Scandal in Game Reviewing!
Behold the return of the moneyhat!
The esteemed and always awesome Mr. Wil Wheaton put up a post recently about the influence game publishers and PR reps appear to have on the games media. He cites a post from another site, which in turn cites yet another site, both seeming to indicate that videogame reviewers are pimping scores out to the highest bidder and totally misleading you about games because You Can’t Trust The Man.
I spent some time responding in Wil’s comment thread, but it’s way down at the bottom and it’s also quite long, so I figured I’d repost here. I’d love to hear what you think.
Wil, there’s an element to this dialogue that a lot of people don’t seem to be considering, based on the sources quoted and many of the comments here.
Let me preface this by pointing out that in exactly two months I will have been reviewing games professionally for 15 years. Ten and a half of those years were spent at Ziff Davis Media, home of EGM, and later, 1UP. Most of that time was spent at the Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine (yes! a magazine! made of paper!), and most of that time was spent in charge of the Reviews section. Since OPM went kaput in late ’06 I’ve been a freelance writer, primarily doing reviews for many of the big gaming publications: EGM, 1UP, GamePro, GameSpy, PlayStation: The Official Magazine, OXM…er, I’m sure I’m forgetting someone, but you get the idea. During this time I’ve reviewed well over five hundred games, all for publication in major outlets.
What I’m saying is that I know how reviewing games works.
Over the past decade and a half, I can think of exactly one — one — occasion in which a PR person attempted to directly influence the score of a game before the review was written. It was the type mentioned in this articles: “you can get review code early if you agree the game will be at least a certain score.” We of course turned them down.
On maybe, oh, ten or fifteen other occasions, a PR person called me (in my capacity as reviews editor) to debate one of my reviewer’s scores after publication. And in every one of those occasions save one (in which a memorably loony PR dude pretty much went off his meds) they went away satisfied that their game was given a fair chance. Disappointed it didn’t do better, sure, but satisfied that we were evaluating the game thoroughly and fairly.
And that is, of course, a rightful part of the PR person’s job: to ensure the game is being treated fairly. And in my experience, the vast majority of PR people, and the publishers they represent, are ethical, sensible people who are as appalled by sleazy back-room dealing as journalists and consumers are. Because they know what every publication should know:
If a reviewer isn’t honest about the bad games, no one trusts them about the good ones, either.
Trying to artificially inflate a score is an incredibly shortsighted maneuver; it may bump up the Metacritic rating of the current game, but it kills the credibility of both the publication and the game company. If consumers buy a game that’s been artificially praised, they don’t just resent the outlet that did the praising, they resent the game company, too! And they’ll be that much more hesitant to buy the next game.
This is what I would tell the vocal minority of PR people: If we’re not honest about your crappy game, no one’s going to believe us if we praise one of yours that’s legitimately good. And most folks recognize this. That’s why these kinds of sleazy deals are the exception, not the norm.
But here’s the thing that I find particularly amusing about all this. So many people involved in this discussion (including many commenters here) use this news as justification for not trusting the big enthusiast sites or magazines. You even mention in your post not being able to trust 1UP.
But it’s the big media outlets that are most immune to these kinds of deals! The big media outlets know that the game companies need them more than they need the game companies; they’re big enough that they get their clicks or their subscribers whether one particular game is reviewed early or late; they have the budget and manpower to generate tons of non-review content; and perhaps most importantly, they know that if one particular company is going to withhold review code, they have plenty of other companies willing to fill those spots.
Furthermore, the big media outlets have ad-sales teams completely separate from the editorial teams. I know at Ziff there was an impenetrable barrier between ad and edit; we referred to it as the separation of church and state, and it was inviolable. Oh, we might hear that publisher X was threatening to pull ads — I mean, stuff gets around, you know? — but there was never — ever — any pressure from that side, or from our managers, to change our editorial content in any way as a result.
Now, I do know that hasn’t always been the case everywhere. The Gerstmann/GameSpot debacle is the most offensive example of ad influencing edit, but I can think of a few other stories (or at least rumors) I’ve heard over the years.
And it’s been a bit over four years since I worked full-time at a gaming publication, so I suppose things may have changed a bit. But if they have, it sure hasn’t trickled down to me; none of the publications I mentioned above has ever attempted to influence the score of a review I’ve submitted. Not once. Not even a little bit.
And of course this makes sense when you think about the power these bigger publications hold. If we really need to be concerned about someone falling prey to publisher and/or PR pressure, I think it’s the smaller sites we need to beware of, the ones who have limited access to begin with, limited resources to devote to non-review content, and limited staff to serve as buffers between pushy PR and writers. To be clear, I strongly doubt many of those succumb to that pressure, either. But wouldn’t you agree that they have more incentive to?
One final note before I release my choke-hold on an entire page of your comments section: If we want to point fingers here, we should consider pointing them at aggregator sites like Metacritic. The section you quote mentions that “sites which use letter grades don’t get advanced copies” because of how Metacritic translates them. And if you think of this from a PR person’s perspective, it makes perfect sense: Metacritic calls a “C” a 50 out of 100. If that same reviewer reviewed the same game on another site, it would likely get a score around 75, because most game publications use a number-based rating system that roughly translates to percentage grades in school: e.g., 60 or lower tends to be “failing.”
To combat this, either all publications could adopt the same rating system (ah, no) — or Metacritic could get their heads out of their asses and use some sense when standardizing scores: If a C is 50, fine — but make sure that for sites that only rate 60-100, an 80 is also 50. It’s pretty simple math, you know? Calculate the mean (or is it median?) score for each source, and make that the middle of the scale.
In closing, I’ll say this: It’s fun to bash on The Man; it just doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. Also, this sort of thing is news because it’s the exception, not the norm. Also, I’m rather hungry.