The games industry is a massive beast that churns out billions of dollars in revenue each year, much of which is generated by big-budget titles that become torchbearers for the medium itself: Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Mass Effect and so on. These games exude quality, with top-notch production values and extensive marketing budgets with flashy CG scenes, licensed music and exclusive launch parties with high-profile celebrities. On the sidelines hundreds of games come and go with the weather, cast away from the public’s awareness for a vast array of reasons. Many never stand a chance to succeed.
Some of those games are dead in the water – awful gameplay, unpalatable themes, derivative stories, bugs and more can spell certain death for a game. But what happens when a great game hits the market lacking the marketing muscle of a major publisher, without an identifiable brand that fans can rally around or from a developer that’s never been able to make its voice heard? There are rare successes – Minecraft went on to astonishing success. Angry Birds came out of nowhere (well, Finland) to become part of the public consciousness. A game I worked on, The Witcher, was able to achieve relative success despite being a debut game from an unknown studio, published by a company that had been, at the time, a shadow of its former self.
As a PR practitioner, it’s ultimately my job to ensure that my clients’ products are seen. We often know, going in, that a game won’t be a hit; we can tell when a game sucks or doesn’t have widespread appeal. In those cases it’s simply difficult to get traction. Members of the media will shrug off bad games like an undetected fart, and honestly, it’s just tough to become passionate about promoting games when we know we’re climbing an insurmountable hill of apathy. But when we have a game that immediately strikes us as magical, revolutionary, disruptive or otherwise worthy of consumers’ awareness, we rush into action, thrust forward by excitement and the hope that, yes, we can help our client achieve success. Or, more ambitiously, we feel we can make a difference in the industry by shedding light on games that won’t benefit from multi-million-dollar ad budgets and flashy press junkets.
It’s at this point that reality tends to set in. Convince your cash-strapped clients to fly across the country (or the world) on a press tour, only to face media responses of, “Oh sorry, Publisher X is holding an all-day review event that day” or “I’m too busy” and it’s tough not to feel dejected. Certainly, people are busy, but often it’s the same writers who can’t spare 30 minutes at their very own desk for a demo who end up going to extensive press junkets or all-day preview events for high-profile titles.
How can one hope to achieve success with a great game when you can’t even get someone to look at it? Visibility is tantamount to success… or at the very least, it lays the groundwork for success, and it needs to be backed up with a great product. But achieving visibility for a low-profile game can be nothing short of disheartening. Help your client prepare a ridiculously cool video that showcases their game’s feature set, and pitch it out to a “top-tier” outlet as an exclusive. You may get rejected entirely. If you’re lucky (or maybe just really good looking, as it frequently the case for me) and have a game that’s at least moderately interesting on the surface you’ll excitedly scurry off to tell your client to expect coverage on ____ [insert your favorite site here]. That feeling of excitement will quickly get flushed down the drain when you realize that, yes, you did get coverage… on a sidebar of the previews page in the PC section — a page that gets hit by exactly eight people. Alas, no visibility for you!
All of this, I suppose, is perfectly understandable as we lead up to release. There are always bigger games on the release calendar. Hell, we’re launching Section 8: Prejudice tomorrow — an incredibly fun online experience that, at $15, rivals the feature set of many $60 games — but today’s release of Portal 2 is sure to overshadow TimeGate’s effort. However, once games are on the market, it’s so much easier to be subjective… or it should be. As games websites, video shows, blogs et al are the places gamers go to find out what to play, one could assume that media would focus attention on great games, regardless of the marketing budget, publisher or developer pedigree… right?
I started writing this post after reviewing the… err… reviews of Anomaly Warzone Earth. The game has been universally praised by reviewers, and at $10 is a ridiculously good deal. Everyone who plays it loves it (or they’re not complaining much, in any event). Does that translate to sales and, further, success? Not necessarily. Why? While not always the case (there have been some very passionate advocates of the title), the game’s reviews have been buried or quickly wiped off front pages, replaced by coverage of whatever major publisher just held a press event that day. If nobody is encouraged to read the reviews, why write a review in the first place? Why pop a 5-out-of-10 review in a featured-article spot, only to cram an 8.5 into an impossible-to-find crevice deep in the bowels of your content-management system? (Just using number scores to make a point, you contrarian turds!)
Now, this may sound like whining from a PR guy who’s been doing this for too long, jaded and lacking sufficient caffeine. I don’t have some grand sense of entitlement that tells me I should get top-spot coverage for everything I promote. Hell, I can’t even say that the lack of visibility has hurt Anomaly — it’s doing very well, and it’s 11 bit’s first game… so surely they’re on their way to incredible success in the industry. I’m also benefiting from the opposite effects with The Witcher 2 — it feels like we could introduce goofy boot tassles as DLC and get front-page media coverage with that game.
At its core, this is an issue that pervades entertainment and consumerism as a whole. People stick with brands they know. Everyone craps all over themselves (myself included) when a new Rockstar game is announced. That’s fine; they make great games. But in an industry that so often complains about derivative sequels, soulless big-budget productions and a lack of risk-taking, isn’t it about time we started focusing on quality? Shouldn’t those companies looking to push the boundaries of the medium begin to reap the rewards? If things keep going the way they are, we’ll never shed the $60 price point, we’ll get sequels to major franchises every year, and we’ll all keep complaining and wishing things were different.