Interview with Christopher Kellner of dtp by Becky Waxman
Christopher Kellner is the International PR Manager for digital tainment pool (dtp), which has published many adventure games for the German market, including Nibiru, The Moment of Silence, and Runaway. Chris has been a close observer of the gaming industry, and he has brought a new level of energy and dedication to the promotion of the adventure genre.
How did you first become interested in adventure games?
In the late 80s I played a game on the Amiga 500 called “Déjà vu”. This was some kind of static graphic adventure, if anyone remembers. But my first experience of the classic point & click-adventure was Broken Sword 1. But that’s such a long time ago I can’t remember what attracted me to it in the first place. Must have been articles in German games-magazines. But this really kicked me and from that time on I played nearly all of the classic adventures that have been released. I admit that I lack the experience of the legends like the first two Monkey Islands, Indiana Jones, Maniac Mansion, Sam & Max, because they came out at a time I didn’t even have a PC and only played “Secret of Mana” on the Super Nintendo.
What does a PR manager do? How do you work with developers throughout the game development process?
Basically I am the link between the developers/publisher and the public. It is my duty to inform any possible buyer that there is a new game and that it is good. Ok, that’s a very short description, PR Manager means doing a lot of other things, too. Working with the developers means that – if we have any influence on the development - I give advice as to what the media criticizes in adventures and tell them anything that might help to improve the game before it is released from a point of view of the gamers and editors. I also work closely with the developers when it comes to releasing material like artworks, trailers, screenshots etc. – because they are the source.
How would you rank the effectiveness of various means to promote games: press releases, previews, comic strips, fan newsletters, game giveaways, ads in magazines, ads on television or in movie theaters, word-of-mouth on gaming forums. Does effectiveness vary according to the type of game – for instance, a comedic/cartoon adventure as opposed to an atmospheric mystery adventure?
All of these measures are effective in their own way, and of course perfect PR would be if you could put your time and effort in any of these things. I can say that on the whole it is crucial when promoting an adventure to not only concentrate on the games magazines, but on all possible media as well. That means, an article about an adventure in a daily newspaper might be even more important and reach more possible adventure buyers than a 7x percent test in a games magazine. It’s because the target audience of adventures is different from that of the big games magazines. These magazines are mainly read by hardcore gamers who usually play shooters or RTS. But most adventure gamers tend to be a little bit more mature – and you can reach them more effectively with a news magazine or a daily newspaper.
In Germany, comic/cartoon-adventures have a hard time. That`s because Germans don’t want to be seen as childish, and comic/cartoon is associated as childish over here. So you can definitely do more sales with a serious mystery adventure.
In your experience, is the quality of a game strongly related to game sales? Or are other factors even more important in how the game performs in stores? Can terrific PR make a weak game a best-seller?
Terrific PR helps before the game is released and in the first four weeks. Terrific PR creates a hype that leads people to pre-ordering the game or running into the shops as soon as it’s out – even if they haven’t read any test yet. But if the game has a poor quality, this will spread through the forums like cancer, and when the first tests are out even worse. Then the sales will go down very fast.
Is it possible for a game to be over-hyped? Do you try to avoid this?
It is possible to “over-hype” a game. But sometimes you have no other choice, regarding my previous answer. If you realize that the game will be disappointing you can try and create a hype it doesn’t deserve, but leads people to buying it blindly. There is also the danger that you over-hype a game that is GOOD, but you say it is FANTASTIC. Then people will be disappointed and you are in the “bad word of mouth”-trap again. Usually, I try to arouse interest but stay “sober” when promoting a game.
What is the effect of the reviews a game receives? Would you rather that the games dtp publishes receive rave reviews on a major gaming site, or on a “dedicated” adventure site, or on Amazon?
Unfortunately it is not enough to get all the dedicated adventure fans with a good test on one of the sites to earn money. They are just too few. So if you want to have a longseller you definitely need good ratings in other magazines as well. This doesn’t have to do anything with the general press, which is very important as I stated, but ratings in the big magazines have repercussions throughout the whole games press online and offline in a country.
What is the importance of developer’s websites in terms of game promotion? If a game’s website is good publicity, why do some game sites have very little on them for potential buyers to see? Do you encourage developers to spend time updating their websites?
In 99 % of all cases the publisher is responsible for the website of a game, not the developer. Only if it takes a long time for a developer to even find a publisher he sets up a detailed website of the game on his own. And it is part of a PR strategy not to give out all of the material you have at once, when the website starts, in order to have something to create a long and steady hype with. And often you don’t have very much material….
What criteria are employed to determine if a game will be considered for publishing by dtp?
It has to be at the top level of adventures regarding quality and it has to feature an interesting setting you can explain and thus sell to the people. Also, the market for 360 degree render-adventures is very, very poor in Germany. So this sub-genre of the adventure game is rather uninteresting for us.
Have you seen a game that got everything right except one thing – and that was enough to keep it from being published?
No. Every game – and I mean EVERY – has more than one flaw, and that does definitely not keep it from being published.
Have you ever been about to publish a game, taken one last look, and decided that the game wouldn’t cut it after all? If so, what did you then do?
If it would have gotten that far it would mean that a lot of money has been spent already. There’s no way a game is not published, if there isn’t another catastrophe going to happen.
Do you ever compete with other publishers for a game? What do you do to try to land the contract?
We always compete with other publishers for a game. To convince the developers we usually point out that no publisher in Germany except us makes adventures profitable, and no one puts as much effort into it as us. Other publishers might sign faster, might even guarantee more sales, but adventures tend to be second or even third league for them – and you won’t hear much about them when it comes to PR and marketing.
Have you seen an adventure game that you thought could be wildly successful DESPITE breaking the conventions of the genre?
Well, I would love to say “Yes”, but in my experience only a few unconventional games really are “wildly successful”.
Once a game has been developed in one language – say, German – how much work is it to localize it for another market – say, the North American market?
I can only speak of games being translated and dubbed into German, but this is one aspect we put a lot of money and a lot of effort into. Adventures usually have thousands and thousands of words to be spoken – you can imagine that we often spend more money for the localization than, for example, you would have to spend for that of Half Life 2.
How is the European market for adventure games different than the one in the North America? In Europe, is it common to be able to buy adventure games in book stores or other non-game-related stores?
The German market is different. I think pre-rendered 360 degree adventures sell better in the US than in Germany. In Germany, 3rd person adventures are easier to sell. Usually, you buy games in a big electronic media outlet, that means where you buy your PC and your TV and your DVDs. The book-store market is very weak for software, especially for games. There are also some small independent game-stores, but they often cannot survive that long.
Is the gaming industry considered more mainstream, serious, and “respectable” in Germany than it is in the US? Will adventure game developers achieve the same prestige as classical music composers, serious writers and artists?
No! The gaming industry is definitely not taken serious over here, and you wouldn’t even admit that you play computer games when talking to a girl you like for the first time. There is also a very annoying and misleading discussion about violence in games. And developers are definitely only seen as artists by gamers, but by no one else.
Why do you think European developers have been using the U.S. as such an important game setting? (Examples: Runaway, Tony Tough, The Moment of Silence, WANTED: A Wild Western Adventure)
That’s because the US is dominant throughout the media and often seen through the naïve eyes of movie-fans in Europe. And when you build up an image of America without having been there and only by watching movies, it looks like a vast country full of adventure, instead of the safe and boring day-to-day-life in Europe. That makes a setting in the US more terrific. And, what is another reason: Europeans are very interested in the US, but many Americans don’t care much about Germany or other European countries. I think even our movies are not being dubbed, are they? So if you want to be successful with a game in the US, give it a US-setting. I don’t know if this is true, but it is the pre-dominant opinion here and I would love to discuss it!
dtp is currently publishing Nibiru, Runaway 2 and Tony Tough in A Rake’s Progress. None of these games (as far as I know) have publishers for an English version. Any ideas as to why they haven’t been picked up by North American or UK publishers? Any rumors as to when any of them will be picked up?
I don’t know, but maybe UK/US-publishers don’t consider them to be profitable in their territories. As we have the international rights for TT2, we will fight to get an UK/US-publisher for it!
What has the feedback been so far on Nibiru? What have gamers most liked about it? Most disliked?
The players really liked graphics, atmosphere and sound, but they disliked the mostly easy puzzles and that it is a little bit short.
I understand that in Runaway 2, Gina will be kidnapped and Brian will team up with Sushi to rescue her. Does this mean that Brian spends a lot more time in the game with Sushi than with Gina? Can you give us any more plot teasers?
I’m sorry, but I do not know more than you. I would love to tell more, but I can’t.
Will Tony Tough have the same sense of humor in A Rake’s Progress as he does in Roasted Moths? Will he have an encounter with extraterrestrials or the supernatural? Will he perform “A Rake’s Progress” at the local opera house? Will we finally learn what Tony’s beliefs in wigs are, or what happens if he loses his glasses?
Yes, all of this will happen. To be honest, I don’t know, but many of these elements will be in the game. What I can tell you definitely is that TT2 will be full of jet black humor again.
How important is innovation to the genre? Is there a particular aspect of adventure games where innovation would be most effective or welcome?
Compared to genres like the RPG-genre the adventure gameplay is poor. Many RPGs feature puzzles, too, but they offer much more gameplay. And, by playing RPGs, I often think: Why are puzzles like that not in adventures?
I think, it would be good if the often annoying linearity of adventures would be changed in the future. For example, in Fallout you had many riddles and adventure-style situations too, but you always had different ways to solve them. In adventures, there is only one way. If the adventure-genre wants to survive, the gameplay has to be changed, not the graphics or the interface.
Do you have any thoughts as to why smaller development houses that create adventure games (for instance, Detalion and Galilea) have been closing their doors recently?
Because developing a game is very expensive. And if it doesn’t sell anything or you don’t get your money from the publisher (I don’t know if that’s the case here), you cannot pay your staff any longer and you’ll have to close.
What effect do independent games and free games have on commercially published games?
They don’t have any effect on them, because they simply cannot compete in terms of quality and production.
Do you expect online adventure games (for instance, Gumshoe Online) to become a bigger market? How do you think the demise of Uru Online will affect any future attempts to produce online adventure games?
If the gameplay is changed and opened to new ideas, maybe online will become more important for the adventure genre. But the genre is naturally a kind of gaming where you relax, sit down and puzzle calmly. I don’t think adventures and online-gaming fit together that well.
What effect do console games have on the adventure game industry?
The console industry is important and strong, but as adventures are played more by mature players, the console market – which is for younger players mainly – is not that important. Unfortunately, this is seen differently by some developers and they think adventures have to be made fit for the consoles. That’s wrong in my opinion.
What effect does piracy or illegal copying have on the adventure game industry?
As the adventure market is small and the adventure players mostly mature, it is not as dangerous as in other genres. But it is a huge problem in Germany. And every adventure sale lost because of piracy hurts really badly, as the sales aren’t that high compared to other genres.
Do fan postings on bulletin boards like GameBoomers tend to help the genre? Do fan postings ever hurt the genre? What makes you pay more or less attention to fan comments?
Fan comments are very important. If the word of mouth is bad, the game won’t be a longseller. So I pay a lot of attention to them.
Are adventures appealing sufficiently to youthful gamers?
Unfortunately not. Deep storylines, long conversations and a rather calm gameplay do not appeal to gamers under the age of 18 very much.
Do you think efforts should be made to bring more casual gamers into the adventure gaming community? Should adventure games change in any way in order to do this more effectively?
I think that casual gamers are indeed the secret of our success in the adventure market. Casual gamers are the opposite of the hardcore gamers that read the magazines and wait eagerly for the next shooter. They are the moms and dads who do not very often like to play a game – but when they go into the shops, they take something they can handle and that reminds them of books or movies.
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