Monetizing game sites is, in a word, tricky. Site owners are responsible for providing fair, unbiased game coverage, but they also have to find ways to pay the bills and keep the lights on.
Usually, things work out okay. But occasionally there's a car-crash between ethics and human emotions.
A recent example involves the popular mobile gaming web site TouchArcade. One of TouchArcade's most noteworthy methods of monetization is its Patreon, a venture that's backed by mobile game fans and developers alike. In fact, studios that support TouchArcade to the tune of $1,000 or more a month have their projects highlighted in TouchArcade's monthly Patreon roundup posts.
One of TouchArcade's biggest Patreon contributors was FDG Entertainment, which recently released a Mega Man-style platforming game for mobile called Venture Kid. TouchArcade writer Carter Dotson awarded the game 3.5 out of 5 stars, calling the game a solid but generic platformer.
FDG Entertainment's co-founder left comments on the review thread as "Future777," calling the review "harsh." Future777 took to TouchArcade's forums a day later and announced FDG would be pulling its $1,000-a-month Patreon support.
Future777 stressed that FDG dropped out of the Patreon because "Patreon support should solely come from players - readers that are not in the industry. This way the integrity will never be at doubt." While there's no way to verify whether or not "integrity" is the sole reason FDG Entertainment stopped supporting TouchArcade's Patreon, some of the site's higher-ups pointed out the timing is suspect.
Full disclosure: I contribute to TouchArcade, and I'm friends with Carter Dotson. I reviewed Venture Kid myself for another mobile games site, but Carter and I didn't converse about the game with each other until the drama started. By that point, my review was already written and scheduled to be published.
I've reviewed games professionally for over a decade, and like many reviewers, I try hard not to deliver criticism that can be construed as an attack. It is very possible to be critical -- even harshly so -- without being an utter jerk. As a human being and someone who makes a living via her creative output, I value feedback enormously, but neither do I want to read something that's going to send me whimpering under my bed. So I try to be courteous to the folks whose games I review.
But sometimes it's impossible not to hurt feelings, regardless of how reasonable or gentle you try to be. I interact with wonderful game developers who are gracious about my reviews (whether or not they agree with them), but I also get tearful emails from developers who tell me I've literally ruined their life by giving their game a 3 out of 5.
I absolutely understand Metacritic has made a dog's breakfast out of aggregated game review scores. I understand that we've been conditioned to regard any game scoring less than 80% as "bad." I don't have any answers on how to fix the problem. At the risk of sounding like some war-weary veteran, I just take every game as it comes, and dissect it accordingly. It's all I can do, soldier.
So knowing how powerfully studios can react to review scores, I have a hard time believing FDG Entertainment's decision to pull out of TouchArcade's Patreon has nothing to do with the site's score for Venture Kid. And I think it's a petty move that's not much different from a studio pulling its advertisements from a site that dished out an unfavourable review for one of its games.
It's for that specific reason FDG probably should've waited a while before publically announcing its departure from TouchArcade's Patreon -- whatever its reason for doing so. People don't easily forget when a game publisher pulls ads from web sites / magazines over poor reviews, and it almost always comes across as a passive-aggressive temper-tantrum. It's an old, old act that dates back to 1990 at least, when Acclaim stopped buying ads from Electronic Gaming Monthly for a long time after the magazine famously (and correctly) called 1990's Total Recall for the NES a "Total reject."
The conflict between game creators and game critics only accelerated with the dawn of the Internet age. We won't soon forget how former GameSpot reviewer Jeff Gerstmann was let go for giving a medicore score to 2007's Kane & Lynch: Dead Men.
All that under consideration, it's not necessarily a conflict of interest for a mobile game studio to support a Patreon in lieu of buying ad space. As mobile industry veteran Jeff Scott pointed out last year, publishers are no longer buying ads. Alternative methods of funding have cropped up as a result, and as we can discern from this kerfuffle, none of them are perfect.
At the end of the day, game reviewers are responsible for being courteous but honest. All we can do is request developers and publish respond in the same manner. Together, we all keep the blood pumping through the industry.