Jon and I are on a call with a developer. It’s an initial call about the possibility of working together. They’re informal discussions, these initial calls: they help us to get a sense of whether we might be a good fit for the game, whether our ambitions align, and what sort of promotional work might be the best for their project.
One of the questions I like to ask in these calls is: “What does success mean to you?” Often people seem a bit nonplussed by this question, like, isn’t it obvious what success means? But almost every developer has a different answer.
This developer answers without missing a beat. “Well, I mean, to get press coverage, of course. Like, can you get us on Kotaku?”
The indie game PR dream?
You can replace ‘Kotaku’ with ‘IGN’ or ‘Gamespot’, but the message is the same: “We’re looking for an agency that can get us on the very biggest games websites.” But while having this in mind as an objective does communicate something about a developer’s vision, it’s often not the most helpful measure of success – and sometimes not even especially helpful from a promotional perspective.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why Kotaku may be an indie developer’s dream. It’s one of the biggest games websites on the planet, read by more than 15 million people each month. It’s also a highly engaged audience. A glance at Kotaku’s biggest stories of the week might lead you to hundred-comment-long threads that have been widely shared around the web by the site’s passionate and vocal community.
And it’s a household name in the gaming community, one of the most recognisable games media brands on the planet. To be covered by Kotaku (or IGN, or Gamespot) is to gain a tangible amount of prestige – and in the world of PR, prestige alone can go a long way.
Analysing the audience
All this said, when we’re designing a PR campaign for one of our clients, we need to be smart and calculated in the way we expend our promotional energy. And often, the tangible results that a story on Kotaku has on an indie game’s success are less than one might think.
For one thing, Kotaku – and, yes, IGN and Gamespot and the like – produces an especially high volume of content. Yesterday, Kotaku posted 40 stories on its US portal alone. Stories on the front page stay there for a matter of hours before being lost to oblivion. (In a sense, Kotaku isn’t too bad in this respect, compared to the competition. On Gamespot, only ‘popular’ stories make the front page by default at all.)
The content does get read, of course. But by whom? Kotaku’s audience largely comprises console gamers who are embedded in gamer culture. They play mainly on PlayStation and Xbox platforms, they value high production values and flashy marketing materials depicting fast-paced action. They are overwhelmingly male, and based largely in North America (Kotaku redirects international users to their own local portals, which are independently run and have much smaller readerships). Apparently they spend an above-average amount of money on amusement park tickets, but that’s probably a data point we can safely ignore. Unless you’re making a new RollerCoaster Tycoon, perhaps.
They also have – and this is not a dig at Kotaku readers, just a statement of fact – relatively short attention spans compared to readers of other games websites. Kotaku readers average 1.7 page views per visit. This suggests most readers scan the home page and maybe click through to one full article or discussion. They’re on the site for a little over 2 minutes a day. (By way of comparison, Gamespot’s numbers are 2.2 and 2:20; IGN’s are 2.6 and 2:34).
What does this mean?
It means that if Kotaku covers your game, it may spark a discussion – but it may simply fall down the listings, to be forgotten about within 24 hours.
It means that discussions that do form around your game might be negative. Sites that primarily cater to AAA console gamers, which then publish a story about a more humble indie game, often become very hostile spaces – with readers bemoaning “yet another crappy indie game” or finding it hilarious that your graphics shaders aren’t as competent as those used by first-party studios for their $100 million production.
And stories that get lost in the crowd, or which don’t resonate with the readership, are unlikely to serve you too well when it comes to getting people hyped up for launch day. But to dwell on these aspects is to miss an even more crucial point, an elephant in the room, which is that Kotaku probably won’t cover your game at all, no matter how hard any of us tries.
Why Kotaku won’t cover your game
Kotaku simply doesn’t regularly cover indie games. In the past three days (that’s around 40 stories a day, remember), aside from it’s ‘Weekly Indie’ video (weekly indie – think about how many indie games are released each week), Kotaku has covered two indie games. One is Frostpunk, whose developers 11Bit Studios were founded by ex-CJProjekt types and have already shipped multiple successful titles. The other is Death Road To Canada, which only made the news in reference to the horrific Toronto attack this week.
In the same time frame, Far Cry 5 has been covered twice, PUBG three times, and God of War six times. It’s no coincidence that these are currently among the highest-tending Google search terms leading people to Kotaku.
Why doesn’t Kotaku really cover indie games? Because, as we’ve established, Kotaku’s readers don’t really enjoy that many indie games. It’s not a good fit for their readership.
None of this is to say you should blacklist Kotaku. But it is about figuring out where best to invest your time and resources. Getting on Kotaku is going to be a challenge. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, a lot of failed pitches, an immense amount of reading to figure out which reporters work which shifts and which are the most likely to cover indies on which day and at what time. And even then it might not work. And even if it does, people might not care or, worse, leave with a negative impression of your game.
You might start to ask yourself if getting on a site like Kotaku is really the smartest campaign objective after all.
OK, never mind Kotaku then. What should you aim for?
Getting on the biggest games websites can be a great boost, but it’s important to think strategically about your wider marketing goals, and how your PR efforts need to fit into that.
If you want prestige then, sure, getting the occasional story in the major outlets can be a great way of developing that. But if you want to build a meaningful audience, more niche outlets are often a great way to start out.
If you’re making a PC game, then platform-specific websites such as Rock Paper Shotgun, PC Gamer and PCGamesN all have large readerships, who play games on your target platform, and who are more receptive to indie games than readers of most multiplatform websites. Even if their readership is half that of Kotaku’s, it’s very likely that the number of receptive readers is many times higher.
Plus, PR works best when your audience is exposed to your content regularly over a long period of time. The biggest games websites may struggle to justify running one story a month about your indie game in the run-up to launch – but smaller sites might be able to offer you that. A website like GameReactor.eu – which serves content to half a million readers a month – might be much smaller than the big three, but its willingness to get behind indie games it likes the look of means much better prospects of long-term exposure.
And starting out with smaller publications, building trust among their writers and readership, can be an excellent way of impressing the bigger outlets later down the line – as it shows that you have meaningful media value (find out more about media value and how to earn your place in the press).
Of course, all of this is without even considering the other PR channels that are available to everyone these days. Long gone is the era in which the press was the only way of reaching your audience. With YouTube, Twitch, social media and community all more vital tools than ever, investing more of your energy in these directions from an early stage can pay dividends later down the line.
The important thing is ensuring you’ve established a strategy, and working backwards from that to develop a meaningful plan of action that works for your game, rather than playing into an assumption of what good PR should be.
Who is your target audience? Which media do they consume? Where do they hang out? How can you really engage them? And what’s the most time- and cost-effective method of doing so? These are all questions you should be asking yourself, before you hit ‘send’ on that email to firstname.lastname@example.org.