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By Thom Dinsdale

July 27, 2010

Personal Touches

Over the last couple of weeks we have followed a bitter, though thankfully short-lived, spat between two much-respected members of the game industry: Epic Games’ Mark Rein and Positech’s Cliff Harris. The details of the feud can be found pretty much everywhere so there is no need to revisit them here, other than to say that it stemmed from a disagreement between the two men on how indie developers should handle emails from fans and how actively they should manage their own PR.
 
As is usually the case, the actual meat of this issue has been lost in all the outrage. This is a massive shame, because it’s a fascinating and pertinent question. So, here is my attempt to rectify that.
 
Indie developers are the façade and the engine room of their product. They control how their product and operation appear to the outside world at every single level. This presents as many challenges for them as it does opportunities.
 
At its heart, this is an issue of scale. It’s about the fact that a pint-sized team has the opportunity to open up their process with a level of intimacy that no larger developer ever could. It is compounded, however, by the fact that how we look at and handle scale has changed immeasurably from the early days of Epic that Rein was talking about.
 
The core of Rein’s argument centres on how indies should handle their reliance on one-to-one email. In his apology to Cliff he argues, "If you release important new details to small numbers of people you run the risk of not being [able] to get it disseminated to a larger audience that helps make more people aware of your talents. Indie studios don't usually have big advertising budgets and PR is a war where you have to save your bullets for the greatest possible impact."

Of course, what constitutes a bullet worth saving must be judged on its merits. The trade off is between transparency and the story a developer is trying to tell about their process - building to a crescendo at launch with all the excitement generated transforming into sales.
 
That way of thinking is determined by the fickle news cycle and the tyranny that comes with very idea of 'launching' something. As episodic content and open beta testing proliferate you would think that release dates are becoming less relevant. Apparently not. It is unfortunate for indie developers that they are advised to follow such assumed logic to achieve awareness and consideration for their games.
 
For those without media budgets, PR has always been a buyer’s market, where content producers need to play into rather than play journalists. Managing the timing of what you say for maximum gravitas then is sound advice.
 
The truth is that indie developers today have so many more options open to them than Rein and Epic ever had in the mid 90s.
 
In Harris’ original blog post he makes an interesting point about one-to-one communication between developers and fans: "Someone can email you as an indie dev, and you can reply personally back to that potential customer, and hopefully, that way you have converted that guy to buying the game."

Undoubtedly, that is true. But I would argue the role of the indie is not to treat personal emails as a sales channel - that would be a phenomenal misalignment of effort. Aside from it being common courtesy to respond to someone who reaches out, the opportunity as someone selling something is to turn that individual into an advocate for you and your product.
 
Social networks, blogs, Twitter and all those other shiny toys have wildly expanded the breadth of everybody’s personal networks, and ideas and opinions now move with more fluidity than ever before. That isn’t news. Yes, you want enquirers to feel validated, you want them to buy, but above all that you want them to share the social currency generated by that interaction.
 
I would argue a single sale is less valuable than a sincere recommendation to a hundred people via Facebook. Further, relying on your fans as promoters changes the nature of publicity. Traditional press releases are transactional, void of social currency. When we are all publishers, everything we say or do is a press release.
 
You can have it both ways, though, which is why increasingly indies are considering the social functionality of their product. Case in point here is the explosive growth of socially enabled games like Farmville and Canabalt.
 
Canabalt is particularly interesting as its growth truly left journalists at the starting gate. Simply letting players update Twitter in-game - such a small gesture on the part of the user - helped make a great game a great success through word of mouth. There were some beautiful write-ups in the press post launch, but that is all they were. Indeed, many journalists wrote about the success of its self-promotion rather than its content.
 
Of course, Canabalt and Farmville are only proof of concept and the fertility of this space; neither are robust models for approaching communications. Canabalt's auto-tweeting was successful in part because of its novelty - a carbon copy of that approach enjoying similar impact is unlikely. Farmville too suffered when Facebook removed the auto-update functionality upon which its early success was built, shedding four million players in the process. This is essentially a shift to a more consent-, rather than intrusion-, lead model for social networks which - from the users point of view - is probably a good thing.
 
If one were to be cynical about it, removing this form of free advertising only served to justify the cost of paid-for advertising on the network. Which is a brutal reminder that even for the most virally successful titles there is no such thing as a free lunch.
 
Still, the ability for indie developers to self-publish and lean on their fan networks empowers them immeasurably against an unforgiving and often uninterested news cycle. Of course, as any small upstart achieves success, and even fame, then an inevitable shift from personal to broadcast communication occurs. But that’s a discussion for another day.