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Are developers actually paying for YouTuber and press coverage?

Here's what we know: The ethics of paying for YouTuber and press coverage of your game are rather blurred, and become more and more so as revenue share programs and FTC rules come into play.

Mike Rose, Blogger

July 28, 2014

13 Min Read

When it comes to the ethics of paying a YouTube personality to play your game for promotional purposes, we've seen that the ethical lines are blurred. But there's an important question to ask when examining the practice of pay for play: To what extent are game developers actually paying for YouTuber coverage? Earlier this week I surveyed 325 video game developers to find out whether they have paid for coverage from either the traditional press or YouTubers, and asked whether they would ever consider doing so in the future.

Have you paid a YouTuber?

Let's talk YouTubers first. There are currently two main methods for developers to pay YouTubers for coverage -- paying a one-off flat-fee, or paying a revenue share, based on how many sales the YouTuber coverage brings. Of all the developers I surveyed, only 1.5 percent said they have paid a YouTuber a flat-fee for coverage -- that's just five developers out of 325. As for paying revenue share, the figure was roughly the same. 2.1 percent of respondents said they have paid a YouTuber revenue share. So obviously not many developers are actually paying for YouTuber coverage, but that doesn't give the full picture, as many more developers said that they may pay for coverage in the future. In fact, 19.1 percent said they have considered paying a YouTuber a flat-fee, while 11.6 percent said they are considering paying revenue share to a YouTuber in return for coverage. In other words, while not many developers have actually paid for YouTuber coverage yet, a portion are definitely thinking about it in the near future. Given that the YouTuber movement is really starting to hit its stride now, it makes sense that more developers are starting to take note for future endeavors.

Has a YouTuber asked you for payment?

Another angle: How many YouTubers are contacting developers and asking for payment? 14.7 percent of the developers surveyed told me that they had been asked for a flat-fee by a YouTuber, while 13.6 percent have been asked for a revenue share. Thus, of the developers surveyed, more of them are considering paying for YouTuber coverage, than have received a request from a YouTuber. So it's not just YouTubers who are interested in pay for play -- game developers who are looking to stand out in a crowded game market are weighing the paid YouTuber option. I asked developers to provide their further opinions of YouTubers asking for payment to promote games -- and as it turns out, while around 85 percent of those surveyed wouldn't pay, a good portion don't really have a problem with it. "I have nothing against an entertaining infomercial, it's just a different kind of trailer," says one dev. "I'd never have any interest in participating, but I suppose I'm alright with others doing it as long it is presented as advertising in an clear and honest way," explains another. "When your game is lost in the noise and your company is failing, all promotional options are on the table," muses one developer -- a popular response, and one shared by the Fortress Craft dev: "Why languish in obscurity when you can pay for fame?" But lots of developers aren't happy about it either. "It's questionable at best," one dev wrote. "I fear that for some it will turn into 'pay us and we'll promote your game' to 'pay us or we'll not promote your game,' while not looking to or being able to provide the level of attention and promotion that one would expect an advertiser to provide." "It's a slippery slope," says another. "Viewers will rightly start questioning whether a YouTubers opinion is the truth or they're hyping the game to earn themselves more revenue." What about the developers who have already paid for coverage from a YouTuber before? One such developer explained, "I looked at it as a crucial promotional opportunity to get my game in front of players I may not have reached otherwise." "Since the streamers and Let's Players have the power to make or break a game, it's become a valid place to spend your advertising revenue," said another. And one dev who has paid for YouTuber coverage said simply, "They are a cancer. A necessary cancer."

What is your opinion of YouTubers asking for payment (rev share, flat-fee or otherwise) to promote games? by Michael Rose

Have you paid press for coverage?

The next question: Is payment for traditional press coverage any different? I asked developers whether they have paid for written press coverage, and 4.7 percent told me that they have indeed paid for coverage. This is slightly higher than the number who have paid for YouTuber coverage, but barely. How many are planning to pay for coverage from the written press? 13.9 percent said they are considering it for the future -- again, roughly the same as those considering paying for YouTuber coverage. But here's where the obvious difference occurs -- 29.0 percent of respondents said that they have been asked for payment from a traditional written press website for coverage of their game. That's nearly a third of all those who responded, and eclipses the number of developers who have been asked for payment by YouTubers. Of course, we're all well aware that this happens, and there's a handy list of some of the websites that ask for cash for payment over on AppyNation. However it's perhaps surprising just how many developers have been asked for payment for review from sites like these. And for press payments, it would appear that it's happening in reverse to what we see with YouTubers. Big YouTubers are asking for money while smaller ones aren't so much, while many smaller traditional press outlets are asking for cash for review, while bigger names need to be more above-board so as not to anger their communities. Many of the comments from respondents about paid coverage from written press echo those about YouTuber coverage. "Whilst I hate the very idea of pay-to-review, exposure and coverage is absolutely critical for app discovery," says one developer. "If you're not discovered, you're not downloaded." But some of the developers surveyed expressed the idea that it is more of blow to the reputation of a writer than a YouTuber, as written press is built around the idea of being ethical critics. "For me, press is journalism, and I can't pay a journalist," one dev notes. "Paid coverage can be seen from a mile away and generally makes sites look bad if it is done too much." What's really interesting is that, when we look at the answers from people who have paid for coverage from the press, none of these people are actually happy that they did. "Did it once, some small useless mobile site of course. Never again," says one dev. "It's horrible payola," states another. In other words, while paying for YouTuber coverage has proved useful for those devs who have done it, paying for written press has not worked out for the best.

What is your opinion of traditional press asking for payment (rev share, flat-fee or otherwise) to promote... by Michael Rose

Vlambeer, Devolver weigh in

Some devs and publishers have been particularly vocal about not paying for coverage. One such dev is Luftrausers studio Vlambeer, and Rami Ismail tells me that, "We believe our games should speak for themselves, and we fully trust that they do." "We've been very stubborn about not paying for anything that can infer a conflict of interests during our entire existence," he adds. "If someone doesn't want to play our game on their stream or channel after hearing of it, we simply need to be making a better game." In his mind, he'd rather spend money on making his games better than paying YouTubers -- that way, players have a better experience, and YouTubers may be more inclined to cover Vlambeer's games. "If Nuclear Throne is not worth covering without pay, we're not using our resources properly," notes Ismail. "We have full faith in video content creators to play what they find interesting without pay, and we've never been under the impression that someone held coverage of our game at 'ransom' in exchange for money."

"If Nuclear Throne is not worth covering without pay, we're not using our resources properly."

Having said that, Ismail doesn't see paying YouTubers as that big of a deal ethically, especially when compared to the traditional press. "I think at this point it's OK because YouTubers haven't developed a reputation of being editorial," he reasons. "They're seen as advertising. In the next few years, as YouTube grows as a review platform and as more people start to base their ($60) purchases on the opinions of the YouTubers, there will be an increasing amount of backlash to paid reviews." "They're simply 'not there yet' - the ethics and morals of their field is being defined as we speak. It places tremendous responsibility on the creators today to evolve video coverage along the axis they see fit." The idea of paying YouTubers for coverage is also a hot topic at indie publisher Devolver. The Devolver team is excited about how disruptive the YouTube space has been for games recently, to the point that Devolver's movie division is actually putting together a documentary on the movement as we speak. "At Devolver we have not paid for any YouTuber or any press to cover a game," Devolver's Mike Wilson tells me. "We have been very lucky thus far in that I think those guys see Devolver and the developers we work with as indie bretheren, too. But we're quite aware of what some of them are getting paid to play big games, and the good news is even if we wanted to pay we could never afford it!"

For Wilson, publishers and developers who are paying for YouTuber coverage should be very careful about transparency and objectivity. "If a big personality is getting paid to gush about a game they don't really care about, obviously that's an ethical mess and will, in the end, cost that personality a good chunk of their audience," he muses. "But if I saw one of these guys say... 'so Bethesda paid me a good chunk of money to play the new Wolfenstein and say what I think, and this is honestly what I think, the good and the bad..." I would imagine it could actually create a great deal of loyalty and trust with the audience." Sadly, says Wilson, this clearly isn't happening, since big publishers can't deal with the idea of YouTubers spilling their truthful opinions across the internet, and contracts that forbid such opinions are clearly a common occurrence. "The other way to look at it is this... most artists of any kind on their way up, and again on their way down, have to do work they wish they didn't have to do to support the work they want to do," says the Devolver founder. "Aspiring filmmakers and actors make commercials or wait tables, indie game developers have day jobs, sometimes in a cubicle at big game studios that make them want to cry every day, bands play corporate gigs and covers, photographers shoot weddings, painters paint billboards.. You name it. It's just reality unless you're independently wealthy, and it allows those same artists to live and create art that they want to create."

What's next?

Gamasutra's coverage of YouTuber ethics has not gone unnoticed by lots of the big names on the video platform. Earlier this month TotalBiscuit said he would make video sponsorships more explicit, while NerdCubed released a video in which he cites our article, and discusses his thoughts on the matter. He admits that he once took money for a video three years ago -- a video of a Need for Speed game -- and it made him feel so uncomfortable that he didn't want to do it again. "The amount of money and offers is increasing," he says. "Not too long ago I got one for $8,000 for 350,000 views on a game video. That's just one video for me, one day's work! But then would I want to be positive about it, negative... so I ignore all this stuff." One of the big talking points has been the YogDiscovery revenue sharing platform from Yogscast -- a platform that plenty of developers told me they have been contacted about. Many devs and YouTubers have lashed out at the scheme, and generally aren't happy about it.

Yogscast NDA by Michael Rose

"A lot of criticism seems to focus on 'conflict of interest,' which is to say people are worried Yogscast will be more positive to the games they cover through YD because they get a revenue share," says YouTuber Northernlion. He continues, "What concerns me is that if they have the choice between covering two games they enjoy equally but one is giving a revshare, who gets vids? I think maybe YogDiscovery puts pressure on indie devs to give up a rev share just to get coverage, which for a channel of Yogs' size, is enormous." "It strips away the illusion of coverage being sort of an egalitarian 'may the best game win' sort of thing, which of course it already isn't." Yogscast CEO Mark Turpin was unfortunately unavailable and unable to answer our questions, but said that he will respond to questions from Gamasutra about YogDiscovery soon. It's obvious that the ethics train will continue to railroad its way through online conversations about YouTuber and press coverage for plenty of time to come, and it can only be a good thing that big names are talking about the topic so openly. But the big takeaway is that some game developers are perfectly OK with paying for coverage, as our quick survey shows, so it's likely that we're going to start seeing more and more paid coverage of games on YouTube in the near future.

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