‘This War of Mine’: virtual experience that made a real difference.
War. One of the most popular and never depleted themes accompanying our widely understood (pop)culture. On the pages of fantasy books, it brought wealth and glory to victorious heroes. In real life, it mostly brought suffering and misery to (almost) all involved. But always, no matter if real or fictional, revived from the past or imagined in a distant future, war brings change. For us, fortunately, the war was virtual. But the change it brought was as real as it gets.
In 2014 we released ‘This War of Mine’ — an ‘indie game’ allowing players to experience a simulation of what it is like to be a civilian in a city torn by military conflict. It became a game changer for us. Not only because of the overall sales or critical acclaim, which were more than satisfying, but first and foremost because of the impact it created. It simply made people care. Not only about gameplay but also about the subject it touched. And for us it proved that games can evoke empathy and bring experiences that shouldn’t just be applied to a fun/not fun scale but rather rated, based on their overall impact.
From the publishing point of view, This War of Mine, initially being a somewhat niche survival simulator, allowed us to break through to the so called ‘mainstream’, changing the way we think about advertising and game-focused communication as a whole.
‘The shelter’ (concept development)
The first rough version of the game differed a lot from what you may know as ‘This War of Mine’ right now. It wasn’t even based on war as such. What welcomed you in the initial prototype was a post-apocalyptic wasteland and a half-destroyed bunker serving as a shelter for a group of anonymous survivors. So, ‘Shelter’ became our internal codename for the game, that we used for a significant period of the development process.
Visually, it was cool. Even as a basic prototype, we kind of liked how it looked. But emotionally… well, it just wasn’t enough. It lacked something. Even though all of the elements more than ok, the sum of them did not work for us. If we wanted to make it stand out, we had to bring it to another level. The question was how?
We had ‘the shelter’ so the main question was who lived in it. Grzegorz, our CEO, suggested that it should be victims of war — regular people suffering from the conflict that broke out around them. That concept clicked with the team as it gave the missing layer to the game. A foundation we felt we could build upon.
What came after was basically a lot of research. A lot. Inspiration came from multiple articles, history we knew from school, as well as from stories told by our parents and grandparents. Being a Pole made the process a bit easier, as we could not complain about the lack of source material. History gave us much, and current news did the rest. Unfortunately, you do not have to try very hard to find ‘fresh’ stories about conflicts affecting modern societies.
After few months of intense work, we landed with a new prototype. One much closer to the final shape of the game. Sure, it needed a lot of polishing — but it worked! At this point we felt we had something truly special. Something that, once you sucked your teeth into it, stuck with you.
That became both a curse and a blessing for us. You obviously had to play it to realize its potential. Not having the track record nor established franchise, we had to build the buzz and interest way before the game appeared on digital shelves of Steam and other distribution platforms.
‘Shaping the brand’
The common perception is that to succeed you have to be innovative. Break the rules, they say, find your way. The truth is that ‘new’ means difficult. People are afraid of new. They mostly prefer ‘same old’ as predictable, safe and measurable. This is why, amongst a few other reasons, the AAA market is dominated by long running franchises. Investing a lot of money, you crave for as much predictability as possible. And new is far from being predictable. It can pay off, but there is no guarantee of that. With no benchmarks, no historical data, it basically is a bungee jump. On a freshly unpacked rope. So, we jumped. Making the knots in mid-air.
At this point we knew we had a good game, but we were the only ones with that knowledge. And that is the issue with every new brand/product appearing on the market. You have to build its perception from scratch. What is it? What does it offer? And first and foremost — why the hell should people care? You need an answer. You need a solid brand.
Branding is mostly about building a well-defined, coherent presence on the market. Creating a perception and then preferably a purchase intent by associating particular feelings & connotations with your product, service or whatever you have to offer. In our case — a game. There are multiple methods of constructing a strong brand but no matter which path you choose one thing stays invariable — you have to be relatable. To find something people can easily understand and, in a perfect scenario, have an opinion about. If that opinion is good or bad, that is secondary as sometimes negative feelings can work in your favour as well.
The shift of perspective.
We had a war-themed game and ‘war’ as such was at that time (and honestly not much has changed since then) a commodity in gaming. There were and are so many titles based around conflicts. Modern, historical, sci-fi, you name it. Just check the Steam tags. You are going to get hundreds of results for ‘war’ alone, not to mention all the variations. That meant that the market was cluttered but also full of potential. Especially considering the fact that the majority of these games shared a somewhat similar and slightly clichéd perspective. No matter the platform or genre they usually allowed you as a player, to embody a superhuman protagonist, running and gunning (alternatively moving units), trying to meet objectives that were different interpretations of winning by destruction. Action & confrontation were the core that everything was built around. No empathy involved. Not much of a reflection either (beside few gems like Ubisoft Montpellier’s ‘Valiant Hearts: The Great War’ or ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ by Yager Interactive).
We decided to use that trend as a springboard for our communication strategy. ‘This War of Mine’ was to be the ‘rebel’ — questioning the well-established status quo by introducing gamers to a new perspective on war.
A strong idea, as we felt, but not an easy one to implement. To succeed we had to use all the means at hand to underline our dissidence and prove its value.
‘Pieces of the puzzle.’
What made the process of bringing the initial strategy to life more difficult was the fact that English is not our native language. The struggle started with the game’s title. The first version we had had was ‘War of Mine’ and honestly we were quite happy with it, till one of our English-speaking colleagues asked if we actually had ‘mines’ in our game? And if miners literally fought each other? The answer was ‘no’. So, we had to iterate. The funny part is that what helped was ‘Guns N’ Roses’ and their ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ song. Take that, all you teachers dissing our music tastes in the 90s.
After we had adjusted the naming, it definitely worked better. The structure itself was catchy and it stood out among the other titles out there. To make things better it was descriptive and pulled all the right strings. ‘I am the game about war’ it was saying ‘but with a personal perspective’.
Having this part laid out, we moved to the tagline. First of all, we felt it could become handy as part of planned activities and secondly, being able to enclose your whole premise in a short sentence organizes your communication and helps with the prioritization of what and how to say. A good tagline should do for your communication what a good punchline does for a joke. Being simple and being obvious are not the same things. We wanted people to easily understand what ‘This War of Mine’ was and intrigue them a bit. As David Ogilvy once said ‘You can’t bore people into buying your product’.
We wrote a whole bunch of proposals. Some were too long (‘In war there are those who fight and those who try to survive’) or too obvious. It took us a while but we ended up with: ‘In war, not everyone is a soldier’. It was memorable, it had kind of a melody to it and what was most important, it provided the shift of perspective we craved for. Also you could fit it on the key arts and other marketing assets with ease. And that is never a bad thing, is it.
‘Value of consistency’
Having the whole foundation laid out it was crucial for us to maintain a coherent tonality. We wanted our campaign to be recognizable. Please keep in mind, that having no track record, we had to build the game’s perception from the scratch. Seeing the ad for the next ‘Call of Duty’ you know what to expect. Buying the game from Paradox you also can predict what it would offer in terms of experience (a highly competent strategy game). Encountering ‘This War of Mine’, you knew close to nothing, so establishing its’ identity was crucial.
We wanted people to get more and more familiar with our game every time they encountered one of our marketing bits, so after some time they would be able to recognize ‘This War of Mine’ on the spot. To achieve that, all the pieces, while not repetitive, had to have the same denominator — the premise laid out in the initial strategy.
We not only had to maintain consistent aesthetics but also had to focus on key features and values specific for our game. We decided that each and every piece we were about to produce had to be:
- Serious — there was no space for jokes or winks. No breaking of the fourth wall. We were aware we were touching serious matter so we wanted to act respectfully.
- Non-military — ‘This War of Mine’ was all about civilians. And we wanted to maintain that perspective, as this was one of our key differentiators.
- Apolitical — while politics are highly subjective, human consequences are universal. Getting into politics you can way to easily divide people and trigger unnecessary conflicts. That was not our goal. We wanted to create and promote a human-centric experience people could relate to no matter their views or beliefs were.
- Insightfulness & humanism (two in one basically) — we wanted you, as a player, to identify & immerse. That was an important part of the experience which our game offered and we had to translate it into marketing bits, not losing anything in the process.
With that mainframe we were able to develop a sort of ‘language’ that we tried to maintain for the whole time of the campaign. It paid off, as every time we released a new piece of content (no matter the medium or format) it added to the overall perception of our game. With every release we stood out a bit more as people got a stronger and clearer image of what our game was and what it was not.
‘Gamers just wanna have fun’
Of course, sometimes being coherent meant we had to say ‘NO’ to our gamers. And that is never easy. Especially when you have a committed and highly engaged community. For example some time after the release we started to receive requests for a zombie mode. It is understandable as ‘This War of Mine’ has all the elements making it the perfect candidate for that sort of conversion. It is a survival game, with people crumped in half-destroyed buildings, trying to survive as long as possible. That’s something half of the zombie flicks are based on. But we did not want to do that as we strongly felt it would blur the identity of the game we had worked so hard on. Fortunately people understood our approach and respected our decision.
The identity we created, while well-defined, was grim and quite far from what gamers are usually used to. That raised quite obvious questions about the ‘fun factor’ of our game. But as Pawel — one of our writers — said while interviewed by Kotaku, with ‘This War of Mine’ we never aimed at fun but rather a meaningful experience. We were ready to sacrifice what was necessary to maintain the big idea that fueled the game. ‘Weren’t you scared’ — you may ask. Of course we were. But that was the only reasonable solution. There was no middle ground there, if we were to achieve what we aimed for. I still meet people telling me that ‘This War of Mine’ is their favorite game, they will never ever play again. And that is OK. Some people replay it multiple times. Some do not. But they seldom forget the experience they had with the game.
‘Putting the cogs into motion’
Being indie meant that we had strictly limited marketing budget, so our campaign relied mostly on widely understood digital media gaming events coverage. ‘Owned’ and ‘earned’ channels were crucial as we could afford only so much when it came to paid activities.
Basically, we divided most of our attention between:
- video production *distribution,
- social media presence,
- PR/e-PR activities
Everything else followed but considering our headcount and the scale of the overall marketing investment, we couldn’t add much on top of these four pillars.
Video became the backbone of our production, as the most appealing and most willingly consumed type of content at the time (and nowadays as well). It is no secret that game marketing heavily relies on videos. Trailers, ‘let’s plays’, ‘dev diaries’, you name it. Having that in mind, we planned all the key points in our campaign around some type of video bits. Obviously we could not afford high fidelity, fully fledged cinematic trailers to which people have been accustomed by top tier AAA publishers, but a good idea works even when written on a napkin, as we believed. Over two years we released over a dozen if not more videos but few of them are especially worth mentioning.
The Announcement trailer aimed at introducing people to the core premise of the game. It was all about the new perspective on war. The idea was to open as if we had the next action-focused shooter and then make the shift presenting the civilians’ perspective. Simple as it was, it worked brilliantly. We didn’t show the gameplay, or even say what the genre was. The premise of the game proved to be enough to spark the conversation.
Preparing our first gameplay trailer we decided to use Polish song, titled ‘Zegarmistrz Światła Purpurowy’ as a background to the story we were to tell. We were concerned about whether it’s gonna work, considering the fact that most of our audience doesn’t know the language, but finally we have decided that the emotional package it carries is language-neutral and should work universally. The reception of the video proved us right.
The funny part is that our video enhanced the popularity of the song abroad and right now you can find a lot of comments on Youtube by people who actually found the song because of our trailer.
Another video, which we consider to be a milestone, happened not long before the release of the game. Sometime into the campaign we received a message from Emir — a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo — who complimented the game and compared it to his own personal experiences. Fascinated by his story, we invited him to share it with us, and he happened to be kind enough to accept the invitation. Shortly afterwards, he visited us in Warsaw where we taped a video together that later, supplemented with elements of gameplay, became the launch trailer.
Earned media & organic reach are dead. Most social media specialists will tell you that. And they will be right and wrong at the same time. I won’t fight with data and I know the trends. ‘Between January and July of 2016 there was a 52% decline in organic reach on Facebook. Not the first and probably not the last one as well. That said, in our case a highly engaged community worked wonders. Mostly because we treated social media as part of our game’s universe. We did some paid advertising, of course. Mostly sponsored posts with the addition of ASU on Facebook, targeted at gamers from ‘hi-potential’ markets. Usually to boost key content releases. But on top of that we focused on providing people with bits prolonging and/or teasing the experience provided by the game itself.
We also tried to be as responsive and in touch with the community as possible. On Facebook, Steam, Youtube, as well as bunch of smaller platforms our fans were active on. On top of that we distributed our game among youtubers to increase the momentum and gain credibility among gamers. That gave us over 1M views even before launch day.
Gamers appreciated our overall approach and we did appreciate their engagement by not limiting any of their initiatives as long as they were in line with the game’s ID. That approach gave us steady growth without paid acquisition of any kind, 30%-60% of organic reach and last but not least a brilliant tabletop version of our game along with few smaller initiatives that emerged from the community. A steady and active fanbase keeps ‘This War of Mine’ alive and kicking, despite the fact we did not and do not plan any sequels. At least for now…
I won’t give you wheel-reinventing recipes as our approach to events was quite straightforward. We tried to build as big exposure for the game as possible (considering the limited budget) and generate coverage afterwards with intense follow-ups. That said, there are few key profits from participating in gaming events that we consider crucial.
First of all, it is still one of the most efficient way to get in touch with media people and make them aware of the existence of your game. Having a skilled PR person or even an agency at your side definitely doesn’t hurt, but even being on your own, you can build a decent coverage as long as you have a good game and equally good idea on how to present it.
Secondly, events allow you to build the initial interest of the community before the title hits the shelves. Nowadays we’ve got many other ways to do that, including Kickstarter, Early Access, Itch.io amongst others but meeting people in real life from time to time is healthy, isn’t it?
Last but not least, we used events as an opportunity to test the game and gather valuable feedback. We still stick to that rule as it is cheap, easy to implement and quite effective. Seeing other people play your game gives you fresh perspective and allows you to spot worth-solving issues you could miss in the development process. We usually prepare questionnaires to gather feedback and have something to analyse afterwards. It worked for ‘This War of Mine’ as well as other titles which were and are present on various show-floors.
Marketing-wise, events allow you to see how people react to different elements of the game and how their experiences align with what you communicate in your campaign. Having this additional feedback you can adjust your communication and shift some pressure points to emphasize all the details especially appreciated by gamers. It’s that simple. And simplicity works.
It is a booksize topic and there actually are a lot of books about it. In gaming though, strong PR is a must, as gaming media are crucial for building reach and awareness for the game. Especially when you want to reach so called ‘hardcore gamers’. A thing worth keeping in mind is that media outlets crave for reach and traffic and to generate these, they need highly appealing, catchy content. The more attractive your content is, the bigger the chance of coverage.
Working on your PR assets try to answer key questions:
- what is the core message?
- is your title catchy and intriguing?
- how will your piece present itself next to all the other leads that are about to be published? Is it different? And if so: does it stand out in a good way?
People you want to convince to cover your game will most probably check out these boxes and so should you beforehand. That said, our experience shows that even the best topics and the best pieces of content are usually one shots. So, to maintain the momentum you have to constantly find new angles and new ways to present your game (while staying in line with the overall strategy). It is not easy by any means. But it is worth it.
For the good cause.
After the release and the initial success of the game, we were looking for some new opportunities to enhance the overall impact. Having a game about civilians in a time of war and the upcoming expansion pack about children — ‘The Little Ones’, it was a natural path for us, to do something addressing that issue in real life. This is how our cooperation with ‘War Child’ happened. And it resulted with raising over 200k$ for the underage victims of war. ‘Shaping the failure into the success’
The black flag.
Working in games you get shivers every time you hear the word ‘torrents’. Piracy became an issue for us as well and sooner than we expected. We decided not to fight it as we were not Metallica (*Ba Dum Tss*). Instead, we decided to show some empathy to people downloading our game, so we posted a bunch of steam codes for our game on Pirate Bay (the most popular torrent site) along with a simple ‘thank you note’. In the message we thanked people for showing interest in our game and encouraged them to make the purchase. At the same time we assured them that we understood if for some reason they were not able to buy the game, so they were free to use the codes we provided to play it legally.
The results exceeded our expectations. The community loved the initiative and we gained additional media coverage from some of the major outlets including Polygon. And while PR-wise it proved to be a solid move, for us it was something more. I believe that fighting people you always lose. You lose time, you lose energy and your money. Supporting your community, on the other hand, you’re gonna end up just fine. Ok, maybe these people on Pirate Bay will not buy your game, but they are still part of your community and as such they can contribute in so many other ways just by spreading the word, building the hype and/or the perception of your title. They won’t give you money, but because of them other people will.
‘Maintaining the momentum’
Our pre-release campaign for ‘This War of Mine’ ran for about 7 months and I consider that a perfect timing, as it gave us the opportunity to release a significant amount of content establishing the idea, then developing the discourse around the game and finally serving as a build up for the launch of the game. Then we had a long-term communication support based mostly on PR and social-media coverage.
Six to seven months give you a reasonable window in which you can run an efficient campaign, reaching whomever you have to, not losing focus nor momentum in the process. Keeping in mind how the market evolves, I think that if anything, that timeframe will shrink making our marketing runs shorter and more exhausting.
Now a bit of bragging. After more than four years since the release, we are happy to say that people still appreciate our game (I intentionally try not to say ‘like’ as emotions ‘This War of Mine’ evokes differ from what you usually feel playing games). The overall media coverage also surprised us with its scale as well as the sentiment. Not to mention the number of awards we’ve received.
Regarding our sales, there is one thing I would like to underline as it directly relates to the marketing planning. While the initial sales are mostly related to the strength of your campaign, because with the appropriate budget and communication plan you can generate the spike, the quality of your game is what decides on your success in a long run. This is what we learnt at least. We still support ‘This War of Mine’, not only bug-fixing what is to fix (and there always is something, am I right?) but also providing new content as much as we can. Last year for example we have released the Anniversary Edition, including new scenarios along with some NPSs and brand new endgame mechanics. It came as a free update as we are lucky enough to have a community big enough to be able to invest our time and effort into further enhancements. As we said in the video introducing the Anniversary edition: ‘We made the game, but our gamers made it great’. And I strongly believe that to this day.