By Chris Picone, 22 December 2020
Make sure it’s actually a reviewer you want.
This may sound silly but many indie devs are not English-native and even those who are can sometimes get the terminology confused. All too often, excited indie devs send me review copies of their game when, after a brief discussion, I find out they were actually seeking alpha or beta testers.
There’s more to it but, in short, testers play your game and provide feedback on what works and what doesn’t to help you improve the game. A reviewer is someone that plays your game, judges it, and then tells the world what they thought about it – good, bad, or otherwise – to influence others to purchase or not purchase your game.
If you accidentally send your game to reviewers instead of testers, get ready to have your game slammed all over social media and gaming platforms – and good luck undoing the damage. It’s unlikely anyone will give you a second glance after that. I’m one of the nice reviewers that will let you know your game probably isn’t ready for me yet, and maybe even provide you with some useful feedback to help you on your way, but that isn’t the norm.
When should you send your game to reviewers?
Essentially: When your game is ready, or at least very close to. A week prior to release is fairly standard. That gives us a chance to review the game in time for launch day. If the game’s in an excellent state and you’re just ironing out the last couple of bugs, we can live with that because we know you still have a week to fix it.
The exception is if your game is one of those rare few that need to sit in Early Access for an extended period of time and you need to draw players while it’s still in Early Access. Even then, your game needs to be as polished as possible before seeking reviewers. We will let some things slide for a game in EA, such as not all features or locations yet being implemented for bigger games, but if your game is still riddled with bugs or has major balancing or other issues, that’s how your game will be judged.
Looking for reviewers
If your game is on Steam, start with its inbuilt curator function. It even has a search function so you can try looking for similar games, genres, etc.
Next, try Twitter. Some of Twitter’s communities are less-than-ideal but the gaming community on there is surprisingly healthy and wholesome. Again, use the search function to look for tags like #indie or #indiegame and go from there. Be sure to pay attention to the people who are liking and commenting on posts about your game. If you find someone that has lots of nice things to say about your game, click their profile and take a look because it could be a reviewer that’s taken a shine to your game. Another way you can use Twitter to attract reviewers is by posting that you’re looking for reviewers and content creators. You may want to start promoting this around the same time you start promoting your launch date, or as part of #pitchyagame events, etc.
Next, I would recommend approaching other indie devs with similar games and asking who they’ve had some success with. Although they’re theoretically your competition, I’ve found the indie gaming community to be really supportive, so they’ll probably help you as long as you ask them nicely. On that note, if you do find some success with a reviewer, I’d suggest asking them if they can recommend any others. Many of us reviewers talk to each other, and it’s not unusual for us to bump games across each other if we’re being sent something that looks promising but is outside our scope (wrong genre or platform, etc.).
You can also try your luck with some of the big name mainstream reviewers but I would make sure you’re prepared before you do this. Mainstream reviewers usually seem to follow popular opinion, which means if you approach them with a stack of negative or positive reviews already in the bank, they’ll probably give you a review to match. If you approach them without any reviews already banked they probably won’t give you the time of day unless you’ve had a strong marketing strategy in place and they’re already watching you.
What are you looking for in a reviewer?
Are you just looking to rack up your positive review score and don’t mind if the numbers are fake? There are loads of joke and bogus curators on Steam that can help with that. To be clear, I don’t mean to besmirch any reviewer’s good name if any of these are legitimately reviewing people’s games in the sense that they only give positive reviews to games they like even though the actual curation notes are bogus but some of them really leave me doubting. “Nep nep nep” and “I am Batman” spring to mind. I even saw one that had positive reviews for thousands of games but all the comments I read stated, “Have not played this game. Here for curation purposes only.”
I see those curators and reviewers as a blight on our industry and I won’t take part in any of that but I do understand why an indie dev might utilise some of those (finding reviewers can be hard and algorithms hurt!), so I don’t hold it against those who use those methods.
There are also a number of Steam curators that review games in a similar manner but in order to serve a niche function. For example, the FPS Police, or “X or NOT”-style curators which do nothing but bookmark games that meet certain criteria such as specific framerates, solo or multiplayer mode, controller function, etc. I thought I would mention the existence of these since many indie devs create niche games that may benefit from this kind of service.
Otherwise, the most effective form of review in terms of actually attracting players, is the honest review. Even negative reviews may actually attract players if the things the reviewer didn’t like in a game happen to be things the player was looking for, so don’t be scared of them. You can’t please everyone.
Reviewers come in all shapes and sizes
Reviewers are a diverse animal. As mentioned above, some may offer only a positive/negative review with no explanation; others, a score; others, a short verdict. Likewise, reviewers may have multiple audiences or offer other services so while I would suggest Steam’s curator function is a good place to start, don’t stop there. For example, these days I primarily operate via the Steam curation function. However, I also follow up with posts on Twitter and occasionally also publish full reviews or conduct interviews.
Don’t get too hung up on the size of a reviewer’s audience, particularly when it comes to niche and indie games. Some reviewers have large audiences that don’t actually engage with their content. Smaller reviewers may offer smaller audiences but they are usually full of players that are dedicated to their cause.
Finally, don’t spam every reviewer you find with your game. Like players, reviewers have different interests. If you send your game to reviewers that don’t normally play your genre, they may simply reject the game, but you run the risk of them slamming you with unfair negative reviews because they didn’t enjoy the game because it’s not the sort of thing they normally play.
Should I contact a reviewer?
Yes! It will be very rare for a reviewer to ask for a copy of your game – not because we aren’t interested, but because it is considered rude for us to do so. If you want us to review your game, you have to be the one to make contact.
Should I send a free reviewer copy of my game?
Most of the time, I would suggest yes. Do the math: Considering the actual revenue you make after Steam and/or your publisher take their cut, how much do you lose by sending a copy? How many extra sales do you need to score from a review to make that back? And even if the reviewer doesn’t net you a single additional sale, you now at least have an extra review in the bank to help fight the algorithms. You can obviously get bigger bang for your buck by sending your game to the right reviewers (see below).
A word of warning: There are a few ne’er-do-wells who pretend to be reviewers or beta testers in order to score free copies of games. Some developers like to make reviewers jump through hoops by having them register to review their games to avoid this. I don’t think that’s necessary but it won’t hurt you to spend 5 minutes googling a reviewer to check if they’re legit or not before sending them a copy of your hard-earned work for nothing. Another way to avoid this is to send your game via Steam’s curator function. It won’t help if you send it to a dodgy reviewer but at least they can’t on-sell your key.
How to make contact with reviewers
Start with the media you found them on. If you discovered them on Twitter, contact them there. If their direct messaging is locked, try their website or send an email. If they’re a Steam curator, you can also contact them through that function.
Please note: When sending games via the Steam curation function, be aware Steam does not provide any method for reviewers to get in contact with you. You may like it that way. Otherwise, if you want to encourage us to get in touch with or send feedback or bug reports directly to you rather than publicly, you need to include an email address in your note to the curator.
What do I say?
Keep it short and sweet. Introduce yourself, your product, and offer a copy of the game. A single sentence explaining your game is all that’s needed; if we want to know more, we’ll ask for it. You may also want to link us to some screenshots or a trailer.
Hi, my name is CSH Picone, developer of Super Awesome, our first commercial game. It’s a twinstick space shooter. We’re planning to release our game a week from now; if you would like to review it, get in touch and we’ll send you a copy?
One more thing
If your game is being released on Steam, do yourself a favour and enable the screenshot feature before sending it out into the big wide world. You wouldn’t believe how often this is missed – and worse, I’ve often received games where the screenshot key (F12) is still bound to open the dev console or to perform some other undesirable function. If you want people to share footage of your game on social media, make it easy for them.