Games PR is dead.
At least, in the way that we think of it. The traditional news/previews/reviews cycle might still work for the biggest of the triple-As – and there are lessons to be learned for indies too – but the fact is that the media landscape is changing, and as indie PRs we need to change with it.
I head up public relations activities for BeefJack and our clients. With my team, we definitely still seek to get as much media attention as we can – and cycles of news, previews and reviews are still important to some extent.
I also used to be a games journalist and editor. I left that field more out of circumstance than anything, but it’s certainly true that, by the end of that journey, the goalposts had already started to move. While the PR events were getting bigger and glitzier, the amount of content anyone really wanted from those events was diminishing. Editorial budgets were reducing. Page space was getting less and less. And in the online world, the emergence of video as a key winner of traffic had started to make me – a lowly writer – feel not quite as relevant any more.
Add to this the lowered barrier of entry to making games, the increased desire of people to do so, and the ensuing super levels of competition in the market, and it can be hard to stand out from the crowd.
PR used to be pretty much the epitome of the old adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” These days, I don’t think that’s entirely true. It is no longer the case that going to the pub with a games journalist, or inviting them to a fancy showcase, means a PR representative can land any coverage they want. Add to this an increased awareness of public relations from the general populace – and a resistance to content that feels in any way promotional – and you’re left with basically one question to answer:
“Are the game and its story genuinely interesting?”
I think the games PR model needs to change, especially for indies. Yes, it’s vital to still meet with journalists, attend events, and get your name out there. It is true that getting someone to reply to your email or call you back when you leave a voicemail is increased by having that personal connection – it’s why I always try to do bespoke intros between press and my clients wherever possible – but that’s only half the battle. And I’ve seen too many developers now get excited when someone from Eurogamer or IGN sends an email back, but the contents of the email say “sorry, but I don’t think we can make this one fit for the time being.”
If I had one piece of advice for indie developers looking to get their games into the press (and yes, I know there are lots of other vital aspects to PR these days, but let’s leave those for another post), it’s this: get media feedback early, off the record, and commit to doing something meaningful with that feedback.
The difference it makes can be substantial. For one, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to sow the seeds for future coverage at an early stage, and that’s vital. For another, you get to see how your influencers react to your game and assets, and make changes accordingly before you finalise everything.
Show your game to a few journalists. They might tell you the concept’s interesting but the graphics need work. Work on those graphics. They might tell you that the game itself feels fairly generic but they like the sound of your studio. Change the game or don’t – that’s your call – but think about what they liked about your studio’s ethos and build a campaign around that. An editor thinks the fact that there’s a framerate drop in your trailer will make their PC-enthusiast audience reel? Fix the bloody framerate and re-cut your trailer – because an editor’s job is to understand what will resonate with their audience, and you can bet your entire marketing budget on them not posting something if it won’t work.
Hell, simply go right up and ask: “what can I give you that you’ll actually want to write about?” It can feel awkward, but the answers you’ll get will often be candid, honest and helpful. The news editor of a major games website, when I asked him this question recently, told me straight-up when he would and wouldn’t be able to fit different kinds of things into his editorial calendar. Another gave me a heads-up that their move towards a certain type of video content was causing them problems due to a lack of content, and suggested I pitch something along those lines. Frequently, journalists tell me that, quite simply, they don’t like the look of the game I’m representing at that time. Often very good games, but there’s an element of personal preference after all, and that’s fine. I know I can focus my attention elsewhere, and not waste both my and the journalist’s time and energy pitching something that will never get picked up.
I have seen, sadly, a resistance among many indie developers to showing things early. I’ve also seen a resistance to listening to feedback that doesn’t correlate exactly with the team’s current thought-processes. But the fact is that winning over important influencers can play a huge (albeit often indirect) role in making your game a success – and giving them stuff they actually want to produce content about is the only sure path to victory.
Lewis Denby is BeefJack’s Head of Public Relations. In a previous life he wrote for the likes of Eurogamer, PC Gamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and Gamasutra, as well as editing the BeefJack Magazine. He has a beard.