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Month: July 2013

Five PR tips indies really shouldn’t read

The indie scene has matured to a point where Leigh Alexander writes an excellent list of tips for any indie looking to do their own PR. Upset at the lack of tips indies really shouldn’t read, I’ve decided to take it upon myself to create a list of the five most horrible misunderstandings in PR. Here is a list of five pieces of absolutely terrible advice for your PR strategy.

1. A good game sells itself

More than anything, realize that a good game sells itself. Contrary to what many successful indie developer want you to believe, they’re not actually spending effort on marketing – they spent their full efforts on making a good game and not telling anybody about it. When their game was finally ready to release, they released it without further marketing effort and earned ridiculous amounts of money.

Don’t have assets available online – that just stops press from having to reach out to you. If you have screenshots, trailers and information about your game online, there’s no reason for any writer to get in touch with you and that lack of interaction will without a doubt damage your exposure.

Of course, the pretense of a marketing effort is optional. Copy some of those debug screenshots from when you were hunting for that crash bug in the second level and hand those to press that do bother you, asking for screenshots. Explain the game as thoroughly as possible, preferably with a full exposition of the game’s team (see Double Fine, Assassins Creed) or the game’s fiction (see Rockstar Games, Skyrim for good examples of this) but never make the mistake of going in-depth as to what the game actually is: cloners may be abound to steal your ideas. Nobody would in good conscience claim that the press is above selling your ideas to the highest bidder.

2. Play ‘Hard to Get’

Nothing is as enticing as a good mystery. In the indie scene the use of mystery is well-documented with games like Sword & Sworcery (400,000+ units sold), more recent releases like Ridiculous Fishing and the current hype of titles like Team Meat’s Mewgenics. Outside of it, one just has to look at the likes of Thomas Bangalter’s and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s Daft Punk to see how these strategies are truly the Swiss utility knives of marketing.

The main trick behind successful campaigns is to remain unreachable until a few days before the actual release. Any piece of information that gets out without your full and conscious consent is a problem – and the press are accustomed to receiving quick and succinct replies. You want to stand out, and as such always avoid responding in a direct fashion. The press are trained to take quotes or single lines from your responses and use them out of context to infer untruths about your game for the sake of reader hits, so avoid replying or being active on public media like Twitter or Facebook to keep the ruse of mystery intact.

When you do want a piece of information published, send a quick e-mail with said information and confirm that the e-mail was sent by placing a phone-call to the recipient. Keep in mind that you should already have their phone number programmed into your phone to be able to avoid answering a call from the press in the first place. Use the phone-call to reiterate the message of the e-mail in exactly the same wording to avoid slipping up and revealing key information about your game that could be used when your marketing campaign really kicks off in the final days before and after release.

3. Attachments create attachment

The people of the press likes eye-candy as much as any other person, so making your press-release look good is important. A common mistake to avoid is to send your release as plain text. Plain text is not only easier scanned and disposed of by the spam filters that the press uses to filter out any news that isn’t AAA news from established PR companies, it’s also plain boring to look at.

Instead, always make sure to send a blank e-mail to avoid the filters and attach your full press release as a PNG or PDF. Open standards like ODT are also recommended, since it’s a small effort for writers to install OpenOffice or LibreOffice. Make gratuitous use of custom fonts and large images to convey your message and don’t forget to add a background image to each individual page of the file.

Since you’ve taken care that no assets are available online, you can now leverage that to send these over. Archive high-quality concept art and the high-quality trailer and send those over, ideally protected by a password the press needs to requires from you. That way you can gauge interest at all times.

As a general rule of thumb, if the attached file is sufficiently large, press will automatically be interested in downloading said file to check out what’s in there. File sizes of over 250MB tend to do remarkably better.

4. It’s just a job and you’re the salary

Of course writers and journalists maintain a persona of genuine interest and sincere care about the state of the medium and the games released in it. It is important to realize that these people are the media and portraying such an image while controlling the media is a painfully trivial task. In reality, the press knows just as well as you do that it’s just a job they have to do to pay the rent.

That’s a good thing for you as aspiring marketing expert, because that basically turned you into their ability to pay for food. As such, it’s definitely acceptable to feel entitled to your article being written the way you want it. In fact, it’s one of those situations in which the sort of confidence many pickup artists can tell you about will do you a lot of good. If you feel sufficiently confident, one trick that always work is to not send (p)review builds to any website but one. Not only will this establish to the press that you feel your game is worth paying for, it will also net you some extra sales.

Another thing to note is that occasionally, you’ll run into writers that do write for free. Always ask whether someone from the press is getting paid for their job. If they’re not getting paid, they’re not worth your time: these self-proclaimed ‘passion’ writers are unpredictable and less likely to follow your intentions, as they’re not being held responsible by the economies that govern quality writing. Think of it this way: if they were any good at writing, they’d have a paid job.

5. Control your messaging

There’s nothing as important as to create a consistently positive narrative for your game. If a single website writes negatively about your game, it’s more likely that other websites will be influenced by that: the press often doesn’t have time to come up with opinions of their own and will refer to one another to find out what opinion is popular to have. Most websites will follow the more accepted opinion while some are known to intentionally chose an opposing statement.

As such, it is important to control your messaging. One of the best commonly known ways to achieve this is by imposing embargoes – dates before which certain news cannot be published. Embargoes are commonly implemented by superimposing a big, red stamp over each individual page diagonally. Less known but more effective measures include a threat to sue the journalist for only using part of the press release or using it in context of a negative article.

If a website posts negatively about your work, consider spending some money on a lawyer to sue the website for copyright infringement or slander. As soon as a single asset from your game is used, whether it is a screenshot, a trailer or a sentence from either the in-game text or your press release, threatening with legal action will often result in settling out of court.

Knowing about this common practice should also tell you everything you need to know about leaks: if they were truly leaks, they wouldn’t be on the large gaming blogs but on conspiracy websites instead.

 
 

If you made it to this point in the article without realizing all the above is absolutely terrible advice, please read Leigh’s post linked at the top, read everything here and read this post again while continuously wondering ‘why is this bad advice?’. Feel free to send me a tweet if you get stuck.

Please #ff this post on Twitter.

Just some words

Ryan Davis passing away triggered some thoughts in my head that I simply had to write down to get them out of my head. This isn’t a blogpost about games, game development or game business, it’s about how being a part of this industry has an inexplicable but profound effect on the way I perceive life. It might be a bit of a ramble.

Egypt

I haven’t always been a traveler. Before starting Vlambeer, I had only really been to my home country, the Netherlands, and my fathers’ country of birth, Egypt. They’re wonderful countries – with the situation in Egypt being extremely worrisome at the moment – with completely opposite cultures. Living in both countries for prolonged periods of time taught me a lot about the relativity of life and the non-existence of a global truth and gave me conflicting perspectives on worldwide issues like poverty, politics and sexism. Being raised bilingually, if only a little bit, with a religion not shared by most of the country gives you a sense of just how important reference frames and perspectives are to your own, personal truths.

I’ve always been a curious human being. I remember my first Vlambeer trip, to the European Game Developers Conference in Cologne and being incredibly interested in how public transit worked in the city. I remember thinking that the people in Germany were nice, that the traffic was sort of weird and that the architecture was surprisingly diverse. I spent hours sitting at a staircase near the Cologne Cathedral just watching things happen.

I haven’t always been a people person. I’m still not sure whether I’m an introvert on an extrovert. Sometimes I feel like people give me energy, but often I’ll need time to recharge on my own. I’ve always been someone who likes people, though – people fascinate me. If I’m bored, I’ll just find a little spot somewhere above the daily life – people never look up (they should, slightly above where you’ll normally look is where humanities urge to hide infrastructure disappears) – and watch life happen.

Week of Hatred

Like that first spark of inspiration in me when I first modified QBASIC’s GORILLAS.BAS at the age of six, that trip was a defining moment. Where GORILLAS.BAS sparked a lifetime of curiosity towards programming and making things that you can interact with, sitting on the staircase in Cologne sparked a life of travel. Since, I’ve visited dozens of countries in Europe and the United States and I’m expanding that to South America and Asia soon. I’ve scurried across the United States in a car with friends, I’ve spent hours sleeping on a friends shoulder in a train through Scandinavian plains and I’ve spent long nights talking to people while falling asleep in a hotel room.

I don’t know where home is anymore. Some people joke that my new home is the inside of an airplane or the hallways of an airport. Someone said something that made me profoundly sad, when they told me my home is wherever my laptop is (after which said laptop got stolen less than two months later). Today I realized that I don’t really care what home is anyway. The world is connected enough to be anywhere within 24 hours, and the internet keeps us in touch whereever we may be.

During my trips, I’ve met an endless torrent of people – personal heroes, aspiring students, passionate developers, witty journalists and amazing fans. I’ve become friends with many of those people, and I’ve shared a lot of my life with these people. Some I run into at pretty much every conference, some only at events in the United States or in specific areas of Europe. Some I run into once or twice a year. Nothing emphasized the absurdity of this situation more than last year’s Penny Arcade Expo on the East Coast, when after hurriedly breaking down the Vlambeer booth I flew to San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference, just to meet with a lot of the same people again.

Whereever

I run into the same people over and over again, in different corners of the world, and we don’t care where it is. We laugh, eat, drink, joke, argue and talk about everything as if it were our backyard. Sometimes, it actually is someone’s backyard and there’s a small bonfire with a dozen people warming themselves to the fire, sometimes it’s in the giant halls of a conference center. Sometimes, it’s sitting on the pavement of a Berlin suburb, sometimes it’s on a bench overlooking some place in Boston.

Regardless of the variables, these people are my friends. They’re people I’ve come to deeply care about, regardless of just how often I see them. It doesn’t matter to me, because all that matters is to me is that these people exist and do wonderful work. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of these people. Maybe, as a professional, you’ve helped me out when I needed something, you thanked me for advice, followed me around with a camera for a week or wrote a thing about the thing I’m working on. As friends, you’ve inspired me with games or passion or one of your eclectic interests. As friends, you’ve offered me a place to stay at while I was over, or maybe you’ve cheered me up when I felt down, or spent nights laughing on Skype, Twitch or Hangout. We might’ve roamed the streets of strange cities together, played awkward games together or had midnight breakfast together while we should really go to sleep before the next day of the conference happens.

You are all part of a lot of the most wonderful memories I have. You’re the closest to home I have. Today reminded me that I should thank you all for that. I’ll buy you any non-alcoholic beverage when I run into you again sometime.

Competition as a force beyond good and evil

Now that we’re preparing the release of the first update for Ridiculous Fishing, it’s a rare opportunity to reflect on two years of hard work and controversy. There’s one final subject that has been bothering me since the start of the Ridiculous Fishing cloning debacle, and it’s been one that has required me to think for a long time. That subject is the place of competition in our industry.

For some people, competition is some sort of magical force that makes things improve. That’s perfectly fine – some people need some sort of external quality bar. When Ridiculous Fishing got cloned, they were the people that told us that that’s how free markets work and that we should ‘just make a better game’. When I responded that we don’t want to compete (that’s why we try and make new, original games) they somehow felt this was an issue that should be corrected.

As the business half of Vlambeer, I try to keep competition out of what we’re doing. Just like at any good game jam, we’d rather be helping out than competing with each other. What surprised me, however, was that some people felt that this was –for some reason- an inferior stance towards the business of videogames. Zachary Knight, for example claimed Vlambeer had started to suddenly love competition now that we had ‘beaten’ Ninja Fishing. That’s not true. The only reason we cared about ‘beating’ Ninja Fishing – whatever that may mean – is so that we could show the industry at large that when you clone a game, you do get an inferior product. We wanted to show the industry that making games because you want to make games is the better way to go about game development.

The problem is that these people have an outdated understanding of motivation in relation to business or entrepreneurship. They see the economy at large being driven by competition, but cannot separate the larger forces at play from the individual motivations that drive people.

For Vlambeer, competition is not a driving force – in fact, like in the case of Ninja Fishing forcing us to compete with them, it’s often a distraction. Our driving force is outdoing ourselves: the next game has to better than the previous. Our next marketing campaign has to be tighter than the last. Our next deal needs to be better than the previous. Our next interview better than the last. Our next talk needs to be more effective, our next seminar more educational, our next gamejam more useful. Not because of the market, not because of the economy, not to show the world that we’re better than others – but because we want to get better.

Talks

On a much larger scale, though, Vlambeer wants to cooperate. We both care a lot about game development, about indie development, about the people already in the industry and the people trying to get into the industry. We’ve set up dozens of opportunities to help out and co-organize a large number of events and initiatives to that point. We realize that, if we want gaming to be a healthy, welcoming environment, you have to treat people coming into the environment with respect and courtesy. You tell them that making games is about making games and helping one another out. If you want them to rip off ideas instead of creating their own, you teach them that it’s just about competition and that making games isn’t about making games, but about minimizing costs and optimizing profits. It’s that simple.

Sure, you need to make enough money to stay afloat, but the verbial pie is large enough to share it amongst all of us – often without the need to compete at all. Chris Hecker explained this eloquently in his GDC 2013 talk, in which he pointed out that Nobody Knows About Your Game. Eitan Glinert worded things even better: ‘We’re not competing with each other, we’re competing with obscurity.’ The fact that someone bought an indie game doesn’t mean they won’t buy another indie game – in fact, it’s more likely that they will.

What I do isn’t about being better than somebody else, it’s about being relevant to the industry, the medium and the people I care about. It’s about making sure I work with Jan Willem and the rest of our collaborators to make great games for the fans. It’s about helping out other developers, whether they’re just starting out in an emerging region or established developers looking for some feedback, It’s about inspiring and informing students all around the world. It’s about sharing and cooperating against obscurity. These are sentiments that I see all around the scene, cooperation instead of competition, sharing instead of patenting, collaborating instead of antagonizing.

Whether you want to compete, improve, dabble, change the world, just have fun – or whatever your motivation to make games may be – know that your motivation is perfectly valid whatever anyone on Gamasutra tells you. Make the games you want to make, make them with the tools you like – and most importantly, make them on your own terms.

#FF

One of the nicer traditions of Twitter is #FF, or Follow Friday. I’m terrible at slimming lists down to a 140 characters, so instead I made a list of all my favorite sources for the different aspects of videogames. The rules were simple – people only (so no Vlambeer), people that retweet and aggregate news preferred, people that spam a lot excluded.

Obviously, this list is not final – it’ll evolve and change over time. It’s also most likely not a complete list. I did compile the whole thing into an actual Twitter list that you can follow, just for convenience.

Games:

  • @jwaaaap – Jan Willem Nijman is my fellow Vlambeer. Good music, too.
  • @PTibz – Phil Tibitoski is one of the minds behind Octodad & great insight / perspectives on modern indie development.
  • @ADAMATOMIC – Adam Saltsman, Canabalt, Hundreds, news, industry insights and musings on the state of the medium.
  • @KellyWallick – Kelly Wallick is the Indie MEGABOOTH Overlord.
  • @ZoeQuinnzel – Zoë Quinn of Depression Quest has great insights into the gaming scene, also pyrotechnic.
  • @zoewi – Zuraida Buter, organizer of many events and initiatives. Also Global Game Jam.
  • @brandonnn – Brandon Boyer, creator of Venus Patrol, IGF chairman and Fantastic Arcade organizer. Wonderful curated culture in all sorts, often related to games.
  • @terrycavanagh – Terry Cavanagh of VVVVVV and Hexagon, creator of freeindiegam.es, interesting insights and developer perspectives.
  • @AdriaandeJongh – Adriaan de Jongh, creator of Fingle. Interesting perspectives on social interaction, good postmortem writer.
  • @VideoDreaming – Robin Arnott – creator of Deep Sea. Interesting ramblings about random things.
  • @HelloCakebread – Davey Wreden, The Stanley Parable. Toughts, ramblings, satire and game development.
  • @smestorp – Michael Brough, Corrypt, Zaga-33 & GlitchTank, one of the best game designers around.
  • @bfod – Bennet Foddy, QWOP, CLOP, Super Pole Riders, interesting academic perspective.
  • @doougle – Douglas Wilson, Johann Sebastion Joust, interesting perspective on games, academic, good taste of music.
  • @helvetica – Zach Gage, Spelltower, Ridiculous Fishing, news, smart insights and intersting conceptual questions and musings
  • @aeiowu – Greg Wohlwend, Hundreds, Ridiculous Fishing, smart analysis of many situations, great artist.
  • @notch – Markus Persson – Minecraft – Industry perspectives and development.
  • @MikeBithell – Mike Bithell, Thomas Was Alone, interesting opinions and insights.
  • @shahidkamal – Shahid Kamal Ahmed – SCEE, interesting perspectives and thoughts about indie game development.
  • @Jonathan_Blow – Jonathan Blow, Braid, The Witness – industry perspectives and development.
  • @PHIL_FISH – Phil Fish, Fez – Diplomatic tweeting, industry perspectives.
  • @TimOfLegend – Tim Schafer – Industry perspectives.
  • @infinite_ammo – Alec Holowka – industry perspectives, news.
  • @checker – Chris Hecker, Spy Party, industry perspectives and development.
  • @zimmermaneric – Eric Zimmerman – Game design.
  • @flantz – Frank Lantz – Game design.
  • @nealen – Andy Nealen – Graphics, industry perspectives.
  • @grapefrukt – Martin Jonasson – Game development.
  • @kylepulver – Kyle Pulver – Offspring Fling, Snapshot – Game design and development.
  • @MaxTemkin – Max Temkin, Cards Against Humanity –
  • @pietepiet – Paul Veer, pixel art and animation.
  • @ibogost – Ian Bogost – Academic perspectives, game design.
  • @ludist – Tommy Rousse – Academic perspectives.
  • @andreaszecher – Andreas Zecher – promoterapp, Spirits – industry perspectives, tools and opinion.
  • @avantgame – Jane McGonigal – industry perspectives, applied games.
  • @JoostDevBlog – Joost van Dongen, industry perspectives and development, great blog.
  • @Demruth – Alexander Bruce, Antichamber – industry perspectives.
  • @krispiotrowski – Kris Piotrowski, Below, Sword & Sworcery, industry perspectives, art.
  • @MsMinotaur – Adriel Wallick – Perspectives and satellites.
  • @Capy_Nathan – Nathan Vella, Sword & Sworcery, industry perspectives, business.
  • @c_hedborg – Christoffer Hedborg – industry perspectives, good music.
  • @auntiepixelante – Anna Anthropy – industry perspectives and game culture.
  • @S0phieH– Sophie Houlden – industry perspectives and jam culture.
  • @retroremakes – Rob Fearon – industry perspectives and jam culture.
  • @dom2d – Dominique Ferland – industry perspectives, art and interesting games.
  • @jukiokallio – Jukio Kallio, KOZILEK – Game music.
  • @C418 – Daniel Rosenfeld – Game music.
  • @awintory – Austin Wintory – Game music.
  • @sosowski – “Sos Sosowski” – Game jam culture.
  • @McFunkypants – Christer Kaitila – Game jam culture.
  • @kertgartner – Kert Gartner – Game trailers and beautiful visual stuff.

Design:

  • @Chrisoshea – Chris O’Shea, interaction designer, design thoughts and musings.
  • @coffee_nat – Natalie Hanke, designer of VOID and beautiful typography.
  • @mathewkumar – Mathew Kumar, often intriguing perspectives, games as counterculture.
  • @CorySchmitz – Cory Schmitz, design and art.
  • @ScottBeale – Scott Beale, design, weird things.

Press:

The politics of four dollars

Imagine you need 4 dollar to make a sports game. Seriously, let’s imagine it costs four dollars. Sure, it’s going to be somewhat of a tight budget, but it’s doable.

It’s a sports game made with a great team, well-crafted and beautiful and progressive and in your mind, it is everything you want it to be. You go straight for some publisher funding, and through some rough negotiations you end up getting the project signed with EA Games at 30 dollars.

With all this extra money, you could make this a way better game for the consumers. You look at your scope – what we call our goals – and decide to re-scope the project for thirty dollars. You can’t make a game that costs 4 dollars with this budget – what will the publisher think? What will people think? It needs to show these production values.

You start working on the game and several month into the production of the game you’re down to the last 10 dollars and the things you’ve designed for thirty dollars might be a little bit more than you can afford to properly make with those last 10 dollars. Of course, marketing has already started talking about the game and expectations have been raised that this will be a production with good values. You look at the new scope and decide you need an additional 15% of funding, let’s say another 4 dollars. With 14 dollars, you should be good.

EA Games refuses the additional 4 dollars and you start running out of money. You mention this in the press and in interviews. You talk about how you can’t just cut down on scope at this point. EA still refuses the extra money. The game is released in a state that’s not nearly as good as it could’ve been. People are disappointed, your game gets slammed on Metacritic and finally, you decide to explain your side of the story in the press. You talk about the initial overfunding, the subsequent overscoping, the long hours, an increasingly battle-worn team struggling against an uphill foe while money was running out, a game that was going to under-deliver no matter what. If only you would’ve gotten that additional few dollars of funding to really wrap up the game.

Imagine what the comments would look like. EA would get slammed. Hadn’t they been warned about those four extra dollars?

Now multiply all the values by 100.000, replace EA Games with Kickstarter, sports game with adventure game and you with Double Fine. Isn’t this exactly the beautiful thing about Kickstarter? That developers don’t have to compromise, like they would’ve if they’d been beholden to a publisher? That we can find new, creative solutions to problems like these?

This is what they were thinking about.

There’s no doubt that overscoping is a problem and there’s no doubt the responsibility is on Tim and his team. Here’s the deal, though: this is game development and some games are made with under half the budget, some are made that need double the budget. Double Fine set out to make a game with eight times the budget we had on some of our titles and suddenly had to re-scope when Kickstarter expectations were they were going to release a game that’s worth three million dollars. Instead of holding back, they are trying to give every single one of their backers the maximum amount of game for their money.

Kickstarter has some weird quirks to it and overfunding combined with consumer expectations seems like one of the most devious ones. That they managed to stay within a margin of error of 15% is also on Tim and his team and I think that’s an impressive margin. I think it’s even more impressive that they communicate openly and honestly about these problems. I’ve always tried to be as open and honest about this at Vlambeer. This is not some hyper-idealized reality for a documentary: this is real.

Welcome to the trenches, internet – and thanks for taking people there, Double Fine.