Two important lessons I’ve learned about game PR

I’ve been making a game called Race The Sun for about 6 months now, with my brother Forest.

During this time, in addition to development, we’ve also done a lot of things outside of the game itself. We’ve done frequent blog and social media updates. We made a “teaser” video, and sent press emails to try and stir up some previews. We developed a somewhat unique business model, in hopes that it would create a “marketing story” for ourselves as a company and help build a community.  We held giveaway contests. We setup a Greenlight page and a forum on our website to try to further our community-building.

We also released an early “alpha demo” on Kongregate of the game, and opened up pre-orders on our website, with Kickstarter-like tiers of purchase. We even entered the game in the IGF

These things have had varying levels of success – but they’ve also taken an awful lot of time away from actually finishing the game. Once in awhile, I think it’s important to evaluate where you’re spending your time, to ask yourself what’s working and what’s not.

Here are two lessons in particular that have given us some clarity:

Lesson 1: Be Aware of The “Imagination/Reality Gulf”

In other words: Take a step back once in awhile and objectively look at what’s actually in the game.

Why Am I talking about this in an article about PR?

The problem for most of us, is that during development there’s always a gulf between where we imagine the game to be when it’s finished, and where the game actually is right now. This gulf is always a lot bigger than we realize, because we’re mentally focused on the light at the end of the tunnel.

For Race The Sun, I see a game with a unique form of asynchronous multiplayer, built-in mod tools, multiple game modes, and a lively dynamic world with a vibrant community who comes back every day to see what the new world offers.

The problem is – the game’s not quite there yet! But it’s so easy to get ahead of ourselves. We start making snazzy websites, and promo trailers, and building forums, and doing YouTube videos and Facebook pages to start “building a community.” And in the meantime, the game’s actual progress slows down, and the most important, standout features remain in our heads. And at the same time – we start getting discouraged that people aren’t as excited about the game as we hoped they would be — all the while forgetting that the coolest features are still in our heads.

To be clear – our game is fun.  I feel I can say this objectively, given its nearly 4.0 rating on Kongregate, despite being a “demo” and despite requiring a plugin (both of these facts tend to attract lots of 1-star reviews.)
But even though people love the game for a few hours, we haven’t yet implemented what we believe to be the game’s most standout features, and we haven’t given it that spit-shine level of polish that will grab people’s attention at first glance.

Lesson 2: “Getting Noticed” Doesn’t Makes Your Game A Success

Neither does winning awards.

It’s rough being an “invisible indie.” You send emails and tweets and get no response. You post on gaming forums or Reddit, and almost nobody notices. It’s frustrating – after all, the game is fun, right?

I feel like we’ve started to finally get past this hump. Rock, Paper, Shotgun wrote about us. PC Gamer listed us in their games to watch for 2013.

But it’s important to realize – getting the press to talk about your game isn’t what’s going to make it a financial success. It’s about the players, and what they actually think about your game when they try it. The press are just players who influence a few more people at a time. But fundamentally, press write-ups will do you little good, on their own. Their reactions and the fact that they take notice of your game is mostly just a reflection of what players think.

Case in point: when RPS wrote about us, it drove about 2.5k visitors to our site. This was great and exciting because it was the biggest press we’ve had so far – but in the grand scheme, we need this kind of visibility every day, and once the article falls off their front page, our traffic went back to where it was. Compare this to the traffic we got for “free” from our Kongregate release – over 50k people played it in a single weekend when we launched. Getting yourself on a platform that feeds you users effortlessly is much more effective way to gain fans than “getting noticed” by a journalist or celebrity. We’ve decided to refocus on the game itself and making it into something worth talking about.

It’s About The Game

Realizing that the press don’t hold the keys to our success was kind of an “aha” moment for us.

Here’s my somewhat revised theory of good game PR, at least as it relates to our particular game:

Great PR isn’t assuming your game is good enough, and then sending tons of emails to try to get one out of twenty journalists to notice.

Great PR is when you can show your game to 10 people, and 5 of them become fans who play for weeks and tell their friends, and it turns into 50 people.

And I’m realizing that there are a lot of things we can do to effect this, none of which involves making lists of people and sending them emails and Tweeting at them for days on end.

For example:

Make a game that’s easy to start playing.

Make it a game that looks like it’s worth playing.

Make a game that people will play for a long time(examples: Minecraft, Triple Town,) or at least enjoy intensely for a short time (Frog Fractions, Thirty Flights of Loving)

Make it easy for people to share your game on the internet.

Make it possible for people to play your game for free, at least in some form.

Make it a game that people can make a hobby out of. People are more likely to share their hobbies than something they find mildly amusing.

So, there it is. We’re no PR experts, but we’re learning that it’s more about the game than anything else. Here’s our plan going forward:

First, let’s make the game something that’s undeniably worth playing and talking about.

Then we can worry about getting the world at large to take notice.



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