Q&A: Alex Verrey from Embracer Freemode 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 Alex Verrey from Embracer Freemode. Enjoy!

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

No, I think that’s largely fair. The industry is still catching up after the pandemic of course, and certainly the first half of the year seemed quiet (Elden Ring withstanding). Like most of us however, I would much rather a project was delayed to polish the quality rather than rushed out to hit a deadline for shareholders. Things certainly picked up in the latter half of the year though with God of War Ragnarök, Gotham Knights, The Callisto Protocol, The Last of Us Part 1, NFS, COD and some great indie titles like Stray appearing. Nintendo quietly had a great year as well with Bayonetta, Kirby, multiple Pokémon games, and Splatoon to shout about. I think it shows positive momentum and I’m looking forward to an even stronger 2023. Xbox certainly will have a stronger year for 1st party games no doubt.

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?

It was a delight (and frankly, a relief) to see the show circuit get back to normal. We even got to enjoy a classic MCV event again, made all the better by our own Gabrielle Hibberd winning a 30 under 30 award! I noted that shows were not quite back to full capacity, but they were busier than I was expecting and unless there is a major turn of events, I predict we’ll be back to pre-pandemic levels this year. As we’ve seen with the recent pandemic outbreak in China, things can change very quickly so we need to be cautious, but I think the industry and the gaming public are eager to return to normal and I think we’ll see a very busy year for expos and conferences. E3 has always been my favourite show and I’d be thrilled to see the folks at Reedpop take the reins. I’m really looking forward to that one and I hope that the industry, including the format holders, gets behind it. A raft of digital presentations may allow publishers to control their messaging, but it simply isn’t the same in terms of excitement and industry impact.

How else did the PR landscape change during 2022?

PR rarely stands still; it’s always evolving and 2022 was no exception. The pandemic accelerated change within our industry and some of these changes will remain permanent for sure. People continue working from home or via a hybrid model and that includes those in the media, meaning that digital meetings, demos and presentations have become more commonplace. Publishers are looking for more imaginative ways to engage with gamers, forcing PR to become more imaginative, and on a sensible budget. We see clients crying out for an integrated communications approach, harnessing influencer, social media, trade marketing and consumer PR to create a meaningful campaign with a strong ROI. I still believe that good PR is essential and the best possible return on investment, but harnessing multiple media opportunities is the preferred route we are seeing.

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?

Admittedly this was a huge announcement, even when acquisitions are becoming commonplace. This one is unusual if only for how it’s being played out in the public, something we rarely see with deals of such complexity. I’m a gamer, I’m format agnostic and simply love to play compelling games, I’m not a competition or merger expert, so feel it churlish to offer any great insight other than to say that I recognise the need for both format holders to protect their positions and that I’m confident the deal will go through if it’s in the best interest for all gamers.

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?

It’s reassuring, as it shows that the gaming public ultimately calls the shots on what they will and will not accept. Publishers are constantly searching for new revenue streams and monetisation models, which is no bad thing (we sometimes forget that this is a business after all) but forcing gamers to accept something they feel unseemly – that will simply never fly. Gamers have many options for where to spend their time and money, and long may that continue. All technology, including the likes of NFT’s, can be used in a variety of ways, it’s not necessarily a bad thing; it all comes down to how it is implemented and what it adds to the experience. Our industry is endlessly creative, and I have no doubt that we will see the technology integrated intelligently or developed into something new, but the public will ultimately be the ones who decide if and when we see widespread adoption, especially here in the West.

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

I’d like to think that the only thing I have been Goblin recently was the tub of Celebrations over Christmas (sorry). As for the games industry’s equivalent? I’m not sure there’s anything specific to 2022, many touch points we’ve commented on above being NFT, acquisition, Metaverse, etc but I’m not convinced these are localised to 2022. “Post-pandemic” seems to be used a lot (I’m more guilty than most) as we try to get our projects back on track.

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?

Well, I only joined Embracer Freemode three months ago, and by that time the Holiday season was pretty much in the bag. But I’m still really excited to help announce Project Slingshot, the debut game from a new studio by the name of C77, made up of some of the industry’s elite from the likes of Bungie and EA. I was also proud to help launch NFL Clash and NBA Clash, two licensed mobile titles from our friends at Nifty Games, but perhaps the biggest campaign I was involved with was the announcement of Off the Grid, a new Battle Royale from Gunzilla Games and the visionary mind of Hollywood Director, Neill Blomkamp.

We worked closely with Neill in announcing this title, with BBC Click flying over to Canada to support the game with a dedicated feature which aired globally, a debut trailer being shown at Future Publishing’s Gamescom show, and a massive live presence at Gamescom also. Fun times but I’m confident there will be even bigger ones as we roll into 2023.

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

We live in volatile times where global and economic factors outside our control dictate supply chains, development resources, consumer spending and so much more. It’s never been more important to maximise client value, finding ways to innovate and breakout in an increasingly crowded market. We brainstorm regularly to look at ways we can deliver over-the-top results for our clients and are used to innovating in such a manner. As I write, I have just learned the sad news that Wireframe magazine is shutting down so we can see how deeply the media continues to be impacted, and as said teams shrink or disappear it will be harder for smaller titles to receive attention. I’m an optimist at heart however, change is baked into the role and it’s up to all of us to find new ways to tell our clients’ stories and I am more than convinced that our team is up to the task.

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?

AI may be able to write a half decent press release but I’m less convinced of its ability to tell a compelling story (At least just yet). Sometimes the role of a good PR agency is to tell the client what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.

A client may have the best intentions but sometimes they may miss the real story, the hook that will make gamers sit up and take notice, and the heart of why the gaming public should care. The job of a good PR is to steer the client into a position of strength where they can breakthrough and achieve success, and for this I still think a human touch is needed. Hopefully, it will be a little while before Skynet takes our jobs.

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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