Early last year, Bungie's decision to invite games writers to a bombastic Destiny
preview event where no actual game was shown inspired Gamasutra to ask what traditional video game previews are for
, and how the media should approach them.
In the intervening 18 months platforms like Twitch and YouTube have flourished, giving rise to a new class of media: the enthusiast broadcaster, often affectionately known as the YouTuber
Kickstarter and Steam Early Access have matured, affording developers new ways to raise money that often see them communicating directly with their customers and sharing their work with the public.
The nature of game development has changed so radically that we're driven to take another look at preview culture and ask: Are traditional game previews effective anymore? What value do they still hold for developers, if any?
And what would developers do if more consumer press outlets reduced their efforts to cover games pre-release, as Kotaku recently did
...or even stopped doing previews altogether?
Preview coverage is still important, but the press...not so much
"If news outlets stopped showing interest in previews, direct outreach would become even more important for developers like us," says Chris Harvey, CEO of Guacamelee
developer DrinkBox Studios. "When it comes down to it however, I think people want
previews...and so if traditional gaming news outlets stopped doing them, I don't think they would actually go away -- they'd just move to some other medium."
Where would they go? Harvey recommends platforms like Reddit and YouTube as places where small-
"If traditional gaming news outlets stopped doing previews, I don't think they would actually go away -- they'd just move to some other medium."
and mid-size studios can find outsized success drumming up buzz for their games prior to release. And for developers using pre-release funding platforms like Kickstarter and Early Access, getting people excited about your game prior to launch isn't just a good studio morale booster -- it's also now a vital part of your business strategy. One of the most effective ways to do it these days, according to Larian Studios chief Swen Vincke, is to target popular YouTubers instead of traditional media outlets.
“Whenever a popular YouTuber did something [about us], we saw a significant impact on the sales curve,” says Vincke in reference to Divinity: Original Sin
, an RPG the studio successfully Kickstarted and later sold via Early Access. ”Not so much for written press, though during our Early Access/preorder campaigns, coordinated written press efforts did show a small bump.”
We heard as much from many indie developers earlier this year, while looking into how YouTube is affecting the traditional games press
At the time YouTubers reported that their options for pursuing pre-release coverage of AAA games was limited compared to traditional media outlets, but the rising importance of the YouTuber has not gone unnoticed in AAA development. PR veteran Eric Wein claims that more big game companies are pushing their PR teams to work with “community evangelists,” which typically includes popular YouTubers and Twitch streamers.
Wein serves as a VP of the Bender/Helper Impact PR firm, where he oversees the game division. The firm has worked with game companies like Konami and Bandai Namco, and Wein says that its clients also still pay for traditional preview campaigns because they can inspire retailer confidence in a game, driving storefronts to give it a more prominent promotion slot.
But while those campaigns are still seen to be effective, they're shrinking. "The difference in preview strategy in the last few years is shorter campaigns,” says Wein. “Consumers may no longer have a demand to learn about a game 12-18 months prior to release and prefer awareness closer to availability" because, Wein says, the proliferation of information and devices to consume it on has made "new content" more valuable than ever.
Wein adds that there's still some legacy "game theory" at work when AAA game companies pay for preview campaigns, in that "competitive titles are offering preview opportunities, so other companies need to mirror that."
Your mileage may vary depending on what kind of game you're making
Many developers who operate on a smaller scale can't afford to bankroll lavish preview events, and have found success circumventing preview culture entirely by communicating directly with their customers.
Vlambeer, Riot, Mojang and Klei are “just a few examples of developers and studios that have built sizable followings can communicate directly with their fans when and how they want -- whether journalists pick up the story or not,” says Joel Dreskin, an experienced AAA game marketer who’s currently working with a number of indie developers. In his eyes, these studios
"Studios that have built sizable followings can communicate directly with their fans when and how they want -- whether journalists pick up the story or not."
have made themselves self-sufficient -- if the business of game previews crumbled tomorrow, they'd barely notice.
But many of those developers make games whose appeal stems from their systems, rather than their stories. They can afford to show their fans what they're working on or make pre-release builds of their games publicly available because there's little risk they'll spoil the experience of playing the finished product.
Developers of story-driven games say they still find preview coverage very valuable, especially if they're unable or unwilling to rely on crowdfunding. Taking preview builds to events like PAX, or directly to media outlets on press tours, gives studios like DrinkBox a modicum of control over how they talk about their work with the media, which can in turn drum up buzz for the game that leads to stronger sales.
“In that sense, previews are more important than ever,” says Harvey, who suggests that if preview campaigns stopped generating interest from the press it would significantly affect the future of game development. “Without previews, games with strong social/community/replayability aspects and large marketing budgets have the advantage, and I would expect a corresponding shift in the kinds of games that are successful.”
Evolve PR director Tom Ohle agrees. “Without previews or pre-release attention, you really rely on long-tail efforts to maintain interest," says Ohle, who's worked with studios like Larian and Paradox Interactive. "Games with emergent play, long-term DLC plans, mod tools, etc. all have a much longer shelf life. Hype for single-player, story-driven games without DLC and other gameplay updates would be relatively short-lived."
Few developers believe previews will ever completely disappear from traditional media -- the demand for fresh content is too great. But what if traditional media downplays pre-release coverage in order to focus its efforts on covering games in the weeks and months after they launch? That's exactly what Kotaku is making a public show of doing, and it's likely that other games media outlets will follow suit -- if they haven't quietly done so already.
Wein believes that such a shift in the industry will benefit developers large and small by boosting long-tail sales at the expense of some pre-release hype. It may also lead to a renaissance of "cult classic" games as media outlets turn to cover the cults themselves.
“If a game is released to mediocre or poor reviews but players embrace it and media’s coverage reflects that, the marketing/PR campaign is [effectively] extended and there are better sales opportunities weeks after release,” notes Wein. "I anticipate previews will continue to be important for media but if media’s new direction is away from previews, we’ll adjust."