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Author: Brett Phipps
Senior Editor



How Brands Can Stand Out at Digital-Only Events

With the pandemic pushing more trade shows to digital-only, how does your product rise above the noise?

There’s nothing like an E3 press conference. The energy and anticipation from fans of what might be, followed by the euphoria as announcements pour in.

The mecca of games culture, E3 is where publishers, developers and retailers finally reveal their work to the world, and for the bigger studios, often in the most bombastic ways.

I was there when Microsoft revealed its next-generation Xbox (named at the time ‘Project Scorpio’), I sat 10 feet from Kojima strutting down Sony’s ramp with Billie-Jean-esque floor tiles to reveal Death Stranding, and I was among a transfixed crowd as Gustavo Santaolalla performed The Last of Us 2’s theme song.

These moments are iconic not just because of the blockbuster titles involved, but how they are presented. Now, with the pandemic forcing presentations online only, the ability to play to the crowd is lost. 

So the question becomes: How do you maintain the wow factor without the window dressing? And, if you’re a smaller studio, how do you compete for attention?

Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail

No matter your game, be it a major franchise sequel or a brand-new IP, a clear roadmap of communication is vital. Either way, keeping fans informed and involved in the process is how you maintain the interest ‘spike’ from a big reveal through to launch.

Therefore, social activations are key, and ensuring you ramp up output in the lead up to key beats (reveal, gameplay trailers, pre-orders live, launch etc.) will give you the best chance of reaching the broadest audience.

Mapping out content calendars, optimising posts for platforms, creating engaging community-management, exploring reactive opportunities, these are all jobs that a strong editorial/creative team can provide your product, informed by a detailed strategy to ensure they’re communicating in the most authentic way with your fanbase.

The Basics

There are some basic essentials every brand must get right in order to have a successful digital presence. We’ve put together a list of just some of the main things to keep in mind if you’re looking to make a splash and get your game noticed:

When, what, how

Your fans need to know exactly when you will be appearing, what they can expect to see and how they can tune in to the show. Having clear lines of communication across all your marketing platforms and aiding the journey from advertising-to-show will ensure as few people as possible are lost on the way.

Understand your global audience

Try and include as many time zones as possible on tune-in marketing materials. Many companies simply post their local time, or the time of the biggest market, but fans don’t have a global clock ticking in their head, and need to know what time they should be tuning in wherever they are without having to do the maths.

Be a personal reminder

Social offers plenty of tools now for you to remain connected with your most engaged fans in the lead up to a key beat. You don’t want to harass them into tuning in, but creating Facebook events, Twitter alerts and even email reminders are a simple way to take the lift away from the fans themselves to remember to tune in.

Manage expectations

Reveal trailers and announcements, be it due to time constraints, game development or other factors, often lack gameplay or great detail about the product on show. The hope is that fans are still excited by the small glimpse they get, but the risk is causing disappointment at the inability to see what your game truly is. 

If fans are expecting full gameplay reveals, mechanics details, release dates and free t-shirts while you only have a 15-second trailer, there’s been a breakdown in communication along the way. Of course you want fans hyped for what you’re bringing to the table, but just ensure you can meet the majority’s expectation of what they might see.

Deliver the elevator pitch

You’ve got a really cool hook and a USP for your new Rogue-lite RPG that no other game has done before. This is amazing, but means little if fans can’t see this during your time in the spotlight.

If this is the reveal, you have to make very clear what your game is, and why people should care. This is doubly-true if you’re bringing a new IP.

The digital event is just the beginning

Amazing, your trailer has gone live and people are loving it. But now, the questions and speculation are piling up: when is this game out? How much is it? Is there multiplayer? Is Batman in it?

While it may feel like the optimum time to breath out, this is the optimum time to join the conversation with your fanbase. Answer what you can, allude to what you can’t, and keep everyone driving towards a common goal: the full gameplay reveal, pre-orders, your landing page, whichever is chosen, but ensure it’s consistent and frequent.

How to Make a Splash

As well as getting the fundamentals right, there are other things you can do to ensure your game is the one people talk about after the stream ends. Below are just a few pointers along with some examples of games and studios that have done a great job at grabbing attention.

Make the Most of your Shoot

While having to shoot your presentation from home is obviously not ideal, it does mean that there’s variety in the aesthetic compared to what we normally see. Most conferences show people stood on a big stage talking before a trailer rolls, but now this is an opportunity for fans to connect with your game and studio.

During Xbox’s July Game Showcase, Rare Executive Producer, Louise O’Connor, introduced Everwild from their Birmingham offices, while other teams will put multiple faces from their team on-camera to discuss their game, much like CD Projekt Red did in the build up to the launch of Cyberpunk 2077.

While pre-pandemic conferences endeared through excess, there’s something to be said about the more grounded style of digital events that make fans feel connected to the people behind the games.

Deepen the Connection

Sometimes the thing that people remember most about your game isn’t even the game, it’s the people behind it. Two examples of this – while not during the pandemic but still at livestreamed events – are the reveal of EA’s Unravel and A Way Out.

Unravel was revealed at E3 2015 by Coldwood Interactive’s Creative Director Martin Sahvil. Martin was clearly not just a suit selling a game, he was a developer who cared deeply about his work, and close-up shots as he revealed a real version of the game’s protagonist, Yarny, from his pocket, showed his hands trembling. It was this humanity that built a bond with the audience, and made both he and the game relatable.

On the flip-side of this is Josef Fares, whose studio Hazelight brought “A Way Out” gameplay to The Game Awards, but it was Fares’ interview which became the talk of the ceremony. His passion was clear to see, and what was also clear was that the studio founder was not working to a script, as he proceeding to yell “f*** the Oscars” to millions of viewers online. Funny? Definitely. Effective? Absolutely.

So when you’re planning on showcasing your title, maybe instead of getting a brilliant presenter, utilise somebody from your studio who has a genuine connection with the game. If you’re showing off a cool mechanic, bring the person who built it. If the art is amazing, get the art director. Their authenticity will shine far brighter than stage presence ever could.

Get Your Game in Players’ Hands

One of the main attractions of conferences is the ability to get their hands-on time with games months or potentially years before they hit store shelves. This, of course, is difficult in a pandemic, but not impossible.

During E3 2020, Steam hosted a “Summer Games Festival” where demos of games from the show would be available for a limited time. Capcom is also a studio that is excellent at drawing huge attention to limited-time demos with its Resident Evil series. For the launch of Resident Evil Village, the studio has produced separate 30- and 60-minute demos, both only available for a very short time before launch.

If and where possible, getting hands-on time with your fanbase is a great way to drive pre-orders, and also get word-of-mouth through your fans in a more authentic way than standard press coverage can deliver.