Agnieszka Szostak, PR Outreach: “You have to be a gamer yourself to truly understand this business”

When it comes to independent video game developers, we are talking about extremely creative geeks, but with no marketing and PR experience whatsoever. You could say the same for a lot of tech startups, but the gaming niche is more competitive than others. It usual is for small players to compete with very large multinational studios on similar products.

“Every studio should build a PR strategy that will best fit their game”, says Agnieszka Szostak Owner at PR Outreach agency. But how to build one and implement it? How can a small, indie studio differentiate itself from tons of others out there doing almost the same thing?

We asked Agnieszka, who delivered a speech on this subject at this year’s How to Web Conference Game Development track, to tell us more about building a PR strategy for small independent game developers or studios.

Agnieszka has been in the gaming industry since forever, though at first it was a rather informal relationship. She started as Adventure Zone website editor and CD Action magazine contributor. For several years, she was a PR Specialist at CD Projekt RED studio, being responsible for The Witcher series and Cyberpunk 2077, and now she is managing her own PR company and helping indie developers getting the message across about their games.

How to Web: In which way is PR for gaming companies different from any other tech field?

Agnieszka Szostak: I wouldn’t say it’s that much different from tech field, especially if we consider hardware or gaming gadgets tech. But on the other hand there’s a common believe that if you are a good marketing or PR person for washing powders let’s say, then you’ll be just as good promoting games. That’s not entirely true in fact, mostly because this industry is really specific and techniques you’ve learned during your PR studies have quite often no use here.

That’s why quite some amazing, experienced PR reps in this industry never studied on the field. And yet they can be really effective, because here it’s all about networking, experience, creativity and passion. And most of all you have to be a gamer yourself to truly understand this business. Without it there’s no way you can be successful.

What’s the first thing to do to promote a game?

Research and planning. You cannot lead a successful PR campaign without learning first who, what and where is writing about similar games and where fans of such games gather. Without this knowledge there’s a high chance you’ll be sending out information about your game to journalists who are not really into this particular genre and in result will not post a story about it. Or you’ll try to engage a wrong community. It’s like trying to sell snow in Antarctica. The chance of succeeding is close to zero.

On the other hand, if you have the knowledge but don’t plan your actions, you may end up pitching your game to right people and in a right place but at the wrong time. Say you’re an author of a new IP and it’s a shooter. Now try to announce your indie game at the day of next Call of Duty release. No one will notice your news as everybody will be hyping about the new CoD. So I’d say both those things, research and planning, are something you should start with.

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Are there some common mistakes gaming companies should avoid in terms of PR?

Oh, lots of them! PR is one of those fields that seem to be “anyone can do it” things. While in fact it’s a field full of mines and you really need to know your way through it well, not to blow the whole thing up. Sometimes one word too much or one word too little is enough to start a huge communication crisis that can harm your sales. You should definitely engage your community and treat it well.

But sometimes big companies have a tendency to ignore it, because they think they don’t need to care anymore. While small ones don’t have the time to take care of it, forgetting it’s in fact an investment for the future. Then it can be really harmful to promise something you cannot really deliver. You’ll be successful and create hype in a short run but lose much more in a longer one.

Games already have a ‘story’ within. Does this help the PR strategy in any way?

I’d say it’s crucial, in fact. You have to remember that journalists look for stories, not news per se. They look for something that will engage their readers. Make them comment on a story and share it.

So putting it simple: starting another Kickstarter campaign is not a news that’s interesting for media anymore. Unless there’s a story behind it. Finding that story, pitching it to right media and at the right time is the key. It’s all about telling stories and showing emotions these days.

Look at any car advertisement for example. Most of them say nothing or very little about the car’s features, tech specification and such. Instead they show you emotions. What you will feel when driving said car and most of those ads tell a story. This is exactly what a well prepared PR campaign should do.

Should game studios address the general media or just gaming/tech media? If so, when and how would the message differ?

The answer to that question is a bit complex, as it really depends. First on the size of the studio. Small, indie ones, should focus on gaming/tech media. Why? Because their audience is there. If someone is reading about games in general media he’s usually looking for big, AAA titles from well-established studios. And this is what mainstream media usually cover. So it’s not exactly the place where indies should look for coverage.

On the other hand, if your studio has already grown and you’ve already won what’s there to win among gaming/tech media, then you should definitely start pitching the mainstream ones. Just remember it most likely won’t increase your sales significantly. But it’s a good PR and prestige for sure.

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Should indie studios build a different PR message than larger studios? In which way?

In fact every studio should build a strategy that will best fit their game. Try to think what’s unique about it? How is it different from 10 other games of the same genre out there? What’s the feature you consider the most important? Is it the hero, gameplay mechanics or the way the story is being told?

Once you define that, make it a center point of your campaign and create the whole messaging and activities around it. And, most of all, don’t try to pretend anything about yourself or the game you are creating. If you’re just 3 guys working on a relaxing pixel platformer, admit it and concentrate on convincing people why they should play it. Don’t pretend you will revolutionize the game industry and create a game that will be a bigger hit than the original Mario was.

How important are screenshots, videos and other media assets when building a PR campaign?

As important as textures, models and lines of code are, for creating a game. Today you simply cannot create a successful PR campaign without any assets. And I know it’s always a struggle for indie studios to prepare those, but you simply cannot avoid or ignore them. Game developers need their “toys” to do their job. And same goes for us – PR reps. We also need our “toys” to convince media, to cover your game.

Please share some quick tips/steps on how to build a first game’s launch campaign.

Some of them were mentioned already. Start with a research on the topic. Find media and journalists that cover games similar to yours and make a list of them. Then prepare a plan. Start from biggest milestones. Like when’s alpha and beta ready, when do you plan to send out preview and review codes. Then go more and more into details like dates of posting videos, sites you’ll be pitching to get it posted, embargoes, special actions like contests, etc. But most of all, before you even start the PR campaign for the game, develop relations with media. In fact you should start doing it long before you’ll send out your first press release. It takes time but definitely pays back in a longer run.

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