Publishing 3.0 – The Art of Discovery

I wrote a series of 4 articles for Develop back in June 2015. Seems a long time ago, and much has changed. But some of this is still relevant in my book.

Want or need? This is something I often ask myself about many things that come up in my daily life, business or otherwise. So often we mix the two words up contextually. We all really do need to breathe, although we may think we just want to. Do I need a game or do I just want it? Indeed, does any games developer really need a publisher? No, but some may choose to want to work with one.

Making games has never been easier – or at least the barriers to entry for game makers have never been lower. There is no guarantee that all of the games made will be good, let alone great, but lining up on the grid has never been so democratically accessible. The downside is that it is the same for everyone and the sheer number of games being made today is far higher than it has ever been.

Indeed, I would argue that the number of truly great games being made by super talented developers has never been so high and so diverse. Next week will see a load more great games being made available digitally from a variety of places to work on a myriad of devices. And the week after that, we will see more.

Even though the market is growing, it is becoming more and more difficult to get our games discovered and therefore actually played.
The market for digital games is growing all the time, with mobile and tablet sales off the scale selling a mere 45m units or so every single quarter. There are 125m gamers in the Steam community and over 150m consoles from two generations that could connect to the internet and thus buy and stream games. But even though the market is growing, it is becoming more and more difficult to get our games discovered and therefore actually played.

A quick disclaimer: I am going to focus on premium games, games that I will define as those sold for money. My work with free-to-play games for mobile and tablet at AppyNation is a whole different story. In a nutshell, the same problem faces everyone who makes games, namely how can you get gamers to want or even need your game?

The problem has always been there of course, even when we had only traditional retailers to sell our games. Aside from the assumption that the game is both of high quality and good value for money, you always needed to make sure your game was known about and wanted, or needed, by gamers.

REFLECTION BEFORE RELEASE

So tip number one is to start at the beginning. Assuming that you have worked out what type of game you are making, and who you are actually making it for, you will have decided what platform you will make it for. You then need to ask yourself a number of questions in order to set some objectives and targets for you and your game.

First up, you will need to produce a communications plan. As much as you may not want to, face up to it because without a plan, your chances of success will probably reduce a fair bit. So bite the bullet and get weaving.

Ask yourself ‘what makes my game different and why would gamers want (or indeed need) it?’. You will need to research and analyse what other games that could be similar to yours are on, or are due to be on, the market. You may want to build an analysis detailing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats around your game. This requires you and your team to be frank and honest with yourselves. Do not shy away from the hard facts, but equally don’t beat your team and your game up. Having strong competition is actually a good thing and it should drive you to produce excellence. Never put your head in the sand: you get sand in your eyes!

You will also need to think hard about:

How are you going to build a community of gamers who want to play, support and buy your game?
Can you persuade the platform holders that your game is special and thus in need of some highlight, featuring or focus?
How exactly are you going to get Streamers and YouTubers to play your game, hopefully in a way that is kind to your game?
How do you reach out to what is left of the traditional games media, and encourage them to even read your news release?
What assets do you need to create and when you have created them, how and when do you release them into the big wide world?
How many languages do you set out to support and how do you get coverage on a global basis?
And when that is all done, how and how long do you support the game and your community post release?
All that and more will need to be considered in due course.

THE PERKS OF PERSONALITY

And then there is YOU. Gamers love to know more about the people behind the games. Whilst this may feel counter intuitive to many games developers, believe me, your personality, values, attitude and ambitions will define you and your studio’s brand. Whilst it may sound like corporate spiel, it is actually very important and is a vital part of your communications strategy over time. So think about that and ensure that you do try your best to communicate all of your values to your potential fans, community and industry peers. And anyone else who cares to watch, listen, or even read about you and your game.

Clear and consistent communication is essential at all stages. You may want to do this yourself or you may want to work with a professional communications agency. There are plenty of great people who can help you, and many of them no longer work for big corporations, wholly independent and super motivated. And motivated is key. You must work with people who are passionate about your games, just like you. Any other approach is second best. Whichever route you take, and I would advise anyone to work with great people, you have to figure out what makes your game special, indeed what is the game’s special stuff or X factor?

Gamers love to know more about the people behind the games. Believe me, your personality, values, attitude and ambitions will define you and your studio’s brand
What is the core gameplay, and how are you going to get that message into the right media, so that they understand and more importantly become supporters of you and your game? How do you focus on the benefits of your game, rather than just the features? This is something all of us can fall foul of. We all love features, but unless there is a pay-off, or a benefit to players, they will not move the needle on the sales to justify the time it takes to make those features in the first place. So you must ensure features become benefits; if they don’t, don’t waste your time putting them into your game.

Once you have created your communications messaging, ensure that you get other eyes on it for a sanity check. Keep the message succinct and simple. No one wants waffle anyway and no one has the time to even read it, let alone take it in and write or broadcast about it. Try and get inside the heads of the people you are trying to reach. What do they actually need in order to cover your game or your studio? Research and confer with industry experts and your peers. If you are going to put a quote out to the media, what sort of quote should it be and is it both appropriate and interesting, to the target audience?

MEDIA FRIENDLY

Make sure you make things as easy for the media as possible. Like you, they are over busy all of the time and simply don’t have time to dissect a jumbled set of random information. Be tidy. Produce materials that are appropriate and targeted. Decide on the tone of voice that you want to adopt, if you are unsure, simply be yourself, be natural and don’t try and fake it.

If you are working with an agency or agencies if you are covering multiple territories, make sure that you take the time to brief them clearly about the game and importantly tell them what you are trying to achieve. Positively encourage and listen to their feedback. Your partners should not only be experienced, but they should also be a great sounding board offering vital feedback and advice before you go public with your campaign.

Think also about your timings around asset distribution and the phasing of their release. For any of you who have run Kickstarter campaigns, you will know that it is wise to map out your strategy and tactics before you unleash your campaign video an start that clock ticking down. You will know that engagement is essential and for that to work there has to be great content that is shareable. It is the same with a game launch. You must work out or take advice as to your timings. Too much communication and it is spam, too little and no one actually knows anything about your game and importantly, why it is important.

Anyone that has run Kickstarter campaigns will know that engagement is essential and for that to work there has to be great content that is shareable. It is the same with a game launch.
Walk through your plans time and time again and discuss and refine them until you and your team are convinced it will work. Then get ready for the real world to react, or not. Not everything will be clockwork and your assumptions may be wide of the mark or just plain wrong. When you launch the campaign, via social media and/or more traditional media, you must have at least one person on top of the campaign at all times.

It can be very disheartening if you don’t get the media pick up you were hoping for. Don’t worry, that happens. What is important is how you react and re-arm the campaign. Ensure your team is aligned, keep them motivated and above all communicate lots try to do regular face to face meetings, and ensure you are in touch over Skype or Hangout. When you get coverage, make sure it is shared amongst your team so everyone is aware of the progress at all time. Good news is a motivator. This is all part of the measuring process that is essential. Measure your results in real time, track your progress against your plan and remember to be agile. If the plan is not working, change it.

There are plenty more aspects to think about and cover off when trying to get your game discovered, so expect some more thoughts on those very soon. In the meantime, be clear, consistent and confident. There are no shortcuts: you have to work hard and smart.

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