Develop Talk: Indie Game PR is Dead – But Here’s How We Can Survive

Hello! Last week I did a talk at Develop. A few people asked me if it would be filmed, and I’m not sure it was, so I said I’d put the slides and vague script online. In actual fact, things were running a little behind so I had to truncate the talk a little bit on the day — this, I suppose, is the Director’s Cut.

Hope people find it useful. Any questions, feel free to drop me a note at lewis[at]gameifyouare[dot]com.


Hello, hello, thanks for coming, it’s very kind of you.

Welcome to my talk. It’s called ‘Indie Game PR Is Dead’ – although that sounded a bit too miserable so I added a cheerier subtitle.

I’m Lewis, and I run a small consultancy called Game If You Are, which helps indie developers get better publicity.

This is just a bit more about what we do – essentially we work holistically to help make your game more coverable, and then go out and get that coverage.

A bit about me – I used to work as a games journalist, writing for PC Gamer, PC Zone when that was still alive, Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Gamasutra, and a whole bunch of other places.

And I’m an indie too! I’ve made a couple of games – co-created an adventure game called Richard & Alice, was a producer and developer on Sepulchre which was one third of The Charnel House Trilogy, and at the moment I’m making a game called Anthology, which is hopefully coming out later this year.

Aside from that I spent three years working in production across dozens of client games you probably won’t have heard of – advergames, games for events, that kind of thing – and I’ve spent the past five years running marketing and PR campaigns for indie developers.

That’s a picture of me, in case you didn’t know what I look like.

And I’m going to begin this talk by walking through five unfortunate truths of indie game PR in 2017. Later we’re going to talk about how to circumnavigate these, but I think it’s important to start with the harsh realities, because it really is harder than ever before to get people to pay attention to your game.

I’m sure this is something a lot of you here have observed. Show of hands – how many people have sent emails to journalists and YouTubers trying to get your game covered?

How many of you got as much coverage as you were hoping for?

Right? It’s hard to get noticed by the press. It’s something I’m acutely aware of and that we have to adapt to as the years go by.

So to that end, every year, I run a survey of the games media. We send a questionnaire to hundreds of journalists and editors and YouTubers and streamers, and some of them even bother to reply to it, and then we pull a big report from all the data and see what we can find.

That data makes for some interesting reading and, every year, it gets more and more depressing.

So here are five unfortunate truths that we found out, particularly from this year’s survey.

Number 1 – 44% of journalists ‘almost always’ ignore press releases.

Think about this – the press release, the core tool we have in our arsenal, especially as indies working on tight budgets. Read a guide on how to get your game covered in the press and the first thing it teaches you is how to craft a perfect press release.

44% of journalists ‘almost always’ ignore them.

Let’s see what else they ignore.

43% – Media releases – your trailers and screenshots. Again, another really obvious thing, a thing we’re always told is a prerequisite – 43% of journalists just don’t cover them.

37% – Physical gifts or ‘swag’ – well, probably less relevant to indies, this one. And I guess that means that 63% of journalists will respond to gifts and swag, which is kind of annoying when you’re on a shoestring budget.

Only 22% of journalists ignore invitations to events. Unless you’re an extremely well-funded indie, that means you’re missing out something that would potentially attract 78% of the games media. Kind of annoying, huh?

Number 2 – 61% of journalists won’t cover a game until they’ve played it – and almost everyone said they wouldn’t cover an indie game they’ve played unless they really liked it.

This is a really interesting one because that number gets bigger every year.

It’s also the one that surprises developers the most when I tell them.

Think about what this means in terms of the traditional coverage cycle for video games.

Announcements – behold, this new game we’re working on! Not going to get a great deal of coverage.

News stories and updates – again, if there’s not something to play, not interested.

Interviews. If you’re an indie, it’s not gonna happen without a playable build.

I think a pattern is emerging here where maybe the traditional gaming press is going to be a struggle… but with the shift to video, what about YouTubers?

58% of them won’t cover a game they didn’t personally enjoy.

42% won’t even bother to try it if they don’t like the look of it.

Now, this might sound obvious but, at the same time, think about how this differs from the gaming press. The traditional press have a broader remit to report on and represent what’s going on in the industry.

But YouTubers often have very specific tastes. If a YouTuber only likes first-person shooters about shooting soldiers in the face, then that YouTuber is probably gonna ignore your first-person shooter where you shoot monsters in the face. And that means the number of YouTubers who can help you has just dramatically reduced.

Number 4 – The gaming media landscape has changed beyond all recognition.

And it really has. A decade ago, when I was working as a games journalist, it was thriving. New sites opening all the time, all really eager to cover a range of games. Editors commissioning out loads of features on indie games. I know, because that was essentially my specialist area, and I still managed to eat.

But since then…

Editorial budgets have been slashed. Editors don’t have the money to commission as much as they used to.

It means publishers are cutting their writing staff. The ones that are left are overworked. Every journalist I speak to tells me how utterly swamped they are, every single day. And that’s in February. Phone them within two weeks of E3 and I just get an anguished cry down the receiver.

There’s been a shift towards video, as I mentioned before. But video is more expensive, so typically there’s a lot less of it, and therefore nowhere near as many opportunities for coverage.

And we’ve seen so many ‘mid-tier’ sites – you know, the bedroom-run hobbyist sites that never made any money but actually had a reasonably big readership – die off. Presumably because, y’know, they never made any money.

It adds up to fewer people posting less content and having to focus squarely on the biggest titles.

And number 5 – There were eight hundred billion indie games released in 2016 alone.

Okay, that may not be an actual statistic.

But you take my point. There are just more people making games. More games being published. Thousands of games a week on the App Store. And make no mistake, with the way Steam is going, this problem is only going to get worse.

By the way, I had originally planned a five-minute rant about Steam at this point in the talk, but some sensible people on Twitter managed to convince me not to. You have them to thank.

So indie game PR is hard. Hardly a revelation, I know.

Let’s talk about how we can get around all this, and end up with some great publicity after all.

‘Survival guide’ might be a bit grandiose.

But I think all of this necessitates a different approach to indie game PR – and that approach, actually, is quite simple.

I call it a ‘production-led approach’ but really that’s just a fancy way of saying the best indie game PR is intrinsically linked with actual development, and that proactive and reactive planning work just the same for PR as they do for production itself.

Some of these tips will be pretty broad. Some are super-specific. But they all fall around this ‘production focus’.

This might sound a bit dry and dull and corporate. But we’re already thinking about this in terms of making our games. Nowadays, we also need to be thinking this way in terms of publicising them.

So let’s break this down, then, into five tips for indie PR success in 2017.

I know.

know.

And honestly, if you’re making a game in your bedroom in your spare time, with no budget to speak of whatsoever, then I get it, and hats off to you. You’re an absolute trooper and I wish you the best of luck.

But if you have any sort of development budget, you absolutely need to be budgeting appropriately for marketing too.

Because guess what? Successful companies spend money on marketing! And often, in higher quantities than you might expect.

In its most recent financial report, Coca-Cola reported marketing spends of $3.5 billion, out of a total annual expenditure of $18 billion. That’s a full 19% of its annual budget.

OK, that’s a major drinks brand. What about in entertainment?

Well, for the average Hollywood film, according to 2014 data from the Motion Picture Association of America, it turns out 34% of its budget is spent on marketing.

Again, okay, we’re talking big business here. What about successful indie games? Don’t they typically spend a smaller share on marketing?

Well first of all, it’s surprisingly difficult to find indie developers who are prepared to share their numbers. I think this is a shame. We should be helping each other by sharing this kind of info. But that’s another talk for another day.

I did find one really good set of data, though, and that’s from Cliff Harris, a.k.a. Positech, for his game Gratuitous Space Battles 2.

According to SteamSpy, it’s sold around 20-25,000 – nowhere near that of the first game, but, I suppose, a small indie success.

Actually this pie chart didn’t have percentages on it, so I had to estimate this by overlaying another pie chart on top and comparing. I think it’s about 38%. That’s more than Coca-Cola, more than Hollywood, in percentage terms.

Note how marketing is the single biggest slice of budget pie. More than code. More than art. More than anything else.

The reality is, it’s almost always easier to make money when you spend money – so right from the start of the project, think carefully about how much you’ll need to apportion to promotional activities.

The second thing is to make your PR plan at least as robust as your production plan.

So many developers I speak to can tell you exactly what they’ll be working on in three months’ time. They have enormous, detailed design documents, Gantt charts stuck to the wall, using Jira to track their workload and dependencies.

And I say to them, “What are you hoping to achieve with your marketing, and when do you think you’ll have a preview build available?”

And I’m met with a blank stare.

Folks, you need to be planning these things, and you need to be building in measures to keep yourself on-track, just like you would in production. Because remember, with this method, we’re treating PR exactly the same as production.

Targets. What’s your weekly target for growing your press contacts database? 30? How many journalists have you emailed by Friday afternoon? Only 20? Better get to work, then.

Milestones. When will that preview build be ready? No, it’s not okay to delay it. It’s going to set back so many other things.

Pipelines. You know you’re going to need assets. You know that can be time-consuming. So, how are you going to get it done? What’s your workflow? How can you make it more efficient?

Start trying to answer these questions and your discipline for marketing and PR will improve immeasurably.

Number 3 – Make having a polished, continually updated preview build your top PR priority.

This is one of the super-specific ones, but I really mean this.

And I know it’s a lot of work. And that it’s time spent away from core production. And yeah, maybe it might make your production process a little bit less efficient, on the surface.

But remember earlier when we saw that 61% of journalists won’t cover an indie game unless they’ve played it?

96% of journalists told us they want to play your indie games, and that they’ll always do their best to check out a preview build.

They’ll only cover it if it’s genuinely good – but this means you can’t make excuses here. You have an enormous opportunity.

While it’s true that journalists will look the other way when it comes to things like bugs during preview phase, if that build isn’t of a high quality, carefully playtested, demonstrably fun, well put-together… you aren’t getting pre-release coverage.

Without pre-release coverage, you’re going to find it even harder to get coverage on launch. And what’s more, you’ve just lost a potential champion of your game, because what you showed them wasn’t good enough.

It’s worth making the time. I promise.

This is an interesting one, and I appreciate that without contacts it can be hard to do.

But – number 4 – seek media feedback. And factor in production time to respond to it.

What I mean here is show the game to journalists in an off-record capacity – at an event, maybe.

There are journalists here – why not make it this one?

Say ‘Here’s my game, tell me honestly, what do you think? What did you think of how I pitched it to you? Is this the sort of thing you’d consider for coverage?’

Listen to what they say. They are experts. They play hundreds of games a year. They know what they’re talking about. Give their feedback serious consideration, look for patterns, and fix the problems – then go back to them with a new preview build and ask for coverage.

Consider commissioning mock reviews – again, can be tricky if you don’t have the right contacts, but it’s something we help a lot of indies with. This is where a freelance journalist will, usually anonymously, review your game under NDA conditions – a review for your eyes only, essentially.

It can be extraordinarily helpful in letting you understand how the game’s likely to fare when it launches: if, and how, the game will get reviewed in the press.

Factor in time at the end of production to address this last-minute feedback. It could be make or break for your game.

And the fifth and final tip is about understanding lead times.

Unfortunately, you can’t really get away with doing the now-commonplace triple-A thing of dumping a review copy on a journalist’s desk the morning it’s out.

When you send the media your game, or a story you want to publicise, you join a queue. The queue is often long – hundreds of indie studios deep.

And the truth is that when Bethesda says the best policy is to only send out review code on the day of launch, what they’re not telling you is that they get to skip the queue.

So the indies stand there patiently waiting, while the triple-As steamroller through the crowd and get picked up right away.

So your game’s going to get added to a pile of work, all of which takes time, and which is being constantly re-prioritised on the fly. And the more time that passes since your launch or announcement, the less relevant the story is, and the more likely it is to get dropped.

If you want news coverage, you want to be talking to the press at least a week or two before that story is due to land. Get buy-in from journalists and editors. “Will you be covering this on Thursday the 14th at 4PM? Yes? Fantastic. I’ll buy you a cake.”

Online previews and reviews, we’re talking three or four weeks beforehand. Get them the code early. They might not have time to play it for two weeks. Make sure everyone knows when the embargo is. Get them to buy into publishing at that time.

That number goes up to two months for print, by the way. Editors typically know what’s going in a magazine around six weeks before the street date, and deadline day is usually a couple of weeks before that issue hits the shelves.

So I think by following these tips, we can all increase our chances just a little bit of getting some good coverage. And that’s almost the end of my talk.

Just a final thought to leave on, though, because I think it’s important to be honest:

It might be that PR just isn’t going to cut it for your game.

If you’re making something super-niche or, heaven forbid, a mobile game, your chances of getting good coverage are always going to be slim, even if you follow all these tips.

And honestly, PR isn’t always the best way of getting sales. Not directly, anyway. PR is about building up a wider awareness of your game, building credibility.

A single good review might tip someone who’s on the fence over into being a customer. But it’s unlikely to make thousands of people rush out and buy your game.

PR works best when it’s used in combination with other marketing strategies – events, advertising, whatever – but don’t always expect to see a clear through-line to sales on its own.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and do consider other options.

And, that’s that! Indie games PR, rising from the ashes.

Maybe it’s not dead after all. It’s hard work, but careful planning goes a long way.

Thank you very much!

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