In the last past week I've been sending quite some emails to the press and YouTubers about my upcoming tactical game†Human Extinction Simulator. It's not easy to always get the answer you wish you had but here's how I've been doing it so far.
When sending these emails I try my best to follow the many things press members have posted over the years. I can already tell you that it's not as easy as these many "advice posts" make it sound like but I guess it might be a good starting point for someone in my position.
There's of course a lot more than just sending emails to spread the word about your game but here I'll just focus on that particular point.
I used to have a few contacts in the MMO world (my main project for 5 years was an MMO named Golemizer) but this time is gone now and the few contacts I still have, aren't much help for an offline single-player PC game. My previous PC game Bret Airborne wasn't quite a smashing hit so for most people I don't exist. This means that even if I've been working on games since 2007, to most people I'm just the most recent newbie.
Cold emails like this are difficult because you don't want to send some generic stuff but at the same time there's only so many things you can write down before your email looks like a wall of text. The one exception in my case is Rock, Paper, Shotgun. They posted about Golemizer, Blimp Wars and Bret Airborne as well so when I write them I have something very specific to introduce myself. I can say something like "hey it's me, do you remember, you posted about my previous game".
To everyone else though it's really not the same story. Sometimes, if I feel it's appropriate I'll mentioned my past projects but like I said I need to get to the subject of my current game and my past games aren't exactly the highlights of my indie experience so it's on a case by case basis.
The first thing I do when sending a bunch of emails for my new game is to first see who is most likely to talk about the specific genre of my game. For example, when I wrote to RPS I didn't emailed John Walker or Kieron Gillen (who posted about my previous projects) but I wrote to Adam Smith because I saw in an article he posted that he enjoys turn-based games or games that allow him to take his time. I thought he was then the best person to contact for Human Extinction Simulator and after a 2nd article I'd say that I was right.
It's not always that easy to spot the right person but it can be done. I did the same for YouTubers. Instead of contacting right away the "big ones", I first tried to spot people interested in strategy and turn-based games no matter how many people they could reach. This means browsing countless YouTube channels and taking notes about who is most likely to maybe post about your game. Quite some work but I like to believe this will pay off.
That one can be exhausting but again I try my best hoping that it will prove me right in the end. The question is how to personalize emails sent to people you have no prior relationship with. The first thing is to find their names. That sounds silly but for some reason not everyone think to put their real name (at least first name) on their website/channel and I'm not really comfortable starting an email with "Hi CaptainAwesome" ...
The second thing I check is if I can spot similar games they covered in the past. Something like "hey I see you posted videos about Space Hulk so I think Human Extinction Simulator might just be the kind of game you enjoy". I try to relate to their past experience in the hope that it creates some connection. Of course it also means that I watch these videos to make sure they appreciated these games in the first place so that's quite some time watching "Let's play" videos. You stumble on some really weird stuff sometimes but for the few gems you find I think (hope) it's worth it.
Finally, I try to find something more personal when it's available. Maybe some vlog or blog post that speaks of a specific topic and then I see if my game or situation can match that. I must say that this last part is mostly accidental as I really can't follow hundreds of people and know which issues they really personally care about. It do happens though so when I spot it (and it's of course appropriate) then I bring it up. The point is to connect with someone you don't know and has most likely never heard of you so anything to start a conversation is good here.
Beside a lot of silence I also received so far all kind of replies. When I do get a reply, no matter what it's saying, I reply back. Some people won't cover the game until it's released, some people were on vacation, others are not sure it's the kind of game they want to talk about, etc.
That's my chance to establish some contact as small as it can appear. I just don't send a generic "thanks for reading my email" but I take the time to check what they are telling me. I take the time to care like they took the time to care to reply to my cold email. It doesn't have to be deep, just a way to say "hey that's great, maybe we can continue that discussion later".
Right now I'm releasing a game but I do plan to release more in the future. In the best of world, I want these people to remember me. I don't want to just be some "bot" sending them press releases. They are people doing a job just like I'm trying to start my own business so the least I can do is to talk to them like actual people and not just some "marketing scheme".
That's the difficult part to deal with but a part you have to face. Sometimes you try your best and you never hear from these people you took so much time to convince your game was worth talking about. Maybe it's the game they just don't like, maybe you were tired and sent an email full of typos that gave a bad impression, maybe it just wasn't meant to happen for some obscure reason.
It can be frustrating as you read so many of these "advice posts" about how to contact the press and you try your best to follow them and it still doesn't work. I've been at it for 7 years now so I know that stuff often seems to appear for some random reasons. The one thing I know though is that if I don't try ... well, read the rest ...
Well ... I just try everything I can to show these people that I made something cool and that it's worth it they tell others about it. Every contact I establish is a small victory and something that becomes part of my experience as an indie.†Maybe if I'm lucky I won't even have the time to do this in the future†but right now I'm just not comfortable doing anything less.
At least try. That's where it starts I think.