Welcome to Part III of The Art of the Screenshot. So far we’ve covered “big picture issues” – how it is PR’s responsibility to produce screenshots that do more than just look good and the importance of conveying emotions and attitude in assets.
Now that you understand the key ingredients, you’re ready to rock n’ roll! So let’s cover more hands-on material, namely, what you need to do to work effectively with your PD teams to secure great shots.
Do this wrong and you’ll get shots that aren’t perfect along with a PD team that thinks you’re a total idiot. Do it right… well, then you’ve got PR gold.
First, three things you should know before you even start typing that email to your producer:
FIRST, KNOW YOUR GAME:
PR people need to know a lot about their game if they plan to know a lot about strategy. I’m not saying everyone needs to be intimate with every minor dev milestone, but it’s not asking too much for you to know where the game is, generally, in its overall development path. You should know, for example, which levels and areas look polished, where you can find near-final art and effects, which features look great (either for in-person demos and screens (not always the same thing)), and of course, the areas and features to avoid because they are just plain broken.
There’s probably a debug sitting on your desk – don’t be afraid to use it. You sit in PD meetings and demos – pay attention and don’t be afraid to ask questions! When will this area will be ready? What is the team especially proud of? If you’re waiting for someone to tell you this stuff, you’re waiting to fail.
PD people, here’s a quick cheat to tell if your PR person is thinking things through – have they asked you for the latest build recently? Have they asked for a build at all? Do they participate in PD discussions and ask you about features and artwork? If the answer is “no,” not only are they unsure of what’s happening with the game, but they can’t possibly know what screens will work or even, what to talk about to the media.
As an aside, here: I know, there are PR people out there who say “I’m a PR person first, not a developer. Show me a product and I can promote it; I don’t need to be able to actually play it.” To that, I politely say BULLSHIT.
If you aren’t playing the game as well as competitive titles, you are not going to be a great video game PR person. I wouldn’t hire you… in fact, I would fire you. You’re doing just enough to complete the job rather than trying to excel.
My general rule of thumb is… if I’m on a PR trip and my producer becomes ill, am I confident that I can demo the game myself and be effective? Can I execute the key moves, finish the entire level without dying (without cheats), and talk at length about game details and competitive advantages? If the answer is yes, you’re on top of things, if you aren’t sure – you aren’t playing enough.
The bottom line is this: if you don’t play your own game then you’re more full of shit than PR people are generally accused of. And yes – I’m looking at YOU… oh, you know it, don’t you?
SECOND, KNOW YOUR STRATEGY
If you’re even asking for screen shots, ideally that means that you’ve already taken the time to develop a thorough, multi-layered and strategic PR plan. This plan likely lays out (in detail) a schedule for revealing key elements across a long-term time line, relying on unique assets from defined levels with identified characters executing very specific things. That’s great. Nice work!
Before you get anywhere close to requesting the screenshot, KNOW exactly where you are within your strategy, WHY you are asking for screenshots and for what purpose. This will help you immensely when the art director asks why you are revealing the “GIANT SPIDER-LIKE WALKER/STRIDER” boss from your generic first-person shooter. (Oh come on, you know everyone has had a “strider” since HL2).
THIRD, KNOW WHAT YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
This comes directly from the previous two. If you know your game, and you know your strategy, and you’re executing an opportunity, there should be no question in your mind exactly what screen shots you need to tell the story.
You already know who needs to be in them. You know which levels in which rooms and from what angle you want the shot taken. You know what features should be prominently featured and what in-game and functioning graphical effects look great and should be somewhere in the shot.
If you know all of these things and you are confident about where you are headed, then you’re ready to proceed with your Specific and Justified Ask.
THE SPECIFIC AND JUSTIFIED ASK…
I talk to A LOT to developers, and of course, to the people that create screen shots. It’s not an easy assignment to produce assets that meet everyone’s expectations. You have to look at this from their perspective – they are deep in the game day-to-day. They are delivering on multiple items on their milestone chart constantly. Complicating matters, generally speaking, the people at the development house – and sometimes your own PD team – are not privy to or current with the finer details of your PR plan or the “Key Messages” you are pursuing.
When the asset request is made, your PD team can’t be expected to simply divine what you are trying to show and why. Without details, their fulfillment will focus on either 1) what they are working on “now” or 2) what they think looks the best. If you’re not providing specific direction, this is actually the right (and only) thing they can do, even if it doesn’t produce the “right” assets for your request.
If you’re sending in asset requests that include only the phrase: “I need 15-20 screenshots of good-looking action,” you’re not being fair to the development team and you’re not doing your job. You are failing the game and your colleagues.
Without specific direction, you will receive shots that don’t fit the need or aren’t good enough and don’t deliver messaging. Either way, you’re screwed – you’ve wasted the time of the development team, you’re probably wasting a batch of assets by asking for a re-shoot, or worse, you will use the unruly batch of shots anyway because they are all you have.
Avoiding these problems and making partners – rather than enemies – of your development team is critical and it’s as simple as having the professional courtesy and respect to take the extra time to explain your needs in detail.
Check out some suggested guidelines below (there is actually more you could put in, but this will generally cover you):
- Be specific and explain the opportunity, outlet and expected coverage;
- “We have an opportunity with Games Pwn Magazine for a 2-page exclusive preview feature in the July issue that will hit right before E3 and be handed out at the show. We are going to need some great assets to fill both pages.”
- Use as many details as you can, like how many, the deadline, and from which platforms;
- “We will need 15 screen shots by April 15 from either the Xbox 360 or PS3 build – as this magazine is cross-platform, whichever looks better at this stage is OK to use.”
- Explain how this opportunity fits into the current and overall strategy, the messages that need to be conveyed, and the features you are currently focusing on; i.e.:
- “As you know, we’re still in Phase 1 (“the tease”) of the PR plan, so we’re still hiding everything beyond Act 1. Two pages in GPM’s E3 issue is an amazing opportunity to make waves with our new IP and get an extra bump heading into the show, so we’ll take the opportunity to reveal a little bit more. This piece will create the perfect bridge from our teaser first-looks to our broader previews in Phase 2 of the plan, later this summer. Keeping this in mind, we need screens that once again show off the core Pirate Ninja Weaponry and Barack Obama’s likeness while projecting the sense of overwhelming power and wackiness inherent in the game.” [ed: clearly this is all ridiculous content that you could probably pick apart – don’t bother – you get the point]
- Offer suggestions as to the content, location, characters, etc. in the shot;
- “We should still focus on the opening two levels in the Capitol Building and Soldier Field, but we can grab some shots showing Obama and Kim Jong Il using their mind control fireball combo attack on the alien horde; we haven’t shown this previously and it’s a cool new reveal that will help pump up this piece. We can also reveal the epic “Rotunda Encounter” (which we have also not shown before) if it is completed as scheduled this Friday. If there is anything else that has come online that looks superior, let me know and we can talk about how it fits into the strategy.”
- If it’s possible – go sit with the screenshot taker and pose the shot yourself; or if there’s a shot you have in your mind, draw it out with stick figures; or use comparable shots from other games or movies.
- “I’m happy to come down and go through the level to try and get some of the shots I’m looking for. Also, I’ve attached a shot from Tony Hawk Extreme 65 – it has the same feel and composition that I’m looking for from our key art.”
If you do all of this, there is, of course, still a chance that you will end up with only 8 – albeit very pretty – shots of Lyndon Johnson in Mexico brandishing a broadsword. But you have reduced that chance considerably and increased your odds of getting shots that show the right content with the right messaging.
You’ve also reduced the chance that your development team feels like PR is wasting their time with unfocused asset requests or mis-representations of their game to the media.
By building a specific and justified ask and knowing what you need to know, you’ve streamlined the process and produced better assets for your game. More importantly, you’ve invited the development team to participate in the PR process, creating a partner rather than an adversary in the effort to tell the story of the game.
That partnerhsip can sometimes be as powerful an aid to your PR plan as a perfect screenshot.
And by “sometimes,” I mean “always.”
…just who do I think I am, spouting off about all this stuff anyway? Click my head to read my bio…