With digital marketplaces being overcrowded and lots of websites focusing on a handful of big releases, getting people to notice you is increasingly difficult.
Doing your own PR as an indie developer can be a daunting task.
There are a lot of PR agencies focused on indie clients. Most of these do pretty good work and are relatively affordable, but if you decide to do your own PR, here are a bunch of helpful tips for getting some eyes on your work. Granted, this is pretty basic stuff and some of this advice might seem self-evident and superfluous to you, but other people have made the mistakes we’re warning you about.
Note: This little guide will also focus on gaming websites. YouTube and streamers are something else altogether and, quite frankly, nothing we feel competent enough about to help you with. Treat it as a basic guideline, not as gospel.
Part 1: Preparations
Start building a contact list early. This is, admittedly, painfully slow and pretty boring, but necessary. The list should contain the name and URL of an outlet, as well as an editorial email or contacts for specific writers you’d like to approach directly.
How to find these websites in the first place? Try searching for coverage of recent indie titles, as well as games that are similar to your own. That should give you hundreds of entries to get your list started.
If you know some developers who did all of this before, they may be willing to part with their press lists. These things tend to become outdated pretty fast, mind, so do make sure to search for and add new websites. Please keep in mind that any list that’s older than a year needs a lot of work, regardless of how complete and well-researched it might look.
If you’ve got your list of contacts from other developers or from who-knows-where, make absolutely sure they’re up-to-date. At the very least check if the URLs are still working. If you have specific names (as opposed to a general editors’ email), check if these people are still working for the outlet. Pitching your game to someone who hasn’t worked for that particular website in five years is not the best first impression you can make (Editor’s Note: We are emailed CONSTANTLY to talk to people who haven’t worked here in five or more years).
Part 2: Writing the thing
We cannot really tell you how to pitch your game. It’s your creation, and only you know what makes it special. Think about that and start working out the distinctive features. Here’s a list of DOs and (mostly) DON’Ts that might help you:
DO take the time to figure out EXACTLY what it is that makes your game unique out of every other title in its genre. The thing that made you feel that you had to create it yourself. What makes your game unique is likely the aspect that will get it coverage. It helps to think about it as “How would I sell my game with a single sentence?” If you cannot think of a way to do that, you are in colossal trouble already, because if you have no idea, the writer you’re contacting likely won’t have any idea, either. And you’ll get passed on.
DO include links. Link to your website, link to your store page(s), link to your social media accounts, your trailer URL, your press kit. The idea is to give other people everything they need to write about your game. We have never encountered an email that had too many links.
DO add an expressive image – or even better, a GIF! – to your email. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.
DO make sure your embargo date is clearly stated, if you have one. Absolutely make sure that the people reading your email will see it. A single line of big bold text, maybe. And since you cannot really enforce your embargo or put journos on a blacklist for all of your future releases, kindly ask them to keep it, don’t make demands. Make sure to follow up one or two days before the embargo is up.
DO talk to your fellow developers. They can offer some first-hand experience what works and what doesn’t.
DO have someone with no experience with the game read through the press release to hear if it sells the game well enough and makes sense. (thanks for the tip, Frank!)
DON’T ask permission to send your game’s information along. It is implied, and with editors being as busy as they are, you likely won’t receive that reply giving you permission. Just send it.
DON’T use self-deprecation in your email. It doesn’t work. Nobody wants to know that you think your own game is kind of bad, ha ha. Nobody is going to cover your game out of pity. Clearly state what you want, don’t try to “reverse-psych” your way to coverage.
DON’T waste everyone’s time with sob stories about how your game doesn’t get coverage because there are so many games out there. Most games have that exact same problem. Focus on the things that make your game special, not on the problems that literally every other game has as well.
DON’T use redundancy and “store text lingo”: “a puzzle game that will challenge your mind” and “a platformer that will train your reflexes” are just empty phrases. What’s worse, they make your game sound like every other puzzle game and platformer.
DON’T use too many fancy business terms. You don’t need them. Instead of asking “Do you want to take part in our Early Influencer Initiative?”, you could just ask “do you want to try a preview build?” instead.
DON’T exaggerate. Calling your top-down pixel art racing game “similar to Gran Turismo” is a bold move… and it doesn’t work.
DON’T get discouraged if you don’t get a reply. Many editors only have time to answer after they provide coverage, if they reply at all.
Part 3: The trouble with review copies
Should you add a review copy (i.e. Steam key, itch.io redemption link, etc.) to your press email? Horror stories about keys ending up on shady third-party reseller websites might keep you from doing so.
However, if you’re writing to a well-known website, definitely add a Steam key right away. The chances of these keys being sold are basically nonexistent. Are you targeting smaller, relatively new websites? You might want to err on the side of caution, then. Offer them a key instead of sending one over right away.
Unless your game is a multiplayer title, there’s usually no need to send more than one or two copies. If someone is asking you for 5 keys for your single-player game, this should ring all sorts of alarm bells. Before sending these keys, ask them: why? Also, thoroughly check if they are legit, i.e. if the articles they are posting are actually worth it and if they’re not just copying other websites’ content. A quick Google search might help you there.
Generally: adding a Steam key to your email cuts down on the back and forth and allows journos to just load up your game on a whim if they have some time to kill, for example. This can be especially useful for smaller games, experimental stuff, and arcade-like experiences… so basically everything that’s not a sprawling, 30-hour epic.
Has someone reviewed your previous game(s) before or do have you chatted with them on social media? Don’t wait for them to ask you for a key, send it right away! I really wish more developers would do this. After all, it’s common sense to make use of a contact you already made, right? I cannot stress this enough: use the contacts you have already established. This doesn’t guarantee coverage, but it certainly improves the likelihood.
Part 4: Finally sending some emails… and following up
Your press list is up-to-date, your email pitch is prepared and you cannot wait to tell the world about your game? Let’s do this!
Make sure to send individual emails, addressed to the right people. A “dear X” makes your email feel much more personal than a “To whom it may concern.” Feel free to remind them that you personally know each other (if you know each other, that is) or appeal to their taste in covering similar titles.
After a few hours, you should be done and you don’t ever want to send another press email again. Phew. But wait! Your PR work is far from done.
Use a spreadsheet to keep track of people you contacted, replies that you got, keys that you sent, and – hopefully – coverage you received. Always be approachable and try to reply as soon as possible to any request (within reason).
If you haven’t heard anything after a few days, should you follow up? Absolutely! When exactly to do this depends on a few things. Will your game be released soon? Time for a reminder! Did nobody write about your trailer? They probably won’t start if you remind them two weeks later. In any case: follow up once or maybe twice. Anything more than that feels more like harassment (Editor’s Note: For game launches, I personally recommend emailing a month out, a week out, launch day, and a week after launch).
One word of caution, though: don’t be snarky or pouty about it. Starting your follow-up email with “I see that you haven’t claimed your [game title] Steam key yet” or “why didn’t you write about my game?” is definitely not the way to do this. You are asking for coverage; you are not entitled to it. Please don’t be too pushy.
Oh, and don’t be discouraged if nobody answers your emails. They still might get read, it’s just that with the volume of incoming press emails, most outlets would have to hire an extra staff member just for answering incoming emails. It’s bad form, yes, but we don’t really have a choice there.
Part 5: Nobody is writing about your game. What now?
Well, first off: we’re sorry. Maybe your game wasn’t a great fit for the publications you pitched at, maybe it just went under in the flood of press emails they get every day. There are lots of possible external reasons, but let’s not dwell on those. What’s done is done.
This doesn’t mean that you should lose hope yet! There’s some ways to get some second wind out of this. Think about where you’re going with your game from here. Maybe there are features you couldn’t quite implement at launch and that you plan on adding later? Maybe player feedback prompts you to make significant gameplay changes? There could be a story in there! Think about what could be newsworthy, and then try again. You already have a list of contacts, so the really annoying part is over. Time to write some more emails…
It is all too easy to lose hope. All of this takes a significant amount of time, but whether you want it or not, this is part of game development, too. “Just make a good game” was never enough, and especially in 2018, people will not just come to you. You have to reach out.
At the end of the day, contacting websites for coverage is just one way of getting people to notice your game, and it should never, ever be your only way. Seriously: you don’t have the right to complain that people ignored your game if all you ever did was send out some emails! There’s community building, advertisements, the aforementioned streamers, and YouTube coverage. All of these are viable options if you start early enough.
And now, we would love to hear from you. Take to the comment section and let us know if you agree or disagree, what we missed, and what could be improved.
Part 6: further resources & updates
1. here’s a useful Twitter thread by Pixeljam Games that should get you started on your press list.
2. this talk by Adriaan de Jongh and Ben Myres is pretty funny and contains some really good advice.
3. Lauren Clinnick’s talk “Defense Against the Dark Arts: An Intro to Games Marketing” is a must-see as well.