The dilemma of the video game blogger

Earlier this week, I wrote about how I no longer apply for press passes when I’m going to video game expos. It’s an experience every gaming blogger should have at least once and there are certain benefits that come with having such a wristband.

But there are hidden advantages to going for a normal ticket too. I don’t feel that not being officially recognised as a ‘journalist’ at events hinders my ability to report on them, and I’ve enjoyed myself and had way more interesting conversations when I’ve been just-a-regular-attendee.

Another dilemma that presents itself for video game bloggers is that of free game copies. When you’re added to a press distribution list either by applying for a press pass or requesting access yourself from the developer, you’ll soon start receiving emails containing offers of preview and review keys. As with press passes, there’s a buzz that comes from getting your first and the feeling is pretty special; but there are some associated pitfalls and obligations which, during my time blogging, I’ve learnt I’d rather avoid.

‘But free games,’ I hear you cry, ‘Why on earth wouldn’t you want to accept them?’ There are several reasons for my thinking. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t enjoy writing reviews and if I’m completely honest, I don’t particularly enjoy reading them either. While accepting a key from a developer or publisher doesn’t mean you’re legally required to publish one, it does mean that you’re somewhat obliged to do so: taking a game could be seen as an ‘agreement’ and I’d feel guilty if I didn’t follow through on my side of the bargain.

There’s also the fact that I simply don’t have enough spare time to be able to play a title quickly or thoroughly enough to be able to do a review of it justice. I could possibly get through a few hours to enable a ‘first impressions’ post but there’d still be that feeling I wasn’t entirely sticking to my part of the transaction. And if I did aim for a full review, it would be published too long after the game’s release to be of any real worth to the developer. There would be thousands of others already available on the internet and I’m not in the habit of fooling myself that a reader would wait to specifically read mine.

In addition to this, more of our lives are taken up by adult responsibilities as we get older so there are fewer hours available for gaming. I’ve written before that I don’t want to spend that precious time playing something I’m not enjoying and it’s my choice if I decide to put a game I’ve purchased myself to one side; but if it’s been given to me by a developer, I can’t do that as the end goal is the review. We’re meant to look forward to our hobbies – that’s what makes them ‘hobbies’ rather than work – so the obligation I’d feel under in accepting a free key seems a bit self-defeating.

The primary reason for my thinking though is something unrelated to reviews: although not in all cases, these games are usually the means of the developers’ livelihoods. It could be seen that free keys are a way of ‘paying’ for marketing but each one given out to a blogger is potentially a cut into the money they’re earning for their hard work. If a title catches my eye and I’m interested in playing it, I’m happy to purchase it for myself and support independent and smaller developers in this way.

And who knows, if playing their project inspires me it may just end up being the subject of a post anyway. But that’s my decision to make, rather than it being a choice arrived at as a result of any kind of accountability – and it’s one that adds to my confidence that the words contained within this blog are completely independent.

15 thoughts on “The dilemma of the video game blogger

  1. I’m not going to lie, there are games that I will want and if I can get a review copy for it, which means I don’t pay and have to write a review, I’m perfectly happy with doing that. But there are also some games which I wish I didn’t agree to review or accepting a code for.
    It seems to be that review codes come around all at once, one month I’ll have nothing on then something that I’m not to familiar with will come along and because I’ve got nothing else to review I’ll say yes, then the next day something else will pop.
    I do find that sometimes I struggle with writing reviews though, I kind of feel like I’m a bit pants at writing them sometimes, especially if it’s a game I’m not 100% in to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know exactly how you feel when it comes to that last point. When we moved from the old site to Later Levels, I made a conscious decision to stop publishing reviews for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I have limited time to play video games nowadays, and I want to spend the hours I do have playing something I’m really enjoying!


  2. I only ever feel the need to review a code received if I asked for that code and that’s not something that happens very often now. For those games I receive codes without asking, I’ll take a look at whichever I find interesting. I’ve received several keys without asking for them in the past couple of weeks, and really don’t feel the need to write about all or any of them to be honest.

    I spent last year doing that, jumping at every code and I ended up hating to write reviews and previews.

    Now I’m in a place I like, where I review what I want, and I can focus on it as much as I can to properly argument my hateful rants 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. If you start having too many obligations to fulfill when blogging as a hobby, there’s a danger of it turning into ‘work’ and not being as enjoyable as it once was. I certainly learnt my lesson during previous years and the experience has served me well since!

      Liked by 1 person

      • In terms of reviews you’ve mentioned doing them in the past under a very strict structure, have you tried writing one without a rigid structure? Just writing about your experience and feelings with/for the game, even if you spend it al praising the music? It may open a window to a new experience.


        • The second you put a label such as ‘review’ or ‘preview’ on a post, it brings forward preconceptions and the tone is pretty much already set for you. Over time I’ve learnt to just *write* and see where it goes; and so far that’s treating me well. 😉


  3. love the post!!

    I fully understand where you’re coming from. Thankfully the publication I write for gives me the choice on whether I want the code or not and since we are about 8 writers in the team if I pass on it there’s always someone willing to accept it. On that note however there are times where I received a review code so close to embargo that it spoilt my play through of the game as I’ve had to rush through it and like you’ve pointed out, time is an issue now days. Admittedly though, even with these complications its always nice receiving a code for a title you’ve had your eye on so that the money you’ve allocated for that specific title can be used to fund another title down the line or even a collectors edition.


    • I’m not going to lie: even though I no longer accept them, it’s still nice getting the offer of free codes regardless. 😉

      I just don’t have as much time to devote to gaming as I did when I was younger, and as such it’s hard to play a game thoroughly enough to write a review by a specific deadline. The older I get, the more I realise I want to play for playing’s sake rather than obligation.

      It sounds as if you have a good team there – long may it continue!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’d probably only accept a review key under the condition that I don’t review the game until it’s finished and I’m going to at least tolerate it. I have a policy about not reviewing games until I’ve completed them because I prefer to judge them as a whole. I have had games turn out to be major disappointments in the end or the opposite where the ending redeems what would have been a ho-hum experience, but as long as they have a degree of competence behind their design and they don’t drag on for too long, I could make it work.

    I think the problem with a lot of gaming criticism is that these strict rules make for inorganic opinions. It’s the only medium I can think of where critics can praise or pan a work before actually completing them; that would be highly unprofessional anywhere else. It’s somewhat understandable because playing a game takes more effort than, say, watching a movie, but I still feel video game critics’ writing suffers because of it. Free review copies are nice because it means the critic doesn’t have a vested stake in the game being good, but I feel that purchasing it is part of the experience of forming an organic opinion because then you can factor the question, “Was it worth the asking price?” into your reviews – even if you don’t address it directly at any point.


    • Some extremely valid points! I love the fact you point out that purchasing a game is actually part of the overall experience. It’s hard to say how to best measure the ‘worth’ of a title, but if you’re going to base it on cost then the only way to truly understand what you’re measuring is to part with your money.

      I think this touches on what @Geddy says below about feeling as though you have the right to review a game if you’ve bought it. Not that this invalidates the opinion of those who’ve obtained free copies, but I completely get where he’s coming from.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess its one of those “be careful what you wish for because you might just get it” kinda things when it comes to free games?

    Yeah, I’m not too crazy for game reviews either… I tried a very tiny bit of it, but it doesn’t seem to be my thing. I’d rather babble about wacky ideas I guess. 😉


  6. As a developer myself I totally understand your not wanting to “cut into the money for their hard work” by receiving a free code. I also feel like reviewing a copy received for free is a strange gray area. If someone baked a cake and handed me a slice to try it, and I hated it, I wouldn’t feel right saying it sucked.

    Same thing with reviews. Almost like buying a copy gives me the “right” to review it. But that’s just me!


    • Love the cake metaphor! Because cake, and because it’s true. 🙂

      I think it’s easier to be critical of a game if you’ve parted with your own money. Personally, I always found it very difficult to say something negative about a title when I’d got a free key; I’d spend ages rewriting a sentence to soften it, only to end up making it so far removed from the point I was originally trying to make.

      Liked by 1 person

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