Some Real Rules For Shilling Video Games On YouTube

Some Real Rules For Shilling Video Games On YouTube

Earlier this week, Kotaku was approached by a marketing firm working for the publisher Perfect World. They wanted us to help sell two of their games. And in the process, they inadvertently gave us a behind-the-scenes peek at what it looks like when YouTubers shill for game companies.

The marketing firm in question, Reelio, sent us this email on Thursday:

Hi Kotaku,

Hope you’re doing well! I’m reaching out again in regards to the opportunity I have with Perfect World, and specifically their games Neverwinter and Star Trek. I think you would be perfect for this campaign.

They’re looking for influencers like yourself to play a game (or both!) and show off some of the awesome gameplay and mechanics. This would be a 45 sec to 1 minute integration at the beginning of your video demonstrating the awesome features of the games. We will pay you a flat fee of $120.00 and for every sign-up to their site you’ll receive an additional compensation! We’re looking to have the videos live as soon as possible.

“Influencers”, as you may be aware, has become a corporate buzzword referring to internet personalities who make videos, host podcasts or reach a significant audience in some other way. Over the past few years, as more and more gamers have turned to YouTube for video game footage, analysis and commentary, the game marketers have followed, chasing after these “influencers” in hopes of selling more games. Many big publishers have paid YouTubers to make videos about their games, to the point where the US FTC has had to get involved and start slamming groups like Machinima for not disclosing sponsored content.

As tempting as $120 sounds — that’s enough for two whole video games! — we aren’t really interested in helping market Star Trek Online. But we are interested in understanding what these programs are really like, and sharing that understanding with our readers. So I asked for more details, and received a packet full of information about the marketing plan.

It starts off by explaining A) that the participant cannot talk about competing games in this video; and B) that Perfect World will get to review each video before it goes live. Standard stuff, I guess?

Welcome to the Perfect World campaign! We’re excited that you’re going to take part in this campaign and are looking forward to seeing your video.

The primary objective of this campaign is to encourage viewers to download and play Neverwinter and Star Trek Online. Remember, this campaign is CPC based so the more creators that sign up using your link, the bigger the payoff for you!

No competing brands/games may be mentioned in the video.

Perfect World will require 3-4 days to review videos prior to going live. Plan your posting schedule accordingly.

(CPC stands for “cost per click” — what this means is that the YouTuber in question will get paid extra based on how many people click on the referral links they provide.)

After that intro message, things start getting really interesting. There’s a list of “talking points” that the marketing firm says should be mentioned in each video. It’s full of gems, which Reelio specifies should not be recited verbatim but should instead serve as a “guide of the ideas Perfect World would like to convey”.

Check these out:


  • Neverwinter is a large scale PvP.
  • There is an all-new challenging guild-based PvE mode: Greed of the Dragonflight
  • This is great to play with your friends.
  • Neverwinter is available for free on Xbox One (with a Gold subscription)
  • FREE to play and download on PC
  • The game is based on the acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons fantasy roleplaying game
  • Neverwinter is an action MMORPG that features fast-paced combat and epic dungeons.
  • FREE to play and download on PC

Star Trek:

  • In Star Trek Online, the Star Trek universe appears for the first time on a truly massive scale.
  • Free-to-play MMO where players can pioneer their own destiny as Captain of a Federation starship, become a Klingon Warrior and champion the Empire through the far reaches of the galaxy, or rebuild the Romulan legacy as the commander of a Romulan Republic Warbird.
  • Season 11 brings along new lore, story progression, as well as new gameplay options in the form of the Admiralty System.

(Yes, “FREE to play and download on PC” really does appear twice.)

After listing out these informative bullet-points, Reelio goes on to give their marketing partners some helpful tips for what should and shouldn’t be done in these sponsored videos:


  • Find something in the game to gently poke fun at
  • Incorporate trailers / gameplay footage in the video.


  • Curse or use foul language in your video

No poking too much fun! You have to be gentle.

Finally, Reelio lays out how their new video-making buddy can get viewers signing up for Neverwinter or Star Trek Online by listing out some outro options:

Outro/Call to Action Options: Creators can say something along the lines of:

● “You should really check out Neverwinter and play with me. It’s completely free and you can download the game using my link below”
● “Looking to beam up and enjoy some sci-fi action? Star Trek Online is your answer. Play for free today.”
● “Ready for some sci-fi action? Check out Star Trek Online, a free-to-play MMORPG. Explore the final frontier today.”
● “Take a digital voyage through the Star Trek universe in Star Trek Online, a free-to-play MMORPG. Join the action today.”

To their credit, the marketing materials also specify that anyone who participates in this program must clearly disclose that the video has been sponsored by Perfect World. They’re not trying to hide the fact that this is an advertising campaign. Otherwise the FTC might come knocking.


    • Yeah, whenever I see this kind of behind-the-scenes marketing stuff I always come away feeling kind of dirty.

  • It’s actually about ethics in games journalism…

    Kotaku can you chuck a few of these talking points into your next review? We could play shill bingo.

    • The issue is kotaku is a shill. You should see the amount of sponsored content on gawkers American sites. With the tiniest of “sponsored content” tags.

  • I’ve done marketing jobs in the past, usually for government programs, or energy/telco companies. No matter the field, promotion and marketing made me feel …. just wrong. Especially when some advice was to gloss over concerns, or in some cases, outright mislead the customer (very common in energy/telco positions).
    So I got a Diploma in Youth Work and am going for higher ed. I’m done with shill work. This article just reminded me how dirty that kind of work made me feel.

      • Maybe – but if nobody was able to sell anybody anything all of us would be out of a job!

        I’m not in a sales job myself (I’m hopeless at selling things!) but without sales you don’t have a business and without business you don’t have a job – as icky as it gets, marketers will do whatever they can to get their products noticed in their target market

  • I was looking into the marketing of games recently and there is just a huge difference between what takes off and what doesn’t. Published games of course always come with their own in-built hype no matter how bad they are because of sweet marketing dollars, but Indie games either fly by word of mouth or crash into obscurity.

    Thankfully, the Indie process is still a little more based on quality and uniqueness, but that little isn’t much. To sell a game, it helps to have the connections, marketing and YouTube personalities.

    • The indie scene isn’t any better. A lot of the marketing is tied into the developer and their personal story or situation. Some of them almost have a personality cult developing. A lot of the time an unremarkable game ends up being marketed as ‘buy this to help the developer’ instead of ‘buy this because it’s a good game.’ The indie scene is just as bad as AAA for hype and marketing garbage, it’s just a different form.

      • They also do other things to get their games noticed. Perfect World’s ‘find something in the game to gently poke fun at’ changes to ‘insert tons of things in the game to bait YouTubers into gently making fun’. There are a lot of little things you can do to make your indie game more compatible with the ways YouTubers/streamers/etc entertain their audience. A while back a big one was jump scares. They weren’t popping up everywhere because players liked them, they were popping up everywhere because it was a sure fire way to get a YouTuber to play it. The develop would get free advertising and the YouTuber would get a game they can pretend to be super duper scared by while flailing about.
        It makes a lot of sense if you want to take some of the risk out of your investment. If you’re making indie games you probably don’t have half a million to spend on advertising, but you can alter the game to be more appealing to people who will advertise it for free. It just means sometimes a good indie game ends up being boring to play because it’s built to be a prop for a comedian.

  • Realistically, I don’t mind if someone is getting paid for their work, I generally don’t mind getting paid for mine… Weirdly enough. And recording/editing video is not a magical wave of the hand.

    However, I do need that ‘I was paid to advertise this, this is an ad and doesn’t necessarily contain my actual feelings on the game’. I don’t mind that you made an ad, I don’t mind that you’re getting commission for it. I just need that disclosure so I know you were told to say these things and it’s a degree of fake.

  • Nice article Kotaku. Advertising for both games as well as Reelio. If i wanted to market a game I’d consider hiring Reelio now.

  • At least they encouraged you to poke fun at the game, a lot of other deals I’ve seen/ heard of seem to imply that any criticism would be a breach of some kind of contract complete with veiled threats of legal action should you do so.

  • As a gamer and a marketer (not in entertainment), I feel like you just unnecessarily burned/damaged an agency, publisher and developer for simply doing their jobs.

    Yes, the agency should have done their background on kotaku and its journalistic standards, but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the practice they have outlined is completely legal and ethical.

    Typical selfish journo behaviour for a few column inches, clicks, user data and ad revenue.

    • Lol, sounds like you are neither a gamer or a marketer, and morelikely a troll of the Gate. Kotaku is merely showing us what goes on behind the scenes, and this candid and transparent look is very much appreciated to those of us who care about actual ethics. There is nothing selfish or underhanded here, just good journalism.

    • 100% agree. This article doesn’t seem written as a “here’s an informative look at an aspect at marketing games on YouTube” but more like *negative music plays* “tonight we peel back the putrid bandaid on the marketing practices that’ll make your skin crawl.”

  • All the terms of their agreement seem pretty normal & fine to me. They’re not being hyper-strict about anything, they’re saying “you could say stuff along these lines” and asking you to say good things about their game in exchange for money is perfectly legitimate?? People are acting like they’re being underhanded and manipulating people but at the end of the day Reelio are paying someone to provide a service – spread word of mouth about their game – and the person can agree or not agree, as demonstrated by kotaku right now.

    I think it’s really interesting to read this stuff but at the same time I think it’s a little in bad faith to mislead the person you were talking to and say “yeah I’m considering making the video, send me more information” and then post that online with no intention of actually doing it. But it’s interesting and it’s not like they’re saying “you have to murder a baby for every dollar we give you” so whatever

  • “As tempting as $120 sounds — that’s enough for two whole video games!”

    Must be from the US website…

    • Yep. I just assume that all values (Unless Alex writes the article) are in US dollars. It used to drive me nuts reading Kotaku, but Angry Joe, among other online peeps, desensitised me to it.
      Now when I read $60, I just read it as, “I cant afford it.”

  • Respect to Kotaku for rejecting it.

    Also I hate referral links that aren’t disclosed up front, that should be illegal. But this is what happens when the world runs on good-hearted understanding (of free and open linking) and then some people go and break the rules, ruining it for everyone else, forcing it to be regulated.
    Especially when you see one literally and shamelessly have ‘outpaid’ in it’s master link while you discover yourself being used.

  • Sure it sounds dirty and unethical etc, but it’s marketing. The YouTubers state that it’s been sponsored and personally I’m not subbed to anyone that I believe is unethical. These two games in particular are also free to play. Even if you go along with the YouTuber marketing it for them you don’t fork out cash. You try out a free game, decide if you like it and go from there.

    As far as marketing cons go this is a pretty tame one.

  • I have no problem with sponsored content as long as it’s disclosed. The stuff in the article above all looks fine to me.

    Kotaku runs plenty of sponsored content on both the US and AU sites so this article comes across as particularly hypocritical. If ‘sharing understanding’ with the readers is the goal here, why not run an article on how Kotaku’s own sponsored content works and what kind of terms are applied by the different sponsors. Maybe you can mix in the same level of sarcasm about the amount paid and call yourselves shills in the process too. It’s only fair.

  • I’m sad you didn’t actually make a video mocking the process entirely, let them review it, reject it and then post the video and their response here.

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