I haven’t worked as a journalist or editor for a long time now, meaning I’ve often wondered what other people are sending out as PR materials. Typically, as a PR, you don’t end up on many competitors’ press lists (although inexplicably I’ve been receiving press releases from one music PR firm pretty much every week, despite telling them multiple times that the last time I wrote about music was 12 years ago).
However, in January we launched The Indie Game Website. While I’m not directly involved in the running of that site, and almost never check the PR inbox myself, I thought I’d have a sneaky peek at what other indie developers are sending out in the hope of coverage. And what I found there was really interesting.
I’ve had a number of developers ask me: what goes into a really good PR email? And the standard answers are things like: “Describe your game, link to a press kit, yadda yadda.” But reading these emails in the TIGW inbox, I realised there were a few recurring issues that were likely going to make these studios struggle to get the press attention they may well deserve.
So, in this post, I’m going to walk through a selection of them and show you where I think they went right or wrong. For obvious reasons, I’ve redacted names and personal info, but I’ve also redacted anything I felt could be used to identify their game, because I don’t think it would be fair if it were possible to do so. So apologies for all the black bars, but I’ll go ahead and assume you understand.
Here’s an example of an email that will almost never get any sort of response. It’s obviously been sent to a bunch of people at once, so no indication of why it’s been sent to this particular editor. The game description (redacted for privacy) is a few words long and doesn’t really say anything. The press kit linked in the email contains almost no information or high-quality images – although kudos for including a link to download the game in the email. There’s also just not much an editor can do with this email. There’s no story to tell, no information to disseminate. “I made a video game” is not newsworthy.
This one’s better. The email is tight and concise, contains some important information displayed clearly, plus clear links to assets. A direct link to some screenshots would have made it even better. What I really like here is that there’s a clear story to tell (“we just opened our closed alpha”) and there’s a direct question to the recipient (“would this be the kind of thing you’d be interested in covering?”). If the email had addressed the recipient individually, rather than being something that appeared to have been mass-mailed, it’d be pretty much on the money.
Yeah… if you released your game last year, and it’s now February, then you left it too late: your game isn’t newsworthy any more, making this type of content of little value to editors. Also, this is an email requesting a review that doesn’t include a key for the game. Don’t make the journalist work harder than they need to. If you want a review, send them the game straight-up.
For example, this email includes multiple Steam keys. A great idea, as an editor might like to try out a game to see if it’s worth covering, before assigning the review itself to another staff member. However, please never call your game “short and vague” and, while Steam keys are nice, it may be smart to give some indication of why you’re sending the email in the first place.
This one’s pretty good. Concise, to the point, and with assets and info clearly linked. Still, if I’m an editor here, I’m not exactly convinced. You haven’t told me why your Kickstarter is worth backing or why your game is worth covering. What makes your game awesome? Why do you deserve that hotly contested page space?
The first thing I see here is “Hello dear Editors” which makes me immediately know it’s been mass-mailed. Mass mail is fine – we use it too, when we need to reach a large number of people in a short space of time – but show a little effort. It’s not hard to come up with a couple of nice mail-merge tags to at least include the editor’s name, and preferably even their publication, somewhere in the email. Free software like Mailchimp handles it all like a boss, with a visual interface to boot. We A/B tested some mass mails once; the ones that included the journalist’s name had a 60% higher click-through rate.
This is very close to being an excellent email. Describes the game, includes assets and information, a Steam key, and all that good stuff. I still wish they’d been more direct on the reason they’re sending the email, though, something I think it highlighted by the subject line ‘Game Submission’.
That’s what I’d like to end this post by talking about. I fear there is an assumption that what games journalists do is have games ‘submitted’ to them, and that they exist as a sort of panel of judges, selecting the games to ‘award’ with coverage. Wading through the Indie Game Website PR inbox, I genuinely struggled to find an email that didn’t make this mistake. Journalists are not judges. They’re journalists. They report the news. Sometimes they critique products that are newsworthy.
Back when I was an editor, I used to get a lot of emails from indie developers saying “here is my game, check it out” – and sometimes that game looked great, but there was so little I could actually do with it. Is it brand new? No, it came out last month. Is there a new update? No, not really. Are there any interesting stories surrounding it? No, not really, it’s just sat there on a store front, waiting for people to find it.
It’s sad to see this doesn’t seem to have changed, and I think the most important piece of advice I would have to indie developers emailing the press is: figure out what you want from them, ask for it, and give them the tools to deliver. If you want a review, send them code ahead of release and say “we’d love to see a review on your site when the game launches next week – do you think that’s something you’d be interested in running?” If you want your news covered, make sure you actually have a story to tell, and ask them if they think it could be fit into their news schedule? If you just send your game and a few links – or, worse, just a few links – you’re asking the journalist or editor to do all the mental work of researching and figuring out how they might be able to run a story on it, and the fact is, most are too busy to be bothering with that, and will move onto the next newsworthy item.
So in the spirit of openness and sharing, here’s an email I sent out yesterday, which resulted in coverage on a website with over a million monthly readers. It is worth acknowledging that, because I’m not the main person behind the game, I’m able to big it up a bit more than I’d have felt comfortable with as the main creative force, so do bear that in mind. Names redacted, natch.
Subject Line: [Game Name] news on [Website name] this afternoon?
Hi [Name], hope all is well.
I was hoping you might be interested in covering some news that I personally am super excited about. The Piano – Mistaken Visions’ noir horror adventure – will release on Steam this Spring, and there’s a brand new teaser trailer and set of screenshots. Which is especially exciting because we’re directly involved in the project, having partnered with Mistaken Visions to help them out not just with the PR side of things, but also in a sort of producer/design consultant capacity.
So, that’s exciting! It’s a game I absolutely love, hence the partnership. The Piano is a really different kind of horror game – with traditional survival horror at its core, but a noir-influenced aesthetic and deeply personal story taking centre stage. For an unfunded indie game made primarily by one person, it’s among the most atmospheric and creative games I’ve played in ages.
Anyway – full press release attached, which is going out at 1PM, plus here’s a link to the teaser trailer and here’s a new batch of screenshots. The Steam page is already online too so people can get wishlisting.
What do you reckon? Worth a story on [Website Name]?