Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Bane Of Peer Marketing, As It Relates To The Hobby Board Game Industry

I was involved in a conversation at Board Game Geek, and the subject was game criticism and the hesitance of people to do negative reviews. Up until the end, it was an interesting and compelling conversation, and it brought all kinds of people into it. As it turns out, some reviewers are trying with a straight face to somehow obfuscate the fact that compensation is received for the articles, videos, podcasts, et cetera, and that it influences them even a tiny bit. I'm sorry, but in my opinion, any sane, reasonable person would have to conclude that at some point, a motivation for doing serial reviews of games, and I mean more than a handful, has got to be access to review copies. I'm not saying the sole motivation, but I am saying that it's certainly one of them, and not a small one. And I'm not saying that people are in it for the money, either, but rather in the preponderance of reasons, access to review product is one of the motivators for people to begin reviewing games.

One participant of the conversation had concluded that receiving review copies is not compensation, or not nearly enough alone to want to do game reviews. I cannot envision how he could possibly come to that conclusion. Access to review copies is absolutely a factor into why many people I know have started doing reviews. It's common sense, and I don't understand why there's such hand wringing and soft-shoeing about it. Why deny it? Just say, yes, having access to review copies is one factor of me starting this blog/podcast/website. I know it was with the Circus...after all, I'm not interested in spending thousands of dollars per year on games, but I wanted to get my voice out there because I didn't see any "groupthink" reviews out there other than Opinionated Gamers, and I didn't particularly care for their style of writing or the games they review, in general. But you can't start a well-followed blog without a large collection of newer games, and unless you review new games when they come out, you will lack a great deal of relevance, because what you say has likely been said before, and a thousand times at that. So, access to new games upon release is a huge deal for a person wanting to do reviews, because it allows them to be on the forefront of people who are writing or talking about new games as they release.

Anyhow, this same participant who said that serial reviewers do it for "love of games alone" also said that when calculating compensation in the form of free games, you need to calculate the time you spent playing. Well, in my opinion, if you count playing the games you get as "work", then you're probably not doing it for love of games. I mean, some games, like Crossroads at Darklion Pass, or Halo Interactive Board Game can be work, no doubt, but the comments and guffaws at the game make it far more of a conversation about a bad B movie than work. Playing games is a hobby, and a joyous one; it's not work, unless you do it for a living or gain substantial money from it. Guys like Vasel put out such a huge volume of high-quality, edited, and professional content that I would ~dread~ doing that, and unless the compensation was so overwhelming that I could clear a hundred grand doing it and quit my job, forever. Even then, I'd probably take a pass, because I simply am not that invested in the hobby.

In that discussion, I did a little math to determine just how much "payola" someone like me could make, not counting advertising money on their site, access to paid previews, et cetera. I reckon that if a reasonably popular reviewer got 30 review copies in a year, which is 2.5 reviews per month, and the value of the average game at retail is $50.00, that person received $1500.00 per year in free product to review. Furthermore, if you consider an average effective tax of 23%, that person would've had to gross $1845.00 to pay for those games if they didn't have access to the review copies. If the average US household median income is $51,017.00, then they saved 3.6% of their annual household income by getting those review copies. That's $1500.00 in arguments with the wife about "your game addiction" that you didn't have to have. On top of that, there's free GenCon, Origins, ConnConn and other con passes you didn't have to buy, and of course, advertising revenue if your site has it.

I also figured that a review, soup to nuts, takes me two hours. It takes an hour to think about the article, review notes, and so on, and it's an hour of editing, uploading, photography if none was taken during the games while they were being played. You could even slide in 30 minutes for ten minutes of polling and discussion for each of the three games played (at least that's how we review things here) in order to get the scores and some of the key ideas that the Circus members wanted to get across. If that game is $50.00, and it takes you two hours, the savings rate is $25.00 an hour to write and "research" a review. I don't know about you, but that's not insignificant. It's a simple, reasonable argument that publishers pay me $50.00 to spend two hours of my time talking about their game. Now, if they don't like what I write, well, they hired me, so it's their own fault. But again, it's not about the money, although this was a good example of the kind of compensation that is available to a reviewer who wishes to get free product and wants to justify the benefit/liability matrix in their own mind.

So, as I can show, game reviewers are paid, and as I showed above, it's not insignificant. Some people write for that. There's also the "celebrity" factor, because some people have a need to be liked, and in writing about games a lot in our little niche hobby is the fastest way to get recognized. I think this is an even more pervasive reason in our world, because many people that are gamers are social outcasts, or socially inept, and this helps them break through the wall and be part of something larger than they ever were before; to be the popular kid. I've talked with some people whose biggest reason for getting into the gig is this one, and I can respect that. At least it's an honest answer, and it's not seeking payola for payola's sake.Some people have that need, and for whatever reason, gravity or fate, they found themselves doing this review thing because it made them feel special and liked. No matter why this is, I'm just happy that they found peace in something positive.

I'm not saying I'm any better, or any less flawed, or any less biased. This is why I set the Circus up the way I did: I have unbreakable rules, I reviewed and continue to review every review copy I was ever sent or will ever be sent, and I sought out people outside the board game hobby who had never played anything beyond the old GameMaster series, Monopoly, or similar games, because they would be the least likely to have preconceived notions. I also set up the rules for review copies being given away because that way I had no vested interest in them; the words I use, the rape jokes, the utterly vulgar language, all of these things pretty much ensure that I was not going to get a lot of review copies, and I am 100% fine with that. All these things I did because I didn't want to have the possibility of being biased, personally, and because I know I'm flawed. Again, I'm no better than anyone else, nor more principled, but I did things at this site solely to guard against the fact that I am indeed human, indeed flawed, and prone to weaknesses as others are.

Another factor in setting the Circus up as it was has to do with "personal relationship bias". I like a lot of industry guys, because they're smart, savvy, and game dudes that are just cool. Colby Dauch is a cool ass guy. Jerry Hawthorne is an even cooler guy, one of the coolest people I've ever met. James Mathe is a great guy, and I really, truly like and admire him. That said, not a single person at the Circus besides myself have ever met any of them, will ever meet any of them, and couldn't identify them in a lineup if they were the only ones in it. I did this because this insulates my review process from bias; my Circus brothers and sisters are loud, obnoxious fucks just like me, and we don't pull punches. There's no bullying them into anything, and there's no persuading them unless the argument is sound. I've got a great group here, and this is why the Circus is so effective at what it does, which is being a champion of the consumer.

I mean, there's nothing wrong with getting review copies on its face - it's not indicative of bias simply because you've gotten review copies from one vendor or another, provided you review all that you get. It's only indicative that you are human, and that you feel you produce good enough quality work that you deserve to receive them, and that you'd be a good news source for people. As long as you are explicit about receiving a review copy when you write or record a review, then the buyer has the relevant information and can then make a value judgement to determine if you are, to them, a credible witness, so to speak. This isn't even about individual reviewers, it's about how publishers rely on reviewers' fear of losing access in order to skew the entire industry to the positive. I mean, we used to get some review copies, but I stopped actively soliciting review games for the most part, doing so only if a reader specifically asked us to get a game, or if the game is from an unknown or smaller publisher and the game looked so cool that I felt an obligation to get it out there, in the hopes that a larger reviewer would follow suit. Again, that's our choice and we've suffered from it; we were up to 4,000 page reads a week and now we're down to 200, and I reckon it has a lot to do with my refusal to post to Board Game Geek and not being as relevant due to not reviewing "hot games" when they come out as we once did.

But in the end, my point in writing this article is that there's something not often talked about, or rather goes unnoticed, and it has everything to do with "industry bias", and marketing people's understanding of human nature. It has to little to do with "an individual reviewer's bias". The main point is really about major reviewers not reviewing games that they don't like, after receiving them. You see, many reviewers, and especially the big name ones, are not keen on doing negative reviews, for a variety of reasons. Joel Eddy, a major reviewer, has publicly said that he does not do many negative reviews because they're not worth his time, among other things, which is his decision and I think it is probably a valid one considering the costs involved with producing a video. Others have said they don't do it because they don't want to deal with public backlash from the fanboys of any given product. Others have said that they simply don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, such as a designer, or a friend that is a publisher. All totally legitimate reasons not to do something, with the latter being a form of misplaced nobility, I believe. 

But here's the catch: publishers know this about reviewers. They know that people don't want to waste their time on a game they don't like, that they don't want drama, and they don't want to hurt feelings. In fact, they count on this very human factor in order to ensure that they sell their products. The "review sales channel" is entrenched in "reprisal fear" to the extent that they have strong  evidence that their risk of receiving a bad review from a major reviewer is very slim, and even minor but vocal reviewers are even more at risk from this kind of thing. To them, it's a $20.00 bet; if no review comes out because the reviewer doesn't like it, they're out $20.00 and get a marketing write off. If a good one comes out, all of the sudden, you spent $20.00 and got $200.00 in sales, or $2000.00, or if you're big enough, $20,000. I mean, I might be wrong here, but I've been researching this subject for five years now, and thanks to my "day job" I can smell a marketing plan a mile away just like a 20 year Army veteran can smell an enemy soldier around a corner. It gets worse though, and more insidiously damaging to the industry, when all major reviewers are in the position that their ability to produce content is in jeopardy simply by doing negative, but factual and honest, reviews, without pulling punches.

Because of the incestuous relationship with publishers providing review copies, it's the publisher who benefits, not the consumer, because the publisher is fairly secure in the belief that they hold most of the cards. It's not their fault, after all, because it's their job to sell games, and if the public isn't getting pissed about the fact that so many mediocre games are being made but rated highly, why shouldn't they continue doing what's working? Until the stick is removed from their hands, we will all remain prisoners in this trap.

For example, look at what happened to Michael Barnes, who was blacklisted from FFG's review corps for the grave and inexcusable sin of speaking plainly about the company's failings. If this is what journalism is about, only telling the good stories and burying the bad ones, we're all going to be walking to the game store with our rose colored glasses on, provided at no cost by YouTube, Board Game Geek, and reviewers who have the carrot and the stick to consider when telling you about a product. I read that Tom Vasel was blacklisted for simply giving a "not incredible" review, although that's hearsay and I can't verify that, although it came from a trusted friend who knows him personally. These are the lessons being taught by this sales channel to reviewers: "get in line or you lose access", which affects their ability to do reviews at all, or at least often enough to remain relevant in the eyes of the eager and ravenous public. 

Let me put it simply: If every major reviewer generally refused to produce reviews of games they received but didn't like, as they currently do, the logical result is that the most popular reviewers who produce the best, most accessible content on the most popular sites will publish an overwhelming majority of favorable reviews, skewing the entire game world greatly positive, thereby giving the false illusion that almost all games are good. Think about it: if Tom Vasel and Joel Eddy hated a game, but Undead Viking liked it, the one review that will come out from a major news source will be positive. There will be no balance. Let that sink in, and contemplate it a minute: If every reviewer didn't take the opportunity to produce negative reviews as often as basic statistics would lead you to believe are possible, what you end up with is the top 5 news outlets taking turns producing positive reviews, which makes all games seem like they're good, from the 10,000 foot perspective. And the publishers count on this, after all, they're not hugely popular reviewers for no reason...they carry weight, and they are convincing in their reasons to like a game. What's missing is the back-and-forth that you might see when looking at Tom Vasel's Top 10 Most Overrated Games video from a Dice Tower Con. This is honesty  in motion...three guys disagreeing honestly about games. Why is it that we don't see this very often in the form of reviews upon release? It's simple: reviewers can't afford to lose their access to free product because they would be crippled in their ability to produce relevant, current content, which is the death knell of any news source.

I can't believe that more people can't see this, or maybe I'm just crazy. That's possible. I already see this phenomenon in the hobby realm, and it's only worse with Kickstarter, since projects on that site use blurbs from reviewers that is not wholly representative of the article, and they pay great sums of money to popular bloggers and video reviewers to "preview" products. This is leveraging your trust in a reviewer's unbiased opinion and his name recognition against the consumer, which is a sales tactic used in everything from deodorant commercials to beer. It's irrelevant what the reviewer said, because if a celebrity spoke about the product, paid or not, you know it's going to be good, right?  It's sort of a conditioning that has set in the hobby world, and nobody seems to notice it: if a reviewer of good reputation is reviewing it, it's probably good. Why do we have these stereotypes, despite the fact that it's not entirely accurate? I mean Joel Eddy had to create his own "Negative Review Geeklist" just to point out that he's not all roses and cake! So why do these stereotypes exist? Probably because if you do 100 videos and 5 of them are negative, people will simply assume that if you review it, it's going to be positive. This kind of dialogue about "why don't you do negative reviews" is a clear indication that most of these guys' reviews are generally very positive, which gives credence to the notion that "if they reviewed it, it's probably good".

Also consider that the lifeblood of the "review gig" is content, as I noted, and if a website is to remain relevant, constant content must be released. Unless a reviewer is independently wealthy and can buy 100-150 games a year to feed the need to keep content flowing, they rely on publishers to feed their content engine, which feeds their subscriptions and page views, which then feeds their advertising revenue stream. So, it's in a reviewer's interests not to write too many bad reviews because if they piss off publishers, they lose a content feed source, which then limits their ability to remain relevant without great personal cost. It's a vicious little circle, and it goes on behind the scenes, and isn't often talked about in detail, so what you have is a reviewer who can't cut himself off at the knees by doing as many negative reviews as they might otherwise, and you have a publisher who knows this, and therefore is willing to take a small risk at a small price with a tremendous upside. Not long ago I was watching a Vasel "Top 10" video whose subject was essentially bashing older games, and at one point, Tom said something to the tune of "Hey, they're a sponsor of the Con!" This indicates to me that reviewers are cognizant of the fact that they can't be too critical, but I don't think anyone needs confirmation of that; it's common sense. This is not an attempt to impugn anyone, hopefully it's the beginning of an ongoing dialogue about how games are sold to us, and to tell publishers that they cannot blacklist a reviewer for a negative review if they want to continue to sell us games.

I'm not in any way saying that any given reviewer is a scumbag, a shill, a charlatan, or anything. Not remotely. What I am saying, however, is that because of this incestuous relationship between the publisher and the "review corps", what you have are loaded dice; a stacked deck against the consumer. The impression is given that almost all games are worthy of purchase, and perhaps many are, but the amount of buyer's remorse that you can find comments about on any given game tells me that people are buying a lot of games they hate. The question is what motivated them to do so, and I posit the idea that it's the stacked deck in an industry that is wholly bought and paid for by participants who are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to negative reviews. It's not one person shilling for a publisher, it's that the entire marketing system is set up under a structure that absolutely makes it deadly for reviewers to review bad games in a negative light. Worse, it ensures that all games get a good review by at least one major news source.

So, yes, I'm vocal, outspoken, argumentative, rude, and a loudmouthed bastard about it, but it's because I'm passionate and I was sold so many utterly shitty games by deceptive marketing and a "stacked deck against the consumer". I took it as a personal goal of making sure that everyone that I could reach understood the way that games are marketed and sold, so that they would know that the deck is stacked against the truth. 

In the end, I think the gaming industry would be better off, and higher quality product would be produced if reviewers as a whole would stop being afraid of the publishers. The reality is that it's not easy to become a Tom Vasel or Joel Eddy, and they carry an incredible weight with consumers. Publishers that blacklist them will have to accept that not every game they make is good, or fun, or even of high quality. They will have to accept criticism as it comes, without reprisal to the reviewer, or they will lose their cheap supply of marketing labor, some huge voices in the gaming world, and furthermore, its in their benefit to take the good with the bad. We hold the cards, as reviewers, not them, but only if we realize it.