A Basic Marketing and PR plan for Indies.

Nowadays, I’m mainly a writer, designer and journalist. But I spent three years in video games PR, working for Warner Bros, Disney, NCsoft, Paramount, Ubisoft, IGN, Philips, Rising Star, Game City, The Toy Fair, 1C Games, Irrational Games, 505 Games and a ton more. Here’s a basic media campaign for an indie developer.

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Okay, so I spent three years in video games PR. After a few months I wanted out, but I stuck around for three years because… Nowadays, I rarely do active PR any more for projects I’m not personally creating (though I’m happy to advise / consult / draw up marketing plans / etc.) In my short career, I worked for Warner Bros, Disney, NCsoft, Paramount, Ubisoft, IGN, Philips, Rising Star, Game City, The Toy Fair, 1C Games, Irrational Games, 505 Games and a ton more.

So (sotto voce: appeal to authority) please believe me when I say that kind of PR and marketing is mostly inappropriate for indie game development.

PRs are expensive and best placed when dealing with large numbers of large visible media targets who don’t move around much. Their careful mixture of quartermaster and pimp is appropriate given the industry’s origins in wartime propaganda departments. They’re best when using their extensive contacts or cold-calling relevant media to place stories. Using them for an indie campaign is like building battleships when you’re fighting insurgents.

PRs have two aims; to make sure their client’s product is well-known and liked, and to maintain their relationships with as many people as possible who are relevant to their continued career. To do this, they charge a lot of money – £200-600 a day weren’t unusual amounts when I worked in a PR agency, though self-employed individuals will charge less.

Indies don’t need that. If you can afford to pay a PR, you can probably afford to pay a community manager who can do the role part-time. And if you have that money, I’m hesitant to call you an Indie (which is, just, like my opinon, dude.)

(Joe Martin mailed me to disagrees with this bit. He says: “Indie can mean the one guy who’s putting out his first Itch.io game. It can also mean Mike Bithell. It can mean people like Phil Fish, who arguably would have been better off with an agency to shield them a little.”

“Importantly, ‘Indie’ can also apply to people in the middle ground. There are people who do well but could do an order of magnitude better if there was a more robust PR plan in place or that freed them up to work on the game. Earlier I asked indies on Twitter what the biggest problem of doing their own PR was and nearly everyone said that it was that it took up so much time – time they could spend on the game instead. PR support of some sort is genuinely useful to these people – and it doesn’t have to be in the form of a big agency because…”

“The same is true for PR. You’re absolutely right that a big agency like Bastion would be inappropriate for an indie; but there are other options that could really help a one-man team get some extra reach at a reasonable rate. Simon Callaghan is someone I’d recommend for mid-sized indies or small studios. There are a bunch of freelance community managers I know who could fill the middle-ground.”)

For me, what indies need from PR, it’s best that they do themselves, because much of their appeal is in their individuality, which a journalist wants to make a personal connection with. When I get an email through from an Indie PR, it tends to not even get starred, because I know they aren’t expecting a reply most of the time – but when I get an email from the Indies themselves, I feel obliged to reply (except for super-Indies like Mike who have enough coverage already). That might just be me, but I’m betting lots of the press (subconsciously) feel the same. (I’m happy to hear I’m wrong)

Anyway, I promised a basic media campaign for an Indie. Infodump follows…

BASIC INDIE MARKETING CAMPAIGN PLAN

  • BUILD RELATIONSHIPS WHILST YOU’RE DEVELOPING.
    • This is just a matter of talking to journos and other devs.
      • If you need a foot-up, I maintain a Twitter list of journos here and developers here
    • Don’t talk about your game until you’re ready for stories to appear.
    • Engage on Twitter.
      • Cynically, questions are a good way of eliciting replies.
      • But you should genuinely ask them what they’re looking for from devs to get coverage. Personalised communications are much more time-consuming but are worth it.
    • Engage on developer forums. Show your stuff off. Your fellow developers are a great source of buzz about your game.
  • PLAN BEFORE YOU SEND ANYTHING OUT.
    • Think about when you’re realistically going to be done on your project.
    • Then check that you’re not going to clash with any other major announcements at that stage – you don’t want to come out at the same time as Minecraft 2. Move it back if you have to.
    • When you’ve got a date you’re confident you’ll be done by, subtract two months from it. That’s when you should start chasing for previews.
      • Previews are much more important than reviews because journalists (mostly) will only do previews if they’re interested in a product. So they’re mostly positive.
    • News pieces should appear in the two months before that.
      • This is to build buzz rapidly – Indie games typically only get one or two bites at the coverage cherry before review, so we’re not aiming for the long campaign of a AAA game. You need to get news piece, preview and maybe review as fast as possible.
      • As Joe reminded me, you also need to get this stuff up on Reddit. Find the right community, post the direct link from your press site / website (if you’ve built one – which you should. I know, I know, it’s all more work and you’d rather be coding.)
    • Reviews should appear in the week of release. You really want people to be able to click ‘buy’ right then and there.
    • Add an extra month lead time for any print publications you want to hit.
    • For important media, think about exclusive content you could produce – screenshots, skins, movies, beta codes, whatever…
    • If you have to do any contract stuff (like NDAs!) contract() can do that for you.
  • NEWS.
    • When your game is a good enough state to show off, you want an announcement news email / tweet. In that you’ll need:
      • Some assets.
      • Preferably an embeddable Youtube video of your prototype running.
      • A short, taut description of your game. Lots of active phrases, hyperbole.
      • A bit of blurb about your background.
      • Say you’re available for a chat about the game.
      • Keep it as casual as possible – Indie charm still works.
      • Personalise that email to each person you’re mailing. Hopefully, you’ve already been talking to/at them on Twitter. Try to talk about what you’d like from their site, and show that you’ve at least read it.
      • Feel free to chase on Twitter then email when a little time has gone by.
        • You want to remove friction at every stage. Every click to get something will lose some journos – every form or sign-in page will lose 90%. So minimize clicks.
  • PREVIEW is your second email.
    • It’ll have all the same bits as the above, all refreshed.
    • It’ll have a release date.
    • It’ll also have a preview code, if you can manage that. Steam or iOS codes are best. Use distribute() to get builds out.
  • REVIEWS should be tried for, but are hard to get these days.
    • You should also consider honestly whether your game is going to review well. If not, you probably shouldn’t chase reviews. Coast on that positive feeling from the previews and make a better game next time.
    • If you’re not sure, send it out anyway – the coverage from a positive review gets people to buy it. Negative reviews stop people buying it who weren’t going to buy it anyway.
      • I know certain PRs try to guess the intent of individual press and restrict access from potential negative impressions. That’s an option, but too stressful at this stage given your time.
    • Generate as many codes as you can. Many press won’t be happy to pay for your product, so make it easy for them to get it. Steam codes are best, iOS next (yes, I know they’re annoying), or even a version to download.
    • I’m torn between asking if they want codes or just sending them. The former means you’ve started interacting, which lets you communicate again, to chase coverage – but requiring them to email for a code is friction and friction stops coverage. It’s your call here.

Of course, having contacts beyond those you’ve made through Twitter is important. If you ask me nicely / donate to Games AID, I’ll point you in the right direction for any publications you’re missing. And, of course, if you invite me to write for your project instead, I’d be *obliged* to share my contacts for the purposes of PR. Hint, hint.

Marketing A Gay Game

To The Tune Of: Tom Robinson Band – Glad To Be Gay

Again, this was a think-piece for a magazine that didn’t get used. The hypothetical situation was a game is about to released with a gay lead character; do you think that game would stand a chance at retail? If not, why not? If it landed on your desk, how would you go about marketing it? Here are my answers.

eNCHANT arM (Enchanted Arms) had a very strong gay character called Makoto.

I think it would stand the same chance at retail as any other game, but the clear point is that the gay character normally would not be relevant to the main thrust of the marketing – not because of homophobia, but because the gay demographic is just a subsection of the mainstream game-playing demographic. If I only targetted that audience, I’d be losing out on everyone else. It also matters if it were a tie-in or not – a game tied into a TV series like Will & Grace or Big Gay Al from South Park would obviously benefit from brand exploitation, but otherwise I wouldn’t bother marketing it that way.

That said, I’d definitely, budgets and time allowing, have a second prong of the marketing approach targetted at the gay community, and try and push it as a big story with the gay media, supporting that with developer access, interviews and possibly pull out survey data to explore whether the populace at large have a problem with the game; digging into the survey results could generate good news stories. It’s not something I’d hide, just not the main thrust of my marketing and PR unless we can find something mainstream to talk about.

I’d imagine that you might encounter those usual right-wing or religious organisations that stick to antiquated and/or arbitrary moral codes that would have a problem with the game, especially if the title has anything less than an 18-rating, but as a PR I’d let the UK rating authorities deal with whether it should be legal or not and just enjoy the extra sales generated by any controversy. That said, in the case of ultraviolent or sadistic games, it’s easy to take advantage of the media furore to increase sales for your game, while perhaps sharing qualms yourself about the moral value of the game; here, I’d argue that there’s a moral imperative for the company to pressure the rating authorities, saying that if there’s no violent or sexual content then the game should have the same rating irrespective of its homosexual content.

Thinking about the irrelevance of sexuality to the age-rating further; if a kid’s game explored human relationships in any real depth, I don’t think it would appeal to kids anyway and would be difficult to market, but if the lead character had a same-sex partner (like Noddy and Big-Ears, for example) and the game was enjoyable, then marketing it should be unproblematic. From a personal perspective,  there would be an additional moral imperative to make such a game a success.

Ten Things I learnt from HitMebiz

Cardinal Place taken by Simon Wicks
  1. Radian6 is the paid-for social media metric of choice… (@robshaw99)
  2. …while Google Alerts is the free metric. (@melcarson)
  3. Any brand failure to engage with users will be punished…
  4. …but don’t overlink your sites – and don’t build e-commerce and social-bait sites on the same IP. (John Straw, @searchDNA)
  5. Long tail keywords are best for SEO.
  6. By 2019 your ipod will have enough space to record your entire life. (Via Kryder’s law.)  (John Straw)
  7. Always put your latitude and longitude under your address (getting yourself ready for Google Local). (John Straw)
  8. The words Egonet, Eigenfactor, Indegree and Inbetweenness were made by mathematicians, not poets, but are worthy of the attention of social network engineers. (Mat Morrison @mediaczar)
  9. Make sure all of this nonsense ties into a wider media plan…
  10. …but don’t forget the day job.