How To Build A Brand Handbook (Brandbook)
I’m sorry about the pun.
Y’all this is a long one. Strap yourself in.
A lot of the time I read tweets. Okay, most of the time, but that’s besides the point. Among the memes, cancelling, celebrations, call-to-actions, I frequently see a tweet from devs, especially indie devs, like the below.
“I wish someone would write out a guide on how to pitch and how to write an email to press or influencers to actually get attention…”
The hardest part about these tweets is what they think they want and what they actually need is pretty separate. The reality is, what a lot of them are looking for doesn’t exist yet.
How to pitch articles are EVERYWHERE, giving the same tips — be personable, do your research, refine your elevator pitch, include gifs, etc etc. These articles are REALLY important, and tackle how to send these emails pretty well. That’s not actually what they want.
They want a template for their game— one that helps to simplify exactly what it is they’re selling and how to sell it. If you don’t know your audience, their audience, where your audience lives, and the cross-over, your messages aren’t going to work no matter how good the template is. If you’re a VR game, pitching to Kotaku is going to be really difficult, no matter how great your email, because they need clicks, and that isn’t their audience.
Often, it’s easiest to chase trends. 5 years ago it was all about influencers and their value. 5 years before that, reviews were the thing you needed to be chasing. Now? It’s Discord. Discord, influencers, reviews are all potentially great, but is your super long, single player narrative game a great fit for Discord, or influencers, and the way they work? …Maybe not.
The other reason a lot of indies struggle with sending pitch emails is because they don’t necessarily know the value of their game. They’ve built their game and now they’re ready to talk to their audience , but they’re not sure who that audience is, or aren’t sure how to talk to them. They might think they know who their audience is, but don’t know how to explain to them what’s special about their game, or know what is actually valuable to that audience. Others often assume that the marketer they bring in will be able to create their target audience out of thin air.
The problem is, every single game requires a different approach. A different tone, a different strategy, a different look, feel, level of effort, level of engagement.
Part of this is understanding what is actually unique to your game versus what just makes it, well, a game. It’s not that features of your game aren’t important, it’s that it doesn’t always give a clear idea of your value proposition. Victoria Tran, Communications Director at Kitfox Games goes into this in a little more detail here, but the long and short of it is — having weapons, for example, alone are not a unique feature to get a person to play your game over another game. Weapons that change every time you use them? Now you might be talking. If I see one more “multiple levels!” as one of the 8 features listed, I might rip off my own face. (I’m exaggerating. Just the jaw.)
While a marketer will be able to assist with finding your audience, finding them at the end when you have conflicting mechanics, experiences, feelings, and more within your game is a LOT more difficult — they can’t find an audience that doesn’t exist — but that’s another article. I know this doesn’t always happen, so even if you’re almost at the end of creating your game and about to send out emails to media and the like — you need to create a brand ‘bible’ or ‘brandbook’ so to speak. This ‘brandbook’ should ideally be created immediately after you’ve identified your target audience — before the game is finished. Just like design pillars, you come back to this book as the foundation of the tone and communications of your game, whether internal or external. If your game is done, the ‘brandbook’ is you setting clarity for your team and others around the tone of your communications in public.
Your brandbook functions as a home hub for your marketing, and what your game is. It doesn’t replace the work you need to do to find your audience, identify target markets, generate personas, create a strategy for reaching those audiences, create content — all the work a marketer can and should help you do — but it lets you have a starting point to assess where and how you think and talk about the game externally. It gives you a language as a team.
I’m going to go through each part that comprises your brandbook with what you need to consider, as well as examining HoloVista’s, the title I’m consulting on in the process! While you’ll want some things to stay the same, one of the best things you can do is keep testing and playing to see what your audience responds to.
We at Aconite, developers of HoloVista, have been a little too direct while we’ve been figuring out what the game wants to say alongside it’s creation, but I’m keen for us to get a little more esoteric — to say more with less. So let’s start with names — these things go for both your game name and studio name!
Name: Your Unique Game Identifier
Too often I see developers picking a name they think is fun and cool but is going to be a nightmare for them down the track.
I’ve been consulting with Aconite since last March or thereabouts. In that time, we’ve gone through a number of gauntlets — picking a game name, announcing our title (Elijah Wood retweeted us!! Frodo!!!), building out prototype after prototype, you name it.
We went through a BUNCH of names before settling on HoloVista (199 options, to be exact — with an additional 49 other words in a word cloud for inspiration). We whittled them down from a variety of descriptive words, combinations of words, and so on and so forth.
We really liked the name Reverie for some time. It highlighted a lot of themes we wanted for our game experience: a dreamlike state, being lost in thought. The game came close to being called that, but there were too many competing options. A very different game, released some time ago on PSP, but it was close enough to pose a problem. Not to mention, it’s not necessarily super unique. Even if there wasn’t another Reverie, it’s easier to forget than HoloVista.
There is another business with the name HoloVista, but in a very different space — unlikely to be mistaken. We did extensive research with legal and with the team to make sure it was what we needed. If someone searches “hollow vista” we can redirect with SEO as this is likely the only way it can be misheard.
It’s short, sweet, and encompasses themes of our game; e.g. a vista can be a pleasing view, a home type, an operating system (which fits nicely with our vaporwave esc elements.). Holo can be holographic visuals, a hologram, hollow in connotation or sound. You combine the two and get even more potential connotations.
Things to think about include:
The Crucial Things
- Check to see if another studio has the name, or similar
- Check to see if another product has the name, or similar
- Check to see what comes up when you google the name you’ve chosen
- Check domain name options — you don’t want to pick a great name then find out your name is taken, or reads poorly as a URL. Consider alternative potential options, if you’ve got the perfect name but the website is taken — maybe you can be enterholovista.com instead of holovista.com, for example!
- Assume that your ideal name is taken — and make sure that adding ‘games’ or ‘studios’ or whatever your end to it will be is enough to help it stand out.
- Check social media options like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram — can you get the same handle across every platform? Plan for scale. If you’re somehow suddenly a global phenomenon, you don’t want to cough up 10K to someone on the other side of the world for a username on a platform down the track. Find them, reserve them, hold tight.
The Less Obvious
- Consider your business structure before you pick a studio name, and your games structure before a game name. For example, in Australia, if your business is a company there are different registration requirements than if you’re a sole trader or partnership. This is less relevant for your game, but if your game is going to be ideally one of a series, how does that fit long term? You might need to do triple the do-diligence.
- Don’t pick a simple word — calling your business “Dog Interactive” seems cute until you realise that your audience is getting results for interactive dog toys.
- Say it out loud — can it be mistaken for something else really easily? Google the misspellings. See what comes up.
- Consider cultural connotations of specific words. For example, gift means ‘poison’ in German. Double, triple, quadruple check.
(One sentence, accompanying marketing materials, and or major press beats.)
If your game was a movie, what would the tagline be? We don’t tend to do this a lot, but many games and companies have taglines or themes that are evident in their materials. They’re an easy call to action for what a brand or product stands for. Fortnite has them for each season — “More fun, less grind.” “Worlds collide.” to set the tone. Some studios also use taglines to tie their games together at a higher level — Starcolt uses the line “We deal in feels.” which for a business is a perfect way to quickly sum up their approach to game development.
For HoloVista, we wanted to hint at the fact that this game is about coming to terms with the past, and the ways in which we have to fall apart to find ourselves sometimes. We settled on the below — it sets a tone that things are not what they seem, that to make progress we sometimes have to look back, and gives a two steps forward one step back feeling, quickly. This might be your core message on your games socials or website, or you might never even use this publicly — but it’s an interesting way to see how the team views the core message of the game.
“To be remade, we must first come apart.”
When do I use it?
Your tagline can go in your pitch deck, on your key art materials, as a header image in your Steam page, a major headline on your website — etc. It might be written in your mailing signature next to an image of the game. It will go on major press releases, and can be considered part of your games boilerplate.
For example, Overwatch’s tagline is: “A future worth fighting for.” You rarely see this said or written, but it conveys a context to the game, and is a useful pillar to refer back to when considering the games marketing as a whole.
The Elevator Pitch:
(One to two sentences, short and snappy, easy to recall.)
The dreaded elevator pitch — every devs worst nightmare. It doesn’t have to be, though! While you’re still developing, you can and should keep testing and changing and updating this until you find one that works.
Ideally, you want a game literate person to hear your elevator pitch and go “Oh, so kind of like [game you’ve identified as part of your target audience.]” without you having to say it. You want similarities, but differences that make this game something new. You want them to make connections with other games they’ve played and enjoyed, quickly and easily. You can see me talk about this a little in my thread breaking down ‘Coffee Talk’s elevator pitch here.
Here’s an elevator pitch we could have gone with, and why it doesn’t work.
“HoloVista is a first-person puzzle adventure in a lush environment, with secrets to uncover.”
This doesn’t work for a number of reasons.
- I have no idea what feeling this game will give me — awe, horror, excitement, frustration, curiosity. Are these good secrets? Bad secrets? Who am I? What position am I, the player in? Where do I fit in relation to the story?
- Similarly — lush environment — what kind of environment? Am I outside amongst the trees? Inside with crystal chandeliers? I have no context to give me scope as a player in terms of the world I’m traversing, how modern it might be, whether it’s a dungeon or a city.
- I could put almost a billion other games in that spot and it would be a pitch for them. The Witness. Myst. Firewatch. What Remains of Edith Finch. All games that have similarities, to some degree, with ours — but are not the same. You don’t want someone to be able to replace your games name with another game and for the pitch to still make sense. Victoria Tran gave a great talk about this some time ago, here if you want to see this exercise in practice.
We’ve had: “HoloVista is a story-driven puzzle game in which you explore a dreamlike mansion, photograph mysterious objects, confront your deepest secrets, and confess them online” for some time, but there are some things I want to tweak.
For one, I don’t want us to use descriptive words like “story-driven” or “puzzle game” anymore. They don’t tell you much about the actual game-play we have, which could potentially be more harmful than helpful, nor do they jump into the feelings of the experience. We were concerned about making sure people understood the breadth of the game earlier on, but we’re far enough along our development cycle now that you can get a sense of there being some extra layers — the narrative and puzzle elements from our trailer and our comms.
Instead, I want something that simply communicates the themes, quickly, and piques interest enough that someone asks more — so, I can drop the start and get straight into the curiosity.
“Explore a dreamlike mansion, photograph mysterious spaces, confront your deepest secrets and confess them online as Carmen, junior architect and new hire at an elusive firm.”
Immediately this tells the player:
- You are exploring a space that feels ‘other’, of which you’ll capture in photographs. This hints at both feeling (dreamlike) and gameplay (photograph).
- You’ll confront personal secrets of some kind, with ‘confront’ giving weight to these moments. It’s not ‘fight’ or ‘defeat’, but confront. It hints at conflict, but of an emotional nature, not physical.
- You’ll ‘confess’ — giving a personal or negative connotation to them — them online, presenting a potential “online” element to the game. We worried about this, in that would people assume there was a direct social media built in to the game, but by adding ‘as Carmen’, we remove the user personally from this.
- You’re playing a role — someone named Carmen who is likely new to their career and stepping into their world.
- You are a junior architect, therefore probably not responsible for the mansions creation, with the ‘new hire’ line confirming this.
However — this might work in a written format, but not so great if I’m talking out loud. You need to be able to modify your pitch so it doesn’t sound clunky in person. In person, you’ll need to centre the individual more than if they were reading it on a website — it might be more like:
“You play as Carmen, a junior architect and new hire at an elusive firm exploring an opulent mansion and taking photos. You’re forced to confront yourself and your past, and confess what you discover online.”
It doesn’t matter if it changes too much, but the core needs to stay the same.
You will tell everyone this sentence. You can change it over time, tweak it, but this is the one you need to remember.
When do I use it?
You should be using this with everyone you meet — you will need to assess the person you’re speaking to in order to understand a few things:
- What kind of literacy does this person have with playing video games?
- What kind of literacy does this person have with the intended platform of this game?
- What kind of understanding does this person have with the field of video games, and games similar to yours?
For example — if your elevator pitch leans heavily on genre descriptors, you may lose your 1 & 2 audience very quickly. Someone who only plays match-3, isn’t going to understand what “roguelike” means or its connotations.
If your elevator pitch leans heavily on “it’s like X game meets X game” and your audience has minimal awareness of the wider field of games (point three above), you may either be talking to the wrong audience for your game, or you’ve overshot the comparison.
If you say your elevator pitch and then realise your audience has some understanding in this space, you could throw to a really quick interest pique /to tie off our above description e.g. —
“It’s like MTV Cribs meets Myst.”
You need to be able to say this sentence to someone who has never engaged with a video game and get them interested. You also need to say this sentence to someone who has played everything and does game reviews and have a decent hook within it. It’s your jack of all trades.
(2–3 sentence, slight expansion on Elevator Pitch. Feeling heavy.)
Your narrative pitch is there to convey the story experience in some way. When I say narrative though, I don’t necessarily mean story. If your game is a P2P shooter, there’s a story there to the experience of playing it you need to tell by making your pitch high-octane, high-energy. Here, you should be thinking about the feelings involved. If we want our player to feel a certain way, what words or connotations are we using to convey or communicate those feelings? What are we hoping to encourage them to consider?
For HoloVista, which does contain a lot of narrative, we wanted to double down into the futurism themes and its encompassing social media, which isn’t really mentioned in our initial pitch other than the word “online”. It brings context for the user, explains why Carmen finds herself with this set task, and eludes to mystery.
In the game’s near-future social media world, you’re charged with photographing the inside of an opulent building — but beware: the house is getting to know you too, perhaps better than you know yourself.
When do I use it?
Your narrative pitch is the follow up, usually. It’s for when you’ve given your elevator pitch and your audience is still looking interested, or your second paragraph in an email you might send. Again, in person you’d be tweaking this to sound less wooden.
You’d use this for a slide in your pitch decks, when you explain the story of your game in a little more detail — this might be your pull-out quote or similar at the top of a web-page or slide before you dive further into the details or lore of the game.
(2–3 sentences or dot points, highlighting the gameplay experience.)
HoloVista is interactive fiction blended with mixed reality in a stunning 3D world. Explore lush environments with your phones camera in 360° as you search for hidden objects, unscramble posts, solve puzzles, and get to know the characters within Carmen’s world in HoloVista.
Your gameplay pitch is all about the tangible game experience. What is the user doing to interact with the world and how does that impact the game play? We wanted to clearly show that you’ll be using your phones camera in a 3D world, taking photos, searching for objects, solving puzzles, and getting to know characters using these functions. This gives a general overview of the ways in which the player will engage, and this is where you can reference genre.
Genre and game play are potentially dangerous ways to describe a game. Big AAA studios can heavily lean into genre because they’re a known quantity, and don’t need to prove quality of experience to their audiences.
As an indie, you have a very different journey towards trying to make your game and studio a known and trusted quantity to your audience comparatively.
I see a lot of indies then use the AAA approach as a baseline for how they approach their games marketing — do as they do. However, if you go to Overwatchs website, even they aren’t doing this genre-first approach.
People tend to consider certain genres as “not for them” and you don’t want people dismissing your game off the bat. I am someone who doesn’t consider themselves a fan of RPGs, and yet, Undertale and Pokemon are two of my favourite games. I became interested in them not because they were RPGs, but because they offered me other hooks to attach to.
Similarly, when Disco Elysiums release date trailer came out, I had absolutely zero interest. I felt like I was staring at another isometric RPG experience that was gorgeous, but not my cup of tea. It eluded to mystery and crime-solving, which I don’t play a lot of either. I saw a lot of combat up front, clothing choices, which I wasn’t that keen on. Because the trailer was 2ish minutes long, I dropped off in the first minute.
It wasn’t until word of mouth about the details of the game and its “psychology” focus that I decided I could trust the value proposition. Friends started telling me I’d love it and it eventually was my Game of The Year. I love Studio ZAUM and their trailers are gorgeous, but had they not had a game that connected so deeply with their core audience (mostly isometric RPG fans), they may have struggled to communicate their multiple value propositions to their peripheral audiences (board-game audiences, choices-matter audiences, etc).
Different audiences might need a different pitch, but you can’t divert too far from the actual value proposition of your game. You need to know where you can tweak it to say what you need.
Had I come across “The Thought Cabinet” video, or continued watching the trailer all the way through, I might’ve realised the parts that would appeal to me — but your users are far more likely to watch your launch trailer than anything else and they aren’t going to pick up on the same things you do.
You can’t rely on your audience to identify and deliver your hooks, so make sure they’re upfront and visible, to prevent an audience from dismissing a game as ‘not for them.’
However, this varies depending on your game and is part of why people struggle so much with this. If you’re making the roguelike to end all roguelikes and that is your core audience, then of course you want to mention it somewhere and speak directly to them. However, it’s still not the most effective first thing to say.
When do I use it?
Your gameplay pitch, and the material you use to showcase your gameplay, are all add-ons to your initial elevator pitch. You’ll need to assess your player and try and give them the information you feel is most valuable and interesting to them.
Take Riot’s Project A for example —they immediately can tell you the genres as they know their target audience is a cross between CS:GO and Overwatch, with the aim to capture part of their League and Riot fanbase. They don’t need to prove quality/difference of project. By virtue of being a AAA title, it’s an easier sell. They go straight to talking about the ‘precise gunplay’ and balance it back and forth with small pieces of narrative information, being contextual and about your experience as part of this team. Riot has spent the last 10 years transitioning from no narrative to a lot of narrative, and now they can drip-feed that to both their core audience and the adjacent ones they’re attempting to strengthen.
Your gameplay pitch would be its own space in your pitch deck, further building on the branding and themes you’ve been establishing with each section. You may not send this as a high priority to someone in media, but maybe it’s more important to an influencer who plays a lot of similar games up-front.
Full ‘General’ Pitch:
This is your overall pitch to people. It’s going to give further context, have your elevator pitch built in, then wrap more material around it to further excite and entice the person you’re talking to. This is what you tell people when they’ve heard the elevator pitch, and their eyes raise. This is your layers on the cake, and all the other info you have becomes icing.
Let’s look at it in action with Baba Is You.
In the yellow, we see our elevator pitch. Award-winning, to establish higher trust (but wouldn’t have been in at launch!). Puzzle to signal their target audience, but then the entire rest of the sentence is clearly built to intrigue.
In green, we see our narrative pitch. The story of the game experience is explained. “Manipulate” gives connotations of having a deliberate effect, giving a sense of control. “Surprising” and “unexpected” speaks to a sense of exploration and delight.
In the purple, is the gameplay pitch. It goes into more detail on the mechanics, the potential outcomes of those mechanics, and further strengthens the concept of being in control of not only the puzzle, but the goal with the final sentence.
For HoloVista, it becomes:
“Explore a dreamlike mansion, photograph mysterious spaces, confront your deepest secrets and confess them online as Carmen, junior architect and new hire at an elusive firm. In the game’s near-future social media world, you’re charged with photographing the inside of an opulent building — but beware: the house is getting to know you too, perhaps better than you know yourself. You’ll explore lush environments with your phone’s camera in 360° as you search for hidden objects, solve puzzles, and get to know the characters within Carmen’s world.”
When do I use it?
This is on your website on the About page, or in the initial pages of your press kit. It’s the first thing people see when they scroll down on your store page. It’s a high level overview of the three main things comprising your game: hook, narrative, gameplay.
I’m not saying any of this is easy — on the contrary, this work is likely to be as complex, involved, and ever-iterating as your game itself. If you take the time to sit down and create a brandbook, you will have an understanding of your game as a whole and what it offers to your audience. If you’re trying to do this process and you’re finding it too difficult, it’s likely because you don’t know who your audience actually is.
If you feel that’s you, I highly recommend this talk from a few years ago “Something for Everyone, Everything for Someone.” Matt Hall, prior to Crossy Road exploding internationally, talks about the process of figuring out your audience persona and who you are creating this game for. It’s a great way to recenter the way you approach your audience and a good place to start.
Ultimately, all of this should be considered for how it best applies to you. No marketer can do this for you in an hour, or a week. None of this is gospel (even though I did call it a bible, but hey, artistic license) and if you’re hoping to sell your game, you don’t get to opt out of thinking about it. Figure out your audience, then figure out how to talk to them, and use this to help you.
You can do this. I believe in you! ❤
Currently working at Film Victoria, Meredith supports the games industry to encourage learning, provide support systems, and create positive change in the challenges faced by local indie developers. She encourages indies to focus on their business structures and strategies, marketing plans and targets, inclusivity in content and in team, and to think critically about how to create great games without damaging the business, end user, or team in the process.
Meredith is dedicated towards contributing towards positive studio culture around the world through encouraging creation of games in ethical, exciting, supportive environments. This article is personal opinion and not reflective or representative of Film Victoria.