Last updated on January 17th, 2018 at 10:02 am.
So you’re a Youtuber, or maybe a Streamer. Maybe you have a website. Or maybe you’re whatever the hell we call a ‘Content Creator’. And if you’re one of those game-talker-abouter-things, whatever you choose to call them, you’re probably going to want review access to games. Steam keys, PSN codes, itch.io download links, whatever works.
Corrections: 2017-04-07 – It turns out Terminals does now have the coverage-checking feature I initially found it lacking.
Fortunately in the last couple years, a number of services have popped up to make this easier than manually dredging through the internet looking for contact details, searching PR databases, and waiting breathlessly for replies (please breathe; email is not a consistent delivery mechanism).
The main ones that I have found and use are Keymailer, Terminals.io, and Distribute(), and here I’m going to explain and compare all of them. Note I’m talking explicitly from the content creator side of things here, I don’t have the developer-side experience to comment significantly on the other side of things.
As a note, all services mentioned in this article are in Alpha/Beta. This whole developer <-> content creator thing is so new that even the world “content creator” is controversial at best, and more importantly all of these sites (and all of the developers, and all of the PR people, and all of us content creators) are still working out the kinks here.
All these services have had multiple issues I’ve watched get fixed over the last year, and all of them still have some growing to do. Most started out only supporting Steam keys but now all include the most popular consoles, for example. But are they worth using? Let’s find out.
Tap Into YouTube is a series of articles from the perspective of a gaming YouTuber, covering both the use of YouTube and how to effectively work with YouTubers to promote your game.
Formerly Evolve Terminal, Terminals.io is by far the most hands-on service in this list. Run by Evolve PR, every game is handled by one or more people at Evolve and (to the best of my knowledge), ability to distribute keys on the site is limited to those working with Evolve.
While that right away tells you not everyone is on Terminals, they cast a pretty wide net and I’ve found a good variety of great indie games on their site. Adult Swim Games uses them now, some single-dev games use the site, Japanese publishers use it. It’s “curated” for better and worse, but they have a pretty impressive selection considering.
I would say Terminals is my preferred site when available (and if a game is on Terminals, codes are often not available elsewhere), it’s very easy to use and pretty reliably gets me codes (there will always be issues with getting working codes on time and it’s not always PR’s fault).
Terminals staff is also super responsive and helpful; if you enjoy the human element, Terminals will be a nice place for you. They answer questions about both the games and the site, they do check-ins, it’d be hard to ask for more.
Terminals has its Beta issues on occasion
(I’m still waiting on the feature to see what coverage I’ve already submitted—I’ve doubled submitted at least once) (actually that’s added now!) but overall it’s only major flaw is that not everything is on it. They do a good job of both vetting and supporting content creators, so it’s a pretty safe system for both sides of the equation.
In every way, Distribute() is the most “Indie” option on here, made by Rami Ismail of Vlambeer. It’s a distribution site by an indie for indies, and while it’s not as flashy as the other sites on this list, it does it’s job and has a wide selection of games. It’s free for all but the biggest devs and charges only to cover its own operating cost.
If I could, I’d use Distribute() alone purely for ideological reasons; read the mission statement; it’s great! But you’ll find not all developers use it. You’ll find this to be a running theme of this article.
If a game developer is on Distribute() I would recommend requesting access via it as I’ve found it very reliable and actively monitored by developers. Sometimes I get confirmations within the hour.
The best way to use Distribute() is to log in directly with your YouTube/Twitch OpenID integration to make verification more automatic, but Distribute() supports email logins for written/online publications as well.
Distribute()’s nothing fancy, having only a basic Browse page, and often I have to go hunting to find whether a game is actually on Distribute(), but it’s a great way for developers of any size to validate and cooperate with press.
Also, if you’re a developer, remember to set up your Distribute() when you set up your Presskit(), and don’t forget to set a banner image for Distribute(); when I get a newsletter from Distribute with no image it’s much less striking and I’ve nearly passed on a few games because of it. The unevenness of Distribute is to be expected and not a deal breaker, but if you’re a developer, try to keep your game looking the best it can so it stands out.
Keymailer is the lowest effort option for everyone involved and has a beautiful promise of a largely automated system to make everyone involved as happy as possible. Content creators sign up, Keymailer verifies them, they request codes, they get codes, their coverage is automatically* detected and sorted for developers. Win-win-win!
Like everything that sounds that good, there’s a catch. Keymailer’s a service in it to make money, so developers have to pay to keep their ability to distribute codes. Unfortunately as a content creator, you don’t really have any way of knowing which games are actually monitored for code requests. At all. You know the scant few “promoted” games on the front page are monitored, but everything else is a crapshoot.
Less critically, Keymailer can be a bit fussy in what it picks up as coverage; devs are allowed to set exactly what hashtag/YouTube tag will pick up for a game. Some devs set rather absurdly specific tags so if you don’t manually read the list it might get omitted.
Keymailer also has a nice feature where it’s integrated with Steam, so you can tell if someone already has a key (and people with a key can’t request), it’s a system that makes key scamming (cough, G2A) pretty hard. Though, like I’ve discussed before, Steam has (and had) a solution to G2A—if only they would actually do it.
Since most of my requests fall on deaf ears, 90% or more of the keys I’m offered on Keymailer are lower quality games where the developer clearly just thought “give keys to everyone, what do I have to lose”.
That’s not to say Keymailer is useless; it’s a really cool system and I’ve gotten some cool games from them, some requested, some not (it’s not only garbage that ends up in your inbox unbidden). But it’s by far the least reliable.
I’d say everyone in my position should sign up for Keymailer, but it’s a low-effort, low-reward platform. You request keys just in case, and generally you’ll still want to hunt down a developer/PR person if you want to be sure you actually get a code. Which leads into our final source for review keys…
Plain ol’ Email
Despite all the options available, there’s one simple truth; you’re not going to get everything you want from just these sources. You’d be really lucky to even get half.
When there’s a game you’re looking to cover and it’s not on Terminals or Distribute() (and you don’t feel like playing the lottery on Keymailer), you’re going to have to sit your butt down, find a PR or dev contact for the game, and ask them directly. With a nasty, boring old email. Sorry.
If you’re lucky, the game will already be using another wonderful product from Rami Ismail: Presskit() which should list the relevant contacts (and, if they have it, their Distribute() form). Most non-AAA games will at least list some form of contact you can reach out to and either find out their review policy or at least hear from them who you should contact.
I like a more casual approach over Twitter; if you use the service, it can save you from writing up a big ol’ email only to have them tell you you’re bugging the wrong person. This is a painfully manual and low-tech sort of process, so you’ll find some devs very accessible, some basically unreachable, some will prefer twitter, some with arcane send-only contact forms instead of a direct email.
It Takes All Kinds
Basically, if you’re a creator like me you’re going to want to use all of these services, in addition to manual e-mails, and a healthy dose of developers cold-calling you (get your butt on press lists, it’s annoying but it’s worth it. Start with this one).
All these services are super cool in their own ways, but none of them can be your sole point of contact with developers (nor will they ever) unless you want to massively limit your reach. Make sure you check them out, but practice your emailing skills too. It’s still the Wild West out there, and games PR is messy, especially for content creators.
And for how early we are in this whole deal (at least considering how extremely late developers started actually embracing content creators, cough cough), the options out there really aren’t too bad!