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Tips for navigating the PR landscape

Playstack's Wout van Halderen gives key PR advice for indie devs looking to successfully market their game, following the publisher's successful release of Balatro

The indie space is incredibly exciting, and increasingly competitive. Players can only pick so many games a year and with discoverability being one of the leading issues for developers (and players), there's a case to be made that PR is as vital as ever.

But how can you effectively utilise the PR resources you have at your disposal? What tactics should you employ to engage with your target audience? And how will you ensure the publications and influencers you engage with also benefit from these endeavours?

Speaking from experience, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to PR in the games industry. Conducting influencer outreach on AAA projects was a vastly different experience from working on an indie gem like The Case of the Golden Idol. Both require flexibility in the approach taken to PR and marketing.

What is certain is that there is now an even greater need to shift between different techniques and strategies when it comes to engaging with your audience. Journalists and influencers are more sensitive than ever before, acutely in tune with their audiences – their tastes, preferences, and expectations. As a result, good quality PR has never been more important to indie devs looking to make a success of their latest titles.

But what exactly are the key tips for indie developers looking to effectively utilise PR to successfully pitch and market their latest games?

The importance of building relationships and understanding your audience

PR is a relationship-based industry. While individuals in other fields, such as marketing, conduct outreach that can reach millions of viewers, PRs often deal in the thousands. Sustaining relationships with thousands of people, however, is a near-impossible task.

As a result, many studios will diminish the importance of building relationships with publications and influencers, and instead adopt a traditional 'spray and pray' approach.

In some instances, this is necessary, particularly when you are first starting your outreach and getting started in the field, but if you incorporate this frequently, this strategy is not only going to dent your hopes of building new relationships, but also putting those you do have in jeopardy.

It is therefore important to refine this approach. The first top PR tip for indie devs is to learn from these initial interactions with journalists, reviewers, and influencers, and build genuine relationships with them moving forward.

Decipher which of your contacts have engaged with your initial approach and tailor specific pitches to those you feel confident will resonate best with your content. It is even possible to build a relationship like this off the back of a negative initial response. Now you know what they're looking for and – crucially – what they would rather not hear about!

Once you have a refined list of contacts whose interests you understand, it's then time to tailor your pitches based on these interests. If you know a journalist hates first-person shooters, you don't want to pitch them your new first-person shooter...

Identifying the right channels to pitch to, and tailoring these pitches accordingly, is a key part of utilising PR for any indie developer

Traditional enthusiast publications will have a different approach to reviewing your game and will be broadcasting to a different audience than a YouTube influencer, for example. Screenshots of gameplay will get an online publication talking, but won't be much use to a Twitch streamer.

Balatro is a key example of the importance of tailoring your pitches to the right audience in order to maximise your chances of success. At no point during the pitching process did all the influencers on my target list receive a pitch for Balatro, but outreach to enthusiast sites and other online review platforms was strong.

The game garnered reviews of 9/10 and 10/10 and the response was overwhelmingly positive. By that point, the media had become the influencers, which then in turn garnered the interest of the individual influencers to pick up the game and do what they do best.

Identifying the right channels to pitch to, and tailoring these pitches accordingly, is a key part of utilising PR for any indie developer. Understanding this audience will allow you to reach your specific target audience and get the exposure your game deserves.

Understanding the win-win

Tailoring your pitch is one thing, but it is also salient to consider how the other side will benefit. The media landscape is constantly changing, and whereas journalists and influencers may have had the time to focus on the latest indie gem in days gone by, the current media landscape – much like the games landscape itself – is increasingly competitive.

Having to meet KPIs and benchmarks means that they will typically only cover a game if they see value in it to them and their audience. For this reason, it's key for you to focus on a 'win-win' pitching strategy.

Wout van Halderen is PR manager at Playstack

An example we can point to is The Case of the Golden Idol, which we launched in 2022. This game received 9s and 10s in reviews, and the player response to the game was overwhelmingly positive. However, when working on the PR for this game, a serious consideration we had to look at was that it didn't stream particularly well.

It is a very cerebral experience, which doesn't necessarily lend itself to streaming on the likes of Twitch and YouTube. Pitching an influencer with the aim of producing a stream or video, while earning exposure for the game itself, could have a negative impact on that particular influencer's channel.

This meant it was important to consider the 'win-win'. In tailoring the pitch, we suggested to a certain influencer that they played the game first and then – if they enjoyed it – would be interested in covering it on their social media. The game reached that influencer's audience, receiving welcome exposure as a result, without negatively impacting the influencer's output. It was a 'win-win' for both parties.

There has been a shift in focus in recent times from a discoverability focus to prioritising these win-win partnerships. As PRs, we need to keep in mind that game enthusiast websites, review outlets, and individual influencers all run as businesses in their own right. If you tailor your pitches towards a 'win-win' outcome, you are more likely to secure opportunities for your game while also building relationships with those you have pitched to.

The champions

While there has been a shift in emphasis to a more win-win oriented approach, discoverability remains a leading topic of interest for a number of indie devs throughout the industry. In essence, the key to discoverability is not just PR, but good quality PR.

Take Balatro again as an example. Sending screenshots of the game and short clips of gameplay didn't do much for securing any interest; out of context those screenshots just looked like some cards on a poker table, doing little to convey what the content of the game itself is.

In essence, the key to discoverability is not just PR, but good quality PR

Simply put, inviting champions – which were identified in my research – to play the game for 20 minutes, knowing that they likely wouldn't put it down for hours. The game was the story, and it needed the right people to tell it.

Once you have the right champions for your game, remember that all discourse around the title will impact its visibility. Both positive and negative reviews can garner attention, and it's what you do with that attention that will ultimately determine the success of your PR strategy.

These media outlets can shape public opinion and start online conversations, which can determine the cultural significance of a particular game. Being able to get your title in front of the media allows you to be a central part of these conversations, improving the discoverability of your game.

The value of that first asset

When it comes to indie devs looking to kickstart a PR campaign, you have to start somewhere. It's super important to have that amazing first asset; be it a trailer, screenshots or gameplay clips that will grab the attention of the audience you are looking to engage with.

Creating a kick-ass trailer was one of the key steps we took in the lead-up to the launch of Mortal Shell. This trailer – which was posted on IGN's website – encouraged influencers to stream the game, promoting it to a wider audience. This initial asset gave the game early momentum, allowing the PR strategy to take shape around it moving forward.

Some studios will not have this luxury at their disposal. It might be that these assets are taking time to create, or simply that the assets you already have are not necessarily going to resonate with the channels you are approaching.

It is important to appreciate that a tepid response to these assets can, in some cases, be less productive than no engagement at all

The key when it comes to utilising the creative assets is understanding its impact, and looking to be flexible if it doesn't have that desired outcome. If it looks as though your asset is going to generate some very strong, positive engagement, then look to build on this success as you progress with your strategy.

If your asset doesn't produce high levels of traffic, it is important to appreciate that a tepid response to these assets can, in some cases, be less productive than no engagement at all.

To conclude, the number one focus should be focussing on that 'win-win'. Lowering that barrier to coverage as much as possible is crucial to the success of any up-and-coming indie studio.

For example, if you are looking to send an influencer a demo for them to broadcast to their followers, but the demo in question has a one-hour tutorial to play through prior to the main event, the influencer is unlikely to see the benefits for their own channel.

Sharp, punchy, exciting assets that suit your chosen PR audience are far more likely to get you the engagement you desire. Above all else, remember the 'relations' part of PR. Be specific, know the content your chosen channel produces, and tailor that gem of a pitch accordingly.

Wout van Halderen, is PR manager at UK publisher Playstack. The company has recently launched the one-million-copy-selling Balatro, as well as the newly released co-op action title, Abiotic Factor.
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