How to Announce a Game in 2016 or Indiepocalypse Now or Why GDC is OK or How to Write a Pithy Games Industry Blog Post Headline
Hello, I’m Paul Kilduff-Taylor from the indie development studio Mode 7. We have existed in this form for about 10 years and have released three computer games, worked on some other things including graphics for TV quiz shows, ports and simulations.
I include this identifying paragraph because I know from experience that if anyone pays attention to this post it will attract hordes of twitter eggs demanding to know “WHO EVEN IS THIS”. It even is me.
This is more of a “getting down my thoughts”-style post than something likely to display any kind of eloquence or even demonstrable structure. Apologies. Deal with it.
We announced a game recently.
The initial reveal consisted only of the name, this screenshot…
…and the phrase “Open World Tactics”.
I’ve always personally hated teasers but in the case of a sequel to a semi-well-known game, I think doing something like this is basically a requirement. If I were announcing a completely new game (which we will be doing next week) I probably wouldn’t bank on this. Getting coverage for an announcement is increasingly hard in our saturated times; on a new title I think you’d need to go all-out to get press to pay any attention whatsoever.
This went very well: we got a lot of interest from the existing Frozen Synapse community as well as blanket coverage across the major news sites. We sent out a mailing and I received a ton of positive responses and questions from our community, all of which I attempted to reply to personally.
We’re making a bigger effort to stay in touch on our Steam community and ask them about critical issues. Recently, we discussed match abandonment (a big issue from the first Frozen Synapse) and multiple floors (more on this later).
This has been hugely productive — in the past it’s been very hard for us to take community feedback as our games have been based on very specific designs. Either we were aiming for a minimal feature-set — the majority of community requests are always for feature additions — or we were desperately trying to complete and release an enormous game with a very small team in the case of Frozen Cortex. However, with FS2 we have a lot more flexibility and also a game that people know already; the community has already been immensely helpful and I’d like to thank them for that.
Riding this wave we went into what I’ve been calling the “details announcement” and first trailer:
The trailer and first information were initially exclusive with PC Gamer — this gave us the ability to get a great full write-up and interview with Jody Macgregor. PC Gamer were wonderful and allowed us loads of flexibility: they just cared about getting things first and were very helpful in coordinating their stuff with a wider press release and announcement.
This kind of announcement allows you — to some extent — to “get ahead of the story”. If you come out with an interview from a journalist who is prepared for the announcement, you can talk about the game in exactly the way you want. Early on, it’s easy to get blindsided by unexpected preconceptions: this kind of arrangement is one of the only ways you can mitigate that.
Of course, it’s still an open forum: journalists need to be allowed to do their job and ask any question they like in a free environment. I would never do an overly-constrained announcement or over-rehearsed press statement: aside from being unfair to readers and the community, that sort of thing is lifeless and makes for bad press.
Back in 2013, we announced Frozen Cortex (née Endzone) in a similar way, though without the teaser phase.
Several things have been different this time around. Firstly, many sites didn’t pick up the story from PC Gamer and I needed to follow up myself. This is what I would normally expect except, for some reason, back in 2013 it all happened automatically. I think this may have been a consequence of dropping the teaser phase, though it could equally be that sites check their rival publications less and feel more confident pursuing their own individual editorial lines. So much gaming news is released on a daily basis that I suspect the latter.
Follow-up, though initially stressful as you want to make sure everyone gets the information as quickly as possible, went well and the trailer again got very good coverage.
Quick jump forward in time to a relevant point: I got to speak with Stephen Totilo from Kotaku at GDC last week. Kotaku held a brief “meet-and-greet” event in one corner of the Moscone centre where developers could show up for a chat. This was absolutely fantastic — please can all media outlets do this? Often those of us who have not worked in the mainstream games industry don’t understand the ins and outs of how media outlets work. We generally have 3 or 4 years between game releases: the media landscape can become almost unrecognisable over this time-frame.
I was able to ask Stephen a question which had been bugging me: our press releases had got coverage on the UK and Australian sites very regularly, but sometimes the US site would lag behind or not cover us at all. Obviously, it’s always fine if an editor chooses not to cover something, but could I do anything to mitigate this?
He was very clear in his answer: the best thing for devs to do is to find a writer who has relevant interests. On the site, email addresses are posted under the writer’s name on each article, so you can get in touch directly. Their “tips” email address is goes to every Kotaku site in every territory, and it’s also ok (and expected) to politely follow-up there if you have significant news that you feel hasn’t been covered.
I’d normally gently follow up with sites if I felt something had been missed. I’ve had cases in the past where an editor had assumed something had also been CC’d to the relevant person, but as I wasn’t sure who that was at the time I’d neglected to do that! My follow-up allowed this to be discovered and the site then posted about the news. However, following up on a “tips” account on a bigger site isn’t something I necessarily would have done.
Back to the trailer. This was undoubtedly the hardest trailer I’ve ever had to make, narrowly pipping the horrible nightmare of the early Cortex trailers to that unenviable post.
Setting the scene and establishing the correct atmosphere while leaping straight into gameplay is a really hard thing to achieve. However, it’s completely essential when you’re trying to grab attention in the first 10 seconds.
We wanted to announced FS2 early so we could start talking about it through development, hoping to build up the right attention and audience so that when beta comes around, people know what the hell we’re talking about.
The downside of that is that it’s functionally impossible to do a “No Man’s Sky”: a game like Frozen Synapse 2 relies on being able to represent a large amount of detail with a limited graphical palette. That means coming out of the gate with a big trailer is all about trying to convey the depth of the game — the actual tactical gameplay — rather than being able to show massive scope with hugely varied art.
I feel like we did a good job with this and numbers were certainly good early on. It seems to have now been buried under the inevitable weight of another massive round of games news, so hopefully the secondary coverage we’ve got recently will bring some more eyeballs…
We managed to get the trailer out and then it was on to GDC. I spoke in the ‘Failure Workshop’ about difficulties with conveying Frozen Cortex’s concept, and then booked press meetings across the duration of the entire conference.
I spoke to a couple of PR agencies about this, but I was variously told it was either “too late” or “too early” to book such meetings (this was about a month or so out) so I just gave up and did it myself.
With a couple of exceptions, I was able to get journalists to commit to times (amazing!) and demoing the game went very well. Even if something is at an incredibly early point, there’s definitely a lot to talk about if it’s a worthwhile project: potential and the narrative of development are two things that can provide ample material to talk about.
There’s been a spate of GDC naysaying, including from devs I met out there who were slightly wondering why they’d come. I really feel that an event like GDC is best approached with a concrete plan.
Attending an event is about maximising the potential for unexpected positive events. I started writing a list of useful and interesting things that have happened simply down to the fact I happened to be at events, but this was boring and made me look like a prick, so you’ll just have to use your imagination. I can directly attribute a significant amount of revenue Mode 7 has made to encounters I’ve had at events: it’s that simple.
This time, I met a huge number of West Coast US journalists who generally don’t venture outside of their home territory. This is going to make it massively easier to connect with outlets who don’t have representation in the UK in future, as well as delivering a load of immediate coverage for FS2 at a time when we sorely need it.
That’s just the press side. Meeting up with friends and finding out what everyone is doing is hugely useful for making future plans.
I can barely believe I’m saying this but here’s a huge pro-tip: if you don’t like parties then don’t go to parties. It’s perfectly possible to have a hugely productive GDC without standing around awkwardly in a single club. I have absolutely no understanding of why people who hate these events go to them and then complain about them afterwards: just don’t go.
I have some health problems which flare up occasionally and I often have to skip out of things; I can’t really see that this has caused me any particular disadvantage in terms of getting the most out of attending events.
One final note: going to events makes me feel motivated like nothing else. The games industry is, fundamentally, a vast community predicated on creating emotionally involving experiences. It’s a hugely diverse group of people which shares common goals and interests; sure it has failings and there are ongoing problems which need to be worked out, but this commonality is unlike anything I’ve experienced when working elsewhere.
Being part of that, wanting to share experiences and being inspired by the massively cool work going on around me is something I can certainly do with having recharged on an annual basis. Personally, I need feedback, friendship and human contact to push through some of the intense periods of slog which game development requires.
Again, if an event doesn’t make you feel that way then don’t go. You can still do massively well in games simply by sitting in a single room coding without ever seeing another human being. It’s an extremely hard and lonely route, but it can work.
Those of us who try to be proactive in spreading the word about what we’re doing are just approaching things from a different angle; there are no rules.
So yes, “Holiday GDC” where you just go to hang out, watch some talks, play some games and wander round the city is an awesome experience if you can afford it. “Work GDC” where you marathon your way through an insane meeting schedule is something you can consider bringing out at any time if your game needs a boost. I’ll reserve judgement until I see the full impact from this year, but I already suspect it will have been fully worth it.
This week Frozen Synapse 2 and a stealth version of Game Not Announced Yet will be on show at Insomnia. I’ll be speaking at Norwich Gaming Festival and putting in an appearance at the Hypespotting 5 fighting game event in Glasgow, which has kindly agreed to provide some space for indie games. Then it’s Rezzed where both FS2 and Game Not Announced Yet will be out on the show floor. Then PAX East.
If you’re around at any of those then please do come and say hi.
This is quite the exhausting schedule but these games deserve an audience!
I Have to End With Some MEANINGFUL TAKEAWAYS
It’s massively important to figure out the sweet spot where your game becomes good enough to show, but is still early enough to enable you to start talking about it in development.
Creating an intriguing gameplay conceit that’s linked to a compelling core fantasy or player role is pretty much the holy grail of design.
Get that across effectively early on in your trailer by jumping into real gameplay.
Always think about what the player is going to be doing: clearly show how they can explore your world and do things they’ve never done before.
Make your game good so it deserves coverage. Then believe it deserves coverage and act accordingly.
Find writers who want to write about your specific sort of thing and follow up with them if they don’t reply. Don’t be afraid to be persistent but don’t be a massive knobend. Feel free to check your knobend level with another human being if you are concerned about it.
Exclusives can be good. Find an awesome site who will still allow you to be flexible with what you’re doing: make it mutually beneficial for you, the site and readers.
Making stuff that people wants still works, but I’m increasingly having to dedicate my life to shouting about it in order to get anyone to pay attention.