A question I’m asked a lot at games conferences and other events is, how do I get my game covered by the press? A mistake far too many young developers make is to spend a year beavering away on an astonishing iOS title, only to finish it and then think, ‘um, what now?’ Discovery is THE major challenge of the digital distribution era and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Quality doesn’t just magically rise to the surface, and Apple can only recommend so many titles. As a studio, you must plan for this.
So, assuming you can’t afford to hire in Saatchi and Saatchi for a few months (or even get someone on your team who knows about PR and marketing), here are some of the things you should do when you want to talk to the press. This is all based on my experience, as well as the conversations I have had with other journalists from sources like Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun and Edge so I think it all holds true. Nothing here will guarantee coverage, but some of it should at least give you a shove in the right direction. Good luck.
Make an interesting, original or innovative game
Ha ha, easier said that done, right? But no, seriously, this is really important. If you want to chance your arm on the open market by creating an okay, perfectly functional tower defence game, then go ahead, best of luck – just don’t expect many game sites to cover it. Whenever a big genre breaks there are always dozens of hangers-on and bandwagon jumpers, usually proffering extremely serviceable titles – it’s just that it’s utterly uninteresting to most journalists, because there’s no story, nothing to excite the readers. If it’s a tower defence game with ballet dancers, or set in Stoke, or combined with rhythm action elements, then maybe – maybe – it’ll garner some coverage. But there is no story in ‘me too!’, only ‘me first!’
Find the right person to contact
Sending out identical emails to a whole bunch of different websites and publications, all addressed to ‘dear sir’ and containing exactly the same information, will probably not get you anywhere. That is because you are not sending a letter of complaint to a financial institution, you are marketing your game to a writer with an audience to entertain – and that writer needs to be entertained first. I don’t mean ‘be wacky’ (for God’s sake, don’t try to be wacky, unless you genuinely are wacky, in which case, best to tone it down a bit), I mean, write a personal email that communicates your knowledge of the recipient. You don’t have to tell them they’re the best writer in the industry, you just need to make it sound as though you have a vague idea what this person does. Not only is it polite, it also flatters the writer’s ego. Just don’t come across like a sinister private detective, or an insincere jerk. This takes practice.
Remember: you’re not selling a game, you’re selling a story
I know you love your game – we all know that – and your game is probably brilliant. But very few games ever speak entirely for themselves; most need a little bit of theatre to pique interest. I don’t mean you have to blow up a tank in Trafalgar Square as a publicity stunt for your new military shooter – that is massively inadvisable. I mean really, really simple stuff like, if you have a background in the industry, make that clear in your press release. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken to indie devs and then at the very end they’ll say something throwaway like, ‘oh yeah, I used to work on Metal Gear Solid; Kojima’s always ringing me up, asking for design ideas, the scamp’. Right, that’s not a closing remark, that’s an opening gambit. And it doesn’t have to be so grand – if you have any major experience at any studio, tell us about it. Not only will it add flavour to a subsequent story, it proves you have credentials, it sets you apart. It’s even better if you’ve left, or been chucked out of, a studio and have tales to tell. That’s a bargaining chip, that’s something to negotiate with – don’t get yourself into trouble, but if you have a human story of failure or anger or frustration with a big developer or publisher, hint at it and exploit it. Every good journalist opens every press release or email thinking, okay, what’s the angle? Writing ‘Here’s a competent tower defence game’, is not an angle; writing ‘here’s a competent tower defence game by the guy who got kicked in the nuts by Peter Molyneux’ is an angle.
Make everything available, make everything easy
This is an extension of the above point, but it’s hugely important. When contacting the press, make sure you attach a couple of screenshots to your email, then provide links to more on your website, as well as any YouTube trailers you have. On that website (which must also be clearly linked to in your email) have an ‘about us’ section which tells everyone who you all are, what you’ve done before and where you are based. Forget being mysterious – unless you have a bloody amazing, innovative masterpiece. If your office (or bedroom/study) is in Woking, just admit it. If you can be bothered, run a blog with a developer diary, make some amusing ‘behind the scenes’ YouTube videos, be human. Again, anything you provide is flavour to a potential story. Oh and talking about screenshots, provide proper in-game shots, not 200 images of your start-up screen, menu screen and game over screen. If you’re sending screens to a website, look at the format they usually run them in, and try to produce shots that meet that size. Journalists aren’t all lazy, but the good ones are all busy – any barriers to entry must be kicked down.
Don’t rely on email, get out there
Email is convenient but it’s also massively impersonal and easy to ignore. If you’re not the sort of person who can ring up journalists and hassle them into covering your game, you need to be more subtle – you need to play the long con of ‘being out there’. That means attending conferences, festivals and events, it means becoming a face on the scene, it means introducing yourself to journalists at the bar between sessions at Develop or Launch or Game Horizons. You don’t even have to pay for a ticket – just hang around at the bar or see if there are any free indie sessions. Just be there. Journalists are many times more likely to cover the games of people they’ve met and who have been pleasant and/or interesting, or have bought drinks.
Twitter is important. Sorry
Lots of games journalists are freelance and so spend a lot of time at home in their pants trading insults and opinions on twitter. Join them. Follow all the writers you think will be interested in your game and stalk the living shit out of them – watch what they write about, what they like, what they want; note it down. This is all ammo in your marketing onslaught. Better yet, engage with them – not too much, don’t freak them out, but if you have something to add to a social conversation, add it.
Be an expert for hire
If one day a journalists tweets, ‘oh no, I have to write about HTML 5 and I don’t have a clue’, this is your ‘in’. Point them toward your HTML 5 expert. Offer your services, be approachable. Every single good journalist has trustworthy sources for industry and technical stories, people who know all the jargon and aren’t afraid to use it. Become one of those people. Never explicitly say this, but everyone knows what is happening – you are sealing a bargain: my expertise for your coverage – or at least your attention, Goddamit.
Don’t despair, follow-up
Don’t send out one email then collapse into a heap of depression when it doesn’t result in a six-page Edge feature. Your missive may have arrived on deadline day, when the writer was out of the office for a week, when they were having some sort of breakdown – it happens. So follow it up. Send a gentle reminder, provide the assets again – be courteous, curious, insistent. Then leave it for a while. After this, try to hook in with the news agenda. This harks back to the above point, but timing is everything – if you have a multi-sports sim to tout around, then the Olympics is a pretty good time to do it. Gauge the news tone – catch Google and Twitter trends, visit News Now, know what’s going on. There may be a window for your game, an exact time to garner maximum interest, be ready for it. Be ready for anything.
Image courtesy of Dan Gril