Ask a random person what it’s like to be a game journalist and most will describe a writer drowning in free video games. That may be technically the truth for some game journalists, but the reality is far from responsibility-free pre-release review copies and endless free game keys.
Every job has perks, both official and unofficial. If you work at a bakery, for example, you can snack on cake crumbs and failed pastries throughout the day. Game journalists get perks too, and free games happen to be one of those perks. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than just grabbing a broken cookie off a tray.
This is part of our series on free review copies for game journalists:
Free Game Keys for Game Journalists?
Game journalists do get access to free review copies, alphas/betas, and pre-release versions of games. They’re free in that the writer doesn’t have to pay for the game, but there’s definitely a cost involved: work.
Along with pre-release screenshots, videos, and tear sheets, game journalists often receive advance copies of games weeks before launch. This gives them an opportunity to get a feel for the game so they can write previews and news articles, or to start playing and working on their review.
Getting pre-release access to games requires a lot of effort from the writer. Even once a journalist is given a key, there are often review code guidelines to follow, tight deadlines to meet, or other stipulations. The key may even be for an unfinished game, which can be a chore to play in and of itself.
Most of the “free” games journalists get are part of this early release process. Depending on the publication a writer works for they may not even have a say in which free game they receive—an assignment is simply handed to them, game key and all. And if a physical copy of the game is part of the deal, writers rarely keep those copies, as they’re returned to the publisher as soon as the review is complete.
Getting Free Games vs Asking for Free Games
Not all free games are part of the pre-release practice. Journalists can request game keys from publishers and developers at any time and pretty much for any game, including AAA and indie titles both old and new.
This practice has drawn controversy in recent years. Some developers have accused journalists of taking advantage by requesting unlock codes but never covering the game. Receiving a free game could add bias to a writer’s opinion: if it's negative, the publisher/developer could refuse to share review copies in the future. If the writer has a negative opinion but doesn't share it in the name of preserving the relationship with the free game provider, that's hardly ethical.
While any game journalist or influencer can request a review copy pretty much at any time, it’s best not to think of this as a “free game.” Instead, it’s one of the tools of the trade, a practice that should help both writers and game creators.
Game journalists do get free games, but it’s not as simple or easy as it may seem. A lot of hard work goes into completing the reviews or previews for these “free” games. In addition, game journalists receive a lot of backlash for misusing the perk and have to consider their ethical standing when requesting free games. In short, free games come with a cost.
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