We're a blog. But you knew that already. You've been coming here for weeks/months/years. But if you've been paying attention to gaming news (and in particular, the source of some gaming news) over the past 12 months or so, you'll have noticed some other blogs becoming a little more prominent. And they're not news ones, like ours. Not "oh here's a picture of my cat, George, with pants on" ones, either. I'm talking company blogs.
As in, blogs run by video game platform holders, developers and publishers. They're interesting entities! And here's why: blogs came to prominence as an easy way for the average person to throw some stuff up on the internet and get people talking. By their very nature they're informal. So what business do these massive, global corporations have in saddling up and getting into the whole blogging thing?
The answer's not as simple as you think. Yes, there are PR benefits to be had, but that's a cynic's answer, not to mention a shallow one. What kind of PR? Are they tapping new markets? Consolidating existing ones? Trying to make amends for previous PR disasters? And - most importantly - what are they getting out of these blogs besides from PR?
I ask this because these blogs are doing so much more than what you'd traditionally label "PR". They're engaging directly with their fanbase. They're talking with them, listening to them, replying to them through blog posts and comments. Theyre not just telling their fans what they think they should be hearing, they're listening when the fans talk back, and sometimes even doing something about it.
Which is new, very new, at least for this industry. So to get a little more information on these blogs, see what some of these companies are really getting themselves into, let's take a look at three of the biggest, most prominent company blogs out there: Microsoft's Gamerscore blog, Sony's PlayStation.Blog and Capcom USA's Unity Blog.
In examining each, I've not only spoken with the blogs themselves, but taken a look at how well they're doing their jobs, in terms of both blanket PR coverage (ie the drip-feeding of news) as well as what's potentially an even more important aspect: how well they're able to cultivate and foster the growth of a community.
GAMERSCORE - What, no Major Nelson? Nope. Love him or hate him, his website is little more than an Xbox Live (as opposed to Xbox 360) noticeboard, and his podcast is a podcast, not a blog. No, when it comes to Microsoft's shot at tapping the blogosphere, that job's left to Gamerscore.
One of the oldest company blogs around (and by far the most senior of those we're looking at today), Gamerscore was established in October 2005, as part of Microsoft's long-running desire to focus on community with their Xbox platforms. "From the concept of the first Xbox, having fun playing with others, and being able to connect online has been the key to the system's success", says John Porcaro, Xbox's Director Online Community.
"Because we're gamers at heart, many of us were plugged into the games community", he continues. "We were listening to online conversations going on about the Xbox, and about our games, and we wanted to be more a part of the conversation. Creating an official blog gave us a way to communicate more directly, more quickly, and more informally".
On the whole, it's been a successful venture for Microsoft. They've got the core 360 owner in their sights. The Gamerscore guys are great at providing readers with stuff like an inside look at gaming events (with their Flickr galleries), as well as serving as the only official MS website where you can find not just major Xbox news, but the minor stuff like XBLA announcements as well.
On the downside, it can at times also feel a little too targeted, coming off as occasionally sterile, and it lacks the character and personality that you'd expect from such an informal arena. So while it's been useful for Microsoft as a PR tool - quite literally, since Gamerscore also are often first to publish Microsoft press releases - it hasn't really developed the kind of community vibe you'd have expected to see for a console as community-focused as the 360.
PLAYSTATION - At the start of this piece, I raised the possibility that some companies may be into the whole blogging thing in an attempt to make amends. Try something new, do something right in the PR sphere where, previously, they may have been having...issues. Issues like those Sony faced in 2006-2007, with their $599/Massive Damage/Last-Gen PR firestorm.
Now, in mid-2008, the PS3 is slowly recovering from its woeful launch, and the PlayStation.Blog has been in many ways the keystone in this amazing turnaround in Sony's relatonship with its userbase. Sony's Director Corporate Communications Patrick Seybold says of the blog's timing and introduction: "We felt there was a new level of transparency people just expected from PlayStation, and we had the desire internally to open up in the interest of building trust and a healthier dialogue with our customers".
"Not only do you get an immediate read on the pulse of your most passionate fans, but you get to bring them a bit closer into the fold and share more details about the reasoning behind certain decisions — it is a win-win opportunity", he continues. "I saw PlayStation.blog as another opportunity to show our fans that we are as loyal to them as they have been to us for all of these years".
Updated on (around) a daily basis, it makes no bones about its PR focus. It's as serious as Microsoft's Gamerscore blog, perhaps even more so. There's no fan art or YouTube clips of old toy commercials here, it's all cold, hard facts. Or, at least, the posts are. Where the PlayStation.Blog shines is in the site's comments section, which have often proved to be a more useful source of information than the posts themselves.
While an original post - whether by Sony or one of their third-party developers - may contain some pertinent information, PS3 users are able to comment directly under the post with questions. On 98% of major sites, those questions may as well be rhetorical. Nobody would read them, let alone answer them.
But browse the comments section on a PlayStation.Blog post and you'll find developers rolling up their sleeves and answering questions. And answering them properly. And, in doing so, often providing some extra information, the kind of stuff that may not matter to the PR team when formulating a press release, but may be vital to the kind of hardcore user that's bothering to comment on a company blog. How many frames per second it'll be running at, when a European release may be announced, that kind of thing.
It's not perfect, however. Again, like Microsoft's effort, the PlayStation blog can come off as feeling a little sterile, a little "corporate".
CAPCOM - Capcom's blog (well, technically a network of blogs, but we'll roll them up into one for convenience) is, due to their status as a developer/publisher, a little different. They have a lot less technical information to keep their fans occupied with: they don't need to update you on the status of their online network or on upcoming firmware notices.
Which, in this case, works to their benefit. Because in place of that more mundane stuff comes an increased focus on doing what blogs do best: nurturing a commu nity by getting down amongst it and having a laugh, rather than trying to will one into being via some great, old-fashioned PR machine.
"The goal has been to create the kind of place that I would like to be as a Capcom fan if I didn't actually work for the company" says Capcom's Seth Killian. "Since I spent most of my life as exactly that kind of person, this wasn't hard to imagine".
"Mostly I just wanted to have some fun, talk more directly with fans, and sidestep the corporate-speak death that makes games seem like they suck. I use it as a chance to do some really in-depth stuff on the games, to share some behind-the-scenes Capcom shenanigans, and to showcase all the amazing Capcom-related fan stuff that's happening".
Yes, they run PR. They'll post about hype for upcoming games, the odd screenshot gallery, etc. But they'll also post crap you wouldn't dream of finding on most other company websites. Like opportunities for fans to come in and test upcoming games. Links and translations to the Japanese websites of Capcom games. Stupid old YouTube vids of Street Fighter commercials from 1993.
You know. The kind of stuff that goes beyond PR, and attracts a fan, keeps them around and, through engagement with other fans and the company itself - turns them from fan into super fan. Yes, this has a downside, namely the fact you'll be drinking the Capcom kool-aid straight from the source, but then if you're a die-hard Capcom fan, is there really anything wrong with that?
I'd love to now go into detail about what each company's approach to blogging really means, and why they're taking the approach they're taking, but I can't. And that's what makes this so interesting. These guys are flying by the seat of their pants. This whole "community" thing is new ground for the gaming industry, and two of these three blogs (Sony & Capcom) are only a year old.
All three men I spoke with were adamant that, as new as their blogs were, the pace that blogs and social media have been running at could soon render them out of date, and out of date before blogs have even had a chance to develop their own set of "dos and do nots". Being aware of that, they're just running with what they feel is right, and so long as they're able to communicate with their more hardcore fans, they'll keep pushing on.
Capcom's Seth Killian sums it up best when he says "I think the current corporate feelings about the blog are, in order: vague confusion, excitement, fear, a different kind of confusion, and amusement. That might not sound good until you realise that just last year the feelings were: fear, anger, and seeking revenge, so we're headed in the right direction".