I’ve been writing pretty steadily over at ARGNet, and I have to admit that writing for the ARG and transmedia industries is completely unlike any of the other writing that I’ve done in the past, both personally and professionally. It’s a very delicate balancing act to reveal enough about a game to give readers a sense of what the game is about, while also keeping the game secret enough so as not to spoil everything.
It’s not easy, and it honestly causes me a fair amount of anxiety whenever I write a trailhead article to entice people to a new alternate reality game or transmedia experience. After all, a “normal journalist” would, of course, go after the scoop. I was trained to break the most controversial news as quickly as possible and publish (almost) everything a source tells me, but that’s not always the best thing for the gamers, the producers, and the game itself.
Plus, everyone would be extremely mad at me. Extremely.
Now, I’m not complaining about how games producers, big and small, send in game tips or pass along some secret piece of information to entice me into writing about them. Far from it, but I do think that some of the information control needs to be managed better by the creators themselves, especially some of the indie operations, who, after all, can’t hire someone to write those press releases for them.
So, here a few ways the small-shop and indie ARG creators can promote their games to media types, while still maintaining the suspense that players are looking for:
- Tell media outlets, bloggers, and journos about the game. Sure, maybe you’ll get lucky and a journo will just randomly stumble upon your game and decide that it’s the best thing since… I don’t know… Hello Kitty cellphone charms, but it is kind of unlikely. I think it’s a big mistake to expect your game, especially if you’re an indie, will get picked up by a mass of followers without a little media assistance. Yes, your ARG might very well blow my mind, but given the crazy volume of transmedia experiences out there, it is really difficult to get noticed. Sometimes you do have to get out from behind the curtain and nudge things along. Contacting a blogger is a lot more palatable than say… posting your own trailhead at Unfiction (don’t think I don’t notice!).
- Tell me something substantive about the game. It really isn’t good enough to just pass along a URL and expect a media person to pick it up. I don’t speak for all media types, but a lot of us are extraordinarily lazy; we like to work in our pajammies and drink hot choco all day long. Send along a few sentences, at least, about the game. Some good places to start would be the basic who, what, where-type questions.
- … but do not tell me everything. Instead of revealing the entire plot, it’s usually sufficient to just reveal the premise and maybe whatever the first stage of play or narrative might be. Provide a general sense of the main characters, theme, setting, etc.
- … And, for the love of god, please, please, please do not tell me how it ends. I do not want to know. I will hear about it like everyone else, when it’s over. After all, I might want to play, too. This is so important, it deserves its own bullet point.
- Give some hints about how the game might play out, with an emphasis on overall gameplay and game mechanics. Is it a completely online experience, or will there be live events or dead drops? Gameplay and game mechanics are things that you can more or less be open about without spoiling the suspense of the plot, in my opinion. Personally, I love talking about the mechanics of a game, so I usually ask about this in a follow-up if it hasn’t been made clear at the outset.
- Tell me about you. This is actually my favorite angle and can even be another way of bringing in more players, especially if you’re an independent producer. Why did you put all this effort into your game? Are you a young upstart transmedia producer eager to make an impression? Maybe a teacher trying to get her kids to have more fun reading and learning? At the end of the day, as important as the game itself may be, sometimes, I really find myself so much more interested in learning about the context of the game and (oh my god!) YOU. If you don’t want me to talk about who you are, just tell me so, and I won’t. Believe you me, I’m in no position to “out” anyone.
- Make it clear what the limitations of the game are. Do I need one of them thar fancy phones to really play this game? If there are live events, where in the world are they going to take place (roughly)? This kind of information is essential. If your game can only be played in Walla Walla, Washington, this is something everyone in and outside of Walla Walla would want to know pretty early on. But then again, if your game can only be played in Walla Walla, I don’t suppose you designed the game with a large audience in mind.
- Try to write well and be professional. I understand that maybe you’re not doing this for any professional or commercial gain, but that doesn’t mean you have to be sloppy. If I think your two-paragraph “press release” looks like a mess, I shudder to think what your game looks like. I like to be enticed/impressed/wow’ed just like everyone else.
- Provide a definite, actionable way of joining the game, one that is available all the time. This speaks more to game design than marketing, but players want to jump right in, not wait for the next update to become immersed. It’s vital that you strike when the iron’s hot and always have some way for players, even the latecomers, to join in. Make sure that your media contact knows how people can join the game so that they can relay that information to the reader.
- Keep your audience numbers up by making it easy to join in late. Maintaining a “story so far” (preferably in an in-game way, such as an uncluttered, articulate character blog) is also pretty key to integrating new players. You have to expect that some of your early adopters will drop off; you always need to replenish them with fresh meat. Often, you’ll get fresh meat from an out-of-game article published weeks ago, but those players won’t stick around if they have no ability to figure out what’s going on.
- Update your media contact. OK, so you managed to snag a media contact who was interested enough to write about your game at the trailhead stage. If there’s some big event coming up, why not update the same person and see if they’ll do a follow-up article? Perhaps that follow-up article is exactly what you need to bring in some fresh meat (see above).
- Make an amazing (non-imploding, innovative, original, and fun) game. I put this last because, ultimately, if your game is awful, no one is going to write about it in a positive way. Period. None of the above steps are going to matter if your game is crap. However, if you strive to make the most kick-ass game a jaded games blogger has seen, you have a fighting chance that she (or maybe a “he”) will think it’s so awesome that you won’t even have to pimp it out with game tips, press releases, shaking hands, or kissing babies. It’s rare, but it does happen sometimes (I mean, look at how embarrasingly fan-girl I got over a bunch of puppet pirates). But making an amazing game is your job, not mine.
OK, it felt good to get that all out of my system; I had been balling all that up for over a year. Don’t get me wrong. I love writing about alternate reality games, transmedia experiences, and other fun, geeky stuff (or else I wouldn’t write about them for no money for this long). However, I think that with the rise of the professional “transmedia producer,” the indie puppetmasters really need to shape up just to keep “market share” (really just a sick corporate way of saying “my attention”), and one way to do this is for indie ARG-makers to be a little bit better about how they promote their games.