An Open Letter to Gaming PR: Stop
Let's be very clear upfront: there is absolutely nothing wrong with a company wanting to market and publicize their game. Developers pour a lot of effort into making the games we love, often working punishing hours over the course of several years to get a product out the door. And PR isn't the enemy; quite the opposite, you should be the channel through which we get information about the games we're most excited to play.
Should being the operative word. Ideally, PR representatives are conscientious people who take their role as the face of a developer or publisher seriously, and treat their profession ethically and with an appropriate level of responsiblity. Too often, however, instead of just trying to highlight what makes a game great, PR reps develop an adversarial mindset, where the easiest path to massive sales is manipulation and deception.
The problem is, gamers are savvy. We represent one of the most intelligent and perceptive demographics in entertainment, and we're not so easily fooled. If you want to reach gamers, be genuine, transparent, and forthright, and start treating us as human beings rather than "targets" or "consumers." Need help? Gameskinny is here for you.
Stop with the insane hyperbole
In the heavily produced and staged Dragon's Age Inquisition trailer that rolled out earlier this month, a studio employee talks in an obviously coached and rehearsed way about how it's possible in Inquisition to find something under every rock and bush in the game, and how there's a surprise around every corner.
Really? Every bush, huh? Every corner? You're telling me I'm not going to be able to turn a corner at the inn where I go to recover my HP without an epic surprise lurking in the shadows? That doesn't even sound pleasant anymore, it sounds deeply inconvenient.
Stop. Stop with the over the top language, the "our console is going to change the future", the "redefine the way you play games", the "unparalleled realism", the "brilliant, reactive AI". We instantly recognize this kind of talk for what it is: hot garbage, empty of meaning. Worse, it wastes the valuable time of both parties. If we could cut the hyperbolic language out of the press conferences at E3 every year, they'd either be 20 minutes long, or there would be enough time to show off upwards of 15 more games. At great length.
Stop releasing trailers without any gameplay footage
This is a lesson that a lot of PR firms seem to have absorbed, but you still get "teaser trailers" or "cinematic trailers" with disappointing regularity that don't show a single frame of in-game footage.
Stop. The whole point of a trailer is to give us an idea of what a game actually is, how it plays, if it'll be any fun. Some prerendered movie that looks absolutely nothing like the game we'll be playing doesn't help anyone, and when these "cinematic" sequences start to roll, our eyes gloss over and we're just counting the seconds until we do get to see some gameplay, or thinking about all the games we could actually be playing rather than staring at your vanity project.
Stop doling out exclusives as "rewards" for positive coverage
We imagine it's easy to become insulated from the final customer, and thus presume that no one takes notice when you push exclusives to an outlet as a reward for positive coverage. This sort of "What have you done for me lately?" approach to your relationship with press is a blatant attempt to manipulate objectivity. It's dirty, morally reprehensible, and it's beneath you. Stop.
We can also do better, and need to
PR is a tough gig. Marketers, by definition, have to serve at least two masters, and often more. A representative of a New York based marketing firm, speaking on condition of anonymity, elaborates on the challenges of filtering a message in two directions.
From my experience in PR, working with other specialized companies -- not gaming specifically, but specialized companies and trade reporters for those industries -- the disconnect is often between the heads of that specialized company and their understanding of how media coverage works. For instance, PR reps often go into a pitch KNOWING that the reporter is going to get pissed off about the over the top language and advertising jargon. What the reporter doesn't often see is that a PR person's job is a liaison -- a messenger -- and although they can advise clients on what will and will not get into print and what can and cannot be controlled and what reporters will and will not appreciate, clients don't often understand or listen. It's sometimes a case of don't shoot the messenger because the client doesn't get how PR and reporters work, doesn't want to know, and doesn't have the time to know.
And journalists are absolutely complicit too. If we don't run those trailers, accept those exclusives, or print those hyperbolic quotes, they'll never see the light of day. This kind of shady marketing requires co-conspirators on the editorial side, and we too have a responsibility to screen out blatant, manipulative, and deceptive advertising, or to expose it for what it is instead of acting as a guileless mouthpiece or megaphone.