Note: this article is not about RPGs, but rather about the RPG business.
Full disclosure: I was a member of the Featured Reviewer Program and I continue to post affiliate linked banners and links to DTRPG and other OBS properties.
Update: this article has been edited since originally written, as I have conversed with Morrus at ENWorld, and it became clear than his implication that my experience with OBS as a Featured Reviewer was exaggerated with unintentional, and he has since edited the article in question.
Morrus at ENworld quoted me in a news article about Drivethrurpg and their policies and directives to those of us who were in their “Featured Reviewer” program. He followed this with a statement from Onebookshelf (the company that runs DTRPG) wherein they do not address any of my allegations, but instead beat the crap out of a strawman argument that neither I nor Endzeitgeist (the other quoted blogger in ENWorld’s news item) posited.
As background, I’ll explain my experience with the Featured Reviewer Program at OBS briefly:
I signed up for the program perhaps six months after starting Happy Jacks RPG Podcast. We were provided with promo codes to download review copies of various RPG products. When we reviewed them on DTRPG or RPGNOW, our reviews were noted with a “Featured Reviewer” button, I suppose elevating our reviews above reviews by those who paid for the products.
Once I signed up, I was deluged with review copies of all sorts of RPG products. Literally a dozen or so a week, sometimes more than that. At first, I downloaded nearly everything, looked at it, and if I felt something was a particularly stand-out product, I’d write a review.
Sometime around the beginning of the year (this would be 2010, I think), we received an email from OBS stating that publishers were complaining that they were sending out review copies but not getting reviews. For me, there was good reason for this: much of what I received for review was terrible, and I was following the “if you can’t say something nice…” rule.
We were told in this email that if we downloaded a product, we had to review it, and if we didn’t, we’d be removed from the program. At this point, I only downloaded things that genuinely interested me, and I would review some of these things. I was not about to jump through a bunch of hoops because some irate, entitled publisher sent me a free pdf for his crappy Pathfinder supplement . I’ll decided what to review after I look at it, thanks.
Well, these squeaky-wheel publishers got what they asked for, I guess. While I didn’t see an uptick in negative reviews, I can only assume there were many, since about a month later, we received yet another email from OBS.
This email told us that our reviews must be positive reviews. If my recollection is correct, it was 4 or 5 star reviews.
This new positive review rule, along with the “you must review what you download” rule, created an untenable Catch-22 for any reviewer with any ethics at all.
I doubt it was OBS’s intention to create a situation where reviewers were in essence being asked to give false positive reviews, but that’s what happened.
In all honesty, the true blame belongs in the laps of the publishers who mewled and whined because their precious products were receiving the rave review they thought they deserved.
They were under the impression that the gift of a free pdf bought and paid for the souls of those who reviewed products on DTRPG.
And the sad thing is, as far as some of us in that program were concerned, they were right.
I’m a dinosaur when it comes to Journalistic ethics. I went to Journalism school in the 1980s, when the separation between editorial and advertising was preached upon and (mostly) adhered to.
The thinking at the time was that if the news producers lost their credibility, they would lose listenership, viewership or readership. This wall between advertising and editorial was there to protect the business model in a very long-term way. This was a Journalism school ideal, and such a wall in the real would was sometimes more permeable than it should be.
Today, that wall is gone. Native advertising schemes, such as product placements, affiliate links and other more subtle methods, are the norm and part of any media product’s business plan.
This new thinking makes the policies at OBS seem very routine, and just as my Journalism professors predicted, once the wall between advertising and content falls, advertisers start dictating content.
So the question really is this: can you trust the reviews at OBS? I think you can probably trust ordinary reviews — in as much as you can trust any on-line reviews. I would, however, discount most reviews marked “Featured Reviewer,” and I certainly wouldn’t make a buy-decision based solely on “Featured Reviewer” reviews.
And that’s exactly what OBS, the complaining publishers and those who went along quietly with this deserve. They have together eroded their credibility, leaving themselves with reviews of suspect veracity.
A couple months after all of this transpired, we received another missive from OBS, telling us not to disclose that we’d received free product for review. I wrote to OBS at the time, telling them that such a policy was incredibly unethical. They were unimpressed.
In the end, it was a mess of a policy. About six months later, I was dropped from the program.
I would love to know who those complaining publishers were. I have my suspicions, as there are some who have responded very badly — and very publicly — to negative reviews.