Lessons Learned – Our First Indie PR tour!

Borut Pfeifer
07/08/2010 at 6:27 PM

While collectively all of us have a ton of experience developing games (over 33 years!), it’s been in the trenches, head down as developers. We realized though, one of the keys to success as a micro studio is getting the word out there.


It might come as a surprise that pretty much 90% of the major U.S. game news sites or publications are located in about a 5 square block area of downtown San Francisco. At E3, while we had a great time networking, most people were still too busy to even chat for a few minutes. We decided to make the trek up (in my & Ben’s case) or down (in Jake’s case) to San Francisco to meet with press and a few publishers as well.


We’re lucky for two things: The fact that Jake is 6’3″ and has a love of Japanese culture – these things in turn made him a default tour/party guide for english speaking game journalists at the Tokyo Game Show while he was living there. Years later, his friends are spread out amongst many game news sites. Don’t let that discourage you from doing this yourself – hopefully some of the stuff we learned doing PR for the first time will make it easier for you:



1. Everyone in the gaming press is actually super helpful and nice. Granted, I’m generalizing, but I’m generalizing from every single person we actually met. We had interviews with 1Up, Giant Bomb, Bitmob, Gamepro, IGN, OXM/DailyRadar, Wired, Gamespot, and stopped by the Gamasutra offices as well (we did a short interview with Chris Remo there over E3).

Us with the folks from 1Up (Sam, Sharkey, Tina) and a cameo from another former EALA-er Amer Ajami.

 


2. You don’t actually need to know *everyone* in the gaming news universe. Once you know someone, it’s an even tighter knit community than game development. Ask nice and they’ll put you in touch with people at other sites (since they’ve probably worked there or with them at some point). In case you’re worried about not being a douchebag in order to accomplish that, I’ll direct you to Darius Kazemi’s series on effective networking in the game industry.


3. Screenshots, as in, have them ready. I still can’t believe we were as retarded as going through our second interview (first non-video) with IGN, and when they asked for screenshots we were all dumbstruck and had to scramble during breaks in between meetings to get them all done. In the name of defending our collective intelligence, pretty much all our waking hours the previous week were spent polishing the demo so if we had done it even a week earlier, they would not have looked nearly as good.


4. Exclusive screens, think about it. It’s very rare a triple AAA game will give exclusive screenshots to each outlet because of the trouble involved. Yeah, it’s a pain to take 40+ different screenshots that all look equally awesome, but for a small game it’s still just a few extra hours of work. Granted, your time as an indie developer is already fractured amongst all the disciplines you must perform, but to me this is an element of polish the same as tweaking your UI to make it as readable as possible. No one may appreciate your effort conciously, but the drive for overall quality has a a subtle positive impact regardless.


5. The fact sheet. The idea of having talking points is as distasteful to me as a scotch with more than two ice cubes, but this is just meant to help out the reviewers you talk to. They’ll take notes, but they might miss one detail here or there naturally. Having a reference of all the features you’ve talked about is easy for you and makes their life easier. Include stuff like multiplayer modes, character types, just a rundown of all the features you’ll cover with them.


6. Press first, publishers second. While you might think your biggest problem is getting a deal to get on your target platform (should that be necessary in the case of something like XBLA or PSN), it will make presenting to publishers much easier. Plus when they ask for a video trailer, it’s pretty satisfying to tell them to go to established review sites.


7. Actually do cover your features. Given the fact that our demo was our vertical slice, we had three maps playable ranging in size (for us to get a sense of what the map scope should be). Some feedback in forums and comments wondered if there was much of a single player campaign – that was planned all along, but we didn’t highlight it early on causing a little confusion. When we were talking about the multiplayer, we at first didn’t even mention some of the things crucial to us while developing it (because we take them for granted) – the ease of accessing the multiplayer, being able to drop into a game in progress at any time and take over for the AI, or leave and let the AI take over for you, even being able to save and restore a networked game. Those talking points PR people have? Yeah, turns out they’re there for good reason.


The look of two men (Damian and Dan/Shoe from Bitmob) locked in mortal combat.


8. Mix up your demo. Demoing to press: if we had the time, we often let them play as we explained the gameplay so they could get an grasp of the depth of the strategy themselves.  For quick demos or for showing of the rest of the levels, one of us would play against the AI. Demoing to publishers: they rarely want to play it, so keep demos focused on showing off cool features.


9. Have a plan for what you’ll show over time. The beauty of working for yourself is that you can talk about whatever you want in the game. Players will want to see new things over time though, so you want to focus on different things as you work on the game. Since it’s early on, we just wanted to show the basic gameplay and show off the multiplayer. Next, Jake’s got a great plan for the different environments, so we have to hash out the single player storyline and then we’ll show those off. Lastly, we’ve got some great multiplayer features planned that we still have to implement, so we’ll probably show those off right before the game comes out.


A few ancillary things:


During E3, it was super helpful to have a trailer on our iPhones. Yes, if it’s not (yet) an iPhone game you will constantly be asked if it’s an iPhone game. The momentary confusion is meaningless compared to not having to drone on about your game and letting a video speak more for itself.


This shit is way more tiring than E3. Getting up at 9, partying till at least 3 am every day at E3 was nothing compared to the exhaustion we felt this week just having 3-4 meetings a day from 9-6ish. We did have to get up early each day, but we still would make it back to our rooms by 10 most nights. While you want to make the most of your time/cost while in SF, space stuff out! 3 meetings/previews a day is a lot, 4 is borderline insanity.


Parking. Seriously. You will get screwed here in downtown SF. For starters, street meter parking is $3.50 an hour, good luck trying to carry that many quarters around! On our second day, I thought we were set to meet first thing at the same cafe as the first day. An email from Ben asking where we meeting momentarily confused me, so I parked at the cafe and ran in quickly before paying the meter to check if either of them was there. In the minute it took me to walk around the cafe, I had gotten a parking ticket. In the words of Greg Kasavin, San Francisco is where “ninja school graduates go straight into parking enforcement.


Also, the caffeine in three green tea mojitos is apparently enough to cause insomnia.



Hope that’s helpful – thanks to all the press folks that took the time to talk with us!



Playing with the guys from Area 5, on the couch with drinks - the game's real "target platform".

 
 
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    i am really looking forward to this game but am a little worried about map deferentials. I really hope u guys put time into making drastically different maps. Also in the story I really hope it is epic, and that it contains many levels where things are different like instead of having to protect the shogun u protect a castle or u can only get these units or u cant die for 10 turns while u wait for reinforcements. In the end I am just worried about all the levels and everything in the game being to similiar. but in the end i am super excited for this game!
    P.S. if u ever have a bet (however unlikely) sign me up!

     
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      Right now the maps you see in our screen shots & video previews are actually our first maps – in making the game up till now, we’ve just focused on the gameplay and how things work, the overall art style, and making sure the multiplayer is as fun, fast paced, and tense as possible. Next we’re going to finish the single player, Jake’s got some crazy environments planned – I suspect you’ll be pleasantly surprised! :)

       
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    in the p.s. i meant “beta” not “bet” :P

     
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    wow i actually got a reply! lol totally surprised thanks for answering im sure i will be surprised. U guys r awsome thanks

     
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    umm i was also wondering if it wasnt to much of a hastle if u could post maybe some more shots ty

     
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    Hi Guys!

    I’ve been checking out the coverage of your game across my various touch-stones: Bitmob podcast, 1up & Giant-Bomb.

    I was particularly gripped on your game while watching Giant-Bomb’s quicklook a while back.

    I have to say, this kind of game is really up my alley. If I had to pigeon-hole the game I’d say it looks to take the best features of Advance Wars, Valkyria Chronicles & the Warhammer table-top game (all 3 of which I have spent countless hours on).

    I’ve been waiting for a decent game like this to arrive on downloadable services (specifically XBLA). The turn-based RPG is a genre that gets some coverage, but not as well represented as I would have liked… until now.

    If you do end up publishing on XBLA, please include gamerpic’s as achievement awards! Would be great to get the Shogun’s face on my bio.

    Cheers,

     
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    Wow thats funny you called out Warhammer table-top, I spent countless hours in my youth on my best friend’s pool table top, with an old train set’s props and lots of rocks and moss from the woods. LOVED that game, and I’m sure some of the lessons learned there are definitely showing up as influences now here! Advance Wars is one of my favorite games of all time and I loved Valkyria Chronicles as well. And I love Skulls of the Shogun! Even though I play it literally every day I never get tired of it. I hope you love it too!

     
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