Game Review 101
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.
For ease of reference, my breakdown is currently:
1st circle (8): 4x reviewers, 3x developers, 1x community manager
2nd circle (15): 8x developers, 3x reviewers, 2x community managers, 1x artist, 1x general public
3rd circle (26) : 19x developers, 4x general public, 2x community mangers, 1x artist
Note that Chirpty only ever shows a “snapshot in time” and doesn’t tell the story behind the numbers. For example, 30 of my 50 are developers, which is a little higher than I’d like but that’s how it goes sometimes. Those are high because I’ve been reviewing games with a higher frequency than normal recently and also reflect the followup promotions I do, the bug fixes I’ve sent through, and the late night chats I’ve had with several of the devs who I’ve become close friends with since reviewing their games. I’m happy there are a couple of artists on my list and surprised there are no voice actors; networking is important and I try to help developers connect with other creative talents where I can. I’m also happy to see there are at least a few members of the general public (read: gamers) on my list. There will never be many because of the nature of those interactions, which is generally limited to the odd comment on a review here and there, and dispersal of those interactions across the large number of gamers in my following. The fact they appear there at all shows I have successfully built genuine relationships with at least a few of my “customers,” and I’m sure there are many more that didn’t quite make the cut. What I’m very happy with is the number of community managers on my list. That’s evidence that they’re happy with the work I’m producing. There are also a decent number of other reviewers on my list which demonstrates good networking. And, although other reviewers aren’t my primary audience, strong engagement with them helps developers because they notice the games I review and often end up also reviewing them as a result, leveraging my reach.
Overall, I’m pretty happy with the mix demonstrated in this snapshot but go with whatever works best for you.
Finding games to review
Twitter is a great place to go digging for indie games to review. To save you time, here are some places you can look:
· Search for relevant hashtags like #indie #indiegames #indiedev etc.
· Get involved with Wishlist Wednesday, Screenshot Saturday, etc.
· Follow community managers, reviewers, and content creators with similar interests.
Steam is also useful to find new games.
· It has “indie” as a “genre” so you can just tick that and go searching.
· You can also look for games that you already know you like, and check the “similar games” section.
· Check out the curator section and look for other reviewers with similar interests.
Approaching developers for keys
I normally receive games frequently enough that I don’t go chasing more work. That suits me because I *really* don’t like the idea of asking developers for copies of their games. It feels a little too much like the cliché of asking an artist to do free work “for exposure.” That thinking is wrong though. Here’s an alternative view:
And if that’s not enough to encourage you to go forth and conquer, I ran a poll a while back that showed in no uncertain terms that most developers are happy to be approached for review copies. See below:
For clarity, the “only if we ask for it” refers to when developers make posts seeking reviewers and content creators. “Other/specify” also yielded some helpful feedback, the crux of which is: If you are going to ask devs for review copies, make sure you actually have something to offer them in return (a quality review). Your requests may not always be successful, of course, but there are a few things you can do to improve your chances.
According to the devs in the poll, they have two main concerns. The first is that they’re often plagued with key scammers and the like. The second is that, if they are going to send out free copies of their life’s work, they want to know they’re going to get some sort of return on it.
So, when asking for review copies, here are some tips:
· Most devs feel just as uncomfortable asking reviewers to look at their game as reviewers feel asking for copies!
· While the size of your audience will definitely factor, it’s not necessarily that important. Many reviewers with “big audiences” actually have little engagement. Smaller reviewers might not have quite as big a reach but it’s often the case that their audiences are more engaged.
· Before making the request, see if you can help the developer out by helping them share existing content (eg. by making a post promoting interest in their game or by sharing their pinned post). This works as both a show of good faith and as proof that you have interest in promoting their game.
· Personalise your request. Templated emails increase your chances of being confused for bot or scammer and also demonstrate a lack of effort.
· Make it clear that you’re genuinely interested in their game. Let them know what you like about it or what grabbed you.
· For the love of Pete, make sure your request is polite, well-written, and spell-checked.
· Make it easy for developers to research you. When you approach them asking for a copy of their game, include links to your reviews, social media profiles, etc.
· Make sure the content on your channel matches the game you’re asking for (eg. if you exclusively review strategy games, the developer might question your motives if you start asking for their platformer).
· Only ask for copies of games you actually intend to play and review and only ask for one key (or as many as you legitimately need).
· If the developer doesn’t respond immediately, patiently wait. If it’s been a while, maybe send a polite follow-up message as there’s always a chance your request has just been missed, forgotten, sent to spam, etc. But then leave it at that. Don’t harass developers.
· If the developer says no, or your request is ultimately ignored, accept it with grace.
Keep in mind there are multiple ways to approach developers and they will absolutely have their preference. If you find a developer that’s active on social media, approach them (through direct message) on social media. If a developer has a low follower count (that is, they don’t follow many people) and you don’t see them “chat” much on social media, don’t waste your time, send the email (many developers prefer that method anyway).
Other ways to acquire review copies
Get in touch with publishers and community managers. These guys are gold for scoring review copies BUT you normally need to prove yourself first and if you then don’t deliver, expect to find yourself on a black list.
You can always check out keymailer, woovit, etc. Unfortunately, as a text-based reviewer, I basically can’t use these sites so I can’t speak on how effective they are. Also, there was a day when I noticed a friend’s game on there and, seeing errors in the description, notified him. He was understandably puzzled as he had never submitted his game to their site (IE, no keys were being offered on that platform even though there was a button on the page to request them). So I have my doubts but if you’ve found those platforms useful I’ll be glad to hear it.
Pressure – turn-around times
I lead a busy life and frequently have a stack of games in my review queue. However, I’m keenly aware that when developers send me copies of their game, there’s an expectation that I will then review that game and do what I can to help promote it – and in a timely manner. By sending a review copy, the developer has effectively “paid in advance” so now it’s up to me to hold up my part of the bargain. As such, whenever I receive a review copy of a game, I normally pause whatever other (non-review) game I might be playing to review it. Generally, I review games in the order I receive them. However, “Day One” reviews matter as they apparently affect Steam’s algorithms, so if I receive a game that’s close to release, I’ll usually push it to the top of the queue aiming to get the review out in time for release. In any case, I always aim to have the game reviewed within two weeks of receiving it – sooner, if possible.
Unfortunately, this pressure means you’ll often find yourself trying to race through a really fun game instead of slowing down and enjoying yourself or dropping a game partway through in an effort to move on. It also means you’ll find yourself playing puzzle games when you’re in the mood for carnage or intense shooters when you just want to relax. That’s all part of the job. The reviews must flow.
Playing the game
Hopefully this is the fun part but keep in mind not all reviews are positive, which means sometimes you’re going to burn a bit of time playing games that maybe aren’t the right fit for you.
The game time required to write a review can fluctuate enormously and you may need to plan around this. I find puzzle games and RPGs can take me a few days to get through so I always try to keep a few smaller games in the queue. This way I can keep trickling reviews out while I’m plodding my way through one of those more demanding games.
Writing the review
This is obviously the reviewer’s bread and butter, although it’s important to note these come in all shapes and sizes. In this article, I’m only going to focus on the time and effort involved in creating a review. Apparently, the average typing speed is around 40-50 words per minute (wpm). That means a traditional one-page article (500 words) would theoretically take ~10 minutes to write but of course that doesn’t account for the thinking, planning, editing, or hours spent playing the game in the first place. To give you a better sense, I write around 120wpm but this sort of article takes me around half an hour (not including game time).
Longer articles obviously take longer. Shorter articles do take less time but they’re also much trickier; Steam reviews are limited to 250 characters, for example. Squeezing enough information into a Steam review to provide an informative opinion is actually quite challenging. Try it yourself and see.
You also need to collate screenshots, build the review on your website or blog site, etc. And if you’re a video reviewer, there’s multiple takes and all the editing and other business involved.
At the end of the day, you need to find the right fit for you – not just the length of your reviews, or the medium, but the voice, the type of review, the system.. there’s just so much, which is why I’ve split this section off into a second article called “Game Review 102,” coming very soon.
Creating other content
Reviews on their own are rarely enough these days so if you’re serious about trying to help promote developers and their games, you need to come up with other ways to “add value.” Here’s a range of ways you can do that: Articles (like this one); first impressions; news; summaries; year in review; top ten; polls; sharing other curators’ work; sharing developers’ posts; giveaways; and even sharing related memes can help.
Again, this is a huge topic, so I’ve split this section into a third article, “Game Review 103,” also out soon.