The Code of Accepting Codes

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Rossko delves deep into the art of accepting game codes the right way.

A representative from a small development team emailed me yesterday, with a lovely personal email asking if we wanted to review their new game which had just been released. He was looking for a little nudge in awareness, a signal boost, as it were.

I duly obliged, we’re always happy to take on code of games that don’t have those enormous budgets to market them if it means the spotlight moves ever slightly closer to their team in the process. Within seconds I had received a reply with the code in tow, and a sound of a team who seemed eternally grateful you’re simply taking the time to check their game out. It’s no bother, Sir.

Now, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Sure, when we head to events such as EGX we are automatically drawn to the bright lights of the AAA space where all the big players are hugging each other, CoD and Battlefield are giving each other the side eye and Assassins’ Creed elaborate set ups make you think you’re in a different timezone, but we always ensure we head to the indie spots also. There were segments of EGX this year that felt indie compared to the actual indie areas. Unlike the AAA spots, you feel genuinely welcome when you go and check out a game that’s been made by a single person in their bedroom, and through this we made several new great contacts that we continue to email back and forth with.

From this, we get codes. Lots of them. I’m not trying to brag, it’s just the nature of the beast. The difference is these are small development teams that just want people to look at their game, and not completely dismiss it because an Ubi logo hasn’t popped up before it begins. Finger Guns is by no means a ‘big’ site, far from it in fact, and yet when you email a smaller publisher asking them if we can check out the game before they have a chance to offer the game, they seem genuinely taken aback and excited that you simply want to play their game because it looks cool.

It’s something I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy as part of being a cog in game websites since around 2011. I’ve only ever done it part time, and from the days of HeyUGuys Gaming, PSGamer and more, I’ve been the guy who emails back and forth looking for games to further our coverage. Does it mean I get games for free I would have had to normally pay for? Yes. It means I can extend my game library exponentially without the financial burden, in return for a review or a preview, that’s simply what the majority of the teams require from you. Is it a perk? Yes, of course it is, but the simple fact is it’s not the reason why we do this.

I don’t accept codes purely so I can have a new free game. Whilst Finger Guns is not a huge site it’s ran by people who have done this now collectively for a long time and we have the standing with a majority of publishers to prove it. We are trusted not to break embargos or share PR contact information (you can ask all you like, we’re not going to give you Bethesda’s PR emails). We are able to give a biased, balanced and fair review because that’s what the publishers expect from us – if you want to read our full review policy, you can here -, that to me is worth more than a free game that’ll save me a few quid. I’m grateful that I can go to events such as EGX and EGX Rezzed as a press attendee because of what we do here. I appreciate it when a dev reaches out and asks to grab a drink with me because I haven’t screwed them over by taking their code and not giving anything back. There’s a very simple rule to all of this and it’s just don’t be an asshole, and the industry won’t be an asshole back to you. My personal standing with these development teams and publishers, as a fan of the industry and a supporter of developers, means more to me than a code, and it always will.

You may notice on Finger Guns that we don’t review every single game that comes out. Do we get code for everything? No, not even close. I’ve spent a lot of money on games this year, mainly because it’s been a fantastic one for us industry enthusiasts but also because we haven’t yet established ourselves enough with the bigger publishers. We do our best but more than likely if you see a AAA review from us there’s every chance we’ve bought the game ourselves and our review will reflect that via our disclaimers. We get fortunate every now and then, for whatever reason Rockstar seem very happy with our coverage and we managed to get a review copy of L.A. Noire this year, something we were very grateful for. How did that happen? More than likely it was our coverage. Every time a nugget of news appeared for the game we had it covered, and believe it or not, publishers appreciate that. Their PR teams spend a ton of time writing up press releases and getting them out to whoever will listen and even if we’re just a small voice in the background holding up our hand even though it can’t quite reach as high as other websites, it’s still recognised as giving a damn. It’s noticed that you’re not just trying to score free shit, that you actually give a damn about a games success – yeah, Rockstar is a bad example because nobody needs signal boosting less than Rockstar, but the point still stands -.

‘Operator, get me Dead Good Media’.

We can’t review every single game that appears also because there are only three of us, and we all do this part time along with actual real life, pay-the-bills jobs. We simply don’t have the time or the resources to review many games that we don’t get a code for unless we choose too (see Sean’s review of LEGO Marvel Super Heroes 2 as an example of this). Do we reach out to Ubisoft/Sony/Microsoft/Nintendo/EA for code? No, because they don’t need us. A vast majority of the publishers we stay in contact with probably don’t need us. At the present moment, our reach and numbers aren’t big enough for them to give a damn and you can’t blame them for that. I certainly don’t. I imagine what it’s like for the teams who have to deal with sites every day coming at them asking for code and it must be exhausting. I’ve been guilty of it in the past and learned my lessons rather sternly, to the point that I couldn’t speak to anyone personally in certain AAA publishers unless I spent a good part of my day filling out forms demanding reach numbers. I understand why, it makes perfect sense and I don’t begrudge them not really picking up on what we do, I’m not gonna shit talk them across social media because they didn’t send us a code for their latest AAA behemoth that everyone else that we look up to have been playing for weeks. If it’s a game we feel we can cover and want to play, we will pick it up ourselves and share our review that way.

It’s not exactly rocket science and over the years I’ve learned that the game is just played this way and that’s fine. We are in a position where we still have to earn their faith that giving us a free code will mean our review gets out to as many people as they would like. It used to get to me, because I thought that we had been doing enough to warrant the megatons to give a damn, but now it’s just one of those things. That’s why it’s always a thrill to me when a small team seem amazed you want to give their game some coverage. We’re a drop in the ocean compared to the mighty game networks of this world, but just caring a bit about the little guy can potentially mean a big return on just giving us a code to play their game. It’s touching, and I wouldn’t trade it.

That’s why I always try to give something back. You know as soon as you’re taking code away from a small dev team, they’re effectively wavering an opportunity to earn some money off me. Now, if the game is reviewed well there’s every chance our review may cause a game to get sold a few times over and that’s great, that’s essentially what they wanted. Give out a free game to get sales, that’s how the whole thing works. Then there are times when I genuinely love a game so much I do feel like I should give back some kind of financial return. I’ll take Firewatch as an example. I reviewed that game now what feels like years ago for a site we all worked on called PSGamer. The site sadly no longer exists and took with us some of our best work which still hurts, but I digress..

We got a code for Firewatch at the eleventh hour. The game was due for release in a matter of hours and there was an embargo set for the exact moment of release on PS4 (back then I gave a damn about hitting embargoes exactly, now it’s not a huge deal for us if we miss it by a couple days). Knowing this, I took the code, redeemed it on my PS4 and got it downloading. Six hours later I had the game complete and it absolutely rocked my world, it was incredible. I gave the game a straight up ten out of ten and proclaimed it to be ‘the best walking simulator narrative of all time’, a statement that has since been outdone by What Remains of Edith Finch. Still, I ended up writing a 2,000+ word review and as the sun came up, I was done and the review was published for embargo.

Cut to a couple days later and I get an email asking if I want to interview a voice actor from the game, namely Cissy Jones – a role she would eventually win a BAFTA for. I immediately accepted, knowing how much I loved the game and how I wanted to get into her characters psyche to see if Cissy shared my sentiments on her motivations. In doing research we discovered Cissy had played roles in some of our favourite games, so padding out the interview became much easier. We talked for maybe an hour over Skype and that interview become one of our most popular posts, everyone was high on Firewatch at the time and I got to speak to Cissy Jones for the first time – I would subsequently interview her two more times and meet up with her for a drink and a meal in London from this – and that was a truly wonderful moment for me, and it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t review Firewatch before release. It just wouldn’t.

The review that hit the embargo allowed for the highest reach which got back to developers Campo Santo, which enabled us to create a line of contact between the myself and the team, which allowed me to meet Cissy Jones, which was an honour. That for me is worth more than a free game, and I’m eternally grateful to Campo Santo and Cissy Jones for making the time to talk to little old me and my website.

Paul and I (second left) meeting Cissy Jones in London, thanks to a Firewatch review.

But that’s the thing, I hadn’t really given anything back at this point and I felt like I should. When I look at the party of experiences that were opened up to me purely on that review I felt like it wasn’t fair that I didn’t pay a fee on the door. Most developers would argue that they just want a fair review and some coverage, but the argument is always there that you want to make sure they are compensated for their hard work. Ergo, I ended up buying the Firewatch soundtrack – which is amazing on its own – and a couple of t-shirts from their store. I don’t know exactly how much of my purchase will go back to them but since they released free DLC (the fools), I couldn’t think of another way I could get money to the studio. In my eyes, they earned it. They really bloody did.

As such, that became a trend. If I loved the game, I would make sure I didn’t reach out for DLC or anything else. There were times where we would be offered DLC for a game they had already sent us and I turned it down, basically telling them, whilst it’s appreciated, that we want to give you some money because you’ve earned it. It’s become a habit of mine and one that I don’t think will cease anytime soon. Even if I get a code for a game that I don’t like as much, there’s every chance if there’s a theme or avatars or something monetised I can purchase, I will pick it up.

I’m not saying that everyone should do this, but I make sure I do. It’s just a personal thing.

I guess I began to write this piece because I had seen a lot of shit on social media about the reluctance to give out codes to those who just ask the PR folk on their Twitter, who don’t go about it the right way. Now, I’m not saying I’m perfect, I’ve certainly learned from my mistakes in the past and it’s cost me and the sites I write for big, and I certainly am ashamed of my early days of attempting to acquire code, and doing it wrong. These people are stupidly busy and it makes perfect sense why they would get wound up by Joe Gamer emailing like ‘hey I want code I have a blog’ every five minutes. I don’t think I wasn’t ever that bad, but I’ve certainly sucked at it in the past.

Today, I have built up strong relationships with publishers and PR folks who are happy to talk to us and know that we aren’t trying just to get free games and screw them over. It’s taken a long time and whilst we still have some work to do, I will do my best to ensure their faith in us is not misplaced.

Developers rule, and so do publishers. Don’t treat them like shit, and they won’t do the same back.

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