For anyone with a passion for games getting them for free sounds like a dream, and for myself getting to write about them as well was doubly so. The good news is that anyone can start talking about video games, and in this article, I’ll give you a simple overview of how you can do that and what the process is behind getting review keys for new games! The bad news is that anyone can talk about games. And by that, I mean you face an incredible amount of competition. With the barrier to entry so low, anyone and their grandma’s dog can hurl their opinions into the great void known as the internet.
This may sound obvious but a passion for games is a must. I’m not just talking about playing games for a few hours a day. No, I’m talking about searching through every level of a game for every hidden secret. I mean reading about every new title coming and having a vast knowledge of the old as well. For a reviewer, games are a fundamental part of life, it’s that simple. This comes with an inherent danger, though: it’s very easy to put too much time into playing, writing and talking about videogames. When you take a hobby and try to grow it into something more, the work-life balance becomes a very slippery slope indeed.
And that brings me to one of the most important things to consider: don’t give up your day job. In the early days of writing about games, blogging and Youtube there were people who quit their jobs and jumped headfirst into the new age, and it worked out great for them! These days, though, things are very different and actually making any reasonable sum of money is the exception, not the rule. While it’s tempting to throw everything aside and leap headfirst into talking about games, it’s good to be realistic and realise that you probably won’t make a career out of it. That doesn’t mean you can dream big and chase the goal of quitting your regular job, but be careful. Keep that safe income until you’re confident that you can make it work.
The next is to have the right mentality. Don’t go into the game reviewing business with the single-minded goal of scoring free games, because then you’re writing for the wrong reasons and your work will suffer for it. Far too many gamers get into talking about their hobby because they want free games, instead of doing it because they enjoy it. In the end, review keys are something that can make life easier because you won’t have to spend as much money buying the latest and greatest titles, but they shouldn’t be expected and they certainly are not owed to you.
These days there are countless ways to build a website, and many of them are free and easy. Picking one is not an easy task, so make sure you do your research and find something that fits your goals. Personally, I recommend WordPress.com because that’s what I’ve been using for years now. Making a basic website is easy and won’t cost you a penny, and there are plenty of ways to scale up if you start becoming successful, including running ads, selling products and more.
So now you’ve a blog, it’s time to get writing about those games. But first and foremost you need to have a basic understanding of English (or whichever language you will be writing in) language and its proper use. This means knowing your punctuation, grammar and spelling. Nothing will put off a publisher or a reader more than a sentence which reads: “Teh grafics aint tht gud ether.” But don’t panic – a few slip-ups are fine as long as they don’t make the whole thing unreadable. There are plenty of places on the web that can help with the fundamentals, so go ahead and get learning. It’s like going back to school! Don’t forget your lunchbox.
There are also plenty of useful tools such as Grammarly that will spellcheck your work and even provide alternative sentence structures or suggest words that could be removed. Tools such as this are exceptionally useful when you don’t have access to a living, breathing editor whose sole job is to point out how many times you forget a comma. However, it is very easy to become entirely reliant on tools like Grammarly, so make sure you re-read your work.
Punctuation, grammar and spelling may account for the technical side of writing, but now is the time to get reading as well. Why, you ask? Because this will give you a look into the numerous different writing styles that exist. Don’t just read game reviews either; go read a variety of books as well. Start looking at how and why words are chosen, and how sentences are built. The more you write and read, the better at it you will become. Even people like myself who are not naturally gifted wordsmiths can’t become at least competent writers.
Don’t be afraid to check out the wealth of help available online, either. There are free creative writing courses that can help you add a bit of zing, whole websites dedicated to the confusing world of punctuating and entire forums full of people who are far, far too eager to rip your writing into tiny, painful shreds.
So now you’re writing reviews and posting them for the world to see. Now it all comes down to a single thing: patience. Don’t go into this expecting mass amounts of people reading your material in a month or even a year. Patience is key, it takes time to become world-famous and all good things come to those who wait. It will be disheartening at times, and you’ll probably encounter invisible walls where you just don’t seem able to improve the number of readers visiting your little corner of the net. It can be a source of real stress, and the only thing I can tell you is to stop looking at the numbers. I’m very much guilty of looking at stats and getting angry because I don’t seem to be making any progress. Focusing too much on the numbers will drive you slowly insane, so try not to worry about them when you’re getting started. Write for you and for those that are reading.
With that in mind, if you are serious about trying to improve your website and get more traffic, be sure to spend time learning basic SEO practices. Google has a fairly comprehensive SEO guide that covers most of what you need to know. It’s a complex topic, and frankly a boring one, but it forms the foundation of your site and learning to follow the basic rules from the very start will help enormously. It’s only recently I’ve become serious about search engine optimisation, and I have no doubt that my laxness in years past has held me back.
By this point, let’s assume you’ve been toiling away for a while and have a steady trickle of people reading your work. At this point, I recommend applying to a site such as Gamespress which collects all the company’s press releases into one area and lets you keep track of all the games. It also supplies you with contact details for publishers, which you’ll need. There are other resources available, but this is the one I use the most.
Many people get confused when it comes to which people they need to contact in order to get the games. To explain, it’s the developers who create the game, and it’s the publishers who actually advertise the game and deal with the press asking for review copies. This is not always true as these days many developers also self-publish their games, but they may also have a dedicated PR company that handles press releases, interview opportunities and so on. Within these publishers, it’s the Public Relations representatives (PR Reps) who you’ll be dealing with on a regular basis and it’s these people who decide whether you get a game or not.
As such it’s these people who you need to build a solid foundation with. Among the world of publishers, there are two main types of which you will encounter: stat-based and quality based. Stat-based publishers are now the most common, seeking only to bother with people who have plenty of traffic flowing through their sites, videos or podcasts. When I first began, a lot of the biggest companies were still willing to work with small sites if they liked the person running it and thought they produced good content. Quality-based publishers are your friends, these will judge whether you get the game by the quality of your work and, to a degree, you personally. These days, the smaller indie teams fall into this category more than the big names as it becomes harder and harder to market games amidst the torrent of stuff launching on Steam, Playstation, Xbox, Switch and mobile on a daily basis.
Remember when you’re writing an email to these people asking for a game that they are human, so while being professional is a good thing don’t be too mechanical and don’t be afraid to talk to them or even make a joke or two. Chances are you’ll be refused the first few times, but don’t let that put you down. Keep covering games, and keep reaching out whenever a new game comes out. It’s also invaluable to ask about being put on their mailing list for press releases and enquire as to whether they might have some sort of media hub that you could sign up for. Quite a few companies also feed all their review keys through various websites where you can request keys, submit coverage and more, such as Terminals or Gametomb.
Getting your first review copy of a game is a great feeling, but now you’ve got to hold up your end of the deal by providing them with a review in a timely fashion. Publishers will expect a review to be done fairly quickly so once you get the game, get playing. If you’re lucky and get a game well ahead of release the review may be embargoed until a certain date and time, which essentially means you cannot publish your review before that time. Breaking this can lead to a breakdown in your relationship with the publisher and the possibility of legal action. So resist the temptation.
Embargoes are largely meant to serve as ways of keeping things somewhat fair and helping to ensure games are played rather than rushed through. By having an embargo set for a week after review keys go out, for example, the idea is that all outlets will have equal opportunity to play through the game, write a review and then publish that review. Without the embargo, websites will race to put out their coverage first because that will bring in a far greater amount of visitors. However, quite often these days, embargoes can be used for a variety of other reasons, like limiting reviews until the day of release which means potential buyers can’t be informed of any major issues.
The relationship between influencers, writers, Youtubers and media in general with the publishers and developers is a tricky one to navigate. A lot of people question whether getting free games can lead to bias, and it’s a fair assumption. Truthfully, it can, at least at first. I fully admit the first few times I got games handed to me, I was probably more lenient with them in my work. However, I do think that excitement wears off quickly and the relationship settles into a symbiotic one: they want coverage for their games, and you want games to create content. Reviews keys become a part of the job, and I don’t feel any need to pull punches when it comes to what I write. And most publishers don’t care. They’ll accept negative reviews just like they accept positive ones because they understand how the industry works, especially if you’ve smartly articulated the issues you had with the game.
It’s actually smaller companies that can become agitated by negative reviews. When you work with the likes of Ubisoft, Microsoft, Sony or any other big company, the PR reps are often fairly removed from the actual games and have probably seen hundreds of reviews come through their inboxes. However, in a small team, the same guy handling review keys and coverage might also be actively working on the game directly, so a negative review is more of a gut punch. And a negative review from even a small website can have a far bigger impact on an indie game. Sadly, you do need to push aside any feelings of guilt when you don’t like a game. The only time I’ve ever felt bad is when I’ve really hated a game from a small team and have to publish a negative review.
Once your review is written and up for the world to see it’s time to send a link to the review to the publisher who supplied you with the game. It’s not their job to trawl the web to see if everyone they provided code to has put up coverage, and failing to send the link to your review could result in you never getting access to future games.
Once that’s all done don’t go thinking that you won’t speak to these PR Reps again until you need another game. No, keeping a good relationship with them is possibly the single most important thing you can do and if you only pay attention to one thing in this article, let it be this. This is done in a few main ways, the simplest being keeping them updated with any coverage you provide for their games whether it’s the review, preview or just a trailer. And if you need more time to write a good review, let them know that, too.
If you don’t get review keys for a game, one of the best things you can do is buy it anyway, provided you can afford it. Write the review and then send them the link to that. It could go a long way toward building a future relationship.
So now you’ve hopefully got a steady stream of games coming in and plenty of readers to wow.
That’s pretty much it. Hopefully, this article/special/feature has given you a little more insight into how to get those fabled free games and become a games reviewer. This is all very much based on my own personal experiences when I began and I have no doubt that your experiences will vary, but all the basics and fundamentals are here.
Of course, you can also bypass most of this by simply not participating in the whole system. Folks like ACG on Youtube or Colin Moriarty of Sacred Symbols have built their brands by doing things a little differently. ACG, for example, buys a copy of any game he is sent and gives it away. Colin and the Sacred Symbols podcast don’t ask for review keys at all and simply play what they want. I think there’s a lot of value in doing it that way because it removes any vestige of doubt in the reader’s mind about your authenticity, but it does always require enough spare cash to buy games constantly.
Both ways have merits and negatives. Either way, if you choose to write about games, I salute you, because it’s a tough road. Writing is a dying craft, it seems, and the more sensible option probably would be making videos or recording podcasts. There’s something nice about writing an article, though, and reading one.
A Few Common Questions Answered
Do you get to keep the games?
Yes, they’re yours to keep and horde away. Back when I first started, publishers would send out actual physical review copies of games. They had simple, white labels on the discs, and across the front of the box was a yellow stripe declaring it to be a promotional copy that wasn’t for resale. Good times.
In this modern age of digital games, though, you’ll just be given a code to redeem on your platform of choice.
So what are review builds actually like?
Hopefully, very similar to retail versions. Most of the time you’ll get a breakdown of known bugs, glitches and issues with the code, and with any luck, there will also be details on what will be fixed by launch day. With that said, sometimes you will need to delay a review to double-check that a major issue actually does get fixed, or be prepared to hastily edit your review to reflect reality.
It’s also good manners to report any issues you find to the publisher or developer. If your time with the game manages to get something fixed, that’s awesome for the consumer.
How about earning cash from all this?
This isn’t a lucrative gig, by any stretch of the imagination. But there are options. For example, WordPress lets you run ads on your site, though they don’t pay much. I typically get up to 500 views a day here, but that translates to around 15 cents per day in ad revenue. Ferrari, here I come!
You can also do things like offer people sponsored posts where they will pay you to feature something they’ve written which usually contains links to a product or service. This can earn some decent money, but be sure to clearly disclose any such deals, not just to comply with your local laws, but also to be transparent with your readers.
A more direct option would be something like Patreon, but people have a finite amount of money to give and will likely only support a few creators at a time.
In other words, don’t expect to be bringing in the big bucks. It might be worth considering shopping yourself out as a freelance writer, too. Again, you don’t tend to get much but if you’re willing to put in time bashing out news items or write in-depth articles you could make a solid little income.
Do reviewers really get paid to give positive reviews?
It’s certainly possible. The accusation gets thrown around a lot.
All I can say is that I’ve never heard of it actually happening or seen any solid evidence. However, I’m fairly confident that it has happened in the past and may still occur, but I don’t think it’s a common occurrence.
It also never happened to me. Although, I highly doubt anybody would consider my little site worth the hassle of bribing.
The more likely occurrence is that websites and writers get threatened with having access to review codes, interviews and other things pulled. This is commonly referred to as being black-listed because you said something a company doesn’t like or maybe crapped on their game. That is their right: they don’t have an obligation to provide access to their games, just like you are under no obligation to say nice things.
That doesn’t mean the threat isn’t real, though. A website could potentially get pressured into altering reviews or being more favourable for fear of losing access, thus losing traffic and revenue.
But ultimately, I don’t think most publishers or developers would bother because it’s not worth the effort and if it came to light the PR disaster would be horrendous. And it would happen because any website that got threatened and had proof would immediately write up the story and gain a tonne of attention from it.
Do you have to sign any legal documents to get review keys?
Most companies will simply send embargo details in along with the review key itself, or ask you to agree to the embargo rules before you get the key. These rules will include what time and date you can publish your article, and might even include restrictions of talking about certain plot points etc.
It’s typically understood that these agreements are enough because if you break them the company will likely blacklist you and your site, and word could potentially spread to other publishers and developers that you cannot be trusted.
However, in some cases, you might be asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Do you get access to games ahead of the public launch?
This varies from company to company, and from game to game. Typically, you get given access to the game before it hits the shelves and digital storefronts, but exactly how long before can vary massively.
In some instances, I’ve had access to games weeks before they go on sale, which is fantastic because it means you have plenty of time to fully play through the game without having to rush. Rushing is the worst because that’s not how the game is meant to be played and can make you miss details.
It’s more common to get them around a week before launch, though, unless you happen to work at Gamespot or IGN. For some, you might not get a key until a few days before launch or even on the day. That might be because the publisher or developer isn’t confident, or it could be because they got their review keys in waves and allocated the first ones to the big names.
44 Comments Add yours
So you are encouraging people to start blogging about game and writing reviews for them so they can get free games:/
A. That will not do publishers any good! Once people start doing this, how will publisher make money? who will buy their games whereas the publishers would have to send free games to reviewers!?
B. In the end you are still working hard to get something therefore these free games are not free because you worked hard to get it. Why bother writing reviews for years by getting free games? wtf would it do for you? I’d rather become a journalist and let my reviews be heard by millions and publishers recommending it rather than letting small readers read my review and hoping for free games next time.
C. Being critical does affect your review and chances of getting free games. Publishers want high lvl scores, if you are rating your game 6/10 what publisher would wanna send you a review copy? Publisher only do so to make sure you give the game good score that would allow readers/gamers to go out and buy the game because of the review.
A: Publishers only get a small supply of games to send out, thus only sending them to select people. The amount of people that get these is very very small so no, tha’s not going to be a problem.
B: Each to their own mate.
c: Actually no. The occasional publisher is like that, but most aren’t. I just gave a game 3/10 of ten but the publisher still deals with me on a regular basis and supplies me with games.
Thanks very much for the article! I’ve been religiously blogging for about a year now, and I’ve started receiving unsolicited emails from a “social media marketing” company with information and graphic assets for their games to pimp on my blog. I’m likely a ways from getting review copies, but this article is definitely getting bookmarked.
Thank you for writing this very detailed article.
Video game reviewing has been a passion of mine for years and I just recently started my own blog. I’ve been updating it with lengthy and detailed reviews almost daily and have a decent amount of traffic due to heavy advertising on forums and social networking sites (with class, of course. No spam whatsoever.)
I’m somewhat wary of approaching publishers, but I plan to do that soon. I will use your tips to my advantage.
Hi, Can you give me tips about how you advertise on Social networking sites and forums? I’m quite active on few gaming forums but mostly RMT. Can you give me a site or teach me a process about how you advertise to them? Thank you.
Great article, inspiration for the humble reviewing masses!
When would you suggest to contact PRs? How many hits, views, comments, etc would you consider minimum for a publisher to be interested?
How long did it take you before you got a review copy?
Sorry for all of the questions, but I’m a freelance writer and have my own blog (on WordPress oddly enough) and am wondering when I can start receiving discs for my own site.
Thanks for your time 🙂
Contacting PR’s is simple: just be honest and talk to them like normal people. Most publishers will take quality of site content into consideration instead of hits, though a few will deny you anything unless you have big numbers.
Don’t just send an email asking for free games though. The first email to any company should be introducing yourself, your site etc.
I started writing for a bigger publication and am contacting PR through them and have the stats to not be afraid. Hopefully they will get to know my name and allow my own blog to receive a boost in interest.
Thanks anyway though, I’ll take what you said into consideration.
Good for you! I wish you the best of luck, mate.
hey Wolfie old chap,
I’ve been running the site in my link for a couple of months now and would like to thank this article for our current success. However, I’m having trouble finding a “sign up” or sme such button on gamepress.com, is there something I’m missing here?
There’s a sign-in button on the left hand side. It’s a bit small but it is there 😀
Thanks found it now 😀
Seems they hace issues with my live.co.uk email address, ah well
Great article man! Love when there is info out there like this that holds nothing back, great stuff!
Hey Ronie! So I realize this is a pretty old article on your blog and you may not be replying to it but I have some questions. Look, I understand that this is a long process one must undertake in order to get going, but I work at a local game store where we do reviews and the like on our website so getting free games is not why I want to do this. Our boss wants the reviews done within a week of release. Not too terrible right? Well, he wants the games beat BEFORE we write the review. As you can imagine, it can be pretty difficult beating a game within a week if the game is challenging or is as long as something like Skyrim. The extra time for my fellow employees and me would be awesome! So I was wondering, as a business, if there was a way we can hope in the wagon now. Is this possible? Any help would be appreciated.
I’m not fully understanding what your problem is, there. Could you drop me an Email and I’ll see if I can help you out?
Hello, My name is Hunter and I am 15 years old. My father is in the US Army and I am living in South Korea right now. Ever since I was three I have had a passion for video games. I want to start a blog but also a youtube channel. I was wondering if you could give me some advice on where to begin. Since I am 15 I can’t afford every game, so should I just review what I have on my shelf. Any advice would be much appreciated.
I have the same financial trouble as you, so what I do is if I’m short on any games to review, I review a free iOS game. If you have an iPod, iPad, or iPhone, you can do this, or you can also revew fairly recent games. For example, I reviewed Magicka, but that game is a year old. You do not need every recent review until you are popular because the people that come on your site will be here now, so what does it matter that it was a 2 year old game or whatever. If you do become popular, then they will have to be fairly current, but by then, you can contact publishers and ask for a review copy from them.
I have only just started, so if you could look at my site and give feedback, that would be great. The link is: http://killercowreviews.wordpress.com/
Great article! I’ve been in Media Studies for a few years now and finally decided that I wanted to pursue the route of the videogames journalist, so I’ve been looking all over the internet for information from other writers like myself. Games Press is a fantastic resource I didn’t know about!
Huh, people are still checking this out. Cool, it was helpful for me when I wrote for another site. I’m not sure if this is a rule maintained by every publisher, but keep in mind that omitting scores from your reviews means that you won’t get review copies. Although some reviewers argue that a score shouldn’t be the reason you read a review, it’s what publishers will look for.
I have only been blogging for a week and I have already got into contact with a publisher!
If anyone wants to check my reviews, first impressions and beta impressions out, here’s the link: http://killercowreviews.wordpress.com/
Thanks for this article, it really helped.
I have decided to start writing reviews for video games on my blog (mostly Nintendo games). I would like to be able to receive review copies from PR’s once I gain a large enough audience. I went to http://www.gamespress.com to register for an account, but they denied my registration due to the fact that I am not 18 years of age. Is there any way I am able to receive free review copies of video games without having to be a certain age? I don’t want to start writing reviews for video games just for free games, I really do love them. I have grown up with an N64, PS1, Super Nintendo, Gamecube, etc. and I really do have a passion for video gaming. Thank you.
GamesPress isn’t where you get review copies of games, it’s simply a site that gathers together press releases and provides an index of the various companies and contacts so that you can get in touch with them. Therefore being denied by Gamespress doesn’t mean you can’t get review copies.
Review copies come directly from the publishers themselves, so to get them you must write to the publishers and request the title
Okay, thanks! Can you refer me to Nintendo’s Publisher’s phone number(s)?
I have already reviewed one game for the Nintendo Wii. It’s, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. If you don’t mind, why don’t you check it out and give me some feedback. Any constructive criticism is welcomed, I am also open to improving. Thank you again.
My blog: http://www.samiam10100.blogspot.com
Wow the article was very informative, thanks
I have a degree in Communication, focus on digital film, and I want to start reviewing video games, however I want to focus more on video reviews
I have the necessary equipment, editing computer/software, HD PVR (To capture game footage) I figured I’d put the reviews on YouTube and advertise using forums from various gaming sites
Any advice for an aspiring filmmaker/game enthusiast who wants to try to garner a following on YouTube?
Glad you found the article helpful, Jeff.
Advice on getting on to Youtube isn’t something I can really give you as I’ve never really gotten into it. Nobody wants to see my ugly mug on video 😀 and I’m terrible in front of cameras, which is a shame as I’d like to get in to it.
I wish you the best with with it!
Thanks for this article, it was extremely helpful and full of the information I required.
I do have two quick questions, if that’s okay?
1 – When contacting publishers, when should I contact them? For instance a week before release? A fortnight? etc
2 – Are there any “low-brow” publishers and what’s the lowest views they expect before they even take you seriously? I run a site but it’s still quite small, with most videos getting 500 views.
Nice review. I’ve had my own review blog since 2010 and have been thinking a lot about wanting to get review copies. Just applied at Gamepress for an account and waiting on that… what else should I be doing?
While you’re waiting it’d be a good idea to just starting sending out Emails to the various companies detailing your site and introducing yourself, as well as asking to be put on the mailing list for press releases.
I’m reading this post “only” two years. I want to build a site with reviews and news and this helped me with the reviews part. Thank you.
Can i ask you where i can take news to put on the site?
Contact publishers and ask to be placed on their mailing lists, that way you’re getting news directing into your Email inbox.
thank you! i will register in newsletter/mailing lists. if you know other ways i’ll be grateful if you share it
out of curiousity, what would you say in the e-mail anyway?
I going to ask that same question
Thank you, this was all really helpful! Just became a writer for a gaming site looking for more writers and help increasing traffic! This was really useful! Very new to blogging, but finding a generally warm community on all blogging sites!!
http://twinstickgaming.com if anyone looking for impatial rants and reviews on gaming, you might find something interesting! Anyway, thanks again for the advice!
I just applied for Gamespress, but it says that it only accepts sites of high quality etc and it doesn’t like my gmail email…Does anyone know whether I’ll get in or not? If not, doesn anyone know where I can get the publisher’s PR details?
Thanks for the article. Is like to review Nintendo games, mainly Zelda as I just love that series. I appreciate you taking the time to detail this for us who’d like to get into roots field.
Funny that this guy points out that spelling and grammar are important. There are numerous spelling and grammatical mistakes all through his article. Seems he should heed his own advice.
I’m far from perfect. Far, far from it, and seek to improve my own spelling and grammar.
Hey, just wanted to say that this is pretty good advice. I’ve been a gaming journalist for around ten years, and I desperately wish I knew this stuff when I first started out.
Nowadays I run one of the oldest and largest gaming news sites in the world, so I suppose I did alright in the end. But I can tell you, it wasn’t easy. A lot of people nowadays see gaming journalism as just a way to get free games. It’s more than that. It’s a job, with all the responsibilities that come with it.
By the way, with the mention of actual review discs, I take it you’ve been around in the industry for quite awhile? Mind if I ask how you got started? Review discs aren’t very common anymore, with most publishers opting for online distribution nowadays. So I’m guessing you’re pretty old-school to know what a review disc is. Heh.
Thanks for the great article! Was looking into how to get started into reviewing. I’ve been running a gaming news site for 3 months now. It’s still fairly small and new so I was a little worried to write emails since I’m sure our stats aren’t that impressive yet. But I suppose I just need to start trying. Anyways – could you possibly link which gamepress site you were referring to in your article? There were multiple hits when I googled. Thanks in advance.
Glad to read this article. It seems to be a lot of work at first, but with enough practice, things will be easy. So, I guess buying the first games ourselves will be great if the blog is still at its baby steps.