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.

Thoughts On Closed Systems and Video Games

Predictably, Microsoft have just announced the new Games For Windows Live will also support full game downloads. Manufacturers, having taken over all the development studios, and recently the Indie and casual devs too, are now taking over the distribution channels too. It’s likely that we’ll see the first full, true AAA game distributed solely through the Playstation Network in the next year; full games are already available on the PSPGo. Even Nintendo distributes games through its Wii store. These all make it easier for consumers to get access to new and old games. So what’s the problem?

The key issue here is that, like the App store and Xbox Live, these are closed systems which are bad from every angle, except the owners’ profit – for example, developers’ and third-party publishers’ games will be competing against the manufacturer’s own products that will be developed, marketed and streamed through the whole system with preferential treatment. Anything that is bad for competition is ultimately bad for the consumer, as it drives up prices.

For example, if GFW Live is bundled with new computers, that means new audiences will get access to Games On Demand, which is great for them in terms of ease of purchase – however, they won’t have access to the range of choice and prices that the internet offers, and through that bundling they’ll be tied into the Microsoft rather than the Steam model and network. Once they’ve emotionally or technically locked you in, they can charge anything they like – look at bank charges on overdraft limits or the premium cost of Xbox Live. Microsoft has done this before with Internet Explorer and used the glacial process of global law to destroy its competitor Netscape before competition authorities could effectively punish it. Their previous experience will hardly be a deterrent.

In terms of their competitors’ disadvantage, manufacturers’ ownership of AAA developers means that competitors are excluded from distributing those games, whether that’s cross-platform or cross-digital distribution system. It’s the same problem that Randy Pitchford raised with regards to Steamworks, but writ large. Gamers want to play on the system that has the widest range of games and features – we don’t want yet another clunky downloader insisting on starting itself up as Windows does and swallering resources, just like we don’t want to buy several consoles and a PC. To compete with this the other digital distribution companies are going to have to integrate social networks, match-making, remote saves and run endless promotions, just to stay in the running – and even then how can they compete with the big manufacturers’ and Valve’s AAA games?

Disentanglement of technology and openness of APIs/development at every level is the only fair option. It’ll be interesting to see if, for example, Sony blocks access to internet-flash games or merely fails to keep the PS3’s Flash software up-to-date, which would have the same effect of stopping indie development on that platform. Or if Microsoft allows indie, community or free games onto Games For Windows Live (I’d love it if they bought Kongregate and integrated that company’s excellent flash games API into GFWL.) Or, even, if Valve unbundled Steamworks and its development studios from Steam itself.

It’s strange than an industry as advanced as games hasn’t distributed games digitally earlier but it’s worrying that this vertical integration threatens to fragment the community. Ideally, someone needs to create a Kelkoo or Froogle client for games, that compares prices from other download sites, has the matchmaking/patching elements, and is bundled for free with machines; but only Microsoft could have realistically done that, and they haven’t. With developers, third-party publishers and consumers all losing out from vertically-integrated closed-system game publishing, something has to change.