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Q&A: CD Projekt's Ohle On  The Witcher , PR's Place In The Blogosphere

Q&A: CD Projekt's Ohle On The Witcher, PR's Place In The Blogosphere Exclusive

May 1, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar

Despite being based on a series of Polish novels and coming from an unknown and untested Polish developer, CD Projekt's epic PC RPG The Witcher has been a notable and perhaps surprising hit in the worldwide PC market.

Therefore, Gamasutra sat down with CD Projekt's VP of PR & Marketing, Tom Ohle, to talk in-depth about the challenges of publicizing such a theoretically hard sell, and the future of CD Projekt and the PC market.

Also discussed in-depth later in the interview - the place of traditional PR agencies in the current age of instant information dissemination through blogs and news aggregators.

What's your background, and how did you come to work at CD Projekt?

I recently took on the newly created position of Vice President of PR & Marketing, North America & UK for CD Projekt RED. It's a hefty title, I know. Most recently I ran Evolve PR, where I handled community management and PR campaigns for a handful of companies, including Atari, 2K Games and Stardock. Prior to that I was Account Manager at Arbuthnot Entertainment Group, where I did work for NVIDIA and Microsoft Game Studios. I got my start in the industry at BioWare, where I was in charge of PC titles.

Some of the games on my resume include The Witcher (obviously), Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Sins of a Solar Empire, Galactic Civilizations II and who knows what else. I'm told that you start forgetting things when you get old. I've also done some work promoting bands and managing their online communities. Music's definitely one of my passions, but gaming is a hard enough industry to break into. I'm comfortable now.

The move to CD Projekt was really the end result of a lot of things happening at the same time. Being in the agency biz is great, and it's nice to be your own boss, but it's not all rosy. Especially as a relatively small agency that generally focused on getting niche titles to a wider audience (and thus didn't charge tens of thousands of dollars a month for work), you have to constantly be hunting for new business.

If you're focused on games, you're limited to a fairly small client base; there are only so many developers and publishers who can afford to bring in external help on a project. After three years of cold calls and trying to sell myself every minute of the day, I got tired of it. In an agency capacity you also never really get close to the projects; the years I spent at BioWare really spoiled me in that regard. It's nice to feel like you're actually part of the team, instead of some dude on the outside who's just waiting for a paycheck.

I'd known the CD Projekt guys for several years, dating back to when they originally licensed the Aurora Engine and we shoved them behind a curtain in the BioWare booth at E3 to show off early builds of the game. I've always gotten along with them and admired their passion.

When I got a chance to work on The Witcher's online PR for Atari last year, I was thrilled; I was excited about the game and its potential to be a really influential RPG. Right around the time I was burning out on the constant business pitches for Evolve, I tossed an email over to Michal Kicinski and Marcin Iwinski (CEOs) and asked if they might want some in-house help. A few months later, here I am.

How was working on The Witcher? It seems like a hard sell, but has been well received. How much of that do you put down to the PR campaign?

I think The Witcher was one of the hardest projects I've ever worked on, but all of the challenges we faced in getting the game in front of fans were challenges that we knew we would have to deal with from the beginning. We had a license that was largely unknown outside of certain parts of Europe, a brand new development studio and a unique aesthetic that was, I think, a bit of a shock to most Western journalists and gamers.

Two or three years ago I think the game may not have actually done as well; gamers' tastes seem to have shifted a bit in the last year or two, and people are a bit more willing to pick up something quirky or different. Hell, two years ago a lot of people were wondering how some strange underwater game called BioShock could possibly be a success. There's just more of an emphasis on originality now.

There was always a decent number of games writers who were optimistic about The Witcher, and it garnered a good amount of buzz at shows like E3. But even so, we came into last year facing an uphill battle. We were going to launch within a day of Hellgate: London, which had a huge following and a much larger marketing and PR budget, and with the team so busy working on the game it was difficult to get much in the way of promotional assets.

In the last three or four months of the PR campaign, though, everything turned around. The team pulled together a ton of amazing artwork, screenshots and videos, and we were able to really flood the market with assets and info. When October finally hit, we were finally getting a lot of really positive buzz and I think it really helped get the game in front of players. In the end, though, the quality of the game was the biggest factor in the game's sales; if we'd been getting crummy reviews I don't think I'd be in the position I'm in right now. RPG fans loved it, they told their friends, they told everyone on their favorite forums and so on. Word of mouth helped us out tremendously.

What is coming in the future for CD Project Red?

First up for the team is The Witcher: Enhanced Edition. For anyone who doesn't know, we're basically going back and improving on every aspect of the game that was criticized at launch: we're reducing load times by about 80%, rewriting some of the English dialogue that didn't quite sound right, re-recording voice-overs where needed, adding lots of new NPC models, putting in new animations to make dialogue look better and a bunch more. We'll be replacing the existing box at retail with the new version and packing it with soundtrack CDs and other goodies, and we'll release it all online as a mega-patch for anyone who already bought the game.

CD Projekt recently announced that it had claimed a majority stake in Metropolis Software. We'll be working closely with the team there to make sure their sci-fi first-person shooter, THEY, is an amazing game when it hits the market next year.

We also announced The Witcher: DuelMail, which is a fun little browser game that's a touch addictive. I suggest people check it out for a fun lunchtime diversion... that ends up making you late for your afternoon meetings.

The Witcher is really our core brand right now, and we want to keep it relevant for a long time. That doesn't mean The Witcher 2009 with new roster updates or a Geralt plush toy (though that would be cool), but inevitably we'll look to continue the series. We have a lot of opportunities -- expansions, sequels, console versions -- and now it's just a matter of deciding what's best for The Witcher and for gamers.

What do you think the future for the PC market is?

I just wrapped up my work with Stardock, and one of the things I admire most about Brad and his team is that they’ve fully embraced the fact that piracy doesn’t have to be as big a deal as it’s made out to be. Yes, games will get pirated. This is purely speculative, but I don’t think that most people who pirate games are potential consumers anyway; if they couldn’t download your game for free, they’d just go pirate someone else’s.

Now, I’m not saying piracy isn’t an issue at all; it’s just that if you make games for a PC audience, you can still be successful. Look at Sins of a Solar Empire as a great example of that; The Witcher and Crysis are two other examples. Yes, the games were pirated, but they still sold well. If piracy didn’t exist, do we really believe that Crysis could have sold 5 million copies or something? Would Witcher be a 3-million-seller? I’m not sure about that.

The bigger issue in my mind is the ridiculous range of hardware configurations and the general chaos that make up the PC market. Games like Sins of a Solar Empire, The Sims and World of Warcraft" aside from being great titles " can do well because they work on such a huge range of hardware. If everyone developing PC games catered to such a broad user base, it would be much easier to gain mainstream acceptance.

We make demos to entice people to buy our games, but if I sent a demo of The Witcher to my wife’s brother -- a devout console gamer who owns a fairly new PC that he bought for $800 at Best Buy -- there’s no way he could play it. How do I show him how good a PC game can be? Everyone works on PCs (well, except for Mac folk), everyone has played Solitaire or some other casual game at one point or another. Their eyes could be opened to the amazing “hardcore” titles out there if there was some minimum standard for hardware and software compatibility.

Things are looking up in that regard, as companies like Dell, NVIDIA and Intel are all looking to improve the conditions for gaming in PCs. There’s the PC Gaming Alliance, which hopes to showcase the PC as a platform for gaming and address the challenges we face as PC developers. Too bad you have to pay to be a member. Anyway, I think the situation will improve in the coming years. As long as larger developers and publishers don’t abandon the PC or move exclusively to casual games or MMOs in the meantime, we’ll ride out the storm and everyone will just have to accept that PC gaming isn’t d00med at all.

What do you think are the unique aspects of working in PR for the video games industry? How does it differ from other entertainment industries?

The biggest difference, which completely changes the way we have to promote things, is that we release little bite-size pieces of info for months or years, always with products that aren't done. Planning is so important. Announce too early and you'll run out of stuff to talk about by launch. Announce too late and there's just not enough time to let people know about the game. Demo too early and you can spend months trying to recover your fanbase.

You need to have a good idea of how many screenshots, videos, dev diaries, etc. you'll need, when best to release them, where to push them out... do you try to score an exclusive in hopes of one big hit, or do you blast it out to everyone in a shotgun approach? And that's just the stuff you can control; you might be a month from release after a great PR campaign, and then your game gets delayed. The job is constantly changing, and that's part of what makes it so exciting.

But do you think this is an acceptable way for things to go? Should the industry be build on a constant stream of bite size information?

I don't know if there are too many viable alternatives. As a gamer I really like seeing new screenshots and videos of games I'm excited about. Well, actually, that's not always true; there's definitely a limit, and I stop checking out every single update about a game once I've gotten my fill. Take GTA IV, for instance: I don't remember the last game I was this excited about, but I stopped looking at trailers and screenshots a few months ago. I get it -- I want the game, and I guess the early PR efforts did the trick.

The only real issue I see with the current model is that companies start showing games too early. I think that, in most cases, we could save the game announcements until about six months before it's ready for release. Sure, it might slip a bit, but six months out you tend to have a pretty good idea of the condition of a game. At that point there should be large portions of the game that are done, so you'd be able to effectively demo it to media, and you wouldn't have to touch up screenshots or videos.

Instead of spreading all of your info reveals and assets over a two-year campaign, you condense the best info into a six-month blitz. I think media would appreciate the opportunity for larger stories with more new info, and fans would appreciate the fact that they're not getting spoonfed the same info and screenshots from different angles all the time.

Who is to blame?

It's hard to lay the blame in this situation... when I got into the industry nearly ten years ago, this is how things already worked. Was it ever different? If anything, I think there's just a general perception that you need as much time as possible to get the game in front of as many potential consumers as possible. Retailers determine their order quantities based on pre-orders, and it's basically assumed that you need to build up a ton of hype over a long period of time to convince people to put down their money before release.

Is there still a place for PR agencies now news is so rapidly blogged and disseminated?

I think that PR agencies still hold the same value as before: if you're hiring one, you expect them to be able to just execute the plan better than you can; they're supposed to have the best contacts and they should be able to devote themselves fully to just getting you coverage. In-house folks have to deal with a lot of stuff that gets in the way of just promoting the games.

Things have gotten a lot more complicated because of how easy it is to start a website, though. It's just that much harder to keep an updated database of contacts and to be able to cater to each individual without making yourself look like an ass when you pitch something they don't cover.

While it's not a viewpoint that's shared by all of my contemporaries, I've always been of the opinion that every site and every "journalist" (yeah, it's a loose term sometimes) is worth working with. Even if that site only gets one reader, it's worth it; if that one person is convinced to buy your game because of that coverage, you've spent your time well.

But haven't you found that most sites just reword press releases? How hard is it to get valuable content in this kind of space?

This has been true for as long as I can remember, though; we've always had news sites that basically cover the same stuff without changing it up much.

As time goes on, sites that don't offer any unique perspective will probably watch their readership dwindle. There are a lot of great sites out there that are worth visiting just for the quality of writing; so while they might not provide a lot of in-depth editorials, it's just entertaining to read their takes on the day's news. As someone who has predominantly worked on PC games in recent years, I have a different gripe: most of the major blogs just don't really cover the platform very much.

If you've got a mass market title or you're attached to a huge publisher you've got a chance, but for the most part you're stuck trying to pitch odd angles that get coverage just because they're way out there. I think I'd have a good chance of getting widespread coverage for a cool pair of Witcher-branded underwear, but I'd be met with less enthusiasm if I talked about a cool feature in some hypothetical sequel. I love reading sites like GameSetWatch or Rock, Paper, Shotgun because they tend to cover stuff the other big blogs don't touch.

But isn't that a factor of the problem with the larger game sites and blogs posting links to "quirky" games related nonsense rather than content? How can you get your message across?

If that's what people want to read, it'll get posted. Getting your message across is definitely a challenge in the blogosphere, but I think that's where official blogs, Facebook, Twitter, etc. can be valuable. We can have our own somewhat informal outlets to get info out there; and for some reason it's easier to get coverage of an informal blog post than it is to get coverage of a formal press release.

It's more of an inside scoop or something, who knows. In the end, though, I still do my best to work with blogs and pitch stories that might be interesting to them, but given the types of stories that usually get posted and the fact that I don’t represent a major publisher or a hardware manufacturer, it’s just really difficult to get traditional corporate messages across.

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