How Game Developers and PR Reps Decide Who Gets Review Keys and When to Send Them
When you’re preparing to launch any game—but especially massive, highly anticipated ones—you spend a lot of time answering questions about review keys. In fact, we in a game-marketing career probably spend more time answering questions about keys than we do actually sending them out.
There are a few questions that come up so frequently as to merit an entire blog post on the subject, but it’s not just the frequency with which these questions pop up that prompted the writing of this post. It’s also the rabid ferocity with which they are sometimes asked, the confusion expressed by so many about our replies, and the revulsion we get when our answers don’t satisfy.
Who Are You and Why Should I Give a F***?
Before we get started—in case you aren’t aware of what we do at Evolve—allow me to explain who we are and why any of the information that follows is at all relevant. If you’ve been in the industry for a long time and know what a PR agent/agency does, you can skip this.
“PR” is the acronym for “public relations,” and in our case, that means we work with game developers and publishers to help them relate to the public. Much of that work revolves around helping media, content creators, and streamers get access to the games we’re working on and the teams that make them; our job, ultimately, is to get exposure for our clients, and one of our major tools in that effort is to generate coverage (articles, videos, streams, etc.) about the companies and games. We send out news, manage events, create and practice answers to tough questions, and much more; it also means we are often in charge of sending out review keys.
So if you want to get review keys for games, you’ll usually have to go through a “PR rep” (or PR practitioner or publicist or PR staff or whatever they call themselves). It’s helpful for you to know why they/we do what they/we do, and what to expect if you’re in the media or streaming or creating YouTube content and want to get a key for a game.
The expectation or hope is that we send you a review key and you produce coverage; further, our hope is that the coverage you produce is positive and is seen by a lot of people. In most cases, that’s the job we (PR reps) and media/influencers cooperate on.
With that background on who we are and our motivations, on to the questions.
How do game developers and publishers decide who gets review keys?
The first part of this applies to every answer from here on: It depends.
Every company and PR rep is unique, and there’s no standard for how recipients of review keys are decided. Some will be happy to send keys to everyone who asks; others will be exceptionally tight with them; some will stagger distribution based on various factors; others will send no keys at all. Even within our company it can vary; sometimes client demands impact our processes, while individual PR reps may also approach things differently. In the end, don’t expect much consistency across the industry. As with every aspect of life, you can’t just divide things into black and white; it’s across the full spectrum of possibility that we experience the magic of life.
What factors do you consider before you decide who gets a review key?
There are plenty of reasons why a company or individual PR rep will decide to send—or to withhold—a review key. Here are a few of them:
Your audience size, reach, or influence
Your audience size—be it the number of visitors you get to your site, the number of viewers you have on a stream, the views you get on a video, your followers on Twitter, etc.—is one of the primary factors PR reps will look at. Ohhhh shit, I’ve gone and done it: I’ve exposed the vast conspiracy to keep small channels and media outlets right where they are, suppressing their ability to grow! Or so you might say if you feel this is unfair.
Remember, though: our job is to get exposure for our clients. When we’re limited in how many keys we can or want to send out, and we don’t have unlimited time to distribute keys; we have to prioritize with whom we work.. Given the choice between sending a key to someone who has 5 million subs on YouTube and someone who has 500, I’m afraid the decision is pretty well made for us. That might mean the difference between coverage and exposure (remember, that’s ultimately what we want out of this deal) to tens or hundreds of thousands of people who watch the bigger channel’s video, or to 20 people who watch the smaller one.
Somewhat related is influence: while someone may have a relatively small audience, they might be deemed prominent/important enough to send a key to, while others may not carry the same sway. You may be influential in a small but important community; you may be an authority on a certain topic or genre; you’re an industry leader. As a PR rep, I’m thinking, “I want to make the biggest possible impact. Who should I focus my time and attention on?”
At Evolve we always want to send keys to small channels and outlets, but we won’t lie: audience size or reach, as well as overall influence, are absolutely factors in our decisions. However, if you’re a smaller content creator or own a small media outlet, not all is lost! Another major factor is…
Your relationship with us
PR reps—contrary to what some may think—are humans just like you. Are you more likely to go out of your way for a complete stranger or for a friend? The same holds true for review keys, access to events, and more: if we know you well, you’re probably more likely to get a review key than if we’ve never interacted with you.
When we’re looking at a massive list of review-key requests, naturally, being human and all, it’s easy to pick out the names of people we’re familiar with, and—better yet—with whom we have a positive relationship.
If we have a negative relationship, we’ll certainly aim to maintain as much objectivity and professionalism as possible—we do prefer to take the high road, so to speak—but it’s entirely possible that the relationship will mean you’re left out of a key.
Why would we have a negative relationship? It depends (surprise!), but some reasons include:
- You’ve previously (perhaps repeatedly) broken an embargo and posted coverage before you were allowed to.
- You’ve written rude messages to us or others on our team.
- You’ve frequently taken review keys and not produced any coverage in return; when asked about it, you ignored us or weren’t really able to provide sufficient reasoning (i.e. you’re just getting free games from us and doing nothing in return).
I should note, though, that it’s very rare for us to deny a key request because of a negative relationship; we’re generally friendly people. The point I’m making here isn’t “don’t be a dick”—that’s a given—but rather to encourage you to work on creating a positive relationship with us, so we might feel more inclined to help you out. Build relationships with PR reps the same way you build relationships with anyone: talk to them, be kind, help them out.
Whether you’re a good fit for the game
“Any publicity is good publicity” is a phrase people like to throw around (mostly people whose job isn’t to generate publicity). It’s also total bullshit. We want to make sure that if you do cover a game there’s a good chance that you actually enjoy it. After all, our goal isn’t just to generate coverage, but to increase the odds that it’s positive. If every review or video about a game is negative, do you think we or our clients will be happy with the results of our work? Nope!
While sometimes it’s impractical for us to really vet every request for a review key—we can get thousands for major releases—we like to try, and we have some tools available to us through Terminals to help us better understand your fit for a certain game, with the hopes of—ideally—only getting keys to people who will enjoy the game.
How the fit is assessed will, again, vary by person—and some may not try at all, deeming it an unnecessary use of time—but it can relate to the type of content you usually create, the types of games you usually cover, and all sorts of other factors. Some questions to get you thinking like a PR rep: If you only play first-person shooters, is it likely you’re going to love a 2D puzzle game? If we’ve seen you complain openly on Twitter about how a game looks in its latest trailer, is it in our best interests to send you a key for it? If you only post one video every six months, should we send you a copy of the game?
Supply and demand
Related to all of the factors above is the matter of supply and demand. If we have an infinite supply of review keys, many of these questions become moot—apart from the negative-relationship stuff and some factors discussed in the timing-related questions below, I suppose. At that point there’s no need to decide between sending keys to one person or another; everybody gets one.
“But you can just generate as many Steam keys as you want!” Sure we can, but as with so many things in life, just because we can doesn’t mean we should, and certainly doesn’t mean we have to. For one: game developers want to make money, too, and sending review keys to hundreds or thousands of people who might have actually bought it means you’re cutting into your bottom line. Then there’s also the return on investment—the value of the key and the time spent handling the key request compared to how much exposure you might get from distributing those keys; at some point you just have to say “that’s enough” and stop requesting more keys.
But more often than not, we have limits to how many keys we can distribute for each game and platform. When it comes to consoles, developers/publishers only receive a certain number of keys; you can’t get more, or you have to pay for them. There are very real limits in place.
For a major, AAA game we might get 3000 key requests or more. We may receive 1000 keys (sometimes more, sometimes fewer). In that scenario, a full two-thirds of people who request a key won’t get one. That’s disappointing, yes, but that’s life as a PR rep in charge of distributing review keys.
How do you decide when to send out review keys?
So we’ve covered most of the factors that determine whether you would get a review key for a specific game. However, it’s often not a question of whether you get a key at all, but when you get one. The timing of review-key distribution and the prioritization of key recipients can be confusing at best and infuriating at worst, and so we’ll shed a little light on why some people get review keys a month in advance while others are lucky to get them a week after release. This is a good time to mention that we are often at the mercy of clients here; we don’t always have input into timing.
When we do have keys early, we’ll do our best to fulfill key requests in an efficient manner; we’ll try to get everyone keys as early as possible, so they can produce coverage as necessary. At the same time, we want to reduce the risk of leaks, and to try to keep the coverage as positive as possible (if we have any control over that at all). Refer to the factors that determined to whom we send keys; some of these come into the question of timing, too:
- Supply and demand
Most commonly, we’re limited in how many keys we can send out early. These limits are usually very tight, particularly with big releases: we may be limited to 10 or 20 keys, and so we have to make much more difficult decisions about who gets keys early.
- Audience size or influence
Your audience has been deemed too small to get a key early, or your overall influence was deemed to be less than the other person’s.
- We don’t have a relationship yet
Remember, we want to reduce the risk that someone’s going to leak parts of the game or toss it up on a piracy site before launch. If we don’t know you well, it’s tough to know whether we can trust you to stick to the embargo.
- A negative relationship
You’ve been a jerk, and we don’t feel overly rushed to get you a key.
That’s certainly not the whole story, though, and when it comes to timing of review keys, other factors come into play:
Readiness of the review build
Straight up: we usually don’t get review keys until very close to launch because the developers are still working on the game. After pouring so much time and effort into a creative endeavor, the developers want to take as much time as they can to polish the game before they let anyone experience it. When review builds are distributed too early, we run the risk of negative reviews, videos that show unfinished or buggy game elements, misinformed online chatter, and so much more that can jeopardize the success of a game launch.
These issues are particularly relevant in the case of multiplayer games—where you really can’t judge a game until it’s been unleashed on the public—or any console game expecting a day-one patch.
As frustrating as it may be to have to wait until launch day to get a review build, think of how frustrating it would be to pour years of your life into a project, only to have it met with endless criticism for an issue you’re fixing or have already fixed. We want to get keys out early, but given the choice between sending early review keys or sending a great, polished game, I’ll pick the second option.
We may sometimes release keys in waves of varying lengths and quantities to help reduce the risks that we’ll see leaks before launch while still giving people enough time to play a game and produce their content. Again, I’m just trying to give you a glimpse into the PR mindset; not every review campaign will be the same, and even in my own work, this isn’t always the approach. Here’s how one such strategy may look, along with the reasoning behind it.
Let me reiterate: This is an example of how a staggered release might work, not a rule.
- Step One: Top-tier media get keys
For the uninitiated, “top-tier” is a term PR reps use to denote media or channels with significant reach. We might send review keys very early to top-tier media in order to give them ample time to play a game and write a review, as well as produce any supplementary coverage—guides, videos, etc.
The assumption is that we can trust these top-tier media—professional writers, editors, critics—not to leak game videos, share spoilers, or to break an embargo (the day and time when you’re allowed to post content about a game). It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s the reasoning: the fewer people who have the game at this stage, the less likely it is that we’ll have significant leaks or other difficulties that might negatively impact the launch.
- Step Two: “Tier 2” media and top-tier content creators get keys
We’re casting a wider net now, trying to cover everyone who might require more lead time to produce coverage and content, while still trying to manage the risk that we’ll see leaks or embargo breaks. We assume that media are more likely to produce editorial content devoid of spoilers; content creators, if they leak content early, might just post an unedited video of half the game. That’s not favorable, as we haven’t launched the game yet. Every additional key we send before launch increases the odds that we’ll see a leak or content we didn’t really want to go out; as such, we still want to be very careful about whom we’re sending keys to.
- Step 3: Trusted smaller media, mid-tier YouTubers, and top-tier streamers get keys
Streamers—who really need to be able to actively stream the game in order to get much benefit from a review key—start getting their keys, as we continue to expand the number of media and YouTubers. This way we reduce the odds of full streams appearing before embargo, and continue to mitigate the risks of having widespread embargo breaks or leaks.
- Step 4: Launch/embargo and beyond: Keep getting keys out the door
Now that the embargo or launch has passed, we’re less concerned about potential leaks, and keys can likely start going to people we don’t really have relationships with. We still don’t want to send to just anyone, particularly if the embargo is before launch—after all, we don’t want the full game to appear on piracy sites before it’s out—but in many cases, this is when the majority of keys will go out.
So you may not have a key now, but you may get it closer to launch. As noted, though, a staggered release of keys may not follow that same structure; maybe streamers get their keys early and media have to wait; maybe top-tier YouTubers get them first; maybe press never get review keys because the game isn’t expected to get very good reviews. It depends.
Can we PR reps get better at communicating the timing you should expect? Yes, absolutely. It’s something we’re committing to at Evolve in a variety of ways, and you’ll see some of that bleed into Terminals features.
Prior commitments or partnerships
Sometimes—be it through marketing partnerships, casual agreements, contractual commitments, or whatever else—existing commitments are in place that limit our choice when it comes to distributing review keys. A media outlet may have been given preferential treatment in exchange for earlier coverage; a hardware manufacturer may have arranged a deal to get early copies for its sponsored creators; a PR rep may have promised someone an early key before knowing what was happening.
As an external agency, sometimes we don’t even know that someone is getting a key—our clients and their business partners don’t need our approval to make commitments—and that sometimes makes us look like a bunch of assholes. Eh, that’s our plight.
Life and its endless hurdles
Sometimes other things happen. We forget. We miss an email. We click the wrong button. A bug ate the key request. A client didn’t tell us they sent someone a key. My dog was up all night barfing and I didn’t have time to send out the key. This is the “shit happens” clause.
That was a long post. In the end, it’s in our best interest as PR reps for you and everyone on the planet to be playing the games we’re working on, loving them, and writing articles, producing videos, streaming endlessly. We don’t want to hold back review keys, but good intentions often smash into the wall of reality.
I hope that this can clear up some of the confusion around this whole process and to give you a bit of insight into our thought processes. If at any time you have questions about review keys, timing, and reasoning, ask your PR rep, and hopefully they’ll be able to give you clear answers about why you didn’t get a key, or when you might expect one. If they don’t, assume it’s one of these things!