Podcast: Kate Gray on how media discover your games
Our new podcast talks to the NintendoLife, Kotaku & RockPaperShotgun veteran.
Welcome to the first Tales From GameDiscoveryLand podcast in Season 1. In this episode, we talk to Kate Gray - a veteran writer for sites like NintendoLife, Kotaku, and RockPaperShotgun - about what the media expects from game creators, how to attract media attention, and most importantly, the things NOT to do.
Presented by Simon Carless, founder of GameDiscoverCo, this bi-weekly, limited series podcast features conversations with smart people in the video game industry on how games get discovered and played.
Reminder: you can get hold of episodes via our official podcast page, and also via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Pocket Casts. If you need it, here’s our podcast RSS feed. And thanks in advance for listening.
Podcast transcript: Kate Gray on how media find your games
SIMON: Picture the scene. You're trekking through the dense jungle of video game discovery, without a map. You're looking for a familiar face, a helping hand, a useful conversation about how people find and play your games. And perhaps you've found it in the form of long-time journalist and writer Kate Gray.
She's worked with NintendoLife, Kotaku, RockPaperShotgun and many more outlets besides, across her career to date. Our conversation is centered around what the media expects from game creators, how to attract their attention, and most importantly, the things NOT to do.
I'm Simon Carless, founder of GameDiscoverCo, and this is first ever episode of the Tales From Game Discoveryland podcast.
SIMON: Hey there - I'm here with Kate. How's it going, Kate?
KATE: Hi. It's going well.
SIMON: Excellent. I was super excited to talk to you because of your experience both on the dev side of the business - community management and writing - and as media. Firstly, I wanted to chat a little bit about the concept of game hook, because I wondered - what's your definition of game hook? Like, how do you see it when you get shown games?
KATE: That's interesting, because I see tons of Steam pages every week and a lot of them are very formulaic, which is not in itself a bad thing. If there's a formula, I know what to expect from you. But I think it's really honing in on what your game can offer that other games don't.
That's where you're going to find your hook. You can cover things like the genre. If it's a really interesting genre or a particularly popular genre, you can talk about that. You can have a really good tagline - that's less common, but I'd love to see more sexy taglines. You can imagine what your demographic is and try to laser target them. But the hook is very much similar to the elevator pitch, where you want to summarize your game in just one - maybe two - sentences with enough attention-grabbing keywords..
It makes the press pay attention and, it makes people's ears perk up. That's going to be doing a lot of the selling of your game, and the press will pick that up and run with it as well. So have a good hook.
SIMON: From my perspective, I'm always interested in the visual hook as well. I know that a lot of us are browsing Steam pages all the time. Do you think there's something visually in games where you look at them, when you get a little bit more interested? Have you noticed particular facets to games that help you with that?
KATE: I mean, games have this sort of interesting visual art aspect that maybe movies don't really have in the same way. You can have people who really love pixel art games, they're going to pretty much snap up any pixel art game, or like a voxel game or low poly game - an art style can be a hook.
So, lean into that if that's an aspect that you have. The screenshots can do a lot of the work there, obviously, and the trailer as well. But if somebody is browsing Steam, generally what you want is to have something eye-catching as your thumbnail. You have such a little amount of time to grab somebody's attention, and you have so little space to do it in.
Because on Steam, you are basically just a picture and maybe a title. And that's going to have to communicate a lot of information, so to have it brightly colored, if that fits with your game. It might not stand out a great deal because everyone's doing that. But it really capture the feeling of the game in that one header image - put some thought into it.
Of course, this also applies to the Switch eShop and other storefronts as well. Actually, I think on Switch’s eShop, people tend to use different images. I can't say why, but that's something to bear in mind. You know, tailor your images to each platform, each storefront and pick your screenshots well.
This is something that I covered in my recent presentation. A lot of people are just taking really boring, really random screenshots. And I'll usually only use one to two of them, because the rest of them are just unusable for one reason or another. So really put some thought into the screenshots that you're putting up?
SIMON: Yeah, I'd like to drill down on screenshots because I've noticed that as well. And one thing I've noticed with people is people are not very keen to put their UI in screenshots sometimes. Sometimes, it's because the game is early and they don't feel like they have a good UI. But certainly when you're picking screenshots because you want to talk about a game, are you looking for a mix of ones that look good, and ones that look like what the real game is like?
KATE: I would say, if you're putting together a press kit of 10 screenshots - which is what I would advise? You're the one who can sell your game by how it looks, you might as well include 10, it's a nice number. I would pick a mixture of “this is what the game actually looks like” so UI and all that kind of thing, and then a lot of more posed screenshots with really nice composition, nice lighting, nice color balance, things like that.
Think about the prettiest moments in your game and stand there, record a video, and then you can take screenshots from that. And just go with one of each moment, you want to have a range across the 10 screenshots. But what you need to think of, in regards to the press covering your game and using those screenshots, is that they will need a lead image. And this one cannot be the same as the one that you have on Steam, because that has a logo on it.
We can't use lead images that have logos because it won't translate well when that piece is much smaller. The logo will be small and it'll be kind of muddy. So you want something that's really big, vibrant, easy to read, even at small resolution. So have at least one that is like that. It can be the key art, the key art is usually the most appropriate - just make sure that it doesn't have a logo, please.
SIMON: That's a really good point - I think sometimes people will use the same screenshots everywhere. But clearly on Steam you don't, and maybe in some cases you can't put key art as one of your screenshots. So it's a good example of where you should be changing up the kind of stuff that you're sending or making available in your press kit, compared to what you put on Steam.
I think it's good to have good posed [screenshots] on your Steam page but also sometimes I find people will abstract their game away entirely. There was this tycoon game I was checking out on Steam a few months ago, and it didn't show any interface. And I just couldn't really tell on the screenshots what it played like. I think if it's early on and you want to get people a little bit excited, that's great. But for people making buying decisions on the Steam page, I think you do need to have a little bit more information.
KATE: I think that's a really good point, people do that with trailers as well. I've seen so many trailers that are more a tonal idea of the game, which is useful. But it can't be the only trailer you have, because I don't know if you're offering me a visual novel, a point and click… it could be anything. I know that it's like steampunk, let's say, but I don't know how I'm actually going to be interacting with the game.
So yeah, I think you make a good point that you really need to pay attention to the audiences you're catering to. On Steam, having screenshots that show you what the game is like is really good. With the press kit you maybe want to err more on the side of “this looks gorgeous”, even if it's not necessarily representative of the game. Because those are the images that are going to come to represent your game within the press, so make them good.
SIMON: Yeah, it's an interesting point even from a streamer point of view, I know that I've spoken to some streamers before like Splattercat, and they've said that key art is very important for streamers as well because of the YouTube thumbnails. So again, maybe your Steam page doesn't have key art minus the logo. But, for streamers as well I think you do really need nice key art or nice posed stuff, right?
KATE: Because if you give me the key art and you include the logo, what is going to happen is that I will crop it. I don't have enough time to Photoshop out a logo and it probably wouldn't be that easy. So I'm then cropping, you know, a good, maybe, half of what's in that key art just to get the logo out of the way. And why would you want someone to do that to your beautiful key art?
SIMON: Exactly... we've just gone granular on screenshots - there's so many little things that you can find that will improve your outreach. From a press perspective, actually something I wanted to talk about, it’s less streamer and player centric is the human story. There are some hooks in games that I think are less about the game and more about, say, the team that put it together.
So, when you see people who you’ve picked in the past for some of your outlets - do you think pitching with a human story is a good idea? Do you think people do it enough?
KATE: I think it is a tricky one to get right. The example that I think of a lot of the time is That Dragon Cancer which was very much a human story. It's about a real experience that somebody had with their child going through cancer. And you can't just manufacture that kind of story, if your game doesn't have that. I think that if you try to force a human story into your very normal game dev experience, then it's going to come across as insincere.
A human story can be anything from “this is a solo developer who's been working on this game for 10 years”. That's interesting because it's unusual. That's not something that you see a lot. Or it can be “this game is about the personal experience of our lead artist” or something like that. But you'll know, I think, quite early on if your game involves a human story.
A lot of human stories that I’ve seen in press release emails are kind of, like: “This is a studio of only four people working from the French countryside.” And I'm like, that's not really that strange. Like it's cool, good for you. If it was “we're working on a farm and we don't have any Internet” then hey, that's a little more interesting. It still doesn't really have anything to do with the game, though, if you know what I mean… unless it was a game about the French countryside.
This is an example. This isn't a real [developer].
SIMON: You aren't calling out the French countryside in general. No, I think that's fair. I get less of this nowadays now I work with GameDiscoverCo. But certainly when I was working at Gamasutra.com, and Gamedeveloper.com, we'd get developers talking to us about their stories. And I definitely agree that it's important to get it right. You need to understand what's exciting to everybody, not just you.
Something else I wanted to talk about is when people talk to you about games that their game is similar to. And this is obviously something that people are tempted to do. Like either “my game is a genre mashup”, or “my game is like X game meets Y game”. Do you have feelings about either of those pitches?
KATE: I do. One of the things that I will always talk about in the games industry is how messed up game genres are. It’s through no fault of any particular person, it's just that it's still an industry in its infancy, we haven't ironed out a lot of things yet.
Movies when they talk about genres, and books, and TV as well, have defined genres that are about what happens. So you've got rom coms, you've got thrillers, you've got horror. A lot of the time this is about how it makes the viewer feel. Games instead are defined by their mechanics a lot of the time - which can tell you absolutely nothing about what the minute to minute gameplay is going to be like.
As a player, I can play a platformer game and I'm like “okay, all I know is that I'm going to be jumping on stuff?” - that doesn't help. Like, it could be a platformer that's Lovecraftian or it could be Mario, that's a huge range of games. So genres don't really help us when we're describing what a game is. And that ended up with us having to create our own genres and descriptions of games - things like Metroidvania.
Metroidvania is literally defined by two other games. But for some reason that's just a culturally accepted way to describe a game. So personally, I think if somebody comes to me with a pitch that is ‘this game is X meets Y’, I am happy to take that and write about that. Because that is a better way of understanding what a game is like than just calling it… a narrative adventure. That's a ‘nothing’ description, that tells you it's got a story and a story, useless.
I would be careful with this one because you risk a) comparing your game to Nintendo masterpieces - and then if somebody comes to it expecting Breath of the Wild and it's not Breath of the Wild, you're going to make yourself look bad. So be careful of that. And b) don't just choose really obvious genres, if you're going to compare yourself to a game, really drill down on which exact games it is. Don't be like “it's a bit like Zelda”, say “it's a bit like Link to the Past”. Don't say “it's like Dark Souls”, say “it's like Dark Souls III” and here’s why.
I think the gamers right now are tired of hearing about Souls-likes. So you have to be so careful that you're not just another Souls-like. Think about what sets you apart. And don't be afraid to compare your game to other things to help people get in. But once they're in, tell them why it's different, tell them why it's unique. And maybe use more interesting games than the ones that everyone's using right now.
SIMON: I agree. I think certainly “Dark Souls meets” is kind of dangerous and I think, if there's a recent example, one of my clients - The Arcade Crew, they just put out a game called Infernax. And that's a bit like Castlevania, but it's a bit like Simon's Quest specifically. So I actually think that's sort of a good pitch.
‘It's a Simon's Quest a-like’ is certainly not something you would hear so much. If you can find kind of corners or interesting underexposed games to be like, then I think that helps. But I also think sometimes lazy comparisons can be good, because I do feel like people sometimes will buy games based on lazy comparisons.
KATE: I think there's like a risk reward to it because you're very much going to get the reward of the SEO. If you have Breath of the Wild being said in the same sentence as your game title, you're going to benefit from that. But at the same time, all the things I already said! People are going to unfavorably compare it, and you might not have as much of a unique identity, if all you ever do is go “it's like Zelda - pay attention to me - it's like Zelda.” So you know - use with caution, I would say.
SIMON: I believe there are some platform rules - I think Switch in particular disallows you from mentioning other games in the description. I think Steam doesn’t [so much], but I think Steam isn't a massive fan of it, as I recall.
I think some of this feeds into how the press see games. And a lot of it is based on how the articles they write about them perform. Something I definitely wanted to ask you about was - clearly, the press always want to be showcasing new and interesting games. But also there is this pressure for page views, and for people to actually read the articles.
So, is there a danger that the press will only cover a certain [profile] level of games? Or do you feel like they're doing a good job right now of finding unexposed gems as well?
KATE: I think that's a big question. Because there are definitely some writers out there - I'm talking, I suppose, about the bigger press outlets which includes Eurogamer, Polygon, IGN, the ones that have like a pretty stable audience by this point. And then the slightly smaller ones that are specialists like Rock Paper Shotgun and the one I write for, Nintendolife - ‘tm’. (I don't actually think we’re trademarked! )
Anyway, the games they are going to want to write about tend to be a mixture. Pretty much every journalist that I know wants to write about the cool hidden gems that they discovered - because that's cool. It makes you feel like a hipster who just found a really nice cafe that no one else knows about. Everyone likes that feeling and everybody likes saying “Hey, you really should check this out” and being part of an indie that deserves success getting that success.
However, the fact is that indie games just do not do well on their own, unless a bunch of different factors can help with that. Sometimes a game can be a big deal because it's being promoted by let's say, Xbox or Sony, like if it's an exclusive. Sometimes it comes from a well known developer so you'll get the old guard of, like, LucasArts [devs] being like, “I made a new point and click in the 2020s”. And that will get a lot of natural, organic press.
Also if you tie your game into another game, like Dead Cells. I think it was very much… Dead Cells evokes Dark Souls already, and it's a roguelike just as roguelikes were getting really popular. And so it's a matter of luck, timing and the resources that you naturally have.
SIMON: What I wanted to ask you in particular was there's kind of a pressure for page views, but also there's a need to show new things. And so actually a continuation of that [concept], which is something I didn't ask, was around the concept of guides.
It’s interesting nowadays - quite a lot of editorial websites are moving towards being a little more guide centric… Is that something you like - is it actually something that has positives because it brings more people in to read about the new games, maybe?
KATE: So basically, when you're press and you're writing about games, you're constantly doing this balance of time versus reward. Like value, I guess, and that is usually counted in page views. Not because the press gets paid per page view - most of us I think are salaried. That's not the case everywhere, but most of us are salaried so it's not that we need page views to get paid. It's that we need pageviews to keep this website going.
I've worked for multiple places at this point who have said “we write about the triple A stuff, so we can cover the indie stuff” It's a balance, you know, so we'll do Destiny guides so that we can fund writing about some tiny game on Itch that nobody's played. The problem with that is that those indie games are going to get buried by things like us talking about Destiny all the time.
A lot of the time, guides - I think - are hidden from our homepage so you don't need to worry too much about that. But the interesting thing with guides is that I think in general, people who run websites want long tails on things. And news pieces don't have long tails. Reviews - short to medium tail, depending on what the game is. But guides, massive long tail…
You have to do a lot of that content to fund the indie content.
SIMON: I'm generally speaking pro-guides. I actually think guides are helpful, especially written guides - because when I look for guides for games nowadays. Sometimes I have to go to YouTube, and I find that I have to cycle through like 20 minutes of people explaining extraneous stuff, before I find information. So I'm a fan of written guides.
I actually think it's a net positive. But to your point, you would see it generally as a counterbalance. You do some guides for the long term page views, and then you can cover, hopefully, a few more small and medium-level games for the shorter term.
KATE: Yeah and guides generally are big for, like triple A games and indies that are really popular or really hard. We tend to write guides for games that are very long, for example. So that can be, like, how to unlock karts in Mario Kart but it can also be…
I've written about some of the Harvest Moon games, being like “here's how to get sheep” or whatever. Because you know, that's what people will be searching for. But I wouldn't write a guide necessarily for a very short game or a very small one, if not a lot of people have heard of that game - because it just wouldn’t really do that well.
Simon: I think that is a pointer for developers as well. I've been pushing in my newsletter for a while now you should make titles that… have good retention. Sometimes they have good retention because they have enough complexity that people would need to understand them enough to have guides written about them.
So I think it's good [that] there are some small and medium games that have guides - and that's probably an indication that they've got good retention. That's actually good, because they will pick up some of the long tail page views that are people checking out those websites.
I also wanted to talk a little bit about what you've seen developers do because, obviously, you've seen a lot of pitches in your time and you see a lot of press releases. So maybe we can talk about some of the dont’s. What are some of the things that you've seen developers do that you would not recommend?
KATE: Okay, I have a big list from the presentation I did, so I'm going to be looking at that. I think sometimes pitching your game is a little like applying for jobs. You'll hear all this really useful advice, but people don't say how to do it correctly. So I'm going to try not to be the person that's like “never do this”, and not offer a viable alternative.
What you have to bear in mind is that press gets a lot of emails every day, and you are going to have to grab their attention very quickly and very efficiently. My number one thing that you should not do… is a really boring subject line. You would not believe how many people send out emails with a 30-word subject line so I can't even see the whole thing - I'd have to have a super wide monitor, I can't read that.
Don't bother, because it just looks like every other email in my inbox. Keep it short, keep it snappy, keep it to the point and I say use emoji if it's appropriate - but your mileage may vary on that. You'll come across a certain way if you use emoji, and it's only for a particular type of game, really. So please, short subject lines. I don't have a lot of time for reading, and you will do both of us a favor if you keep it short. So that's a great way to get them to click on your email.
Imagine that you're looking at your inbox and you have a bunch of really long ‘there's a sale on’ [emails] and all those boring things. And then you have one that's really short. You automatically assume that's from someone who knows you because they're not trying to sell you anything, right?
So it does begin to foster a slightly better, slightly more friendlier relationship before you've even begun to pitch your game, so…
SIMON: You're really looking for an informal - I mean, you're looking to not come off like a big company, right? You're looking to come off like someone who's engaging and is showing you a game because they care about it.
KATE: Yeah, and I think most of the press do want to be approached not in a super overly informal way, where it's like ”Hey, what's up, mate?” But we are people who like games, you know. It's not a well paying job - we're not here for the dollars, we're here because we like games, and we like talking about them.
Presumably, if you're a game dev, you also like games. We already have something in common! So just approach the press as if you're trying to tell somebody about your really cool thing that you're making. Don't be overly like “Oh my God, check out my sick game, here's a bunch of swear words, we’re friends” because that's really off-putting
But professionalism-wise? Do spell check your emails. Again, we're all writers in the press, we're all very anal about spelling and grammar. So it's not going to put you in our good books if you send - like, I've gotten so many press emails where they misspelled the name of the game. [I think] “Oh, no, okay?” - because it just shows that you didn't care enough. Like, this is your big project, this is your moment - and you didn't care enough to check that it was spelled right?
SIMON: I've also seen both ‘bad mail merge’ or ‘wrong outlet name’ which are other things that have always a little painful, right?
KATE: Yeah and I guess that segues into a nice point which is - you can address a journalist as a fan. You can say “hey, I really love your work!”, as long as it's true. People keep [pitching me with] “I really love your work, I read…” and then it's the name of literally the last thing I wrote.
That's not even subtle, you've just Googled me. We're not stupid, We can tell if you're not actually a fan. I'd rather you didn't say anything then pretend like you care about my work. That's just weird, that gives me creepy vibes, like, don't lie. That seems really obvious - please don't lie.
And as a side [point], don't pretend like a journalist that you actually for-real enjoy is the perfect person to cover your game, if they're not. Every journalist tends to have their specialties. Like, some are really interested in farming games, some are interested in super intense strategy games.
But don't go up to the super intense strategy game person and be like “Oh, my cute low-poly platformer. I think you'd really like it” because they won't and that's weird. Again, that's just lying, you've lied, please don't.
SIMON: It’s interesting to your point on this because when I talk about streamers, and I talk about how you should approach streamers, I say “Look for streamers who appreciate the kind of game that you're making”.
And it does seem to me like from a press perspective, maybe because there's less outlets and then more general interest, people don't try and do that so much. They'll just be, like: “Well, we're just going to send the same information to everyone, whether they like it or not.”
KATE: Which is all right. I understand that a lot of indie studios don't have the budget either money wise or time wise to hand write a letter to every individual journalist. So it's absolutely fine to send out some generic press releases to the press if you don't even know if they're interested or not.
But I would still say, target the ones that you think would be interested, and target the ones that matter most to you and pitch it to them. Actually look at what they're interested in and tell them why they should write about it. Make it sound like you're doing them a favor.
SIMON: Just thinking back about when I was covering games both on the B2B side and kind of whatever Gamasutra is/was, I guess that's B2B/B2C. I can think of some people like Sean Murray from Hello Games back before they had No Man's Sky.
He was doing Joe Danger, and I had some conversations with him where he was being super genuine. The emails he sent out were very clearly him speaking to me and not very generic and it made a significant difference.
I mean, I think he was going to have done fairly well anyway. But it made a significant difference to how I thought about covering him, because I think I felt like I was having a genuine conversation with him.
KATE: I do worry - I have a lot of games currently that are coming out that are on my radar, because I've talked to the people behind it… but I do worry that there are going to be a lot of developers out there who were listening to this and thinking “Well, what you're doing is telling me to have high charisma, and I don't!”
And, yeah, I don't really know how to help by saying: “You know, just be just be yourself, be like a friendly person, someone who everyone wants to hang out with”. Because that it's easy for extroverts like me, maybe not so easy for everybody else. I don't want to give unhelpful advice, you know.
SIMON: Yeah, and I think there's also email manners - you can be an extrovert, and have terrible email manners… I think the important thing is if you can at least come out as kind of polite and helpful in email. You don't have to be incredibly charismatic on phone or in meetings.
I think one of your comments would probably be like get to the point, right? I think there's probably some of your ‘don't do’ lists that are about not going on forever and not telling you what you're talking about.
KATE: Yeah and also don't send me an email with no images or trailer in it, please, because I'm not gonna read it.
SIMON: And you said something earlier that I actually want to mention which is, you mentioned people send you email, like, says that their game is on sale - do people really do that? Is that a good idea?
KATE: People do a lot of things. Sometimes people will say “our game is on Kickstarter.” And that used to be a good hook when Kickstarter was new. It's not anymore - same with ‘our game is on sale’. Unless it's like a ludicrous sale, like, it's gone down to one cent, I'm not going to write about it.
Everything goes on sale all the time so, Why would I single out this one game? If your entire publisher or dev studio is having a sale, that's maybe news. But just imagine that everybody else is sending the email that you're about to send, please.
SIMON: I'm on the same page. I think your social media can talk about this, and maybe your Steam news page could mention some of it. But to your point, you need to have segmented decisions on what you're sending to people - and particularly when it comes to press and streamers. I think they appreciate less emails, but emails that have very specific actionable information.
KATE: Yeah, I think it boils down to being respectful of people's time. The press - it is our job to open emails and write about them all day. But that doesn't mean that you can just send me emails that are basically filler. I'm not a robot, I don't just turn press releases into news.
SIMON: Yeah, there’s sites for that - Gamespress.com. Then your press release will appear on a number of external websites without any humans, that’s quite different.
We're talking a lot about electronic communications here, because that's where we are, especially in this COVID era. But maybe it'd be nice to talk a little bit about phone briefings or video briefings, or even in-person briefings. Where do you see the role of those nowadays? Do you appreciate being invited to those, or are you very much [that] my workload is such that electronic [communications] does 80% of the work for me?
KATE: Personally, I don't love phone briefings - unless it is a game that is big enough to warrant embargoes and things like that. I've definitely done a few for bigger games. But even then, sometimes, they're a waste of my time - because they don't tell me anything that couldn't have just been an email.
At the end of the day, what most press want out of those things is information and assets. You can email most of those things. The best thing that you can have as a phone briefing or a video… is a playthrough of the game. And really, if you're an indie, there's no reason you can't just send press a demo - tell them not to write about it before a certain time.
They are very time consuming and energy consuming. I can't do anything else for like an hour, if I've got a weird press meeting or whatever. And it very much makes me do it on someone else's time as well. And a lot of press are on different time zones, so what works for you might not work for everybody.
SIMON: Yeah, no, I completely agree. And if I think about what I've done with GameDiscoverCo it's part newsletter and part consulting. But I only have maybe 15 to 20 hours a week to spend on my newsletter, and I'm putting out like five or 6,000 words a week.
And as a result, other than this podcast - which is an experiment to try and get more content in here and is very focused, I absolutely don't take phone or video briefings. I take everything to email. And that's way more efficient in terms of how you sort stuff.
KATE: Yeah and also, then I have a record of it. I'm not going to transcribe some phone call we had. That's either expensive because you pay someone else to do it, or it's time consuming because I'm doing it. So yeah, at least with an email I can reference it later.
SIMON: You also talked about embargoes just now and that's actually something that I realised I want to ask you about. Because embargoes are something that is obviously used heavily for very large games. But then as you go down [in scale], it's used intermittently. And I wondered your opinions on when it should be used, if it's when it's useful when it's not useful.
KATE: I think with indies, I appreciate things being more like a heads up when it comes to embargoes. Like “Heads up, we're going to announce this on Friday, please don't say anything about it until Friday” rather than like, big company embargoes which are like: “Don't even mention the existence of this character until this date”.
You're like “What? We know he exists - that's so weird”. I don't see many indies doing embargoes, unless it's the kind of game that really benefits from people not knowing things about the game. And in that case, it's less of an embargo, like “don't mention anything” and it's more of a “In your review, please don't mention these specific things”. I think that's reasonable.
I'm surprised more indie games don't actually specify that kind of thing. Usually, reviewers aren't going to be [making] massive spoilers in their reviews. But embargoes, I don't think they're super useful unless there was a heads up.
SIMON: That's good, because I think what you're saying is… you can do embargoes but they're really light embargoes. Press like if you have a chance to write up something ahead of time, if it's a little bit interesting. But you just don't want to be yelled at, and told lots of unnecessary reasons why you can't do something.
KATE: Yeah, I think an embargo for a game that's quite small, it carries the risk of making you come across as a bit uppity. I know that sounds really mean but, do you think that I would break an embargo? Places like Nintendo will do it because they actively have to crack down on people leaking things. But small games don't really get leaked, so…
SIMON: It's less of a big deal… I've occasionally found people who asked you to sign NDAs before they give you embargoed news. And I think that is quite funny.. [for me] that's an indication that the news is not going to be good. So I just ignore them - but yeah, kind of controversial.
Is there anything else just sort of finishing off this ‘don’t-s’ list? Are there any other like three or four quick ‘don't-s’ you would like to tell people that you think they are still doing?
KATE: Yes, number one, don't overdo it with GIFs. GIFs are really nice. But if you send a lot of GIFs in an email my browser will crash - please don't do that. Also, I can't really use GIFs that often - so they're not that useful to press. Include one or two, that's fine - but not too many.
Two, when you're at physical press events don't corner journalists and act like a salesman. It's really obvious and it makes me uncomfortable. Often at events, I am just hanging out with friends or going to see games that I'm excited about. But if you treat it as a business opportunity, then I'm gonna feel really uncomfortable.
And number three, this one is a weird one, it doesn't happen a lot. Please don't send physical press kits without permission - it's really scary. A lot of journalists, especially women and people of color in games journalism, don't want people to know their addresses because they will get harassed.
We're very protective about our [physical] addresses - and if I know that some PR company has my address and is sending things, then that's a little scary. So please make sure that you get permission. I know that it's exciting to keep the press kit a secret and have it as a fun surprise. But it's not a fun surprise if you do it like that, so…
SIMON: Yeah, it's interesting you should say that, because one of my previous jobs was helping to run GDC. And we did notice at one point that we were still collecting addresses for the press even though we weren't using them, so we got rid of that.
I know that the E3 in particular, was very poor at that. That's probably one place that people ended up getting addresses from because E3 managed to leak its entire press list, including addresses.
KATE: I think the last time I applied for a GDC press pass and it asked for my address I filled in the box with “I'm not giving you my address”, so maybe that goes through.
SIMON: I think it might have worked but yeah, it was also one of these things where… sometimes you realize we weren't giving it to anyone but we're still asking for it.
KATE: It's in a database somewhere, that's not cool.
SIMON: Yeah, it's still not cool. Because who knows what happens to that database if the hackers get it?
Actually, we're getting towards the end here. We're talking a lot about the press side of things, but it is interesting to me that you've also worked in the industry and you still continue to cross over and do community management and narrative sometimes.
So I wanted to ask you, as someone who's sort of seen both sides of this. Is there stuff that sort of surprised you or you've been interested to see from another perspective, when you've been doing either community management or narrative in studios?
KATE: I think a lot of it didn't surprise me that much. Like, I knew that a lot of the press, especially the cooler indie press will only really cover indie games if they know about them in advance. It sounds very nepotistic, and it is.
Being on the dev side, I worked for KO_OP which has a lot of indie cachet, so it wasn't too hard to reach out to the press. We already had a game - GNOG - which had a small but successful critical reception. So it was very easy, the groundwork had been laid already.
I knew a bunch of the press, which made it very weird, I had to be a bit hands off with it, so it wasn't unethical. But yeah, like, if you've already got the cool guy status in indie games it's a lot easier. I never really had to experience the “we're building the studio up from nothing, and we really need people to pay attention to us” kind of thing.
Very lucky to not have to deal with that, because that's stressful. But knowing a lot of other people who have done that, who have been like “this is my first game”? It really helps to have a publisher who already knows all the press. Pretty much every indie publisher right now is that. Pick well because the publisher will actually end up saying a lot about you.
If you're published by Annapurna, you're going to be perceived as like, kind of hip, maybe a bit wanky. but in a cool way. If you're published by Devolver, it's like “GUNS AND BLOOD AND EXPLOSIONS” and same with Raw Fury. So you know, a publisher can really help. But be aware that they're also going to come with preconceived notions.
SIMON: Yeah, it's interesting - I've noticed that the top echelon of publishers have quite strong flavor. But then there's a number of other publishers that sort of don't have flavor. And I've been trying to work out whether flavor is always good as a publisher.
Because I think from a press perspective, it sort of helps - and also from a player perspective. But then as a publisher, you end up getting stereotyped a little bit. Then if you want to do something different, it can be difficult
Also from your community perspective, I presume that KO-OP was already stereotyped, based on its previous games as a studio.
KATE: Yeah, we were very much like artsy vector stuff, that's kind of what people expected - which worked well for Winding Worlds, which was the Apple Arcade game we made. So yeah, it's a little harder to challenge ‘our next game is different from the one you know us for’. But it's been done so it's not too much to worry about, I'd say.
SIMON: I definitely think from a non-press and developer point of view, individual players sometimes pay less attention to this than everyone would like. I do think people are just playing a game: ‘What is by WHO?’
KATE: A lot of people will assume that the publisher is the developer. There isn't really that understanding of the industry from players a lot of the time. So, you know, people will say this is a Devolver Digital game, and it's not. They just helped make it be real but that doesn't mean they made it. Usually they have absolutely nothing to do with the development, so…
SIMON: Yeah, I'm quite careful in my newsletter, if possible, to always list the developer and the publisher, because I'm a little sensitive to that. Even on the Switch, I don't know if you know some of the Switch rules, it's difficult to get both developer and publisher in there.
KATE: I know, it's very, very annoying, especially on the Switch - because sometimes the porting studio is entirely different from the developer and the publisher. I think Nintendo tends to list the publisher first - a lot of places list the publisher first. If you don't know about the industry, you don't know the difference between publisher and developer, why would you care?
SIMON: Yeah, yeah, I think that's something that platforms do… that's probably something we should challenge platforms to do better on. I know that Steam does a good job, but sometimes the searching functionality [isn’t great] - it annoyed me on the music side of things on Apple Music for a long time.
Maybe even now, [in Apple Music] it's difficult to search by label - platforms seem to like anonymizing some of these structures. And I think it's good when you can just click on the developer and see what else they made, which generally works on Steam, for example.
Well… we're getting right to the end here and I just wanted to ask you about what kind of games you've been playing recently. Because this is something I'm going to try and also also my podcast guests. Are there games you have been enjoying?
KATE: Yeah, so, I've been playing Earthbound for the first time because it got added to the Nintendo Switch online catalog. And I haven't really wanted to play too many of the old SNES games on the online catalog, because they haven't aged very well.
But Earthbound is incredible. It's aged so well, it could have been made like last year .It's very much a specific type of game. But it's fun to play - like, there's annoying backtracking but that's a modern game thing too. The dialogue is incredible, The localization, I think localization is really underappreciated, it's incredible in this game. It's so good, It's very goofy. It's got a very modern sense of humor, I'm really enjoying it.
And then alongside that, I'm playing Skyward Sword, which has not aged very well at all, I think it's around 10, maybe 11 year old. And, you know, it's a Wii game, it's got motion controls that don't really work. It's very much like a weird Zelda because it sort of stands apart from the rest of them, because it went so hard on the motion controls mechanic.
And it does suffer a little bit because of that, but I think the story is really interesting. I think the aesthetics of it are very appealing to me. And when I say I'm playing it, I'm forcing my partner to play it. I've played it before, so I'm watching him getting frustrated with all the motion controls and being like “I promise you, it'll be worth it” And I'm not even sure if it will be, so…
SIMON: Well, I think an important part of relationships is making your partner play an annoying game and then watching them. So I think that's a good angle for you.
KATE: He really likes Zelda. So I'm like, you can't have not played this one Zelda game.
SIMON: And now he's played it, whether he likes it or not. So that's okay. Well, thank you so much. It was so wonderful having you on the podcast. And once again, I appreciate it.
KATE: Thank you for having me. I love talking about how to email me properly.
SIMON: And now everybody knows. So that's great. Yes, good. Wonderful.
SIMON: And that's our show for this week. Thanks so much to Kate Gray for coming onto the podcast - you can find out more about her and her work at kategray dot me.
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