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Thoughts on PR from Mode 7

By on June 6, 2013
paultaylor

This is a guest post by Paul Taylor of indie studio Mode 7 games.


The New Indie PR

When we started Mode 7, the idea of a PR strategy was a bit silly: nobody cared about indies and what they had to say, so the objective was just to constantly shout as loud as possible about anything.

It’s a new era now: indies are getting interviewed and asked to comment on gaming news stories with great regularity at the moment; this is a great thing!  We often don’t have the PR filters and constraints of those in larger companies, so we’re able to speak our minds more and get people to pay more attention to our games.

In this post, I’ll be talking through:

  • Thoughts on making statements and giving interviews
  • Releasing game content
  • General philosophical stuff

 Talking about THINGS

Also, a lot of us know journalists personally and are happy chatting off-the-record about stuff; this is almost always completely respected by the press, as it’s vital to keep everything flowing…not to mention basic personal courtesy.  Sometimes, however, that respect isn’t there: choosing your friends wisely is important.

When on the record, however, I think it’s sometimes easy to fall into the mode of chatting and forget a few of the inevitable things that will happen when your words are published.  For the purposes of illustration, I shall be using the fictitious GameHerbert console and GameHerbert Industries.

“Wait…wait…indies should just say stuff, right?” OR “Everybody knows this stuff: shut up”

Two points before I start:

  1. I am not here to tell anyone what I think they should say, the topics they should talk about or anything like that.  You can do what you want and you absolutely should express your own personality.  What I am attempting to do is discuss the reactions that should be expected when certain things happen in public.
  2. One thing I’ve learned is that people vary massively in their intuitive understanding of these processes.  To some, everything I say will seem blindingly obvious, but to others it might be the first time they’ve thought about any of this in detail.  Maybe you are working on a project but have never released any info about it or been interviewed yet: this might be useful to you.

 Anything controversial you say will be foregrounded, even if you say it as an aside and it is not directly relevant to you

Let’s say I do an interview about Frozen Endzone and, in passing at the end, I say, “Oh, it’ll never come out on GameHerbert: it’s pretty hard to develop for as well, so we probably don’t have time.”

If I’m not expecting the headline to be “Indie developer says it’s too hard to make games for GameHerbert!”, I am fundamentally misunderstanding the press.

“They based the whole interview on this one thing I said at the end!” I might complain, but actually…why wouldn’t they do that?  Why was I expecting them to do something else?

Obviously journalists are trying to get people to read your interview.  Virtually any indie, with the exception of perhaps Notch or someone like Jonathan Blow, isn’t news in their own right: what you say is going to be the only draw in the interview.  If you say something even slightly interesting about GameHerbert, which is inevitably more famous than anything you are working on, that will be the headline.

Why do the press leap on this so much?  It’s mostly because experienced devs will furiously no-comment anything that isn’t about their specific game…for the above reason!

By the way, you are allowed to, literally, say “No comment” until a question goes away.  You might feel stupid doing it the first time, but you are allowed to do it.  I have heard people say, “But they just kept asking me a question so eventually I felt like I had to say something.”

Am I saying that indies should “no comment” more? Absolutely not.  I’m saying that they can if they want to.

Any clarification or modulation of a controversial point will be removed or buried

This is important – but hard- to remember.

Here is a transcript from a fictitious interview:

“GameHerbert’s a good console: it’s got the built-in USB fan, the light-up monkey control, the retractable wheels.  But, I mean, it does look like a mottled brick with a turd coming out of it, right? [Everyone has a good old laugh].  Having said that, sometimes I’d put my GameHerbert in my bag just because I want to play Super Rowing Boat Madness GT on the way to work, so it’s a really solid product that has a lot of good sides.  And honestly, I think it looks ok.”

I’ve just given the quote: “[GameHerbert] looks like a mottled brick with a turd coming out of it”.  That’s a pretty good quote, so if I’m not expecting it to be a pull-quote…I don’t know what’s wrong with me.  Any journalist in the world, friendly or no, is going to jump on that.  Secondly, what they might do is just not quote the sentence which starts with “Having said that…”.   They might put in the generic stuff about GameHerbert being a good console in the body of the piece, in order to represent what you said in an appropriate context, but…

  1. Pull-quotes don’t have context
  2. Nobody cares about generic preambles or postscripts to bombshells anyway

I’m not being critical of journalists by the way: this is how news works and that is something that everyone needs to accept.  We need short, digestible, quirky or interesting hooks to make us read something; it’s that simple.

I’m also not being critical of bombshell-prone developers either: as I’ll discuss later, sometimes things need to happen to make the extent of an issue clear enough for the wider community to understand.  Also, we occasionally need a good bombshell to bring an issue to the forefront; some people have to be pioneers in discussing issues and take a bit of flak for it.  The benefit they get (“This is someone who speaks their mind!”) can sometimes outweigh other consequences.

Dropping the bomb

The first time I spoke in public about games, I was on a panel with the ebullient and brilliant Jason Wonacott.  He gave me a great piece of public speaking advice; I think it can be applied to interviews as well.  Here it is:

“Think about what you want to convey and then come up with a really interesting way of saying it.  Make sure it’s short.  When it comes time to say it, pause slightly before, say it, and then shut the hell up.  You will almost always get quoted on it.”

You don’t even have to go that far: just simply coming up with a relatively eloquent way of saying what you want to say in advance can be massively helpful, for both you and the journalist.

Message Control?

We’re now in a culture where the net output of words and (yes I’m going to use that horrible word) “content” from indie developers is increasing.

We’re all at a very crowded party, so we have to speak more in order to get people to pay attention to us.  Again, this is great: I want to hear more from the people who are doing things which interest me.  Sometimes this is massively helpful: look at this great post aboutFingle’s sales figures; that’s going to benefit a lot of developers as well as being interesting to a slightly more general audience.

One of the most important things to do on Twitter is post a lot; it doesn’t especially matter if your posts are boring.   Similarly Facebook.  I read a blog post by famous game streamer Destiny about how he established an audience…shock horror, it was all about doing things regularly.

Personality is important as well: people quote Jon Blow or Phil Fish a lot because they say out-there things which seem incredibly inflammatory.  This almost certainly has a net positive impact for them: being infamous certainly hasn’t caused them any problems so far.

Critical Mass

Also, sometimes it takes personal experience to give you a good understand of how things really work.

Last year, I changed the ending to Frozen Synapse for a limited period because I became fascinated by the idea of changing the end of a game’s story.  I mentioned it on Twitter and a few people encouraged me to do it, so I went ahead.  The action generated a fair amount of publicity, and  I wrote up the process and the responses to it here.

The inspiration behind this was the fan outcry to the ending of Mass Effect 3, but I had no intention of commenting on the rights or wrongs of that situation.

I was thinking about:

  • The relationship fans have to an ending, especially in a game where very few people have actually seen an ending
  • The idea of a creator vandalising his own work; I parodied my own ending, which I had never been entirely happy with
  • The lack of comment on Frozen Synapse’s ending, which I thought would be quite inflammatory when writing it

Instead of anyone paying any attention to that, I was met with an amazing barrage of anger from Mass Effect fans.  It was difficult for me to understand the points they were trying to make, but they mostly revolved around being certain that I was either heavily supporting or heavily criticising Bioware.  I did a quick tally of the “pro” and “anti” Bioware responses and they came out roughly 50:50.

Ian told me recently that I had made “a massive misjudgment”, which was definitely true; I had no idea that taking inspiration from a popular issue would incite people to emphatically believe that I was making a moral judgement about it.

I’ve still never played Mass Effect 3 and don’t know all that much about the ending change beyond the fact that it was rumoured to be happening at one point: I wasn’t really interested in it.

I got significant personal hate mail for the first time in my life, much of which I documented in the post:  I was told to “eat a dick”; people wished bankruptcy upon me; people insulted my writing; people told me that this represented hatred towards my own customers; people told me that I was a “fucking moron” and that I was being culturally elitist.

I think I learned a few things from the experience:

Emotion FIRST

As I get a little tiny bit more mature, I think the most important thing about how we communicate is the emotion we incite in someone else.  I talked to Nicholas Lovell on Twitter recently about a trait we both share: we argue a point incredibly strongly and dogmatically to incite counter-arguments; if the counter-arguments are good we think about them for a while and then back down if we were wrong.

This can work in certain contexts, but it’s often terrible communication; it just pisses people off.  Also, you can hold on to a point too long way past the time when you have obviously been proved wrong, and this is just bad behaviour.  I’d often struggle to see why people become defensive, irritated or upset by the way I was arguing – “if they were right then they’d just be able to prove me wrong; why are they upset – don’t they believe in their own points?”

Being right or clever often isn’t important relative to how you are communicating your points.

Ad hominem

My changed ending made people angry; so they immediately became angry with me; they tried to say things that would deliberately hurt me.  I was very lucky that none of the comments personally upset me in any way; I can imagine someone in an analogous situation being put into a pretty bad state by that level of negative attention.  This is why we see so much crazy personalised hatred online: something pushes someone’s button and they go into ATTACK MODE.  They don’t attack the content because EMOTION FIRST: they are barely aware of the content.  They attack the person because it’s the most direct thing they can do to avoid engaging with the argument.  Most people are terrified of being wrong; this dodges that completely.

There is no context

Of all the things that surprised me most (and I now consider that response pretty naive) was the lack of contextual awareness that people displayed.  Nobody saw the new ending in the context of the original one; I was basically TOLD that I was making a comment on something, and that interpretation had to be the exclusive one; I suppose the author really is dead…poor author.

Why am I banging on about this so much?  One major reason:

Control isn’t everything

I don’t really feel like it was a mistake to do it; while we received vocal negative attention, I feel like most people were aware that it was unreasonable and also about a relatively trivial topic (I mean “narrative” not “Mass Effect 3″ before anyone starts up in the comments!)  in the grand scheme of things.  If this had been about a more socially inflammatory issue, I think I would still be receiving internet hatred daggers to this day, despite not making any kind of emphatic statement about anything.  The reality of this is shocking.

Struggling to stay in control of your “message” too much will stop you doing anything at all.  When we started Mode 7, our policy was basically “say anything”; we then swung towards caution as soon as we realised the impact our words could have.  When one of your tweets shows up as a Eurogamer headline, you really start paying attention to hitting that little blue button in Tweetdeck.  I think this is a step too far; I think I have worried too much about entering conversations.

So, I want to see if it’s possible to be more open while still being aware of some of the issues I raised earlier.  Evolving how you talk in public is a subset of evolving how you relate to other people; I think this should be a life-long process and something which everyone takes seriously.

Sometimes, everyone will get it massively wrong : I’m certain I will do this personally at some point.  That’s just par for the course: if you have sane expectations of how people will react to you, your ability to express yourself properly should increase rather than being subject to a fear of doing something wrong.

About Paul Taylor

Paul Taylor is managing director of indie studio Mode 7 games. Tweet him at @mode7games