So you want to be a video game reviewer, huh? You want to sit back and get free video games in exchange for writing, or speaking if you’re doing a video review, your opinion about the game? Well you’re in the right place; I can tell you how to do that.
In my couple of years as a gaming blogger/reviewer, I’ve received quite a few free games for review. These games range from the full-blown $60 so-called “AAA” blockbuster titles for console or PC, to the small and cheap downloadable indie games for PC, PSN, and XBLM.
On the occasions where I’ve scored a review copy of a big release title before its release, say Madden or Saints Row IV, I ALWAYS get a ton of new PSN friend requests and messages of “how did you get the game early?” It never fails, and the amount that came after getting the platinum for Saints Row IV before its release was absurd (people found out because of sites like PSNProfiles.com and trophy synching).
I may not accept all friend requests, but in general I always try to explain via a reply that I’m reviewing the game and it was a review copy. This always gets followed up with “what’s your site?,” “is it (getting review copies) hard?,” and “how can I go about doing that?”
Here’s the number one thing that should be your main take away from this article; you should not be writing or game blogging to simply try and score review copies! That is the absolute wrong attitude to have, and if you start out with that mentality and don’t quickly change it, you’re going to fail.
Have a passion for gaming and writing, and treat it professionally even if you aren’t making money at it. Write about gaming and the latest news or trailers; but don’t just regurgitate press releases. Buy games and review them; the more you write the better you will get, and the more reviews you write the better they will become. Treat your reviews professionally, which means try to use proper grammar and spelling. No one is going to take you serious if you’re writing like you’re sending a text message or posting some drivel in the comments on YouTube.
“Is getting review copies hard?”
The short answer is no. Honestly, it isn’t that difficult at all.
I have had blogs in the past, and whatever its focus, I’d usually write something gaming related on it purely because I’m a gamer. I had written game reviews before, for games that I bought of course, and had never even given thought to free games and review copies.
Before this site got its start in April 2011, I was writing wrestling columns for LordsOfPain.net. If you’re a wrestling fan who visits that fairly popular site you may even have read some of my stuff (I wrote under the screenname “Stinger,” and my columns were “Deadly Venom” and “A View From the Rafters”).
When the demo for the WWE All Stars game hit PSN, I tweeted to THQ and the WWE Games community manager at the time, Marcus Stephenson, that I really liked the demo and was looking forward to the games release. Apparently they were fans of LOP and asked if I would be interested in receiving a copy of the game to review. Naturally, I said absolutely because it was a game I was going to pay $60 for and they were offering to send it to me for free in exchange for writing my thoughts about the game (something I was going to do anyway).
And so, WWE All Stars was my first review copy. And since I was getting burned out and growing tired of writing about wrestling under a deadline and with no pay, I decided to leave LOP and start my own site with a focus on gaming. Thus, here we are today.
My first retail review copy for this site came a few months after I started the site, and it was a PS3 copy of Madden NFL 12 which I had not even requested (I’ll cover this process soon) but had covered. Honestly, I had no business receiving a review copy of that game. It in no way benefited EA Sports as traffic to the site was maybe 100 visitors a day at that time. See, it isn’t hard… you don’t have to be a big site and pull in a ton of visitors.
So now the reason you’re here…
“How can I go about doing that?”
The first thing you need is obviously an outlet. You could pay for a webhost and set up a site, but I definitely wouldn’t recommend starting that way. Maybe I’m just cheap, but spending money on a host and then trying to build an audience, which takes time, seems counterproductive when there are viable free options out there.
For that reason, if you don’t already have a blog/site, I recommend using WordPress.com. It’s free and easy, and when you eventually feel like taking the site to a paid host and running WordPress.org, you’ll be able to easily import all of your posts, comments, and subscribers. Of course WordPress.com has its restrictions- you can’t install plugins, easily embed flash, or run ads (outside of WordAds)- but it is the best option for starting out when you just want to focus on the content and building an audience. Plus it gives you the time to see if it is something you’re going to want to stick with without having to spend money.
I won’t tell you how to name your blog, but I would recommend naming it something at least somewhat unique that you’ll also be able to get the social media names and a proper domain for. If it is relatively short and easy to remember, then all the better.
So you have your blog up and running, now you need to start writing content.
If you want to be a game reviewer, then write game reviews. It’s that simple. Go to your shelf, pull off a game that you’ve beaten, and write a review of it. Aim for 1,000 words or more, but since you’re just getting started write as much or as little as you want. Find your voice and your style in the beginning when no one is reading.
It can be any game. Too many people think they have to write a review of the newest releases or people won’t care. Who cares what other people think? You’re just starting out and they don’t even know your blog exists. You’re simply writing to get the hang of it and to build your portfolio as a reviewer. The visitors will come, slowly over time, but whether you’re just starting out or you become a veteran of it, write for yourself first. Feel free to review all those NES games you have.
You shouldn’t just focus on just reviewing games though. Make an effort to cover gaming in general. A game gets announced? Write about it. Some game gets a new trailer? Post it and write about it. Some news comes out about a game? Write about that too.
Never become a mouthpiece for the publishers though. Recycling their press releases is something anyone can do; there are bot sites that automatically do that. That takes no effort and is neither satisfying to you as a hopeful writer or the readership you’re trying to establish. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone copy and paste a press release. At least have the decency to pull out the relevant information and reword it. And unless you’re going for straight up news, I’d recommend throwing your opinion in there as well.
After you get your feet under you, start looking around the sites of the publishers and developers and find out their press contacts. Email them and introduce yourself and your site, and ask to be put on their press list, which just means you’ll receive their press releases, announcements, and assets in your email. Once you start getting on these and receiving these emails, be sure to email your coverage of a game to the contact handling the title. I like to do summary emails, which simply means I’ll write about the game a few times and then email a batch of coverage links to the PR contact instead of firing one off everytime I make a post about it. There is no reason to spam these people just because you posted the latest trailer to a game they’re handling.
Once you’ve built up a portfolio of reviews and are actually getting people to visit your site, feel free to start putting in requests for review copies.
Now there is nothing I can tell you that is going to make it seem less awkward, especially at first. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to feel weird sending that request email. After all, you’re basically asking someone who you likely haven’t had too much correspondence with and don’t know to send you a free game to write about. It’s odd.. at least to you, more than likely, but not so much for them. They’re getting many of these requests.
And there’s the rub folks. You didn’t discover a secret, so don’t think just because you request a review copy that you’re going to get it. You have a TON of competition. Publishers don’t have unlimited amounts of review copies to send out. If they gave a copy to every person who requested, well lets just say the games industry would collapse because no one would be making money. Everyone would start requesting review copies.
More importantly, and take this to heart, you are not entitled to a review copy. In fact, if you’re honest with yourself, you don’t even deserve a review copy. By the time this site was one year old, I had gotten plenty of review copies (retail and digital), and our traffic was low enough to where the publishers gained nothing. Depending on the review, 30 people might have read it. Sure, if it were a $60 game and all 30 people bought it purely based on my recommendation, then that would have been $1800 and it may have been worth giving away a game to get that return. But that’s not realistic and of course didn’t happen. Visitors will come in time.
Publishers don’t owe you anything. That you posted their trailers and recycled their press releases means very little, again simply because so many people are doing that very thing and probably are getting a lot more traffic than you. If you’re just doing that, then you’re giving them free advertising because you hope they’ll give you something in return… and that is no way to do things. Don’t ever feel entitled to a review copy or get angry when you don’t receive one (and here’s the reality, you won’t receive most that you request).
The PR people at the publishing companies, or the third party public relation companies that are handling press for a publisher, are folks doing a job. That means they are representing a company, and thus they are going to be professional and courteous with you. In the beginning, this can be frustrating because it can give a false hope.
For example, when you request a game, you may receive a reply like this (and this is an actual reply that I’ve gotten more times than I would like to)…
“We have added you to our review request list for the game. Please understand that we have a limited supply of copies for review purposes but will try our best to fulfill the demand.”
If you receive this after requesting a game, and you will, don’t be hopeful about it. Accept that this is the polite way of turning you down for a review copy and move on; buy the game if you can, review it, and then email the link to the review to the person who you contacted. It’s not personal, it happens, there really are limited amounts, and the sooner you can understand that the better off you will be.
They’re simply not going to say “no, your site is too small” or “no, we don’t like the way review games.” I would say 98% of the time, if you’re going to receive a review copy they will let you know that you’re going to receive it. They typically aren’t going to mention limited copies if you’re going to get a copy. They may occasionally do that, but it is definitely not the norm.
And sure, it gets worse too. Sometime after the game you requested (that you get the above email about) comes out, you’ll likely get a follow up email that will go something like this (and again, this is an actual email)…
“Due to a limited amount of supply, we are unfortunately unable to accommodate your request. If that happens to change, we’ll be sure to let you know.”
That’s again polite, but don’t be hopeful. Ignore the last part because it isn’t going to change. I don’t know why these PR people feel the need to kind of string someone along like that. When you’re just starting out and you get those kinds of emails, you’ll be hopeful that maybe you’ll get one. If not, maybe things will change and a copy will show up later. That is not going to happen so don’t fall for it and don’t be discouraged or upset about it.
When & How To Request A Review Copy
There is no real, sure fire way to answer this. It depends on the game and your relationship with the publisher or firm handling the title; i.e. have you worked with them in the past on getting a review copy, or is this the first time they’re hearing about you.
If it’s a big release title that is guaranteed to have a lot of interest, I’d say request a month out. In most cases, two weeks will suffice because the smaller sites typically aren’t going to get copies early anyway (release day copies are pretty much the norm for the non-big sites).
If you request a month out, the worst thing that is going to happen is you’ll possibly get a reply back stating they’ll make a note of your request but won’t start putting together a list until closer to launch. If that happens, simply follow up two-to-one weeks before the game is scheduled to be released.
The “how” is the easiest part (again, once you get past feeling weird about it… which may just be me, I don’t know).
You should have already been familiar with the contact for the game and been emailing your coverage to them, but of course you don’t always have to take that route. Your request may be the first time you’ve emailed anything about the game.
I like to keep it relatively short, and I do have a go-to request style. Here is an actual request email that I sent out where I did get a copy of the game:
I’m Gary Smith, I am the Editor-in-Chief of, and a reviewer at, The Vortex Effect (http://vortexeffect.net). I’m writing to put in a request to be added to the review list for Borderlands 2. Specifically, I’m inquiring about receiving a PS3 copy of the game for review. If I can be added to the list, my mailing address is included below…”
And then I’d provide my mailing address since it was the first time I had ever contacted this person and I also included links to some of the Borderlands 2 coverage. That’s it. If it’s a first time contacting them, introduce yourself and then tell them why you’re writing. Short and sweet. Some folks like to try and be fancy and include their stats and link to Alexa and all sorts of things. I don’t mention that stuff (maybe once I might have), and you shouldn’t unless you are asked (and if you are asked, be honest. Plenty of publishers, including big ones, are more than willingly to work with smaller sites).
The main thing is to be professional and respectful with it. If your request is “Yo, gimme this game for review,” you’re not going to get anywhere.
There is no magic formula or email to send out. You’ll get some, and you won’t get some (most). When you do receive a game though, play it thoroughly and write a review of it in a relatively timely manner and always send the link to your review to your contact. When you do that all you have to say is, “here’s the link to my review, [provide the link], thanks for sending it out, have a great day!” And don’t expect a reply back, but usually they’ll eventually respond with a “thanks for the review.” Don’t be nervous sending the link if you score the game low either; you’re not on Metacritic and they truly aren’t going to be upset.
Be timely with your reviews, so don’t request more games than you can potentially handle. The object is not to acquire as many free games as you can. If you request four games that all come out on the same day, and you get all four of them yourself, then you aren’t doing anyone any good because you’re either not going to spend enough time with each game to write a honest review or some of the reviews are going to be way late.
Misconceptions About Reviews, Reviewers, & Publishers
If you read around gaming communities, you’ll find that a lot of people are suspicious of reviewers who receive review copies of games. A publisher gave you a game to review, so there obviously must be a catch. Your review can no longer be trusted because of this. And that’s simply not true.
Never have I encountered a PR person who wanted a game to receive a certain score or better. Could shady stuff happen between publishing companies and large sites like say IGN? Absolutely. I get suspicious myself when I see a site plastered with ads for a game, that gets an exclusive early review of the game (when everyone else has to follow an embargo), and then that game scores highly.
It doesn’t happen on the small sites; no publisher is ever going to tell you to give a game a certain score in exchange for getting a copy. They don’t care that much. And if for some reason you ever do get that email, post it and let the world know because its wrong and would need to be exposed.
Never, ever, be beholden to the publisher. Yes, as a reviewer, they control whether or not you get a review copy. The publisher-reviewer relationship, like all relationships, is very much quid-pro-quo; something for something. They are giving you a review copy, and in exchange you are writing your opinion on the game in a public sphere. This is done under the agreement that the review will be honest. If you think the game is bad, say so and describe how so. When you email the link to your contact, they will thank you for the review. And that’s that; they’re not furious and plotting revenge and blacklisting you because you gave the game a low score. And if they do, they’re doing it wrong and forget them.
Always remember that a review is simply one person’s opinion; not everyone is going to like the same thing. Your only responsibility as a reviewer is to provide an accurate and honest portrayal about your thoughts on the game. If you think you’re going to write simply to please a publisher to hope they send you more games, then you need not even start this process. Write honest reviews and remember that your readers are more important than the publishers. If a game is bad, explain to your readers how so that they can make an informed decision. You are critiquing a game for potential consumers, not writing an advertisement to please the publisher. Always remember that.
Be true to yourself, honest with your readers, and professional to the publishers.
If you do receive an early copy of a game, it will most likely come with an embargo date. What that means is that you are not allowed to post a review, impressions, or gameplay of the game until after a specific time set by the publisher.
A lot of people think that by adhering to embargoes that you are being beholden to the publisher. They don’t want you to talk about their bad game until it releases, and you’re doing gamers a disservice by not letting people know before the game releases that it is bad.
Of course there’s a couple of things wrong with that. If someone has already pre-ordered it to get it day one, they obviously didn’t need or care about reviews to begin with. That’s neither here nor there though.
Breaking embargo will get you blacklisted though, and likely an email asking you to take it down though (and though too late by that point). You have to adhere to the embargo; sorry people who think that is a problem. Just like the publishers send you a review copy under the agreement that you’ll say whatever you honestly think about the game, you accept that review copy under the agreement that you will not post your review until the embargo is up.
For you as a reviewer, embargos can actually be useful. Depending on how early you get the game and how long you have before the embargo lifts, you’ll have time to finish the game or at least invest more than enough hours into it to be able to write a legitimate review of the experience AND get the review written. Why is this important? Well just like you’re competing with other reviewers for review copies, you’re also competing with them for hits. The sooner you can get your review out, the better for you in that department. If there were no embargos, some folks would either be able to get through the game a lot faster than you, or simply not play through all of it in order to try and be the first person to get a review out there, and thus bring in all the traffic. Some may even try to do this anyway by giving a good game a low score, just for the controversy.
Embargos tend to make it a level playing field, even if the intention is basically to control hype or do damage control. And of course, sometimes an outlet like IGN is going to get an exclusive and be able to post their review days ahead of everyone else like they need help getting hits. There’s nothing you can do about that though, and it doesn’t happen often, so there really is no sense in being concerned with it.
As said earlier, reviewing to simply try and get free games is not the approach to take. If that’s what you’re doing, your blog isn’t going to be around long and I hope you didn’t go the paid web host route. It takes time to start getting review copies, and work for which you aren’t going to be making money.
Start small. Request indie games for Steam, or PSN or XBLM. You’re much more likely to get those codes, and it’s a great place to start (my actual first review for this site that was a free copy was a PSN version of LIMBO, which is a great game by the way). Work your way up to retail releases.
Understand also that you aren’t going to get many of the games you request, and you aren’t likely to know why. Don’t let your failure to get anything from a specific company result in some misplaced grudge or blacklisting their stuff. The absolute worse mentality you can have is “well they won’t give me review copies, so I just won’t cover their stuff.” Cover everything you’re interested in, and that which you aren’t (you do have readers who have different interests ya know), and don’t worry about review copies.
For example, I can’t get anything from Ubisoft (outside of a PSN copy of From Dust), not even Wii U versions of games that I know a lot of folks aren’t requesting. I haven’t the slightest clue why I can’t receive any Ubisoft games; it can’t be stats related because I know gaming sites that do get games from Ubisoft that this site is bigger than. But who cares? Assassin’s Creed is still my favorite franchise and I’m still going to write about it, along with all the other great releases that Ubisoft puts out. They don’t owe me review copies, and I don’t expect them. Every one I’ve had contact with at Ubisoft has been friendly; it’s just one of those things that happen. The point is, don’t take not getting review copies personally. Just continue doing what you’re doing and don’t worry about it.
Again, I can’t stress it enough though… DON’T REVIEW GAMES TO TRY AND GET FREE GAMES. Just don’t do it. It will not work out and no one will care because it will be obvious. And if that is your goal then you’re probably going to compromise your thoughts hoping to get in good with a publisher (as if they care).
If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend not even using review scores. Be the change in the system. Don’t let people focus on that meaningless number and never even think about trying to get on Metacritic (and you’ll probably be asked at some point if you are on Metacritic by a PR person, and if that happens and you’re not then you can pretty much expect to not being receiving a copy of that game). Don’t be a “me too” reviewer. Be honest, and be thorough. Scores don’t matter, so don’t feel you have to use them simply because most others do. And if you think there is some power in slapping a meaningless number on a game (“I give this a 4 out of 10!”), like it is anything more than your opinion, then don’t even bother to jump in the game of reviewing.
All told, writing game reviews should be something that is fun for you, and it can be rewarding. Read the reviews written by other bloggers, and I mean actually READ the reviews, and leave them comments. Become part of the games blogging community, because I guarantee you connecting with other bloggers who are interested in the same things you are and getting to know them by reading their content and discussing it with them is far more rewarding than getting some free video game.
Finally, if you do receive a review copy, be honest and upfront with your readers and treat them with respect. Put a disclosure notice at the beginning or the end of the review and let your readers know that you reviewed a product that was given to you by the publisher for the purposes of review. Understand that when you do this, and the review is positive, there will be those folks who are going to assume you were positive because you received the game and hope to receive more. There’s nothing you do about that. The most important thing you can do is simply be honest with your readers because they’re the most important thing you’ve got. Write to make the best possible recommendation to your readers, and don’t worry about the publishers and what they think.
If you need help in the beginning finding out press contacts and keeping up with the latest press releases, then register at Games Press. If you can’t find what you’re looking for on their site, then hit up their forums where there is a nice community of reviewers/press who are, usually, willing to help you find the information you’re after.