This is a guest post by Craig Corbett, an editor and writer at Publicize.
Once written off as a niche pastime for middle-aged nerds and spotty teenagers, the video games market is emerging as one of the most profitable sections of the entertainment business. Gaming revenue is set to jump to $91.5 billion in 2015, more than three times the annual revenue earned by the electronic home video industry—like Netflix, HBO and Hulu—and 18 times the U.S. silver screen movie revenue record of 2015.
Rapid developments in mobile technology over the last decade have created an explosion of mobile gaming, which is set to overtake revenue from console-based gaming in 2015. This huge shift in the gaming industry towards mobile—especially in Southeast Asia—has not only changed the social aspects of gaming, but has also changed the way gaming companies conduct their PR campaigns.
Traditionally, well-established gaming companies had their own PR departments and chose to keep publicity in-house or work solely with gaming-specific PR agencies. Nowadays, independent game developers who don’t have the resources or staff to follow suit with the gaming oligarchs are being forced to enter a more “do-it-yourself” relationship with the PR industry.
In this article, I’ll break down the differences between the old and new models of gaming PR and explain how the changes in the market effect the way developers are marketing their products.
A distinct breed with specific PR needs
One of the key factors that distinguishes gamers new and old from fans of other forms of popular entertainment is their level of interaction with the gaming world. Whether it be on forums, magazines or web pages, gamers actively keep up to date with news and announcements.
“Gaming public relations is notably distinct from other forms of entertainment PR primarily due to the incredibly dedicated and passionate fan base, which generates a need for extended product campaigns that help bring fans and game makers together,” said Brandon Smith of Maverick PR. “Few other industries experience neither the breadth nor depth of this admittedly very cool phenomenon apart from movie cult-followings like Star Wars, or The Lord of the Rings trilogy.”
Ever since the early years of gaming in the 1980s, a die-hard fan base has existed. In the pre-internet days, gamers kept up to date with gaming news, games tips and cheats, and announcements via magazines. Nowadays, gamers use blogs, websites and gaming-specific social media sites to follow gaming news and interact with other gamers.
As a result of this change in gaming media outlets, PR campaigns for the gaming industry have traditionally taken a different course from other forms of entertainment PR.
Product promotion and interaction with the media often begins up to 12-18 months in advance of a release, something which is almost unheard of in the world of public relations where announcements are very time sensitive.
Due to the amount of receptive channels available in gaming magazines, and more recently the 24/7 news cycle offered by gaming websites and forums, gaming companies have traditionally been able to make frequent announcements about almost any milestone—from game updates and hidden levels or characters, to hints and leaks about the future—and receive coverage.
Keeping gaming for gamers – the traditional PR model
For decades, leading games companies like Nintendo, EA or Blizzard games tended to keep PR “in-house” with their own PR departments, or outsourced to PR companies who specifically marketed themselves as gaming specialists.
When looking for a PR agency that fits the bill, early gaming companies look for companies with experience with gaming campaigns, or contact influential gaming journalists. Companies prefered to work with one agency and build a long-term relationship with them.
Due to the extensive channels for gaming news, and receptive consumers of anything gaming related, spreading the news about a new release wasn’t too challenging for someone with the right contacts.
“Gaming used to be really niche and had a tight-knit community, so if you really did anything to improve the gaming hobby, you received press,” said Riad Chikhani, founder and CEO of GAMURS, a new gaming social network. “Fast forward a couple of decades and there are now 1.4B gamers around the world. Doing just anything isn’t enough anymore, it has to be unique and newsworthy.”
In recent years this traditional approach to gaming PR has taken a turn towards being more glitzy and Hollywood. One need only look at the “I Love Bees” campaign by 42 Entertainment, a whirlwind of scavenger-hunts, clues, cryptic videos and audio clips which drove fans crazy and led to record sales accounting to $125M on the first day of sale for Halo 2.
Marketing departments have opened up budgets to create Hollywood-style trailers for their games, and have even hired respected directors to create them. “Lone Survivor” director Peter Berg was recently hired by Activision for the “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare” trailer. He followed in the footsteps of directors Guy Ritchie and James Mangold.
A new generation of gaming – A new approach to marketing and PR
The gaming market has traditionally been monopolized by a handful of companies but in recent years, companies such as Apple and Google have been sneaking their way up the rankings due to their earnings from their app stores.
Mobile gaming evens the playing field for games developers due to the comparatively low development costs. The costs depend on the size of the game, but a relatively simple mini-game (Flappybird, Pacman) can cost as little as $5K, with medium sized games (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope) costing anything between $60K to $120 to create. Not bad considering Angry birds made Rovio $200M in 2012 alone.
The majority of independent games developers rely on self-funding or crowdfunding to get their projects moving, and simply cannot raise the funds necessary to hire a top-level PR firm, or make Hollywood-style trailers for their games.
Unlike in big-budget PR campaigns for console games, the volume of mobile games being released all over the world has cut the timescale down, meaning that instead of announcing up to 18 months before, when in the initial development stages, developers are advised not to make any announcements until they can demonstrate screenshots and workable demos in the final stages of development.
Like the early gaming fans joining niche forums, today’s users have rallied around mobile gaming, and the internet, magazines and social media are full of commentaries on new games and industry gossip. As always, gamers’ blogs and forums are filled with new game tips. Sites such as Macworld, Ars Technica and TouchArcade are great channels for creating a buzz about a new game.
Those who cannot afford regular PR services can now reach out to social media influencers as a means of publicizing their new product, with Youtube and Twitch become loudspeakers for gaming news.
“The democratization of the media has been pretty fascinating to watch as the average ‘joe gamer’ suddenly has a voice and the ability to broadcast that voice to others, and the chance to become an opinion leader,” said Brandon Smith, Maverick PR. “I think this process has really helped to bring fans closer to the games they love and the developers who make them.”
However, while the market for mobile games is growing daily, the new school of mobile gaming’s relationship with PR remains very different from the traditional model.
Making games household names
With higher demand comes more chance of making big bucks from mobile gaming. As a result, more and more independent games developers are entering the market each year, and are having to market their products in a way which breaks from the traditional approach to gaming PR.
With the majority of leading PR firms charging more than $10K per month, plus retainers, most independent developers are searching out affordable PR startups such as Publicize, or are being forced to go down the self-PR route. The nail-biting world of indie game development and self-promotion is portrayed in 2012 Sundance Winner Indie Game: The Movie, which documents the long, grueling and often short-lived road to recognition taken by many brave gamers going alone against huge gaming corporations with bursting budgets.
The worlds of console vs. mobile gaming seems to be moving in different directions, with established gaming companies throwing millions of dollars at glitzy PR campaigns, while mobile game developers are forced to approach PR via the DIY route. However, while the majority of indie developers won’t make it, mobile gaming and its new model of PR have opened the once-closed world of gaming to millions around the world, and now even the least games savvy people will recognize the names Angry Birds or Candy Crush, while they would have been blissfully unaware of Final Fantasy or God of War.
Craig Corbett is from Edinburgh, Scotland. After graduating with an MA from the University of Glasgow, he has lived in New Zealand and Spain and is now based in Medellin, Colombia. He works for Publicize, a PR startup based in Colombia.