What are review copies?
Most established critics are sent copies of games by publishers. This is not a very well-known fact, despite being the standard in all areas of criticism. These “review copies”, as they are called, are used to create the majority of reviews, features and strategy guides you see on gaming websites. But how do they work? And what are the ethical quandaries regarding their use?
Review copies are what their name implies. They are copies of games sent to critics for review. Normally, a critic who is interested in writing about a new title will contact its publisher and ask for a copy. If the publisher agrees, the critic receives it in the mail and uses it to pen a review. The process may also happen in reverse, with publishers asking critics if they would like to review their games.
Let me use a real example. Back in August I received an email by 1 More Time Games, a small publisher who had just produced their first title. They asked me if I would be interested in reviewing it and, in fact, I was. Riftforce was already on my list of games to keep an eye on. I told them I would be interested and they sent me a copy.
I played it like normal and published my review slightly before its release date. Allowing critics to publish their opinions in a timely manner is the main driver behind review copies. Playing and writing takes time. If critics have to wait for a game to be released to buy it and then start playing it, their reviews would come late.
The difference in readership between a review published on release date and one published a month later is huge. Even just a couple of weeks can be the difference between a wildly popular article and one that is barely read at all. After all, the date of release is when reviews are needed the most. Less is known about the game and fewer people have played it.
The importance of timely reviews is one of the few areas where the interests of publishers, critics and the public align. By using review copies, publishers ensure early coverage of their games, critics have an easier time reviewing them and readers can inform themselves when they are most likely to need it. Properly used, review copies can be a boon for all parties.
While review copies are standard practice, they are not without issues. Like all relationships between the press and the subjects of their coverage, there are potential ethical pitfalls. The choice to send review copies lies with publishers and they may cease to do so if the coverage is not to their liking. This exerts a certain degree of pressure on critics.
Critics who are too negative in a publisher’s eyes might risk losing, not just review copies, but also press releases, interviews and other forms of access. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to critics who retain that access and may push them to be more positive in their coverage. However, it is rare for publishers to be bothered by negative reviews, as long as they are professional.
After all, publishers also lose in this process. Negative coverage is preferable to not being covered at all. Antagonizing critics results in less publicity and doesn’t prevent them from lambasting the game, even if it’s a bit later. It doesn’t make sense to burn bridges when you need their coverage for your next game. Even then, publishers and PR agencies are not evil caricatures. Their goal is to sell games, not punish anyone who doesn’t fall in line.
Publishers do not charge for review copies, which tends to come as a surprise to readers. They cannot demand journalists to pay for early access and, even if they could, it would just result in less coverage. Conversely, if publishers paid critics to review their games, that would just turn them into advertisers. Hence, review copies are always free for all critics.
The lack of payment highlights that it’s not a transaction. Critics are not obligated to cover games obtained this way and publishers don’t get to dictate when or how they should be covered. It’s simply unprofessional to ask for review copies you don’t intend to use. After all, a critic’s work is worth far more than the small savings caused by not buying a game.
Occasionally, the game is even returned to the publisher or sent to another critic afterwards. However, it’s not the norm. The cost of shipping is prohibitive and more of a hassle than simply letting the critic have it. Taking it away prevents the critic from writing about the game in the future, which is the whole point of the process.
Review copies, or their equivalents, have a long track record. They are used, not just in games, but also in literature, music and film. History shows they have many benefits and do not prevent honest criticism from taking place. However, critics need to be mindful of their risks. Steps must be taken to prevent them from having an outsized influence on reviews.
Critics should use review copies for their intended purpose. They should not become a way to profit or curry favour with publishers. One does not need a dozen copies of a Kickstarter exclusive to review it and positive coverage should not be used as a springboard to obtain a PR job. The goal is to be able to provide better, more timely reviews.
Review copies should only include what is necessary to provide coverage. It’s not appropriate to accept gifts alongside them. A branded T-shirt might not be much of a worry, but expensive gaming hardware might. I also believe “review events”, where journalists are flown and hosted into expensive hotels on the publisher’s dime are over the line. All that’s needed is a copy of the game.
I’ve chosen to disclose when I use review copies. I see little reason not to and it’s a good exercise in transparency. After all, if my goal is to help others make better informed decisions, why not extend that to my own work? I strive to explain the finer details of criticism with the same insight and depth I review the games I cover. A more informed public makes criticism better.