Q&A: James Kaye, co-founder of Big Games Machine on PR challenges in the year ahead

Well that was an interesting year. According to most commentators, not the best in terms of marquee games, but, as ever, plenty of evidence in the games we did get that the industry is as creative and forward-looking as ever. If nothing else, 2023 will be every bit as fascinating when we come to look back on it.

It wasn’t just about the games of course. Events were back in a big way (apart from E3 of course), NFTs went away just as spectacularly, and we had the year-long soap opera of Microsoft and Sony’s custody battle over Activision Blizzard. How those played out from a comms perspective and what will shape the PR challenges in the year ahead is the subject of this month’s panel. Next up is James Kaye, co-founder of Big Games Machine. Enjoy!

It’s fair to say that 2022 wasn’t the greatest year for quality releases or launches… or was it?

When looking at the ‘triple A’ names, there’s the argument that a good number failed to live up to the hype and expectations, but many exciting indie games continued to push the envelope. No single genre seemed to dominate the release calendar, which was a benefit, making games such as Stray and Scorn stand out regardless of perceived quality.

E3 aside, it was a full house for live events last year. How do you see expos, conferences and other game events panning out this year?

The world has definitely moved on from the ‘big moment’ at a convention/event, even before the pandemic, as we saw more and more companies opting for their own stream or event in the same window as E3, for example. GDC still felt a bit sad last year (and I managed to get COVID, test positive on-site and be ‘escorted’ off the premises on day 1), but we expect it to be bigger and bolder this year.

Events provide more networking opportunities for industry people than a big public reveal or playtest. Plus, with so many delays and release shifting, many companies would see being at an event as part of keeping up appearances rather than making a concrete reveal or promise. If I may be so bold as to reference our recent survey of 160 game journalists, the media still view events as crucial places of importance for discovering games – with over 50% rating them as ‘very important’ and 81% as important/very important when combining the stats.

How else did the PR landscape change during 2022?

The number of games on the market has increased continuing year-on-year trends. But the number of media organisations and journalists has been decreasing. Mass layoffs during the year at key publications mean the landscape has changed very visibly.

We’ve seen an increasing amount of B2B PR work coming in, which is a much-ignored aspect of the industry that has traditionally been very consumer-focused. We expect this to be a significant growth area moving forward and has to be met with an entirely different approach to what most other games PR agencies will be used to.

Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard dominated thinking in 2022. What’s your take? How well did Microsoft and Sony make their respective casse? Will the deal go through, and what will it mean for the industry in the years ahead?

The lack of major releases from Microsoft this year may be evidence that acquisition is dominating Microsoft’s thinking too. Rather than putting time into creating new and exciting titles, the focus seems to have been on expanding its library to support a games-as-service model that, while offering great value to consumers, lacks excitement. As gamers, we want to see fantastic games first and foremost.

Because of this, gamers will support any merger or acquisition, provided it fosters an environment and marketplace that encourages creativity and enables developers to produce exciting games. And this is happening; it has even been seen this year with titles like Obsidian’s Pentiment, which probably wouldn’t have happened on the scale it did without the support of a large publisher hungry for content.

Ultimately, I feel any acquisition can benefit the industry and consumers provided it doesn’t prevent investment in smaller titles or limit the visibility of indie games. The fascinating aspect was seeing two industry behemoths go to even greater lengths to explain how weak their businesses were. However, we expect regulators to see through the charade. In the end, we think the merger will scrape through and whilst we’re not fans of deeper industry consolidation, the evergreen nature of the indie scene combined with ever more powerful tools leave us optimistic that there’s plenty of fun to be had in the years ahead.

There were some spectacular U-turns earlier in the year as gaming companies climbed aboard the NFT hype train, before jumping off again before the next stop. What went wrong for them?

One of the most glaring issues with these cases is the need for more transparency and lingering concerns over play-to-win mechanics, questionable green credentials and whether devs are building crypto mechanics into their games or the other way around. Few of these companies took the time to consult with their audiences and lay out a clear plan for a concept meant to appeal to their communities. The recent collapse of FTX has further peed on the NFT/Web3/crypto games bonfire.

The Oxford word of the year for 2022 was Goblin Mode. What was yours and why?

“Delay”. It was perhaps inevitable after the pandemic and in light of the Cyberpunk debacle. February/March 2023 is going to be a crazy period! I would say that “Delay” shouldn’t be a dirty word. If it can combat crunch culture, then it’s a positive word. We should be striving for the opposite of what Goblin Mode entails!

Without blowing your own trumpet too loudly, what was your highlight of the last year (2022) in terms of the PR campaigns that were waged?

We organised an invite-only media event for Scopely’s mobile title Kingdom Maker to celebrate the launch and get the media excited about the game. In Bath, we found one of the oldest pubs in Britain to gather the media and then put them through some vigorous medieval martial arts training, including some sword fighting to get them ready for what they could expect to see in-game! This all took place despite train strikes threatening to stop all the fun and led to some great networking and coverage in the mobile games media space. Plus, it was the first time we could get creative and get an event together since the pandemic.

What are the PR challenges for the year ahead and how will you be preparing to overcome them?

With so many delayed releases likely to dominate the media, it’s tricky to plan ahead when optimising a release window.

AI is threatening to change the way content is created and received (ChatGPT does a pretty good press release). What are the issues for PR as AI content services become increasingly competent and compelling?

It is balancing efficiency vs reliability. We see it with Google auto-suggestions or even when using tools like Grammarly (which we’re all big fans of). There are incredible AI writing tools like Jasper that can help, but there is no way they can be relied on to do the whole job in place of a human just yet. Our most engaging pitches rely on humour and speak to a target journalist/influencer’s interests.

This just can’t be done with AI. Not yet, at least! Mistakes can be made in these suggestions, or perhaps a text prompt is taken too literally, and the result isn’t organic enough to be readable or believable. Machine-translated games, for example, are still a way of being a viable alternative to human-led localisation. But we all know how localisation can go wrong even when humans do it (ahem “All your Base”). One must also remember that these AI tools are almost entirely trained in the English language alone, meaning that international partners are at risk of being left out or ignored.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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