Thoughts on Twitch, Games PR, and Getting Access
Published: September 9th, 2016
Read time: 11 minutes
Tags: Gaming, Twitch, YouTube, Early Access
At 12:01 AM Pacific time, October 13th 2015, the embargo lifted on episode 1 of a new game from Telltale titled Minecraft: Story Mode, allowing those with early access to stream the game on Twitch. To anyone familiar with my content it should be no surprise that I was one of those who played it right at launch. Most of my time on Twitch is spent broadcasting Minecraft, so the creation of brand new Minecraft related content was big news for me and I made sure that I had everything in place to be able to play the game as soon as possible.
I had played a preview of the game at PAX Prime earlier that year and the game delivered exactly the experience that I was expecting, however what came as a surprise was all of the messages from other broadcasters that I read after my stream was over. Some people had confused the time of the embargo lift with the launch date and were disappointed that they couldn’t buy the game. Also, I was contacted by a number of streamers asking things like “how did you get the game”, “how did you get a steam key”, and “what gives, I thought we couldn’t play until tomorrow”.
Reflecting on this situation made me realize that this touches on aspects of the gaming and entertainment industries that might not be intuitive to a lot of broadcasters so I decided to share some of my thoughts about it. I hope this is useful information, and feel free to contact me if you think I’ve gotten something wrong.
My intended audience for this is content creators such as Twitch streamers or YouTubers who are interested in getting review copies of games, early access to titles, and in building relationships with game companies. I am specifically NOT talking to gamers who just want free stuff. If you are not actively engaged in creating gaming related content for your audience, this article is not for you, and you should just go out and buy the games you want to play. You should also be prepared for none of my advice to work if you are brand new to the scene or have a very small audience.
You Have Something Valuable!
The first point that I want to emphasize is something I’ve seen overlooked and misunderstood quite a bit by content creators. If you have an audience, even a modest one, then you have something that game companies want access to. Your audience plays games, and game companies sell games. That’s a natural match. Therefore, if you approach a game company and request access to an upcoming title, you are probably doing THEM a favor, not the other way around. You shouldn’t be apologetic about it, or feel guilty for asking. If it doesn’t make financial sense to them, they will just say no or not respond, and that isn’t anything personal. On the other hand, if you make sure that you are being professional and not making unreasonable demands then there really shouldn’t be any reason that you can’t start a good working relationship with the companies that make the games you love to play. This is especially true for indie developers who rely more heavily on grassroots marketing and word of mouth.
Understanding the Landscape
Let’s talk a bit about how this landscape is put together. I think for a lot of broadcasters when we think of game companies it’s easy to understand what developers and artists do. We don’t get lost when talking about level designers, script writers, or voice actors. But when we get to talking about marketing or PR, our brain becomes a big Mario-like question mark and we suddenly have no idea what’s going on. The larger your audience becomes, the more important it becomes for you understand this side of the industry, and the beauty of it is, many companies have employees who’s full time job is to talk to people creating content just like you!
The core concepts are still very simple, and not something you should be afraid of trying to understand. Game companies want to sell their games. They want to make money from the games so that they can make more games and repeat the process. Additionally, people who are good at and enjoy developing games, often would rather focus on development of their game and not have to spend their time responding to press inquiry, distributing game keys, finding and correcting public misunderstandings, and deciding where to spend their advertising dollars. It’s true that in small companies people wear many hats but the hats of marketing, public relations, and community management are ones that very quickly get passed along to other people as soon as the company can afford to do so. And it so happens they are also the exact people that you want to talk to if you are a content creator with an audience who wants better access to new content.
Those three activities are very distinct from each other. Marketing departments have budgets to spend that they need to turn into game sales, public relations folk need to communicate with the world about what is going on with the company, and community managers cultivate the culture that grows around game titles. Those are of course oversimplified descriptions but all three of these roles are vital, and I mention them here because not only is there huge crossover between them, but for a lot of companies they are all handled by the same person. If there is a particular company you want to work with or a certain title you want access to your first task should probably be to find out how it is structured there, who is doing what, and the names and twitter accounts of the people involved.
People Not Products
I want to point out here that for me it’s always been important to think about this in terms of people, instead of company. Both because building real friendships is a lot more effective path to progress then cold sterile business networking is, but also because like any industry the people that work in these jobs don’t always stay at the same company until the end of time. When they switch jobs they tend to stay in the same industry because that’s what’s on their resume but they will be trying to move higher up so they can get better pay. In other words, that nice person you know who works for peanuts in a small company today might in five years be head of PR for a AAA game company. So treat people like people, make friends, and try not to get lost in the anonymous face of the corporate machine. Be real.
Where Do You Start?
If you’re just getting started, the marketing machine of the games industry might seem like a daunting giant that is impossible to break into and understand. I’ll mention a few easy things to get started with that should be a good base to build from.
Use Twitter: game companies are usually very aware of twitter activity related to their games. You should be active on Twitter, and you should seriously consider putting a business email in your profile description. If you are about to stream a game and are writing a tweet to tell your audience about it, tag the game company in the tweet! They will most likely see it, and might do things like tune in to your broadcast, retweet you, follow you (which means you can DM them), or add you to their press list. Here is an example of a tweet of mine related to the game that sparked my thoughts on this very article:
I’m starting my stream late today to stream the new Minecraft: Story Mode by @telltalegames! Starting at midnight, which is in 5hrs 20min!
Get On The Press List: one of the oldest and most common methods for announcing new game titles and for distributing codes for review copies is via press releases. If you are on the list then you will get an email from the company, or the PR agency representing the company, every time anything new gets announced and also before important events like launch days or conventions. If you attend a game convention such as PAX with a media pass then you should automatically get added to all the big press lists. If you don’t attend conventions (you should!) or aren’t large enough to get media access to the event, you can usually get added just by asking for it. Some companies will simply include steam codes in their PR emails, or will say things like “contact us via email if you would like a review copy”. Tweet at or email the correct PR person for the company you want to work with and say something like:
“Hello, I am a content producer for Twitch.tv and I would like to be added to your press list. You can find my email listed below.”
Be Careful With Your Keys
There have been some problems in the industry lately regarding keys to video games. Shady people have figured out how to get lots of game keys for cheap or for free, including via stolen credit card or impersonating large Twitch streamers. Those keys are then sold on game marketplaces such as G2A for real money. Regardless of your personal feelings about sites like G2A, for many people working in the games industry it is viewed as a war. A war that you don’t want to accidentally step into the middle of.
If a company gives you a key, you should only ever use that key for yourself unless they specifically gave you permission to do something else with it. Don’t ever sell it, and if you want to use it for a giveaway to your audience ask the company for permission first. Many times they try to track what happens to keys that they give out and if your keys are ending up being sold then that could reflect badly on you. Asking for permission gives you a paper trail that you can point to so that if later the game company comes to you and says “that key we gave you got sold on G2A, what’s the deal” you can look at your record and respond with “you gave me permission to do a chat room giveaway and on the 4th I gave the key to xxNoScopeMGLproShotzzxx, here’s a link to the VOD”.
Don’t assume you can stream things
The industry term for when you can play something is embargo. Before the embargo lifts, you have to keep your mouth shut about the game and you can’t stream or post videos about it. If a company has given you early access to a game this does NOT automatically mean that you can stream it RIGHT NOW. The old-school media model is that review keys are sent out early so that games journalists can play the game then get their stories written in advance to be ready for release time. Game companies are not always good about explaining the timelines, so if you are getting a game key before release you need to ask questions like: When does the embargo lift? When can I stream this? When can I publish a YouTube video? When can I talk about it on Twitter?
Failing to respect an embargo can ensure a company never gives you early access again, and can even get your channels shut down. They are on the lookout for pirates that like to steal the game then stream it before release day and there are often lawyers actively on the hunt to send take down notices to channels who are not in compliance. Don’t get caught in that crossfire, get permission first!
I love this industry as a whole. It’s filled with amazing people, and I would love to see less of the divide between content creators and games companies. My hope is that understanding a little more about how it works can facilitate that! Now go play more games!