Written by Amanda Farough
It’s difficult enough to get an indie game made, let alone getting it out into the world loudly enough to attract the attention of mainstream gaming outlets and freelance critics. There are no formulas when it comes to reaching out to the press because every site (and every critic) is different and none of them will respond to outreach in exactly the same way.
The goal is to get the press interested enough to give your game some of their very, very limited time. As of 2018, PR professionals outnumber journalists 6-to-1 and that number has likely grown in the last couple of years, especially during the COVID-19 global pandemic crisis.
Before you begin outreach, an important thing to keep in mind is that the press is not an extension of your marketing or PR. None of them will ever consider themselves as such. Journalists and critics, as well as any mainstream gaming outlet, will not accept any form of payment in exchange for a guarantee of coverage, let alone positive coverage.
But here’s where you can spend your money.
Do Your Research
The first step in determining how to best reach members of the press starts with researching outlets that would be best suited to cover your game. Many of the mainstream gaming outlets have indie coverage, especially as ancillary pieces that discuss theme, impact, and what makes the game itself special. Not every site will have the internal resources to review each of the indie games that come to their attention, but they will often contract out to freelance critics and writers.
Research who’s in charge of what at each of the sites. Smaller sites will have an editor-in-chief (who sets the vision for the site and executes on the larger vision), potentially a managing editor (who will take care of the day-to-day content), so you’ll need to reach out to one of them.
At the larger sites, they’ll have section editors that run features, reviews, and news (among others). Find out who runs those sections to reach out to them directly.
You’ll also need to determine the tone and the audience of the site that you’ll be pitching your game to. Some sites are more focused on gameplay and their audience reflects that desire. Some sites go deep on social impact. Others love quirky, weird, niche games that folks might not have heard about anywhere else. Tailor your pitches accordingly.
Build Relationships with Specific Critics
Many of the best critics and writers in the industry are freelance, especially BIPOC and LGBTQIA+, so get to know the people you should be talking to about your game. Keep in mind that freelancer writers and critics know when developers and PR are treating relationships as transactional — using the connection for business reasons only — so if you’re not genuine in your networking, they will ignore your overtures entirely.
Once you’ve built those relationships, you can pitch your game to those freelance writers and critics. It’s important to do this with an outlet in mind, especially an outlet that you know they’ve had previously bylines at. If you care more about the outlet than the writer, pitch the outlet and they’ll find the writer. In this case, you’re more interested in the writer, so pitch the writer and skip the outlet.
Nothing will frustrate a freelancer more than having their pitch scooped by in-house staff if you end up pitching both.
Relationship building takes time, so don’t be hasty. Be consistent, be interested for the sake of it, and connect with the writer/critic on mutual interests. It makes all the difference when you’re pitching a writer and they know who you are and what you’re about before the pitch reaches their inbox.
Know When to Blast and Know When to Pitch
Before you start pitching to outlets and freelancers, it’s important to determine what the goal of the outreach is. Are you looking for as much coverage as possible? Or are you looking to land very specific coverage with a particular outlet? Once you determine what your goals are, you can begin outreach.
A “blast” is sending out the same email to as many outlets and writers as possible. A “pitch” is writing tailor-made outreach that’s specific to a handful of outlets and writers.
Make an Outreach Calendar
Now that you know what your goals are, you need a calendar to keep track of when you’re going to begin outreach, when you’re going to follow up, and when you can expect to see pieces go live. Without a calendar, you may pitch too close to launch, which means you won’t see coverage in time, or you may follow-up too late (or too soon) after the initial outreach.
Staying organized is part of the art of video games!
Write a Canned Email, But Make It Sound Personal
It doesn’t matter if you’re going wide or deep with your outreach, writing an email (with a few variations) that you can use and reuse will help cut down the amount of time you spend on outreach.
- Avoid buzzwords and jargon. Use language that’s approachable and easy to understand for folks from all avenues of the industry.
- Use personal language without being overly familiar. No “hon”, but also no “to whom it may concern.”
- Try not to compare your game to others. There’s nothing more annoying to writers and editors than claiming a game is the “Dark Souls” of “insert genre here” or whatever.
- Keep it short. Writers and editors have next to no time to read the hundreds of emails they receive every day from studios and PR agencies. If you can say it in one sentence instead of a paragraph, do that.
You’ll need to include key information in your pitch/blast, including:
- The game’s name
- Platform(s) the game will be available on, if possible
- The release date, if possible
- Key features
- Links to assets (using Presskit, Dropbox, or Google Drive)
- A “hook” that will sell the writer/editor on coverage; something that makes your game so unique and so interesting to this outlet and their coverage that they just can’t say no to learning more
The Art of The Follow-Up Email
Once you have a few variations of your canned email (one for writers/editors you’ve built a relationship with, one for acquaintances, and one for cold emails), it’s time to learn the art of the follow-up email.
Let’s be real for a moment here: writers and editors abhor most follow-up emails, especially if they’re being “cold called,” so keep it to one follow-up. Chances are that if you haven’t heard back from your contact after two emails, you’re not going to. It isn’t that they don’t care — they have very little time and even fewer resources. For existing relationships, you can follow up twice. First, a few days later, and second, a week later. Then, no more follow-ups.
For cold emails, follow-up once, a week later. Anything sooner comes across as demanding and any more follow-ups will get rolled eyes every time that an email from you ends up in their inbox. And, this is also important, don’t chase writers and editors across social media for a response. Be comfortable with letting it be.
Invest in A Copyeditor
It doesn’t matter if you wrote your game or have been a writer for years. Copywriting is a different beast altogether. So even if you write the canned emails and outreach campaign yourself, everyone could benefit from the help of a competent copyeditor. They’ll catch things that you probably won’t and have suggestions about language that could make outreach even more impactful and interesting.
If you spend money anywhere on your outreach, let it be with a copyeditor. Hiring a PR agency or individual PR specialist is understandably expensive, but you’ll have copywriting/editing built into that fee. If you’re not able to pay for PR, at least pay for copyediting. It’ll change everything.
Here are a few tools that you’ll need in order to keep track of your outreach efforts:
- Twitter: Shockingly, Twitter is still the best way to meet critics and journalists. Scope out your dream outlets and see who writes there. Find voices that align with yours and go follow them on Twitter. Then, start a conversation. It really is that easy.
- MuckRack: This is a tool used by PR professionals and journalists alike to connect. If you don’t have an account, you can request a free demo to check it out. Failing that, check if the journalist/writer/critic you’d like to work with has a MuckRack account, so you can take a look at a snapshot of their work.
- Presskit(): Ready to reach out to press? Make sure you have your assets all in one place so you can send them. Presskit() is great (and was developed by an indie game developer), but you can use something as simple as Google Drive or Dropbox, too.
- Mailchimp: If you’re sending out an email blast to a lot of different people, you’ll want a way to manage that. Many email providers don’t allow blasts from their email servers, since it can be used for mass spamming campaigns. So, if you’re aiming to send emails to 50+ people at a time, make sure you sign up for something like MailChimp. You can also use MailChimp’s excellent design tools to pull together a really nice looking newsletter.
- Gmail’s BEE Templates: If you’re sending out to fewer people, say 10+ at a time, then you can use Gmail (or your favorite email provider). BEE templates will make your emails look beautiful without looking overdone. Don’t overdesign or create something that’s difficult to read. The simpler, the better. Modern, clean designs always grab people’s attention.
Amanda has been covering the game industry as a journalist and entertainment writer for the past 10 years with an emphasis on indie games. She’s worked as a lead editor, managing editor, and editor-in-chief over the years that she’s been writing. These days, she’s co-host and producer on Virtual Economy and co-host on the Engaged Family Gaming podcast.