There is a distinct “news beat” that game companies follow for their launch, and once you notice these beats, you’ll see it everywhere. By following each news beat, companies know what to share with journalists to get the maximum amount of eyeballs come launch. In other words, it’s a marketing template that publishers have been using (either consciously or subconsciously) since the start of video games journalism.
In this article, I’ve laid out the seven distinctive news beats that the companies use, and how smaller developers can use it as well.
News Beats . . . Can You Eat Them?
There are a few elements about news beats you need to know before you jump in.
1) News beats don’t have a particular time span
Some companies may take months to move through the News Beats, while your game takes a few weeks.
For example, some companies announce their game (News Beat #1) and launch (News Beat #7) within a few months (Fallout 4, for example). Others stay in beta (News Beat #4) and take a year to launch (e.g. Overwatch). A small majority provide a rough release date (News Beat #6) and then suddenly launch without much lead time.
2) News Beats are multipliers
Striking a news beat amplifies your voice. Big publishers like Nintendo can turn each beat into a hundred stories for journalists, while indie publishers, on the other hand will have to get creative to get a handful of articles.
If your voice isn’t attracting a lot of attention, you’ll have to make them pay attention.
Let’s jump right in!
News Beat #1: The Game Announcement
The Game Announcement is the roaring, hype-generating message that there’s a new game being worked on. In layman’s terms, it’s a publisher showing an intention to build the game.
Imagine if the words “announcing Half-Life 3” appeared. It would crash the internet.
How to use this beat as a smaller developer:
- Game announcements from studios without a huge fan-base don’t get much notice.
- The next best thing for those without a huge audience is to announce your goal publicly and start grabbing emails of those who are interested.
- If you’re starting with zero fans, start writing developer logs and getting comfortable on social media. Let the world know what you’re doing.
News Beat #2: First Pieces of Media
This beat is about letting the world know about your first official screenshots, your first animated gif, or a rendered version of the main character.
For example, fighting games show off their main characters made in their new engine.
Street Fighter 4 generated excitement by showing off classic fighters with their new art style.
How to use this beat as a smaller developer:
- Similar to the first news beat, game journalists will find it difficult to write a story unless you have a huge audience.
- Instead of connecting with game journalists, share it with an audience that will get excited.
- Example: Those in your genre. Making a Persona-looking game? Share with RPG forums. Making a game where you land on planets and steal everything not nailed down? Share it with all the people disappointed at No Man’s Sky.
- These fans are excited to see the game development process happen and will be rooting for you to launch.
News Beat #3: The First Trailer
In this news beat, developers visually explain how the game looks and feels, as well as the unique features that get people talking. Check out our article on game trailers for some good tips!
Companies do this at E3, PAX, and other major conventions. When Borderlands was originally announced, their trailer video revealed their unique selling point, which was that their game had millions of guns.
Notice how the trailer isn’t cel-shaded? They also went through an art coup, which generated a lot of press buzz.
How to use this beat as a smaller developer:
- You can attend conventions (if you choose) by finding and courting advocates, like journalists, Youtubers, and Twitch streamers.
- If this is your first launch, resist the temptation to host a booth, and instead, wait for a fully functional demo to be ready. The press is wary of small developers who over-promise with trailers and under-deliver at launch.
- At this stage, your website should be up and running and you should have a rough PR kit.
- It doesn’t have to be perfect, but should be meaty enough for anybody who wants to write about your game.
News Beat #4: The Start of Beta
At this beat, game publishers open the doors to a select group of people to privately test their game.
Many companies have two periods for testing: an announcement for closed beta testing, and an announcement for public beta testing.
To use Blizzard as an example, Overwatch had a closed beta period in October 2015, which generated a few stories from journalists to attract die-hard Blizzard fans. Another closed beta announcement happened in February 2016, drawing even more stories. Then, a few weeks before launch, they had a public beta testing event for millions of players.
Big publishers are now using their fans to give them an inside look at the game, all while inviting the press to generate stories.
How to use this beat as a smaller developer:
- Let the world know that you are asking people to beta test. Ask on Twitter, find testers through your email newsletter, and jump into gaming forums.
- Take it a step further and make it an exclusive event that only a select few can participate in. Require applications. You only want true fans.
- Create a private forum or area where your beta testers can congregate.
- Look for opportunities to connect with small gaming sites. Framing the email with, “I love [x] about what you do. I’m looking for beta testers, and your audience would be a great fit. It would be awesome to find a way to work together.”
News Beat #5: Previews
At this news beat, companies are sharing real gameplay footage. Developers are showing off what makes their game different from their competitors, as well as providing interviews on why gamers should get excited.
To use Bethesda as an example, in their previews for Skyrim, they talked about what they learned from Oblivion, their unique Radiant AI, and how they built better dungeons by reducing art fatigue.
How to use this beat as a smaller developer:
- Tap into your list of influencers and keep them updated on where you are in the development process.
- If you have journalists on the list, give them a rough timeline so they know what to expect. They might give you clues on when there are slow news days so that you can maximize your reach.
- If you haven’t gotten any press attention, check out these helpful tips.
- Since you’ve been gathering emails, now is the perfect time to connect with them with a newsletter as well.
- Bi-weekly or monthly emails with photos of development, new features, engagement emails to allow your fans to contribute.
- Use your beta testers to share bits and pieces of the game publicly. Run contests and competitions for your beta testers to keep them engaged and thank them for their work.
- Expand your authority to other developers. Your peers can open up new doors.
- Writing articles to teach developers about your process. An excellent developer to emulate is Lars Doucet, of Defenders Quest fame.
- Attending developer events and conventions.
- This is an excellent opportunity to network with game developers. It’s also an opportunity to meet influencers who want to interview you.
News Beat #6: Release Date
It used to be that games were announced years in advance. These days, it’s closer to within a few months.
Indies should declare their specific release dates about one to two months before launch to take advantage of the news wave. Declaring any earlier puts you at risk of committing to release a broken game. It’s easier not to commit to a release date until you’re 90% sure your game is high quality.
How to use this beat as a smaller developer:
- Create a campaign calendar to list out what happens each day leading up to release.
- Let your beta-testers, influencers, and email list know to continue spreading the excitement. That’s through your social media platforms and via your email.
- Make sure you follow up with the journalists who showed interest, the video streamers who wanted an exclusive, and the game devs who are watching you closely.
- You can use a thunderclap to make the announcement.
News Beat #7: Launch!
Years of work with development, marketing, and getting everyone aligned (also known as herding cats)—all for this one day.
The launch day used to be a defining moment, where gaming fans would mark their calendars and camp out in front of their favorite gaming store. But in the past few years, gamers have taken a more defensive stance to launches because of broken games on release and the plethora of gaming options available.
During this news beat, all eyes are on the release. Great companies now launch and very carefully monitor for any support issues. Selling a buggy game and failing to respond can bury your positive press with negative ones. Well-timed social media engagements can create a huge boost in attention.
How to use this beat as a smaller developer:
- Follow your campaign calendar so you don’t have to spend much time thinking. A launch is exhausting.
- Much of your energy should be on engagement.
- Watch your emails/social media feeds for messages from customers or from influencers who want to connect with you.
- Do a reminder to everyone who engaged with you —Youtubers/Twitch streamers/Press—about your launch.
- Provide them with keys to access the game if you haven’t already.
Getting the News Beats Right
Understanding the news beats takes practice. Now that you know these News Beats, you’ll never look at game releases the same. Pay close attention to your favorite games pre-launch, and how they are using news beats to get journalists to write to them.
What The Media Can Improve On
Furthermore, understanding these News Beats opens up another discussion: what can the media/PR improve on?
The first thing that can get new PR guys/gals in trouble is spreading misleading information. There is nothing more frustrating to a consumer than to not understand what is being told to them or even worse- finding out the information was false. The solution to this is actually quite simple. The media should be doing their research; talking to the developers of the title to see what their goals in the market are.
Know the game and the audience.
Is this something geared towards social players or is it a solitary experience? Is it for the mobile market or are they planning to release it to other platforms? Is it free to play or is it still in it’s crowdfunding phase? These are the facts media should know before hitting the convention circuit. Any misinformation will cause the fans to lose trust in the product, which can hurt it in the long run. Members of the press want to be confident not only in their pitch, but in their own knowledge of the game and knowing it can hit an audience. This shows the game has a sense of confidence letting the consumer feel good about their purchase.
Don’t sell too hard.
Another thing that people hate is to feel as if they’re being forced to do something. The media needs to let their demographic learn about the game at their own pace. Now granted, there will be some who end up late for the release, but the importance of this step outweighs this, as that would happen regardless. Letting the crowd learn about the product at their leisure allows them to find aspects of the product that gravitate towards them. This will only help ensure that you’ll have a decent crowd that’s willing to purchase the title on day one. Overloading the consumer with information can confuse and discourage them.
When things get rough, don’t go dark.
Now the other steps may seem simple enough, but no matter what someone will find a issue with your title- it is the internet after all. When the proverbial poop hits the fan, don’t go and quit. Try to address it as quickly as you can but, and this is the important part, make sure it is easy to understand and completely true. The audience may not like what they hear regarding the title, but they will understand.
It’s kind of as if you can’t do a favor for a friend because you’ll get fired from your job, they may not like it, but they will get it. By letting things run unchecked you’re going to be dealing with a much more hostile group. So it’s best to take the path of least resistance; it’ll pay off in the long run. You’ll gain trust from the publishers, developers, and more importantly the consumer.
What About Bad Blood?
Now obviously, the media won’t get everything right all the time. Everyone is human, and no one is perfect. Unfortunately, all we can do is try to continuously improve. That being said, there will be times when the media and the developers don’t see eye to eye. What happens then?
Well, first of all answer this: when someone has something negative to say about you, how do you react? Do you get upset and argue, or do you ignore them? How about keeping your head down and letting them have a field day? If you’ve been put in this position as a developer, you should know that the right protocol for this is a little different, if not humbling. As it turns out, the best way to handle criticism is to tell people they’re right when they’re right. If they’re not, find a compromise. Otherwise, know when to let go.
But there’s more to it, isn’t there? Not only is the human ego a complex force that makes you want to defend yourself, it’s also a matter of knowing what to do when. When is it time to cave and give players something they want, and how should one go about it?
In this half of the article we’re going to break down some examples of handling criticism poorly, in a variety of ways, in the hopes of learning from their mistakes. We’re also going to discuss the right protocol, and highlight some studios and developers that did exceptionally. Let’s dive in.
Walk the Tightrope
First and foremost, while it might be instinctual to defend your views, opinions, and yes, your game, there are times when everyone’s opinion is entirely different than yours.
For instance, Hello Games will forever be known as the studio that failed to deliver on their promises. When the accusations of false advertising began flying, things got a little heated for the games studio. Steam received 23 complaints about roughly 10 different features that were promised, but not delivered, based on the ads for No Man’s Sky.
In response, Hello Games defended themselves saying the game was procedurally generated, hence why it didn’t exactly match the ads.
“This computer process embodied algorithms that determined, for example, the probability of a player encountering a creature with a particular physiology, exhibiting a particular behavior or existing in a particular habitat.”
Of course, this was the response to the Advertising Standards Authority, or ASA. Publicly, however, they acknowledged players by stating:
“The discussion around No Man’s Sky since release has been intense and dramatic…Positive or negative feedback, you have been heard and that will truly help to make this a better game for everyone.”
Hello Games is the perfect example of what to do. You may not agree with the law suits results, or stand behind their game, but the team knew how to keep their heads down and take it. They knew they hadn’t delivered, but they still took pride in their work. And that meant both defending their game to the ASA, while letting players know they were heard.
Never Resort to Name-calling, Or Worse
Here’s another tip, never go against your player base. Without them, you are nothing, and will accomplish nothing. They are the ones who pay your salary, your bills, and even basic household items like Windex. The only reason why there’s a roof above your head, unless you have a day job, is because people out there support the games you put out.
As an example of what happens when you don’t adhere to this warning, consider Gearbox Software president Randy Pitchford. When Aliens: Colonial Marines came out, it was also accused of false advertising, but rather than simply tell players they were being heard, he called them “sadists.”
This set the tone for his public image, so when Gearbox put out Battleborn, right around the time that Blizzard’s fan favorite Overwatch launched, things didn’t go so well. The servers are desolate, and he’s been accused of desperation after having the brilliant idea of linking to a Battleborn NSFW Reddit thread from his official Twitter account.
In other words, never criticize your players, and never link to strange NSFW sites from your official account in the hopes of getting more players for your game. Don’t call people names, because the minute you do, you’ll be desperate for players.
Listen & Update What You Can
There are many ways to handle criticism, most of which are horrible. For instance, you could talk back, but even worse still is not listening. Why? Because when you talk back, yes it’s awful, don’t do it, but… it showed you at least heard the players. You acknowledged them, even. On the other hand, when you don’t say anything on the matter, and you don’t indicate that you’ve listened, players begin to wonder if you even care.
Consider Blizzard for a second. The studio is known for amazing games like the entire Diablo series, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, etc. Their game merch is great, their marketing is great, and their games are addictive.
For instance, World of Warcraft players who played during Vanilla days were annoyed over gear collections. There was limited bank space, and a set of gear was about 9 slots. To help with the issue, Blizzard added void storage, which didn’t help as much as it seems like it would. Banks were overflowing! If players wanted to transmog anything, they needed to have it in their inventories. Considering they are on season 21 of PVP gear alone, it makes sense why players were so upset.
After years of complaining, Blizzard finally added the option to simply vendor all the gear, and still be able to transmogify.
“It’s exceptionally rare that everyone wants the same thing. And even then, there is a large silent majority that does not post on forums. If there were actual unanimity regarding a certain issue, we would change our design: For example, early on in Warlords, we changed Group Finder loot from Personal back to Need/Greed until we could iterate on Personal loot further, and the community overwhelmingly told us that was a dumb idea. The change was reverted within 2 days.”
And while he made some valid points, the players will always view it as a disregard for their wants and needs, simply because the company cannot appeal to everyone all the time. The game is just too huge. No single portion of the game, aside from the leveling system is for everyone. Raids and PVP aren’t for everyone. Some updates cater to these groups, while others handle entirely different aspects of the game.
In other words, listen to the players as best as you can, and if you still get slack, at least explain why it is you can’t possibly appeal to everyone. There is give and take, especially in a large game.
Learn from Feedback
A long time ago, during The Witcher 2 days, CD Projekt Red took a stance on piracy. They sent out letters threatening legal action unless the individuals suspected ceased.
That’s right, suspected. The letters were sent out to people they believed were guilty of pirating games.
That being said, after being called out for it, the company quickly saw the error of its ways. Studio co-founder Marcin Iwinski famously stated:
“Being part of a community is a give-and-take process. We only succeed because you have faith in us, and we have worked hard over the years to build up that trust. We were sorry to see that many gamers felt that our actions didn’t respect the faith that they have put into CD Projekt RED.”
The studio puts out its games DRM-free and deals with the consequences, since they don’t believe it has any effect on piracy reduction. Instead, they simply ask that players be vigilant on their behalf.
Never Tease, or Lead People On
You simply can’t make this point without bringing up Half-Life 3. The Valve team hasn’t made it, and they claim the won’t make it ever, but hardcore fans still want it. The setup is there, the perfect ending that set the tone for a game that will never see the light of day.
And whether it’s people trolling online for the sake of amusement, reading into things, or something more substantial, there are tons of rumors circulating this seemingly at all times. That there are 2-3 people working on it, that they’ve run into a way, that the project was scrapped, that they can’t find inspiration, etc.
Perhaps it’s just that Valve has led people on a bit. Managing director Gabe Newell stated this in August of 2007:
“We know how the trilogy ends and there’s a bunch of loose ends and narrative arcs that need to come to a conclusion in Episode Three.”
In 2009, he also stated that they were creating it. Then there was a shift. In 2011, he said he had nothing to say on the subject, and in 2013 he stated something completely unimaginable to die-hard fans of the series:
“I don’t know this man at all.”
This of course, refers to himself, back in 2009 – 2011, when he was still open to creating the game.
And this hasn’t gone unnoticed. Nicknamed “Gaben” there are now song remixes and mash-ups of his commentary all over YouTube. Countless memes at Newell’s expense fill the internet in waves every month, consistently calling him out on his inability to deliver on his promise.
Much like men and women who mislead potential romantic interests are called terrible, it’s never good news when developers tease players with something that will never be created. Unless you absolutely know for sure, don’t even mention it. This fuels rumors, hurts the fans, makes you look unreliable, and makes everyone wonder “well, why not?” Dealing with the backlash is a lose-lose setup, where the only way out is to actually create the game. Unless you plan on doing that, there’s no realistic way of coming out of a situation like this unscathed. You will be criticized, and nothing you say will save you. It’s a mess that can be perfectly avoided.
Study Your Market’s Demands
Gaming giant, Nintendo, will forever be a favorite. Older generations of gamers got to experience the beginning of the video game chapter for the company with their NES, Game Boy and famous VHS tapes, and well, it’s enough to say it’s led to a collection addiction.
That said, even fan favorites make mistakes. In Nintendo’s case, it’s the repeated under-stock of their items. The latest issue has been with the Amiibo figures, which brought down GameStop’s website. Before that, it was an under-stock on NES, which has now been discontinued. In a statement with Time, Reggie Fils-Aime, president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America explained that:
“From our perspective, it’s important to recognize where our future is and the key areas that we need to drive. We’ve got a lot going on right now and we don’t have unlimited resources.”
In further announcements, it quickly became clear that the company originally intended to sell it only for the 2016 holiday season, something they didn’t explain until April 2017. The NES Classic, which included 30 NES games for $59.99, launched worldwide in mid-November and instantly sold out. And while they continued production for a few months, it didn’t prove to be lasting.
Nintendo has been under fire over this under-stocking issue for quite some time now. Some players even accuse the company of doing it on purpose so that the eBay demand of their items reaches unparalleled levels.
And while the company does apologize for their shortages each time that it occurs, the truth is nothing changes. The same thing happens next time around, and they’re forced to apologize again.
If there’s anything to learn from this, it’s that you should absolutely study your fan base. The entire market, really. When you create a product, find out what your target audience thinks about it and listen to them. If they love it, make more. If they love everything you do, make more than you think you’ll need. It’s better to be safe than to have scalpers benefit off of your merchandise. It’s better to meet demand, than to apologize every time you launch something. No repeat offenses!
Don’t Lose Your Own Voice
Say what you will about game developer David Jaffe, best known for his work on the Twisted Metal series, as well as God of War, and most recently Drawn to Death. The Alabama native gets a lot of slack for being vocal about his opinions regarding all sorts of industry controversies, but at least he voices his opinions.
This is Jaffe in a nutshell: he’s honest. When he does something wrong, he fully admits to it. When he’s under-performed, he admits he could do better. But when someone, like say Ready at Dawn, the developers behind The Order 1886 are being attacked, he’s the first to play devil’s advocate. Who’s to blame, is it the media for being too harsh, or are they just doing their job?
Jaffe does interviews and has a YouTube channel for his studio, The Bartlet Jones Supernatural Detective Agency, in which he voices more opinions. He also voices them on Twitter, and has yet to understand why on earth anyone follows him, let alone is intrigued by what he has to say. But each time he posts something, or gets featured, he’s honest about everything. He fully admitted he didn’t know the market when his team launched Calling All Cars, and that the game didn’t do as well as they had thought it would.
In other words, David Jaffe has a reputation for being a potty-mouthed, bad boy in development, but… all he does is be himself. When his games don’t so well, he says so. When he talks about other people’s games, he’s honest. But that’s the thing, he doesn’t get angry when people tear him to shreds online, because he’s capable of taking a punch. He’s confident in himself, and he voices his opinions, but he keeps it at that—opinions. While he backs up what he has to say, he never actually imposes it all on people. He simply puts it out there for anyone who might be interested in hearing what he has to say.
For an indie developer, this is a bit extreme still. Don’t be like David Jaffe, but be Jaffe. Take a punch and admit your faults when it’s proven you did poorly. But never lose your ability to keep being you, with your own thoughts and opinions. As long as you don’t enforce them on anyone, having a voice helps you stay true in an industry that is hellbent on breaking creativity.
It’s All About Balance
Being a game developer isn’t just about making games, it’s about managing a public image. The way you react to criticism says a lot about you as a person, and will always be noted. This is why it’s important to keep being authentically you, for the sake of sanity, while aiming for professionalism.
Know when to keep your head down, but keep a sense of pride in your work. Don’t name-call or link to anything eye-brow raising out of desperation. Don’t tease the players with projects that will never see the light of day.
Instead, learn from feedback, update what you can, explain yourself, and study your market. Aim to be the best developer you can be, and maintain an image that is respectful of the players.
This doesn’t mean you have to lose your voice. Keep being authentically you, and keep putting out more games. Balance humility with confidence by never being egotistical.
H/T to Rocky Kev for writing half of this post!
If you enjoyed this post, don’t hesitate to share it on social! And feel free to contact us @BlackShellMedia, we love making new friends.