Recently I’ve been reading some comments on various websites that accuse games ‘journalists’ ‘bloggers’ and ‘critics’ of all kinds of things. There’s an air of conspiracy theories around them suggesting that when a game gets a good review it’s because the publisher will threaten to not send any more in future or it’s in exchange for perks and free stuff. Over the last few years I’ve worked with nearly every gaming PR company and publisher in the UK at some point as well as journalists from large publications and many fellow bloggers and critics. I wouldn’t ever call myself a journalist, we do no investigative journalism on this site, we’re critics who do occasional blogs like this, but there are real journalists in the industry and while integrity might not matter to a small minority, most care deeply about it and the reputation of their sites. So I thought today I’d run you through the processes and events between PR companies, publishers, and writers.
In general if there’s a game we’d like to review the process goes like this. First I’ll send out an e-mail to the publisher ( not the developer) of that game. There’s sometimes contact details on their website, other times I use a site called gamespress.com that requires verficiation that you’re from a media outlet then contains a database of press releases and contact details. Some PR people prefer phone calls, others prefer e-mail so once you’ve contacted them a few times you get into a habit. In my e-mail or phone call I explain who I am and what the site is about, let them know the site figures (how many unique visitors per month etc) and ask if they could provide a review copy of the game on the platform we’d like to review it on. We generally review things on PC when possible, partly because then we don’t have to wait for things to be posted and partly because it’s easier to take screenshots and video.
Sometimes, the publishers won’t ever get back to us. On this site we’ve never had any real contact from Sony or Sega so in that case we’ll usually just go buy the game on release day and do a slightly later review. It doesn’t affect the score we give the game at all but with some games we have less interest in, we just won’t review it in this case.
Other times the publisher will e-mail back and either include a code for the game in the e-mail or ask for more details. The details they want are always things like our shipping address, other visitor information (location, bounce rate etc) or when we’ll be able to cover the game and in what form it will be. If a game is early access for example, then the publisher will want us to do a preview rather than a review. Often for a bigger game there’ll be an embargo. This means we have to agree in writing (in an e-mail for most, although occasionally you have to print off a form, sign it and return it) that we will not release any coverage before a certain date. Sometimes the embargo will only relate to certain aspects of a game. We had one title where we could only talk about the first half of the game before a certain date, so as not to spoil a half-way twist. If we wanted to publish the review after that date, we could write about what we want.
The embargoes are rarely different for different publications. We often have the same ones as IGN or Eurogamer, but admittedly we do tend to get the copies of the games much later as we’re much lower down on the priority list.
With some companies they want to loan you games rather than giving them away (some unscrupulous bloggers sell the games after reviewing them when they get hard copies) so you have to go through a slightly more involved process, filling in forms to say what you want, when you want it, for how long and when will you send it back.
Once we have the code, or game, or piece of hardware (the process is much the same for hardware reviews, but generally they want them back) we write the review, set it to go live at the embargo date if there is one, or schedule it in at an appropriate time if there isn’t, and then publish it. As soon as we publish it we e-mail the publisher and give them a link as well as a short summary of what we thought..
Many times we have given games poor review scores, and every time we have contacted the publisher after the article has been published to tell them. Not once have we had any negative feedback from this or any publisher refusing to work with us in future. The tone is usually ‘oh well, hope you like the next game more’. The departments who sort out advertising for a game are usually very different to the people who send out games for review, so there’s little effect based on what you say about a game (although this is helped by the fact we’re so small).
Occasionally we will not review a game because it simply doesn’t work. This is becoming more common with Early Access games and in that case we’ll contact the PR people who sent us the code and explain the situation. We’re not going to give an early access game a bad write up because it doesn’t work and particularly with PC games it’s hard to know if the fault is with the game or your particular set up, so it’s not always fair to slate a game based on this.
With hardware companies, they seem to care more about the reviews, so if we write a bad review they’ll often contact us to see what our problem was. Sometimes this results in them sending out a new product to test, sometimes they just want the feedback, it never ends up in them refusing to work with us.
Press events have become somewhat of a thorny issue over the last decade or so with reports of journalists being plied with free stuff, booze and even (allegedly) strippers in order to secure positive write ups. These press events do happen but they vary wildly in how they’re presented and again there’s never any kind of implicit or explicit demand that you write good things about the game, they’re more opportunities for a bit of a party where people can do a lot of networking. It’s really helpful to meet these people you’re e-mailing or ringing face to face and that’s the largest part of what happens.
Sometimes they’re very sedate affairs. We attended a Nintendo-run event shortly after E3 where it was literally a gallery with some of the E3 games to play, some soft drinks available and some event staff on hand to explain anything you needed, with the odd exec about for interview opportunities. On the other end of the scale we’ve been to Sony and Mad Catz events where there’s free alcohol, we were all given free controllers and headphones and the whole environment was set up like a nightclub with live entertainment as well as a chance to play some of the games.
The freebies are difficult to deal with. It’s always nice to get some of that stuff (even if it often ends up being tat) but I’d feel very uncomfortable and have to refuse if it ever came across as a bribe. When reviewing games I’ve never given a second thought to whether or not I’ve had a special edition of it or a bottle opener with the game’s logo on, it’s not a consideration but when the gifts get out of hand most journalists have the willpower to take a step back and consider what they’re getting and why.
I think most of the time it’s purely light-hearted and good natured. For example when CD-Projekt Red was doing some private showings of Witcher 3 last year at Gamescom; in their little waiting room there was a bunch of Polish beer, because we were in Germany and they thought Polish beer was better.
Usually we get into press events via an invite because we’re on some mailing list or another. At big events like Gamescom you can request access or a ticket, but generally it’s just a chance for people already in communication to meet up.
As I mentioned earlier, advertising is normally handled by a marketing department separate from the PR people we normally deal with. Advertising is much less personal and more of a business affair due to the large amounts of money that can change hands. Of course publishers might decide to only advertise on sites where people are positive about their games, that’s there prerogative, but it isn’t quite as shady as people seem to think. Essentially there’s three ways to secure advertising (which most people need unless they receive donations from Twitch or something like that, we accept donations but rarely get any so it’s not enough to sustain the site).
The first way is to set aside space and then offer it out to people. For a small site you might say you have a banner at the top of your page and someone can secure that for $50/week. Working out the prices is a matter for negotiation but generally it comes down to how many visitors you get from the advertiser’s target market. Google Analytics is an excellent source for finding out this information. Once you have agreed on a term and price, they send you the files and you sort out the advert. We have a video box on the right that is run by Unruly media and they pay us a fixed amount to have that there each month and in return they agree to make sure the content is relevant to video games.
The second way (and increasingly the most common) is to use and ad provider like Google. You say what space you have, and you let them put ads there, essentially for free. You get paid by how many people click on those ads and it’s usually a tiny amount, but if you have thousands of visitors you might be able to earn somewhat of an income from this. We have one of these banner adverts at the bottom of our articles, I’m not convinced we even make £50 a year from this.
The third way (and the most controversial) is to write paid articles. Occasionally a company (usually online gambling companies) will e-mail you and ask if they can put an article on your site or get you to write one, and they’ll pay you for it as long as it involve key words and/or links to their sites. The money offers are usually quite high but we’ve taken the stance to flat out refuse to write paid articles unless it is in line with something we would be happy to say anyway. To date this has happened twice, both for Unruly. They asked us to write an article on a Battlefield 4 trailer, and one on a Plants Vs Zombies Trailer. We enjoyed both those games and the advertisers required us to state it was a sponsored post in the heading, so we knew we were not misleading anybody. They didn’t mind what we wrote as long as it was about the trailers and the posts contained the trailers.
So that is everything that happens between us and the people who sell games. If anyone has any other questions or anything they’d like me to add to this article, please let me know at contact(at)TPreview.co.uk