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As part of our deep dive into all things gaming, Caroline Miller of Indigo Pearl shares some of the pearls of wisdom that have served her well in her decades at the top of the UK games industry – chief among them, never forget that this is an industry build entirely on the human touch.

With 2020 having confined games PR to homes and small screens, there has been a seismic shift towards digital-first activities, with video game publishers focusing on remote content such as game previews, virtual events and remote access to talent; all in order to continue the job of spreading awareness and promoting their products.

In this period of digital-dominant communications, what’s the secret to creating a successful PR campaign?

Anyone who worked in PR around the late 1990s will remember press releases were posted to journalists who (with the exception of a few in the upcoming world of website editorial) worked on a three-week production cycle, with the post-deadline fourth week often spent down the pub with PRs.

It was an era built on relationships and trust. PR departments were admin heavy and aside from the rise in email pitching, games PR was a slow and manual process.

With technology at its heart, the games industry was always going to be ahead of the curve when it came to embracing brave new world ways of end-user engagement.

If you look back to the mid-to-late 2000s, games makers and games media were some of the first to identify, adopt and utilize online video and social platforms. At the same time, fans also began using these platforms to create their own content, with games such as Fifa and Minecraft benefiting from very early influencer marketing. For the first time ever, followers and subscribers liked how they could now engage with their tribe of fellow like-minded fans.

It was at this time that a small number of games companies had trouble letting go of their highly-valuable IP, only for fans to take it, edit and repackage with their own unedited opinion. Thankfully, the majority of games makers and marketing departments embraced the benefits of this newfound free publicity.

The book Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead talks about how the band grew its fanbase by creating a community centered on putting content out there for people to use, share and talk about. These early gaming influencer days felt much the same and continue to be a huge part of any game campaign’s armory.

As an agency, this community-is-everything approach is now so ingrained in what we do that it’s as natural to us as writing a press release. With this comes its own challenges and we always have to be one step ahead because dedicated fans quite rightly have high hopes – especially when waiting for that remake news or when unable to download a game on launch day.

A big part of games PR is relationship and experience management. The audience we’re engaging with has grown exponentially over the past few years, but regardless of the technology behind the campaign, it’s still the human touch that remains crucial to any successful campaign.

Fall Guys, the break-out hit indie game of last summer from Mediatonic, is an outstanding example of a developer leading the way in supporting and growing its community. Mediatonic’s personality runs through everything Fall Guys related, as does human interaction. Its 1.2 million-strong Twitter community is filled with fan art, memes and mischief. The developer’s plan for a bold, new marketing strategy worked as the game surged to the top of Twitch and quickly sold 2m copies on Steam.

It’s this online interaction that has become so much more important during the pandemic – and not just for the traditional gamer. One of the biggest growth audiences in online gaming during the pandemic has been Gen Z. At a time when meeting with friends IRL was out of the question, this generation journeyed into the metaverse to chat, play and hang out, as Fortnite, Roblox and Among Us became their own personal playgrounds.

Brands and celebrities too are understanding the potential of using video games as platforms to reach and communicate with their audiences. As an example, Animal Crossing was recently used by H&M as a platform to help launch its Maisie William collaboration. Fans could visit Maisie’s Animal Crossing island, say hello and recycle their in-game items – all helping to spread the sustainability message via a deeper level of engagement. It added a human element to the campaign.

Whether we’re planning an AMA on Reddit, streaming with influencers over on Twitch or launching a new Discord channel, it’s really important we know and remember who we’re talking to – because every community is built on human relationships and emotions.

As a specialist PR agency, we’re very fortunate that the games industry has its own dedicated media sector. Yet regardless of all the new platforms out there, it’s still as important as ever to get that front page carousel, the front cover, the podcast special etc. Gamers and developers alike who read, watch and listen to these outlets know their stuff and check their facts.

The only difference is that in our modern digital world, there are more sources, platforms and mediums than ever before to make up the average gamer’s media diet. Especially for an industry that is, by the product’s very nature, visual and interactive.

Our relationships with specialist games media remain largely unchanged, but what has changed is the flow of information. In the late 2000s we recognized the industry was fast moving to a predominately digital world and we were spending a lot of our time distributing assets and game codes to our contacts via individual emails – there had to be a better way.

To keep pace with the fast-growing market, we built our own proprietary platform, PXN, to manage the flow of game assets and codes. This platform is now used by some of the world’s largest gaming companies – including Sony, Sega and Ubisoft – and although the technology remains virtual, our relationship with the marketing departments and journalists continues to be very real.

To an outsider looking in, the video games industry might look like an industry built on technology, but take a closer look and you’ll see it’s entirely built on human touch.

Caroline Miller is the owner of award-winning PR and asset management agency Indigo Pearl.

From more on what the gaming sector’s pandemic-propelled popularity means for marketers, head to The Drum’s gaming hub.