Bespoke marketing, branding and PR for games, technology and entertainment

The indie PR magic bullet

This is a re-post of a guest blog I wrote for IndieHaven.com on 5th July 2013.

If you’re a switched-on indie developer (and if you’re even bothering to read an article about indie PR then I’m assuming that you probably are) then you’ll know that promoting and marketing your game is crucial for success. You’ll know that, whether you like it or not, the likelihood of anyone finding your carefully crafted labour of love, let alone downloading it and playing it, is not in the lap of the Gods, but squarely in your hands.

If only there was a simple step-by-step guide to being good at indie PR; a magic bullet that you could load at just the right moment to fire your game into the hearts and minds of gamers everywhere. Well, I’m about to give away a trade secret but keep it under your hat, yeah?

*whispers* There is no magic bullet.

Except that maybe there is. And maybe being indie is actually the single biggest strength you have and the most powerful weapon in your promotional armoury. Not making any sense? Bear with me…

Good PR and marketing is a skill, a craft to be mastered. Like most things, it’s also something that improves with practice. It’s hard and it’s not for everyone. Sadly there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, no tick-list you can download and work through, and no sure-fire guarantees. That’s why it’s also difficult to teach because the one universal quality that makes anyone good at PR is simply a way of thinking, a mindset and an approach that can mean anything is possible.

Every game is different. Every development team is different. Every gamer is different. Therefore every promotional campaign is different. But don’t panic – if you start to think like a PR and bear a few basic rules in mind then you’ll soon start to reap the rewards. These rules are:

Timing. Tell stories. Trust. Take notice.

We’ll call them The Four Ts. Because we can. And because alliteration is always good.

Timing

The question I get asked by indie devs more than any other is “when should I start doing PR on my game?”. The answer I always give is “yesterday”. Glib, perhaps, but the truth is that it’s never too early to start telling people what you’re doing. Building a following takes time but it’s an investment you’ll never regret, even if it deflects you away from actual development.

If you’re still in the camp that believes that development and PR sit in two separate silos, and that the former is always more important than the latter, then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re looking for any degree of commercial success then you have to see those two functions as an overlapping Venn diagram. Ultimately, each side is pointless without the other.

I often cite Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell (@mikebithell) as a great example of this approach. He was super-active on Twitter long before his first game saw the light of day. He engaged with people, built a following, discussed the ups and downs of the development process and shared his journey with his community. People genuinely wanted him to succeed when the game was eventually released. He recently admitted that he often spends at least half of his time on Twitter and doing things that could be classed as PR. It may be a time-sink but it can be worth it if you do it well.

The other thing to know about timing is that even though it’s never too early, it’s also never too late. The beauty of the much-heralded ‘long tail’ of PC and mobile is that your game will always be there. It may be more hidden a little while after launch but if you can get people looking for it then you’ll still have a shot at success.

Tell stories

Telling stories is the bread-and-butter of PR, regardless of what you’re promoting. The press, especially the gaming press, are literally swamped with content these days but they’re all desperate for that unique angle, that one story that stands out from the others. The important thing to remember is that they’re just as keen to register page-views and click-throughs as you are to get your game some coverage so it’s a more balanced deal than you might think.

What gets journalists interested (because it’s what gets readers interested) is a good story, and I’m not talking about “once upon a time there was this space marine…”. I’m talking about always being aware of what your story is: as a developer, as a game, as a journey. Think about the stories you want to tell, and how the smaller tales fit under the broader story arc of where you’re heading. Give people reasons to be passionate about your work and your success.

It may be something quite big that’s prompted you to make a specific game, or it could just be something smaller that means you’re memorable to people the next time you approach them. All of these things work towards building up a picture of who you are, what you make and what you stand for. That’s what gets you coverage and engagement, not the back-of-the-box by-the-numbers USP list.

Xiotex’s Byron Atkinson-Jones (@xiotex) is a really good recent example of what I’m talking about. If you’ve seen the video for his homelessness-inspired game So Hungry then I’m sure you’ll have been as impressed as I was by the style and approach he’s taken with such a difficult topic, but the story behind what inspired him to make the game in the first place is really compelling. (If you’ve not seen it yet then check out his Gamasutra blog here.) But you don’t have to be creating something with such a specific story angle in order to get noticed or be memorable.

Up-and-coming indies the Bumpkin Brothers are a likeable and enthusiastic pair who are creating some great little games, but Rich Bawden (@bumpkinrich) also happens to be an accomplished magician. You’ll often find him practising his sleight of hand and doing card tricks at trade shows and networking events. It’s something that makes the duo memorable to any journalist who’s encountered them.

Even the smallest parts of your ‘story’ can be the edge you need to make a connection with someone or find some common ground. All of that can help you to get more exposure for your work so make use of it.

Trust

If “when do I start?” is the most common thing I hear from indie devs, then “but I can’t show you my game” is probably the most irritating. I’ve been lucky enough to speak at the excellent Launch Conference Meet the Press events on a couple of occasions (@launchconf @innobham) and one of the activities they offer for attendees is the chance to sit down with PR and press experts for brief one-to-one advice sessions. It’s frighteningly common for developers to sit across the desk and be really cagey about whatever their game or app idea is, and that lack of trust and transparency is something that will definitely hold them back.

It may be brutal, but I’m afraid it’s unlikely that whatever you’re making is so mould-breakingly unique that I’ll feel compelled to learn to code and make it myself before you do. Even if you show it to another indie developer, they’ll probably be so focussed on creating their own mould-breakingly unique game that they’re unlikely to steal the idea either. Of course, it all comes down to trust, but how do you know you can trust people?

Trust is something that people usually need to earn and you obviously need to use some common-sense and good judgement about what you show to who, but here’s the thing: the vast majority of people working in the games industry, be they developers, journalists or PRs, are doing so because they simply love it. God knows, most of them aren’t doing it for the money! Pretty much everyone I’ve met during my 20+ years in games, is so passionate about the creative heart of what makes our industry fabulous that they have a vested interest in protecting and nurturing that passion. They’re simply not interested in exploiting it. Particularly the press, who know that ‘off the record’ must mean ‘off the record’ or they’ll never get another story again.

I spoke recently to Richard Perrin of Locked Door Puzzle (@PerrinAshcroft) and he felt that one of the best things he’d done during development of his game Kairo was to involve himself in the developer ‘circle’. Not only did he get informed design feedback before he ever let it loose on the public, he also got some invaluable ‘insider’ tips on which events to attend, festivals to be part of, shows to exhibit at and a host of other ways to get his name and his game exposed to a wider audience. If he’d kept up a wall of secrecy for fear of being copied then he would never have been able to benefit from all that advice.

So, share your work with other developers, exchange tips, get advice, listen to feedback. Listen to your community too, get people playing the game and listen to what they’re telling you about what would make it better. And reach out to the press, involve them in your story, get their take on what you’re trying to achieve. You’ve got far more to gain than you have to lose.

Take notice

The last ‘T’ is a slightly vaguer one, but potentially the most important: take notice of what’s happening in the industry. Pay attention to discussions and trends that are bubbling. It’s tough to deny that there’s a good chunk of luck in the success of any given title but that doesn’t mean you can’t stack the odds in your favour or try to make your own luck. By keeping on top of the news and immersing yourself in all the industry goings-on you’re allowing serendipity to come your way. You never know where inspiration might strike.

Take Zayne Black (@DedHedZed), for instance. Well known on the Ludum Dare/game jam circuit, he’s currently in the middle of a development experiment to make a new Android game every week. It’s an ambitious challenge and, not surprisingly, he sometimes struggles to come up with a fresh idea every seven days. However, because he follows a good cross section of press and developers on Twitter, he came across a discussion between Rock Paper Shotgun’s Lewie Proctor (@LewieP) and Gamasutra/PocketGamer’s Mike Rose (@RaveofRavendale). The full story is documented by Mike here but the bottom line is that an accidental mis-typing of the game Fist Puncher brought the idea of the somewhat left-field Fish Puncher to the table. Zayne was perfectly placed to react quickly and turn the amusing Twitter exchange into a brand new game the following week, thus generating some great coverage for it in the wake of the original tweets.

All in all a perfect combination of taking notice, of good timing, of telling a great story, and of trusting the Twitter community to not rip you off.

Magic bullets not required

So, there may be no magic bullet after all and there’s no single ‘right’ way to do PR, but that’s as much of a blessing as it is a curse. It means you can be you. It means you can be indie. And that’s your biggest strength.

A good PR is creative, resourceful, open to new ideas and happy to experiment with different ways to reach and engage people. They’re tenacious, committed and passionate about their craft. I don’t know about you, but that sounds an awful lot like an indie developer to me.

 
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