Three lessons from Larian’s winter 2013 preview tour

I’m writing this on day 15 of our mad PR tour. Flying back from Los Angeles to Brussels to spend the weekend with my family. Then, on monday we’re off to Paris where  27 journalists await us at a press event organized by Focus, our local partner. In the end, we’re aiming to show Divinity: Dragon Commander and Divinity: Original Sin to almost 100 media spread over Europe and the US, and by the time we’ll finish this tour, we’ll have been presenting for over 5 weeks.

That’s quite long and by now I’m sick of seeing hotel rooms, unpacking and repacking PC’s at airport security checks and trying to organize TV screens that do the games justice. I’ll be quit happy when it’s over. My personal highlight on this tour was snatching one hour of free time in Santa Monica so I could go for a run on the beach. Other than that, it’s been one big rush and I’m starting to collect quite a lot of bad karma in the email department because I simply gave up answering. I have some vague hope that I’ll drink a special potion over the weekend and manage to answer all those urgent requests, but past experience tells me that’s not going to happen so I’ll need to figure out something different.

Dragon Commander presentation in San Francisco - there's quite a lot of stuff that needs to be organised for doing these types of things, like getting a place to show the games in the first place

What complicated this tour more than others was that we wanted to show the games in multiplayer, with the journalists joining in. This meant that wherever we went, we needed to ensure there were sufficient screens in place, that we could set up a network, that we had sufficient room and that we had sufficient people to explain the game in addition to the usual stuff. It’s a small miracle that that all worked out, but it did which does say something about the people involved in organising this i.e. they’re good at what they do 😉

Obviously we’ve constantly been googling for our stuff and as articles started trickling through (Rpgwatch,onrpgco-optimiusgamesradarrock paper shotgun or strategy informer), there were these moments of elation when we saw something positive being said about our creations and likewise, there were moments of frustration when criticism surfaced. Even after all these years, I still haven’t managed to reach the state where I can say that I’m indifferent to what’s written about my games and seeing the reactions of my co-demo-tour participants, they clearly care too. That’s a good thing btw in my book..

I’m told by our PR agency that the coverage we’re managing to put together is impressive for an independent studio, and come to think of it, I don’t think any of the previous Divinities actually ever had so many previews in the works, despite the publisher backing. At least on that front our little self-publishing outfit is scoring well, even if we have had our problems.

Specifically, there were three issues that plagued us:

One issue was that we’r showing both a RPG and a RTS, and doing hands-on of an RTS with RPG-only players isn’t necessarily the best idea. Likewise, doing hands-on of an isometeric turn-based RPG with a RTS player doesn’t necessarily generate a lot of oohs an aaahs. Whenever we had journalists who didn’t have a wide interest or at least an interest in both RTS’ & RPGs’  we’ve had issues.

Ideally, your local PR partner ensures that you have the right guy or girl in front of you, but that obviously isn’t always possible, especially if you’re showing two games like we are. But the better the PR, the better the match between reporter and the game he’s reporting on, and we’ve seen a clear link between that and the feedback we got, so something to pay attention to in the future.

The second issue was getting journalists to show up. This too is the work of the local PR partner or agency and there we’ve seen very strong differences. I think having two games is an advantage, so we probably shouldn’t have experienced this problem that much, but in at least one instance we did and that caused quite a lot of frustration among Larian’s travelling demo team.  Divinity games have sold sufficiently to merit some attention so if the turn-out is low, something has to be wrong with the approach.

Initially we thought maybe reporters thought the games were too small to report on, but the advantage of doing this with different partners in different territories is that you can actually compare your PR efficiency, and since in general we’ve had pretty high attendance rates, with quite a lot of the big boys showing up, we came to the conclusion that this was more a local problem than anything else. Something to work on.

Finally, the third issue was that we were showing alpha code in an unfinished state and were letting the media play these builds code hands-on, in multiplayer, on 4 machines , with only three of us there to guide them, in situations where sometimes there were 8 journalists present. Because we couldn’t deal with everybody simultanously, inevitably the message of what is final in the game and what isn’t final was lost in translation. This undoubtedly will lead to inaccurate reporting but the only way we could’ve solved this would have been by either a) limiting the area where the journalists could play or b) ensuring that we never had more journalists than we had Larian team members present or c) not do a hands-on.

Since a) limiting the area in a RPG is a pretty bad idea, b) having more Larian members present would mean that nobody would be working on the game anymore and c) not doing a hands-on is a sure way of not getting the journalists to come to our events, I’m not sure how we could’ve solved this, so I’m definitely open to suggestions. I guess part of the problem is that for us, being developers, it’s pretty obvious what still needs to be done and what not, but that’s not always the case for the reporters – especially the younger and thus more inexperienced ones. I think that in the future we’ll literally mark the assets in the game that are stub with the text “stub” – this will probably avoid some confusion.

Anyway, in the end those are but small stains on what has otherwise been a pretty positive tour so far, so I’m not going to complain. It’s just something to remember for next time, even tbh, I hope it’s going to be quite some time until the next time – it really is quite tiring.

Still I’m glad we’re organising these kind of things ourselves now – I’m sure part of our idealism leaks through when we show it to other people and as a result we’re getting enormous amounts of feedback which we otherwise wouldn’t hear (i.e. when it’d be a publisher representative showing the game), meaning that we can actually do something about it now, rather than having to be confronted with it at review time. That makes for a very big difference because of a lot of the stuff people wonder about is easy for us to implement, and we actually do listen.

  • kalniel

    Crib sheets for press noting key assets which you know will be evolving (or have already evolved since you froze the demo build). Could include contact details for feedback on areas of concern and/or checking any aspects that might be worked on.

    • Swen Vincke

      That’s actually a good idea & something I should’ve thought of. Thx.

  • Cmelda

    I can’t imagine how you feel after explaining the same features of the same game for the 100th time in few days (and other cool things like packing/unpacking/traveling/…). I think the most powerful thing for building up “hype” is the demo (yes, i know it’s expensive and technically hard to make for games like DC or D:OS). But a good demo may create a lot more excitement than 1000 previews. 🙂

    • Daniel

      Do both and you get the most excitement 😛 If no one knows about the game then hardly anyone will try the demo 😉
      But a demo is definitely a good idea yeah.

      • Cmelda

        I am not saying that ‘previews and stuff’ are a bad thing, but a good old-fashioned demo is a good old-fashioned demo…

    • Swen Vincke

      We’re planning on a demo near release & we’ll be doing a public (closed) beta which should generate some waves too.

    • Tom Dupree

      I have bought an awful lot of games based on feature limited pre-release demos. (Even if I played the demo post release), Betas on the other thing are something I am moving away from. As a player while I love the instant gratification of Beta, I get to PLAY IT NOWW!!!! YES!!! I am also finding that I burn out much faster in the game and often don’t finish them.

      Although I think that changes a lot with an MMO, in that case developers need them badly but I think Beta’s may result in faster player burn out, so possibly not a good thing in anything that is subscription/free to play.

      Still the above isn’t really applicable so do both! I don’t think I am going to apply for your betas though, don’t want to spoil the full game.

      • Cmelda

        I fully agree that some demos are really messed-up, feature limited or showing you the only fun part of the game. For me, Demo is something that may show what I can expect from the full version of the game (without spoiling you the full game). I don’t need all the game features, just a little look on how it works outside of promo videos.
        Most of the betas are showing you basically the same thing, except with much more content and for a longer time before release (which may result in faster player burn out).

        • Tom Dupree

          Well the demo I was thinking about was ‘warlock: master of the arcane’. A game that I played the demo to death and really loved, then I got the full game and realised that more or less I’d already played it in the demo and stopped playing.

          I don’t regret the purchase at all, and think it is a great game, but I really didn’t get my $20 (I think it was that much) out of the final version, out of the pre-release demo + final version? Totally!

          Beta burn out I was thinking both Rift the MMO and The Banner Saga: Factions. But these are personal accounts, while betas do give instant gratification and substantial discount I find that they are a) a work in progress and thus less good than the final product b) impinge on my enjoyment of the final product. There fore I am trying to avoid them….but I want it NOW!!!…not always successfully 🙂

          • Cmelda

            The problem with Betas are that their main purpose is to balance things (and community feedback is really important) for the final release so many studios must reveal much more content that it should be (in case of demos).
            Some games are designed to be just a much bigger demo (the same gameplay variations, no more features, …), so in the end, if you played the demo, you actually played the full version(only with less content).

            I wanted to try The Banner Saga: Factions last week too but then i decided to wait for SP Campaign 🙂

  • Christoph Hofmann

    Sadly I just didn’t have time that day to come to Hamburg and none of my colleagues could jump in. So no fault from the PR agency in our case or even lack of interest. Just a lack of qualified personal :).

  • Illusive Man

    Myrthos wrote a very interesting conclusion to his preview on RPGWatch : basically, you sold an hybrid RTS to a RPG fan. That’s good job for sure ! And he’s certainly not the only one to have been bewitched…

    Regarding issue n°3, you could do as big publishers do : hire some good looking booth babes and muscle guys, dress them with Divinity related cosplays and send 7 journalists to them while you go 3 on 1 with the 8th journalist. ( more efficient technique with additional beer / less efficient technique with Patrick the Dragon )

    • Swen Vincke

      Sadly, I wasted the booth babe budget on getting Jan(our writer) tier 1 voice actors.