I wanted to look at the five most prominent mistakes I see, and give some advice on how to avoid making them. With the right attitude, proactive planning, and an honest, self-critical eye, every studio – even those without any budget to speak of – should be able to improve their publicity by taking note of these points.
Here we go.
By far the most common mistake I see. You’re excited that you’re about to release your new game, and so are your friends and family, and all the people who helped out and supported you and fed you over the past 24 months. Alas, there are currently hundreds if not thousands of games being released every month, all of which are in exactly the same position as yours. “Game X released/announced today” is, quite frankly, never a compelling story.
Avoid it by…
…spending time thinking about your PR strategy, what you hope to achieve, and what success looks like to you. Then, put yourself in the position of the media, and figure out what success looks like to them. You’ll probably find the two don’t quite match up. Your job is to find potential links between the two.
A good starting point is to think about how your game might fit into content plans already in place at various publications. Websites and magazines often struggle far more to find interesting content for these regular features – which demand a journalist’s time every week/month/whatever – than news, previews or reviews sections, which are normally full to bursting.
Of course, that holy trinity of sections is where many games will want to end up. To get there, you need to spend time thinking about what makes your game stand out, and what about it will get people clicking on and sharing the story. If you can’t think of anything, it’s time to get creative. If you really can’t think of anything, then it might be appropriate to take a long, hard look at the game itself, and whether it cuts the mustard.
We receive a lot of enquiries from studios who begin their emails with words to the effect of: “We’re releasing our first game next month.” Sometimes we can work with this – if the developers in question have already been doing their best to spread the word, and just need some help for the final hurdle. But if you’re a month out from release and no one knows about your game yet, something’s gone wrong. PR takes time: it’s a long-term process, not a quick fix, and those who start too late may find it extremely difficult to recover.
Avoid it by…
…starting to think about your PR plan as soon as you decide you’re going to release a game. Most developers don’t launch into production without giving the process due attention, but PR and marketing tend to be an afterthought to many.
Try to build catchy hooks into the very nature of the game itself, and plot out key milestones when you’ll be able to show something during development. Most successful PC or console developers start publicising their games in earnest at least six months before launch, and there’s a reason for that: PR takes time to build momentum, and games that don’t have existing traction as they head into launch window are less likely to be considered for that all-important week-one coverage.
When I was a journalist, I used to receive quite a few emails from indie developers. I would estimate that 90% of them made it inordinately difficult for me to write about them. Journalists are busy people – so an email whose requests are unclear makes for a challenging story. Simply notifying a media figure that your game exists isn’t enough: as with any business relationship (which, make no mistake, this is), you need to be clear on both what you’re offering, and what you’re asking for in return.
Avoid it by…
…writing clear, concise and well-structured emails, which set out exactly what you’re hoping will happen, showcase the value you can bring to their publication or channel, and provide an opportunity for follow-up and next steps.
A good framework is to start your email by saying what action you hope the recipient will take (“I was hoping you might be interested in previewing our upcoming game, Face Melter IV”), detail why you think it’ll be worth their while in the middle (“Face Melter IV features the most advanced face-melting physics in the world, and we’d be happy to give you an exclusive first-look at this physics engine in action”), and end by asking them directly what will happen next (“Is this something you’d be interested in? If so, is there anything else you need from me? If not, is there anything we could show you in the future that would increase your interest in the game?”).
Remember to include everything you think the media might need in that first email. Don’t make them search for screenshots or chase you for Steam keys; bung them in that first message, and emblazon them in bold type.
Don’t be afraid to chase if you don’t hear back, but don’t go overboard: one polite follow-up email, a minimum of three days later, is a good rule of thumb. If you still don’t hear back and you’re feeling bold, a final, straight-to-the-point email can help you understand where you, uh, stand (“If you’re not interested in the game, that’s no problem at all – if you could reply to this email so I know not to bother you again in the future, that’d be super”) but be damn sure your tone is perfect, lest you sound like a dick.
A tricky one, this. You’ll often hear about the importance of being selective with your media outreach: focusing on a list of journalists and streamers whom you genuinely believe will love your game, and pitching it to them on their terms. And this advice is correct. Broad, catch-all outreach is rarely effective. But many developers also fall into the trap of not casting their net wide enough – leaving a gap in the middle where a lot of good coverage comes from.
Avoid it by…
…being strategic about who you get in touch with, and how you get in touch with them. We’re fond of employing three types of outreach simultaneously. There’s the careful, bespoke pitching, which is crucial. We also distribute press releases to thousands of journalists at a time. But in the middle, we have a complex and sophisticated mail system that is able to filter through our media list, find appropriate journalists, and send information to them in a format that’s tailored to their publication. Systems like this take time and effort to build, but they can be invaluable in reaching dozens if not hundreds of additional media figures with effective communications that go beyond a basic press release, without having to literally hand-write 476 emails on a single day.
There are just so many indie games being released these days. And a fair number of them are really good. Plus, in much of the media space, you’re competing not just with fellow indies but also the big triple-A behemoths, who spend tens of thousands of pounds on every single glimpse of every single game they put out there. They’re diligent, and they’re always showing their products at their very best. That shaky preview build, less-than-perfect trailer, or set of bland screenshots? Unless you get lucky with a very quiet news day, they tend to paint a ‘meh’ enough first impression that you finish in second place. The games media simply doesn’t need to take a punt on indie titles that don’t scream quality.
Avoid it by…
…being bloody brilliant, and being honest with yourself when you’re not. I like to adopt a ‘no excuses’ attitude. Any developer we’ve worked with will probably tell you about an awkward conversation that’s happened between us at some point. But I’ve never regretted holding back a trailer or delaying a preview build to give people the time to perfect those finishing touches. Heck, we had a client once who was a month away from release. They sent us review code to distribute. The next day I called a meeting with the client and told them to delay the entire game by six months. It was a stressful, heated conversation, and no one left the room happy.
The developers went on to write us a glowing testimonial, because we saved them from a disastrous launch.
The games media are experts. They can tell a good game from a bad one; a professional trailer from a bedroom-produced Windows Movie Maker video. There are hundreds if not thousands of developers making great stuff. Be one of them, or get left behind.
Lewis is the director of Game If You Are, a PR consultancy based in London, which specialises in publicising indie games and small development studios. Prior to joining the dark side, Lewis worked as a producer, developer, and journalist (sometimes all at the same time). @gameifyouare