Should Reviewers Be Paid?

Money

Last week we talked about the difference between previews and reviews, and what place opinions have. This week we’re looking at another hot potato: money.

Just to be up-front before we start, I am a reviewer and I don’t take money for reviews. Lots of reviewers do though. And those that don’t will almost certainly accept free games (for review) from publishers.

Opinions can get pretty heated on both sides of this one. Money can have a distorting effect on many things and the crux of the issue is whether you can trust a review from someone who has been paid. Let’s look at the issues…


One thing that’s worth bearing in mind is how a reviewer decides which games to review. Thousands of new boardgames are released each year. There is no way that any reviewer can review them all, so at some point they have to decide which ones to choose.

Some reviewers aim to cover as wide a selection as possible: family games, heavy games, war games, party games, good games and bad games. They’ll review anything. This can be very helpful because if it’s a bad game, they’ll usually say.

Board Positive Tick

However, most reviewers don’t have enough time to review such a wide variety of games so they’ll usually start by reviewing games that they like. This can give the false impression that the reviewer is always positive and never criticises games.

Let’s face it, no one really wants to play bad games. If you have a choice between reviewing a game that looks bad and one that looks good, most people would go for the good one. I don’t think the reviewers are being disingenuous; it’s just human nature.

If a reviewer becomes popular though, they are likely to be offered games from publishers to review. This can be difficult to turn down; who doesn’t want free games? If the games turn out to be bad though, it can provide the reviewer with an emotional quandary: lambasting a game you’ve been given for free by the publisher feels pretty bad.

This becomes even more acute if a reviewer is being paid for their review. There are certainly reviewers who are incessantly positive about games, regardless of the quality of the game, because they are being paid. In this situation I think they are advertising the game rather than reviewing it.

It’s tricky though. Reviewers always start off reviewing as a hobby. It’s fun! You get to play a bunch of games and provide a valuable service to the community: people can use your reviews to help them decide which games to buy. If someone offered to pay you for doing your hobby, wouldn’t you jump at the chance?

This only tends to happen once the reviewer is popular enough, but it seems to solve another problem for them. Most reviewers would like to improve the quality of what they do and this requires time and money (for equipment).

They inevitably end up having to make difficult choices about which games to review because they don’t have the time to review everything they’d like to. I remember my friend Rob from JTRPodcast saying that he spends more time reviewing games than he spends playing them and I think many reviewers understand how he feels. Filming and editing can be very time consuming.

Quality

So getting paid means you can spend more time doing what you love, you can improve the quality of your videos and you can review more games. That sounds great! Well, except for the rather large conflict of interests: reviewers are meant to be impartial.

From a publishers point of view, marketing is expensive. You may have created the best game ever, but if no one knows about it, you’re not going to sell many copies. So you want the popular reviewers to review your game, but if they’re popular then they almost certainly don’t have much free time.

Paying one of these reviewers to review your game is often well worth it. One video could allow thousands of people to see your game and if the reviewer likes it, a decent proportion of those people may well buy it. The danger of course is that if they don’t like it, that’s thousands of people who will almost certainly not buy your game.

The whole issue is really tricky. Publishers want to get their games reviewed and are happy to pay; reviewers want to get paid, but can they remain impartial?

One way around this of course is just to be up-front about any reviews that have been paid for. Many Kickstarter previews will do this. There will be some kind of tagline at the start of the video saying, “This is a paid preview.”

So while I don’t take payment myself, I can’t say that other reviewers shouldn’t take payment. As long as they’re clear about which videos have been paid for, people can factor that in when making a judgement about the game in question.


What do you think? Should reviewers work for free? Or would that just reduce the overall quantity and quality of reviews?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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