I guess you could say it’s a pretty rough time to be in video game PR. Our relationships with press have come under scrutiny, the media landscape has changed dramatically in a short period of time, and — most recently — the very concept of pre-release PR in games has been thoroughly flogged like a stubborn mule at the hands of an ornery farmer. At the center of the recent controversy is the fact that pre-release presentations of Aliens: Colonial Marines looked fantastic, leading to all sorts of exuberant previews and, subsequently, a bunch of pre-orders from gamers convinced that they would finally see a worthy video game entry in the franchise. Alas, to the chagrin of gamers, media and — as it turns out — PR folks, the final game ended up not being very good at all, and now I’m sitting at my desk writing a blog post about how previews don’t necessarily suck.
Why are previews not only a good thing for the industry, but also absolutely vital to its continued existence (at least in its current form)? How can developers and publishers make their previews useful to media? Read on.
The Media Landscape Needs Previews
Most media — particularly those of the “top tier” variety — have a strong tendency to only cover what’s hot and new, as well as — for now — what’s coming up (and is also hot and new). Granted, this alone tends to ensure that pre-release coverage is largely focused on big-budget titles from major publishers and established developers, but that’s not the point here (passive-aggressive griping, anyone? ). If you do away with previews, you’re essentially left with a promotional model akin to what we see in mobile games, as well as in movies, where you see relatively little pre-release publicity and a mad dash in the last weeks leading up to reviews.
There’s nothing really inherently wrong with that — in fact, we’re pushing clients to run shorter pre-release campaigns already — but what happens is that the emphasis is then placed on reviews and gameplay streams, as well as on who can make the flashiest promotional videos and spend the most money on marketing to generate the biggest launch buzz. When it comes to gameplay streams, YouTube personalities are already entrenched with established audiences much larger than those of most media outlets. The trusting relationships we PR folks have with media are most beneficial to both parties in the lead-up to release; we can’t very well go to each YouTuber’s house and give them previews of the games (or maybe we can and will?), and we may be more hesitant to just send out pre-release builds to people we haven’t been working with for years. Anyhow, point is that when we’re talking about gameplay videos of released games, the video game press are (largely) trying to catch up to the YouTube personalities, while media’s access to developers and publishers before release is what affords them an upper hand at the moment.
Let’s envision a scenario in which a very good game with a limited marketing budget is released. Media rush to review those games that bring in a lot of traffic — generally “blockbusters” from major publishers, with a few exceptions — while they’re still hot. Meanwhile, a lesser-known game is released, the PR team pushes to get the game reviewed, but the review is put off due to a lack of available staff to cover everything at once. By the time the reviewer gets to the smaller game, that game is already a week or two old, no longer hot and new. What happens? Review gets axed or buried, and ultimately nobody hears about it. Of course, I’m generalizing here, but these are issues we already deal with, and that’s with extensive pre-release pitches from the PR side.
Right now, a great indie game still benefits greatly from a significant amount of buzz around launch — buzz that’s really only possible because there has been some level of pre-release promotion and awareness-building. For all the great strides that are being made in the indie scene, pulling previews out of the equation means it’ll be even harder for games to break through the noise, with coverage spread over weeks or months after launch. Allow me to make a weird metaphor out of this: Picture some rain. If there’s a lot of rain at once, you’ll definitely notice the puddles that gather. If it rains a little here and there over a week, you probably won’t get your feet wet. Does that make sense? I dunno, but that’s why I don’t have an editor here.
Subjectivity is Important
Apart from reviews, a proper preview is really the only chance for members of the media to form some sort of opinion about a game. Much of the concern about the current preview model is that so little gameplay is actually being shown, or that it’s so difficult to get an impression of a game without actually playing it extensively. In that regard, hands-off previews absolutely do have limited appeal and usefulness.
Doing away with previews, as noted, also means that, leading up to release, buzz will be based on who can make the coolest trailers and spend the most money to get visibility. When we compare even a smoke-and-mirrors guided demo and a 90-second sizzle trailer, the hands-off, guided demo still provides a lot more value to media and to the public. Without those opportunities, media will go into a game’s launch as blindly as the game-buying public, and surely there aren’t enough reviewers out there — nor enough website real estate — to effectively review every game that’s released. As such, a lot of great games will continue to fly under the radar, and it seems likely that the sales/awareness gap between AAA products with huge marketing budgets and the inventive realm of indie games will become even greater.
The Real Problem with Previews
I think that the real issue here isn’t the existence of previews, but rather how preview events and opportunities are conducted. I don’t think there’s much of a difference between a 90-second video and a 10-minute, guided demo nine months from launch; in both cases, you’re basically being shown what the developers want to show you — usually enhanced to show the game in the best possible light. And that should be okay, as long as everyone involved knows exactly what they’re seeing. From the PR side, if you’re showing someone a “gameplay demo” at such an early stage, it’s important to clarify that it’s a build made specifically for that presentation and is, in essence, a proof of concept or vertical slice of what the game should look like.
I think we can all agree that hands-on previews are much more valuable than guided presentations, though. Much of the final polish layer — what makes a game fun — is implemented quite late in the process, so it’s hard for developers to give a great hands-on experience to media until quite late in development, and so many people (both publishers and developers) feel the need to announce games well in advance of launch. As such, you’re really forced to show games before they’re ready for primetime.
The simple solution to all of this is to not announce games so damn early. As I said, we’re encouraging clients to announce games much later in the cycle. It sucks for business — we can’t generally run a lot of year-long campaigns anymore — but it’s better for media, better for the developers, and better for consumers. In the past, we’ve experimented with very short PR campaigns — our Hard Reset promotion went from announcement to hands-on preview builds to launch within about two months — and have found them to be quite effective. That one, in particular, was perhaps a bit too short, but media very much seemed to appreciate the fact that we showed something real.
Announcing games when they’re really ready to be shown is also beneficial to developers in that you don’t have to spend time doctoring screenshots, crafting trailers out of bits of finished artwork, or otherwise trying to fudge your game into something presentable. You also don’t have to worry about sustaining PR buzz for months on end. It really makes everything much easier.
Previews are quite important to helping core gamers — the people who drive opinions and will ultimately drive sales in the long term — find out about interesting games. Previews a year from launch with very little to show should make way for extensive hands-on opportunities closer to release. Developers should only show games when they’re in playable form. There’s a right way to do previews and a wrong way. The wrong way has been plagued with deception and has undermined trust in developers, publishers and the media. The right way allows media to help the public make informed decisions about which games are worth their time… reviews alone can achieve a similar end, but how to decide what to review?
Thoughts? Are previews a remnant of a dead industry? Am I just a whiny PR guy wondering where my job’s going? Comment or something!