IGM’s Review Policy

For most of the evening of November 27, I was fuming with anger. It was not that people were negatively commenting on the policies that I have enacted with IGM. Rather, it was that people were angry at me and my company for actually having the audacity to conduct business in a manner of my choosing.

I was originally wanted to backlash and voice my anger and figure out a very polite way to tell people to let me run my business how I wanted to run my business, and to some extent, I did that.

That leads into why I felt that it was important for me to write this article and step into the forefront. The change in course for IGM was 100% my decision. I believe even today that this is the best course for my company even though a few people have been fairly vocal about the displeasure of my decision.

As I made these decisions, there were several factors that I knew going into the purchase of IGM. The biggest understanding was that IGM doesn’t make much money. As I tell everyone, we are an indie company just like those who we support and have done for over five years. So for me to continue demanding the highest quality articles and highest frequency news from my team, I simply had to find a way to retain and reward my staff. IGM had been surviving on volunteer labor for years and over the course of many years, we lost many quality writers to larger fish because we could not generate enough funds monthly via advertisement sales, which of course made our viewership drop and continue the cycle.

Additionally, I wanted to actually offer compensation to the guys on the team who were not writing. We have guys who do marketing, moderate the forums, edit articles, etc. All of them deserve the respect of getting rewarded for their time and loyalty investment to our staff and company.

The reason that I stepped up and purchased the site was because I love this site. I love our community. I love what the indie movement stands for. At any moment, we all pitch together to help another of our breed simply because he is one of us. He has that indie spirit. He doesn’t want someone telling him how to make his game, “Damn it! I know in my heart that this is awesome! I just need a little more time, a little more money, a little more energy.” IGM is no different. More so than my competition, we relate perfectly to the indie developers. They may not be the biggest fish with 500,000 Twitter followers, but they are the underdogs just like us.

I wanted to tell a short story about a guy I worked for a little time ago. He was developing an iOS app and found out that I had contacts with many of the major news sites in the Magic: The Gathering community. He brought me on as a marketer and I worked with him to develop a plan and execution strategy on how to best spread the word about the app. I then busted my hump and found the contact information for over 100 mobile app review sites and the next time we released a new version of the program, I distributed my beautiful press release and my super organized media kit and I sat back just waiting for the returned emails. When they came… I was shocked. Exactly one site reviewed my content and actually posted about it. Not long after that, I began to receive an overwhelming number of auto-replies that outlined how they were super ultra-busy with all of the incoming review requests and how they couldn’t possibly get to everything… but if you pay them a expedition fee of $150.00 – $200.00, they would get to it right away.

Yes, if you have seen my typical introduction email, now you know where I got my model. However, what I have done is fixed the problem. While these sites authentically had traffic, they were not publishing anything if you didn’t pay the fee. Because I didn’t give them money, we never received a review. That is not how IGM works.

What I clearly outlined in my overview is that we require a $50.00 fee to be paid in order to provide compensation to my team. If you don’t have the $50.00, that is totally understandable, and I will have one of my writers provide you with a game preview at no cost. However, I also stated in the email, which was not yet pointed out, that if you want the review and don’t have the money, I accept labor trade instead. I would classify labor as doing a graphic for IGM, write a code or something that the team can easily do that will be equal value trade to both parties.

Seemingly, the indie community is only looking at the $50.00 from the Developer to get a review and the money goes into Chris’ pocket. That is not the case at all. In fact, the other part of my plan was not public information until now: my compensation plan.

In the past, we have attempted to develop compensation plans for our team based on production rather than merit. Meaning, for every news, review, etc. you were paid a set amount of money, regardless of the quality or traffic it generated. That didn’t work out well because of varying factors, but the reality was that the money we set aside to compensate the writers was not being covered by the product which they produced. Therefore, it was a loss of money for us. We then decided to use a core system, which meant the most productive members of the team received a stipend monthly and the rest of the team worked on a volunteer basis. I am sure that you can guess where that led, the unpaid members didn’t produce nearly like previous.

Finally, I came across a policy which many of our developers are familiar with: Profit Sharing. Under a profit sharing agreement, the money left over after expenses is distributed through the staff. The theory here is that the more you do to increase the profitability of the company, the larger your portion of the pie.

Which leads back to the solution to, and the justification, for the review fee policy. The fee being paid does not just end up in the company coffers. As I mentioned earlier, we too are an indie company. Our goal is not the riches of the owner but the compensation of the staff and the ability to retain my team so that we can continue to provide excellent support to our community. As one developer stated during an interview I conducted before I put the policy into place.

“As a developer, there is a lot of information out there cautioning against paying for reviews.
But, at the same time, developers need to get the word out and sometimes paying for a review is a guaranteed way to get feedback. I like the idea that paying for a review is supporting an actual person, rather than a company.”

I purchased this publication out of the love, resolve and aggressive confidence. I know that I can build IGM into a focal point of the industry. I am confident that my decision is right and the the price attached to the fee is low enough to be affordable to most developers and yet enough to add up to a decent part-time wage for my team.

If it offends people that I believe that my writers and editors should be afforded compensation, then I don’t feel like I should apologize for that. I do believe that a man who works should be afforded a wage. Just like I believe that developers should receive a fair price for their games.

In closing, I wanted to address the concern about the ‘unbiased’ nature of a paid review. The policy is that you are paying for a service, not a positive review. I have worked very diligently with both my staff and the developers that I have worked with this month to ensure complete honesty and transparency. Its all about trust in a relationship. That’s how I see it and how I approach it. If you have met me on Twitter, Skype, or anywhere else, then you know that this is how I am. I am about honor and respect.

  • Clem

    Exploiting other independents or startups like this is not only unethical, but your reasoning for it smacks of hypocrisy:

    - If you are expecting those independents that can afford $50 to pay up, it is in your business interest to give favourable reviews. Nobody is going to want to pay $50 to be trashed, and giving bad or mediocre reviews will make those who can afford to pay think twice. This is against the fundamental ethical code of unbiased and non-promoted journalism, which I’m sure you’re aware of.

    - If you are indeed expecting people to pay you money to write about their products, and to make this kind of business model a success, then you have in effect turned a review site into a marketing company. Each article would amount to an advert for a particular product. Will anybody want to read reviews that have been paid for? Who visits a site to read adverts? I think your background in marketing has led you to turn this site into an advertising company.

    You are, of course, entitled to run your business however you please, but with this change from a well-loved independent review site to an exploitative parasitic marketing company you are making way more enemies than friends.

    Making money in online publishing is hard and I applaud your effort to try something different, but for the sake of this site, its writers and its community, please reconsider this approach.

  • btxsqdr

    hi chris

    to be honest, i fully understand your problem. but this discussion is as old as the dot-com bubble, isn’t it? you can’t just ask teenagers and students for $50, if they even lack of an own apartment, and if they use youtube for reviews and first impressions.

    there is a number of special magazines out there, i.e. for ai developers, which take a higher fee, but they know that their stuff is for better paid professionals.

    if you ask me, talk to someone with xp in monetization and ads. perhaps just 90s-like fanzine problems? i am wondering why there is no serious igm youtube channel. let’s plays? wtf reviews? do you know totalbiscuit etc.? reddit? tumblr? and such, imvho

  • http://www.lockeddoorpuzzle.com Richard Perrin

    While I understand why you’ve ended up thinking this is the path forward for the site the reality is it’s not something I’m willing to support. IGM was already really supportive of my last game but going forward I’m not willing to have anything to do with your site. I won’t read it and I will not be providing keys for review.

    Paying for reviews is a scam, I know that’s not how you see it but you’ve taken inspiration for the model from the mobile space where it is used as a scam. Most of the sites that ask for money for reviews (sadly including your own) do not have the traffic to justify the cost. On a purely business level I strongly doubt a review from your site would generate the 10-20 sales required to make the “investment” back. I think people have a tendency to overestimate how much reviews from the specialist press affect sales, in my experience only the really big sites actually have a noticeable effect.

    The reason the scam works is that so many people are making games now and desperate to get noticed, they think that a paid review will help them rise to the top, sadly it doesn’t really work. Dropping a wad of cash to get features on a large number of small sites isn’t likely to work out in your favour. What it really takes is being even vaguely mentioned by a bigger respected site with an audience that trusts their recommendations. It’s a sad state of affairs but regardless as a developer I still try to work with all the small sites and youtube channels because I want to help them grow too.

    You are never going to be able to establish a large audience that trusts you with this business model. You’re changing the dynamic from the readers being your customers and the developer being your supplier, to the developer being your customer and what are you selling them, well you’re selling your audience. That makes your an advertiser and no matter how often you insist you’re unbiased there’s still going to be too much lingering doubt that you’re giving games good reviews as to not upset your customers.

    I know it’s super hard to get noticed and grow as a small site. However I’ve been super impressed to see the growth of Indie Statik over the last year. They’ve grown by producing great writing, and connecting with both developers and their audience. Their decision to use Kickstarter to fund themselves makes a lot more sense, as they’ve asked their readers to support them to continue making great articles. People will rally to support something they love, but nobody will rally to support your shaking down the most desperate of developers for bribes.

    I’m sorry you think this is a smart business move, it’s not. It’s going to alienate your readers and the developers whose games you’re reporting on. I know you want to pay your writers fairly but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t cause so much distrust.

  • Gnoupi

    If a developer wants to put money to advertise his game, he puts money to advertise his game in regular advertising services. A review should not be an advertising method. A review should be an external third party giving an objective opinion about a game they found interesting. As soon as you introduce a money contract between the both, you break this idea. Even if you claim it’s unbiased.

  • Robin

    Chris, you’re not part of any community or scene, you’re a parasite on one. No developer owes you a living. If you can’t run a website profitably, that is your problem, not anyone else’s.

    We’ve put considerable effort into educating aspiring developers that they should never be expected to pay for editorial coverage. Hopefully the attention being brought to your site will help to spread that message further.

    You’re not part of the media, you’re not an “indie company” (what does this even mean?), you’re an advertiser. There’s nothing wrong with being an advertiser, provided that you are not wilfully misleading your customers (readers and content creators) by presenting yourselves as something else. Your protestations about “honor and respect” ring hollow as long as you are doing so.

  • Jol

    Has a gamer, I will avoid a website doing paid review for obvious ethical reasons.

  • http://katsuricata.com/ Kat Suricata

    With the profit sharing initiative, you’re encouraging as much clickbait to be written as possible. I honestly can’t believe you still think this is a good idea.

  • Sunder

    Erm… http://mobile.indiegamemag.com/issues-and-concerns-money-hungry-review-sites-and-developers/

    Says there on your own website that this is a bad thing?

  • Jay

    I would not read a review that’s been paid for! What a load of ….!

  • Sal

    Im gonna play Devils Advocate here, since the whole industry is already beginning to fume up. When a new filmmaker wants to enter their piece into a festival, quite often there will be an entrance fee. This does not guarantee the title will win, it’s simply in support of the event itself.

    How is that business model any different from this one? Both are often sponsored and supported by advertisers and both strive to bring exposure to smaller upcoming titles from new creative talents that have yet to gain exposure.

  • developer

    If I pay money for a review I don’t want it to be unbiased, I expect to get at least somewhat positive review no matter how bad my game is..

  • http://www.rockpapershotgun.com John Walker

    This isn’t okay. To attempt to make the argument, “If you object to my charging for reviews, then you object to my paying my staff” is disingenuous and palpable nonsense.

    That you encountered other unethical and advantageous sites, who also practice the disgraceful act of charging developers for exposure, is not a justification for doing the same. That’s so fundamentally obvious. “But all those other boys were stealing sweets” isn’t a very effective argument, and I’m quite sure when you discovered your product was being ignored because you weren’t paying unscrupulous sites, you didn’t click your heels together and think, “Well then, where’s my cheque book?!” You’d been screwed over. Your response is to want to screw others over.

    I co-run an independent gaming site, which also went through years of almost no income and a lot of struggle. I understand the situation. But there’s never a reason to consider the notion of such an inherently cruel and openly corrupting system as to demand money from the developers whose games we review, because it’s clearly so lacking in integrity. I knew what it was like to not know if our business was going to make it. But that never gave us an excuse to abandon basic principles.

    As a gaming site, you should operate an editorial system that selects the games you cover based on your own methods. Not have your content dictated by which indies are willing to buy their way onto your front page. And what are your plans for when the big name indie games come along, who obviously aren’t going to fall for your money trap? Do you plan to ignore the next Double Fine or Introversion or Majong game? Or will you decide that they get coverage even though they haven’t paid? And what will that say about your policies? Screw over the little guys only, or ignore the most popular names in indie gaming?

    I implore you to reconsider. IGM will descend from an interesting site championing indie games to one of those vile iOS scam sites designed to take advantage of the desperate. Its reputation will be in tatters. It pretty much already is at this point, and needs a big mea culpa to survive.

    I recognise you want IGM to succeed, and I know from experience how frightening and difficult it can be. But back away from this idea. You’re in the wrong, and the site will only suffer as a consequence.

    John Walker

  • Nate

    Ignoring all of the other problems with paid reviews, “I don’t have enough of a readership to make significant ad revenue, so you should pay for a review to reach those readers,” doesn’t make much sense as a business proposition.

  • jarowdowsky

    Coming across really corrupt websites doesn’t mean doing it a little is fine. It’s still corruption

  • http://www.cinderinteractive.net Michael Adaixo

    I agree with Chris. I am a game developer and I’ve been reviewed by IGM. I didn’t had the money to pay for the $200+ other websites asked me to but I was able to afford this service from IGM.

    I’ve send more emails asking for reviews than I can remember and in most of them the answer was “You’re on the waiting list, if you want the review, pay A LOT, or purchase advertisement packs” which I ended up purchasing, with no return from that. I think Reviews are better rewarding.

    Although I would love to get my games reviewed for free, I understand that the reviewers/websites point of view. They have to work to get traffic, just as hard as we have to work to get our games noticed.

  • lampyridae

    Your intentions are noble; don’t let anger blind you. I’m sure indie devs can understand the situation and that many are willing to support your endeavor.

    That being said I think transparency is key. In my humble opinion, it would make much more sense to proceed in an orderly fashion: thinking through new ways to ask for support, announcing them publicly and finally implementing them.

    I think what really hurt in the end was asking for voluntary donation in exchange for a more in-depth review in private only while the site was publicly saying something else. It makes it feel somewhat dubious and it shouldn’t to be.

  • Otis

    I’m genuinely amazed that you dismiss the very concept of conflict of interest so readily, and spuriously.

    You can rant about how angry you are, or how many other business models you’ve tried, but that just doesn’t escape the simple fact that developer-paid reviews are a completely flawed system.

  • Ylbn
  • Chris Putnam

    Good lord, man. I honestly cannot believe you are painting yourself as the victim here. And did you really try to suggest you are “pitching in and helping” another member of the indie community by charging them money for content?

    My assumption through all of this has been that you have no integrity, but in fairness I should consider the possibility that you are as baffled and deluded about the situation as you present yourself here.

    Here is what’s wrong with what you’re doing:

    - You are exploiting the indie developers with whom you have a mutually beneficial relationship. You are leveraging a slight power imbalance to take advantage of people who need you just slightly more than you need them. No one has ever (!) said that your writers shouldn’t be “afforded compensation.” The problem is how you’re collecting that compensation.

    - Accepting money for reviews inevitably compromises your objectivity. Yes, even if you train your staff on “complete honesty and transparency.” Yes, even if you convince yourself that money couldn’t *possibly* influence you, despite the decades of psychological research showing that even the smallest transaction of this kind changes the relationship. This is really something you should already know, but I guess this is what happens when marketers instead of journalists appoint themselves editors.

    - Even if you somehow remained unbiased, even if you genuinely meant well despite all the evidence to the contrary, the fact that we know this is happening completely destroys the credibility of your reviews. And not just your reviews: you have tarnished the credibility of the review industry as a whole.

    Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any way to undo the damage you’ve done to yourself at this point.

  • http://www.indiegamemag.com Chris Newton

    Thanks for your comment Gnoupi, I appreciate it. (I apologize for the lengthy reply, it probably could have been an article itself :) )

    You are right, the review is not part of the advertisement service. Rather, it is part of the marketing effort. I think the big disconnect with the community is that very detail; the review is being compared to an advertisement and that is not a fair assessment.

    I want to quote my former Editor-in-Chief Chris Priestman here:

    “Writing up reviews is one of the most costly practices a game site encounters. It can sometimes take a long time to play through a game in order to come to a critical opinion, and then you have the process of writing the review up, which can also take a while. ”

    Please, don’t think about this from the developer or IGM perspective. Think about it from the writer’s perspective. We get a ton of feedback from devs who insist that they don’t believe that we played their game long enough to give a proper opinion of the game. So that raises the question: What is the proper amount of time that a writer should invest in order to provide a quality and in-depth review of a game? Should they play the game for 2 hours? 20? What is the correct number of hours that should be invested? Since we don’t really have any true data to go by here and we currently the writer is not supposed to be paid for his time, we need to just look at numbers to get the ball rolling.

    Say we agree on 10 hours being the amount of time that a game should be played. Let us then use the minimum wage for the State of Ohio (where I live), which is $7.85 an hour. That is very simple math to see what the writer should be entitled to earning: $78.50 before taxes.

    But that is not all that is involved. IGM policy for writing a review is that I want to provide the developer and reader with an in-depth review. That means that they need to know the pros and cons of the game. They need to know their opinion of the gameplay, graphics, etc. For a veteran writer, that is minimally another hour of work. Plus there is probably another hour involved in researching the press release, finding contact information for the developer and his game. I also make sure that the writer is active in the social media promoting his own work, which as we all know can easily devour another hour of time. So what it turns into is more like 10-15 hours PER review. If it is 15 hours, that is $117.75. Let’s not forget about the editor who probably spends an hour cleaning up the review and making sure that it is tagged correctly and what not.

    It could be argued that there should be a set fee for the writer to the publisher regarding this and as pointed out in my article, we never reclaim that amount per article, resulting is loss. But the other point here is that if it is 10 hours a week, that is a part-time job. If we don’t offer compensation for those hours, inevitably, that writer will find something else to do to pay their bills.

    The argument that the community continues to raise is that the developers can’t pay their bills, but what about the writer? What about the editor? Why are these people — who are providing a valuable service — not entitled to a fair compensation? I just outlined what the writer should be entitled to under normal Ohio laws if they were a normal employee of a company. I am not even asking for that amount! I am asking for is approximately 63% of that amount AND the $50 is further eaten by taxes and Paypal fees before it is distributed through the team.

    Further, the issue about the unbiased nature of the review would be valid IF you were giving Chris money and Chris was doing the review. probably would feel guilty and provide a buffer of review points. That is the entire reason for a clear separation between the developer and the reviewer. The reviewer is absolutely not involved in the business of the site. That has never happened. Priestman can attest that I never allowed anyone but the managing group to know the business of IGM. Anyone below the management team just did their job and had fun with the team.

    Sure, because this practice is new to the industry, we knew that there was going to be skeptical and critical response. But the truth is the truth, no matter who wants to believe it. Feel free to look into some of our reviews in the month of November.

    But please understand, my moral objective remains what is was in 2011, the increased exposure and growth of IGM and the indie industry. I really think that there are unturned bolders in our industry that are robbing the developers far more than than what the community perceives that we are doing.

  • Vint

    You have the right to conduct business as you wish, as I have the right to spend my money elsewhere. As a reviewer, I would never accept compensation to review anything for anyone. For me, the spirit of the Indie Game scene is just as you say … pulling together. I write reviews because I love them, not because I want to get paid. This is one thing that sets the Indie game development scene apart from the corporate one. My vote is that I’m dropping my Insider subscription today.

  • Adrian Forest

    I totally get IGM’s desire to pay staff, and to avoid relying on advertising revenue to do so. But charging for reviews is a poor solution.

    The problem with charging devs for reviews is you’re treating a review as a service to the producer of the product, rather than the consumer. A review should be about providing value to the reader. When writing a review, the person you’re working for is the reader. They’re your boss.

    By charging money to developers or publishers, you’re shifting the authority. Even if you fully intend that this not change the way games are reviewed, it can’t help but do so. At the very least, it will mean those who can afford to pay for reviews will have more control over what games you review.

    Now, given that most games media is ad-funded, I don’t think that’s as huge a moral difference as a lot of the outrage would have you believe. But the fact is, it’s addressing a problem by making things worse. It’s trying to solve the problem of feeding your starving children by selling them into slavery, to use an extreme analogy that nonetheless makes the point.

    I don’t think anybody would bat an eyelid if you wanted to charge readers for reviews. They are, after all, the people who are supposed to get some value from those reviews. But charging game producers is a terrible solution to a problem I totally understand.

  • Rocky K

    This is disgusting. I’ve lost complete interest in this site.

  • Robin

    Chris – re: your reply to Gnoupi.

    John Walker has already demolished your argument. Dozens of professional developers and journalists have torn your plan to pieces, more will do so the longer you stick to your guns. You’ve lost.

    Suggesting that you’re also exploiting writers is not exactly going to help at this point.

    It is completely fair and accurate to characterise editorial content that has been paid for by the subject as an advertisement. We’ve heard all the euphemisms before from the skeezy iOS and self-published book review websites. You’re not pioneering a new practice, you’re digging up a broken idea that the professional media has rejected for several decades now, because it’s bullshit.

    Writers in the real, professional world are not compensated by the hour. The sheer naivety of the arguments you’ve concocted to defend your practices should be a concern for anyone considering writing for you – If you can decide that developers owe you a revenue stream because you’ve failed to generate one from readers and advertisers, who’s to say you can’t cook up some asinine justification for never sending writers their cheques?

    On the issue of review bias, accepting payment in exchange for the guarantee of coverage presented as independent editorial is by its very nature biased. As soon as money changes hands, the bond of trust with your readers goes out the window. Even if you scrupulously maintain Chinese walls within your organisation, nobody outside can verify this, and the fact that you’re asking for payment strongly suggests that you consider journalistic integrity a luxury.

  • Gnoupi

    I understand there are costs, of course there are. People don’t work for free.

    But the main point of the gaming press (and others) is that you hire talented writers, to write stories about the topic your readers are interested in. In this more specific case, it’s about reviewing products (games) for those readers. And that’s where the link is. You write quality content, people come and pay to read it. Or in website terms, they watch ads or buy a subscription to the site. And that’s all.

    Games devs have nothing to do in your business model. At the very most, they can provide you with free samples of their product to help the process (but it’s not obligatory). But they shouldn’t have to be your revenue source. You don’t write for them, you write for your readers.

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  • http://www.ninjalooter.de Benny

    Actually in the common business model readers are not the customers of review websites – they are the currency. The customers for IGN, gameinformer etc. are the advertisment companies.

  • http://aterdux.com Alexander

    If you accept everyone for reviews then it’s really bad choice I think. Because even if I as a developer would be ready to pay, then everyone (players, other devs) would know that it’s a paid review and it will make it rather worthless and not trustworthy.

    Why don’t you reserve the right to refuse making a review and continue your selection process as it was before. And choose the ones you like and then notify them to pay $50 as a sort of “processsing fee”. This way your model would be a bit better received. And in this case I might consider paying this fee.

  • Jonbb

    I get it that igm is not a free service. There are good people working to keep this site running.

    But I think you need to see that the game developers are the one providing IGM with the content they need. As a game magazine, you are providing a service to gamers, and developers are providing you with games so that you have things to write on. What happens when no developer pays you? What if you keep getting mediocre games submissions, and your whole site is filled with just theres games?