Paying For Coverage: The Comodification Of Exposure
The thing that twitter users got angry about last night is a thing that anyone who has engaged with games media from any angle, whether it’s consuming it or producing it, is all too familiar with. Maia dev and opinionated rascal Simon Roth vented about a youtube channel asking for a cut of sales of his game in exchange for producing a video of his game. This echoes much of the worst conspiracy theories about paid off reviews and games journalists just being PRs in cheaper suits, but is this inherently problematic? I’m going to throw my hat into the ring on the side of “No it is not inherently problematic”, but there’s a big stack of caveats, and equal parts apprehension and confusion for what the future of the video games industry looks like. But I think we’re all going to have to get used to it.
Before sinking my teeth into this topic: Full disclosure. I make my living from running this website, and supplement it with bits of freelance writing words about games for money. This website’s only source of revenue is affiliate commission from retailers, where in exchange for directing sales their way, I get a cut of any sales I generate. Typically I get between 2% and 6% on sales I generate if a retailer does affiliate commission. Sometimes it goes as low a 1% or high as 10%. The websites I have written for are generally financed by ads, bought by the games industry.
Ask a developer who has not yet established much of an industry reputation what the biggest challenges facing their career as a person making games for a living are, and it’s likely that one of top responses will be “I want people to know about my game”. If no one knows about your game, no one can buy it. It’s never been easy to generate mass exposure, but in many ways it’s getting harder by the day. Just concentrating on the PC space, as Steam gradually erodes the barriers to entry for developers to put games up for sale, the number of games that the collective eyeballs of Steam users are split between increases.
Ask someone writing words about games, making video content, or in some other way sat on the periphery of the games industry, what the biggest challenges facing their career is, and it’s likely that one of the top responses will be “I am not earning a reliable liveable salary”. I know plenty of writers that have had successful careers, and have written for plenty of high profile outlets, but they’re still struggling to pay their bills on a regular basis.
In both these scenarios there are outliers, but for every Notch and PewDiePie, there are countless numbers of people struggling. This is the kind of problem that markets seek to address. One group of people with a product that needs an audience, and one group of people with an audience but no money. Paying people in commission for sales they generate is one way to help solve both of these groups problems, and this is clearly the direction that the industry is going in. Amazon have been doing this for years, the iOS app store does this, as does pretty much every major digital distributor that isn’t Steam, and all signs point to Valve adopting this model within the year. Exposure for games will be comodified.
I don’t quite know what this means for the future of objective games media. It somewhat blurs the line between media and PR, which is an uncomfortable situation, but more traditional games media has always been largely funded by the industry, so there’s not actually too much of a change here, it’s just being opened up wider to individual/independent developers/content producers.
Clearly, a bare minimum for integrity when using affiliate commission is transparency. If you aren’t letting your users know that you are engaging in this model, I’d suggest that’s highly questionable, and wouldn’t be confident in considering anyone engaging in this stuff under the table as trustworthy. Regardless of what business models are available, there will always be people with and without integrity. What’s important is to give the public the necessary tools to discern between the two if they care to do so.
If you know when someone is receiving a cut of sales, you know to scrutinise what they say through that lens. A reviewer saying exclusively positive things about a game, then providing you with a link to buy it from which they get a cut can be considered in a different light to one saying the same but not profiting from the sales in any manner.
I’d suggest that if consumers want media that is not in any way financed by the industry, the onus is on them to finance it themselves, otherwise you’re only going to get hobbyist stuff produced for free in spare time, and there is a limit to what kind of commitment people can make to their work on that basis alone. Entirely blurring the line between content and advert is obviously bad, but if the division is clear, I’m happy to let the market decide what happens.