Hi. My name’s Kieron Gillen, I’ve been a games journalist for just over a decade and I’m fundamentally stupid.
I want to help you trick me.
Because — and here’s the secret message of this particular speech in case you want to leave now — I want to be tricked.
So go ahead. I’m asking for it.
The games press is often painted as corrupt, lazy and — as I mentioned — fundamentally stupid. This is because we tend to be corrupt, lazy and fundamentally stupid.
It’s not entirely our fault.
The games press has certain needs and limitations. As much as developers complain when the press wrongly criticises them by failing to understand their workings — for example, blaming innocent QA staff for buggy games when it’s only finding the bugs rather than fixing them that’s their responsibility — much what seems obscene and strange from people looking in at magazines is just a reaction to the situation they find themselves.
A modern British videogames magazine is put together in 19 working days. In that time, they have to research and write at least sixty-thousand words of copy to fill just shy of 150 pages. The rush from issue to issue leaves little time for serious contemplation. The second a magazine is finished, then the next demands your attention. And it’s only got worse over the years, as publishers trim staff and budgets to fluff the bottom line a little.
Put it like this: Games journalists are stupid because they don’t have time to think. Games Journalists are lazy as saving effort in one area gives them more time to spend in something where they can’t cut corners. And Games Journalists are corrupt because an incompetent or rushed decision when viewed from the outside can appear to be entirely identical to a corrupt one.
We’re not perfect, because we haven’t time to be perfect. Just like developers.
What I’m going to explore today is how these limitations of the games press can be used to lead to more coverage for your game or mod.
The secret is that we actually /want/ to write about you. When someone has a phenomenal amount of work to do before the nineteen day clock ticks down to deadline, anyone able to present them something interesting to fill their pages saves them an amount of work. While games writers try to stay aware of what’s happening in the games scene, and will go after anything that attracts their attention, by going after the games press you hugely increase your chance for favourable coverage.
Why would you want favourable coverage?
Oh c’mon. That there’s a media source — be it a website or a print magazine — that a gamer at least pays some attention to makes it worth courting. For ego’s sake alone, you know it can’t hurt. Some of these writers can say really pretty words about you which make you feel terribly appreciated, especially when you’ve sold eight copies to gran and sod all else.
Probably time for a case study. I’ll take you through their history and how they used and abused the gaming press by understanding how we wanted to use and abuse them.
Let’s talk about Introversion.
The story starts back in 2001, with Chris Delay, Tom Arundel and Mark Morris at University. One day Chris revealed that he was working on a videogame on the side. Tom and Mark ended up arguing they should give a go of releasing the game. Throwing in a couple of hundred quid each, they set up a website and start selling people the game direct.
The game in question was Uplink.
If you’re not aware, Uplink was a retread of a game idea that’s emerged a few times over the years. That of a game based around hacking. Starting with the simplest computer, you take on increasingly dangerous jobs to earn more money which you can improve your system to take on increasingly dangerous jobs and… oh, so on. Essentially, it was Elite, but set in cyberspace rather than deep space.
Turning to basic guerrilla marketing, they spread the word by faking up a few web accounts and starting a few innocuous threads about this “strange new game you’d be interested in”. Word starts to spread, slowly. Since they’re selling direct and the money just lands in their pockets, they cover their basic costs in the first month.
It’s at this point I enter the story.
At the time, I’m working as a Section Editor on the UK’s PC Gamer. When I wasn’t trying to convince games publishers PRs to send me a game which both of us knew I’d only kick or fielding phone calls from readers asking us for cheat codes, I was in charge of arranging the reviews section. As such, any game which arrived in the office was lobbed in my direction and added to the tottering pile to the left of my monitor.
One day, a package arrived from somebody called Introversion with a copy of Uplink. It’s clearly an independently produced game, but the concept immediately appeals. It’s been years since anyone attempted a hacking game, so it’s put in the pile to be looked at later.
Takes me a week or so to get around to booting up the bastard. And immediately, it’s clear that it’s something that’s interesting. We like it. In fact, we like it a lot. It’s a clever piece of design, walking a line between authenticity and accessibility. There’s a memorable incident when my Boss is playing it for the first time, to be disturbed by the game’s opening where it claims its connecting to the internet. In a panic, he pulls out the cables. It’s scary. It’s smart. We review it, and review it positively.
I also pick up the phone and call a few of my peers, who do my job on other magazines. PC Format decide to do a review. Equally, I call the progressive multiformat magazine Edge and tell them that it’s exactly the thing they should be covering. And mention it to Gamesmaster. And a few other people. And my ever-suffering girlfriend of the period. Eventually, everyone does a review and they’re all positive.
Well, except the Linux Format one, but fuck’em.
Chris from Introversion eventually calls me up, to ask if we’re reviewing it and if we are, what we make of it. Now, we have a policy of not generally revealing scores before we go to press — if we reveal the information any earlier, it’s an invitation to have to deal with a all manner of hassle as a publisher tries to talk us out of our opinion.
I recall one time when we didn’t keep to that particular law. An editor mentioned that the game would probably be getting an eighty percent. Now, the publisher was expecting a ninety and actually /flew over a member of the development team/ from the US to demo the game to me. It lead to the heartbreaking scene where a man broken by a Crunch Period and a cross-Atlantic flight walked me through a game I’d already finished.
What makes it /more/ heartbreaking in the time that it took to fly over, I’d decided that it was actually worth another five percent after replaying some other sections.
So I wasn’t going to tell Chris the score on the phone. After all, I didn’t know him and there’s always a risk that someone’s a lunatic who’ll start throwing around cheery lawsuits. However, I did tell him I really enjoyed the game and had spread the word around a little.
It’s at this point he mentions that Introversion are moving to the next stage. As well as selling online, they decided to try and actually get it stocked in game shops. They were approaching distributors to try and find someone who’ll be willing to take their independent game and actually get it onto the shelves. They weren’t having much luck. From the distributors perspective, it was all too understandable. Introversion were the classic English Bedroom programmers, in a entirely non-metaphorical manner. Their office was wherever they happened to be at any individual moment.
However, I was asked if I would give them some quotes to show the distributors. And I lob them some typically hyperbolic praise, and it’s enough to let Pinnacle to give them a chance. Uplink gets on the shelves and reaches an audience which wouldn’t, at least back then, be touched by any amount of internet word-of-mouth hype.
And while all this is going on, that’s exactly what’s happening. Introversion gather an online community of particularly vehement and vocal fans, who spread the word.
Not that they don’t play a fair few games with the press. Gamer has a yearly feature where they run a Readers Top 100 games based around a popular vote. Introversion put a copy of the voting form on their site, and urged fans to download it and send it in.
That year, according to the readers of PC Gamer magazine, Uplink was the ninth best game on the PC. Ever.
Uplink’s success continues. It’s converted to the Mac. It’s translated and taken to different territories. Its fans are catered for by via a series of patches that fundamentaly improve the game, adding mod support to let people construct LAN-networks which act very much like dungeons in an RPG. These constant sales gives them enough cash to fund their development costs for the next four years.
The game’s called Darwinia and it’s a very different beast.
Introversion come down to the Future offices in Bath to unveil their game, teasing it by sending a video out to the magazines.
By this point, I’ve left Gamer to work as a freelance gun for hire. This mainly involved playing MMOs, trolling webforums and returning drunkenly from the pub to hammer of manifestos about games journalism. It passed the time. However, despite not actually working on staff anymore, they send me everything they send magazines. When the come down, they invite me to the demonstrations. While I have no obvious power in terms of actually getting it covered, they want me to see it anyway.
It’s immediately obvious that it’s an interesting game. It’s also a far more difficult game to describe than Uplink. No simple “You’re a hacker” here, but rather a blend of a half dozen genres and games — from Robotron to the Real Time Strategy — presented in a unique retro-fantasia visual style, as if Rez was designed by someone brought up on a diet of British 8-bit videogames.
While not sure how it’ll turn out, everyone ends up running preview features on Darwinia. Edge run a six page feature on the game, Introversion and their beliefs. I pitch an article about Uplnk’s development to PC Format, including an array of stuff on Darwinia. Gamer give it coverage on par with all but the very biggest games.
This leads up to release, where it receives a series of rapturous reviews. This time around, there’s no trouble in getting it stocked in the UK.
What a pretty story.
What can you learn from it? Well, I’ve taken seven particular lessons I’m going to talk through. I’m starting with what should be common sense and escalating. By the end, you just /may/ not agree with me.
Okay. Here’s the first thing they did that was particularly smart which ninety five percent of the Indie developers in this room won’t have done.
It’s a biggie.
The average games journalist spends a lot of their time listening for buzz. It’s especially true for freelancers, who look for stories to pitch at magazines — which normally means stories which the actual magazine won’t have worked out by themselves. If something is getting enough noise, they’ll usually download a demo or write off begging for a review copy. A journalist, investigating: that’s how 90% of indie games get reviewed.
The key word there is “usually”. You’ve spent an months or years of your life on a game, then I wouldn’t personally want to put faith in a “usually”.
Send us the game.
Christ, if you’ve got a demo, lob it us too. Most mags have upgraded to DVDs, so have a ludicrous amount of space to fill. While games mags may not sell as much as they did ten years ago, extra exposure to tens of thousands of people can’t be considered a bad thing.
But, fundamentally, send us the game.
There’s been a lot of online debate, among developers and gamers, about the future of the games pressover the last couple of years. Justifiably so, in many cases. However, this is harmed by the majority of people who complain no longer actually /reading/ the press. If it had changed, would they even know?
You don’t have to hang on people’s every word, but knowing which magazines cover the sort of game you’re making is fundamental. Introversion sent a copy of Uplink to everyone who reviewed PC games, including the more hardware orientated magazines which sometimes even mainstream videoames publishers s miss. They /knew/ the marketplace.
Who should you approach? If you’re talking print media, I’d recommend specifically hitting up the British press. Since Introversion appeared, things have actually improved in terms of print media. Both PC Gamer and PC Zone have large sections on mods and underground gaming, constantly needing filling. Those pages are yours, if you want them. Both magazines are also translated in other languages via licensees. Last time I looked, Gamer UK had its material used in ten other countries. Get something in Gamer, and you’ve got a commonwealth of coverage.
Note well: The second you’ve got coverage in one place, the easier it becomes. Magazines — and websites — watch what each other cover. Even if I hadn’t played an active advocate role for Uplink, the Editor in a competing magazine would have noticed that Gamer had reviewed something which /they/ hadn’t and have stiff words with their reviews editor.
Coverage legitimizes that you’re worth covering.
Sending a game to a magazine doesn’t automatically gain results. Lots of packages arrive and not all receive attention immediately. A key point was the moment where I filed Uplink in my “To Play” section rather than a general pile of office detritus.
I did this because Uplink looked interesting. “Hacking Game” is a high concept I could process in a glance, and understand that it would be of possible interest to myself and my readers.
This is basic marketing. There’s people in the mainstream who argue that a game that can’t be explained in a sentence is a game that can’t be sold. They may be not /entirely/ right, but they’ve got a point. In terms of courting the press, it’s a little easier. We don’t need to be convinced it’s worth buying in a sentence — just that it’s worth investigating further. To that end, apply your brain. Don’t live in a world where you dream your precious game has no antecedents. Show your game to a few of your more knowledgeable friends, and get their basic references. Hit Mobygames or Underdogs to discover what these ancestors actually were.
Not that it’s always possible, but if it is, is helps.
It’s especially true with Introversion’s second game. Darwinia is a game that’s steadfastly resist a precis explanation but in terms of actually deciding it’s worth some space in a magazine, a screenshot poses a compelling enough argument.
When approaching a magazine, keep this in mind. If you can explain it in a sentence in your covering letter, put that first. If you can’t, and a screenshot of your visuals can, make that be your entry point. If you can’t do either… well, you may need to work out alternate routes to convincing people to cover you.
Through Introversion’s work with Uplink, they realised that I had a more active interest in left field games and would go around making noises and motivating other people. To that end, I was actively courted when Darwinia came along. They knew I had a big mouth, a suitable attitude and a desire to talk nonsense about shiny new things.
It surprises me more developers don’t try something similar.
There’s a long tradition of music writers being approached by bands via he mail, a covering letter and a demo tape. Not the actual magazines, but an individual writer who they think will be particularly interested in what they’re doing. I recall the fledgling Manic Street Preachers sending a piece of situationist-styled drug-advocating insurrection to The Stud Brothers and Steven Wells… because they knew precisely who in the music press was a sucker for situationist-styled drug-advocating insurrection. And it worked.
It applies to game just as strongly.
Obvious starting places: If you’ve met a writer who is immediately clear isn’t a complete idiot, remember them. If you haven’t danced with the press yet, this relies on raising your awareness when just reading it. Start glancing towards a piece’s byline whenever you read something which you particularly agree and note down the name for future reference. Build a database of writers who you think /would/ like you.
For example, John Walker is Gamer’s Adventure specialist. He’s reviewed literally every single point-and-click game for the last six years or so. While generally kicking most of this particularly deformed and hunchbacked genre, he’s played a determined cheerleader for anything which manages have a vision which means something in the early twenty-first century. For example, In Memoriam, the French media-blending adventure game wasn’t even sent to any of the British magazines, in a classic case of the publisher failing to understand what they actually had. John played it, then did exactly what I did with Uplink: spread the word.
In Memoriam, before John, would have been covered in no English games magazines. Afterwards, it got covered in them all.
Yet, to this day and despite being the foremost critic of adventure games in the UK, no indie adventure developer has gone directly to him to point him in the direction of their work.
Sending your work to magazines generally is the carpet-bombing approach to games PR. Trying to court an advocate is the sniper rifle. Or perhaps more accurately, recruiting a fifth columnist. A passionate games journalist who loves your work will get you more coverage than entire PR department.
Obviously, you do have to choose your target. If you’re a hardcore Napoleonic wargame developer, your opening e-mail is unlikely to stay in my inbox any longer than if it was offering me unbeatable deals on viagra. If the same missive was directed at Gamer’s resident hex-map specialist Tim Stone, it’d be a different story.
When Uplink’s was first released Introversion faked forum accounts to spread the word.
When Darwinia’s demo was first released, they didn’t need to. They had a small arm of devotees willing to do it for them.
In mainstream gaming much has been said about the importance of cultivating a community. It all applies to a smaller developer too. In fact, even more so. That your game is smaller means that you gain a more passionate clan of fans. In the same way that a band’s fanbase is most radical when it’s small, the same holds true with games. People’s relationship with Introversion is more personal than…
Well, you all know this. What I’d suggest is actually /using/ it. Militarise your fanbase.
Take Introversion’s playful subversion of Gamer’s Top 100 as an example. Obviously, in a true poll of gamer’s readers it’d be unlikely that Uplink would have featured so prominently, but they motivated their fans and reaped the rewards.
A cursory look around publications reveals similar places where they could try similar things. Many mags feature a section where readers give their opinions on recent games: encourage them to write in and share their glee.
Word of mouth doesn’t have to be a passive thing. It can be encouraged.
Let’s return to that Top 100 scam. Note that it wasn’t just introversion and their fans who openly manipulated the chart. There’s another group who are just as complicit with its success.
That is, PC Gamer magazine.
If we cared that the poll were being manipulated, we’d have simply had thrown out all the votes. I dare say that if — say — Electronic Arts tried something similar, we’d raise hell about it. Since it was a group of bedroom coders, we were happy to be complicit.
In other words, here’s the good news: We’re on your side.
Remember when I said earlier that it helped if I knew immediately whether the game is of interest to myself and my readers? Well, the most important part of that is “of interest to myself”. Usually they co-incide, but in terms of actually getting a journo’s attention you’ll have more luck in going for their biases rather than the biases of their readers.
Everyone likes an underdog, and games journalists more than most.
The vast majority of games journalists — at least professional ones — are graduates who could be turning their training to far more profitable ends than writing nonsense about videogames. I’ve had several peers who quit jobs in the city and accepted a monthly wage 1/5th of what they mere previously earning just to become a Staff Writer.
Since within seconds any games writer discovers the gig isn’t the legendary Sitting Down And Playing Games All Day, why on earth are they doing it? They’re idealists. Scratch away the cynical surface of the British hack, and you’ll find someone who cares about games a little too much.
When I opened that parcel and found Uplink, my thoughts can be neatly paraphrased as “Bedroom Coders make atmospheric hacking game? Hell, count me in, motherfucker.”
You’re an indie developer. Don’t be afraid to play it up or underestimate how, as the rest of the industry marches toward kerzillion dollar budgets, that makes you attractive to the press. You represent the ideal of why we want to write about games in the first place.
I’ve heard developers complain that when they turn to the games press, they always seem to be quoting the same usual suspects. Specifically, because I’m an Englishman and a PC specialist, Peter Molyneux.
For the record, here’s some reasons why Peter Molyneux is a games journalist’s wet dream.
There’s many, very big name developers who I’ll never attempt to approach for a quote. This is because they’re fundamentally boring. Now, as a human being, I’ve got no problem with people who are reticent or taciturn when talking to other people. I wouldn’t normally invite them out for a drink, but they’re fine. However, as a journalist, I have no use for them. They suck the life out of an article. In fact, there’s some developers who I’d go a long way out of the way to avoid quoting at all.
Molyneux gets in trouble with a certain demographic in the audience, for talking about features he’s trying to work into a game which aren’t there when he finishes. Thus a reputation for being some manner of gaming prick-tease has come about. It’s not really fair. Anyone who’s ever actually interviewed Molyneux understands that it comes from sheer enthusiasm for games. He simply can’t /stop/ himself from talking about this stuff. Where many developers will strive to stay on message and leak out information, Molyneux releases anything. It makes him terrible for a well managed PR campaign… but it makes him an absolute gift for a games journalist.
No matter what you’re talking about, Molyneux will be up for chatting about it.
In certain sorts of features, this is absolutely essential. When I’m writing something like “Thief: The Dark Project was a discourse of the feminine principle, climaxing in the gynaphobic descent into the Maw.” — and sometimes almost managing to keep a straight face as I do so — I need to know that a developer will be willing to engage with such s high calibre nonsense. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve gravitated towards writing about the Looking Glass/Ion Storm crowd so often, in that they seemed entirely populated people happy to do so.
A fundamental one that. If we contact Molyneux for a feature, he’ll usually manage to get us a quote when we ask. We return to that “19 days to do an issue” thing. When we approach a developer, we’re normally asking for a quote within the week. When developers are used to thinking in the almost geological time frame of development, this has lead me to receiving a quote months after the deadline frame. Often a lovely quote, but utterly useless in terms of journalism.
If you want more coverage, to raise yours or your games’ profile, you could do a lot worse than taking a few pages from Molyneux’s books.
Or go even further.
Pretty much my favourite quote from all my interviews as a games journalist was when in a conversation about gaming narrative I find myself recording the off-the-cuff comment:
“You know no-one’s playing Soldier Of Fortune because of the story. They’re playing it because you can throw knives in people’s dicks”.
It’s at moments like this where the exploitative games journalist part of your mind goes: Thank You.
The only saddening part of that story is where the quote came from. It wasn’t from a games developer, but rather comic writer Warren Ellis, who I was chatting to about his experience scripting Rage Software’s splendid Hostile Waters.
Now, I’ve had some fantastic interviews with game developers, but can’t help but think they’re holding back. When the tape stops rolling and the conversation continue, especially if I get them drinking, we get stuff which if said on the record which would make reading the games press a far livelier experience.
There’s a knee-jerk dislike of egotistical Rock Star developers in the games industry.
Which is ludicrous, as there’s never been a Rock Star Developer.
This certainly wasn’t a Rockstar developer.
This would be a rock star developer.
And the gaming press would /kill/ for a Rock Star developer.
Why not give it to us?
The indie games scene is — abstractly — the most radical section of the games industry. If in an interview you just sound like the designer of FIFA, something is very amiss. This especially goes for the mod teams out there. If you’re not getting any money, what have you got to lose by actually showing a little personality?
Rock Star is just used as short hand for fearless. It’s worth remembering that there’s all manner of Rock Star archetypes to follow. There’s Rockstars known for their piercing, caustic intelligence and puritanical rage as much as those who are just a byword for narcissistic excess. Some already do it — I had the rare pleasure of interviewing an independent developer who argued that the conservative critics were right: games /were/ murder simulations. However, since we live in a world where such power is centralized in Authority who regularly use it oppressively, it’s important that we’re able to train ourselves to resist them if required. Essentially, the videogame reinvented as a part of the revolutionaries toolkit alongside the trusty AK-47.
Absolutely outrageous. Made /fantastic/ copy.
In short: If you’re angry, don’t hide it. To a journalist, your rage – or your passion or any of your ideas – makes you interesting. You care, or otherwise you wouldn’t even consider being an independent game developer. Don’t be ashamed of that. Don’t be ashamed of the creative urges which drive you. And certainly don’t be ashamed of your ego. Hubris is only hubris when it fails. When Hubris pays off, we call these people geniuses.
Be a genius. If you’re not a genius, trick me into thinking you are. It’s not hard. And if you do, I’ll hail you as new gods of the digitial age and write holy texts in your name.
That’s your destiny, if you choose it. And why not choose it? It has to be better than spending the rest of your life designing incrementally detailed elbow textures in an EA sweat-shop.
Oh — one more thing before I go: If you want an easy ten percent extra marks for your game, make sure that the Print Screen button actually takes a screenshot.
And you think I’m joking.
Thank you for listening.
This key-note speech was originally made at the Free Play conference in Melbourne in July 2005 to a room full of indie developers. First time I’d ever done anything even vaguely like public speaking before. And by the end, God help me, I was actually enjoying myself.
UPDATE: 25.1.2011: I actually did an appendix to the speech for the World of Love festival. A quick 20 minutes video of it is available here.