Six things we learned about video game PR from our chat with Ukie’s George Osborn

Depending on how many hours you’ve racked up over your lifetime as a gamer, you might remember 1989 as the year Nintendo first introduced the world to the magic of the original Game Boy.

However, you might have yet to realise that 1989 also saw the foundation of Ukie (or, as it was formerly known, ELSPA). Ukie is the trade body for the UK games and interactive entertainment industry and aims to make the UK the best place to create, play and sell video games.

A key individual helping Ukie champion our industry is George Osborn, their head of campaigns and communications. George is the first to jump to the aid of our favourite hobby when criticised, and even describes himself as the ‘sword and shield of the industry’ – although we think that partly comes from the 200+ hours he’s spent playing Slay the Spire…

In the latest episode of The Games PR Podcast, we were lucky enough to sit down with George to discuss all things video games and PR. Learn more by reading on, or you can listen to the full episode below.

LESSON 1: MANY KEY PEOPLE STILL DON’T UNDERSTAND THE DIVERSITY OF VIDEO GAMES

For someone with such a vital role in the UK’s gaming industry, George spends an unusually large amount of time communicating with people with limited knowledge of video games, such as mainstream journalists and MPs.

He often finds their view of the industry is clouded by the most popular titles on the market – such as Fortnite, Roblox and Call of Duty – leading them to believe all games are online multiplayer experiences with live-service elements and in-game transactions.

George said: “The challenge we have is games are not all like that. Games are enormously diverse; we have all the genres we talk about, all the platforms we talk about, and every individual game within those. 

“There is just this whole flow of titles underneath, some of which have elements from those big games, some of which do not. What we’re having to always do in terms of talking about the industry’s reputation, and the perception of it for people from the outside, is explain that.”

This is important, as many of these individuals can influence the industry and how it’s regulated. If they were to start to think all games play the same way and that all companies operate the same way, they might write something very blunt into law. 

This could significantly impact creativity, as bite-sized development teams working on smaller titles likely can’t manage that regulatory burden.

What we can all take away from this is knowing your audience is vital. If you’re trying to engage with people outside the normal gaming sphere, keep an open mind about the level of knowledge they might have. However, if you’re speaking to a gaming journalist or influencer, you need to levy their specific gaming interests. 

Misconceptions about video games are nothing new. One of the most common, which can be traced all the way back to 1976 with the launch of Death Race, is the belief that there’s a link between violent video games and aggressive behaviour. 

Not only is this yet to be scientifically proven, but these arguments also rarely mention the many games that aren’t violent. Just look at Stray, one of this year’s most critically-acclaimed titles that’s just been nominated for Game of the Year at the upcoming Game Awards, where you control a stray cat whose most vicious attack is the ability to meow on command.

Stray
Stray’s featured feline has no offensive abilities, and instead spends most of its time investigating by exploring and meowing at the locals.

Similarly, many believe that games are a waste of time. Few would make such an argument if they’d played influential games such as Papers, Please, where you face increasingly tough moral choices as a border-crossing immigration officer, or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which used the experiences of real-life patients to provide an accurate portrayal into life with psychosis based around a hellish adventure.

LESSON 2: A GAME’S CULTURAL FOOTPRINT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU THINK

With video games being seemingly more popular than ever, an incredible number of titles are competing for media attention. George notes that the games which tend to power through to the front of the pack have a significant cultural footprint and positive critical reception. 

Just take a look at the recently BAFTA award-winning Unpacking, which is as much about solving house-moving-based puzzles as it is unpacking someone’s life, or It Takes Two, which uses a couple on the brink of divorce as the basis for a cooperative journey. 

Unpacking
Developer Witch Beam took home awards for both Narrative, and the EE Game of the Year, for their title Unpacking at the 2022 BAFTA Awards.

George added: “If you’ve got a game that has a really interesting hook or cultural style to it, or something important thematically to society like the environment or mental health, you can jump to the top of the discussion because people are looking for those examples as part of a wider debate.”

If you can get more people talking about your game in a positive way, you will inevitably acquire more players. In addition to that, you will also be helping to improve the wider perception of video games. 

George stated that around 15% of the UK game industry’s economic contribution comes from companies smaller than ten people. The more people aware of the value they bring to the economy, the better, as this will lead to more investment and growth.

Some game companies have even taken this a step further by coming together to join the Playing for the Planet alliance. This initiative, which is facilitated by the UN Environment Programme, is made up of over 40 members who have made commitments ranging from integrating green activations in games, reducing their emissions and supporting the global environmental agenda.

LESSON 3: THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA IS BECOMING MORE GAMER-FRIENDLY

Whilst landing coverage within gaming news outlets is one challenge, securing it in more mainstream publications is often a new level of difficulty. That’s because you’re competing with the rest of the editorial calendar and daily news agenda alongside other titles.

However, George has noticed that the landscape has evolved in recent years and said that many mainstream outlets now have dedicated gaming correspondents, editors and experts. George mentioned Steffan Powell, Gaming and Culture Correspondent at BBC News, and Nathan Bliss, Gaming Editor for The Mirror, as good examples of national journalists who advocate for the industry.

Contrary to this, George also noted that the individuals in senior positions at many mainstream outlets generally aren’t at the age where they grew up with a console in their living room, meaning there can be certain challenges when trying to get gaming on the agenda.

But there is hope; George found that those in more junior positions are now successfully arguing the importance of covering gaming news, which is likely a direct result of gaming’s rising commercial power.

George added: “There’s this sort of sea change that is happening underneath the surface, which is important, but it’s going to take five, ten, maybe even twenty years for it to sift through fully. So it’s getting better for us here and now, but you’ll still have to negotiate.”

Then, they gave up control of the event and messaging. This led to negative PR headlines and media focus on the company rather than the game itself.

So, if you are planning a media event, do so only once you’ve done your research and are happy with every aspect of it. Work closely with your PR team, too, rather than just letting them run off and do their own thing.

LESSON 4: GET AHEAD OF YOUR OWN GAME

Regarding video games and PR, we’d have to agree with George that there’s no such thing as being too prepared. You should never leave it until the week before your game’s launch to start thinking about how you will present it to the media; it should be factored into your planning right from the beginning of your development journey.

George recommends that as soon as you can start showing off your game, even if it’s still far from completion, you should be speaking to journalists and heading along to events to engage the media. 

He added: “Whether or not you have a dedicated PR team, agency or whatever, the important thing is to think about it from the outset. Don’t leave it to the end, or you will end up punting it out to 100 journalists on a press list and crossing your fingers. Outside of dumb luck, you’ll end up with nothing.”

However, you must prepare before you start having conversations. One of the first things to consider is ensuring you have a carefully thought-out landing page on your website, and possibly even a press kit, to direct journalists to.

LESSON 5: THE PANDEMIC MASSIVELY TRANSFORMED THE PERCEPTION OF GAMING

One of the many changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic was the increase in gaming’s popularity. With most regular social activities restricted, video games and their expansive worlds became an enjoyable distraction from the world’s challenges and a way to interact with others through online multiplayer. 

A world that many people flocked to was that of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Releasing shortly after the UK’s first national lockdown came into force, being able to escape to your own virtual island and hang out with your villagers struck a chord like no other previous instalment could. 

Within its opening week, New Horizons sold more in the UK than every previous game’s launch in the franchise combined, and is now Japan’s best-selling game of all-time.

Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing: New Horizons quickly became a worldwide hit with players of all ages at the peak of the global pandemic.

Another title to explode at the time was the 10-player social dedication title, Among Us. Despite releasing two years prior, InnerSloth’s game was almost unheard of prior to the pandemic, but after being picked up by Twitch streamer [SR_]Kaif it rapidly blew up into a global phenomenon with over half a billion players at its peak. 

Then there were some titles which went in unusual new directions. With major events cancelled at the time due to the health risks, Fortnite began a new trend of using video games as a platform for virtual concerts. 

This proved to be highly lucrative, with popstar Ariana Grande estimated to have made more than $20m out of her brief digital appearance by levying her brand through in-game microtransactions.

George found that this change in the perceived value of gaming also translated into government. After working with Ukie to use games to communicate critical health messaging around Covid-19 to the general public, parliament has started to recognise gaming in the same way as other forms of media. 

While he couldn’t go into detail, George said that these conversations have continued with departments like the DCMS and the Cabinet Office.

He added: “They’re sitting there as a department of something focused on running the country, they’ve decided that they need to reach people, and the games industry is now one of the first people they contact. I think that’s a sign of where we are as an industry.”

FINAL LESSON: UKIE IS UNDENIABLY USEFUL FOR GAME STUDIOS

The above is especially true if you’re a small development studio looking to make your mark. Still, any company part of the video game industry shouldn’t sleep on the support that Ukie offers. 

After all, Ukie is the longest-running games trade body in the world. It has almost 600 members consisting of over 300 developers and publishers, as well as technical service providers, law firms, PR agencies (including us!), media companies and even banks.

When you become a member, Ukie will not only advise you on the support available for whatever challenges you might be experiencing, but they’ll also be able to provide introductions to other members who can assist you. 

You’ll also get access to Ukie events all year round, which include everything from business support sessions and roundtables to meet-ups at your local pub.

For anyone interested in growing their studio, George highly recommends Ukie’s Games Accelerator Programmes, which they run with various partners: “The classic one with Creative UK we first started with was you’ve released your first game, and it’s gone pretty well. Now you want to make it into a business, but you don’t know what you’re doing. 

“Join Ukie’s Accelerator programme. As long as you meet the criteria and get through the selection process, you’ll have three months of free coaching from people in the industry, and you’ll come out of it with a pitch deck that will help you get investment.”

Want to hear more insights from George from his time at Ukie? Then be sure to listen to the latest episode of our Games PR podcast for the full interview.