A Guide to Launching Indie Games, Part Three: Getting Press
Building a following is the basis for a successful product launch. Combining it with good press coverage can multiply the size of your game’s audience overnight.
Getting press coverage is equal parts building a great game, doing solid research, and having a bit of luck. Dive in below for tips on how to build a winning press strategy and, of course, maximize your luck.
It may be tempting to play it safe and wait until your game is finished to contact the press, but as we mentioned in the first part of this series, there are plenty of coverage opportunities beforehand.
Let’s recap: You can reach out to the press when you announce your game, though that may only work if you have name recognition from already releasing a successful game, or if you’ve previously worked at a big developer and have a strong track record (like the Yacht Club Games crew). Beginning Alpha and Beta testing, starting a Kickstarter campaign, and going on Steam Greenlight or Early Access are also great times to look for press.
Original Image Credit: Peter Miller, Flickr
Be personal: This is the golden rule to crafting your pitch. Don’t send send out a single email that’s clearly a form letter where you BCC every recipient. Take the time to email everyone personally, and say hello. Here’s a good start:
I’m [My Name], an indie game dev who just released [game name], a game I’ve been working on for the last [X] years.
Be genuine: While you should be personal, you shouldn’t be insincere. Including compliments in your email might seem like a good idea, but you should avoid them like the plague. “I loved your story on X, it was great!” Both you and the journalist know it’s inauthentic, so just get to the point. Also, don’t write as if you’re a big publisher or a robot. Instead, write your email as if you were sending it to someone you know.
Be brief: The shorter your message is, the harder it’ll be for people to ignore. Just look at your inbox and consider the feeling you get when you open a long email. Remember, the press materials you’ll link to are there to give people all the information they need. The email, however, is there to hook people.
The Summary: One of the best ways to catch people’s attention is by drawing inspiration from a concept in the film and televsion world: the logline. A logline is a one- or two-sentence summary of a script that communicates crucial story and plot elements with an emotional hook. Here’s Back to the future’s logline:
A young man is accidentally sent 30 years into the past in a time-traveling DeLorean invented by his friend, Dr. Emmett Brown, and must make sure his high-school-age parents unite in order to save his own existence.
Check out this article for a breakdown of what a log line should contain. Just keep in mind that video games and film are different mediums, so consider this a loose guideline. Remember to briefly touch upon genre and gameplay in the same sentence, or a very short additional line.
The Hook: Gameplay and story might be enough to catch a blogger’s attention, but the secret weapon is considering other reasons people would care about your game. That could be something about you or your game. Was it built in a unique way? Did you make a previously well-known game? Did you leave a well-known company to make this game?
Don’t mention coverage of other games: Sure, you should reach out to journalists who’ve covered games similar to yours, but don’t tell them that’s why you’re sending them an email. Mentioning that makes it seem like that’s all the effort you put into your PR prep.
Review Copies: Don’t ask if someone wants a review copy, just give it to them in the form of a link, Steam key or otherwise. This saves time by eliminating an email back-and-forth, and encourages them to get their hands on your game.
Link to a Video: While you should have videos on your press site, you should also link to one in your email. The idea is to make things insanely accessible to journalists.
Availability: Mention when and where your game is available, and for how much.
Link to your Website Press Kit: Link to your website and press kit, and let bloggers know that’s where they can find more information and media.
Be Available to Answer Questions: Offer to answer questions if writers have any, and be quick to respond if they do.
The Subject Line
The subject line is the only sentence of your email that journalists are practically guaranteed to read. Your mission is simple: give them a reason to care. You subject line can be as simple as your game’s title, along with part of your logline or hook. Whatever you do, try to keep it short. When people are faced with a full inbox, their eyes tend to be drawn to the shorter subject lines. Also, don’t put your subject line in all caps, and — in general — don’t try to be funny.
Pitching The Right People
Image Credit: Seamus Campbell, Flickr
Besides the pitch itself, the most important thing when working on getting press coverage is finding the right outlets and writers to contact. With so many websites out there, picking the perfect people to reach out to might be intimidating, but you can identify them by looking for those that fit into the following categories.
If your game has already been covered by the press, the outlets that have written about it should be your priority contacts whenever there’s more news to share. Having an established relationship makes it highly likely that they’ll write another story.
Outlets that are the next-most likely to give you coverage are those that have previously written about games like yours. If your project is similar to something they’ve covered in the past, you’ve got some evidence that they might be interested in your own.
Next, you’ll want to make a list of all the video game sites your target audience might read. Then expand your list of contacts even further to mid-sized and small websites. They might not have the readership of the IGNs, Destructoids and Giant Bombs of the world, but they’re an important part of an indie game dev’s press strategy. Not only are they more likely to cover your game, the coverage they provide will help build word of mouth. What’s more, if their audience grows by the time your next project is ready, you’ll have built a valuable relationship.
Now that you’ve identified publications, it’s time to pick the writers that are most likely to cover your game. Naturally, those that have written about your game or your previous projects are your best best. Just as with choosing outlets, the next best option is to find folks who’ve written about games similar to yours.
One thing to keep in mind is how active a writer is. If they only post once or twice a month, you’re better off emailing someone who writes more often. It’s likely blogging isn’t a top priority for them, and your email will get lost in a sea of pitches they’re already ignoring.
Also, it might be tempting to go straight for the Editor-In-Chief or Managing Editor of a publication, but it’s often bad policy. Typically, the most senior people at outlets will be doing more management than writing, and will be too busy to give your pitch some consideration.
YouTubers and streamers don’t exactly fall under the category of “press,” but it would be a huge mistake to ignore their growing influence and importance. We’ve written about how they have the power to radically boost game sales and drive interest in crowdfunding campaigns. We’ll cover how they can fit into your press strategy later in this article.
Finding Contact Details
With your writer list compiled, it’s time to hunt down contact information. While author emails are often posted on a website’s about page, they’re sometimes not listed publicly. With the help of the browser plugin Ark (or Rapportive) you can stumble upon the right email with a bit of guesswork. When you plug an address into an draft’s “To” field, Ark will check if the email is associated with accounts on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and other sites. If it finds a match, the person’s avatar and basic information will show up in a sidebar. When that happens, you know you’ve got a valid email.
Not sure what email addresses to check? Try the following combinations with the website’s domain, as well as those for popular email providers such as Gmail, Yahoo and Microsoft’s Live.com.
If you didn’t have any luck with those variations, there’s one more that might work: social media handles. If you can find a writer’s social media handle, you might have found out what their personal email is. Just try variations SocialMediaHandle@EmailProvider.com, and you might have some luck.
There are, of course, tip lines (firstname.lastname@example.org) or contact forms. Use these as a last resort. Messages sent through these often arrive at a central tip box being monitored by one person who’s duty it is — for at least a few hours — to field all incoming messages. If it doesn’t catch their eye, they’ll move on to the next email. Other times, tip emails are sent to entire teams, and you might be put at the mercy of the crowd. By emailing one person you’ve hand-selected, you’re increasing your game’s chances of getting covered.
It’s alright to send a follow up email if you haven’t heard back from those you’ve reached out to, but you should wait roughly 24 hours before doing so. Sending another follow-up email after that, however, crosses the line from “politely checking in” to becoming annoying. Use your follow-up opportunities wisely.
If you haven’t heard from one writer at a specific outlet, you might be tempted to reach out to one of their colleagues. This is only a good idea if it’s handled with clarity and honesty. It’s important to mention that you haven’t heard back after emailing their colleague, and that you’re sending this email to make sure someone at the publication heard the news about your game. This could play out several ways:
- Finds out their colleague missed the email or forgot to reply.
- Finds out their colleague doesn’t want to cover the game and:
- Sticks with their colleague’s decision
- Convinces their colleague to write about your game.
- Likes your game and winds up writing about it themselves.
Oh, and you can also send them a follow-up email. This strategy lets you be persistent without being obnoxious. Just don’t reach out to a third person at a publication.
Creating a press release may sound intimidating, but it can be broken down into a straightforward formula. Emmy Jonassen has put together a great template that you can use to build your own press release. Check it out above, and visit Emmy’s site for more tips.
Now that you know who to email and what to say, it’s time to consider timing. You’ll want to start off by emailing the major sites on your list the night before launch. That way, your email will hit their inbox before much else does, hopefully putting you higher up on their list of priorities. The hope is that they’ll write about you earlier in the day, lending your game credibility when other bloggers you email do some quick research on your game. On the morning of launch day, you can send out emails to the websites you haven’t already.
Avoid launching on weekends. Websites typically have less traffic on Saturdays and Sundays, which means your game will be seen by fewer people than if it was written about during the week. That said, it’s usually easier to get your game covered on weekends since there isn’t much other news and bloggers are starving for material. If you’d rather take the risk and get covered on the weekend, send out emails on Friday evenings around 7pm ET.
The most common advice is to avoid Mondays and Fridays, and send emails to the press on Tuesdays (failing that, Wednesday or Thursday) between 8am – 9am ET. As a result, the press receive a ton of emails during that Tuesday morning window. It’s possible to get lost in the noise, so try to plan around that.
Firing off emails between 10am – 11am ET on Wednesdays is a fairly sound policy. It’s still early in the morning, but your news didn’t get lost in the flood of other messages. It’s also early in the week, so the news has a higher chance of spreading organically to other blogs and on social media.
Most importantly, never ever launch your game or contact the press when there’s a big news event going on. Is E3 or another industry occasion happening? Is Apple announcing the next iPad? Are there a lot of big game releases — and as a result, reviews — coming out this week? If the answer is “yes” to any of those, launch another day. Don’t walk into the trap of pitching press on a very busy day. Even if your game gets written up, readers are likely to pay less attention to the resulting articles.
It’s not necessary to launch on an especially slow news day or week, but there are some occasions where you could use that to your advantage. If your game’s potential launch date is near an industry event such as E3, GDC or Gamescom, consider moving its launch to the week (or second week) after the event. There tends to be less news right after such large events since so many companies have already made their big announcements.
Advanced Reviews and Embargoes
If your game has been covered before its launch, then you’ll definitely want to send review copies and advanced news to those who’ve written about it. When it comes to timing, generally two weeks before release is good policy. As we mentioned earlier, include access to review copies when you contact the press — don’t ask if they’d like a copy.
So, why are embargoes and advanced reviews useful? Thomas Was Alone developer Mike Bithell explains his embargo policy:
There will likely be some online advertising for the game, but really, on launch day, I’m going to rely a great deal on word of mouth. This requires a critical mass of websites and youtubers talking about and sharing the game within a short space of each other.. at a point in time where folks can immediately go and grab the game. For those providing critical content of the game, embargoes also prevent them from having to rush, letting them take their time to see what a game is all about before having to get stuff out to remain competitive.
Assuming an indie game is good (a big, stupid, dangerous assumption) I’d argue that a release day embargo is the smartest play for the developer.
If you’re not a well-known developer or your project hasn’t already gotten a lot of coverage, it’ll be harder to convince outlets to review your game or hold your launch news under embargo. If that’s the case, just reach out to the press when launch day comes. Asking journalists to cover your game’s launch is — psychologically, at least — a much easier request than asking them to give you special treatment with advanced reviews or embargoes. If their interest is piqued, you can be sure they’ll review your game.
That said, you should reach out to YouTubers and streamers before your game’s launch, even if they haven’t heard of you or your game before. They can stream or post footage of your game before launch to build hype, and they can release a review when your game’s finally available. Check out our guide to marketing your game on YouTube here — we cover who you should reach out to and how you should do it.
Should I give outlets exclusives?
In general, exclusives won’t help you much, if at all. In fact, they may do more harm than good. They’re often used by companies as tools to build relationships with outlets. Typically, you’re better off giving all top-tier outlets the news at the same time. The more coverage, the bigger your chance at building critical mass to spread the news via word of mouth.
One case where exclusives can be valuable is when you convince an outlet to write a long-form feature article because you, your team, or your game have an incredible back story of some sort. This, however, is usually reserved for game devs that have an established track record.
Image Credit: Matt Wilson, Flickr
Once you’ve finalized your email and press kit, it’s time to send out those emails. Feel free to use a basic email template or skeleton, but be sure to customize it to each and every recipient. Again, don’t send it out in one giant BCC blast. Gmail’s “canned response” feature is simple, but it gets the job done when it comes to working with email templates. Find out how to set it up here.
You could also use apps such as Text Expander and aText (those are Mac-specific, but AutoKey for Linux and Phrase Express for Windows will work, too). Just create a macro for your email template, and the text will be inserted into an email when you type it.
Continue Building Relationships
Once news outlets have written stories about you, links to the articles will find their way to social media. Dedicate time to thanking the folks who share the news on social media. With any luck, it’ll help build your online following.
Perhaps more importantly, send a brief thank-you email to the journalists who wrote about your game, and be sure to follow them on social media. Interact with them from time to time and build a genuine relationship. When you’ve got news to share about your game or another project, shoot them an email.
Set Your Expectations
One aspect of press coverage that you have full control over are your expectations. Press coverage isn’t always a golden ticket to skyrocketing sales and smashing success. What’s more likely is that you’ll see a bump in traffic and sales — the degree of which depends on everything from your game to the outlets it’s covered in– which will settle down after a few days — or weeks, if you’re lucky. In short, don’t hinge your game’s success on getting press.
With that in mind, it’s vital to consider other ways to market your game after launch. Even if you have an incredibly successful launch and PR blitz, the marketing you do after your game’s release is important for sales. In a future article, we’ll cover how to market your game after launch.
In your experience, what have you found that works, or doesn’t work, about reaching out to press? Let us know in the comments! This post is meant to be a living guide, so we’ll add more to it as time goes on. Your tips and tricks might just get included, too.
Author: Alexis Santos