By Chris Picone, 13 November 2021
Aah, game review. The best job in the world, right? After play tester, of course. Those guys just play games all day whereas we also have to write something about them occasionally.
If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it. But as we know, it’s rather rare to actually make a living as a game reviewer (exclusively, at least), so most of us do it in our spare time around our regular work, families, and other commitments. Then, yes, we need to produce content which of course requires us to play the games. But the games have to come from somewhere, so we need to establish ourselves. Likewise, even the best content is worthless without an audience, and that doesn’t build itself either. There’s a surprising amount of hard work involved. There’s also a real downside to consider; being a reviewer changes the way you play a game – you’re now playing games to critique them rather than to enjoy them. Don’t get me wrong, game review’s an awesome gig, but it’s not all peaches and cream.
There’s a funny saying that game development is 90% art, 90% coding, and 90% marketing. In that regard, game reviewing is somewhat similar. Not everyone’s going to be interested in every element of this article so I’ve split it into sections with headings to make it easy for you to skip to the parts you for.
Also known as “shouting into the void,” this is by far the hardest part. If you want to review games, you need an audience. But no one will follow you if you have nothing to offer, so first you need content. To create content, you need games, but no one’s going to send you a copy of their hard-earned creations until you’re established. So what do you do? The best you can with what you have: Practice reviewing games you already own. You’ll get better as you write, and sometimes it takes a little while to find the right voice, so be prepared to go back and rewrite your early reviews. From there, you need to come up with some policies, publish your content, create a social media platform, use it to build an audience, and share your reviews with the world. All of that’s covered below.
Before you start writing reviews, spend some time considering what it is you’re trying to achieve and planning how you’re going to actually achieve it. For the sake of transparency, I’ve included some of my policies below. You need to work out what’s best for your own situation.
· Integrity: All my reviews will be honest reviews. I either like the game or I don’t, and will review the game accordingly.
· Stand-alone: I will not compare a game to similar games. I review all games exclusively on their own merit.
· Holistic: I always aim to complete “at least the majority” of a game. This means different things for different games but the aim is the review should reflect the game overall, not just my first impressions.
· No demos: I don’t do demos for a number of reasons: First, it conflicts with my holistic policy. Second, I’m very time poor, and every minute spent on a demo is a minute not spent reviewing an actual game.
· Review copies: I will very happily accept review copies of games. It enables me to take risks with games I might not normally try, and also enables me to review substantially more games than I could if I was paying for them all.
· Give back: Having said that, if I particularly enjoy a game, I will often buy a copy for friends/family.
· Supporting indies: My aim is to help indies. If I don’t like a game, or if it’s just not for me, I don’t write the review. Instead, I send feedback privately to the developer.
· Too soon!: I recognise that many developers, particularly those who aren’t English-native or who are new to the industry, sometimes don’t quite understand the role of the reviewer. If I get sent a game that looks promising but is buggy or is early in development, I communicate that information to the developer. I then set the game aside until it’s been updated/fixed/is actually ready, and then re-visit it. No harm no foul.
Publishing your work
You need to find somewhere to publish your reviews. Multimedia reviewers can obviously use Youtube and/or Twitch while writers might want to consider a blog site. All of these are available for free so they’re a good place to start while you’re working out whether this gig is for you or not.
When you’re actually getting some traffic, you’ll possibly need a website. My recommendation is Google Sites because it’s free, extremely compatible, and has a very decent built-in editor. The downside is that it has no built-in hosting space for documents, videos, etc., but you can always just integrate Google Drive or similar so that’s not really a problem. Note: Google Sites might be a free host but you’ll still need to pay for a domain. Again, I recommend Google for this – the service provided is comparable but they’re one of the cheapest.
Building a social media presence
First, you need to pick a platform – or more than one. This is a width/depth issue. The broader you go, potentially the larger your reach, but in reality it takes a substantial amount of work to build an effective platform so you’re probably better off concentrating on one or two.
Facebook can yield very strong results but these days it’s extremely difficult to fight the new algorithms so unless you’re already big or extremely good at creating post engagement, no one will ever see your posts no matter what you do. Twitter’s also useful but most people on there seem to only be there to shout out their own agendas – developers are on there promoting their games, authors are on their promoting their books, etc. It can be difficult to find an audience that’s actually interested in someone else’s work.
Next you need followers. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet for this one. It’s more of a “put the work in and it’ll build over time” affair. However, I will discuss some of the commonly used strategies below, and also add some tips that I found worked for me.
Common strategies for “growth”:
· “Mutuals” – Nothing wrong with mutual following if both parties are interested in each other’s content. However, many people use mutual follow arrangements to fluff up their follower counts. There are a few problems with this. The first is, high following but low engagement is bad. I’ve also noticed a lot of drama seems to follow this strategy as inevitably one party eventually thinks they’ve outgrown the other or sometimes they don’t even wait that long, unfollowing as soon as the other person follows them back and hoping they don’t notice. Ultimately, if the people following you aren’t interested in your content, what’s the point?
· “Lifts” – These annoy me. First, you’ve got the same issue as above where you’re boosting your followers with people that don’t actually care about your content, or that will unfollow you shortly after anyway. But I find these worse because they also dilute your content with what is essentially spam.
Tips that work for me:
· Be active: If you’re inactive on social media, you’ll get smashed by the algorithms. Beside that, people can’t find or engage with you if you aren’t posting anything.
· Quality content: If you want people to follow, you need something to offer. Have quality content ready to go and then keep creating it.
· Support others: If you see content you like, like it. If you feel the content would be interesting to your audience and fits your brand, share it. If you’re the sort of person that needs rules, aim to promote others at least twice as often as you promote yourself. Do it because you want to help them, not because you want something in return. If you’re like me, go nuts. Helping others succeed feels good.
· Create genuine relationships: Social media shouldn’t just be about promoting content. You need to keep in mind that all those accounts you follow – or that follow you – are real people. Talk to them. Not about content or products but just have conversations with them (you obviously have similar interests or you wouldn’t have encountered each other). Ask questions, answer questions, vote on polls, laugh at their funny jokes and memes, compliment them.
· Be engaging. Instead of just posting promotional material, create something your fans will want to interact with. Post relevant jokes, share relevant news, ask for opinions. And don’t forget Part B of this step because it’s important: If they people are engaging with your post, respond! - or at least acknowledge them in some way.
· Depending on the platform, use hashtags. They help people that aren’t inside your interaction circles “stumble” on your posts. Just don’t overdo it.
My tips won’t lead to booming growth but they will lead to honest growth and an engaged audience is far more valuable than a filler crowd. My final tip is: Surround yourself with good people, and the right people.
Building your audience
This is trickier than it sounds because it’s not just about having lots of followers; it’s about having the right kind of followers, and actively engaged followers. By right type of followers I mean that if you’re only being followed by other game developers, that’s nice that you have lots of contacts in that area, but it’s also potentially bad as it means few of those people are likely to buy the games you’re trying to help promote. Developers don’t buy games; gamers do.
The screenshot below is from Chirpty, which tracks engagement on Twitter. That’s me in the centre. All the other profiles are individuals who I’ve had strong engagement with, with those on the inner circle being the most engaged and reducing with each circle extending outward. Having said that, keep in mind all of the featured profiles represent the top 50 out of my current following of ~3500, so the outer circle is still very substantial.