As a reviewer if there’s one mistake I see in my inbox more often than any other, it’s developers reaching out to press on their game’s launch day. Sometimes, even up to a week after release.
I’m not entirely sure the general reason for this; whether it’s seen as not necessary to reach out first, or perhaps it’s some attempt at avoiding “embargo breakers”, but it’s probably the most easily corrected major mistake you can make in your game marketing.
Don’t break your game’s sales just because you didn’t want to send out some emails before launch.
Tap Into YouTube is a series on YouTube and Games PR, written from the perspective of a YouTube Content creator. That’s me!
It’s meant to help both devs and YouTubers serve their audience the best and work with each other productively.
What’s the big deal? Well…
Reviews Take Time
The biggest factor here is that if it takes me a week to write a review (not uncommon, especially for smaller shops or larger games), and you send me your game the day of release, you’re logically going to get reviews a week after release. And that’s at the earliest; you’re probably not at the top of my queue. Especially since you emailed me the day you launched your game!
“The amount of time it takes to review your game is significantly higher than the time it takes to play your game”
Gaming reviewers are infamously crunched for time and often forced to rush out reviews for games they haven’t finished, spend crazy hours to finish a game in time, or take other unfortunate steps that pretty universally result in both worse working conditions for the reviewer and a lower quality review.
To write a thorough review ideally the player will have to complete the game, or in some cases like Multiplayer or Roguelike titles, at least play far enough to feel a sense of reasonably complete understanding of the game.
In addition to the game itself, budget in the time for writing, editing, replaying to verify certain details, checking out additional modes, and other features. After all that, the time it takes to review your game is significantly higher than the time it takes to play your game. Always keep this in mind.
If there’s one person you don’t want to rush, it’s your reviewer. When you’re rushed, every flaw is that much more grating. Every complexity is that much more unwelcome. Every high is that much more fleeting. By rushing reviewers it’s quite possible you’re harming your own review scores, let alone the number and timing of those reviews.
Sort of a sub-point of point number one, but even if I can respond to your game in a snap as, say, a Livestreamer who plays through games blind for first-impressions streams, I still may be unable to play your game until a few days after launch. I might have previously announced plans, things I’ve been waiting months to do, I might be on vacation, heck, you might just happen to release on the day I’m not at work!
Your game is probably the only thing on your mind. It is not the only thing on the mind of everyone you’re emailing about your game. That’s one of the biggest things to realize when handling your PR and working with press; you know your game, we do not (yet). But meanwhile, we’re also juggling up to dozens of games, upcoming releases, sheduled content. The less time you give us, the less possibility there is for us to fit your game in with the rest.
By giving reviewers a reasonable length of time they’ll not only be able to write a better review, but they’ll be able to work things into their schedule more easily. For example, I work a day job so if your game releases on Tuesday even if I have nothing to play but your game (this is never the case), the earliest you’re likely to see a video from me is the following weekend.
But Isn’t YouTube Different?
A common thought is YouTube (or Twitch, or whatever) is different, so you send embargoed copies to press and disinterestedly toss out an email to a list of YouTubers on the way out the door to the release party.
This is really no longer the case; YouTubers are many people’s first (or even only) frame of reference for new releases. YouTube’s impact is harder to measure, but impossible to deny. Even major companies reach out to YouTubers and several sites have been set up to make reaching us easier.
They may be YouTubers, or Streamers, or Content Creators, or whatever the heck they’re calling us this week, but really we’re all “reviewers” as far as your game’s PR is concerned. There’s seldom good reason to treat us differently or send us codes at drastically different times, and it’s also why the more general terms “press” and “reviewers” are used in any non-specific context in this piece.
Our methods may be moderately different, but the process of producing a thorough Let’s Play or preparing for a Livestream of a game can be very similar to writing a more traditional review, and many video creators will attempt to play at least a fair portion of the game before dedicating to a video series or livestream. An embargoed copy helps just as much, and our reach can be just as pivotal as a more traditional review.
Similarly, the process of contacting YouTubers is really not that different from contacting press. We want largely the same information and produce largely the same result for you. There are some differences that I’ll note in future Tap Into YouTube pieces, but when in doubt, treat someone who makes gaming videos the same as someone who writes gaming articles and you’ll be right much more often than wrong.
Reviews In Progress Aren’t For You
But what about Reviews In Progress? That thing where people just put up a review while just a few hours into a game. Everyone’s doing those these days, right? I’ll just throw them the game and they’ll work it out.
Well first, Reviews In Progress are a pretty bad idea for reasons beyond the scope of this article. But more importantly for you, those are really only for huge AAA games, and often specifically for “service games” that major publications got tired of being blindsided by (thanks, Destiny).
If you’re releasing an indie game or even just about anything with under a $50 million dollar budget, you’re probably not going to get a “review in progress”. You’re much more likely to just get skipped entirely.
Early Reviews Matter
Simple but unfortunate truth; speed counts in reviews. A lot. Not just for the game, but for views on reviews. And of course, views matter quite a lot for content creators of any sort.
By releasing a game to reviewers on launch day, you’ve made sure that everyone’s review is late. And, being late, the review of your game is suddenly that much less valuable for views. Bearing all that and scheduling issues in mind, by sending out your first PR at launch day, you pretty much encourage a lot of people to simply pass over your game entirely.
This is one of those things that sucks, but both press and developers just have to make the most out of.
How Long Is Long Enough?
Okay, smart guy. I’ll give reviewers time, but how much?
Like most questions worth answering, the answer is “it depends”. Generally a month is plenty of time for almost any type of game (and all the more most developers will ever offer), but a couple weeks is generally enough as long as your game isn’t incredibly long.
Certainly aim for a bare minimum of a week for almost any kind of game; as mentioned already, even if your game only takes an hour to play I might simply be unable to work on it at all on any specific day. A week means that almost anyone not on vacation will at least have a chance to see it, but it’s definitely the smallest amount of time you should be considering.
Take your best estimate of how many days it takes a typical player to beat the game (you are not a typical player of your own game!). Remember that if a game takes 10 hours that’s a couple of days of very intensive play, not “less than a day”. Add a week or two to your estimate and that’s roughly how long you should give press to poke your game with a stick before coming up with a review. There’s no such thing as “too much time” to review a game, so if you have the extra time always favor a longer period.
How Do Other Devs Get Away With it?
But so many other people release their games to press day one, or not at all. How do they get away with it?
Generally speaking, either they don’t (the average game is not successful), or they get away with it because they’re way bigger than you are.
Dishonored 2 might have been able to release without giving reviewers copies (to much outcry, I might add!), but they’re Bethesda. Statistically speaking, you are probably not Bethesda.
Reviews Are Your First Market Test
No matter how thoroughly you tested your game, it’s very likely that the first time that many bugs and usability issues surface will be during reviews.
Giving your reviewers a month to review a game also means you give yourself time to fix bugs or more easily addressed issues they raise. I’ve personally had many bugs while reviewing games and several have been fixed before launch day due to good communication and cooperation with developers. Including some bugs that would make paying customers very unhappy.
By fixing those bugs early you can help reduce launch-day disasters and maybe remove an unfortunate line or two in a review about how buggy your game is if you address reviewers’ issues sufficiently.
Of course, reviewers are not a substitute for QA either, and many may simply note the bugs in their review without bothering to tell you. But it’s pretty inevitable that you’ll miss some issues here and there, especially if you haven’t properly purged your tester pool with major game interactions, and it’s better to hear from reviewers about those issues before launch. Even if the reviews are impacted by the bugs you can reduce the issues players themselves have.
So naturally allowing press (or anyone) to play a game early raises the question of what to do about review embargos; I do suspect many devs simply blast press (or at least YouTubers) day-of-launch to not have to worry about such things.
The topic of Embargos is too big to properly tackle as a sub-topic of this issue, but really whether you have an embargo or not, people should have a bit of time before release to play a game. All but the most inexperienced reviewer is going to be familiar and willing to cooperate with an embargo. They’re really not rocket surgery.
Embargos are something of a Gentleman’s Agreement but they’re seldom (intentionally) broken because they benefit everyone involved: the developer gets better reviews and coverage at the time they prefer, reviewers get to actually play the game before viewers will be expecting coverage, and players get better, less-rushed reviews. Plus breaking an embargo is often a free ticket to “nobody sends you codes”-land, arguably the world’s worst amusement park.
But of course simply giving the game early to press without embargo is also an option that many (often smaller) developers choose. It’s a reasonable option, though personally I prefer at least a little time to play a game under embargo to get used to it unless it’s a truly pick-up-and-play experience.
A Pre-Release Checklist
If you’re in the unenviable position of planning to release very soon but it’s too late to give press a full look at your game ahead of time, here’s some considerations to run though:
Wednesday June 12, 2019
A funky variation on the classic Tangram game. Just try to fill the whole board with pieces of different shapes. …
Are you going to go bankrupt if you don’t release it now?
Tuesday June 11, 2019
An exciting skill game in which you have to get your ball as high as you can, jumping from one …
This is not a position you should ever be in. But as long as you can say no, it’s pretty much always going to be in your long-term benefit to do it right but more slowly.
Monday May 27, 2019
A funny, browser-based MMO game that is loosely based on the evergreen NES classic: BOMBERMAN. As per the game creator’s …
Did you already announce a release date?
If not, no one but you will know you pushed it back.
Would an established community care if you pushed the date back?
If you haven’t been community building already, your launch is probably already doomed as-is. In such case there’s little harm in delaying it and doing PR more thoroughly and properly, regardless of how “done” the game is
Even so, your community will surely appreciate a better, later game anyway. It seems like most games miss their targets, what’s another delay?
Can you absolutely guarantee coverage (are you already too big to ignore?)
Big games can get by with “iffy” decisions like this. Unknowns cannot.
Is your game pick-up-and-play?
If your game is hard to get into and launch day features a ton of streamers brutally struggling with the first part of your game you (and them) are going to have a bad time
Based on these you should have a good impression of how easy it is for you to hold off on releasing and give your reviewers more time. Remember you only have one launch and first impressions matter.
This is really one of the parts of releasing a game you’re going to want to get right the first time. Don’t get an itchy trigger finger or figure things will work themselves out in the end; there are way too many games releasing anymore for you and everyone else to be that lucky.
Just Sending Keys Isn’t PR
Finally, and arguably most importantly, sending keys on launch day as your only form of PR has a critical flaw: Sending your keys almost certainly shouldn’t be the first I’ve ever heard of your game anyway.
Granted, if you only do literally one thing regarding press, it should be sending the keys themselves. So thanks for at least doing that much. But I get quite a lot of emails that are essentially detail-free “please play my game steam key: XXXX-XXXX-XXXX” blasts sent out to everyone. I’ll usually at least activate a key if I’m sent it (it takes about 10 seconds thanks to Steam’s new key activation page), but I may well not notice it in my library for days/weeks if you don’t leave an impression.
Practically speaking, your relationship with press should start much, much earlier than launch. And once more for those in the back; yes, YouTubers, Streamers, all those people, they’re just “press” now, treat them largely the same. Your relationship with press should start before you even have final-release press keys.
You don’t have to publish huge dev logs or provide us with exhaustive details about your game on a monthly basis. But if I get an email a few months ahead of launch with a couple cool gifs and some worthwhile descriptive text it can mean the world for covering your game.
When I open my inbox to see “Rob Robson’s Robpage releases on Steam in a week, press keys included” I should think “Rob Robson’s Robpage? Isn’t that the cool game about a skateboarding yeti that had those sweet gifs? I can’t wait to play that!”. (Look forward to an article on the game PR value of GIFs in the future).
Again, launch is a precious window for your game and you really only have one shot. There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain by properly handling your relationship with press. We get dozens of emails a day, and if you only send one, and it’s already too late to cover on time anyway, you’ve already given yourself (and your game) a critical and entirely unnecessary handicap.
When in doubt: PR early, PR often. No one’s going to cover a game they don’t know about. It’s our job to tell our audience about games, but it’s your job to tell us about your game.
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