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Developers and publishers: Co-op or PvP?

Insomniac's Ryan Schneider continues the studio's series on developer-supported marketing with tips for how to maximize publisher relationships

The following article is the second in a mini-series on developer-supported games marketing by Insomniac Games' in-house marketing and community team. The first piece in the series, Media Training for Beginners, ran last month.

In my initial 2003 interview to fill a newly created marketing and communications director position at Insomniac Games, I told our then HR director I felt under-qualified for the role.

Probably not the best way to impress a talent evaluator, right? Especially since a developer-side marketing position like this was quite rare in the console games industry at that time. See, I figured a videogames marketing job like this one required an MBA degree - which I did not possess.

What I've learned 14 years later is that the most valuable diploma would be for Diplomacy - followed closely by a degree in Hustle-ology (do they teach those in B-school?). I've learned these lessons working in the marketing, PR and community trenches with dozens of colleagues spanning several publishers ranging from Sony, Microsoft and Electronic Arts through Oculus, GameStop's GameTrust group and Kongregate. That's one of the many benefits that come with working at an independent games studio; you see how the marketing lifecycle works across the industry, and via different hardware platforms.

In thinking about distilling these experiences into actionable advice, it became apparent that mastering 'hard skills' such as marketing plan development and execution are not what matters most when looking to optimize your relationship with your game publisher. No, it's developing a knack for where and how your team can provide value to your publishing partner. And then collaborating day in and day out so your publisher comes to trust you as an indispensable partner that meaningfully contributes to the bottom-line success of your game.

First, let's back up. There's some stuff to unpack in that sentence, "developing a knack for where and how your team can provide value to your publishing partner." I'd like to dissect it to provide better insight on why and how this is so important.

Partner, Not Client

The most important word in that sentence above is partner. It's easy and perhaps tempting to adopt a client mindset, where the expectation is set that the developer focuses on making the game and the publisher is responsible for marketing it. After all, you're working with a publisher to provide a service through applying a skillset you may not possess, right? Plus, you've got that game to develop. But this mindset is not helpful for either developer or publisher.

Fortunately, much has improved in our developer-publisher marketing relationships in the last several years, and I believe both entities better appreciate the value each has to offer. Publishers would likely acknowledge that devs know their game the best, and therefore should be actively involved in all facets of how it's portrayed publicly. And I'm sure developers would agree that along with providing critical marketing budget for a wider range of activities, publishers typically have a broader perspective when it comes to market viability, along with the power to amplify access to your game at key points during a PR or marketing campaign. Combining the strengths of each through a tight partnership allows for the publisher to represent a game in its best light, at the right moments, while a publisher's insights can help the developer make more informed choices about the kind of game it's making.

Insomniac and Sony co-sponsored a Ratchet & Clank 15th Anniversary exhibit at Gallery Nucleus last year.

When a developer instead adopts a client-centric approach, it's depriving itself of the opportunity to understand how to market its own games, which in today's self-publishing friendly world is a missed opportunity. Worse, this mindset could extend further by the developer failing to think of itself as bearing responsibility for helping market its own games. If you're an independent developer, that's an especially risky proposition. Aside from the quality of your games and the reputation you've earned on that journey, I believe your biggest marketing asset is the fanbase you hopefully are cultivating from game to game. Nobody can speak to and with that fanbase more authentically than you, the developer. It's a huge missed opportunity not to activate that fanbase because "that's the publisher's job."

Finally, in a client mindset, you're potentially giving up your right to participate in the marketing process. When you view yourself as a partner, you're likely to have a better opportunity to influence marketing creative choices that might otherwise veer too far away from the core premise of your game. There have been a few instances over the years where Insomniac has weighed in on creative that felt off-the-mark for our games. To be fair, we haven't always been successful in influencing publisher-driven marketing decisions. But our ability to contribute more meaningfully to those conversations has greatly increased over time. In some instances, we've been able to propose campaigns that a publisher has actively supported, including activities to support the 10th and 15th anniversary of Ratchet & Clank, for example, along with the high concept that became "SunsetTV" in Sunset Overdrive.

So how do we collectively work toward those winning ideas? That's the next step in our sentence deconstruction project, "where and how your team can provide value..."

Building Value

Before we can build value with publisher marketing and PR teams, it's important to realize first how much value the dev team can generate already. For example, nobody is in better position to create beautiful, vital assets to support digital and video campaigns like a developer. We know the best spots and moments to focus on in the game, and have the expertise to use our dev kits to skillfully do it. These assets can become the lynchpin for any marketing campaign, and the better your team is at producing creative, the more opportunity you'll have to directly shape how that creative is used.

"The better your team is at producing creative, the more opportunity you'll have to directly shape how that creative is used"

At Insomniac, we take all our own screenshots, and produce our own game trailers (minus any full-CG work). We've produced dev diary videos, created key art, and even a wide range of character renders. This saves a publisher budget that can be re-applied elsewhere to support your campaign, along with occasional frustration correcting third-party work. We have a five-person internal marketing team (including myself) spanning two studios to accomplish all this and more, but it wasn't always the case. Over a period of years, we saw how much more we could boost our game marketing through content creation, and it became a strategic investment to grow our capabilities.

Can there be drawbacks to this approach? It's possible. For example, you may encounter internal overhead costs supporting game marketing that might not be considered in budget. I believe that's a justifiable cost for the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the game's marketing campaign. There's obviously a time investment too that can be steep when it comes to opportunity cost versus production. But I'd argue that the larger the time commitment required for a particular issue, the more important it is to get just right for the good of the marketing campaign.

Insomniac's Twitch show is just one way the studio leverages its fan base to bolster the publisher's marketing efforts.

Of course, demonstrating value doesn't end with creating external assets. We've learned over the years that promoting the production team's work can be equally important. For example, if the dev team is completing an important milestone, why not create a video that summarizes the highlights, so it can be passed throughout the publishing organization? That creates excitement among people who might not see your game regularly and can help drive discussions that may ultimately increase sales forecasts. That could positively affect your marketing budget too. Win-win.

Another simple way to add value is by being prepared, flexible and hungry to participate as a spokesperson or demo rockstar at the multitude of global marketing events that may occur throughout the campaign. We train several folks to be ready at a moment's notice to demo parts of the game and talk about key aspects, not including tapping our own marketing team resources. This extends the reach of the publishing team and is especially effective in ensuring that the most knowledgeable people are speaking on behalf of the game at all times.

Finally, building your own fan community--especially as an independent developer--is a surefire way to bring value to the publisher partnership. When you cultivate an engaged group of people who have a special relationship with the development studio, it means your team is best suited to communicate with them and cross-share material from the publisher. Being able to cross-promote across unique audiences expands potential market share, which can become a long-term asset that publishers covet as you work to secure new game deals. Developers also can often provide faster and more accurate on-the-ground intelligence about how the community is reacting to the information released, which can aid in guiding the overall marketing/PR campaign. It's vital though to cross-check your community efforts with the publisher to optimize communication and avoid conflicting or competing messages.

"Developing a knack..."

We've addressed the importance of a partner-focused mindset and different ways to provide tangible value. But what if you could do more than that? What if you could help your publisher conquer vexing industry marketing challenges?

Development studios, especially independent ones, have a unique advantage over most publishers in that it's often easier for smaller-sized teams to nimbly capitalize on emerging industry trends. We've taken this to heart at Insomniac in several ways over the last few years. In 2004, we began cultivating our own fan community and produced what may have been Sony's first developer-driven console community fan events to support PS2-era Ratchet & Clank games. A few years later, we began creating our own content beyond trailers, such as the Full Moon Show podcasts, collaborating with our publisher again to leverage how we could use owned content as a PR tool. In addition to creating a weekly in-game broadcast for Sunset Overdrive supported by Microsoft, we've recently worked closely with our publishing partner Oculus on how to pioneer mixed reality marketing for VR games. Now, we're focused on becoming one of the first AAA game developers to stream content almost daily through our Insomniac Live show.

How did these ideas come about? There's no magic here. We observed news and trends from our industry and others, as well as areas where the games industry at large was still in a discovery phase. We layered that knowledge with a desire to constantly expand the Insomniac brand. We can do that best when we're helping our publishers tackle fresh challenges. Fifteen years ago, that meant breaking the wall between console game creators and fans. Ten years ago, that meant transitioning to become content creators amidst a massive enthusiast news consolidation. Two years ago, that meant learning how to showcase VR to the masses who haven't yet experienced it. Now, publishers and developers alike are fine-tuning their strategies to best to work with influencers and live-streaming personalities.

What marketing and PR challenges can your development team help solve?

How will your dev team influence the future of games marketing?

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