In early December, Creative England's GamesLab team will be hosting a Birmingham Masterclass. This free two-day event aims to introduce emerging game studios in the West Midlands region to industry experts, allowing them to gain first-hand insight and advice.
A host of well-known speakers will be present during throughout the two day Masterclass, including Renegade PR founder Tim Ponting whose previous experience at Activision is sure to place him in a prime position for answering questions and sharing tips. We caught up with Tim to discuss his career, the key aspects of a good promotional campaign and how to market yourself correctly.
Why do you feel events like our GamesLab Masterclass are important for emerging studios and game developers?
There is nothing like realising you are not alone in both wanting and needing to learn more about your craft – it’s as important to mix with your peers as it is to hear what experts have to share with you. And it’s also really useful for the experts too – you only remain an expert when you’re in touch with the new generation of companies and individuals making games.
You’ve worked at quite a few different companies – Activision, Dennis Publishing – what have you learnt about game promotion and development from your time spent at these places?
I started my career as a journalist writing about musical instruments, then moved from there to Dennis to write about video games. Back in those days (the late eighties through the nineties, yes, last century!) journalists were gatekeepers of information and critical judgement – that’s why so many magazines thrived, despite the smaller number of gamers out there. Building and maintaining a good relationship with journalists back then was vital – and also feasible, as there were no more than 10 or 15 who held positions of power. Development back then was generally by team sizes you could count on the fingers of one or two hands, using home grown code.
During my days as head of PR for Europe at Activision in the Noughties, things had become much more complex. Media relations were still vital, but there were more plates to spin than you could actively influence, so it was a question of getting the right message out there, rather than who you actually got the message across to. Development had become ungainly, mixing third party engines and tools with proprietary code, with ever growing teams. I worked on all the Call of Duty games up to MW2, and there were still credits to ID Software for use of the Quake 3 engine despite the fact there was little code in there that bore much resemblance to Q3A at all! It was a glorious mess of labour intensive brilliance.
Fast forward to today, and game promotion is a completely different beast. Developers of all sizes have a direct relationship with gamers via multiple social media channels, and the influence of journalism, while still important, is arguably less important than it has ever been. Developers need to be editorialising their own products, not waiting for media to do it for them. And development itself is a far more streamlined process. Products like Unity have changed everything – and now small teams can produce results that would have required much larger teams in the bad old days.
How important is it to have a well thought out PR campaign when launching a title?
For every interactive entertainment product, you need to carry out a marketing process, and that begins with the concept and positioning. Even if you intend to do no traditional PR at all, you still need to have the basic building blocks of communications there. And for PC and console titles, PR is still a great way to achieve critical mass and support your direct social activity. If you go into a Kickstarter without a PR plan, you will most likely fail.
For mobile, I’d carry out a minimal PR campaign to the obvious outlets, but there’s little evidence in my experience that huge PR campaigns work for apps unless they are the mega brands like Candy Crush that have penetrated mainstream consciousness.
What are the key aspects of a good promotional campaign?
Understand the relationship between your game and the messages you need to get across to the consumer. Far too many indie titles are positioned incorrectly, and by the time the developer realises it has missed the point, it’s too late to course adjust. The key thing is to spend more time at the beginning to avoid having to iterate inefficiently at the end.
In your opinion, what are investors looking for in terms of PR and marketing - what do you think will turn them on a game and what will turn them off a game?
The biggest turn off for investors are developers who think that game quality renders the marketing process irrelevant – particularly teams that have yet to ship their own game, even if they’ve been making games within other teams for years. They are looking for teams that believe in their own product, but also believe in the importance of the marketing process.
What are you expecting from the companies and new developers that will be attending the masterclass and what could they do to stand out to you while there?
Personally I get excited when I meet teams that are fired up about their game, have one or more unique features or combinations of features in the game, and who have the common sense to realise their own strengths and weaknesses – and who want to address, not ignore, the latter.
You have worked with big names like Call of Duty and Guitar Hero, why do you think that they were so successful?
Call of Duty was successful in the first place because it was the best in class of its genre right from the first iteration – and boy did we message it right. I am proud of the PR campaign I drove – the first cover was secured in the UK, and entirely by my verbal description of the game – nary a screenshot or video in sight at that point. It stayed ahead of the curve graphically, and delivered great MP when this stopped copies being resold through retail, delivering high DLC value. Guitar Hero hit a chord (ha ha) with consumers, and the relentless experiential activity we carried out really drove sales. It was a huge risk for Activision to take on (remember Activision bought it, it never created it) but huge cahones carried it through. Mind you, there were a few hundred thousand plastic guitars stacked up in warehouses when it started to decline.
Are there any common pitfalls that new developers, start-ups and small companies may fall victim to or need to be aware of?
Do things in the right order. Have a plan that includes the marketing process from the day you install your dev tools. Don’t build a game then think about promoting it six weeks prior to launch, or the week before Kickstarter. Marketing is a process. Promotion is just part of it.
What piece of advice would you give a small company when it comes to marketing their games and themselves?
Two things really – first of all, you can do it yourselves, and do it well, providing you get guidance up front. I’m working on an exciting joint venture at the moment to build a system that will help devs do this cheaply and efficiently, and I can’t wait to be able to share our expertise in a way that is useful and feasible for small teams as well as larger sizes. But the point is you can do it for yourself. Secondly, beware publishers scaring you into signing with them because they have expertise you don’t currently have. Most of the publishers drawing indies into their spaces are just using you as guinea pigs while they learn their roles in a new order. Publishers can be as crap at the marketing process as anyone else, especially when they don’t see it as a large revenue driver. Be warned – abdicating responsibility for the marketing process may be a weight off your mind, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be executed well – or in many cases executed at all.
Are there any areas of marketing that you would warn people from or avoid yourself completely?
Not really – just the proviso that mobile titles seem to have life cycle so dependent on storefront promotion that you need to be careful to spend wisely elsewhere.
And finally, can you remember your first console memory, either playing one or owning one?
Er… I rather pre-date consoles. My first memories are of writing character creation programs for RPGs on a Research Machines 380Z in the late seventies and playing games on Commodore PET, BBC Micros and Speccies. I never really liked consoles until Dreamcast arrived. Such a shame it failed.
Find out more about our Birmingham GamesLab Masterclass and book tickets here.
To find out more about our Games funding programmes head here.