Mark Rein vs Cliffski – Why neither side is right

The recent controversy regarding Mark Rein’s “outburst” at a game developer conference sure turned into one big internet flame war. And despite all the raging fires, it seems like very little discussion is happen around the issue Mark was trying to raise. I’m not going to pick sides on who I think was the bigger prick (though I will admit that Mark can be a very outspoken dude, and that can really cut people the wrong way, but he has already apologized which I think is a worthy gesture.) I’d rather point out that neither side is entirely correct in their strategy on how to market an indie game. Here’s my take on it.

This whole debacle surfaced because Cliffski decided to blog about Mark’s outburst, pretty much summarizing it as “Mark is a jerk.” The reason why Mark Rein, Vice President at Epic, got all excited and had to cut into a panel conversation is because he was trying to point out that if an indie developer shares any information on the game he’s working on with a small group of people, ie, in the forums, or even 1-on-1, that this information then becomes public and not “scoop” worthy for the bigger gaming new sites. As a result, an indie dev could be shooting himself in the foot and lose bigger coverage by only telling a few people.

Mark has a very good point here. It’s something every marketing arm of big publishers know, and it’s why they spend so much time planning EXACTLY what information gets released at each stage of game development. It’s a very detailed process, and it needs to be. Once info about a new feature for a game is released, good luck getting it featured in some prominent way in a magazine, or on a website. From my own experience, having worked in the game publishing side for over 15 years, I would say that the media industry has gotten even more competitive become of this reason, deliberately indicating that if you don’t go to them first, they won’t give you great coverage. It’s just the reality of how things work.

However, here’s where I disagree with Mark. His points work well if you got a game that people WANT to chat about, ie. AAA games. When it comes to indie games, the reality is, most big sites don’t have the time or inclination to even bother picking up a news story about a wee little game.

Now you can’t blame news sites and magazines in being selective in what they cover. Even the most post-active sites like Kotaku can only update 40 times a day (and that is a lot!) But there are well over 100 news announcements going on each day, and more and more are coming from smaller developers and indie games. Most big game sites want to cover things that people WANT to read, as it is less about showing them something new that they may not have heard about before. There are some indie game news sites, and indies can get great coverage that way, but most of these sites are still multiple times smaller than any of the biggies.

So Cliffski over at Positech games does raise one potential strategy that an indie dev can take: Engage fans in forums and in 1-on-1 conversations. However, I would argue that this is only a baby step. Ultimately, REACH become a critical component to any marketing campaign, and if a developer isn’t able to get that core base he’s been nurturing 1-on-1 to help spread the word, then the developer is going to have a game that only a handful of people will ever play. This tends to be the biggest problem with most indies, as they spend too much time preaching to the choir. The trick is to be aggressive in getting more people into the know, and to do that you really have to think far bigger than forums (even the best forums typically only reach several 1000 viewers.)

A better strategy in 1-on-1 outreach is to test out your messaging. Fine tune your message so that you are very clear why people like your game. Get that core fan base to help spread the word. Package up your message and game into something that is newsworthy so that when you do shop it around, you can build some momentum in interest, and grow it to a point where bigger sites will be interested in mentioning your game.

In other words, if word starts to spread of how cool your game is, then eventually news can trickle up to the big sites. As an example: We recently noticed a Facebook game for the movie Expendables, and did a story on it, as well as chatted about it in our forums. No other gaming site picked up it, because let’s face it, gamers shun Facebook games. But the game was actually pretty cool, as it was a throwback to Contra in gameplay. After spreading the word around the net, our story got picked up by a couple of bigger sites, and then bigger sites still. Within a few days, I noticed a lot more people mentioning this little Facebook game and the number of people who “liked” the game jumped from several 1000 to over 100,000. This is a perfect example of how a little indie dev can increase chatter about his game by taking a small to big approach.

So there you have it. When you cut out all this ugly yelling back and forth with gaming fanboys either bashing Epic, or Mark, or the indie scene, you actually have an interesting debate going on here. Having been on both sides of game publishing and gaming media, and having worked on big AAA games and also on my own indie game, I can definitely say that the way you approach marketing an indie game is different than a AAA game because of the quickly changing media landscape.

An indie dev can create 1-on-1 dialogue to get the buzz out there for his game, but he’s gotta make sure that he’s packaging the information together in a way that still makes it interesting for the big gaming sites to want to pick up the story. The bigger challenge isn’t whether a big gaming site will get the scoop, it’s whether your game is simply cool enough that a media outlet is willing to mention your game instead of Gears of War 3. There’s a reason why people are hungry for more Gears of War info. Make sure there’s a reason why people want to check out your indie game.