Will Spirittea And Content Creators’ Cash For Coverage Change The Gaming Industry?

Highlights

  • A recent gaming industry controversy surrounding indie game Spirittea has highlighted the issue of content creators being paid to cover games, leading to questions about transparency and ethics.
  • The controversy revealed the amount of content creators and their audiences that feel studios should be obligated to pay streamers in order to get coverage.
  • With ‘paid shills’ a frequent criticism of the press, what does that mean in 2023 when being paid for content creation is opening discussed a celebrated?


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Another day, another slice of gaming drama on social media. A lot of gaming drama is very inside baseball, interesting only to people like me but not actually me because I try to cling onto a semblance of a life outside the unending discourse. For that reason, I avoid writing about all the minor details that don’t hold any value, but this latest one, concerning indie game Spirittea, has brought a major issue in the gaming media space to light – who is paid for what they say, who pays them, and why?

Let’s break down what happened first. Mike Rose, the company director of No More Robots, took to Twitter to give a multi-tweet breakdown of the Spirittea (No More Robots’ latest game) launch. Lots of it was very concerned with the drier business aspects, such as how the company secured a Game Pass deal, how it struggled on Steam but performed well on Switch, and the gross profit the game’s launch made. Nestled in the middle was Rose’s discussion of YouTubers, which set off the powder keg.

That quote above from Rose is an opinion I fully believe in. I do not think content creators should be taking money in exchange to cover games. Taking money for clearly labelled sponsored content or actual adverts that run on their channels? Absolutely. But ‘give me money and I will play your game’ is a position that I believe is bad for the industry. It’s also, if improperly disclosed (as it often is), illegal. Not everyone agrees with me on that, and we’ll dive into why, but it is worth pointing out that Rose’s manner didn’t exactly endear him to sympathy.

Spirittea screenshot showing character riding bike through town

While the thread was mainly aimed at other devs and business leaders, it was fully public, meaning everyone saw it. Rose claimed “we got absolutely zero YouTube coverage” while sharing a screenshot that showed several YouTubers did cover it, for free, racking up views into the tens of thousands. It’s at best dismissive and, at worst, downright nasty to take a screenshot of small-time content creators covering your game for free in the completely above board manner you desire and then say it counts for “absolutely zero”.

Rose is, in part, facing backlash for this attitude, and he deserves it. You might point to a handful of small streamers in a board meeting as an example of a lack of coverage, but you don’t do it publicly in front of those streamers who supported you. More than being impolite or mean, it drastically reduces the chances of Spirittea getting more coverage and becomes an albatross for No More Robots’ next game. However, that’s not the main thing Rose is being criticised for.

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There’s also this idea that content creators deserve to be paid for their time, but that’s ethically murky. Neither I nor any of my colleagues have ever been paid by the companies, publishers, or studios we write about. It’s impossible for us to be entirely subjective – I historically don’t like Zelda, other staff love it, and our opinion on Zelda games are shaped by that history – but that thumb on the scales in either direction comes from authentic experience, not cash.

I know content creation is not a particularly well paid job, even for those videos Rose shared generating 40k views. It has a long, long on-ramp of very little earnings that suddenly becomes a rocket blast into another stratosphere if you can climb to the top. But whether you are a toxic shooter broski or a cosy little farming game streamer, if you are taking money to say games are great and not explicitly disclosing it, you are making this space worse.

Many PR staff have defended content creators, saying that these paid relationships are crucial to the success of small games. Frankly, I don’t care about the success of any game in particular, and Rose’s whole point was that Spirittea was successful without it. I’m sure paying people to say your product is great makes people buy your product. I’m less sure we should be encouraging an environment where the only way to survive is to take money and offer your audience nothing but marketing.

Many people’s line in the sand is ‘as long as it’s not a paid review, it’s fine’. And sure, taking money to give a game a 9/10 is worse than taking money to say, “this game is super awesome, everybody go play it!”, even if the intent behind both is to astroturf popularity. But I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that consumers cannot differentiate between things that are and are not reviews, and therefore, in their eyes, every nice thing content creators say about the game is a review – and if you’re not disclosing that you were paid, that means you’re doing a paid review.

Spirittea screenshot showing character walking through icy forest

TheGamer reviewed Metal: Hellsinger at launch, and gave it a 4.5 – nobody paid us, our reviewer just liked it. I played it myself, found it less compelling, and wrote a tongue-in-cheek article about how I’d prefer it if there was more chill, sad girl music like Taylor Swift’s Evermore in the game. Reddit got very annoyed that I (indeed, that TheGamer) had given it an unfair review based on the absence of Taylor Swift. Likewise, we reviewed Final Fantasy 16 and gave it a 4, again for free. I played the first four hours of the game and said I didn’t enjoy its swamp of slow cutscenes that never let you play, and this time, Twitter got annoyed that we hadn’t played long enough to give it a fair review, even though our actual reviewer had not only beaten the game, but dipped their toes into New Game Plus.

So if ‘I wish there were more Taylor Swift’ and ‘I’m not enjoying the opening’ count in the minds of the masses as reviews, surely ‘I love Spirittea, everybody should check it out’ counts as a review too. And if content creators are paid for those statements, that makes them paid reviews, even if they don’t influence the Metacritic number.

It comes down to the idea of trust. People tend to see websites as businesses, as monolithic capitalistic structures that lack independent thought and are concerned only with the bottom line – as well as occasionally being obsessed with their own woke agenda, a position gamers can somehow square in their minds. Content creators, however, are individual people driven purely by passion and enthusiasm, and their opinions are to be trusted. But content creators openly admit in this fallout that many of them only cover games for cash, that the thought of doing it for free is ridiculous. Yet journalists, who take no money from studios, are often called out for being ‘paid off’ when they review games highly, while content creators (definitionally paid off) are the ones gamers trust for honest opinions.

The system most sites use to assign reviews is to see which staff members are interested in the game pre-launch, which is a far more logical reason for game scores trending highly than a big bribe from Sony.

We saw a similar incident when it was revealed that studios were paying people for good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Many had their preconceptions confirmed and used this as proof that professional critics were all paid hacks with agendas against Mario or Justice League. Only even the slightest bit of reading revealed it was small-time independent critics writing on personal blogs – AKA content creators – who were the ones actually being paid.

The content creator space is here to stay, and I know a lot of great creators who don’t take any money and can produce both fantastic pieces of game coverage and insightful, hard hitting interviews. Not all content creators are paid off, and many of them broadly agree with Rose’s point, if not his poorly worded delivery. But given the general public tends to separate press and content creators into press = paid off shills and content creators = honest gamers, it’s worth remembering which side is freely admitting to taking money for coverage.

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