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The Best PR in the World Won’t Save You if Your Game Sucks
by Luis Levy on 02/06/13 08:00:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


At Novy we do PR for games. It’s our job to promote a client’s game so that the press is aware it exists – which hopefully will lead to downloads and/or sales. It’s a fun, rewarding gig, especially when we get to work with truly brilliant individuals.

That’s not always the case, unfortunately. Counting back from my start in Game PR (January 2008), I can safely say that some of the games I represented were uninspired, rushed, or simply misguided. It’s not like developers are trying to make a bad game on purpose; releasing such game is often the byproduct of a lack of resources, talented devs or even external pressure from publishers. However, everyone wants their game to be a huge success. They want news items, positive reviews, accolades, downloads, in-app revenue, the works.

I can't say I was very impressed with Dead Space 3's press release. Read on to find out why

Back in January, I was asked “What do you find works most effectively to spread the word about a game?” on Reddit. My answer inspired this blog post, which focuses on the true impact of a game’s quality and/or uniqueness on press coverage.


There are two levels of magical thinking that may affect game developers when launching a game:

“If you build it, they will come” – I blame Kevin Costner for this one. Heard first in Field of Dreams (1989), it means that a superior game will ALWAYS attract coverage. I call it magical because it’s simply not true. Brilliant games need coverage just like average ones. Sure, they will generate word of mouth early on but that’s not enough. In order to become a hit, a game needs the press behind it. Minecraft, for example, was a huge hit at PAX in 2009. I remember working in the press room and hearing Enforcers first tell journalists all about it, then show it running on the few PAX laptops in the room. Soon enough, dozens of extremely positive write-ups flooded the Internet. They told gamers that Minecraft was the real deal, a once-in-a-lifetime game. Without the press, Minecraft would be a cult hit, but not a true hit.

“All I need is a good PR firm” – Some developers seem to think PR is enough to part the Red Sea. Back in 2009 or so, I had a client that was sure his game would be a major hit. They hired the PR firm I worked for at the time and expected nothing less than greatness. However, his game wasn’t that good in the first place. So the press didn’t show much interest… and we lost the account. Hiring a PR firm doesn’t automatically translate into coverage. That’s one of the reasons why we NEVER promise coverage at Novy – we promise to do our very best instead.


It shouldn’t be a big reveal that it’s THE GAME that defines the coverage, not the other way around. Marshall McLuhan nailed it back when television was the great disruptor: you can’t separate the medium from the message(s) it carries within. It’s the same for Game PR. I can spend a few hours coming up with the proper messages for the game and/or studio, but in the end the game itself will have its way with the receiver. That can happen in a number of ways:

Screenshots – Screens will inform the journalist of the genre, superficial gameplay (as much can be inferred from a static frame) and visual polish.

Trailer – Trailers go one step further. They are able to detail gameplay thanks to a moving image (think moving trains in the dawn of cinema), soundtrack, sound effects and, in general, the mood or vibe of each title. It’s a well-known fact that trailers can make or break a launch.

Uncut Gameplay Video – I love watching Let’s Plays on YouTube. They allow me to experience a game I might not be able to play at home in a way that was impossible a decade ago. Of course, you’re still not playing the game but uncut gameplay videos are the closest to actually putting the disc in and hitting the start button. If a game lacks audio/video quality, this format will make it patently obvious.

Genre – Traditional genres have been burned in journalists’ minds. They know at once if they’re dealing with an RTS, FPS, turn-based strategy game or RPG. Anything out of the ordinary needs to be carefully explained in the trailer, press release, website and pitch. The last thing you want is a “nebulous” perception of the genre – or worse, materials that lead journalists in the wrong direction. Unsurprisingly, genres often affect coverage. Puzzle games are harder to promote, for example. Casual games are nearly impossible to promote. Speaking from experience, FPS and other action sub-genres (like third-person shooters and action-adventure) are considerably easier.

Press release – I know, “press releases are dead and everything” except that they aren’t. Press releases are an expression of the game and serve as a repository of everything that matters about the launch, from key features to the location of the assets (trailer, screens and logos). They should have personality, style, and take chances just like the game itself in order to succeed. Nonetheless, even AAA games will often make the mistake of relying on boring, fluffy press releases. They might not lose coverage but will certainly lose brownie points with the press. And if there is one thing journalists love to roast publicly, it’s badly written press releases.

Playthrough – Once you play a game from beginning to end, you will KNOW how good it is. Hell, even the first hour is usually enough for console games. A good trailer can trick journalists into playing a game, but getting through it with your own two hands will tell the tale of the tape. Some publishers try to tip the scale by “hosting” reviewers, feeding them restaurant-grade food and placing a PR person “over the shoulder” but even then, if a game sucks, it will get a negative review. Ethically-challenged journos might succumb to such efforts, but everyone else will be equally merciless eating foie gras or playing the game at the office through a devkit.

The game will affect how all the elements above are perceived. The true quality will “seep in,” giving journalists a chance to decide to cover it or ignore it completely. A strong game will often make enough of an impression to warrant a deeper look. If a journalist or reviewer is not impressed, they will pass. In PR, a pass is also known as “hearing crickets” – not replying to the pitch in any meaningful way. Pushy PR people might try to force their way in, harassing journalists with multiple follow-up calls, but I’ve learned that doing so is a serious offense.** The last thing you want is a pissed off journalist.


We’ll always do our very best to promote a game – every client will get that from us once they sign with Novy. At the same time, we refuse to lie about the game to the press. Once the trailer is on YouTube, the press release on the wire and pitches sent, the game needs to stand on its own two legs.

Every game deserves a fair shot. We only ask one thing: please see your game as a son or daughter. Like offspring, they deserve the very best you can give. They need proper quality assurance, investment, humility and, in the end, love. The only way we will make a game (any game, really) into a success story is if the game is the best it can possibly be in the first place.

Games speak for themselves. Set them loose in the world once they’re ready for it. You’ll find that the press will be much more receptive and, chances are, you’ll be much happier with your PR firm.

If you have any thoughts about this admittedly tricky topic, I’m listening :)

** I was once told that some in the press saw me as “pushy.” Hearing that shocked me to the core. Right there and then, I decided I would NEVER pester journalists if they ignored one of my pitches.

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Jonathan Jennings
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I have a bone to pick with Trailers that do not show Gameplay. I love Games and over the years i have been blown away by incredible trailers only to be disappointed by a very average or worse topic. The worst offenders to me are trailers without gameplay ,it's almost as if the team behind the game wants to show me just how awesome the game COULD BE , but not at all how great it is. early on in development this is of ourse acceptable, you want to build excitement for your game but if your game is near release it comes off as a distraction to me. you aren't confident in your game as a product yet so you try to blow my mind with an incredible trailer ...usually disappointing me in the process.

The only solution for this to me as a gamer is to request Honesty in unveiling your game, if your game looks fun and / or interesting i'll bite. all the bait I need to play a good game is.....demonstration of a good game. but I absolutely hate the smoke and mirrors that trailers are sometimes used as.

Luis Levy
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That's why devs should always release uncut gameplay videos along with their games. Most don't do it due to a lack of time (especially if they're indies). Another alternative is to go free-to-play so *anyone* can try the game out w/out spending money.

(I'm not a big fan of free-to-play though)

AAA games that fail to show gameplay in their trailers are clearly trying to hide something.

Ron Dippold
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@Jonathan You might have noticed that a lot of game commercials for TV these days are live action . That's because they're trying to get people who don't follow games on websites or game magazines and need some immediate emotional connection. I think that's legitimate.

Also, a concept trailer can do a better job of editing the experience to fit in 30 seconds (though at some point editing becomes flat out deception). Thomas Was Alone was one that just grabbed me - it looked and sounded fascinating.

But yes, you had better have some actual gameplay video available for the mid/hardcore gamers. I don't really mind separate long gameplay and short concept trailers, which I've seen a lot of, as long as actual gameplay is available.

James Mearman
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I'm a big fan of freaky trailers and am doing so. I call it creating a feel, giving out something to react on. And video is a different medium than games are therefore should be treated as separate form of presentation or may even be part of the 'product' itself. A game play trailer comes without the feeling of playing yourself, so it is more a mirror. A 'fictional' trailer that transfers the energy of what the developers have on their hands, helps. But if the game is ready, I recommend handing out the game its self too. Depends on game play factors though, what you 'spoil'. Or give it to others to let them show how they play it. I'm talking about games in the sense of single player interactive media, not the time consuming games.

And if the game does not appeal to a wider audience then it may be up to the individual to choose whether it sucks for its purpose or not therefore it may be helpful to know your targeted audience for PR.

Ignatus Zuk
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Great article, what I got from this is that you can push your PR as hard as you can, but with a crap game you aren't going far.

Also I strongly believe that a big part of a successful game are demos but even better free-to-play games with limitations until you buy an account.
It shows you the game, you are playing the game. If you really like it, you will most likely want to get rid of those limitations and play the real game.
But I guess this strategy wouldn't work for games that are hiding their horrible gameplay with pretty trailers.

Luis Levy
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I actually like to have the option to "upgrade to full" in freemium/F2P games. That makes sense if you don't want to split your SKUs in free and paid.

That said, I'm not a big fan of endless micro-transactions or nickel & dimming players with perishable resources.

Michael Silverman
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Its interesting to me you felt it necessary to boldface "we refuse to lie." Is lying the standard practice for PR firms? Do devs expect PR firms to lie?

Luis Levy
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Well, let's just say that some PR firms might have less scruples than Novy.

Also, PR people are usually stigmatized as liars. Of course, this is based on a number of "real world" examples but it doesn't apply to us or a number of other PR firms.

Michael Silverman
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So who are the good PR firms?!? Also which journalists are the honest folk who are not biased? Does it ever get personal? Are there journalists who won't write about a certain game because of who made it, or does it always come down to the quality of the game?

Michael Silverman
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Pre-emptive follow up: what would a PR firm who has less scruples do to influence journalists? Most game press lives in free countries, the press can write about whatever they want. I'm kinda dumb about this, so I don't really understand how the dishonest ones even survive really.

Luis Levy
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Answering your questions here since Gamasutra's system won't let me reply under each one :)

Good PR firms are ethical. They tell the truth and feed any feedback they receive from the press to their clients. They don't pay for reviews or try to "bribe" journalists with free products. "Good guys" (and gals) are gamers, human beings, not flacks.

Journalists are human too so it's natural that some may refuse to cover a studio they don't like **assuming they can afford it**. If they're employees or need the cash, they'll have to do it anyway. I'll give you an example: I know someone that is not keen on gaming Kickstarters. The result is that he will not cover any of them. He's the editor so he can actually make that call.

Quality trumps all in regard to actual, real world coverage. Having healthy relationships with the press sure helps, but it always comes down to how good a game is. There are literally thousands of examples of great games who have EARNED their coverage by being great -- and terrible games that either were ignored or received vicious reviews.

As for your 2nd question, I answered it partially in the paragraphs above. In short, unscrupulous PR firms will pay people to write positive reviews. They give them "gifts." They may even threaten to cut access to the games themselves, or to the developer (especially if they are a celebrity of sorts). It's really about economic pressure, not political pressure.

On the client side, evil PR firms will promise the world when pitching a prospective client. They say they know someone at Apple and that they can get their game featured. Finally, some PR firms will sell the client suggesting experienced executives will be in charge but then let interns or Jr. employees handle the account.

Michael Silverman
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Thanks for explaining that!

Yet another follow up. The "hearing crickets" rule: is it ok to send a second e-mail if you warn them that you are going to follow up but get crickets or is this a faux pas? Also, if you do PR do you have to make phone calls or can you just e-mail?

(As you can tell I found your article quite interesting)

Michael Joseph
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"Without the press, Minecraft would be a cult hit, but not a true hit."

Without the existance of the press sure. But I think that your original supposition is more like "without any directed press contact." And Minecraft never had to do that.

Minecraft only relied on it's brilliance and word of mouth including the type of "word of mouth" that happens when Penny Arcade writes a comic about your game. Sure if Penny Arcade and the world wide web didn't exist Minecraft wouldn't have sold as many copies...

If you build something that is really brilliant, i think its inevitable that they will in fact come because the internet will see to it. The real problem is that most of us aren't going to ever be able to build something brilliant and receive free, unsolicited press coverage on sites like PA and also receive the type of monetary rewards Notch has. That is mostly a problem for our egos.

p.s. Being "brilliant" alone doesn't mean your game will be appealing to alot of folks. Dwarf Fortress is a great game but for obvious reasons it doesn't appeal to as many people.

p.s.s. I also think despite the performance issues, being a java game helped Minecraft. Minecraft was viral friendly. Everyone was able to play it if they wanted to. It was also priced just right when the viral arrivers came to check out what this Minecraft business was all about.

Luis Levy
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I see your point. I guess what I meant is that all games need press, even Minecraft. I agree that they probably didn't pitch anyone (they didn't have to) but that scene at PAX happened exactly as I described it. It was great to witness history in the making.

We live in a world filled with news outlets, blogs and freelance journalists. That's the reality. In this context, I think that the concept of "all games needing press coverage" stands true.

Dwarf Fortress is a minor hit, but a hit nonetheless. It also gathered a fair amount of press, especially if you consider how difficult it is to understand at first.

p.s. sadly, Minecraft still runs like molasses on netbooks. At least I have it on my Xbox 360...

Luis Levy
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It's OK to send a 2nd message, a personal one, after a couple of days. I usually reach out via social media as well (Facebook chat, Twitter, instant messaging, you name it).

I will call a journalist if I have something newsworthy or if it goes beyond a basic pitch (like offering an exclusive). I try to avoid it though, to be honest. My strategy is to be professional and trustworthy so journalists will feel comfortable replying back if there's any sort of interest :)

Michael Silverman
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Thanks (to reply to a reply just reply to the original parent level comment and it shows up at the bottom of the list of replies. Its a bit wonky imo.)

Ian Welsh
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Having been an a-list blogger in another industry, and flacked constantly, most PR flacks are awful. The most basic thing is to know my interests. Feed me good info on my interests (true info, if I get burned because I trust you and you're lying I will make it my mission to get even) and you're actually doing me a favor and making my job easier. Spam me with stuff I'd never cover and I won't be likely to do you an favors. And yeah, favors get done: that doesn't mean ever lying or changing my mind about what your client is doing, but sure, occasionally I might cover something a bit more in depth for a PR flack who has actually made my job easier.

Luis Levy
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Ian, I hope more PR people read your comment. Some of them are never taught this, others are pressured by management to do it (!)

I do my best to be a real person, not a flack. It seems to be working out so far :)

Ron Dippold
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I love me some Double Fine, but I have to say that Brutal Legend is what pops to mind as worst major game PR/Demo fiasco for what was still a pretty fun and funny game. There was no outright lying... they just left out the most important gameplay.

Any others spring to mind? I'm purposely leaving out Sony/EA type tradeshow party fiascos (ex
Of_War_II_PR_Event.php ), since those are complete sideshow.

TC Weidner
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It isnt so black and white as good versus bad made games, as with most of everything in life, reality is always some shade of grey. True is a game totally sucks, nothing will save it, but PR will give it a few good opening days.
In business PR ( ie money) often is the big difference maker. With big PR a so so movies get big box offices, a so so actors continually get big roles, so so directors continue to work, so so food gets continually eaten and sold, etc etc. I wish it werent that way, but it is. Consumers usually have to be lead by the nose, convinced, and even manipulated into buying.

Lets look at subway for example, in my personally opinion you would have to PAY ME to eat that stuff, on the other side we all have small delis around us who make sandwiches to die for, so why do people not eat at the mom and pop delis?... PR

In the game world a terrible terrible game with good pr may only sell as well as a good little known game with little PR. But where most game fall is in between extremes... A decent game with good PR becomes a blockbuster, a really good game with lil PR gets missed. In this world without PR you are dead in the water. Its a sad fact, but its why corps now permeate every facet of our lives, why PR and advertising is everywhere in everything,because it unfortunately works.

Its why Angry Birds is what it is, and not Crush the Castle

K Gadd
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People have already praised the content of your post and I agree, I think you do a good job covering some of the issues here and providing insight. It's definitely interesting to hear the perspective of someone who's been working in PR for a long time.

My goal here, though, is to applaud you for the degree of balance in this post. When I see a company name in the opening paragraph, it usually means I'm in for a thinly veiled advertisement that gives inadequate attention to the topic it's covering. I think you knocked it out of the park on this post and I'm really pleased whenever I see industry people treat those who read their blog posts with respect. :)

Luis Levy
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Kevin, reading this makes me incredibly happy. I saw this post as taking a huge chance -- essentially saying "NO" to future clients who are not 110 percent behind their games.

I knew it was risky but thought it had to be said. I'm glad Gamasutra readers (and developers in general) seem to agree with most of it :)