Here are five important points to consider before you send your game to a reviewer, including yours truly. I’m sure there are more, but I’m a lazy guy and five is all I want to point out. If you have more, please feel free to leave a comment and add to the list. I should also note that this list is going to make me unpopular with others. But let’s keep this in perspective and understand it is just my opinion.
If you are a seasoned game designer who has had your games reviewed before, this article will do nothing for you. If you are a budding game designer, do read on.
#1: Don’t Rush It
It’s great that you are excited about your game and awesome that you want me to try it. But please don’t send it to me or any other reviewer until you think it is done. You know how parents think their child is the greatest thing on two legs? That’s because their opinion is highly biased and so is yours. Your game might be the greatest thing created since the Thriller music video, but only in your head. And to be fair, it’s exceedingly difficult to remain objective about something you are pouring your soul into.
What you can do is take your time. Play your game a lot with friends, family, and strangers. Friends and family will be supportive, but can also be somewhat soft when it comes to giving you criticism. That’s OK because that’s what you want to hear. You need people you know and respect to tell you to keep going, you’re doing a great job, and what you are making is worthwhile. Strangers will tell you what they think of the game without emotional strings. Sometimes they can be very harsh. This is good because you need people like that, too. If you can’t listen to criticism about your game without getting emotional about, then your game is simply not ready and nor are you.
I’m not suggesting you detach yourself emotionally from your game. Never do that or you’ll lose interest in it. What you do need to do, however, is prepare it for the “big scary world” that is outside of your protective influence. There is no schedule and you are not in a race. Take the time to design your game, hit it over the head with countless play testing sessions, and keep working on it until you are convinced that you can’t do anything more to it. Then and only then should you even consider giving it to someone else.
Once you do give the game to another person to play, you no longer have any control over the game play experience. The game has to fly on its own. Take the time to ensure it has strong enough wings to soar and make a good first impression.
#2: The Reviewer is NOT Your Friend
Reviewers are not bad people, but they don’t have your best interest at heart. A good reviewer will detach themselves from any emotional connection that they might have between the game and the game’s designer, and believe me when I say that is hard. People I know and I think are fantastic ask me to review their games. Before I play their game, I have to divorce myself from the emotional and personal history I have with it. I don’t want to be an ass to my friends and tell them their game isn’t a good one. I’m not interested in making them feel bad. But, as a reviewer, I must be prepared for that possibility.
It is, of course, a lot easier for a reviewer when they don’t know the person who is giving them the game, but I guarantee they still think of other people’s feelings. Despite how much you might disagree with a reviewer’s opinion, please don’t forget they are people just like you. Don’t get all angry at them if they don’t like a game you do. It’s just an opinion and nothing more. If I told you I thought a game you liked was bad, does that make your opinion incorrect? Only you can answer that and your answer is the only one that counts. Not mine.
A good reviewer will remain objective, not use slander, and tell you how it is. That can be hard to hear, especially if it is contrary to your opinion. A reviewer doesn’t have any “skin in the game”, so to speak, when it comes to the success of your creation. Don’t give a game to a reviewer thinking they will be gentle with it. They won’t, but they will hopefully be fair.
#3: Shop Around
There are a lot of game reviewers out there. Some are better than others. You need to take the time to read their work, listen to their podcasts, and watch their videos. When you give your game to a reviewer, you are essentially getting free advertising. A reviewer will talk about your game and give it its “5 Minutes of Fame”. While you have no influence on what that person says, you can be very confident in how they will say it.
If your game is meant for families, don’t give it to a game reviewer who focuses on wargames. If your game has adult themes, don’t give it to a reviewer who only focuses on family games. You can pretty much determine what they will think of your game before you give it to them. Keep in mind that there is no “science” or “standard” when it comes to reviewing games, either. While many reviewers will always attempt to be as objective as possible, everyone views a game subjectively to various degrees. For the same reason I told you to take your time when developing your game, don’t rush selecting a reviewer. Know who they are, know what they like, and know who their audience is.
Some reviewers (including me) will ask for a fee to review your game. These reviewers tend to have a very large volume of games to review and weight in the gaming community. There is even a larger number of reviewers who do not ask for payment. The difference between a “paid for” review and a “free” review is all based on your perspective of “value”. If you think it’s worth paying for the review, go for it. If not, then don’t. The point is, you need to determine what you think it’s worth to you to have your game reviewed by a specific individual. If you think they will help promote your game, then by all means do whatever you can to get the game into their hands. Just keep in mind that paying for the service of having your game reviewed should not suggest in any way that the reviewer will give your game special consideration. I certainly won’t. Nor should it suggest that the service they are providing at cost is somehow less than one that could be offered for free. The rest of the world doesn’t work that way, after all, but do expect some folks to raise their eyebrows if they understand that the review was paid for. Then again, understand that you never had any say over what other people think or say, so get over it.
#4: Bigger Games Get More Focus
As unfair as it sounds, games designed and published by big companies will always get more focus than your game. That’s because those games come with components intended to catch the eye and make Gamer Geek perspire with excitement. Don’t think for a moment that your game is going to get as much attention as a big box game. Who do you think gets looked at more when they walk onto the dance floor? The Super Model or the Busboy?
To some, “quality” is measured by the bulk of a box’s content. That’s not a fair way to determine a game’s worth, but the world isn’t a fair place. Games that comes with laser cut pieces, highly detailed miniatures, and colorful components will always upstage and overshadow your creative work. This is the way of the world.
Do not be discouraged or threatened by this. Your game deserves as much, if not more, attention as every other game. Demand it. You spent the time designing the game, you believe in the game, and you want to share it with others. That’s awesome. But know that your competition is going to glam its way into people’s hearts and blind them with glitter. This will result in smaller game companies, indie games, and independent publishers being pushed gently aside to allow for the big game publishers and large bulk games to jump to the front of the line.
But there is a reason for it. Reviewers need an audience and there is no better way to attract attention then to slap down a GIANT game that has a lot of hype behind it. I know, without a doubt, I’ll get more web traffic if I review a game from Fantasy Flight Games versus any game, no matter how good, from the Game Crafter. Is a big game publisher better than a small one? Not at all, but the game that comes from a big publisher draws more attention. Reviewers will tend to focus on those first.
Long story short, if your game looks like it was printed at home, the reviewer won’t put it to the top of their review list if there is a nicer looking game available to play. And don’t ask them to print it off, either. That’s a sure-fire way to have most reviewers say “no thank you”. Do what you can to improve your game’s looks, but never, ever skimp on the game’s depth. Great looking games will get a lot of focus, but will lose their audience when they are found to be shallow and worth nothing more than the price tag that came with it.
It has been said that “beauty is only skin deep”. This is true for games, as well. A game’s true worth is found only when it is played with others. You might have to work harder and wait longer to get your game to the reviewer’s table, but when you do, no amount of glitter or glam is needed or necessary to review it. Looks only get your game attention and any reviewer worth the weight of their game collection can identify a pig in lipstick after a single game.
#5: You Don’t Need Them, But They Do Need You
Here’s a dirty little secret that most reviewers won’t tell you in public. You don’t need them, but they do need you.
Reviewers have clout, and that is very important to them and to you. There are many people who will read one review or listen to one person’s comment and formulate a strong opinion of whatever is being discussed without even trying it themselves. I’m guilty of this and so are you. How often have you read a line in a menu and ordered it just because it “sounded good”? The same can be said for anything and everything else. People, products, services..they are all subject to review, and if the person who is talking about them has enough people listening, they can make a lot of people think the way they do.
That sounds powerful and it is. A good reviewer understands two things. First, they have an opinion. Second, they have a responsibility to make sure they state their opinion AFTER they have fully explored all the possibilities. A reviewer is not responsible for other people’s opinions, however. I always roll my eyes when someone suggests that they do. If people are going to be sheep, they might follow the lead sheep off the cliff, but they were the ones who jumped. If a reviewer says a game was a good one or a bad one, and the person who listens to them accepts that value statement blindly, blame and pity the person who isn’t thinking for themselves, not the person who is.
But as important and influential as a reviewer’s clout can be, they cannot obtain it without your help. They need you. Reviewers are, to some degree, addicts. Me included. I need people to visit my site. I need people to listen to me. I need to influence others. When I do, I gain clout. When I gain clout, I gain weight in gaming circles. Some reviewers will tell you they are “doing this for fun” or “don’t’ want to make it a business”. I’m sure that’s true, but you’ll never hear a reviewer state they don’t care if no one listens to them. Reviewers do what they do because they like the attention, have an opinion, and enjoy sharing it. They want your games so they have something to talk about. Keep this in mind when you approach them. If the reviewer isn’t giving you the time and attention you want, drop them. If you think it’ll help, rate them poorly and tell your friends. Likewise, if a reviewer does work with you, is open and communicative, rate them highly and tell your friends.
Reviewers and games are locked in a symbiotic relationship. Both need the other, to a certain degree. You can circumvent the reviewer by telling people about the game yourself. In fact, do this anyway. You are your game’s best advocate. But don’t discount the reviewers, either. They are good people with opinions and loud megaphones. They want you to listen to them and you want them to talk about your game.
Good luck to you, and never take no for an answer. Let criticism pass through you, but listen for the wisdom in it. Believe in yourself and what you are creating. Some will love it, others will hate it. You can’t control them, but you can influence them by making a game they want to play. Know your audience and take nothing for granted. But above all else, never allow another person’s opinion to reduce your self-worth or passion.