Mindshare: Grand Theft Bribery

Gaming Journalism is corrupt. Here's why.

by Jonathan Tung

DISCLAIMER: Due to unforeseen consequences, I was unable to secure interviews with anyone related to anything in this article, although I was able to get in contact with a few bloggers and YouTubers who were covering this event. In addition, all information provided herein was gathered from various forum posts, news articles, and now-deleted Twitter messages. As such, the accuracy of the following article may vary. In addition, since this was originally written last year, some things have changed, and more opportunities have come up for me to expand on.

I'm a video gamer: I know a ton of folks who play the same stuff that I usually play. And when I play video games, I always make sure I only play the games that are deemed to be good. It's a funny thing: whenever we play a video game, we always assume that the ones we play happen to be fun. We ignore the cons and focus on the pros, often treating them as toys that can be replayed again and again. And in order to make sure people are playing the right games, we have people who review video games, often scrutinizing all the little details under the strictest rules and regulations in order to make sure that they are, in fact, fun to play. These form the basis for many web sites, some of which are devoted entirely to video games: websites such as IGN, Kotaku, Destructoid, Joystiq, Game Informer, the list goes on and on. And when most folks read game reviews, they expect the review to be of sheer quality, often providing honest opinion on whether or not the title they are thinking of getting is actually worth playing.

But in recent times, this is no longer the case.

Today, video game review scores are no longer based on playing the game, but instead based on how much money you are paid by a publisher to review such a game. Even worse, failing to provide a decent review to a much-publicized game can lead to dire consequences, such as the publisher threatening to pull all ad-support to whatever website they write for. In fact, several years ago, a GameSpot writer named Jeff Gertsmann was fired from his editorial position after publishing a scathing review of the video game Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, trashing the title for it's sloppy artificial intelligence and poor gameplay. Ironically enough, around the time the review was published, the ENTIRE GameSpot website was plastered with ads for the game, going as far as to become a temporary site theme for a few days. Several days later, rumors began to swirl around the internet that Gertsmann was fired due to external pressure caused by the game's publisher Eidos Interactive (now Square Enix Europe).

- Comic About Jeff Gertsmann (from GU Comics by Woody Hearn (http://www.gucomics.com/20071130))

According to CNET, the parent company of GameSpot, Gertsmann's removal from the company was unrelated to the game review; however, they refused to comment any further on why he was fired. Earlier last year, however, it was revealed that he was fired due to ongoing tension between the editorial staff and the new marketing staff that had recently been put in place. This climaxed when Eidos Interactive threatened to pull all advertising money from the website as a result of the negative review, thereby leading to his eventual firing on November 29, 2007.

Since then, not much has happened in the gaming business, and the world went on it's own merry little way, with the occasional complaint here and there from various commentators and game bloggers about the way the game industry seems to handle the press. But it wouldn't be for another several months until the entire gaming press would find itself under the spotlight yet again, this time, due to a video on YouTube.

​DORITOGATE

On October 16, 2012, Pixel Perfect Magazine uploaded an interview they recently conducted with Geoff Keighley, best known as the host for GameTrailers TV on Spike. Several hours after it was uploaded onto YouTube, the video was immediately slammed by various users as they believed that Keighley had unofficially sold out. Apparently, for the ENTIRE DURATION of the interview, Keighley was pictured with a bag of Doritos and four bottles of Mountain Dew, apparently part of an ongoing promotion Microsoft was conducting with Yum! Brands for the then-upcoming Halo 4.

Some of the responses that followed ranged from the sarcastic (“I can't see you Geoff with all those Doritos TM around you." - Anon Cross) to the more obvious (“He looks dead on the inside, poor Geoff.”- Narutoloser) to even the incredibly irrelevant (“This advertisement tells you all you need to know about a Mitt Romney future for Amerika (sic).”- flooblr). Eventually, a screen cap from the video was posted on the video game forum NeoGAF before being spread to other websites such as 4chan and Reddit. However, the picture would find it's way to the hands of Robert “Rab” Flourence, who would then use it as a jumping off point for an opinion piece he would then publish on Eurogamer, titled Lost Humanity 18: A Table of Doritos.

-The image that started everything. (photo courtesy NeoGAF)

In the article, Robert writes of a recent event he attended known as the Games Media Awards, which he describes as an awards show where “Games PR people and games journos (sic) voted for their favorite friends, and friends gave awards to friends, and everyone had a good night out.” Of particular mention in this article were a series of tweets regarding the then-upcoming Tomb Raider reboot. But what made those tweets interesting was the fact that the person who wrote those tweets, Lauren Wainright, was a professional game journalist. Robert would then start to question Wainright's actual journalistic integrity, which would lead to Wainwright to threaten Eurogamer for libel regarding this specific incident. The following day, a disclaimer was tagged to Rab's article which said the following:

“Following receipt of a complaint from Lauren Wainwright, Eurogamer has removed part of this article (but without admission of any liability). Eurogamer apologizes for any distress caused to Ms Wainwright by the references to her. The article otherwise remains as originally published.”

Upon learning of the slight alteration, Rab quit his job, sparking a wave of surprise to the entire video game community. As usual, Wainwright continued writing video game articles, which included a so-called preview ofHitman: Absolution in the November issue of the British magazine MCV before disappearing off the grid completely.

Upon release, the article itself was immediately torn up by NeoGAF for looking like nothing more than a sales pitch instead of an actual preview of the game. But as it turns out that there was more to the story than everyone originally thought. Thanks to the brilliant detective work of various posters on NeoGAF, they were able to discover that Lauren Wainwright was at one point employed in the Public Relations department of Square Enix, the same company responsible for making both Tomb Raider and Hitman Absolution. In addition, further searching revealed that she was also able to get into the business thanks to some advice from her fellow friend Katrina Korina, who also currently works for Square.

Since then, Wainwright has gone out onto the internet to deny such claims; however the overwhelming amount of evidence against her was more than enough to force her to shut down her Twitter page once and for all. Both Wainwright and her employers at MCV could not be reached for comment regarding the incident, neither Rab Flourence; however, he has since come out and posted his side of the story on a blog belonging to Rock Paper Shotgun co-editor John Walker. In it, he blames the whole mess on Square Enix's PR department, not Eurogamer or Lauren Wainwright.

- Lauren Wainwright (photo taken from her website, laurenwainwright.com)

“I want to clarify here that at no point in my column did I suggest that either Dave Cook or Lauren Wainwright were corrupt,” he explains. “Their public tweets were purely evidence that games writers rarely question what their relationship with PR should be. In Lauren’s case I made the point that her suggestion that it’s fine for a games writer to tweet a promotional hashtag for personal gain could make everything she tweets and writes suspect....There was nothing libelous in that column.” Walker himself also backed Rab: in a post on Rock Paper Shotgun, he announced that he is supporting Rab's dismissal from Eurogamer; in addition, he begins to question the ethics of the video game journalism industry and wonders if it really is that corrupt.

THE P.R. PROBLEM

As this strange tale has revealed, it is clear that the game companies themselves seem to have major influence over the entire video game press, much like a government-controlled newspaper. Jeff Green, the Director of Editorial and Social Media at PopCap Games, believes that the reason why Game Companies seem to behave like is due to the fact that they happen to possess one thing almost every gaming magazine and website craves: access to their games, both present and future. In a series of posts on NeoGAF, Green explains that in order to obtain access to information regarding upcoming titles, the press must be able to get past the one group people that happen to represent the game companies themselves: their PR departments. The PR departments, as it turns out, control everything that the press crave, and would often turn down any offers should a magazine or website manage to offend them. “Piss off the PR departments,” he writes, “and say goodbye to your access.”

But even if the press manages to get past the PR, they still have to make do with whatever information they are given about the product, often in limited form. “Most game companies explicitly tell all their employees not to talk to the press under any circumstances,” Green explains. “In many (most) cases...it's considered breaking an NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement), or violating confidentiality.” However, he continues, there are some companies that are less stricter than others in terms of access, such as Valve or Double Fine. “Some will let their designers speak a little more off the cuff....(and) some will provide a remarkable degree of candor, or a level of access normally not seen.” But, for the most part, they have little incentive to do so.

But despite the effectiveness of PR, there are also moments when they tend to go wrong. Such is the case of the recent SimCity reboot, which came under fire by various internet forums upon learning that the game was required to be always-online. While EA's PR department claimed that the Internet restrictions were required as part of some form of "cloud-computing" that the game required, it wasn't until a few days after the game's release that it was discovered that the Cloud-computing claim was nothing more than an excuse to utilize DRM. According to a video posted on Reddit by UKAzzer, he discovered that it was possible to play the game without having to connect to the internet through some clever code editing. This resulted in further backlash from the community, and could have been the cause of EA CEO John Riccitiello's recent resignation last week.

- SimCity error message (taken by a friend on Steam)

In addition to Public Relations, game companies also throw all kinds of lavish parties which they refer to as “Media Events.” Basically, they invite a bunch of game journalists to a fancy nightclub or location where they test out the latest and upcoming titles from the publisher. Most of these events, such as Capcom's annual Captivate event or the Electronics Entertainment Expo (aka E3) are reported by the media and are usually the center of attention for most gamers.

Then there's public awareness. Nowadays, most game companies would often show up at major conventions such as San Diego Comic Con or the Penny Arcade Expo in order to showcase their latest wares. In fact, I have actually attended two such events over the past few years: an preview event hosted by Electronic Arts at the 2009 Comic Con, and the Pokemon Black & White Mall tour about two years ago. Both of those events usually feature demo stations that allow the public to get a hands on look on upcoming video games, in addition to offering special bonuses and incentives for attending (such as a free t-shirt or movie tickets for example). However, they both seem to be targeted not only towards video gamers but also to folks who have never even played a video game before (aka Casuals).

If conventions don't work, then the game companies resort to television, in this case the Spike TV Video Game Awards. Every year, millions of viewers tune in to this award show not only to see if their favorite video game wins, but also to watch “world exclusive” trailers of newly announced video games (most of which I assume probably got pretty decent scores) It is extremely looked down by the majority of the internet for being a disgrace not only to video gaming, but also due to rumors regarding rigged voting and the like. It is also the subject of constant ridicule on the video game boards of 4chan, where they have gone as far as to create a parody called the /V/GA's, or the /v/idya Gaem Awards. They've recently finished the second one, and I have to say, it was perhaps the most inappropriate two hours I have ever wasted; not only does the award show ridicule the Spike VGAs, it also criticizes and lambashes the entire video game industry for being a total sell-out, often targeting Electronic Arts for misleading the game industry with the release of Mass Effect 3, in addition to trashing on video games journalism itself.

Now the key goal almost every major game company strives for is for their games to get excellent reviews for their titles, which they believe will allow them to not only sell more copies, but also raise the value of the company by a couple of dollars or so. Most video game reviews vary, with some titles scoring extremely highly, while some of the lesser-known/unimportant titles score lower, somewhere around the 70-80 range. It appears that the reasoning the publishers are striving for high review scores is so that they could have a high overall score on the website Metacritic.

In case you have been living under a rock for the past several years, Metacritic is a fairly popular website that aggregates reviews for movies, television shows, and video games. To do so, the website gathers reviews from various sources and averages all the scores together in order to come up with an overall score that represents the title being reviewed. As you can tell, this makes it easier for the consumer to decide whether or not a title is worth purchasing, viewing, listening, and so forth. However, the scores given have been known to influence the stocks of various game publishers in addition to sales. In fact, there are rumors going about that most games must maintain a decent score on Metacritic in order for the developers of the game to get paid, often with an additional bonus should the game score a 90 or higher. Even though Metacritic and the game companies has denied such outlandish claims, some critics and industry members say otherwise, among them, a NeoGAF poster/game journalist who goes by the username of Syriel. He believes that the influence Metacritic has over the entire video game industy is much stronger than one would usually assume. “Why do you see so many sites run the same review for multiple versions [of the same game]?” he asks. “Because [Metacritic] doesn't like it when separate, platform specific reviews are written by the same person...this presents a conundrum for all but the biggest outlets...”

The process of giving a game an actual score is quite simple: as usual, the game is reviewed and scrutinized by the press by grading the title on various factors, such as graphics, sound, gameplay, multiplayer, etc. However, the game industry had come up with various ways to bribe the reviews into giving their titles high scores. On some occasions, the game is delivered in a special package known as a press kit, in which a review copy of the game is packaged together with a small assortment of fancy memorabilia and trinkets from or inspired by the game being reviewed. Some of these press kits have been known to be collectors items, often fetching high prices on auction sites such as eBay. Other times, the reviewers are invited to play the review code in a undisclosed location: for the release of Halo 4, Microsoft invited reviewers to a special event in New York City, where they would play the final version of the game for two days. One of the reporters, Tina Amini, did a write-up on the event for Kotaku, describing it as a rather interesting occasion: “The PR representatives only came into the room to announce that they’d set up a few lunch boxes for us if we were hungry,” she writes. “We’d take breaks and they’d ask us how we were enjoying ourselves.” She later gave the game a 9 out of 10.

​But recently, it has come to light that there are some things worse than having to bribe reviewers: the Exclusive review. About a week ago, IGN announced on their site that they have been given exclusive rights by 2K Games to be the VERY FIRST INTERNET PUBLICATIONS to publish a review of Bioshock Infinite before anyone else can. This caused a bit of a rift to appear among the gaming community, with some users on N4G claiming this to be proof that IGN has unofficially sold out to game publishers. Some folks even went as far as to actually make fun of the situation: The day the exclusive review was published online, Kotaku released a joke "review of IGN's review of Bioshock Infinite."

However, there are some complaints that the game's overall review score does not actually reflect the overall opinion of it's own fanbase, something which has actually drawn criticism from various lurkers on 4chan's /v/ board. One such example is the controversy surrounding DmC: Devil May Cry, which ​was heavily criticized by most (if not everyone on the internet) for not only butchering the trademark speedy gameplay and story that the series was known for, but also reducing the main character to what one fan referred to as a "whiny emo tryhard that looks ALMOST EXACTLY like Tameem (Antoniades, co founder/chief design officer of Ninja Theory, DmC's developer)." After some lurkers came to the conclusion that the press were bribed to give the game decent scores, a whole mess of people decided to purchase the Devil May Cry HD Collection as an act of protest (with some PC users purchasing Devil May Cry 4 on Steam). Somehow, the protest sort of paid off, as it was later announced that DmC sold roughly a LOT LESS than Devil May Cry 4 (around 800k to be exact).

-An average reaction to DmC on 4chan's /v/ board (from /vg/'s CURAYZEE general threads)

Since the events of what many now refer to as Doritogate, many news sites have gone public and announced sweeping changes to how they cover video games: VG247 for example, announced that they will no longer engage in any competitions hosted by game publishers and will give away any promotional materials received from the game publishers in contests and the like. In addition, Eurogamer released a blog post by their editor Tom Bramwell regarding Rab's article, attempting to apologize for the recent edit and the whole controversy surrounding Rab's sudden leave from the site. “...It is no exaggeration to say that....people from outside Eurogamer have screamed at me about publishing Rab's column,” Tom explains. “It was very unpopular with a lot of people who I have grown to know....It also obviously resulted in legal threats, legal advice, removing paragraphs and an apology. None of this was in any way fun.”

However, despite the entire debacle, there are some folks who believe that people should really take a much closer look at video game journalism in it's entirety, or better yet, simply reset it. Among them is video game blogger Benjamin Mazzara, who runs the website Musings on the Mediums. While he does agree with the opinions of Robert Florence regarding the corporate nature of video game journalism, he believes that the people need to know the truth on what's going on. He credits two people for exposing such facts: Jim Sterling, the reviews editor for Destructoid and host of The Jimquisition, and Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, the host of Zero Punctuation.

“Mr. Sterling in particular has a reputation for exposing and commenting on EA's and Acitivision's shenanigans and convincing gamers that their behaviors should not be tolerated,” he explains to me in an email. “The fact that journalists in the video game industry can be bought is sickening and completely against their role in society." Mazzara continues by discussing various aspects of the debacle, going from the VGAs (which he describes as “a load of corporate crock”) to Game Informer, a magazine published by GameStop (“They used to comment on how used game sales can affect the industry. Now, they have to include asterisks and generally avoid condemning GameStop, but they still talk about it as much as they can legally.”) In addition, he also reveals to me that he doesn't base any of his purchases through game reviews: rather, he bases them on player opinion, which he reads online over the course of the following weeks. “These reviews are too liable to A) be influenced by corporate bribes and B) be mediated to avoid fan backlash,” he explains. Mazzara bases the fan backlash reasoning on a similar incident that occurred last summer in regards to the movie The Dark Knight Rises: After a negative review for the film was published on the website Rotten Tomatoes, the site was immediately swarmed with negative comments and complaints from fans of the movie, along with the usual death threats to the reviewer (Ironically enough, the site that owns Rotten Tomatoes, Warner Bros, is also the distributor of The Dark Knight Rises). Such fanboyism, Mazzara explains, is quite common nowadays, especially on sites like Metacritic where people tend to post negative reviews regarding recent releases. This proves to be a stark contrast compared to the overall positive scores given by the press, further questioning the actual validity of said reviews.

As I am writing this article two days before the release of Bioshock Infinite, I get the feeling that this debacle is never going to end. Sure, most folks would assume that the video game journalism as a whole can be pretty terrible, but in the end, it's usually our choices and opinions that decide whether or not a video game is worth buying, not a critic. And besides, it's not our fault that we all happen to trust the media so much. After all, the industry is just the way it is (“or just one giant clusterf**k,” according to a fellow YouTuber). But as the EuroGamer incident shows, game journalism should no longer be based around what the game publishers say, but based on what the game reviewers think. “Hopefully some people will listen and we can improve it,” says Mazzara. “If not...well, then, I hope you enjoy watching the Spike Video Game Awards.”

thebolt's picture

The Jeff Gertsmann Gamespot interview from a few days ago. Around the nine minute mark they discuss the whole Kane and Lynch thing that really exploded a few years ago. 

http://www.twitch.tv/gamespot/b/311783658

 

Also probably worth noting for those that may not know, Jeff is now one of the talking heads at giantbomb.com which may be one of the better gaming sites on the net.

live2rock13's picture

A terrific read. 

Whiplash's picture

Three words: Subornation of Perjury. That's what most to all publishers do to get a chunk of the spot light, and I wouldn't be surprised if movies, novels and music do the same thing only much more discretely and under the shadow. I have never, EVER once trusted reviewers; I trust critics like, as Jonathan shrewdly mentioned, Yahtzee (I know Alex absolutely loves his work.) He doesn't "review" games, but instead critiques them—even though his methods are... harsh and ogre. He looks for things in the game that he thought suffered from the actual experience, such as a faulty mechanic, a confusing plot or narrative, or even something as trifling as whether the game stands up on single player alone or not, and multiplayer is never a part of the review unless it's 100% required to play the game, like Team Fortress 2, DayZ/Zed or World of Warcraft.

AngryJoe had a discussion about gaming journalism using, vaguely, the same examples mentioned in the Mindshare. Link to the discussion.

Solifluktion's picture

Great post on an interesting and important subject!

I really hate it when reviewers hype a mediocre game or even go as far as lying about a game. Now I just try to scan reviews for negatives like gamebreaking bugs or performance issues while waiting for friends with similar tastes to play the guinea pig for me. Although Yahtzee has proven to be quite reliable in reviewing games...or at least I was never disapointed by games he recommended.

@Whiplash

The whole SP vs MP part is one reason why I really like Yahtzee. While I do play multiplayer games I'm more of a singleplayer-player (that sounds stupid). 

darthskeletor's picture

A superb piece of writing, like all the others have mentioned. I think this subject is of the utmost importance moving forwards because it is the way not just gaming news is moving forward, but also the ENTIRE news industry. Really excellent exposition from Jonathan, I look forward to hearing more of his thoughts in the future.

PigheadedBobobo's picture

 While this might happen sometimes, I truly believe most reviews are genuine. I may be naive but that's what I think.

The part that irks me the most is when you talk about DmC. The only people I saw complaining about it were people who didn't like that it wasn't a re-skin of old school devil may cry. John gave it a thumbs up and Kowbell gave it a 5 on this site alone. No offense, but I don't think they're getting any of that Capcom money. Just because it wasn't the same as old dmc doesn't mean its bad.: it was still a good game. Just become some fans "came to the conclusion" that the press was bribed doesn't make it true.

Sorry if this came of a bit rant-ish but it really got my goat as they say. 

Pulse Cloud's picture

Hold on a sec, people actually take Yahtzee seriously? Don't take me wrong, I love his videos and watch them every week, but you do realize his whole gig is to shit on games, right?

With "pro reviewers" you can still think of the possibility that there was no external bias involved, but with Yahtzee, well, you just can't. Badmouthing every game except those for which he has too big of a hard-on is _his job_.

Whiplash's picture

@Pulse Cloud

No. Just... n-n-no.

Solifluktion's picture

@Pulse Cloud

You just have to read between the lines.

Yahtzee tries to show off the worst parts of every game so if those parts don't put you off off a game you can assume that it's a good game. If his hate feels more forced you usually recognize that a game is good.

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