I've been gaming about 30 years now, ever since that Commodore Vic-20 made its appearance under our Christmas tree back in 1981-82. Video games have been a passion of mine since well before I decided to try my hand at creating them as a profession, and during these past 30 years, video game reviews have evolved just as the games they reviewed.
Back then, if a game shipped broken, it shipped broken. There was no patching, no do-overs, so I relied on print reviews to help me save my money and time from busted games. Not to say I still wasn't duped into buying a broken game from time to time (I'm looking at you, Atari E.T. How many hours of my childhood were spent in those stupid pits?), but generally I trusted game reviews to help set me on the right path when it came to spending my gaming dollars. Today the internet is awash in review sites.
Now as an innocent kid sneaking a peek at the latest review scores from a magazine at a rural pharmacy, it never occurred to me that companies could be paid for these review scores. Certainly over the years and with the rise of the internet, there's been much more talk of review sites and publications taking money in exchange for their reviews.
It's hard not to look at a review score on a site that's pretty much one giant advertisement for this game or another and wonder how much money has exchanged hands prior to the review being written, and how could that not on some level influence the review in question.
The internet seems to be in general agreement. Accepting money from game makers for reviews could potentially compromise that review and is, to put it bluntly, a bad thing. Then there are app review sites.
After launching our first mobile game, Itzy3d, on Android and iPhone in January this year, I next set about the daunting task of trying to get our little game noticed. I wrote up a press release, sent this to various PR sites, and then set about contacting as many review sites as I could find in the hopes that someone would have a look at our game and, for better or worse, inform their readers of their opinion of the title while the rest of our team started work on our next title.
Over 200 emails went out with a short blurb about who we were, what our game was about, a few screenshots, and our desire to have our game reviewed.
Almost immediately I started receiving replies from sites, and the average reply would go something like this. "We have a lot of submissions and may not get a chance to review your game. Send us money, and we'll be able to do something for you."
Now at first I was dead set against this. Paying for reviews? The entire notion just struck me as wrong. I thought reviewers had a lot of testicular fortitude to even suggest I spend money on their opinions.
But then more emails came, with more offers for "expedited review services" for a fee. Some offered up advertising as well as a review to add value, but when questioned about click rates, monthly visits, and the like, the information I would require in order to make an informed decision on where to spend my advertising dollars was almost never forthcoming. Just send us money.
At some point I realized that this wasn't just a few sites looking to cash in on desperate app developers; asking for money in exchange for app reviews seemed to be the norm. After waiting for weeks for someone, anyone to review our title, reluctantly I opened my wallet and paid for a few reviews.
Obviously, I had to pay if I wanted to play their game. The reviews from users on the Apple and Android app stores had been very positive, but what we were hoping for was a detailed, well thought out review that could give us some feedback and maybe boost our visibility.
I paid for four reviews. Two were helpful, one was ok, and one just took our blurb from the press release, put it up on their site, and slapped three stars on it. Of the $100 out of my own pocket spent for reviews, the 200+ initial emails sent out, the follow-up emails, and the odd correspondence between myself and review sites, we ended up with six reviews, seven if you count the site that simply slapped a score on our press release.
I resigned myself to the new fact that app sites generally existed to fleece ignorant indies out of their money, and given my experience vowed that I would not waste my hard-earned dollars on review sites ever again.
Last month, I happened across AppyNation's: Hall of Infamy. It was a list of sites that engaged in the practice of accepting money in exchange for reviews and encouraged developers to add to the list as they came across sites doing the same.
All I could think was, "But don't most app review sites do this?" Certainly based on my experience with the hundreds I contacted, sites taking money for reviews seemed rather the rule than the exception. Pay or we'll ignore you completely.
App review sites. Like headcrabs for your wallet!
In a month's time (fingers crossed) when we're ready to launch our next title, Vex Blocks, I'll still put out a press release, I'll still attempt to raise awareness of our title any way I can, but you can be sure I'm not about to hold my nose and shell out for any more "expedited" reviews ever again.
It didn't improve my game's visibility, it didn't push more downloads – it was simply a waste of money. It shouldn't be the norm for review sites to ask for money for their reviews.
As the indie development community grows, these sites will continue their parasitic ways by preying off developers desperate enough to throw what limited funds they have away in the hopes of giving their game a better chance of success.
If a site is reputable and getting decent traffic in the first place, they don't need your money from reviews. I was fooled by thinking this was the norm simply by the sheer amount of sites doing this. Don't prove another willing host as I did.
[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]