Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game PR: Indie Versus Mainstream

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 4, 2010

Brian Mitsoda recently penned a design update for Doublebear’s upcoming “Zombie RPG” entitled, “To Here Knows When.” I think the title is completely lost on me, but the subject is terribly familiar (especially as my “quickie” game is going into its fourth year of development – ouch, that hurts…)

Now, people have a very good reason for being suspicious of indie games being vaporware. The truth is, something north of 95% of indie projects never make it to release.  Okay, that number’s only an educated guess, but it’s based on experience. Anyone who’s ever spent time on amateur game development forums can tell you of dozens of promising games that were never released in finished form for every one that actually made it to a full and complete release.

But that number changes drastically for those who have already had one full release under their belt. And in the case of formerly-mainstream developers, the math changes as well. Though development and release of an indie game is drastically different from that of a mainstream, triple-A game, there is still a lot of carry-over for people who’ve been through the process before in a larger studio. Which describes the Mitsodas at Doublebear.

But he touches briefly on a whole ‘nother subject worth discussing – how marketing and PR and everything works in the indie world as opposed to the mainstream world.

Lemme tell you – things have changed a lot since I started in the game back in the mid 90’s. The mainstream (or even off-the-mainstream) world has gotten even more paranoid and obsessive about controlling the “messaging” about an upcoming title. While I was never directly involved with what the guys back at HQ were doing with respect to marketing and launching a “product,” the gist we got back in the trenches was that the bigger the publisher, the more critical the pipeline and the control over information about the game.

For example, a big publisher has to worry about their own titles competing with each other.  You want two realistic modern warfare shooters released in the same quarter. More than that, you don’t want to build up the hype for game Y to be released in four months so much that it saps the sales from game X which is launching next week.  It gets complicated.

And – as Brian Mitsoda notes – the games biz is filled with canceled games. I’ve worked on probably less than my share, but I have been in design and development on projects shot down at various stages. I worked on a sequel to Warhawk (the original Playstation 1 release) that was never green-lit for full development, a sequel to Outwars that was canceled in early development, but morphed into an even cooler project I wasn’t involved in which was canceled in late development, a small proof-of-concept project for the Nintendo 64, several more designs which were never green-lit, an ATV racing game that was shuttered in mid-development, and a totally cute & cool XBLA game that I’m still not sure I can talk about which was about two weeks away from Beta.

Companies really don’t want their audience to build up faith and expectations in a game that won’t see the light of day. AND they don’t want a repeat of the original Starcraft PR disaster, where the early screenshots of Starcraft resembled nothing so much as a re-texturing of Warcraft II (which probably wasn’t the case).  They want relatively firm release dates (which still tend to slip) so they can build the hype so the distribution channels get excited and pre-order a zillion copies. And they are fully aware of the law of diminishing returns on building that hype, where a game may get over-exposed and the audience grows weary of the marketing.

And they sure as hell don’t want those unwashed DEVELOPERS talking about the game in advance of their announcements. That can totally screw up their messaging, their narrative, build false expectations, and cause them to lose control over the press. As the recent kerfuffle at the Develop “Microstudios” panel between Cliff Harris and Mark Rein indicated, big publishers in need of mainstream press coverage have to dole out the news in a very measured way to maximize coverage.

Then you go indie.

Hoo boy.

Now, on the one hand, it is still a tremendous embarrassment to announce a game that gets canceled. It erodes the faith of your customers for future games, etc.  So game announcements should still wait until things are past a certain stage of development.  We do share a few other similarities. I mean, I worry people are sick of hearing anything more about Frayed Knights until I say, “Hey, it’s out!” So there’s that.

But so many of those other aspects of mainstream game marketing are completely and utterly useless to indie game studios.  We often are not pumping a pipeline full of our own competition that fast. We are usually beneath the attention of the mainstream press, as they are quite overwhelmed as it is writing about the latest titles from Epic and Nintendo. We don’t have a marketing team worrying about “messaging.” Really, we have no choice other than to talk directly to our potential customers, gamer-to-gamer.

And cut the BS.

For some gamers, this can be a shock. If you are used to the polished marketing-and-release cycle of the big-budget, big-publisher titles, with its showroom glitz and booth-babes and TV spots and four-page previews that sound like they were written by the publisher’s PR man himself,  the peek behind the curtain at the reality of game development can be a little off-putting. Features get changed, replaced, or eliminated altogether. Things don’t work out quite like the developers planned. And for the part-time indies, real life intrudes. It’s not a smooth, magical process.

But bottom-line, that’s really how we have to operate. The privileges of being a loaded publisher don’t apply to us, but neither do their rules. When you have to operate on streetcorners and back alleys of the industry, you can’t afford to be aloof.

And yeah, it comes with its problems and misunderstandings, as this article indicates. Maybe it’s something only the true enthusiasts can appreciate, and the indies hope those folks are willing to spread the word.  I’m not ashamed of what’s behind the curtain. My personal hope is that the whole indie approach brings – a closer relationship between the gamers and the guys and gals that make the games they play – makes that trouble sports worth it in the end.

Filed Under: Game Development, Production - Comments: 3 Comments to Read

  • Calibrator said,

    Mainstream and indies are different (doh!) but so are the “followers”, IMHO.
    A hyped-up fifteen-year-old craving for the latest “bloody mess game” from Epic & co. is a different character in internet forums compared to a mildly-aged guy with, say, more specialized gaming needs. Shooter forums are also more aggressive in my experience than forums concerning games that require a bit more thinking and a bit less of ye olde twitch.
    And here’s the kicker: Some of the most vocal commenters aren’t necessarily customers. These opinion makers can also influence potential buyers in a way that may even damage sales.

    Personally, I found mainstream forums mostly useless as a place to be. Solutions or problem solving (bugs, compatibility etc.) are one thing but a place where one can actually learn a thing from the developers or inhabitants? Not even close to, for example, your blog content (posts & comments).
    From your perspective your community here maybe your own little focus group and I bet you would get a more realistic feedback (the amount of buyers, satisfied buyers, bug reports etc.) compared to mainstream forums.
    We, your faithful readers get free information and free entertainment in return. A symbiosis?

  • Jason said,

    “I think the title is completely lost on me,”


    I’m guessing Brian was a fellow indie rock kid during the 90s.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Ah. Since he refers to them at the end of the article, it all now makes sense to me. Well, okay, kinda.

    Well, okay. No. The title still makes no sense, it’s just dereferenced one level… 😉