Fun! I’m doing a wheelie down a ruined high street at high speed, totally unable to tell where I’m going, while heavily armed North Koreans spray machine gun fire at me. This is the best motorcycle game I’ve ever played and it’s not a motorcycle game. I drop my iron steed out of the wheelie just in time to see my surviving teammate back into the road in front of me. I can’t avoid running him down and I don’t. As his body bump-bumps under my tyres, I berate him for not obeying the Green Cross Code. It’s fine though, as I revive him under heavy fire, get back onto my bike and speed off, ignoring him, the enemies, my other downed pals, and the mission.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When your game is a good enough state to show off, you want an announcement news email / tweet. In that you’ll need:
- PRESS SITE should also have all the above.
- 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.
I originally posted this over on The Martian Question site, but thought I’d better mirror it here. The project is on hold until Byron can again spare the time to work on it. As writer and designer, my role is very much minimal compared to the programmers and artists.
“You have to have Martians.” my girlfriend says. “People want to fight Martians! On Mars!”
I sigh. We’re going for scientific accuracy on this project, partly from a sense of wanting to explore several thought experiments, partly because our funding from the Wellcome Trust is predicated on it. The only Martians we hope to encounter during this adventure will be microscopic. But it’s so hard to disappoint the game-playing public who, we’re regularly assured by marketing departments, just want to shoot aliens to save mankind. And then maybe talk to them and Audrey from Little Shop of Horrors in the sequel.
And this is an adventure. Making a prototype for an open world game in a month, then presenting it live, on-stage? That’s sort of the mad adventure we didn’t really realise we were signing up to when I first mentioned the idea. Here’s our Wellcome pitch, for those who are interested – you can see an explanation of the pitch and the original, much more fun, pitch script here.
I’ve been mulling over the idea behind our game for many years. Around the beginning of 2013, various books I’d read had crystallised a vague idea into something more specific – a story-driven hard science open world Mars exploration game. I never thought I’d actually get to make it. Until I happened to be sharing a room with Unity whiz Byron Atkinson-Jones at GDC.
He asked me, one night when his own snoring kept him awake – and Byron’s snoring, by the way, is infamous. I was in an earthquake in San Francisco during the previous GDC which nearly tipped me out of a 6th storey window and even that was quieter than Byron’s babbling bronchi. Anyway, he asked me, what game I’d make if I could make one. I gave him the spiel. Exploring Mars, first-person perspective, compelling morally-compromising divergent story, and so on. The sort of stuff that games journalists babble to each other all the time.
He said he wanted to make it. I was… stunned.
Y’see, I’ve never made a game. I’ve not programmed any code since the BBC Micro era and I’ve bounced off the increasingly friendly game-making tools, the same way I bounced off learning other languages as an adult. It’s hard to maintain an attention span for the improper conjugation of pluperfect participles when there’s all that SF to be read and games to be played and survival funds to be scraped together.
But even I know that programmers are kind of magicians. During my years as a journalist, I’ve watched good ones at work and been amazed at how fast they can throw out a working game.
(And I loathe the UK governments of my childhood who thought that the programming I was learning on the BBC Micro wasn’t as important as learning how to use Excel and Word. Those Luddite politicians killed our nascent culture of computational creativity before it really got started, the same way they’d killed computing in the 50s when they dismantled Colossus and lost us thirty years of programming progress. They made secretaries and data-entry clerks out of artists and wizards. So I am in utter awe of anyone of that generation who managed to come through it able to program, as they have to be mostly self-taught.)
So, to me, Byron saying he wanted to make my game was a bit like a Wizard coming up to me, a smelly halfling, and saying that I could get the treasure and fight the dragon and win the boy/girl / pie, and not even have to leave my hobbit hole.
Anyway, that’s how we started. When I found about the Wellcome Trust development grants (at an Evolve day I happened to be taking photos of) it seemed obvious to apply, to get the project off the ground. I just poured all the things that had been into my head into the submission form, Byron guestimated a budget, and we were away. We never actually expected to get the funding, I think.
So here we are. Making a game about exploring Mars, from the perspective of a cyborg, making it as hard science as we can. You can read about the team we’ve got working on the game here, a bit about the inspiration behind the game here, and take a look at our initial research here (and, yes, all those tags are going to have more stuff behind them as the weeks go by). Hopefully, soon, we’ll have something slightly more gamey to show you.
But, I’m happy to disappoint you, it won’t involve shooting Martians.
Some cities have a larger literary presence than tangible. Paris balances the two. London weighs towards the real, rather than the page. But Berlin, for me especially, is a city explored first in media, only peripherally in the real. Mr Norris Changes Trains, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold gave me a sense of the shutaway city. The city’s structures and location I garnered from history and politics textbooks. The look from the amazing City of Angels and Cabaret.
Visiting it in the real has always been in passing to me. I think I’ve stopped here maybe three times on press trips. Now the press trip, more so than most business trips I suspect, is a coddled affair. I’ve been on many where I’ve done nothing more than follow instructions, travelling just with my passport. Food and drink are often paid for. Hotels are booked and paid for you. The itinerary has often been decided, from cradle to grave.
So when I’ve been Berlin I’ve had to employ strange tactics. The first time, brought by NamcoBandaiAtariInfogrames was an overnight stopper, if I recall correctly, where after the event bar shut, a couple of us hopped in a taxi to the Reichstag, just to see a little of the city before we left. The next time is even more blurred, but I recall having enough time off to visit the museum at Checkpoint Charlie. This time we’d been offered a night’s stay in a hotel on the Alexanderplatz (a strangey familiar name), right by the great spiked awl that acts as Berlin’s equivalent of London’s post office tower – another great sign of what the future once was.
Our nailed-in itinerary took us to a part I’d never seen before, the sprawl of bombed-out buildings that houses the nightlife. I’ve often been told that the majority of the life in Berlin happens hidden away, away from the statuesque facades of the West or the relentless identical blocks of the East, and I guess that this was that place. A long strip of buildings that looked like accreted spray paint that happened to have sagged into the form of old warehouses and walls without roofs. Walking through it in the snow, we felt like we were going to be mugged; but Berlin has that joy about it, that the sectors don’t reflect the prejudices of the anglo-saxon climes. Graffiti here isn’t a sign that this is a bad area, but that it’s an artistic area.
Inside our warehouse was a great flat room where a game was being shown. I’ll skip over this quickly, as it was not unusual. Presentations, hands-on and interviews, the old routine. Then we were sent off to our hotel, with a bag of game memorabilia we would have been as happy without in hand. I’d only managed one hour of sleep the night before (working on a StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm review) so I crashed out.
When I woke, it was suddenly dark. We returned to the graffiti strip gaming warehouse and the rest of the evening was a performance of traditional German drinking, eating, drinking, bagpipes and more drinking. But it was still all molly-coddled. At the end of the night, as the PR was waving us off, he suddenly decided to take us on into the city, imprecating with bright-eyed hesitancy that “you need to see some real German techno.” It was too much for me, exhausted as I was, but the others followed him to an apartment in an old block on Alexanderplatz which had a club in it, playing music closer to Europop than techno.
In the morning, with a head fogged by beer, I snuck out quickly for a very short walk around the block. I was heading for a distant wooden church spire when a man strolling towards me suddenly looked up, cried out and rolled onto his back, before spasming onto his front, twitching. I’d never seen a seizure before and didn’t know what to do. I vaguely recalled that you meant to roll the victim into the recovery position and pull out his tongue, but I could see from the puddle of blood spreading out from his head that he’d started biting into his own face in his spasms. Someone more aware than me ran over to help the man, whilst someone else rang an ambulance, and I was waved, thankfully, away.
Again, this visit was so short, so coddled, so incoherent, that I still have no sense of Berlin. It’s a fragmentary city to me, efficiently small hotel rooms and indistinguishable apartment blocks and odd dead-ended canal-rivers and huge stone buildings and circus tents and the Wall covered in graffiti. It’s also unpeopled; in all my visits, I’ve not spoken to a native Berliner, not penetrated past the famous surface. It feels like I have to come again.
To The Tune Of: The Magnetic Fields – The Luckiest Guy On The Lower East Side
The end of 2011 was the lowest point of my life so far (and it was almost entirely my fault, sorry M), but set this year up perfectly for a single golden question; could I survive and thrive as a freelance writer?
The braggadocio-saturated answer was, thankfully, ‘yes, you cowardly arse; why didn’t you do this five years ago?’
So, the low point; the year began with me living with my family, single and having quit my job. It’s ended with me living with a lovely bunch of people, working when I want to, and, well, the love-life we’ll talk about down the pub, m’kay? And we will, because I have a tendency to overshare.
So, this year, I’ve written for a bunch of cool people; The Mail on Sunday, Which, IGN, Eurogamer, Gamespy, Gamesbrief, Pocketgamer, Play, Continue, Computer Shopper, PC Format and lots for both RockPaperShotgun and PC Gamer. A lot of those are competing publications that I must thank specifically for being nice and mature enough not to have a problem with me working for the others – particularly the last two, which comprise a lovely bunch of talent-hungry people.
I’ve also helped with a neat-o iOS game (Russian Dancing Men), I’ve edited two books for Nicholas Lovell (second out later this year), and I’ve done a load of consultancy for big name companies which served, more than anything else, to keep the wolf from my door. Again thanks to the people involved with that – Martin Korda, Mark Ward and Leo Tan specifically.
This year’s aims are:
- to write two books (one fact, one fiction)
- to see if I can get involved properly in making a game (PC preferably) from scratch
- to educate myself more formally (already signed up for an OU degree, which is a good start)
- to do something with http://www.thefreelancepolice.com
- to save enough money to finally buy somewhere (not to live, but a country cottage to retreat to and rent out as a holiday cottage the rest of the time.)
- I also aim to visit the two remaining major games shows I haven’t been to yet – GDC and Tokyo. GDC is booked.
I’m also going to put more personal blogging on here (as I did for years until that day I almost got fired from the Official Xbox Magazine for mouthing off about my boss). It won’t appear on the front page though, as there’s a lot of passing trade here these days, but on that separate ‘personal‘ link at the top. Finally, if you give half a damn, you can see the auto-generated WordPress highlights of my 2011 in blogging here; http://jetpack.me/annual-report/11588447/2011/
Also, my favourite photo-set of the year; the Common Garden Spider.