Press Pass: The Review Copy Revue
When I was growing up and dreaming of a position as a game journalist, I envisioned three primary perks to the job: 1) getting to play games all day, 2) getting to see games months early at the Consumer Electronics Show (the precursor to today's Electronic Entertainment Expo), and 3) getting to play early review copies of games before they reached store shelves.
Of course, now that I'm a full-time game journalist, I know the somewhat disappointing reality behind of all these perks. Yes, I get to play games during the work day, but more of my time seems to be spent writing about them, which is the part I actually get paid for. Yes, I get to go to E3, but after a while the show seems less like a massive, freeform arcade and more like an endless, hellish slog filled with massive lines and boring appointments. And while I do get access to plenty of reviewable games before release, getting such access from public relations departments has sometimes been a struggle, especially when I was just starting out.
You mean you're going to GIVE me the game early, just so I can review it? *SQUEAL OF DELIGHT*
In an ideal world, there would be enough early press copies of a game available to satisfy every legitimate journalist with an interest in writing a review. In reality, though, almost every journalist I've talked to says they've gotten some form of the "we just don't have enough copies available" excuse when requesting a game for review. And the public relations people I've talked to say that's the line isn't just a copout.
"For example, with independent developers, review units cost money and they usually have limited budgets, so you unfortunately can?t give everyone a copy," said Sean Kauppinen, founder & CEO of the International Digital Entertainment Agency. But even larger publishers may also be constrained when it comes to providing the early copies that reviewers need to prepare that launch day review. "Keep in mind that most PR departments work toward a strict budget on each title and have to 'buy' their review copies using that budget," explained Matt Frary, a partner at Maverick PR. "That is money that could have been used for one more media tour, one more event or one more video, so you really find yourself reviewing the list critically and measuring the return on investment (ROI) for each copy."
So which outlets and writers get those limited copies when review time comes around? Most PR professionals I talked to admitted they had a list of "Tier 1" or "VIP" outlets that were the first to receive copies of all their new games, whether they requested them or not. These lists tend to include outlets with large readerships, long histories and outsize reputations in the industry, including newspapers like USA Today and The New York Times, magazines like Game Informer and Web sites like IGN and GameSpot.
The biggest game magazine in the country is obviously going to get a copy of any game it wants to review.
For many, it's just logical that the biggest outlets get access to games first. But some PR professionals think you can get better results with a more targeted approach. David Tractenberg, president at Traction Public Relations, disregards an outlet's size and instead uses a first-come, first-serve model for distributing most of his promo games. "The reporters that are most interested in a title will contact us sometimes months in advance to get a copy," he said. "We always send to those people first, as they want it the most and will usually write about it. Once we have satisfied those people we start sending to the people we have known the longest, who have always been fair to us and take the time to review the game properly. After that we send to the larger sites and the outlets where we have established relationships."
Some PR reps prioritize access based on an outlet's specific focus. "Knowing that they are legitimate journalists working for outlets that are relevant to the product's target audience is the key factor in determining who gets review units if they are limited," said Kauppinen. "We always review the list based on what we're promoting and who is relevant for the specific game. ... If you can't be bothered to target your reviews, you probably shouldn't be doing PR or marketing." Others pick and choose based on how much they trust the writer or outlet they're working with. "For pre-launch [evaluation copies], we work with a select number of journalists who we know well and can trust to not disclose embargoed information prematurely," said Garth Chouteau, president of public relations at PopCap.
All of this is fine if you're working for an established site with a unique focus, or if you have a large PR rolodex and the foresight to call ahead. But for new outlets and writers with few clips and fewer PR contacts, it can be difficult to break onto the review-copy radar. Many journalists I talked to reported running into brick walls with PR when they were starting out, and being forced to buy or rent their own retail copies just to run late reviews. At least one major publisher reportedly requires a new outlet to exist for six months and have an Alexa ranking of 100,000 or less (i.e., a few hundred unique visitors a day) before the outlet can receive promo copies of its games.
A site that's unlikely to get many review copies any time soon.
In part, policies like these are a defense against the dozens of opportunistic "review" sites that pop up just to try and scam free games out of publishers. "For a while there, I was getting several requests a week from review sites located on Geocities," said Maverick's Frary. "'My-game-reviews-rock.geocities.net' just isn't that impressive on the coverage report, and I could get just as many hits by posting my own review online somewhere." And the problem has only gotten worse as the media environment has gotten more fractious. "It's worth noting that Twitter is going to be the real acid test," said PopCap's Chouteau. "There are countless Twitterers who are starting to position themselves as journalists by virtue of having 500 or 1,000 followers and an opinion. We have started saying 'no' to many of those, and we'll continue to do so."
But most of the PR professionals I talked to said that refusing to send review copies to sites just because they're small isn't a winning strategy in general. "Some publishers ... still refuse to expand their list and stick only to the 'big' players in the space," Frary said. "This is really too bad, and they end up missing a massive, and growing, segment of the market. ... [It's] particularly frustrating because when you look at the smaller videogame sites out there as a whole, they have a huge voice that reaches a critical audience that the larger outlets sometimes miss." Or, as Traction's Tractenberg put it, "Even if a site only has 150 fans, if those fans are rabid and they like the game, they will buy it, which makes the review copy money well spent."
Plus, in today's media environment, you never know when a small article from a small site will turn into a big article from a suddenly hot site. "Rating a site as 'too small' is short-sighted, because you never know what story will 'blow up' for a site," said Calico Media PR rep Ted Brockwood. "Recently, one smaller site we deal with frequently published a story that got posted on Digg, and so they saw a nearly 500-percent boost in their total monthly traffic in just one day. If the PR people on that story had ignored the site for being 'too small' they would have missed a fantastic opportunity."
With help from sites like Digg, even a review from a small site can sometimes get big attention.
The quickest way for a journalist to lose access to review copies isn't by being small or new, though. It's being unfair or narrow-minded. "For example -- if a writer has said flat-out (either in a column, a preview, etc.) that they hate FPS games, then why send them one for review?" Brockwood asked rhetorically. "It only wastes their time and yours by trying to force them to review something they dislike already." And if you do receive games, PR reps say, for goodness' sakes, actually play them. "We also had a site that didn't actually play the game," Tractenberg said. "They said they played one level and based their review on that. I understand having limited time to review products, but if people are going to destroy a title a developer spent four years building, they could spend a few hours trying it out first."
In the end, the only thing separating a new journalist from the mountain of review copies they envision is a bit of elbow grease put into writing and building relationships with PR. "If you're serious about kicking off a game site and are looking for PR support, you need to do the early legwork to establish yourself," Frary said. "Go buy some just-released titles and write up some great reviews, request to be added to several publishers' news distribution lists, knock out some thoughtful interviews, and run some news stories. Be proactive and open up a dialogue with PR people across the industry to create unique coverage for your site. ... PR folks don't send out review builds for fun or to make friends. They send out review builds to secure coverage that will help the game succeed and sell more copies. That's it."
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