How to Approach Press/Content Creators For Indie Developers (Especially Visual Novel Devs!)

Not too long ago, I did a brief talk at VNConf on How to Approach Press/Content Creators aimed at visual novel developers, which you can find here.

Feedback was that it was useful, but there was definitely a weakness – that it was too fast. Regrettably, I chose a 5-minute talk slot, where the topic would have been more suited to a 20-minute slot. As such, I wanted to expand on it.

This article is primarily aimed at indie visual novel developers, but much of it will apply to any indie game.

Why This Article?

I started taking content creation seriously back in 2017. Having been a part of Youtube and Twitch groups, websites, and more, I’ve seen the same thing over and over again:

Many indie developers kind of suck at promoting themselves. Even more often they’re not great at contacting press and content creators, which I’ll refer to as ‘media’. Some of the worse examples I’ve seen tend to come from the visual novel area – perhaps because it does lend itself to very small projects.

Not everyone is good at everything. Some people will make brilliant games, but be terrible at telling people about them.

Some of the things I want to discuss:

  • Why to get in contact
  • Deciding who to contact
  • Finding their contact details
  • Getting the message across
  • Making life easy for press/content creators
  • Benefits and Dangers of sending out copies of your game
  • Successfully getting coverage

What do I need Press/Content Creators for?

Usually, you’ll want to contact them because you want them to put your game in news, reviews, videos, streams, or more. It’s part of your marketing. In the end, if you’re making a game and selling it, you want people to know about it and buy it.

KickStarter is another big one here; if you want funding, you need people to know about and want to back your project. It’s also one of the more difficult ones to get coverage of.

Some developers are very hostile to the media. I’ve seen some who refuse to send out review codes which is a standard practice, saying they can buy it if they want a copy. Some refuse to respond to contact. While I’m sure there are exceptions, I’ve personally never seen any of those projects by small developers sell well. There’s a thought that a poor product marketed well can succeed, while a brilliant product not marketed can fail.

As a note here, please do be polite to media. I’ve seen some on places like /r/Gamedev or related Discord servers badmouthing content creators and press in general. Not only is it rude, but it gets around.

Most media don’t even get minimum wage for what they do, even those working for big websites. A lot don’t get paid at all. They don’t always do everything well, but people typically aren’t providing game coverage unless they enjoy gaming.

They’re Not Replying!

This is a common problem. There are things you can do! But it’ll always be a problem.

Media often gets tons of emails and offers. At busy times, this can even be 50+ a day. Extremely big outlets – the ones even casual gamers will have heard of like IGN probably get even more. As such, you might be sending out hundreds of emails to receive no reply.

Practically speaking, there’s not enough time to respond to every email we get individually. And most of what we receive isn’t sent to us individually either – it’s a mailshot, maybe with our names in at best. And yes – we usually do know when your generic line about loving our previous coverage has been sent to every single person on your mailing list!

Personally, I’ll skim-read every email. Some people don’t even do that. But even if we get 50 emails about something interesting, we might only have time to cover 5 of them.

…I’m Not Replying?

This is a problem too. Some publishers and developers don’t advertise a way to contact them. It can be a massive pain for media to find the contact details and then get in touch.

I’d suggest making sure you have a contact method listed somewhere obvious like your website or Twitter. On that, it’s suggested to change the settings to accept Direct Messages on Twitter. People can’t message you by default, unless you’re following them.

It’s a Hard Life

Sadly indie visual novels are at a disadvantage – unless they’re already well-known.

Some factors that go into what media might cover:

  • Time
  • Accessibility
  • Potential Views
  • Personal Interest

Potential Views isn’t always the most important for smaller media, but it’s a big weakness of indie visual novels. 

Big websites get most of their views from AAA games. Some journalists have outright said that the revenue from coverage of AAA games essentially subsidies the costs of covering indie games. Very niche indie games such as smaller indie visual novels are essentially bottom of the barrel here – there’s just not enough wider interest in most cases, though this does appear to be growing.

Here’s an extremely simplified chart of views on a big website – for clarity ‘Popular Indie’ is Stardew Valley and such. This one is based on very vague data heard from people in the industry and is more for illustration than anything.

For more niche sites like ours, Japanese visual novels tend to get a lot more hits, particularly ones by well-known teams like Yuzusoft. After that comes related genres like JRPGs and other niche ones like VR, then OELVNs and bigger name games. While we’ve covered OELVNs fairly often, some do reasonably well but they’re certainly not typically the biggest hit in terms of views – there are just a lot more people willing to click on something like Dohna Dohna than Aquadine, even if we rated the later higher.

Here’s a really simplified chart of views per genre to break things up. It’s worth noting there are a lot of factors that go into this however such as release time of coverage, art style of the game and so on. There are odd exceptions too, like Growing Up which is in the bottom category, but did better than most JRPG reviews or Kiara and My Ara Ara Adventure which is an OELVN but did well. Not all genres or types of post are included here, but it’s just to give an idea of why OELVNs might not be too appealing in terms of views.

Very approximate illustration of our views per genre

Accessibility is usually fine. Most indie visual novel developers are more than happy to send out codes to any legitimate (more on that later) media outlet. Bigger titles often have a ton of demand.

Time can be an issue in relation to views. More views come to media who are one of the first to release coverage. A lot of OELVNs seem to leave media coverage as an afterthought and don’t bother until release or post-release. Two weeks in advance is a standard. More is appreciated, or at least having extra notice to book time in helps us.

Personal interest will vary of course. Approaching more niche media who play visual novels will certainly help here – plus 5,000 views from their audience that enjoys visual novels is likely more valuable in terms of how likely to buy someone is than 25,000 views from a generalist. With that said, this also links into time – When someone from Nintendo is emailing me about Pokémon Legends: Arceus and an indie developer is emailing me about an indie visual novel on the same day, I know which one I’m choosing to make time for – and I like visual novels!

Busy Week

Tying into the last point, where possible the release schedules and new about other games should be taken into consideration. As an example, as I’m writing this I’ve recently been contacted about several small indie visual novels releasing demos or launching Kickstarters. In this same week, there have been announcements about several bigger visual novels and a visual novel publisher event. Two JRPGs from well-known publishers are coming out soon. Even a huge first party game was released and is dominating social media.

In terms of news, this might mean not being room for coverage. In terms of demo preview coverage, this already tends to be low priority and media are likely to be busy with these other titles.

Who to Talk To?

There are different approaches to deciding who to contact. I’d suggest a mix of these.

Targeted:

Search for people who’ve covered similar games to yours, then reach out to them. This is probably most effective for a niche title. It doesn’t have to be that similar, but in the same category at least.

Websites usually have contact details at the bottom or in a specific section. We even have some extra information for you here.

YouTubers often have the email in the ‘About’ tab. Note that you can only reveal a certain amount of email addresses per day.

Twitch streamers may have contact information in their panels below the video window.

In all cases, social media such as Twitter (Follow Us!) may be listed somewhere. Bios may hold an email address or DMs may be open. Email is typically preferred and DMs sometimes do not give notifications, instead going into the ‘Pending Requests’ box.

Scattershot:

Just reach out to anyone slightly relevant. This often includes the bigger media. There are lists around, which you may be able to get access to by asking other developers.

Open call:

Ask people to apply for press releases and when relevant a key using social media. Via Twitter you can take advantage of hashtags to help relevant people find it. #visualnovel, #VNDev and #VNLink are some that you can use. Bots may pick these up and help by retweeting, but since the changes to the Twitter API, this is a lot less likely.

This will work best if you’ve already established some audience, but fellow developers may help you to signal boost too.

Big Effort – No Effect

Many developers will want some of the biggest content creators to show off their games. Some will go very far to try and achieve this. I want to warn again investing too much hope though.

In one example of this, an indie developer I know wanted a particular YouTuber with millions of subscribers to play his game. The game even matched the YouTuber’s taste and the type of content they often did.

The developer created a special build of the game with the creator in. He had a video made using a professional voice actor and animator inviting him to play the game. These were sent along with some keys. It was followed up via another email and social media.

He never heard back. There wasn’t even a polite response declining, despite all of that investment. The creator presents the image of a really nice guy, but that didn’t make any difference. A video invite itself wasn’t the best idea, considering how many messages the people managing his emails have to go through.

While it’s certainly worth including them in your ‘Scattershot’ and there may be occasional success stories, I’d suggest that you don’t invest huge amounts of effort in getting bigger media to cover it – at least not to that extent.

When to Get in Touch

Getting in touch should be mostly at important times. Too many emails with minor updates and media might just start ignoring them. Some common examples are the upcoming launch of a Kickstarter, game launch, and opportunities to review/create content.

In terms of coverage, review builds are often advised a couple of weeks before launch. You may want to embargo the release of coverage, which is to make the media agree that in exchange for early access to the game, they won’t post coverage before a certain date. Any respectable outlet should abide by this, but some have been known to break it. As a note, it really annoys some media if the embargo date is after when regular buyers have their hands on it.

Visual novels, both indie and not have often been known to leave media access until the last minute. The ideal time for coverage to launch tends to be a day or two before the game’s release, so sending out access two weeks ahead is usually recommended. These sorts of things should be built into schedules, but it does seem to be working up until the last minute and then post-release with fixes quite often.

For Kickstarters in particular, if you want coverage done like demo previews, let people know early and have a build ready ahead of time. Halfway through a Kickstarter isn’t a great time to ask for demo coverage, but it does seem to be the most common from personal experience.

What’s in an EMail?

You’ll want to start it off with a good subject line. The name of the game, the genre, or a very general description and the purpose of the email would be a good example.

Just to give a few examples from recent emails (with game names obscured):

[REVIEW CODE] Sakura Game 2 – Visual Novel

This one was an unsolicited code for a game which we’ll call ‘Sakura Game 2’, a visual novel.

DDR VR dances onto Meta Quest 2 on February 27th

This one was stating the release date for a game which we’ll call ‘DDR VR’, a VR game on the Meta Quest 2.

Visual Novel, NomNom Love, coming to Steam on Feb 24th. (Review Keys Available)

This one was stating the release date for a game which we’ll call ‘NomNom Love’, a Visual Novel. It also offered to apply for review keys.

Next would be to have the opening paragraph or two tell me enough to make me want to request a code, write about it on news, or find out more. With so many emails, people might not even get past the subject, never mind to 3 paragraphs in to find out what type of game it is.

Beyond that should be important information with anything key highlighted.

As an example, here are some things to consider including.

  • Basic information about the game (name, important dates, platforms, summary)
  • How to get a code if relevant
  • If any chance for interview opportunities
  • Images to grab attention
  • Where to find further information
  • Trailer
  • Link to press kit including logos, screenshots, artwork, etc

Some things to avoid:

  • Saying more about yourself than the game
  • Poor English – especially if a text-heavy game, it gives a bad impression
  • Being unclear whether this is just information or an offer to provide a code/interview opportunities/etc.

A good example of a press release can be found here.

It has appropriate visuals telling me the genre right off. The messaging is clear. The key information is in the first paragraph and more beyond that. 

It has clearly marked links with a press kit, trailer, and form to request a review code. While it could tell me a little more about the game earlier on, it’s still a very good example and it gets away with it somewhat due to the images giving a clear indication of the type of game.

I’ve received emails from indie developers that don’t even tell me the name or genre of the game before. Some are really terrible.

Another example that isn’t great – I once received an email stating “although the game doesn’t look decent currently due to lack of budget” – this doesn’t ‘sell’ it. And yes, while you’re probably giving away a free key, you’re trying to ‘sell’ it still. To get someone to spend enough time to play it themselves and to convince them that their audience will be interested, you should try to be positive. Funnily enough, that previous quote actually came in an email from one of the PR Marketing firms aimed at indies – not all of them are that good unfortunately…

If you have any concerns about whether your email will go through, send an email to this tool, and it will give you a report on how likely your mail is to go through. This is particularly important if you are sending from your own host. Note that you can only do this a few times per day.

By the way, remember to BCC and not CC for mass emails.

Should I Include a Review Key Unsolicited?

Some developers will send out a Steam key (sometimes multiple) in the first email. Sometimes a code for a console. Most include an ‘invite’ to ask for one instead.

If you include one, there’s a higher chance of coverage as makes things easier. On top of that, the media can try the game before committing to creating coverage or more easily try it out later on. Sometimes this can work really well to get people to initially try out the game, when they might be hesitant.

Of course it comes with a higher risk too. While a Steam key costs you near nothing and rarely will be an actual lost sale, there’s always a chance of it being resold. This makes it dangerous to be very free with keys at times.

Personally, I ask if any of our team are interested when we get something unsolicited. If not, we might use it to test out a writer who is new with us, so there’s less risk.

Press Releases

Admittedly, I can’t tell you too much about submitting these but a lot of media will get their information from Press Releases. You can submit them to GamesPress.com by following these instructions. Again, it’s great to include quotes and links. It doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be published, but it’s worth a shot. Here’s an example of one for an indie visual novel with a quote by us.

Press Kit Images

These days most people set up a folder on Google Drive with the appropriate images. This can consist of key art, screenshots, logos, and possibly a video or two. Some people include a copy of their press release text too. Some use attachments, but these can fill up an Inbox quickly so I’d not recommend it. I’d especially not recommend setting up a server only accessible by an FTP client, which has happened once.

Please ensure that any logos have transparent backgrounds – not white ones. They’re often used to create thumbnails for videos and similar.

Size Isn’t Everything

Who you target or respond to is down to you, but some people expend far too much effort on big creators and get ignored. They do this while ignoring the small themselves. 

The smaller media are much more likely to respond, though have less effect. There’s also potential for it to reach further too; I’ve personally experienced where one of the biggest content creators in a specific niche saw a video I made, commented positively while making it clear he hadn’t heard of it before, and then went onto make a video of his own on the game. More commonly, I’ve had other medium-sized media see coverage I’ve made and introduced it to them that way.

As mentioned before, I recommend focusing more on people who often cover your type of game more than anything, since you’ll get more relevant views.

It is difficult to decide how much effort to focus where. It depends on a variety of factors, including the level of interest in your upcoming game both from fans of the niche and the wider gaming community. As an example, a big title may featured in huge mainstream media with luck, a medium title is likely to be featured in the bigger niche media, while small titles may be better to aim for medium to small niche media and more general small media. I’d recommend doing some research into what media has covered similar games to yours before and how often this happens.

Quotes, Links, and Bribery

Media often love it when you use their quotes. It is considered polite to ask first (and I’m told by a PR firm is a legal requirement in some countries), but this doesn’t always happen. That said, I’ve never known anyone to turn it down.

It’s good for everyone concerned if your Kickstarter page, Steam page, or press release has a positive quote about your game, with the name of the website/channel and a link to their coverage. This is another reason why it’s good to have coverage ready early. Mentioning the fact that you’re looking for some quotes for these may even encourage people to choose to cover your game – though they’re under no obligation to be positive and you’re under no obligation to choose their coverage for a quote.

To give a few examples, we’ve been quoted on the Angelic Waves Kickstarter, on the press release for a Dee Dee visual novel and on several Steam pages including PQube’s Kotodama visual novel.

Sidenote: If you’re quoting us, we’re NookGaming – not Nook Gaming!

While this tends to be more the realm of publishers rather than indie developers, ‘exclusive access’ or a ‘preview’ can be an incentive too.

Exclusive access is where a few outlets (maybe 3, but sometimes just 1) get it early or everyone gets it at the same time, but only those outlets are told they can release their coverage 5 days early (for example), instead of 1 day early like everyone else. This encourages them to prioritise releasing coverage of your game, as they’ll have a bigger monopoly on the initial views. Sometimes it’s used to get a few outlets that wouldn’t otherwise cover your game to do so.

Preview access is similar, but just giving a number of outlets earlier access than most and telling them that can cover the game up to a certain point only as a preview. This is sometimes very few like 3, but sometimes more like 10 or 20. Occasionally it’s done on a wider scale. Here’s an example of a preview we did of Sakura Wars, which explains a little about the limitations I was working under – it was later followed by a full review.

With exclusive access, it should be very clearly laid out for everyone involved. At a minimum, you’ll want to be telling the outlets involved something like ‘we want to offer 3 outlets exclusive early access and an earlier embargo date than anyone else and we’d love for you to be one of them. If you are interested, please let us know by 20th Feb and make clear in any coverage or social media posts that it’s an exclusive advanced preview’ – or something like that. What should but never happens is letting the other outlets know about that – It can put other outlets off, which is probably why no-one tells them, but it can come as a shock to see some people releasing coverage early, panic that they’ve broken embargo and occasional bad feelings. Preview access tends to be seen as more acceptable.

Another common tactic to entice people is sending them some giveaway keys. This might feel like a bit of a bribe, but it’s generally considered acceptable. It should be done before coverage to not bias it.

You can of course outright pay content creators to cover your game, though depending on the type of coverage there are ethical concerns here. It’s quite common with streaming, whereas for a review that would potentially create some outrage.

One email I once received asked me to review their game and asked about ‘costs involved’. We didn’t take them up on their offer.

Develop a Relationship

Assuming that this isn’t just a one-shot, it’s useful to develop a relationship where you can. This can start with something as small as following them on Twitter. Did I mention that we have a Twitter?

Have a little friendly conversation in your email exchange if you can get a response. Watch/Read their coverage and comment on something you liked about it when you reply. Maybe even engage with them on their social media or Discord server if you have the time.

I’ve essentially been recommended different developers and PR by friends in gaming media due to this. Knowing that someone is friendly and easy to work with is great and it gets around.

One nice way to be remembered is to do an accolades trailer. This contains some of the higher scores and quotes from positive reviews. The benefit is more to the developer/publisher here as it’s showing a variety of votes of confidence in your game, but a lot of media enjoy being featured in them.

If an accolades trailer is too much work, an image is an easier version. For example, Chorus Worldwide featured us in one here for Space Moth Lunar Edition.

Source: Chorus Worldwide

Of course, sometimes bad relationships are developed too and this can get around. A few examples:

1) On writing what I feel was a fair but overall negative review, the developer was understandably not thrilled. They sent a fairly petulant reply, essentially being about ten paragraphs of ‘my friends liked it’. It’s okay to be unhappy and one of the tactics of media outreach is aiming at people who are likely to enjoy it, but people are entitled to their opinions. Looking it up after the fact, the majority of the other coverage was even more negative.

As an aside here, it’s good to keep in mind your audience and get feedback from outside of your sphere. I’ve noted that other indie visual novel developers tend to rate aspects of each other’s visual novels much higher than others do.

2) One that has repeated itself a few times – people working at a PR agency lying to media. Things like saying they don’t handle a certain game while sending out a copy to someone else. A lot of media talk to each other and decide not to work with people further.

3) Another type of dishonesty – saying review codes will be provided, but only if a certain score can be guaranteed. Again, this type of thing does tend to get around…

Beware of Thieves

Media may get in contact with you too. Sometimes for information, but much more often for keys to create coverage of your game. Be careful though – things aren’t always as good as they seem.

It’s fairly common for scammers to pretend to be big media, but even smaller media gets impersonated. Using an email address that seems similar is the most common. Most websites and many bigger creators will have their own domain which helps to verify things – so [email protected] is legitimate, while [email protected] certainly is not and you can guess that at a glance. It’s not always so obvious though.

Once I had a developer contact me on Discord. They’d never heard of us before but ‘we’ approached them for a review key. Luckily they caught on quickly and didn’t send them anything.

There are also people who will create ‘fake’ Youtube or Twitch channels. It’s possible to buy followers and views, so these require a little more investigation. If a YouTube channel for example doesn’t normally publish content on your type of game, this is a sign to be wary. If there are no recent videos, that’s another sign. Most content creators will have active social media to look at too.

Some fake channels will even steal content. I’d had a video review I uploaded once stolen and uploaded on someone else’s channel, along with a bunch of other reviews they’d stolen. They weren’t too careful, as anyone looking at more than just videos and views would be able to tell that it was a mix of videos from different channels. A lot of people don’t look at more than the numbers though.

Some channels will get stolen too – the username and password get taken, they may or may not change the name and details and that’s an easy way to scam keys. Checking their recent content might help give you a clue. If they do have recent videos but with low views, this isn’t necessarily cause for alarm as it happens legitimately too, but it is a warning sign.

A common complaint of developers is that as soon as their game launches, they’ll get a flood of these fake requests. Sadly that one request from a journalist who works at a big website might just be mixed in with them though, along with plenty of other legitimate requests. The bigger your game is, the more you can afford to ignore these – but most reading this article likely won’t be in a position to ignore potential coverage and will have to sift through them carefully.

Some developers have become quite jaded and say not to respond to any inbound mail. It may be difficult, but I’d not recommend listening to that at all. From the big PR departments of Nintendo and Sega to small PR agencies and individual developers – a lot of that initial contact comes media reaching out first. Even more on the smaller scale.

Steam Curators

Speaking of thieves… a lot of Steam curators are fake. Feedback I’ve heard from developers has suggested that almost every single bigger Steam curator and any that approached them seemed to be fake.

A lot of developers will receive emails from Steam Curators asking for copies of their game. Usually, they ask for Steam keys, despite being able to send copies directly through the system. This is typically so they can easily sell or trade them. You don’t need to actually own a game to post a review on Steam Curator, so getting a copy and posting something generic and positive (if anything) isn’t too unusual here.

Admittedly there are a few circumstances where this is legitimate. For example, I run a team with multiple people – newer ones might not be given access to admin privileges on Steam Curator. This means they can’t redeem keys sent through there. It’s an all-or-nothing system, so giving someone access to redeem one game is giving them access to redeem all and any offered games.

I’ve also had developers send me ‘giveaway keys’ via Steam Curator before. As above, these can’t be used for giveaways as only admins can redeem them.

Another legitimate instance would be for multiplayer games. Want us to review a 4-player co-op game and send us 4 keys? Some might need to be Steam keys, especially if we pull in friends/family to help test it out. Admittedly this is less likely for visual novel devs, though there is at least one multiplayer visual novel.

One common tactic among huge fake curators is to have a number of people create several curators as a group, fill them with tens of thousands of fake followers and similar fake reviews, then get a ton of games sent to them that way. The people with the curators then give each other admin access and essentially trade received games.

On a side note, there’s a tip I’ve often seen repeated for checking if a curator is real about comparing follower numbers to group numbers. I’ve never seen any justification for this. I don’t believe it makes sense either since a curator can be followed without ever seeing the group. It’s probably more accurate to confirm whether they’re linked to a legitimate website or content creation channel and posting original reviews.

For us, we have a Steam Curator which you can follow here. But it’s primarily just for discovery and we don’t really promote it – some developers and publishers find us that way when searching the ‘visual novel’ tag. Email is best. And on that – if you do send something through Steam Curator, make sure to include your own email for questions or feedback! There isn’t a way to reply to your message on there.

Keymailer, PressEngine and More

There are systems that let you send out keys to ‘verified’ media. How well they’re verified depends on the system – channels with fake views and subscribers still get through some of these. These systems do have a lot of weaknesses and most of them only cater to coverage on Youtube or Twitch. Costs vary but some have had cheap or free tiers previously, though I cannot say if that is still the case.

I can’t comment much on the developer side of this, but you can read about quite a lot of the different systems from the media side in this article.

Can’t I Just Pay Someone for All This?

Yes, you can. There are services that will do as little as sending out a mailshot through their list of general press contacts or listing a game on a website with the option to contact you, to those who will do almost everything. The cost will vary and I have known people to think they’re getting more personalized service than they actually receive.

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