Paying For Reviews

Alfred Pennyworth, paying for a review

Alfred Pennyworth, paying for a review

Hello! Last night, it came up that IndieGameMag is now charging developers for reviews. Not ‘hand over money and we’ll write you a glowing review’, admittedly, but ‘hand over money and we’ll give you unbiased review coverage”. This is the intention, anyway.  There’s no mistake here; the fact this is IGM’s new policy has been confirmed by numerous site staff. It was also confirmed by this somewhat aggressive blog post, in which new owner Chris Newton admits to having been ‘fuming with anger’ at the reaction to the site’s new direction. “People were angry at me and my company for actually having the audacity to conduct business in a manner of my choosing,” he says, perhaps suggesting that consumers should have absolutely no say in how companies do business, in some kind of ludicrous counterpoint to How The World Actually Works. Like, okay, if a megacorp is engaging in massive tax fraud, or it becomes policy for the staff in my local record store to punch all customers in the face, I’m probably gonna complain about this on Twitter, right? It’s not audacious to criticise a company for perceived bad practise, and that line of thinking is exceptionally dangerous. Moreover, even if your company is ‘an underdog’, you’re not exempt from criticism. Bad practise is bad practise. I don’t care if you’re Philip Green or Johnny Fansite, if you’re creating something aimed at consumers, you are fair game for critique.

I could list hundreds of reasons why I dislike IGM’s new policy. As a mostly-former journo turned dev, I dislike it from both sides of the fence, but others have already written on the subject in eloquent, interesting ways. Spot the odd one out there, though. One problem I would like to briefly address, however, is that once IGM establishes a reputation for having charged for reviews, it makes me slightly uncomfortable knowing a relatively positive Richard & Alice review is up on the site. Thankfully, there’s enough evidence to show this was before their new policy (and honestly, I have WAY better things to spend $50 on than a review, always) but still, there’s something of a discomfort there. And I’m not the only developer to feel this way either, with some others politely asking IGM if they’d remove their (positive) coverage.

So yeah, it’s super problematic all around, but what I REALLY took issue with was this email a developer had received, posted in the comments of that Destructoid user blog. Specifically this line:

“What I am happy to know is that my competitors are still charge a heck of a lot more than we should be. 200 is incredibly high.” [sic]

I am not entirely sure where this ’200′ figure came from as it’s not mentioned elsewhere in the email, but the inference is that IGM’s main competitors are charging up to 200 monies in some currency or other, in order to offer review coverage. Now, I know for a fact that there are some sites out there which do try and extort money from devs. I was involved with helping set up this list last year, in fact. Note that IGM’s entry was added today. Look at the other sites on the list. They’re all… well, they’re not Eurogamer or GameSpot, are they? Are these obviously dodgy mobile-only reviews sites really IGM’s ‘rivals’? No. So! I decided to asked editors at the sites who are obviously ‘rival’ sites to IGM what their policy is on charging for reviews, and whether they’d be happy to share some thoughts with me. Let’s see if any of your favourite indie/PC/mobile gaming sites charge ’200′ for review coverage.

***

Editor #1) Chris Priestman (IndieStatik)

[Note: Chris used to work for IGM, way back before this new policy was put into place.]

Me: Does IndieStatik charge for review coverage?

Chris: Indie Statik does not charge developers for reviews or any other coverage.

Me: Is charging for review coverage something you would ever consider doing? If so, why? If not, why not?

Chris: No, we would never charge for a review. Ever. It means that our priorities would be shifted towards a “highest bidder” mentality rather than finding cool games for our readers to play. We also know that developers can spend their money in much better ways if what they’re hoping for is promotion of their game.

Me: As a journalist, do you believe it is possible for anyone to charge directly for review coverage and remain unbiased?

Chris: Nope. There’s an agenda there that I believe has an effect on you on a subconscious level. Charging for reviews means that those writing them are less inclined to give a negative review of a game, as doing so may mean the developer is not as willing to pay for another one. You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds, essentially.

***

Editors #2 & #3) Mark Brown and Rob Hearn  (PocketGamer)

Me: Does PocketGamer charge for review coverage?

Mark: No we don’t charge for reviews, of course.

Me: Is charging for review coverage something you would ever consider doing? If so, why? If not, why not?

Mark: I can’t see us ever doing that, no. I can appreciate the IGM editor’s arguments that you’ve got to find ways to keep your site in business, but this just isn’t one of them. There are some lines you just can’t cross if you want to remain as a trustworthy, ethical site worth reading. When readers call “bias” if a developer gives the reviewer a free t-shirt, I can’t see people sticking around if the developer is directly financing the writing of the review.

Rob: I hope it would never come to that, and I like to think I would try another line of work rather than lower myself, but I don’t want to judge the people who do – as long as they label expedited reviews clearly – because it can be difficult to make money writing about games. I don’t think its unethical necessarily, but it’s pretty grotty and self-defeating all the same.

Charging for reviews is self-defeating because review sites are supposed to perform a service for readers – if they allow developers with money to dictate their content then they render themselves completely pointless.

You could further argue that it’s unfair to the less well-off developers whose games aren’t covered (sites that run expedited reviews would argue that they don’t affect other merit-based output, but there’s only so much time in the day to write) but covering a game is not generally considered an ethical duty.

The problem is one of quality rather than ethics. I just don’t see why anybody would bother reading a review that was paid for, nor a site that published it given that it may have done so at the cost of something more interesting.

Me: As a journalist, do you believe it is possible for anyone to charge directly for review coverage and remain unbiased?

Mark:  No, I don’t believe it’s possibly to be unbiased when payment is involved. The best case scenario for a completely honest review is when the writer has no contact at all with the people behind the game at all and they don’t have to even consider the creators. You don’t want them even on your mind. This is like the direct opposite. Almost the worst possible way to do it.
Plus, it’s more about what it looks like to the readers – which is completely corrupt and lacking in integrity.

It’s just a complete disaster waiting to happen. You’re going to have people wanting a refund when you give their game a crappy review. You’re going to have games you want to cover but the developers don’t want to pay. It’s like a minefield where all the mines are filled with shit.

Rob: It very obviously encourage bias – if a writer thinks they can drum up more business in future by being positive then they’re liable to be kind. Editors of sites that run expedited reviews often dismiss this by claiming that the reviewers don’t know that the games they’re reviewing are subject to commercial agreements, but it seems pretty obvious to me that if you write for a site that runs these reviews it will be in your mind that every review you’re assigned may be paid for. In any case, reviews go through editors I and can presumably be tweaked prior to publication by somebody who does know that money has changed hands.However, it’s worth adding that it’s almost impossible to review games in an unbiased way, and I suspect that knowing a PR person or a developer – a very common state of affairs for journalists – is a bigger threat to impartiality than knowing that a review was paid for, though I can’t speak from experience.

***

Editor #4) John Walker (Rock, Paper, Shotgun)

Me: Does RPS charge for review coverage?

John: I can assure you that RPS has never even considered charging for coverage.

Me: Is charging for review coverage something you would ever consider doing? If so, why? If not, why not?

John: No, we’d never consider charging for review coverage. It’s an inherently corrupting concept, that is not only immediately lacking in integrity, but it’s also a really damned stupid system.

The ethics are fairly obvious. If you receive money from a developer to say whether their game is good or not, it doesn’t matter how much integrity you think you may have, your reporting is coloured by this, and utterly suspect. Let alone that in such a system only the developers with enough money could ever receive coverage.

It also changes a review into a transaction. What does $50 or $150 buy you? What is it worth to the developer? Does the reviewer have to play for a certain amount of time, or write a certain number of words, no matter the game? It makes the writer beholden to the creator, and that’s obviously an utterly inappropriate position for a critic to find himself in.

And like I say, it’s plain stupid. Demanding money for coverage puts the editorial decisions about your site into the hands of those you’re supposed to be reporting on. That’s idiotic. And frankly, if a developer can’t get coverage without paying, there’s a fair chance the game doesn’t merit coverage. You self-select coverage of only games that need to pay, and it’s hard to see how that makes for good content.

Then what do you do when Introversion or Double Fine or Telltale releases their next game? Ignore it because they’re obviously not going to pay? Or screw over all the smaller guys by giving their game a post for free? It’s a system which by its nature, if stuck to, forces a site’s content to ignore the biggest, most interesting indie games.

Me: As a journalist, do you believe it is possible for anyone to charge directly for review coverage and remain unbiased?

John: Yes, I do think someone could charge for reviews and remain unbiased. If I imagine the scenario where I charged developers for every review I did, I’d still gladly slag off crappy games. I’m not sure how long this business model might work, since I imagine there’s only so often developers will pay for someone to tell lots of people not to play their game. But I can see myself maintaining my integrity in that situation. However, that counts for absolutely nothing, since I would *look* corrupt as hell. And that’s what counts. Who cares if I’m telling the truth about a game, if to absolutely everyone else, those words were literally bought? Those words can never be trusted by anyone but me alone, and thus they’re worthless as reviews.

***

I also tried and failed to reach out to Laura Kate Dale of IndieHaven (I wasn’t able to get in contact with her in time) but she stated on Twitter earlier that IndieHaven does not charge for reviews, and never will do.

I managed to get hold of Laura, and here are her thoughts.

Editor #5) Laura Kate Dale (IndieHaven)

Me: Does IndieHaven charge for review coverage?

Laura: Indie Haven is currently being funded primarily by its core group of writers and we have never accepted money from a developer to review their game. We’ve also never asked a developer to pay to get a review of their game.

Me: Is charging for review coverage something you would ever consider doing? If so, why? If not, why?

Laura: I personally wouldn’t ever do it, I’d rather pay to run the site solo. While some may argue “I’m taking money for a review, not guaranteeing them a good review”, accepting money still creates a conflict of interests on both sides. It goes against the Indie Spirit too, I’m reviewing things made by just a couple of people on a shoestring budget often, if there game is good and catches my attention the covering it is it’s own reward. I never want a good game not to be covered because the dev didn’t have big enough pockets.

Me: As a journalist, do you believe it is possible for anyone to charge directly for review coverage and remain unbiased?

Laura: If it is possible, I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who could do it. Money corrupts and no matter what the intentions, I think eventually the lure of repeat business would encourage undeserved positivity.

***

So there you go, sites that are actual competitors to IGM, none of which charge up to ’200′ for review coverage. So where, then, are these legitimate competitors who are all doing this, forcing IGM to do the same? Unfortunately this is a question I do not have an answer to. But to me, it was an exceptionally alarming, damaging thing to claim; tarring all sites with the same brush, vaguely hinting that ‘everyone does it’, something I know to be utter fallacy both as a developer and journalist. One could almost feel as if it was a false claim, said purely to try and groom developers into thinking that the $50 fee is acceptable. Wouldn’t that be something?

Many thanks to Chris, Mark, Rob, Laura and John for taking the time to answer questions they really shouldn’t have to answer in a reasonable world.

2 comments on “Paying For Reviews

  1. Kevin Jacques de Aguiar on said:

    Wow, this is actually quite upsetting.

    Most of my opinion has been expressed in the article itself, so I guess it’s pointless to just ramble about the same things I’ve just read, but as a developer myself, I fail to see a scenario other than IGM’s digging its own grave.

    By openly charging for reviews, you automatically lose all credibility for your work. Personally, I’ll never get around to trust IGM – and I’m not saying this as a developer, but as a consumer -.

    It’s being quite hard for me to keep myself updated in the past couple weeks, so thank Molly for Tweeting this.

    Great article.

  2. Dominic Tarason on said:

    I used to write for IGM, and left not too long after Chris Priestman bailed to help start up Indie Statik. I left not long after Chris Newton (co-editor at the time, sole owner now) was bouncing around the idea of charging for reviews. His claims at the time that ‘everyone’ was charging for coverage fell flat, and I said as much at the time. I also stated the fairly obvious fact that this is the indie development scene, and everyone talks to everyone. Word will get out within seconds if he tried implementing this

    If Indie Statik hadn’t brought me on board, I would have jumped ship anyway, mostly on moral grounds, but also because charging for reviews is an astonishingly suicidal business decision.

    Newton’s reaction to any dissent back then was much the same as we see now. Annoyance or outright anger that someone would question his business decisions. The trouble IGM is in now isn’t so much a lack of foresight as the result of a man who refused to listen to advice, back down or consider alternatives.

    As far as I’m aware, this is only a very recent policy change. Newton wasn’t a writer – he’s a manager – and everyone else worked hard on the site. Don’t let it colour your opinion on earlier work and coverage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

HTML tags are not allowed.