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Reviews, Previews, Kickstarter and Independent Designers

I want to make this post because I feel there is a gap between the perception and the reality of the world of reviewers and previewers in the tabletop industry, particularly in relation to Kickstarters. I’m making it mainly in relation to the payment for reviews which many backers seem to find problematic when addressed but I feel that it is seen as problematic largely due to an unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of the situation, which I hope I can help with. I would like to say, I personally have never paid for a review or preview, so I don’t feel I have skin in the game in relation to defending it. However, I don’t rule out doing so in the future and don’t think the practice is inherently questionable so long as all parties are aware of its root and implications.

Its fairly standard for Kickstarters at this point to feature "reviews" of their games, to the point where not having a review can be a marker of a campaign that's not going to fund. In the industry in general there is a line between reviews, which are generally free, and previews, which are generally paid for. However, within Kickstarter this line is often at best blurred and at worst intentionally obscured.

A significant issue to begin with is that people tend to put in work commensurate with the amount they get paid. What this means is that those who put out high quality reviews or previews in the world and can get paid are getting paid to do so. Generally, we’re used to a situation where the reviewers are considered ‘independent’ because they don’t get paid by the people who are being reviewed or the review is simply considered a promotion or advert. This is because we’re used to reviews in magazines or newspapers or on television shows. The issue is that we pay a cover price for the magazine or newspaper, or we watch the advertisements on the television shows and they pay the wages of the critic. So long as that is true the job of the critic is to be entertaining and accurate in order to continue to garner viewers and readers. However, if a watcher wishes to receive a review in a situation where the amount of money they contribute directly or indirectly is not significant the result is one of three possibilities:

  1. The critic is going to assign less time to the review.

  2. The critic is gaining a reward other than cash.

  3. The critic is receiving money from some other source.

I would like to say that 1) does not equate to a bad or sloppy review, far from it. However, a well produced video takes a lot more in the way of actual work than a written review and so in a more fast paced, passive and visual medium such as Kickstarter can be viewed poorly. The tendency is that the reward in question for 2) is greater exposure for their reviews, to gain more followers in order that they can reach a position where they can charge for their services. The result of this reality is that reviews tend to be one of four things:

  1. Not free to the reader.

  2. Less visually impactful.

  3. Not from a well-known reviewer.

  4. Paid for by the company the review is being done for.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these categories in and of themselves, and only one of them needs to be true at a time. The issue arises when readers expect all four of them to be untrue at once because in the world of, for example, movie reviewing all four can be untrue at once because the viewing figures for movie reviews on television and other media are significant enough to pay for a high-profile critic’s time. The vast majority of tabletop game reviews simply do not garner the levels of viewing currently to pay that amount by virtue of viewing figures alone.

In short, if a review is from someone you never heard of, there’s a decent chance it wasn’t paid for by the person being reviewed, otherwise sign up to a patreon account or accept that the reviews you enjoy may well be essentially paid promotions.

This is not a paid promotion.

Moving onto the subject of paid promotions. I personally don’t have a problem with them. I don’t personally consider them reviews as such, but they can be highly effective methods of advertising and I have an advertising budget for each of my projects, if I decide in the future that such a promotion is the most effective use of that budget for a particular project I expect to be buying one.

That said, the issue I have with paid promotions is the idea that they are comparably independent in relation to unpaid reviews. The argument often given by paid reviewers is that they look at various projects and they will refuse to review the ones that they don’t like and that they will only ask for money once they know that they can give a good review. This claim is made in order to show that paid promotions are comparable to ‘independent’ reviews because they would never say that they like a game that they didn’t. As I say, I don’t have an issue with paid promotions, there’s nothing wrong with them, but they are a different category of beast to reviews. If being able to pay your rent next month is dependent on deciding that you like one of the games on your desk at a given moment then to claim that your decision to like one of them is totally independent is one that is at best curious. The secondary concern with this attitude is that criticism is intended to provide a service to users, it is as important to call out highly promoted projects with poor quality as it is to promote small unnoticed ones that deserve greater attention, if the current tendency is producing a critical area in which few or none of our best professional critics will ever actually criticize a game that is an issue for the industry, but that is a digression.

No such thing as not paid.

I've heard complaints from gamers that the provision of a copy of the game is the same as payment and so there is pretty much no such thing as an unpaid preview, particularly on Kickstarter. Now, I've had reviews based on Print and Plays, so it is possible, if extremely rare, for there to be totally unpaid previews. I'd like to say, if people feel strongly about this their best response should be to vote with their wallets and send projects with such reviews rocketing to the top of the Kickstarter charts, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

Generally though, this is a pretty unrealistic point of view for two reasons. Firstly, large publishers will send out review copies of a game with very little in the way of following from a reviewer. They have stacks of remaindered games that don't get much coverage to the point where you could fill your house with free games pretty quickly as a reviewer if you wanted. Once you're at that stage, and I can promise that any reviewer you've even vaguely heard of is at that stage, another copy of a game really isn't close to being a payment. Secondly, in relation to Kickstarter and previews generally, by definition these games are not available other than freely from the creator, so this is generally a case of the only option being one that isn't ideal, but when there is only one option, its the best option.

A note to reviewers.

On a separate issue, the following is largely only relevant to reviewers. There is a tipping point where a reviewer has enough of a following to be able to expect to be paid, and the payment in question will be related to the size of that following. Up to that point they may well have to offer their services at no charge to producers. However, reviewers should be aware that not asking for a charge does not absolve them of responsibility in relation to producers. Most producers asking for reviews will offer a print and play option or a prototype version. If a reviewer offers to cover a print and play version of a game they should feel totally free from responsibility, its good to fulfill your promises but dropping out is unlikely to be judged particularly negatively. However, if a producer offers a prototype version as one of their options and a reviewer requests a prototype they should be aware that not only are single copy prototypes not free, they generally cost a significant amount of money and that asking for one creates a responsibility to complete the review, at least if the reviewer expects to continue on in the path towards becoming a serious reviewer. Just because the only payment being expected is an uptake in followers it does not mean that there is no negative to non-completion of a review.

How important are (p)reviews to you on Kickstarter? Do you have a favourite reviewer, and if so, do they get paid directly for their work? If not, how do you support their continued efforts?

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