Influencers, studios and experts in marketing and PR chime in with tips on how devs can get the word out
“Everyone is making games. It's not enough to get noticed.”
TinyBuild CEO Alex Nichiporchik knows better than most the power of livestreaming. The studio announced in January that its latest game, Punch Club, wouldn’t be released on Steam until players had completed an audience-controlled stream of the title on Twitch – a feat accomplished in under two days. Twitch later estimated that referrals from its channels had been responsible for around a quarter of the game’s sales.
“You either have to create something absolutely controversial that people can't ignore, something that looks stunning enough, or learn magic tricks and pull out rabbits out of hats,” Nichiporchik continues on the battle for notability. “You really need to think outside the box to get your game noticed.”
It’s a common story, as the indie sector, finally free from the anchor of inaccessible tools and distribution, finds itself sinking under the weight of the sheer number of new creators on-board – leaving those titles that fail to capture an audience quickly and early dragged down by the ship.
“There are no best ways for developers to take,” admits marketing and PR freelancer Albert Palka. “They're hard work and dedication. Everybody should be visible on social media. Not only Facebook and Twitter, though; Reddit, Imgur, Snapchat, Vine, Instagram – all these sites are a viable option. It all comes down to whether you have an idea on how to promote your game there.
“For the past few years, the go-to platform for any game developer is YouTube and Twitch. To succeed there, you must have a playable, bug-free demo. It doesn't matter if you're still in alpha or already in beta. It has to provide the best content it can at its current development stage.”
"Gameplay is more important than 1,000 words. If its fun, everything else will follow."
Damian ‘Kenet’ Baran
“A big time media outlet or influencer can significantly improve the reach of your audience, and in some cases, be the making of your game,” echoes Wales Interactive PR and community manager Ben Tester. “Landing that big win is no guarantee and often requires a bit of luck. You make your own luck, so start early and get your game known in as many places as possible.
“Hit as many free online channels as possible and regularly engage with your audience, prioritising those channels which receive the most amount of activity. Start with the obvious: social media. Build relationships with journalists and ask them to follow you – a post share could influence other journalists you may not have a connection with.
"Don’t start a game development blog, start several. Once you’ve written one post, copy it into others to reach a different audience and think outside of the box. Running a contest? Search for media/forum sites that have a loyal community to partner up with, they tend to avoid bots and time wasters who couldn’t care less about your game. The tips and tricks are endless, but if you don’t want to break the bank then be prepared to spend a lot of time talking about your game online.”
Henry Clay, former senior digital PR manager at Activision and now director of Hype Management, observes that working with streamers and video creators is now just as vital as capturing columns of virtual print space.
“The media landscape has fundamentally changed, and when it comes to influencer relations the genie is well and truly out the bottle,” he says. “It is now an established discipline, sitting firmly alongside PR and marketing. There has been a seismic shift in the levels of influencer engagement, which is reflected by the continually increasing budgets being made available across the industry.
“Given these changes, it is harder to engage with audiences using traditional PR and marketing. Influencer relations can get through to key demographics that are otherwise hard to reach. The additional bonus by adopting an influencer relations approach is that influencers hold such a close relationship with their fans that cannot be replicated through traditional editorial content or advertising. This relationship works at a more emotional level, so when it comes to promotion, if the right influencers are selected, you have a highly efficient route to raise awareness, build hype and encourage engagement.”
To developers, their game is understandably – and rightly – a one-of-a-kind achievement. For influencers and media, however, the opposite is true.
“I get somewhere around 50 games sent to me each month from indie, triple-A and mobile devs,” reveals video creator Blitz Kriegsler, who has more than 300,000 subscribers on YouTube. “I choose the games that I think will have the best market for picking up new subscribers and the games that I think my viewers will enjoy the most.”
With media and influencers looking to identify those games that both deserve to be discussed and boast the right mix of attractive properties needed to capture an audience, how can developers convince them that their title is worthy?
“When a game is sent to me, I make up my mind on the game based on the trailer,” Kriegsler explains. “I redeem all of the keys and install the ones that look the best. I'll playtest them to make sure it's enjoyable and then record a video of the best. I rarely will do a video for a game that blindly sends me a key. I much prefer to reach out to the developers on my own and pick the best upcoming games. I can only remember one or two games out of about 600 in the last year that I've played from a key sent through a blind email.”
“When it comes to pitching a game to me, I prefer the developer to include a few screenshots, a short but informative description, and a key to the game if I need a key to cover it,” adds YouTuber and journalist Jupiter Hadley. “Hearing a bit about the developer or the studio tends to make the email a bit more personal in my opinion – I feel like I connect better with the developer if there are one or two lines on them personally or as a studio.”
“A mistake I see a lot of developers make when trying to court 'influencers' is doing a shotgun approach,” warns Tom ‘Flashgitz’ Hinchliffe, whose channel has more than 1.3 million followers and 186 million views. “They'll scoop up a bunch of highly-subscribed people in the video game category and just send out a mass email along the lines of how much they love your content and would love to work with you.”
A vital part of being sincere in your efforts to generate coverage is recognising which channels fit with your studio and game in terms of tone – don’t expect influencers to shoehorn in something that doesn’t fit.
“We had a prominent company approach us to make a cartoon for their game,” Hinchliffe recounts. “They said how much they 'love' our voice and perspective, then proceeded to give us a design brief that said 'no violence, no swearing, no offensive material' – which is basically our whole shtick. It's about knowing who you're approaching.”
YouTuber Alzorath tells devs to “lead with your strongest point and follow that with passion – show us the best of your game/trailer/idea, target your emails at individuals and groups known for covering similar genres, and demonstrate that you really want to see this project get out there”.
“Send us access before release, as releasing our videos and articles before or during the release window is best for us both,” he suggests. “While B-roll footage, screenshots and so on are nice, give us time with our hands on the game itself – this will give the most honest, engaging, and advantageous content to your potential customers and our current audiences.”
FrozenFoxy says that the benefits of video can be undermined by failing to actually show your title.
“Pictures give me an idea of what the game will be like in style and gameplay,” he says. “Videos go above and beyond to show exactly how the game is going to play to allow me to decide if the game is attractive to my tastes. If the trailer is only cinematic with no gameplay, it becomes a far harder sell to find the game interesting from that trailer.”
"Anyone who charges you for a review is stealing from you."
Damian 'Kenet' Baran, owner of the GraczWatch channel, agrees that demonstrating gameplay is vital.
“Tell me more about your game, show me some gameplay,” he states. “Provide some form of demo or review code. Gameplay is more important than 1,000 words. Give me a taste of that and, if its fun, everything else will follow. Don’t tell me that you are a small team and need my help or you will die or some thing. You have a product, a game – that's what gamers want. No Man's Sky was so hyped because it's an interesting game not because Hello Games is small or Sean Murray has a beard.”
This difference isn’t between channels, either – the format on livestreaming sites and produced video can vary as much as their users.
“Twitch streamers need games that are very easy to play while talking to your audience,” Nichiporchik observes. “A game like SpeedRunners is difficult to make entertaining on a livestream, while turn-based games like Punch Club are much easier to create your own stories.
“YouTubers have the advantage of making montages; they play games for hours and then slice that into an entertaining video. The problem is that now it's more difficult to get any coverage, as everyone is contacting them. Also, since triple-A publishers are throwing their marketing money at YouTubers, it will become excessively more difficult to get any traction during triple-A game launches. Think: don't release games between September and December.
“Both just need a Steam key, and the ability to easily get into your game. Send them a .gif, monitor who is playing your game on Twitch – drop into the chat, hangout.”
“Twitch and YouTube differs slightly in that they aren’t interested in news, press releases or what award you’ve just picked up,” expands Tester. “Instead, it’s all about the gameplay and finding an audience that enjoys the content put in front of them. Twitch streams are also great fun to get involved with as you can join them live to answer questions from the audience for a more engaging stream.”
“These platforms differ because the influencer and their audience feel like the platform belongs to them,” Clay concurs. “It feels unmediated, unfiltered and pure, unlike traditional media. The channel host will be the focus of the content, whereas press coverage will focus on the game for a news article, opinion piece or feature. From the perspective of a developer looking to work with online content creators, it’s essential to be mindful of this. With influencers, their fans might tune in to see impressive gameplay skills, be entertained by humour or gain insight from detailed commentary.”
James Beaven, director of marketing firm Keymailer, adds his observation that “livesteams don’t always hang around as VOD – indeed, you can specify that to the content creator/broadcaster – so you don’t have to worry about gameplay not being representative of the final game”.
Although this may be the case, Mikael Gustavsson, who livestreams under the moniker of Playinithard, warns that releasing a build too early can be a wasted effort.
“As a Twitch streamer, it is important to engage your audience – unless it's a very hyped triple-A game, people aren't interested in seeing games coming out in a distant future and you get diminishing returns in views,” he explains. “If it's out in a few months or just released it is interesting to me.”
He advises devs that “being on the Twitch library is very important as a Twitch streamer”.
“Get your game on the library and it'll engage more people.”
If getting your game noticed sounds like a lot of work, make no mistake: it is. The experience and expertise needed to propel an unknown title to the heights of viral stardom can be a full-time task – a tough ask, especially for smaller teams.
“Make sure your producer is also your PR guy,” suggests Nichiporchik. “That producer needs to have development experience, or ideally wears the hat of the game designer as well. If you think about exciting features that'd make your fans interested in the game more – it's crucial to focus on them. Then it's just a matter of giving an already interesting game a good boost.
“If you have the bandwidth, do everything internally. If you're a two- or three-person team, go with a PR agency. They can do a lot of things for you that you shouldn't be wasting time on – and make your game better instead. It's always good to have a new perspective on your game from a marketing/PR agency.”
“Indie games should be promoted by its creators or members of the team,” agrees Palka. “If you don't have a PR guy on board, maybe you can find one somewhere on the internet.
“From my experience, agencies usually treat every game/product the same way. To ‘sell’ your game to the public as an indie developer, you have to be authentic. The only way to achieve that is to either run the promotion yourself or work with someone who knows the game as good as you do.”
While hiring external help can be costly, when deployed properly they can pay dividends, as Beaven urges: “If you have the budget, PR agencies and consultants are invaluable to have on-board throughout the launch window - particularly if your team is suddenly swamped by support, or there’s not enough of you to keep up with enquiries.”
However, nobody knows your game as you do, meaning that a third-party agency can lose the human touch that helps so many indie titles find coverage.
"Yes, if you have the money to spend, a PR firm seems like a good idea,” admits Dan, who releases videos as Vortac. “However, I urge game devs to consider this: chances are, the right channels may not even be on the same mailing list that your PR firm is using. They don't know your game, nor the YouTubers they're emailing it to.
“These companies haven't taken the time to build any sort of relationship. All they care about is making sure you got your game sent out to X amount of eyeballs, regardless of relevancy.”
"If you have the bandwidth, do everything internally. If you're a two- or three-person team, go with a PR agency. They can do a lot of things for you that you shouldn't be wasting time on – and make your game better instead."
Alex Nichiporchik, TinyBuild
It’s not only PR and marketing firms that devs can consider investing part of their budget in to gain exposure. Some YouTubers and streamers will themselves directly offer coverage in return for cash.
One dev to experience this is Wales Interactive, which was asked to pay £14,000 by a prominent YouTuber to promote Soul Axiom – a deal the studio turned down.
“I’d be naive to think those sorts of deals don’t happen in this industry, but one would assume it’s big budget studios setting them up and not small indie studios,” Tester notes. “I’m from a studio that’s proud to be where we are today with a very small budget for marketing and advertising, so I didn’t think twice about refusing the offer.
“What’s worrying is that there was no mention of disclosing the paid promotion in the offer and I haven’t found any disclosures on other features on their channel. This hasn’t affected my approach but it has damaged my respect for this channel, and others that have approached me.”
Is Tester right to be sceptical of most video influencers – and is Wales Interactive’s experience a rarity, or indicative of a wider trend?
“When it comes to paying for YouTubers to cover your game, or being paid to cover it, it mostly comes down to whether or not YouTubers actually want to cover your game,” says Bossa Studios content producer Oliver Hindle, who also runs his own video channel. “The main question they ask themselves is: ‘Will covering this game get me more views than I would get by covering a different game?’
“Basically, if there's a lot of buzz about a game already, then it's much more desirable to be covered, and if it's not getting any pick up at all, it's just not as desirable. It's in those situations where money/commissions would potentially help incentivise coverage.”
Video creator El Gamer Cosplayer echoes Hindle that the cost can often vary with the situation.
“I've been sponsored for mentions, and it depends on the budget of the brand,” he recalls. “Sometimes it’s a small company trying to get the word out, and I help them out for a few bucks. Sometimes it’s a huge corporation with a big marketing plan for a new triple-A game coming out during the Christmas season, and I can get hundreds of dollars. For free, I would post a game link on my Facebook wall – it helps to get some people to know the game.”
The concept of paying video makers for coverage has long been a controversial topic for viewers and firms alike, and recently returned to the fore following the revelation that major YouTubers including PewDiePie had been paid to promote Warner Bros title Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor without disclosing the deal.
Alzorath retorts that devs should steer clear of such partnerships completely.
“The reality is anyone who charges you for a review is stealing from you,” he argues. “The only time you should be giving money to a content creator is if you are paying them to participate in an event as part of advertising, never for simply covering your game on their site, as this lowers the value of their content as well as lowering the legitimacy of your studio.”
Not all content creators are as dismissive, with others saying an established collaboration can be far more valuable than standard coverage – as long as studios are willing to put control in the hands of their partners.
“I love working with companies who aren't afraid to have jokes made at their expense, and who are willing to go out on a limb on an unusual or experimental idea,” says Dan Bull, who records original songs and music video based on games under the Freshnut Records label. “Despite being more risky, things like this can stand out and pay off much more if done well.
“Finally, it's not something people are comfortable talking about but the more financial incentive a studio can offer, the more inclined I am to consider working with them, and the more time I can put into the project.”
Clay says that, should you decide to work with a creator directly, the “best practice is to treat an influencer relations campaign with the same strategic attention to detail and due diligence that you would have with PR or marketing”.
“This means ensuring that budget is apportioned in the most effective way and influencers are selected on the basis of having the right fit with the campaign, and not just for their size or reach. Check that the proposed influencers have a general interest in the game’s genre, or a history of enjoying games from your studio.”
He adds that bootstrapped studios can still benefit, by making sure of the resources available to them.
“Where budget or time is in short supply, provide value with other currency,” Clay recommends. “This can come in the form of early access, bragging rights, money can’t buy opportunities and exclusivity. Methods could include distribution of codes, creation of bespoke merchandise, running social media giveaways or arranging early access capture sessions.”
With the options to get your game seen and heard seemingly limitless, developers who put in the time, effort – and, potentially, money – can see their investment establish the success of not only a title, but an entire studio.
What do content creators and influencers actually charge for coverage? We asked YouTubers and streamers for their going rates
Anonymous YouTuber: “$850 for a standalone video and $500 for each additional video. I do vary it a little bit based on the game or situation.”
Jupiter Hadley: “I do not have a rate that I charge developers for playing their game - I play them for free.”
Alzorath: “It is not your job, nor your obligation, to pay us for coverage - you shouldn't need to grease palms to get your content covered. Anyone who charges you for coverage, is stealing from you. Pay for advertisements, not reviews.”
FrozenFoxy: “I don't charge developers. If you are going to offer a great game that I can stand behind as something I enjoy, I want to support you as a developer, not have you pay me. It's important that developers are allowed to flourish and show their talent without having to pay extra to content creators to get it out there.”
Playinithard: “I never ask for money from the developer. If you do offer me money I only accept it if I am able to say what I think about the game. I have done paid promotions and it is indeed hard to stay unbiased.”
Vertigo Teaparty: “I do not charge devs for coverage. I've only been approached for sponsored deals once or twice but didn't accept as the games themselves did not appeal to me. However, I would consider a sponsored deal for a game I liked. I've honestly got no idea how much that kind of thing goes for, price-wise.”
World of Longplays: “I see charging devs as a dick move. They already have it hard enough as it is. Our coverage is 100 per cent free, but not guaranteed. If a longplayer finds a game interesting then it will get done, otherwise tough luck.”