Wolfire, developer of Overgrowth, managed to create a lot of buzz for its game before it was even released - in fact, the game still isn't out, but John Graham, one of four people on the team, says that it doesn't matter. You can and should create buzz as an indie even if your game isn't finished.
"When you're beginning a company you have to figure out how you want to approach that issue," he says. Most traditional PR mandates, such as only showing off finished assets, never mentioning the competition, and avoiding direct interaction with press, "They all act as excuses to cut down the flow of information between you and the outside world," he says. "You can't afford to cut down on that information flow."
Wolfire calls their PR tactic open development. The three major goals are to make noise, make friends in the industry, and build a community around their game. "Like other internet-related phenomena, these three pillars kind of cross pollinate each other," says Graham.
His first advice was to be open. "Lots of people want to know what it's like to be a developer," Graham noted, so you can leverage that to get some views. Keep it real, and just try different things. For Overgrowth, the team just started talking about their tech first, and their concept art. "Game design posts are always great because every game designer has their own idea of what's fun," he said, reminding us that "It's ok to be silly too."
To that end, he showed a video they'd done showing their level editing tools, done with a humorous and ridiculous voiceover. It managed to get over 20,000 views.
"When you're just starting out, cold emails are pretty much what's gonna happen," he said. It's hard to know what's going on when they don't respond whether it's in their spam or "they just don't like you," but keep trying.
In the offline space, you should go meet local indies. He admitted that being in San Francisco makes that easier than it may be in some other places, but it's still good to try. "The fact you're all here [at GDC] is a good thing, because you've got a great opportunity in front of you. Remember that conference does not equal vacation," he said.
You should also get out there and meet the press. If you do, "you're not the random dude, they're actually like 'oh, that was the guy in the lumberjack beard who showed me his game.'"
The number one thing, of course, is blogs. Find reasons for people to visit you, and make them stay. "One thing that worked out for us was using OpenGL, and reaching out to the Mac and Linux communities," said Graham. Reaching out to smaller communities will often get them to evangelize you.
Adding mod support was an instant community booster, because it's "something you can do by design to support and build a community."
"Communication is a two-way street," he reminded attendees. "You can't just give info out, you have to absorb some." Wolfire went out and asked for questions from the community - and the number one request was for Graham to do an interpretive dance about Overgrowth while wearing a kilt - so he did.
Other useful on-site devices include forums, public IRC, or a live chat widget, which Graham is usually on himself. "Offsite, we try to leverage all the social media we can," referring to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the like. "It's basically free so you might as well try it. It might be depressing at first because it'll be like a ghost town, but if you keep at it people will come."
Now, they have over 1,600 preorders for their game based on their own grassroots PR. "About 1/3 of our sales were driven by Facebook and Twitter," he said. "It wasn't so much that we'd built a Facebook and twitter presence, it was more that people just wanted to talk about it."
"There's always going to be some new social media thing," he said. "As a small company, your best strength is that agility. So don't be afraid to start that new thing. One final PR tip - if you've got a chance to speak at GDC, you've got to say yes."