GDC Austin: Wolfire's PR Tips

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September 21st, 2009

As you might know, we were recently invited to give a talk at GDC Austin about our PR strategy, which is essentially to be as open and transparent as possible. As promised here are the slides from the lecture! Below is a quick summary of the hour-long talk.

Overt Ops Commando

Part I: The Philosophy

PR is defined as the art of controlling information flow between a company and the outside world. Wolfire says that when you're a teeny tiny company trying to produce a game using your own IP in the noisy and crowded sea of the internet, the only reasonable move is to maximize this flow of information. Swallow your pride and acknowledge that you are not EA or Activision, so you shouldn't think like them when it comes to PR. Opening up makes it easier to do 3 important things:

- Making noise

The big guys tend to guard their updates carefully, rarely leaking new information about their game. When they do, it's very controlled and polished. This strategy may make sense when you are so big that even a small leak of information means multiple Digg front-page stories and coverage by news sites everywhere. For indies though, your carefully packaged press release would likely fall into obscurity.

This means that you need to get creative, experiment, and make noise often. Since it's hard to predict what will blow up and what won't, the more insights you share the better your chances are of getting people's attention. Some of our most popular posts were spur of the moment articles that we almost felt bad for firing. Jeff's "Always initialize your memory" post for example surprised us all when it became popular organically on Reddit.

Remember that the upside is huge and the downside is small. The only thing you stand to lose is your time if you sink hours into a post that doesn't earn you any recognition. The good news is that if a PR attempt fails, no one will see it so you don't have to feel embarrassed (EA doesn't have this luxury). Since almost everything applies to games, there are lots of different things you can share.

- Making friends

An important part of open development is reaching out to other people in the industry. Contact other indies, they are your allies not your rivals. You also want to reach out to press contacts and distributors.

Cold emails are always tough, so don't get discouraged. One of the first things I did at Wolfire was spend a month collecting over 300 emails in preparation for announcing Overgrowth. Jeff even made me a mass emailer program to facilitate the press wave. Out of all the people we emailed, we only got about 10 responses. Granted each of those 10 was a big deal for us, but the poor conversion ratio was a strong reminder of how small and insignificant we were in the noisy realm of the internet. Similarly when we decided we wanted to get on Steam, I cold emailed them. When I got no response, I emailed them again. Several emails later we finally got a response.

Meeting people in person is extremely valuable. No matter where you are, you should try to get involved in your local game developer scene. Raiding conferences is also a great way to meet people. I recommend having a box of business cards, an iPod touch with some videos of your game on it and a company shirt (bagpipes are optional). One of my favorite tactics is to follow fancy cameras on the show floor, because where there's a camera there's a gaming news reporter. The press are usually very busy but they also tend to be very friendly. To a certain extent indie games represent a chance to find out about the next big thing before it hits mainstream so don't be bashful, say hello. You never know who you'll meet and meeting people in person turns cold emails into warmer ones.

- Building a community

The best way to build a community is to facilitate communication. Create ways for you to talk to fans, for fans to talk to fans and also for fans to talk to you. It's easy to think that you might be overwhelmed by visitors to your site if you allow everyone to contact you directly, however this is a great problem to have and most indies that are just starting out are not lucky enough to have this problem.

There are also a few design choices you can make that can foster a community. Jeff already pointed out in his post about supporting Mac OS X and Linux why cross platform development is such a good idea for indies. Another design choice that will facilitate a community is the incorporation mod support. If you give players access to the same engine tools you use yourself, you allow them to create content which can make the game more fun for everyone.

Start early. Starting from zero is tough, so get it out of the way now. The earlier you start the more seeds you can plant by launch.

Part II: Onsite PR implementation

- Blog

The blog is your rock and your most effective tool for sharing your development process with the world. It is extremely versatile and all the original content you produce for your blog can be echoed out to your other pages.

Tips: Use pictures/videos, keep it short, encourage discussion, embed Disqus, conspicuous subscriber buttons, make blog posts often

- Forums

The forums offer a place for visitors to share their thoughts. Unlike the blog which you have to power yourself, the forums are largely fan-run. They provide a great medium to share information and solutions to problems that may arise. They also allow for the sharing of creative ideas and mods.

Tips: Seed the forums with appropriate topics. Try not to crack down to hard on anyone or you may find yourself in the middle of a flame war.

- IRC channel

Wolfire's public IRC channel is kind of like the forums in live chat form. Multiple devs can idle there at once and questions can be crowd sourced. It was in our IRC channel that Silverfish first introduced us to ModDB.

Tips: Mibbit allows for IRC access through the browser, Rabbot posts new blog posts in the chat so that IRC idlers can get first crack at reading and responding to blog posts.

- Live chat

We use a Meebo live chat widget to provide an easy way for visitors to talk to us. It's easier than sending an email so it encourages more people to contact us. All sorts of visitors stop by from Lugaru fans, to press contacts, to online distributors. There are many reasons why we have a live chat widget as detailed in this blog post.

Tips: Always be polite and helpful because there's no way to tell for sure who is visiting, epic troll moments can turn into fun blog posts.

- Google App Engine and Amazon Cloud Front

Prepare for big traffic before it happens. It would be sad to do everything right and have tons of people coming to your site to buy your game only to have your server down. We use Amazon CloudFront and Google App Engine to host our site. This basically guarantees that your website can scale, and will not fail when you need it most.

We participated in the MacHeist Giving Tree a while ago, which drew a lot of attention to Lugaru. When the Giving Tree was unveiled, we experienced a sudden spike that generated about 30 visits / second. While many of the websites of the other participating apps featured were immediately destroyed (even the Giving Tree site itself at some points), our website kept up without breaking a sweat.

Tips: Do it now!

Part III: Offsite PR Implementation

- ModDB

ModDB ModDB is a very indie friendly collection of all video games and their mods. It's a great place to add your game and keep people updated on its status. If the ModDB staff like your news update, they will promote it to the front page. Many people use it as a news site and keep track of gaming news. It is a surprisingly large site and the community is awesome. Some ModDB visitors have already started modding Overgrowth before it is even released.

Tips: Decorate your page to draw attention to it, update often with high quality content to attract people

- YouTube

YouTube YouTube is the best place to host your videos. Originally we used Vimeo because they were the first to support HD content. However, Vimeo kicked us out. They are famously anti-video games and have given other people the boot as well, most notably, the lovable 2dboy.

YouTube has HD now and an absurd number of useful features these days. The most valuable thing about YouTube is that people can easily subscribe to your channel and YouTube will funnel more viewers onto your pages by cross-pollinating your video with other related videos.

Tips: Add a link to your YouTube channel in your videos so people can subscribe to you

- Facebook

Facebook A Facebook page gives you a secondary location to host your blog posts, pictures and HD videos. Facebook is the biggest social network and is designed to be as viral as possible. Whenever someone interacts with your page, the activity is splashed around to his or her friends. This helps people spread the word organically and can cause pretty substantial chain reactions.

However, a Facebook page needs nurturing. Originally our page was cold and sterile but overtime it has gradually grown into its own community, and now there is always a discussion going on there.

Tips: Feed your blog onto your page's notes, upload videos and photos individually to the wall so that they are more conspicuous

- Twitter

Twitter Twitter seemed pretty dubious at first. However, more and more people have started following us and now its value is hard to dispute. Twitter is unique from other pages because it offers a good medium for you to meet your peers in the industry in addition to accumulating fans. Twitter is at worst an alternative to your blog's RSS feed, but at best, it's a great way to keep people up to date more rapidly and lets you communicate with tons of other game developers.

Tips: Don't just link to yourself like an RSS bot, use Twitter to communicate with people

- Steam Group

Steam Your Steam group offers a great way to introduce your game to the Steam community. Groups have amenities like screenshots and avatars that you can upload to add some flair to your page. The Whale Man avatar was quite a hit. However, the main asset of Steam groups is the chat room that acts like a public IRC channel tied directly to your game. Because most people on Steam are active gamers looking to purchase games, this PR is extremely well targeted.

Tips: Idle in your Steam group's chat room so you can meet visitors and answer their questions, offer visitors avatars, you can post important blog posts as announcements

- GamesPress

GamesPress helps us auto feed our content onto certain sites. It has been great for getting our videos onto IGN, Gamespot, GameTrailers and G4. Even if you upload pictures of a pumpkin with the company logo carved in it getting set on fire with a propane torch, GamesPress will get it streamed to a few sites.

Tips: just post it, you never know whose attention you'll get

- GameTrailers

GameTrailers is the biggest game video site out there. It's a constant stream of videos that people watch like TV, so when they post your video, it will immediately get thousands of views.

Tips: Upload videos often, don't get discouraged if people mistake your early work for the final product, they'll catch on eventually as they see more videos.


What's more interesting: a finished asset or an entire timelapse showing you everything from the initial strokes to the final product? If you can see the appeal of a timelapse, you should also be able to see the appeal of open development.

There is often a PR lull for a game between when it is announced and when it is ready for preview. It makes sense that news sites probably can't entertain their readers with your latest plant shader updates. However, such updates are interesting news to your community, so don't sit on your hands, keep showing what you've got.

Finally remember to stay agile. The gaming industry is already moving at the speed of Moore's law and web based PR tools seem to be moving faster than that. As a small agile company you'll have the chance to be a first adopter on the next big thing.