Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor was released the other week. It is, by all accounts, a fantastic game. Last week, however, some controversy came to light regarding how a certain marketing agency was handling YouTuber coverage of Monolith’s epic fantasy game, via the incorrigible Jim Sterling.
It is alleged that Plaid Social – an external marketing agency handling the title as it related to certain YouTube channels – drafted an agreement that basically meant that, in return for a pre-release copy of the game, the YouTuber must adhere to a very strict set of content creation guidelines.
Guidelines that include things such as not showing glitches or bugs, creating one livestream, YouTube video, and Facebook post or tweet about the video, including a link to the game’s site in the description, having five “calls to action” to check out the game in each livestream, and for Plaid to have oversight and final approval of any video created at least two days before publication.
Here’s a transcript of the fun parts, pre-negotiation, provided to Kotaku by an anonymous source:
“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.”
It boils down to this – YouTubers have to say positive things, promote the game, gloss over bad parts, provide a link to the game, and persuade people to check it out in return for early access. And every video has to be rubber-stamped by PR two days before going live.
Now, fundamentally, I am not against these kinds of deals. I think it’s great for creators to be able to make a bunch of money on their creations. I’m a little iffy, however, about how and with whom these deals are being implemented.
Issue one: disclosure. First and foremost, for this type of deal to be ethical (and in many places legal), it must be explicitly recognised as paid advertising. The YouTuber needs to disclose this kind of sponsored content as being such. Video reviews are different to sponsored promotional content, and it needs to be made explicitly clear somewhere that viewers won’t miss it. Otherwise, it is undisclosed advertising content and may be illegal. This gets messy where some YouTubers dance the fine line between impartial critic and paid advertiser, and some viewers might not be able to pick the difference. Instances where mistakes can be made that mislead consumers. Instances where there is a systemic failure that results in deals slipping through cracks.
Issue two: compensation. What exactly is the compensation for the video production? Surely not only an early copy of the game? How then is sponsored content defined? If the marketing company is not paying the YouTuber directly, does it count as paid for advertising? It sounds like shady legal territory to me, but hey, I’m no lawyer. And I can’t afford to ask one either. And if I can’t afford one, I daresay a lot of YouTubers out there wouldn’t be able to afford one either. It’s this murkiness that illustrates how difficult it is for content producers on YouTube to make clear legal decisions. Getting to monetise the video may be great compensation, however it’s a little nebulous to be considered a structured payment directly from a PR company. This is, of course, before taking into account any deals revolving around advertising or partnership programs that the YouTuber may already be involved with. It’s complicated, and makes following the money a little trickier.
That there is an amount of sponsored content being produced that needs to be given the tick by a marketing department – essentially making YouTubers freelance advertisers – that is going by potentially undisclosed doesn’t sit well with me. It feels like corruption, and it taints the view of YouTubers as impartial critics.
And, to be fair, some YouTubers are explicitly not impartial critics. I’m okay with that. There is a role to play, and they deserve their slice of the pie. As long as they are not portraying themselves as trustworthy impartial commentators.
Oh and by the way, Warner Bros., whose internal PR handled traditional review requests, has reportedly not been party to any of these deals with traditional outlets – us included. We signed no deal in exchange for favourable coverage. Then again, no traditional outlets received review code prior to release, so there’s that.
YouTube content is still a wild west. It has been for a while. It’s populated by inexperienced, naïve mavericks and canny legal sharks willing to make a quick buck. There is no united place for the inexperienced to learn how to avoid predatory deals. There is little support for those trying to make a living off YouTube. And there is a whole lot of exploitation that is lurking beneath the surface. So YouTubers be careful. And publishers/marketers, stop being evil.