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.

9 Comments Leave yours

  1. Zahpeter #

    I’m amazed after reading the neogaf thread that so many users consider what was asked “scummy” or “shady”. Why should exposure be free ? Why ANYTHING should be free, as long as it helps you save or make extra money ? I, as a consumer have no issue with unblocking sites on adblock if they provide me a good service and they don’t go over the top with the amount of shitty/noisy/invasive adds.I have no issue with clicking referral links on the right side of savygamer, even if i actually know all of the sites already, when browsing for stuff that might have not been noticed/wasn’t considered a deal. Because..you know, those sites provide me with content and savygamer saves me money.Why should internet exposure be free compared to….i don’t know, let’s say TV commercials.

    Slightly off topic, but something that came up from the tweets, is the desire to control everything related to your content. “When they already monetize the videos of your content”. Well, if you wanted your precious content to be exclusively monetized by you, you should have locked it in a safe and keep it there, not make the life of genuinely passionate and serious reviewers hard by throwing claims on youtube like it happened in some cases, or whine on youtube.

    In the end, i think everything in the industry would be better if people would stop being such control freeks, would tone down the greed a little and be a bit more honest. I for one would have no issue with buying a product from a reviewer with an affiliate link at the top of his review, that would state his collaboration with the dev, would have no issue with buying something from a “sale” site where the writer has an interest, but would be very wary of devs whining in public space about a business proposal, that would have provided with exposure at the cost of a piece of the profit.

    • Richard #

      “I’m amazed after reading the neogaf thread that so many users consider what was asked “scummy” or “shady”. Why should exposure be free ? Why ANYTHING should be free, as long as it helps you save or make extra money ? I, as a consumer have no issue with unblocking sites on adblock if they provide me a good service and they don’t go over the top with the amount of shitty/noisy/invasive adds.I have no issue with clicking referral links on the right side of savygamer, even if i actually know all of the sites already, when browsing for stuff that might have not been noticed/wasn’t considered a deal. Because..you know, those sites provide me with content and savygamer saves me money.Why should internet exposure be free compared to….i don’t know, let’s say TV commercials.”

      Do you understand the weight of the request the youtuber made? i dont think you do.

      Its one thing for a youtuber to go “Can I get X amount of money for doing this. If not I wont cover your game” some devs work things out E.G pay X amount to play the game on the channel (NOT REVIEW just play)

      This isnt all that different from advertisement on tv or on a games magazine show, like you say.

      Were the REAL problem lies is % he asked for a PERCENTAGE of SALES! No Advertisement firm would ever ask that! ASK for a % of sales. All Advertisement is upfront deals of X amount of the job. Maybe even a bonus.

      A percentage?! Thats the youtuber saying “I am part of the game’s development. I am a very large part of this development and DESERVE a percentage of sales.” what if its 25% of a game that only ever sells £1,200? That guy earns £300. Apparently he wasn’t the powerhouse of exposure and he earns £300. Worst is if he the Devs put £1,200 into the project and would have broken even if it wasn’t for this youtuber?

      Now if he asks for 1% ok sure maybe a dev will say yes to that. The game turns out to be another minecraft, of which minecraft in 2013 alone made 200 million pounds. This same youtuber who had very little effect gets £20.000 for almost no work and almost no effect.

      That is a terrible deal for the Dev no matter what was you slice it and all profit for the Youtuber.

      A dev would not even give 1% to Pewdiepie unless they were desperate.

      Thats not how deals are made. The youtuber asking for % is just waiting for someone elses efforts to pay off for him. Not their own. It is Shady and scummy.

      • Zahpeter #

        I don’t think we have the full information to assume they were asking too much. A “share” could be anything from 0.5 % to 50%. A share could also mean “i’ll put an affiliate link and people that would go through my link would give me 5% of the sale”. Would that be shady ? Not in my book.

        When someone offers you a deal, you have only two options. One, you agree, and after your agreement reaches your co-contractor your contract is done.In this case, if the youtuber clearly tells “i’m making X% of the sales from my link” i’m perfectly fine. If he does not, he will be found out most likely, and he’ll lose way more. If he won’t be found out, yeah, it will be shady. Two, you refuse. No, you don’t get to vent on twitter, no, you won’t get to make a deal out of how bad youtubers are. No, you don’t get to continue to whine about bad press. Everyone is bad according to Simon Roth. The press is lazy, the youtubers are “already monetizing his content”

        “Simon Roth ‏@SimoRoth 54m

        Urgh. Lazy press news articles saying that I said ‘tubers were “Extorting” me. That’s why you don’t name names. :p”

        A bad deal is a bad deal. Not something illegal, not something “shady”. A businessman in my country was offered to invest in a company, back in the days when the company was just begining. He refused. This company now is worth over 20 billions dollars and is called Nike.Would he be shady for making millions out of his rather low investment ? My point is, you’re free to accept or decline a deal. The deal could be bad. It probably WAS. But offering a bad deal isn’t by any strech of imagination something illegal or immoral.

  2. NL #

    >I’m amazed after reading the neogaf thread that so many users consider what was asked “scummy” or “shady”.

    It’s seen as shady because It undermines the relationship between the YouTuber and viewer. The viewer has no idea if under what terms the YouTuber is publishing and as a result does not know whether the reviewer is impartial or has a vested interested in how well the game is perceived..

    >Why should exposure be free ?

    Exposure isn’t free, it’s paid for by the viewer through ad revenue.

    It kind reminds me of the US net neutrality stuff, which end should pay? Why can’t everyone pay, that way the middle-man gets more money, what are the repercussions of the content creator paying?

    • Zahpeter #

      Well, sure, this confusion might exist if both the youtuber and the dev keeps it alive (as per my last paragraph, I’d love to see a bit more honesty from all the involved parts).You assume that the youtuber that asked for a percent of the sale wouldn’t have disclosed the deal.If he wouldn’t, then by all means, i would expect him to be out of activity when the whole thing blew over. Because let’s face it, the internet always has a way of bringing stuff like this up.Moreover, most of us follow only certain reviewers we already trust/like and the amount of information you could find on a certain topic is IMENSE, so buying at the recommendation of one certain reviewer is slightly risky anyway. It’s games review, not math,reviewers are subjective all the time, what makes you so sure that the review is fair only because the reviewer doesn’t have a percent of the profit ? Even if the reviewer is 100% honest, and not invested you might make a wrong purchase. Wouldn’t be better to use this barometer (as in, how your gaming-needs/opinions/preferences align to those of the reviewer) to select your reviewers, rather than cut a piece of the potential profit (again, up-front, honest, disclosed potential profit) for that guy you’re following ?

      As for paying from ad revenue…most of the computer savy persons use adblocker. If we allow that party to skip paying ( and how could we not, even if i particularly dislike blocking adds everyone is entitled to use their computer however they want) we’re left with only 1 party that could pay for exposure.

  3. John Peat #

    Equating the difficulties of getting exposure for your game to the difficulties in earning money from writing about games is nonsensical.

    Developers have to eat too – their overheads are a bit higher than a journalist’s (it takes longer and requires more hardware/software to make a game than to write/make a video about one) too.

    As for a ‘reviewer’ asking for money to ‘review’ a game – the biggest issue is that having taken money, you can safely assume their opinion is no longer unbiased. Of course they might not mention this fact – and that’s an issue – but if they disclose what’s going-on, you just have to factor-that-in.

    Most people making game-related Youtube videos are so far from unbiased that no map exists to connect them to it anyway – so it’s really just nerd ranting vs nerd ranting curbed a little by the need to ensure game sells so they get paid more – we’ll just have to learn to detect that ;0

  4. Col #

    Couple of tthou things occur to me (this is the first I’ve heard of this so forgive me if I’m rehashing this).

    1. Sounds like the youtuber wants to get paid coming and going. He’s essentially taking someone else’s material and repurposing it to receive ad revenue. Fair enough. But to then say that the originator of said material should pay for the privilege of having his work utilised in this way seems a bit cheeky to me. I’m not in the content creation or the content repurposing industries though.

    2. My concern as a consumer of YouTube videos about games in development is: when I watch I video about Maia that is derogatory in tone there’s going to be this niggle in the back of my head that says “is this the guy that Roth refused to pay to talk about this game?” And that kind of “omg corrupt game journos” conspiratorial bollocks really pisses me off.

  5. Dragoon #

    I really wished Steam would offer an affiliate programm, so you would start tracking their sales. Their store exploded last year with so much content and sales I gave up tracking it at all.

    • I hope too, so we can earn money from steam affiliate program 😀

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