Pixelmage sees "seismic shift" in game marketing

With Hero's Song, John Smedley's new studio is taking a transparent approach to paid influencers and crowdfunding

Earlier this year, John Smedley's new studio Pixelmage Games launched a Kickstarter for its 2D action RPG Hero's Song. The campaign set a goal of $800,000, but after making it less than one-fifth of the way there in its first week, Pixelmage pulled the plug.

Speaking with last week, Smedley said it quickly became obvious in that campaign that the studio "didn't have the goods."

"We didn't have enough to convince people what our game is, why it's cool, and why people should support it," he said. "Hindsight gives you that clarity that maybe you should have had then, but the reality is, we always knew people would support it once we could show them what it is. So we decided we have the money, we had investors willing to do it, so we just said let's buckle down and get our game to the point we can show it, and see what people think then."

"The kind of company I want Pixelmage to be is just an open book, completely transparent. Everything is on the table for people to see."

Pixelmage has apparently reached that point, as the studio this month launched an Indiegogo campaign for Hero's Song. However, it now has a $200,000 goal, with almost $60,000 raised in the first week. While Pixelmage will get that pledged money regardless of whether or not the goal is reached, it's not relying on it. The company has already raised $2.8 million for the project from private investors, so at this point the crowdfunding will determine how long the staff gets to work on the game rather than whether or not the game will exist at all.

Smedley said 100 percent of the Indiegogo money is going toward staff salaries, and it will go that much further considering he's not even taking a salary on the project. It's more transparency than most crowdfunded games offer backers, which is important to Smedley.

"The kind of company I want Pixelmage to be is just an open book, completely transparent. Everything is on the table for people to see. And I'd rather not use the PR speak and all the mindless statements people end up giving--and frankly, that I've had to give myself over the years. That's not me, it's not who I am. I prefer to just be direct and honest and lay it out there. And if people want to support us, great. If they don't, we totally understand."

Unfortunately, that also means the stakes for the game are pretty low compared to other projects. Will gamers be as eager to back a project when they know it's arriving on Steam Early Access soon anyway?

"I don't know," Smedley conceded. "It may be, it may not be. All we can do is show what we got and hope people like what they see enough to want to support us. This isn't a case of us not needing the money or trying to build a community. We want to keep more people on the game longer."

While the crowdfunding campaign isn't key to Pixelmage's community-building, that doesn't mean the studio is undervaluing the importance of a devoted following; it's just going about attracting one in different ways. The studio has teamed with fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss and composer Inon Zur to work on the game, and will doubtless benefit from their participation.

But perhaps more importantly for this part of the discussion, Pixelmage has also brought on board Twitch streamer Ben Cassell, also known as CohhCarnage. Cassell holds the title of "world designer" on Hero's Song, and will be sharing news of the game with his audience of more than 600,000 followers. It's an adaptation to a trend in games Smedley only sees picking up speed.

"The marketing of games has had a seismic shift since Twitch came around," Smedley said. "I think they're vital. I read a lot, and I don't buy a thing now on Amazon without looking at the reviews, and if it's not at least four stars, I'm not buying the book. It's the same now with Twitch. Before I buy games, I watch somebody stream them to make sure it's a game I want. In a weird way, it's actually cut down on the number of games I've bought, but the ones I buy now I know are exactly the ones I want to play.

"I think it helps a lot, and I love it, personally. I like the idea of this whole 'singing for your supper' thing streamers do. And they have to be entertaining. The games they stream have to be good to get anything out of it, unless you want to spend a bunch of money trying to shove a shitty game at players with streamers. And I've seen tons of that. To avoid that, the only thing you have to do is make sure you've got a great game to begin with."

But does the value of Cassell's participation and the access to his audience matter as much when he holds a title on the development team and it's clear he has a financial interest in Hero's song? Does it matter to the people who follow these streamers whether they have conflicts of interest in the games they cover?

"You are starting to see a lot more attention, and the media buying dollars are shifting radically over to influencers, that is true. And that should scare a lot of the bigger gaming sites if they don't adapt."

"I think it does," Smedley acknowledged. "And maybe that's naïve, but I'd like to think it does. I've worked with guys like Total Biscuit before. And we were paying him at the time, but my first conversation with him was me saying, 'I don't want you to change a single thing about how you're presenting our game. If you hate our game, I want you to tell people that. What we're paying for is to bring the eyes of the audience there. If we're devious about it and try to make the streamers say it's a good game if it's bad, or only say good things, whoever does that is stupid because the streamer's audience can see right through that stuff. It's better to just simply let the chips fall where they may and let the streamer present the good, the bad, and the ugly. And if your game's good enough, it can stand up to that.

"And I know that's not what happens out there. I know the reality is some of these guys get paid 50 grand to stream a certain number of times and make it seem all nice, but personally, I can tell when the streamers don't dig what they're streaming. It shows, and I think it does more harm than good."

As for whether he sees streamers replacing the traditional gaming media, it depends whether you're talking about function or funding.

"I'm a heavy-duty gamer, too. I look at the traditional websites and that kind of thing as more of a meta overview if you want to get specifics on a game, that sort of thing," Smedley said. "For streaming, it's much more about the personality I'm watching. I watch CohhCarnage a lot. There's a reason we chose him. I like him because he's fun to watch. I don't get all my gaming information from him, most definitely not. But I'll find some new game I'll read about in the media, then I'll find somebody streaming it on Twitch. That happens a lot.

"I definitely don't think [streaming] has supplanted traditional stuff. You are starting to see a lot more attention, and the media buying dollars are shifting radically over to influencers, that is true. And that should scare a lot of the bigger gaming sites if they don't adapt. That is absolutely true."

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