's still possible to get through. I was saying earlier that building relationships is important, but of course, it's impossible to know absolutely everyone, and you're going to have to talk to lots of people you've never talked to before. So this just shows that even if you don't know someone, you shouldn't just expect that they're not going to get back to you - you can still break through if you stay personal, and have a great game.
Other responses from journalists regarding bad moves to make can be found in the above slide, and it's all well worth making a note of, and avoiding.
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And here's a word cloud for the bad stuff. There's some obvious ones here:
"subject line" - this one is massive and was brought up multiple times, with journalists saying that subject lines are often too long, all in block capitals, or are just simply filled with random words that don't seem to convey the email's message. Your safest option is to just put your game's name in the subject line, or perhaps fit your hook in there too if it doesn't make the subject line too long.
"Kickstarter" - this goes for Greenlight as well. When you're running a Kickstarter campaign, you want to sell the person reading on your game, and then mention the Kickstarter in passing. Your email should not be focused around the Kickstarter, except perhaps if you're a bit more well known. If the person likes the look of your game, they will then also mention the Kickstarter too - but starting an email with the fact that you are running a Kickstarter campaign is a massive turnoff.
"relevant" - As mentioned in the above quotes, you need to make sure you are emailing relevant information to the right people. RockPaperShotgun doesn't want to know about your iOS game. TouchArcade doesn't care about your new PC download. All that will happen is that you could do more harm than good, because these people might remember you as being the devs who didn't know what they were doing.
"interest" "attention" - more focus on the hook again, as journalists just want you to get to the point and say something interesting.
"mobile" - this is a combination of people saying they don't cover mobile games, and they don't care about mobile games. Again, make sure you have the right audience, especially for mobile games - a lot of websites still choose not to cover mobile, even though it's such a massive market now.
When it comes to providing assets in your email, there's a few different possible ways to do it. I personally like when I can access everything - screenshots, details, videos etc - as easily as possible. Here's what my survey showed:
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I don't know if you're aware of presskit()
, but it's essentially a web template for presenting all of the information about your game and your studio, created by Rami from Vlambeer. Both that and offering a Dropbox link were by far the top choices, so I would highly suggest that you offer both types, and just link them. That's not to say that you shouldn't offer the others too - obviously you should be putting all your assets on your own website - but in terms of accessibility, it's so much easier if I can just grab them all from a familiar website.
Before I finish, I just wanted to throw some random points your way, and also provide some other points of reference on the topic. You can find the additional points in the following slide:
The first two are self-explanatory, but I just wanted to go into a bit more details about the other two, as they are hugely important.
First off, it is never, ever a good idea to respond in a negative way to critical feedback. If a review, or a preview, or a news piece, or any sort of post about your game is negative, it's extremely tempting to go in all guns blazing, and pick the piece apart in the comments, or on Twitter. Sometimes this works, and you can rally other devs and journalists to your cause - fair play to you if you can manage this. The majority of the time, however, you'll just come across as a bit of an idiot, and you'll also lose any chance of being covered by that website again.
Here's the best way to deal with negative feedback: Disarm the writer with politeness. If you leave a comment saying something along the lines of "I'm sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy our game, I hope that won't put you off our future games!", and other comments along that angle, you suddenly become the good guy, and the nasty review looks hideous in comparison. It's possible that the writer will then remember your studio, and choose to write about you again based on the fact that they have gained a little respect for you.
Compare this to the situation in which you mouth off in the comments about how the writer's opinion is wrong, and tons of people in the App Store are giving your game five stars. Anyone reading the review will then see your nasty comment, see the bad score, and quickly come to the conclusion that neither your game nor your studio are worth bothering with.
Regarding the hiring of PR companies - this one is an interesting topic, because I see plenty of indie devs on Twitter saying "don't waste your money on a PR firm, you're an indie so you can be personal and have the upperhand!" - yet I still get tons of emails every day that are just completely awful, and the dev clearly needs some help with the marketing side of things.
Consider whether you do need help with that side of things - but also research heavily the companies that provide these services, because some of them are just utterly pointless and are a huge turnoff. Others are great though, and are really helpful to work with - I'm not going to name any specifically, but just ask other indies which are good, and you'll find the best ones quickly.
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Out of interest, I asked my survey "If a PR company gets in touch with you about an indie game, and you're interested in the game, what is usually your next move?"
I mainly asked this because I wondered whether people even really get back to PRs, or just go around them and go straight to the developer. You can see here that around 70 percent of the time, the PR is coming through and doing the job. Other comments that people left me: Some said that devs get back faster than PRs, or that they will also email the dev as well because then they're hitting all points of contact in one go. So keep all this in mind when you're considering going with a PR firm.
There's still more I could talk about, but for now I'd suggest checking out other writing on the topic, including:
Five PR tips indies really need
- Leigh Alexander
The Big List of Indie Game Marketing
- Pixel Prospector
An Indie Game Developer’s Marketing Checklist
- Robert DellaFave
The indie marketing plan
- Joost van Dongen