In past posts, Austin has talked about choice in game design and Rich has talked about lasers and the black magic of HTML 5. So, this week I wanted to write a post more from the business and marketing perspective. Unfortunately, as I sat down to write this, I realized that there is so much that I still need to do that it may not be worth writing about our marketing strategy yet. I’ve got plenty of ideas in the works, but I still feel like a kid on the first day of school when I think about how much I still have to learn. To put it lightly, it can be a crushing, overwhelming feeling.
How do I convince people to care about this game? How do I get more Facebook followers? How do I get a respectable number of Twitter followers? Will I need to resort to posting scandalous pictures of myself online? You have to understand – I think the strategy of marketing is fascinating. Yet, at the same time, I’m actually a deeply introverted person, so the part about reaching out to other people can be scary for me.
Thankfully, I’ve found many detailed and down to earth guides on indie game marketing. I’ve been devouring these as fast as I can, and I feel like I have a decent handle on the work that needs to be done. Right now, the biggest challenge is just dealing with feelings of insecurity (fear of failure). Unfortunately for me, major stories have been breaking in the gaming press over the last week or so that have only added fuel to this emotional fire.
Specifically, the gaming media world has been blowing up over revelations that some influential Youtube game reviewers have been paid to review certain games in a positive light. More qualified writers than I have been thoroughly investigating this issue and have produced some very thoughtful pieces on the matter. Personally, I found Eurogamer.net writer Simon Parkin’s “Blurred Lines” piece to be the most illuminating. Considering the issue from multiple angles, Parkin ultimately asks whether this practice is ethical. His piece really deserves to be read in full, but in short the answer is “it depends.” Parkin quotes John Bain, a Youtube reviewer known as TotalBiscuit: “People must be clearly notified when they are watching sponsored content…It’s as simple as that.”
Overall, I would agree with this conclusion. If you are representing yourself as an impartial reviewer, then you should not be taking sponsor money. If you are going to take sponsor money, then make it clear to your audience so that they are at least aware of any potential bias. To me, as long as this transparency standard is followed, I don’t necessarily see anything unethical about taking money for game reviews. I’m certainly not the first to reach this conclusion. Furthermore, as industry commentators have noted, this situation is not so different from paid television ads. Eventually, money catches up with effective advertising mediums.
Yet, even if this transparency standard does solve the ethical question at hand, the question still remains: how does a small indie game startup (such as AOTW) hope to compete in a world where marketing venues that were previously independent and niche become increasingly capital intensive?
This question can be scary, especially given the emotionally fragile state that I described at the beginning of this post. However, I think that there are two important things to keep in mind.
First off, as all those overused t-shirts say: “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It’s not necessarily the end of the world. Yes, some potential publicity venues may be harder to access because we can’t pay for positive reviews the way some larger studios can. However, not every video based game reviewer is going to follow this model. Some will likely see it as counter-productive. After all, a star Youtube reviewer has nothing without credibility. As Parkin hints at, some reviewers may fear that they will lose this credibility if they start taking money to make certain reviews. And furthermore, even if every Youtube reviewer decides to make only paid reviews, I still wouldn’t want to quit working on AOTW. We have so much work still to do to be ready for someone to review our game. It would be a shame to quit now simply because there is the possibility that we will encounter industry challenges in the future.
Second, the gaming review industry may still further evolve. Yes, money is catching up to the fact that Youtube is an effective advertising medium. This is in my view inevitable. But, there are other ways to make money. Especially if the fear of losing credibility plays a role in reviewers’ minds, the question arises: How can a game reviewer make money without losing the essential currency of credibility? One answer, which Parkin touches on, is “pre-roll” advertising, which is essentially old-school ad video that plays before the main video. In fact, Parkin notes that the most popular Youtube reviewers can actually make a full living off pre-roll advertising alone, rendering sponsorship deals irrelevant.
The problem is – this strategy only works for the very top reviewers. For everyone else, revenue from pre-roll advertising is typically too low to compete with the temptation of a cold hard cash sponsorship review deal. Yet, perhaps there is an alternative. It seems to me that the assumption has always been that Youtube type reviewers should stand on their own. But, what if these reviewers were backed by organizations that had some financial wherewithal and were not beholden to a particular game? What if Rock, Paper, Shotgun could use some of its advertising revenue from other parts of its site to support a prominent Youtube reviewer in making unbiased reviews? Granted, I’m making a lot of assumptions as to the financial viability of this model. But, I don’t think it’s impossible. In fact, Alec Meer of Rock, Paper, Shotgun recently said “I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I’d encouraged RPS to try its collective hand at Let’s Plays a couple of years ago.” Well Alec, maybe it’s not too late. Maybe RPS or another gaming media site has a chance to make a real difference here. Would Youtube reviewers lose some independence in teaming with a major game press site? Probably. However, if your aim is to be an impartial reviewer, better to serve a cause that impartially promotes the industry at large than one that promotes only itself.
At the end of the day, I don’t think indie developers should despair over this. No matter what, developing an indie game is a great challenge and an extraordinary amount of work. We should try to spot the rising challenges and adapt. But, I don’t want to give up just because those new challenges are arising. There’s always going to be something standing in the way, and that shouldn’t change anything.