Creators, Kickstarters, Previews and Reviews
I’ve seen quite a few discussions about Kickstarter and paid (P)Reviews, it seems to be a discussion that rolls around fairly endlessly, and since I’m commenting on Kickstarter and the tabletop games industry generally, I thought I would offer my personal take on it. I’ve currently never used a paid (P)Reviewer, but I wouldn’t necessarily rule out doing so in the future, so while I don’t feel that I have skin in the game directly, it is something that I’ve thought long and hard about.
In general, there are two sorts of way that a third party will publish their opinions on a game (or anything really) in the form of a Preview or Review. A Preview is usually before the product comes to market and is generally paid for. This is for a range of reasons, generally because pre-release copies are expensive to produce and the person seeing them has to be trustworthy with a track record of not leaking which means that generally they are only done by professionals with a good reach. Also, usually, pre-release a product is looking for publicity, it is essentially by definition less well known than the person making the preview. A Review is usually after the product is on the market and is generally free beyond the cost of a copy of the product. This is for a range of reasons also, not least is that post release a product can be far more famous than the reviewer, so if I review Ticket to Ride its makers Days of Wonder are hardly about to pay me, since the increase in visitors to my review blog will be more than the increase in people buying Ticket to Ride from the review, its worth more to me than them. Also, though, once a product is on release anyone can buy and review it, so a special arrangement with the publisher ceases to be necessary. These rules can vary of course, big names will be paid for reviews by small products and big enough products can get previews for free, but that’s the overall rule.
Now, on Kickstarter things get a little blurry. Everything on Kickstarter is a Preview, because Kickstarter products don’t exist yet. This means that in normal logic everything would be paid for and clearly marked as preview. However, there are lots of wonderful people out there who are working to gain their own audience and will do previews for free, also there are people out there who are aware that consumers react poorly to previews (because there is a vague general understanding that they are not as trustworthy as reviews) and so various creators label what are strictly previews reviews. Every so often it rolls around that backers ‘find out’ that a certain trusted Kickstarter reviewer is being paid for their opinion and people become upset, which is understandable. Which brings me to something that should be considered a general rule about Kickstarters:
If you’re reading or watching a review by someone with an average audience of 5k or more on a Kickstarter, they’ve almost certainly been paid.
Let me be clear, I think that’s fine. Its hard getting to an audience like that, it’s a full-time job. Those reviewers are providing a service that people really want and they couldn’t do it if it wasn’t all they did, so they need to get paid for it. As a consumer of those previews the audience needs to accept that in general, they can have a preview from someone that they and everyone else knows, or they can have a preview that is not paid for, usually not both. There are exceptions to this rule, but the greatest exception is one that consumers can create by getting to know and trust a range of smaller independent reviewers who don’t have the leverage of numbers to charge for their services or aren’t under enough pressure for content to need to. There’s nothing wrong with reviewers being paid, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate their opinion, there’s also nothing wrong with wanting reviewers not to be paid or wanting to only listen to the best-known reviewers. What’s wrong is expecting them to all be true at the same time.
What is a major issue is creators intentionally or otherwise mis-representing paid previews. On a Kickstarter page someone has to make a video of them running through the game, I could do it myself or I could pay a well-known reviewer to do it for me. They would most likely make a better job and they would almost certainly bring in audience commensurate with their fees. Professional Kickstarter reviewers are generally quite careful in those videos about primarily stating facts about the game, while showing it off in its best light, and keeping opinions to separate well marked sections. This way we know when something is being said that could have been influenced by payment. However, pull quotes can then be employed to move these statements out of context. Pull quotes have a real place when used well, if you have a full playthrough and review video that could be a 90-minute video with a handful of opinions scattered through it, and it could be one of three or four videos (some projects can have six or more review videos). Using a pull quote or two from each review to save your backers from watching their fifth fifteen-minute video about the same game is legitimate good practice. It is possible to pull out the “worst film of the year” quote to make “film of the year”, but I think that’s a level of willful deception that we’re hopefully not talking about. The issue comes when a preview that has been paid for (often a significant amount of money) is having the most gotten out of it by a creator, namely by making sure that pull quotes from it are scattered around the page. Its not obvious, even to the creator doing it, that these are out of context, they’re not like the worst film example above. But they are out of context because they are an opinion within a section of a paid review and lead to mis-conceptions in backers. Be wary of pull quotes orphaned from their previews from big name reviewers.
Lastly, there are people who see paid previews as inherently problematic and that is largely because of their labelling. I think that is because sometimes creators are in turn confused about what they are paying for. A creator is paying for the reviewer’s audience, not their opinion, which is why the paid preview should be clearly labeled as such, the creator has what they paid for with or without that label. There are reviewers who claim that their opinion should be taken as a review even if they are paid. Now, it happens that those reviews are always positive, because when you take a significant amount of money from a creator to produce a (p)review for them, you don’t turn in something ripping their product to shreds. The logic to justify this runs that they only (p)review games that they already like, so they look at a game, decide they like it and will be able to produce a positive (p)review and then ask for the money. Once paid they go through the work of playing and making a video, so its all fair. I feel that where you stand on the ethics of that process is a personal question. I feel that a paid promotion run through video is totally legitimate and something that both consumers, creators and reviewers want to exist in the world and so clear well explained labelling of them should be possible and standard. I find that I can discover I dislike something a long way into the process of understanding it and that if already paid to like it, or wondering whether I like it on a month when short of money, I don’t think that personally I have the integrity to know that the money wouldn’t shift my opinions at all. But I’m a cynical man.
In conclusion, there are paid previews out there, and that’s an acceptable part of the industry. Sometimes they are mislabeled and that is not acceptable, but in general, if you’re not sure if a Kickstarter (p)review was paid for, assume it was. If you have a problem with that assumption then find and support smaller reviewers and when they get big enough to charge for their services, find another one. You’ll be getting the unpaid independent reviews that you value and helping to support the rise of new critical talent in our community, what’s not to love?