Over the weekend a small controversy erupted in board game circles when rumours began circulating that Quackalope, one of the scene’s more popular YouTube review channels, had supposedly ‘blackmailed’ the publisher of a game they had been covering over a series of videos.
Things blew up so quickly that the publisher in question, Into The Unknown, not only felt compelled to issue a statement, but included their correspondence with Quackalope’s Jesse Anderson in full along with it, just so everyone was in possession of the entire conversation.
The emails, which you can read below, detail a months-long negotiation between the two over Anderson’s proposed payment for a series of videos covering (read: promoting) Into The Unknown’s new game Aeon Trespass. Basically, Anderson tells Into The Unknown that he has already gone and recorded a ton of footage of the game, but has had trouble with the rules and would like to shoot new clips. With someone from Into The Unknown there to help. And be paid $7500 for it, or he’ll just release the old videos.
Besides the questionable approach taken by Anderson—it’s also strange they played so much without contacting the company first, and that a team of professionals struggled so much with the rules—the main thing the emails help illustrate is something even more worthy of discussion: the ease with which board game creators and publishers are able to shape coverage of their games, which is a widespread practice in the industry. I’m sorry in advance, there’s about to be a lot of text to get through here, but it’s important to see the correspondence in its entirety to fully understand what’s going on here, starting with an email from Quackalope’s Jesse Anderson:
From: Jesse Anderson
Sent: Thursday, January 19, 2023 8:23 AM
Subject: ATO | Coverage
We have recived and showcased Aeon Trespass: Odyssey on the channel earlier this month! We are thrilled to have it in hand and despretly want to dive into it!
We got 10k views and 750+ liikes on our Unboxing Video!
I wanted to reach out to see if we could work together on some upcoming coverage. We have a growing team of 4 and it is very hard for us to dive into a full campaign game. Not only do we need to learn & play tens or hundreds of hours of content – we also have to film and produce content for the channel.
With Oathsworn last year we were able to provide them with a wide range of content over a few months by establishing a contract for the first wave of media. This allowed myself and the team to learn, play through, and produce videos on the initial sessions. Following those contracts we continued to produce aditional media. Oathsworn was featured on many of our Top 10s of year simply due to us being able to spend time with it.
I want to propose a similar agreement with your team.
I am requesting that you sponser the inital coverage of ATO so we can get into the game and give our/your community some highly produced gameplays. We would point our audince to your Pre-order page and let people know where to pick up ATO and KF!
Outside of that we will produce supporting vidoes for your community (Rules, Strategy Guides, Top 10s & more).
We would schedule a call with you to learn the rules and make sure we get everything accurate during our sessions.
We noramly charge $2,500 per video. My proposal is a 5 video sponsorship at $1,500 each. Totaling $7,500 for a full run of media and marketing push. These videos can be Gameplays, Tips & Tricks, Strategy Guies, Previews (for a PM push) and more.
Let me know your thoughts. Looking forward to working with you.
Next is a reply two weeks later from Into the Unknown’s Marcin Wełnicki:
Fri, Feb 3, 2023 at 9:10 AM
We were very happy to watch your unboxing of the game, and are excited by the prospect of working with you on some further coverage of Aeon Trespass: Odyssey. Apologies for the late reply, but we’ve been swept away by ATO’s success and plans for 2023 and beyond!
I’m attaching Bartek, our PM, to this conversation. He will provide you with any further details and be in touch with you on behalf of ITU.
$1,500 is still a bit steep compared to the market average, but nothing we couldn’t work with – at the end of the day it all depends on what the video is, how it’s put together and what the return in viewership is! We could do a ‘pilot’ and go from there!
However, I do have some questions though:
1. Do you have specific content/video subjects in mind? We’d suggest some discussions of the basic essentials to get to grips with the game, some coverage of ‘How to Survive the World of Aeon Trespass’, a discussion of the extra challenges certain Primordials pose, useful gear and Titan combinations, and so on. Any other ideas? Some fresh perspective?
2. Roughly, how long would the runtime be on each video?
3. How much post-process effects/editing do you imagine versus the more straight-up vlog style?
4. As this would be sponsored content, how does the authorization process work with you? We do have some specific guidelines for sponsored content.
5. How detailed are the feedback statistics of viewership you provide (referrals, outgoing traffic)? 6. Do you incorporate calls to action or page-linking (like visit their website at XXXX”)
7. What the turnaround on a video?
8. Can we schedule video drops for specific days etc?
I think this covers some of the basics! I’d much appreciate your thoughts on these!
Here is Jesse’s reply to that email:
Hey Marcin & Bartek,
Thank you for getting back to us. I would love to have a conversation with you about all the specifics (this might be best done over zoom?). Long story short, we would love to work with you. However, we did invite a patreon member of ours down the studio for a enier week to film and play as much ATO as possible. We have put about 50 hours into learning, tabling and recording content at the moment.
However, our experience as a group was quite frustrating overall. We struggle with the rules, finding cards throughout the decks, and tracking all the moving parts of ATO. At the same time, we desperately wanted to play through the campaign- it seems like an amazing experience for someone who is solely focused on the title and not worried about filming videos where the community can pick apart any rules mistakes. One of the benefits of working with a publisher is having a direct line of communication/help with more complicated games.
If we are able to move forward we would need one of two things. Either a designer/developer who is willing and able to oversee the gameplay videos (we have a private live stream system) that would allow us to get everything as accurate as possible. Or, we would love to extend an invite for you to come and film with us in Cleveland Ohio, for a week.
If we are working in collaboration with you we would scrap the footage we have already recorded (since we want to be as accurate as possible). If we decide to work independently, we will likely not invest more time beyond the 50 hours of content and 8 videos we have recorded.
Let me know your thoughts and if you want to set up a call.
1- We are open to ideas and content that would support the community. Rules, tips and tricks, gameplay, etc.
2-That depends on the video and what would work best for the channel. Rules videos should be as short as possible, Gameplay should be as long as the session requires, etc.
3- Our content would be fully edited like all of the produced content on our channel.
4- We can certainly go over the guidelines you have. Ultimately, we will try to follow them – with the context that it is our channel & audience without specifics.
. Hard to know
5- We don’t track data like click through links. We do have one of the biggest channels in the game industry with more engagement – especially around titles like ATO. Our audience is your marketplace.
6- We place a top link in the description and are happy to do a call to action. 7- We would want to get everything produced in the next month or so and then released over a few months.
8- We can plan specific days to post.
Looking forward to talking more! – Jesse
Thanks for getting back to us on a short notice!
I am very sorry you’re having a hard time learning the rules, up until now we have only heard positive player feedback from the Learn to Play learning experience, especially with the step by step Out of the Box guide we’ve put out. The game is getting stellar reviews:) We can of course support you by answering any rules questions, however we have no capacity to delegate anyone for an extended period of time (and ‘real time at that!), to say nothing of sending an employee half across the world to the US for a week!:)
Thank you for the detailed answers, everything checks out! As for our guidelines, it’s basic stuff of paid content: the coverage should be strictly positive, there should be no direct or prolonged comparisons to other games (you kept coming back to KDM in the unboxing video, which would be a no-no) in favor of focusing on ATO and so on.
Imagine, if you’ve struggled with the rules, a lot of the content you’ve already created could be unusable. Either way, we’d love to see what you had problems with, to both answer any questions and to create better games in the future, so if you can send the footage to us, even uncut, I could have someone watch it over the next few weeks!
Or… if you feel re-recording content might be too time consuming, we might skip this ATO altogether and swiftly move towards the future! With the critical and commercial success of ATO, things have accelerated at ITU, and we’ve got several projects moving forward at the same time, including Twelve Sins of Herakles, a standalone AT game that takes what we did with ATO and streamlines and enhanced it even further. That’s coming sooner than anyone expects, and the limited demo content might be much more digestible to you than the enormous sprawl of ATO. It would be a chance for you to be there at ground zero too.
Beyond that we also have the shrouded in mystery V3…
Let us pick your brain on this!
Can we get a meeting set up to discuss the logistics? I would be happy to collect a set of questions and bring someone back down to the studio to film a series of supporting media for you all at Into the Unknown. I am also very interested in your future content and would like to work closer with you & the team going forward. Since your games are so ambitious, I want to get everything as accurate as possible.
If we establish a working relationship, we can edit and film within your guidelines. Not producing directly critical or review based media, not comparing your titles to others like KDM, etc.
I would certainly want at least one member of the team to observe a live session so we can double check any rules questions we might have while recording (this would take about 3-4 hours of a team member’s time).
So here is my proposal.
Let’s set up a meeting. Collaborate on some media coverage/supporting coverage for ATO. Then, let’s figure out a working relationship moving forward. This way we can produce media our audience wants, cover your games accurately, and help you continue to build a titan of a publishing house!
Let me know your thoughts and a time that works for you to chat.
Now replying on March 31, 2023 is Into the Unknown’s Bartek Odorowicz:
Sorry for the late reply. We’ve been a bit decimated by flu and Marcin has now been away for a bit longer. I am writing on his behalf as we would like to get back to our conversation:)
We would definitely be interested in at least one video, mostly dedicated to your impressions of playing the tutorial (described in the Learn to Play booklet) and at least a few more days of the campaign (we would recommend you to reach the day 7 of 80 days campaign). This should familiarise you with the most important mechanics of the game and show the multithreaded nature of the story (it is heavily scripted in the tutorial, so it’s worth continuing it to see how the story unfolds). We could support you with one staff member who could answer your questions or assist with one playthrough. It would be great to have such a video ready for the beginning of May. Do you have a space in your schedule for it? I think it would be no problem to agree on a price as well 🙂
If you would like to, we can also have a call next week.
To which Jesse replies, saying that they’re just going to go and publish the pre-existing material anyway:
It is good to hear from you guys. I am sorry that the flu has gotten to you and that Marcin has been away. It has been a month and a half since I have heard from your team and our audience has been asking repeatedly for ATO content. Since I hadn’t heard back from you, I made the decision to start posting the ATO content I had already filmed. We have 4 gameplays, a KDM Vs ATO review, a confirmation bias review (one all positive/one all negative) and a few other smaller videos.
I hope you enjoy the content and look forward to working together in the future.
All the best,
The final email released was sent on April 14, again by Bartek, who says:
Thanks for your answer. That is understandable. We had (and still have, actually) a very busy time (the campaign is coming!), which caused some communication delays. Of course we are open to cooperate on future projects.
Okay then, so we are waiting for your opinion on ATO 🙂 Very curious about this!
Accompanying the release of the emails was a statement released by Wełnicki, in which he summarises their discussions then wonders at the end what these kind of offers and relationship would mean for a smaller, more vulnerable games studio. It’s a long read, but it’s got a lot to talk about, since it covers not only the emails between the two parties but also how they relate to the wider board game creator economy as well:
Hello, this is Into the Unknown Studio. In response to the recent developments we have the following statement.
First off, we’d like to say that everyone is entitled to their subjective opinion about a game, especially when it comes to consumer products. We do not censor content, and we do not argue with critics and reviews. We try to learn something from them, good or bad. We have no problem with Mr. Anderson’s opinion about ATO.
Second, we also have no problem with the idea of sponsored ad content. We use Facebook/Meta and Reddit Ad tools regularly, we also collaborate with content creators on things like rules videos, summaries or playthroughs.
January 19th this year, we were contacted by Mr. Jesse Anderson (Quackalope) with a proposition of creating paid content for us. Mr. Anderson suggested doing 5 videos for the total cost of $7500, saying it was discounted from $12500.
Though we were lukewarm on the prospect – especially with a price tag of $7500, which we did not feel was warranted – we asked for further details, clearly stating this would be considered by us as paid sponsored content, basically an ad. We also mentioned our reservations about the price.
Two weeks later, on February 3rd, Mr. Anderson responded, answering our questions, but also mentioning that he has already purportedly put 50 hours into the game, and produced content for it, finding the game ‘quite frustrating’, struggling with rules, finding cards, tracking things. He suggested we should either get a developer to live stream with him or send one to Ohio, US, to oversee the material over the course of a week. In such a case, Mr. Anderson assured, they “would scrap the footage we have already recorded”. He also warned, that, if “we decide to work independently, we will likely not invest more time beyond the 50 hours of content and 8 videos we have recorded.”
This really changed the tone of the conversation for us. At this point we really didn’t want to go into any collaboration with Mr. Anderson. However, at this point we felt pushed to a wall. ‘Quackalope’ was the biggest boardgaming channel with a lot of sway. Their coverage of our previous campaign had a noticeable impact on our KS result. We thought about how to get out of this situation. Few days later, we’ve sent another e-mail, delineating rules for paid content, lamenting that Mr. Anderson found the game frustrating, asking for more details on what he found wrong with the game, as well as wanting to see the raw footage that Mr. Anderson had shot. We also proposed forgoing ATO coverage whatsoever (I had a hard time imagining the cooperation, seeing his disdain for the game) and moving to TSOH, which was being designed with critical feedback in mind – more streamlined, player- friendly, with less overhead, all the things Mr. Anderson quoted as being frustrating.
A week later, Mr. Anderson sent us an e-mail, but failed to respond to most of our questions or suggestion: he did not provide any raw footage nor gameplay notes, doubling down on reshooting the ATO material.
At this point, we broke off communication, hoping this would go away. At the end of March, our Development Project Manager reached out for a possible first impressions video of the Learn to Play. Mr. Anderson responded, saying it was too late, and that he would proceed with the original footage -including some gameplay, a positive video, a negative video, a KDM vs ATO and some more. There was nothing to add at this point, so we thanked Mr. Anderson and finalized our communications.
In the days before the campaign, Mr. Anderson released videos which we assume are those mentioned as recorded before. Each of those videos mentions he reached out to us for sponsorship, but got no answer. At the end of this week, he released two additional videos, one supposedly praising the game, the other calling it ‘the most unplayable game he has ever played’. In that second video, Mr. Anderson openly talks to us, the developer of the game, again offering his services to consult on game design.
On Friday, I’ve made an offhand comment about the subject. None of this is something I would normally mention, we even posted Mr. Anderson’s coverage among the others, in our Update, unprompted. However, seeing repeated comments from our backers, I could not shrug off the feeling that if we were in a different position, less known, without a game on the market to defend itself, basically your first time KS creators, this would have had a dramatic impact on our company, games and employees.
CEO at Into the Unknown Studio
Anderson later replied with a statement of his own, before adding he would address the situation in full during a stream on June 12:
Hello, Jesse here.
As some of you know I am out of the country at the moment (in Israel studying in a Yeshiva). I just got back online from Shabbat and I am doing my best to engage / respond with the limited equipment I have on hand (One IPad). I fly home in a week and Shira and I get married in a week and half.
TLDR: We did not and have never asked a publisher to pay us in order to prevent the channel posting critical or negative content. I will do a Live stream the week of JUNE 12th, once I am back in Cleveland, hanging out and answering any questions the community has.
We certainly work with publishers. We have made no attempt to hide this, we cover a range of new games, kickstarter projects, inid titles, and old classics. This takes time-in some situations we charge for our time, never our opinion. To the best of our ability we label, link, and verababy declare any and all relationships we have with publishers when we cover their projects. From just being friendly or receiving a game for free all the way to paid or sponsored content. We have addressed this in the past and we are always reviewing our approach. We will continue to do so.
I reached out to into the Unknown after filming my unboxing and before filming any of the content we have posted. I reached out asking if they were interested in working with us leading up to the next campaign. I offered a package of videos 5+ and requested rules guidance and support. They did not respond for over a month. My goal in reaching out was to secure the resources needed to allow us to dive into ATO fully. My suggestion was a series of highly produced gameplay videos and supporting content (how to play, rules clarifications, strategy guides) all with the publisher’s guide and support. No review content. I indicated that we hoped we would enjoy the game and keep covering it in future videos for free.
Over that month we invited an independent fan to come learn, teach, and play the game. We wanted to play ATO, the community was asking for coverage, and so we figured out how to make that happen. We spent over a week producing these videos. A few weeks after filming content, ATO reached out indicating they were interested in working with us. They had some stipulations (All coverage needed to be positive, no sponsored coverage could compare ATO to another game such as KDM, and we needed to get rules correct, however they would be unable to provide in-depth rules guidence or support.)
We emailed back and forth a few times. I explained that we had already filmed a series of videos and struggled with the rules and gameplay. We wanted to love ATO and clarified that if we played or filmed anything more we would need their help getting everything accurate. They were not available to help us beyond emailing back and forth. Into the Unknown offered to work with us on future upcoming projects and were willing to do at least one video on ATO. After considering the opportunity to build a relationship with a growing publisher in the space and the risk of missing out on future coverage-we declined this offer and let them know we had edited and were going to post our collection of previously recorded videos.
In this last email I told them that these videos included the 4 gameplays, 2 reviews, and a direct KDM comparison video. All of these videos were filmed before having any back and forth communication with Into the Unknown.
Into the Unknown was not asked to pay us to keep these videos from going public.
Into the Unknown was never shown these videos prior to them being posted.
Into the Unknown was invited to collaborate with us so we could bring as much accurate coverage to the channel as possible-not so that we give them a positive review.
I will be doing a public live stream the week of June 12th (once I am home). I am happy to engage and answer any questions then.
We do our absolute best to provide entertaining, informed, and honest coverage. We will keep doing this. – Jesse
Like I said, I don’t see anything specifically incriminating here, even if the circumstances surrouding this conversation in particular are extreme (which is why they’ve been released for everyone to see). What I do see, however, is even more interesting: not just the finer details of sponsored content, like prices (which in this case appears higher than usual) and scope, but the fact that everyone is just so open and cool with it.
Let’s be clear: there is no way to remain objective about a game if you’re being paid by the people who make it. You can try and say that you are—like Anderson does here, when he says “we charge for our time, never our opinion”—but you’re entirely compromised the second you accept that money, as Anderson also says when he writes “Our audience is your marketplace”. If you’re covering a game and getting directly paid for it, you’re not “creating content”, you’re making an ad. Even if it’s just an unboxing or a playthrough, that’s an ad.
So are ALL board game creators doing this?
Absolutely not! Many are, including some big names, but I don’t want to derail this post by specifically listing them, nor do I want to say that every board game video you see on YouTube is paid for. There are loads of truly independent and talented creators out there, and this Reddit post does a good job of listing most of the bigger ones.
My problem here isn’t that this proposed arrangement is somehow revelatory. This is common practice in board games media, and has been widely known, even by fans, for some time. My issue here, and what I think is worth talking about given the publication of such precise dollar values and pitches, is the question of who, exactly, does this kind of content serve? What are viewers and fans actually getting out of something like this?
I get that board games and video games aren’t like-for-like industries, let alone mediums, and so my frustrations here might just come from the fact I’m one of the few people who work astride both. Another problem might be that content creators more interested in hype and community are just a part of the critical landscape of video game coverage, whereas when it comes to board games they’re overwhelmingly the most popular and prominent voices (with some rare exceptions, like the excellent Dicebreaker and community behemoth BGG).
This sucks! I think board games, and their players, deserve better! Crews like Shut Up & Sit Down, who are notoriously independent, should be the rule, not the exception. I don’t buy arguments like “well who else is going to pay us if not publishers”—the most common defence in these situations, since popular board game channels number in the tens of thousands of subscribers, not millions—I think anyone who is passing any kind of supposedly independent coverage onto an audience has a responsibility to be doing so without it being labelled advertorial.
That doesn’t even need to extend to reviews, because if you start accepting money directly from publishers, how is your audience supposed to know where the buck quite literally stops? Even if a channel is clearly marking which content is directly sponsored and which isn’t, if they’re in the practice of taking money directly from—and even working alongside—board game publishers, then they are compromised, no matter how nice and honest their videos may be.
And they are nice, and that’s what perhaps sucks the most about this! I know board game YouTubers, I watch board game YouTubers, and they are almost to a fault some of the sweetest, most likeable people on the platform. There is nothing malicious in their actions, nobody is actively trying to deceive anyone, the vast majority of channels are doing what they love and doing things by the book.
But that doesn’t change the end result. Years of coziness between publishers and the people filming their games has resulted in a community where the lines between advertising and coverage have become so blurred that email exchanges like the one above can take place, include the words “the coverage should be strictly positive” and nobody thought it was a bad idea putting that out in the public record.
Board games are, despite some recent setbacks, a booming industry with a bright future. And as the medium expands and matures, its audience deserve more coverage that respects that.