Before Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor's release, a curious thing happened: critics on YouTube (and some in the traditional press) tried to obtain early PC copies for review, but couldn't. And yet, YouTube entertainers were able to—if they agreed to terms like, "videos will promote positive sentiment about the game."
These sort of brand deals, as they're known, are hardly anything new in the YouTube/Twitch game scene. They're not always super well-publicized, but they've been happening for years. The gist? Video-makers agree to sets of terms to more or less promote a game, and in exchange they get access to said game and also, crucially, a paycheck that is typically based on views or subscribers.
Brand deals are, however, a difficult subject, as they often require video-makers to sign contracts that bind them into saying positive things about games and acting as promotional voices—not evaluative ones. In places like the US and Britain, it's legally required that these deals be disclosed, but often that takes the form of a footnote, and many viewers are none the wiser. In other places, no disclosure is required at all. That's tough, given that YouTubers have become, in many ways, a "voice of the people." They're trusted to give honest opinions about stuff, to speak their minds just as you or I would while sitting on the couch gabbing about a new game with a few friends.
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor's brand deals—there were multiple variants from multiple marketing firms, some less strict than others—however, presented some especially worrisome issues, which critic Jim Sterling broke down in this video.
Here are the most concerning portions of one variation on the contract YouTubers were offered—the one Sterling discusses in his video—which sources offered the deal who chose to remain anonymous have told me is the vanilla version (i.e. pre-negotiations):
"Videos will promote positive sentiment about the game. Videos must not show bugs or glitches that may exist."
"Maximize awareness for the Shadow of Mordor video game during the 'Week of Vengeance' through gameplay content, key brand messaging, and information and talent usage on Twitch channels. Persuade viewers to purchase game, catch the attention of casual and core gamers who already know and love Middle-earth."
"Requirements involve one livestream, one YouTube video, and one Facebook post/tweet in support of the videos. Videos will have a strong verbal call to action, a clickable link in the description box for the viewer to go to the game's website to learn more about the game [and] to learn how to register and play the game. Twitch stream videos will have five calls to action. Videos will be of sufficient length to feature gameplay and build excitement."
"Videos must include discussion of the Nemesis System. This really should take up the bulk of the focus, such as how different the orcs are, how vivid their personality and dialogue are, gathering intel and domination abilities, exploiting their strengths and weaknesses. Videos must include discussion of the action and combat that takes place within the game, such as brutal finishers, execution moves, and wraith powers. The company has final approval on the YouTube video… at least 48 hours before any video goes live."
YouTubers presented with this contract also weren't allowed to mention The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit in their videos (books or movies), a curious omission that might have had something to do with this effort on WB and developer Monolith's part to avoid having the game mistaken for another rehash of a story we've read or watched a thousand times.
The short version, though, is that those terms are exceedingly restrictive, going so far as to put the kibosh on any negative sentiment and laying out a list of talking points video-makers had to cover at risk of not getting the marketing company's approval—which they were also required to have in order to run their videos.
It should be noted that most of this was handled by outside marketing firms on the YouTube side, while traditional games press like Kotaku went through Warner Bros. PR. We were offered no such terms and received both console and PC review copies of the game shortly before release. Moreover Kotaku does not accept any sort of deals like this, and our site ads are handled by a sales team that has nothing to do with editorial. In many cases, unfortunately, YouTubers don't have that privilege, instead being forced to juggle their own white-hot opinions in one hand and oftentimes fragile relationships with game companies in the other—a tenuous balance where dropping the ball on either side could shatter everything. Only the biggest YouTubers/networks tend to have separate teams that handle money stuff.
YouTubers were divided on the Mordor issue, especially when it became apparent that more critical voices in the community weren't being offered early PC copies at all. Some, like Sterling and popular PC game critic TotalBiscuit, tackled the issue head-on and decried it as heinously wrong and disingenuous. "The problem is that you can't review, first impressions, critique or whatever this game on PC prior to launch or even on launch (unless you weaseled your way in as we did) if you don't take a deal that specifically says 'you can't say bad things.' You don't see a problem with that? It is the worst case scenario in which a company withholds review copies to maximise potential exposure while keeping critique at bay, it's about as anti-consumer as it gets," TotalBiscuit wrote.
Others, however, accepted the terms or negotiated their own. While some opted to only quietly disclose that their content was sponsored, certain YouTubers—like Steven Williams, aka Boogie2988, sometimes known as his character "Francis"—decided to be very upfront about it. On his blog he explained that he doesn't consider himself a reviewer in the traditional sense, and that so long as he's transparent about how he views his work and the intentions behind it, he believes this sort of thing is OK.
"For someone like PewDiePie, RoosterTeeth, or even myself this isn't a terrible thing," he wrote. "None of these people are going to tell you to 'buy it now!' None of these people are going to give it a review score. They're likely to just play the game, show you the fun parts they experienced, and then tell you to check out the game for yourself.
"For someone who REVIEWS games this is a fucking impossible situation. They are not only giving you a fair and unbiased version of their opinion but it's the cornerstone of what they do. They are DIRECTLY steering you into one direction or another most of the time."
Williams explained to me via email that he also vets these deals very closely. In the case of Shadow of Mordor, he got a close look at the game earlier this year and decided he dug its blend of decapitation and confusing feelings for the things he decapitated. Moreover, he made sure that if he decided mid-way through playing the game that its orc-clobbering antics weren't for him or his audience, he could back out.
"Due to my need to maintain my integrity and because of reasons of my health I make sure every contract I ever sign has a back out clause," Williams told me. "I can never guarantee delivery on a game I haven't played yet, and I simply will NOT lie to my audience."
Another popular YouTuber who accepted the Shadow of Mordor brand sponsorship deal, Ryan "Ohmwrecker," agreed that these contracts should always be (and usually are) negotiable. "Perhaps there are YouTubers out there that just sign contracts as is, but I'm absolutely not in that pool," he told me via email. "Even then, nearly all of deals that I have personally heard about and/or seen have avoided putting overbearing conditions over the creator's heads."
He noted, however, that in the case of video-makers—whether they consider themselves reviewers, entertainers, or something in between—deals through marketing companies are often the only way to obtain pre-release copies of games. Game companies don't view them as professional critics, so they rarely get treated that way.
"We find ourselves in a position where we're approached by marketing departments instead with opportunities relating to early access, much like other influencers in other spaces, like celebrities, musicians, athletes, etc," Ohmwrecker said. "Given that most entertainment focused YouTubers won't be granted early access to big releases via PR we're typically limited to getting early access via the marketing route mentioned. This obviously doesn't apply to the small number of popular YouTube critics, but for the vast majority of YouTubers that's the reality."
Williams (Boogie2988), meanwhile, told me that most marketing contracts along these lines have a backbone with three major vertebrae: 1) The sponsored video or stream requires you to create a positive sentiment about the game, 2) the sponsored video or stream requires you to not show bugs, and 3) the sponsored video must be approved by the company.
The central problem here tends to be that there's a big gray area between video reviewer and video entertainer, and audiences—at least, at first blush—can't always tell the difference. Moreover, people on the review side of video-making have been known to do deals as well, and their stances on disclosure have proven inconsistent.
Williams and Ohmwrecker, however, argue that these deals are also becoming a necessary part of the job due to the increasing difficulty of making money by way of ad revenue or any other means. Even YouTubers who don't necessarily like it are running low on alternative options—at least, if they want to maintain the amount of money they were making previously.
Williams released a video breaking down the issue point-by-point.
Ohmwrecker concurred, further explaining: "We've seen things like our monetized views, [cost per thousand views], etc shrink year after year. More people are watching videos via their mobile, tablets, or even their new consoles. That, or they are running Adblock when they browse YouTube, or are in regions where advertisements aren't targeted, leading to a situation where we're lucky if our channel growth offsets the ongoing declines.
"When I first made the jump to YouTube in 2012 I saw a little over half of my views go monetized, whereas today in 2014 it's around 34%. As you can imagine it is pretty alarming. For some YouTubers, occasional brand deals are just another way to try to offset the situation."
He added, however, that sponsored deals are still fairly rare outside the largest channels and networks. "Out of my 1,260 videos," he said, using himself as an example, "only 35 are sponsored, each with disclosure."
It's still kind of a mess, though. Right now, standards—both for YouTubers and marketing companies—are inconsistent, which leaves viewers in a confusing spot. Meanwhile, some YouTube networks have taken part in borderline-illegal non-disclosed deals while others (like the exceedingly popular Yogscast) even angle for revenue sharing deals with companies that make the games they cover. And even though many video-makers on both YouTube and Twitch prefer to be called "entertainers" instead of reviewers, they still tend to offer critical impressions of games.
Even TotalBiscuit doesn't claim to be a reviewer, though he is very adamant about flying the banner of "critic" atop his iconic UK flag. Many people—tremendous numbers of them, going by view counts and subscriber numbers—rely on YouTubers' opinions to help make their purchasing decisions. The situation is, in other words, murky.
"The trouble here, of course, is that the line between 'critic' and 'entertainer' is so blurry when it comes to video that even if [one of the marketing firms that handled Shadow of Mordor] Plaid went after the latter [with a sponsorship deal], any number of them could count as the former," Escapist reviews editor and YouTube critic Jim Sterling said to me via email.
Blurry lines. That's the big problem here. And as all of us—from journalists and video-makers to gamers who just want to know what's worth their time and money—try to navigate through the cloudy waters of YouTube ethics and paid coverage, total transparency may be the only way to stay afloat.
In researching this story I reached out to multiple other companies and sources, including both Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor publisher WB and marketing firm Plaid Social Labs. As of writing neither of them had responded to my requests for comment after two days.