“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”
Hello, NPCs! We’ve an informative treat prepared for you today!
Recently we’ve taken some strides toward games journalism with talk of a new vision for the future, making an impact on the current status of conversation, and acquiring press copies of games for review. I recently had the pleasure of playing and critiquing a press copy of SteamWorld Dig 2 courtesy of Image & Form Games, for which I’m very thankful.
However, navigating the world of games journalism and trying to step into it from the outside can be confusing and intimidating. How does one go about requesting for games and presenting oneself in a professional manner? Well I recently had a sit down with one of my great friends here at WordPress, Cheap Boss Attack, who has been working together with publishers and developers reviewing their games for years. With other impressive credentials, CBA is a true source of wisdom and insight into the processes involved in putting yourself out there as a games writer/reviewer.
Note that there is a cautionary here, at least in my opinion.
I’m fully aware of the possibility that publishing this interview about review copies and how to obtain them may lead to a surge of requesters inundating and overwhelming publishers with emails and PMs. On the other hand, I know that reviewers provide a valuable service in creating coverage for new releases and, in some cases, criticism which can help developers improve games. Thoughtful reviews can leave an impression on the industry. Mighty is the pen.
That carries some weight of responsibility, so I’ll say this: ensure that if you’re ready to begin requesting for press copies from publishers that you’re ready to provide quality feedback, respectable coverage, and content for their games. You need to build relationships. To my mind, this is less about how many followers somebody has and more about the kind of professionalism and quality that games journalism desperately needs today. You can provide some unique insight and some personality that the mainstream just cannot match, so you wield that distinction with all your strength and don’t forget that you’re offering your services and in a way representing a lot of us who want to change or be a part of the future of gaming journalism. Don’t throw that away.
But I know you’re a reasonable person… after all, you’re reading The Well-Red Mage! *obligatory wink to stave off rumors of egotism* Thanks for stopping in and I hope that the following proves useful, inspiring, and infectious in creating a better gaming world. The way I look at it, we can continue to raise the standard for each other and on the macrocosm raise the standard for games writing for everybody. A big thank you again to Cheap Boss Attack for coming up with the nucleus for this interview!
“Mister Cheap Boss Attack,
it is a pleasure to be able to have an organized chat with you again. I greatly enjoyed our last conversation and I know I’ll enjoy this one! You and I have been talking along the lines of game codes and keys recently, and how to go about receiving them from publishers or developers, so we thought it’d be a good opportunity to share some words on the matter. It’s not something that’s talked about too often, not that I’ve seen. Maybe you can start us off with a basic definition of terms? What are we talking about when we talk keys and codes, publishers and developers?
“Ahoy! I actually get this question a lot, since most of the reviews published on my own website come by way of these “keys and codes.”
“For starters, a game’s developer is the team that actually created the game you’re playing, while a publisher is the company that… well, publishes the game to your platform of choice. Sometimes the developer and publisher is one and same (Nintendo, for example). Keys and codes are just two different terms for the same exact thing. It’s highly unlikely that a game’s publisher (who normally handles code distribution to the press) will provide you with a physical copy of a game for the purpose of a review. Instead, they’ll send you a “code” that is then redeemed through your platform. If you’ve ever redeemed digital game keys from places like Humble Bundle then you’re already familiar with the process.”
“Right, so a code is a digital copy of the game distributed
at will by the publisher to members of the press. Why do publishers hand out what are essentially free copies of their cash cows?”
“Think of it as compensation. They provide an outlet with a free copy of their latest game in return for said outlet’s review coverage. This coverage will likely reach hundreds or thousands of potential consumers (depending on your site’s reach) and there’s a good chance at least one of those people will buy their game because of it. In that regard, they’ve already made their money back.
“It’s not just the review coverage, either. I record a weekly podcast where I talk about the games I’m currently playing. That includes games I receive for the purpose of reviews. There are always folks out there more interested in listening to the podcasts I appear on than reading a review for a game they may or may not be attracted to.”
“With phrasing like “press”, “coverage” and “outlet”,
it sounds as if there’s a level of professionalism that comes into play here and I’d like to get into that aspect, as well. First, how do you go about submitting a request for a code? Is there a kind of etiquette and process to it?”
“There is definitely a process involved and professionalism can only help your chances. There are literally thousands of independently ran video game websites (like yourself and I), so you need to think of these requests as job applications. You wouldn’t want to submit an application full of typos and grammatical errors, right? Especially when the service you provide in return is written coverage.
“We talked a little bit before setting up this interview, and I mentioned it being equal parts detective work, presenting yourself in a worthwhile manner, and pure luck.
“Outside of self-published “indie” games, you’ll likely be dealing with the game’s publisher. As I mentioned before, they’re the ones that control review code distribution. It’s rare for a developer to distribute keys over their publisher. I mentioned detective work, because you’ll want to figure out who the game’s publisher is and how to go about contacting their PR (public relations) department. Sometimes the publisher’s Twitter page will allow you to send them a direct message, but other times you’ll have to locate their official website and submit a request through an old fashioned contact form.
“You’ll want to present yourself to the publisher (or developer, in some cases) in a worthwhile manner, because you want them to see your value to them as a content creator. Publishers are only given a certain amount of review keys to hand out, which isn’t always an issue when it comes to Steam, PlayStation, and Xbox platforms, but Nintendo is notorious for handing out a small supply. Make yourself more desirable than the others.
“And luck because lots of smaller developers and publishers just don’t respond to every inquiry because they’re too busy shipping a game. It happens a lot.”
“Nintendo? Handing out a small supply of anything? Nonsense…”
“What are some of the important points you’ll want to hit in a request,
provided there’s no form?”
“I’d suggest an introductory message that discloses who you are, the website you write for, and your position there. It’s also a good idea to talk about your site’s reach, be it subscribers, WordPress followers, YouTube and Twitch followers, etc., so they have an idea of how much coverage they can expect. I always mention that I’ll likely discuss the game in detail on a podcast and I’m always vocal on Twitter about the games I play, which ensures additional coverage outside of the review.
“Once you’ve written a few reviews from the keys you’ve obtained from publishers, include that in your request. Tell them what publishers you’ve received keys from and provide links to a few current reviews that you’re really proud of.”
“Okay so 1) introduction: identity, place, and position, 2) your reach,
3) previous codes you’ve covered, 4) samples of your work.”
“I know I already pointed out the similarities between requesting review codes and applying for a job, but you’re going to start off building your “work history” by reviewing smaller games. You won’t hear back from Sony about reviewing their hot new game, but smaller indie titles are usually pretty eager to get whatever coverage they can since they’re likely to be overlooked by the bigger guys.
“That’s a great start, yeah. In your case, I would also mention how many people contribute to your website (whereas I’m just one person), how often new posts go up, and that you specialize in long-form reviews which provide more a more in-depth critique.”
“So a bit of flavor added to the mix, gotcha! As for indies vs big names,
I think that’s an important distinction to point out. It’s something I came across multiple times when researching this area and I think that’s where it really seems like you’re providing a service to the developers in the case of indies. It’s sort of like building a business relationship, would you say? There’s an element of trust that crops up after you’ve successfully done this a few times?”
“Absolutely. Unless you’re a Twitch streamer or a YouTube channel with thousands (or even millions) of loyal fans, you’re probably going to start off small. In the meantime, if you’re interested in covering major releases, renting via RedBox or services like GameFly is always an option.
“I’ve worked with countless developers and publishers reviewing games and conducting interviews, and since I handle all of my own PR work I’ve gotten to know more than a few PR folks by name. Whenever I submit a request to them, I always remind them that I’ve reviewed their games in the past (linking the review in the email) and let them know that I’m happy to continue covering their projects.
“A lot of publishers have what’s called “PR lists” that they’re more than willing to add you to, even if you’re not selected to receive a review key when it comes time for distribution. This assures you that you’ll receive updates on future projects and gives you a direct line of communication, should you decide to submit a review request to them in the future. It also gives you access to “press kits,” which contain all sorts of helpful goodies like trailers, contact information, interview request forms, high-resolution screenshots, and in-depth game details that you can use in news or other promotional articles outside of reviews. I feel like I’m rambling a bit, so I apologize if some of this seems off-topic!”
“It’s all great information from an insider!
It sounds like you’ve really put in the hard work to build these relationships. At what point in a reviewers “career” do you think that they are “ready” to start requesting these keys from publishers? Are there certain things that should be in place? And also, we talked about presentation and detective work, now how about luck… Let’s be realists: what are the odds in getting a code? How successful have you been, if you had to put a number on it?”
“I would start submitting requests immediately, regardless of your current reach (the amount of visitors your website receives). The worst that can happen is you don’t receive a code. You just have to be willing to be professional, put aside your current “personal time” game, and focus on providing a fair, unbiased review once you do receive one.
“The odds of getting a code are higher if you’re requesting a game that caters to a niche crowd — like a JRPG on the Vita, for instance. Not many websites cover the Vita extensively and it’s highly unlikely you’ll have much competition. Again, Nintendo sucks about handing out codes to publishers, so unless you have a good reach there’s a good chance you’ll be overlooked.
“If there’s an indie game on PS4, Xbox One, or Steam you’d like to cover, just submit a request. They usually have plenty of codes to hand out to willing reviewers. Don’t think of this as “free games,” though. Reviews are a lot of work and you could likely save up money and buy a game in far less time than it takes to get a “free” copy, draft, edit, and publish.”
“So providing an unbiased review…
that brings up an interesting aspect of this discussion that I’ve seen pop up now and then, which is the emphasis on having a level of integrity and being honest in your take on the game, even though you received it via code. What do you do if you hated the game? Do publishers care about your criticisms? How do you approach reviewing a game in this sense versus reviewing one “on a whim”, that you’ve been enjoying during your “personal time”? I think some people might be making this molehill into a mountain.”
“Believe it or not, most developers and publishers want constructive criticism because it helps out with future patches/updates, or even future projects. Don’t hold back on the criticism, but again, be as constructive as possible. It’s one thing to score a game low (if that’s your thing), but another to explain to your audience why. Go in-depth with your critique rather than trashing a game without context.”
“So in that respect, you’d vouch for taking a serious look
at your methodology in reviewing games and see whether it would be appropriate for game codes from publishers?”
“I try to review every game the same, whether I paid for it myself or received it for review. I’m sure you can attest that once you’ve written enough reviews you kind of become set in your style. A review is for the consumer, though, not the developer or publisher. You’re not there to sell anyone anything, you’re there to share your experience with your audience. It’s all about being honest without being a jerk, basically.”
“Hahaha! That’s a good life lesson right there, eh?
Be honest without being a jerk! With all that’s going on in journalism today, honesty seems like a plus.”
“I would say yes, personally, but there are definitely game critics out there who are brutally honest. If your reach is good enough, I’m sure there are publishers out there willing to have their game ripped apart because bad publicity is still publicity.
“Being kind can go a long way! Sometimes a simple tweet to an indie developer saying “Hey, your game looks rad and I’d love to cover it for my website” is all you need to get your foot in the door.”
“To clarify, requesting these game codes is meant to be for games
which are yet to be released or have only recently been released, correct?”
“Yes and no. There are only so many codes to distribute to members of the press, so you’re more likely to receive a code if you request one early. There isn’t an exact time line that acts as a “sweet spot,” but if you know you want to cover a game, it has a publisher and a release date, then it’s a good enough time to submit your request. If they respond to the request (which isn’t always the case) they’ll likely add you to their press list and get back with you closer to the game’s release date. I’ve received codes weeks before a game releases, and if that’s the case you’re usually given an “embargo” date. You essentially get to play the game early, but you’re forbidden from discussing it with anyone until the embargo date approaches.
“That being said, even if the game is a bit older, feel free to submit a request. If they’re out of codes, they’ll tell you — or ignore you altogether!”
“Is there any reason to keep from being too hasty about requesting codes,
or so many codes at once? What’s expected of you once you receive a code and what happens if you don’t follow up?”
“It’s completely unpredictable, since you have no way of knowing when or if you’ll get these codes. I’ve submitted a handful of requests in the past and received all of them within 24 hours… which sucked. Having a list of games you HAVE to play because you agreed to review them can be insanely daunting (if this happens to you, it’s probably a good idea to let the publisher know that you’re running behind schedule or just flat out decline the code before redeeming it — seriously, this sucks!). However, if you have a reliable staff that you can distribute codes to then it’s not that big of an issue. I’m just one person, though!
“Once you receive a code, it’s probably ideal to put that review at the top of your priority list. It’s basically the honor system. I like to think that if I don’t provide the review I end up on some super awful list of terrible people that gets shared between the PR reps! The horror!”
“Blacklisted! That sounds terrifying.”
“But you know how long it takes you to play through games and review them, and you’ll come to know what kind of workload you can handle.”
“Well you may just be one man, but you’re one man with a whole lotta class!
Thanks very much for sharing your insight and wisdom on a somewhat delicate subject! I know this old mage appreciates it and I hope our readers do as well. Plus, maybe this’ll stem the tide of questions you’ve been bombarded with on the topic!”
“Haha, well I’m always happy to help! This isn’t a surefire way to get review codes, of course, but it’s what has worked for me over the last four years. Hopefully it helps some of you out there.”
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