Tobold's Blog
Friday, September 11, 2015
Reviewing games on YouTube

From time to time on this blog I post my opinion about some game. That sort of post might or might not have the word "review" somewhere in the title or text. I might have the word "recommended" at the end, but never a review score or anything similar. But most importantly I'm not getting paid $30,000 to write such reviews. Most of the time I received absolutely nothing, and even had to buy the game myself. Over the 12 years that I am doing this I received a handful of free "review copies", and in each of these cases I stated that in the post.

Personally I prefer to express myself in written form instead of speaking into a camera. The result is slower, but better thought through, because it is so much easier to edit writing. But I certainly can see the attraction of watching your game reviews on YouTube, especially if you can see the gameplay as well as hearing what the reviewer thinks about it. I can understand why especially a younger audience would rather watch a funny guy reviewing a video game on YouTube than reading a blogger's much dryer review of the same game. I understand while some of these channels have millions of viewers, compared to blogs having at best thousands of readers.

But when I hear some YouTuber writing to developers demanding $22,000 for a review, I am starting to believe that something has seriously gone wrong. The sum of all the worst accusations of corruption leveled against all video game review writers during Gamergate was just a fraction of the sums that appear to be common now on YouTube. And there are contracts between game companies and YouTubers which are definitively unethical, by deliberately hiding the fact that these are paid promotions, or by obliging the reviewer to refrain from saying certain things.

I do think that there are sufficient methods for popular YouTubers to make money via advertising and the like without having to resort to effectively blackmailing developers into payments, or disguising paid promotions as honest reviews. But with the current situation of there being far too many games out there struggling for a piece of the consumers gaming money, I'm afraid that we'll hear far more stories of shady dealings on YouTube for some time to come.

Buying reviews/articles has been a common practice for years. This is nothing different, it's just the 2015 digital version of the same thing.
Polygon, the source of the first story, received $750,000 from Microsoft to "fund" a doc about the formation of Polygon. So, the inference that the numbers attached to promotional content on video content are larger than written content is highly disputable. As Rugus said, this practice is time immemorial. Hence, to go back to a discussion I think I had with you Tobold a few months ago, you cannot trust media in good-faith.
When I was younger I used to spend money for PC magazines. They were big, heavy and filled with reviews, articles, etc. They were cool for poop time, flights, train, etc. But I've never considered them a source of reliable information because Microsoft, HP and other "big names" were everywhere.

I seriously doubt a paper magazine would survive if based on "real and honest" reviews only...
For me that is a huge difference. Yes, magazines depend on advertising revenue, which may result in some sort of editorial bias in favor of the advertisers. But to me that is worlds away from a single guy writing a blackmail letter to a developer saying "pay up, or your game isn't even going to be covered". Or direct payments for specified good reviews. To me direct personal corruption is more despicable than indirect commercial influence.
Honestly... That's nothing different than a big-brand-company paying PC Magazine $100.000 to get a 10 pages "full cover preview!" of its latest piece of hardware/software. If they pay they have a chance to get covered for a full month. If not, they have to wait another month.

I seriously doubt that any Epson-sponsored magazine would bash their products and/or write about "how HP is better". It's the same thing, the money Epson gives to the magazine for their ads is often directly biasing their articles.

There can be more or less subtle ways to get the money but at the end of the day that's how it works: more money means less freedom. That's really nothing new.

I discovered this phenomenon through my son, who watches these "Skylanders Boy and Girl" videos like a junkie. I was trying to figure out how the father, who exudes the energetic false personality of a marketing tool, produces so much content with his family. As it turns out it's all basically paid advertising, sponsorships from the toys and games being represented and advertising makes the old toy cartoons of the 80's that I grew up with look positively restrained in comparison to what Youtube offers today with its play-throughs and unboxings.

I don't know if it would benefit indie game publishers much, though, as ridicule and torment on Youtube seem to be more common for low budget games (especially those made on the cheap for a quick buck).
I would just say that what to the developer feels like 'blackmail' may be considered by the reviewer as a simple offer of publicity, no obligation. (It would be blackmail obviously if he reviewed everyone except those who refused to pay him!)

Disclosure is the way to go, IMO. Obviously the best thing is to build up a rep for honest unbiased reviews, but that's not an easy thing to do.

Anyway, here's at least one person who will probably be sticking to text reviews (from a style preference, not because I think they are more reliable!)

Indies should be aiming for promotions that are free or very cheap, anyway. If you're going to sell a million, you can afford to throw some money at someone who might sell 10000 extra copies. If you are going to sell 10000, that reviewer might sell 100 for you if you're lucky, so bear in mind how much if anything it makes sense to pay.

Indies might not be able to afford to pay media to begin with. As an indie developer myself, we're super happy when a YouTuber or a blogger covers our work or wants to, but at best we can offer is a Steam key. We literally cannot afford to be paying people to review our game, at least, not any remotely substantial amounts. Word of mouth and the goodwill of folks who think our work is interesting.

That being said, I agree with others that disclosure is key. That 10-page spread in PC Magazine may have a "This is a Paid Advertisement" in small text at the bottom of the article, which is analogous to those full website takeovers where you click anywhere on the edges of the site where there are pictures of whatever game is being advertised and it takes you to buy the game. Or on television and you get the tiny disclaimer that these are paid actors.

As a consumer, if you tell me they're paying you to hawk their wares, I'll still look, but yeah, I'll take it with a grain of salt due to inherent paid bias. But if you don't tell me and I find out later? I'll never trust your publication again.
I don't really see this as blackmail, and as long as it is disclosed I have no issues with it. Youtubers audience have a value, and there is nothing wrong with them asking money to gain access to their userbase. In the end, devs are able to not take up the offer. Payment for good reviews is absolutely wrong, paying for certainty of coverage is just business, not blackmail at all.

Who would pay for a review that could potentially ruin him? It is very naive to assume that when someone is paying for a review, he also isn't paying for a positive one.
@Chris K.
Quite a fair amount of people. You pay for access to a userbase, be it magazine or youtuber subscriber. If you have no trust in your product, sure, you would not do so, but it is narrowminded to assume people only pay for good reviews. The value is in the amount of people you reach.

Additionally, selling 'good reviews' is as poisonous for the seller as for the buyer
I am appalled by how many people here are unable to see how immoral this is. And also, saying that it has been going on for ages doesn't make it any more honest, decent or moral.

I'm sorry, but I just cannot see your point. Magazines and youtubers review stuff all the time, for free, because it's free content for them. Sometimes they get review copies of the games, because as you said the developers want the exposure. But if, say, Microsoft approaches a magazine and pays them for a 10-page spread on XBox1, do you honestly think they will also say 'please, point out all the flaws as well for a balanced review, this is what we're paying you for'. If at any one point there is a monetary transaction, then it stops being a review and it becomes an advertisment, and advertisments are by default positive. Of course the magazine/youtuber will still clasify it as a 'crah test' or a 'review', because honestly would you buy a magazine that you knew was 100% ads? Or similarly, would you still watch a video knowing that it is an endorsement and not the creator's original opinion?

Even if they trust their product 99%, they would eliminate even that 1% chance that the review would come to bite their company in the ass. It's smart business, it's marketing. And in the end, you see takedown notices on youtube videos when the reviews are negative (i.e. against Totalbiscuit and AngryJoe), enforcing the notion that on a business level, no one wants to point out the flaws of his product.
I don't know anything about the takedowns against angryjoe, but against TB that massively blew up in the devs face. Takedowns for bad reviews are nowhere near as common as you imply. If you look through TBs channel, there are plenty negative reviews.

You are also combining different parts with a bunch of suppositions, so I will reiterate my points.

1) It is fine to ask money to feature a product (this happens consistently at the moment, through cash and through all expense paid trips to review the product at the devs location)
2) All paid by dev reviews should be disclosed (both for monetary as for payments like trips)
3) I am against paying for a positive review, nor do I think it happens that much, as it would leak and blow up.

Yes, magazines and youtubers review for free all the time, but A LOT of games do not get reviewed. TB had a video about getting 300+ unused review codes over the course of 2 months. I think it is perfectly valid to pay for a guarantee to get a review, no matter if it is good or not, as not being reviewed and not being seen is not good for the chances of lesser known games, and I also think devs have enough faith in their product to let it stand on its own. While there are plenty dishonest people, there are also plenty honest.

PS: By no means do I mean to imply TB takes money to review anything, his number of received review codes is just the only I am aware of.
I also share your disappointment. OTOH, I have a tiny bit of acknowledgement of their position. If you want a celebrity to wear your watch, shirt, shoes you usually have to pay them. But that is so not the mythos of youtube.

It will be sad but necessary maturation if there were to effectively be disclaimers that say "I am a paid performer, financed by advertising on youtube as well as endorsements which I have to disclose."

I don't like it, but if my main income was youtube ads and the only thing I had was my time, I could see doing it. But full disclose is absolutely required.
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