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What small teams can learn from AAA communication tactics

Stefano Petrullo on the big budget tricks that indies should pay attention to

Even for an industry that constantly reinvents itself, gaming is embracing a particularly brave new world. Flourishing creativity, new development tools, tax breaks and crowdfunding have changed the game development landscape forever, meaning that, in many ways, there has never been a better time to be a consumer.

But what about developers? As the balance between blockbuster and indie development settles, how can a AAA PR approach help independent teams? Can a traditional, AAA-style communication model even be applicable to such a diverse landscape of products and audiences?

Having worked in PR since 1997 with virtually every publisher in the world, one thing that I've learned is that, yes, you can apply the model of AAA engagement to indies if you are capable of looking at the big picture of your product and not just the feature list (although that's still incredibly important). The equation is simple: most AAA titles will receive tons of coverage since they are the kind of products that already have an audience. Everyone will cover an established IP from the initial announcement to the review (how different publishers approach this is a completely different story for another time).

"The big question is generally this: 'People don't want to talk about my game because it's not big enough, why they should cover it with a feature?'"

In this scenario, the main objective is to make sure that not only the coverage of the announcement, alpha/beta and review are super loud, but to also try and find other angles that create compelling stories to reach people who want to escape their daily routine. These are the stories that elevate your product against competitors.

Now, let's think about how that applies to a non-AAA title. The big question is generally this: "People don't want to talk about my game because it's not big enough, why they should cover it with a feature?" While this may be true in general, sometimes a good communication expert can make the difference in finding a theme that the media and readers are interested in.

This particular theme can be anything, and it's usually not impossible to find. However, it can be difficult.

Ask yourself what makes your product unique. It sounds like a cliché, but trust me it's not. Look at the big picture of your team is and where it is coming from. Why did you decide to develop a game in the first place?

There has been a huge rise in features and opinion pieces across media/influencers: most of them coming from pure journalistic curiosity and a necessity to write something more interesting than a rehearsed preview seen in millions of other places.

"Some websites have dropped previews completely and try to search and create stories based on the information they have found online instead"

This is a shift that has been occurring for years now. Some websites have dropped previews completely, and try to search for and create stories based on the information they have found online instead. This leads to speculation stories, leaks and all the stuff publishers aren't happy about, either because they are factually untrue or because they come out at the wrong time, upsetting the PR agenda.

It's difficult to create these angles quickly for AAA, but a medium size studio can react more quickly and address this in advance. Speculation and leaks will happen regardless, but if there is something else to say that is also coming from you, it could be more interesting.

A small/medium size developer has the strength to be innovative and agile in their communication, and this can help when there isn't enough marketing budget to spend. You have to use this competitive advantage and, in my experience, when you're telling stories instead of selling the number of weapons/polygons in your game, your audience will react much more enthusiastically.

You can also be the protagonist of your own story. This can be a key differentiator when your game is too early in development to create a compelling narrative. Also, do not focus too much on the genre of your game. This has the double-edged effect of attracting people that love it and sending away the majority of the gamers that do not. So use those terms wisely.

"Don't be shy of explaining your choices - be as transparent as possible. For every choice you made in your game, there will be a reason"

A few months ago I was demoing a game to a really big mainstream outlet. After the usual hands-on, I started talking about why and where the idea of this game came about. Since this was a compelling story in the eyes of the reporter, the piece flourished into something more than a description of game mechanics. Again today, during an interview, one of my developers talked about why he made the decision to remove clichéd gameplay: what initially looked like flaws, turned out make a lot of sense. Don't be shy of explaining your choices, and be as transparent as possible. For every choice you made in your game, there will be a reason. Most of the time if you frame it correctly you will have news that is worth publishing.

One example of a collateral idea is when Ubisoft released an eagle with a chest-mounted camera over London. Due to the timing and the setting the French publisher got coverage everywhere. A completely different example is Hellblade, from Ninja Theory. Creating a game that touches such a sensitive topic as mental illness is not easy, but it is tremendously interesting. While I remember every single feature about the game, I don't really care about the genre. I care because it's fresh in its angle, so I want to know more. Remember that people will talk about interesting things, watch compelling videos. They want new experiences, so don't do something because everyone else has done it before: being too formulaic can easily kill creativity.

Sit down with your team, look at the game and do a solid 3 to 6-month plan on what you want to communicate/release. When it's all laid down and you see what and when you want to communicate you will be able to effective get result more quickly, and sometimes in an unexpected way.

When facing a hugely competitive landscape - as anyone working in games PR is today - these aspects can be amazingly helpful in raising the attention of the media and other influencers. Open a dialogue with your community and the media as early as possible. You are not simply justifying yourself, you are presenting your product to the people that will buy it.