My limited success in this enigmatic industry has given me a not-so-unique albeit little understood insight into how it works. Whether your target is a journalist, or YouTuber, or magazine, the chances are your claim that they were “paid” to like the game that you do not like is baseless and naive. There are more valuable currencies than money in the gaming world, and although at times something seems awry, it’s often more complex than a single payment.
I’ve been in this business for around three years now, so take what I have to say with a pinch of salt. I take my job very seriously, and I work very hard at it, as most games journalists with any reputation do. It’s one of the least-paid journalistic vocations, and people do it because they love the industry. With that unwavering love comes a sort of unwritten ethical code that isn’t about making lots of fame and money, so much as being able to respect yourself and your work. Respect for yourself and for your work is an integral part of the relationships you build with necessary cogs in the games industry. It is an industry built largely on mutual respect and trust, where major players are introspective, adaptive, and fair.
When you claim an individual journalist or YouTuber has been “paid to give a game a favorable score,” they don’t take it as an insult, it hits them harder than that. This is an often thankless and heavily time consuming job, and it’s made enjoyable in part by interacting with the community, from PR people to your audience, and the guys who make the games. Games journalists aren’t in it for the money, and their reputations are invaluable. They cannot be bought.
So far this is all a little black and white — as black and white as the claim that some are paid off, and I’ll dig a little deeper in a moment, but if you’ve decided to read no further than this, the most important thing you should take away is that a journalist’s reputation for fairness and balance is worth more than a payment that could completely obliterate it. There are no exceptions.
Controversies, currency, and getting ahead
Looking at magazines, anecdotal accusations occasionally portray them as corrupt, or at least in bed with certain key players in the industry. The clearest example that springs to mind is Jeff Gerstmann’s departure from GameSpot. I think it’s sensible to assume that the bigger the operation, the more cogs there are to be oiled. This is probably the most widely known, most extreme cases of industry fuckery. The ethical quarrels involved however are slightly more complex than “the developers of Kane & Lynch paid for favoritism, and therefore Gerstmann was fired for the original low review score of Kane & Lynch.” Wikipedia sums up Gerstmann’s own ideas quite nicely in a single sentence: “Gerstmann went on to lay the blame on a new management team that was unable to properly handle tension between the marketing and editorial staff, laying additional blame on the marketing department, which he claimed was unprepared in how to handle publisher complaints and threats to withdraw advertising money over low review scores.”
Regardless of the size of an operation, be it a single YouTuber or publishing powerhouse, relationships are required to keep everything running smoothly. As mentioned earlier, the general rule is that a publisher asks for a fair review of a title — nothing more, and nothing less. We cannot really attest as to whether or not the publisher behind Kane & Lynch found the original review wholly unfair, and therefore jeopardized their relationship with GameSpot, but it seems more likely that, as Gerstmann stated, the event worried a nervous marketing department so much that they decided to take steps to ensure a cash-flow of advertising revenue didn’t disappear (this is just my opinion on the matter based on the information I have available – don’t sue me, I can’t afford it). Ad revenue isn’t easy to come by, and it keeps journalism free and readily accessible. It’s very important, but not important enough to tarnish a reputation. Because of this, it’s more likely the GameSpot incident was a bizarre misgiving more than an active attempt to screw over the readers.
Large sites are funded, that’s no secret. Even Polygon received some initial funding from Microsoft, and Polygon are practically the Al Jazeera of games journalism; eloquent idealists treating their subject-matter with the seriousness it deserves. That said, even Al Jazeera was funded by a controversial Saudi businessman. Money has to come from somewhere.
There are times where readers might call into question the situations journalists are placed in when reviewing a game. For example, it’s not exactly rare for Activision to fly out a bunch of journalists to review the next Call of Duty at the expense of the publisher, in a room full of developers and other journalists. A magazine is unlikely to send someone who emphatically hates Call of Duty, and in this controlled environment it’s likely that a journalist will have a good time. Whether that affects a review score is up to the discretion of the reader. However, a good site will let you know about the conditions upon which he got access to the game, and most do.
Again, this is an example of relationships as currency, not money. I’m cherry picking some examples because I want to be as fair as possible (although it seems unfair to pick on those mentioned), but you should take another glance at the headline. These are examples of very rare — bizarre, actually — situations, and I’m getting them out of the way so they’re not thrown at me in the comments.
I’ve no doubt that major magazines have in the past been pressured into giving preferential treatment, but websites only have so much advertising real-estate, and that forever-war is a subject for another debate.
If you’re a journalist, or if you run a site, the chances are someone has tried to bribe you. It happens all the time, but propositional bribery doesn’t come from the AAA developers you know and love. Gambling app developers and dodgy PR companies will try and get you to post a “sponsored” post on your website, selling a gambling app or F2P game. I’ve turned these propositions down each time, as have 99% of people. Sponsored posts are not uncommon, but when a PR representative asks you to post it without letting on that it’s sponsored, that’s when you know someone is trying to screw your readers.
These are extreme cases of mass-confusion, more than anything else, but it’s fair to say the industry has had its fair share of controversial situations. However, none of these are as simple as they seem, and none of them are as simple as “X paid Y to say nice things.” In actual fact, GameSpot proved their integrity by removing a shitty review of Natural Selection 2 which featured a bunch of inaccuracies, and if there’s anyone who isn’t going to pay for a positive review, it’s an indie developer such as Unknown Worlds. They also didn’t plaster the site with advertisements, so these events happen for various reasons.
Ironically, some of the magazines mentioned above criticized Conan O’Brien’s ‘Clueless Gamer’ segment because some publishers paid for their game to be featured. This criticism might take the spotlight away from journalistic outlets for once, but it is a criticism that dumbfounded me. ‘Clueless Gamer’ is a comedy sketch borrowing review format as the joke. It is not a reviews show, and nobody is getting buying advice from a man who doesn’t play videogames. Publishers pay for exposure — that’s called marketing, and the hype train that constantly plows through our computer screens on a daily basis suggests that everyone’s sort of okay with that.
There’s something inherently worrisome about relying on your revenue from people who’re you’re supposed to be critiquing, but the industry has gotten pretty good at managing that. About the only fishy thing about major journalistic operations is how they respond to genre fatigue, and I’ve written about that before. They are not, however, corrupt.
Publishers and developers have a pretty good idea of what score their title will receive before anyone has their hands on it
So clearly the industry has room for critique, and rarely is it a perfect system, but let’s take a look at the role of the PR guy. A publisher or developer might have their own in-house PR and marketing team, or they might turn to an outside source. It’s these guys’ jobs to make everyone aware of their — or their clients — products (games). 99% of developers you speak to, incidentally, hate talking about their games in business terms, but that’s neither here nor there. These PR guys will write press releases, manage communications, and talk to the press, offering review code and things like that. Having a good relationship with a PR guy is a vital to a journalist, because that’s how you get games early, and keep up to date with the latest information.
Here are the following ways to piss off a PR guy:
- Break the terms of an NDA – Breaking an NDA is a bit like a middle finger to PR. It shows you have no respect for the systems in place to protect IPs from abuse, and if you did it to get ahead in the game, that can damage your reputation with your peers.
- Give an unbalanced review or preview of a game – This one is tricky. Often, review or preview code will come with notes. These notes highlight issues the developer is already aware of, and gives you all the context and information you need to give an informed opinion. If you make a bunch of technical inaccuracies or show a lack of understanding of the information provided to you, then you’re screwing the PR guy for being honest. This does not mean you can’t give a negative review, and although a PR person will never openly discuss a game they represent in a negative way, they’re fully aware of its issues. Express yourself clearly, fairly, and show insight, because that insight has been spoon-fed to you.
Generally speaking, if the PR or marketing team of a developer whose games might not be very good believe it’ll receive low scores, they won’t give out review code, and they’ll sort of just let everyone get on with it. Rambo being one example recently.
Here are some reasons a PR guy won’t get pissed off, despite popular belief:
- You gave a game a low score
- You pointed out flaws in the title
- Your video was too short, or you didn’t cherry pick the best bits
As a journalist, you build that all important reputation with PR companies by following their pretty lax rules. It’s up to them what they want to show, and when they want to show it, and if they trust you with exposure, they do so because they know you personally. They know it’s your job to be objective, and fair, and they know that if their game is predicted a 60/100 review score, you’re going to pick up on things that highlight that fact. They’re prepared for it, that’s their job.
A little known fact about PR companies, and PR guys in the industry, is that they too have a reputation to uphold. The idea of Blank McBlanky writing me an email tomorrow, offering me X amount of money to bend my opinion of Y game is actually unthinkable, and this purely business relationship is one sustained by constant, professional dialogue. It’s actually pretty organic, and when a journalist does his job with the aide of a PR guy, the PR guy has done his job — it’s as simple as that.
Now, some might argue that journalists without contacts may bribe their way into the cross-hairs of reputable PR folk, and I’ve not really heard of this happening. If a journalist approached a PR guy propositioning the exchange of money for a good review, it’s likely he’d be ignored, or if that PR guy was particularly idealistic, news would spread, and that journalists career would be dead in the water. It self regulates. This isn’t friendship, it’s a professional relationship.
There are times when PR guys “mess up,” if you can really call it that. Recently, AngryJoe posted his beta impressions of The Elder Scrolls Online. He was approached by Zenimax PR and given permission to do a video on the game, and his video recorded with a group of friends was largely negative. He even went so far as to claim he believed the game would go ‘free-to-play’, even before it had been released. Why was this a mistake? Perhaps it wasn’t. A good PR company knows that raw footage in front of huge audiences only promotes sales, regardless of whatever the commentator believes. That said, it’s questionable to provide review code for an MMO to someone who has admitted he doesn’t like MMOs. AngryJoe followed up with a more positive video on The Elder Scrolls Online, and not because he upset Zenimax PR, but because he has integrity and wanted to give the game another chance. There it is again, that journalistic integrity.
Building relationships that last
Relationships in the games industry are based solely on your reputation for doing your job right. You can have candid discussions with PR representatives and developers about the state of their business, and their games. They are not deluded. If you do your job properly, you’ll have some incredibly candid conversations with their representatives so long as you remain respectful.
There’s a myth, for some reason, that you can’t approach key figures about potentially negative topics. So long as you’re balanced, and lay your cards on the table, you absolutely can. Here’s a video of myself interviewing Mark Allen of Kalypso media about some of their past failures. At GamesCom 2013, I asked Mark if it would be okay to discuss things like Dark, and how Kalypso had gone a little under the radar in recent years. I gave him an excuse to let everyone know how Kalypso are moving forward, since it was no secret that they had a bad year. He responded well, and explained how Tropico 5 was going to be a much larger development than in the past — their key IP.
Things get a little trickier the higher up the food chain the representative is, as I found when interviewing John Mamais about The Witcher 3. I had hoped to get a sense of the depth of the game’s immersion further than scripting, and an apprehensive Mamais politely went along with it, although the interview was planned with someone lower down at CD Projekt Red who was otherwise engaged. You don’t get brushed away so long as you’re polite, respectful, and seem genuinely interested what you’re covering.
By in large, the idea that PR people are question-dodging marketers is a myth. If you have a reputation for digging for controversies, then don’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk to you. So what have I done to get close enough for these candid discussions? Shook their hands, looked them in the eyes, and explained what I wanted to talk about prior to the interview. Money never changes hands.
Am I worried that my material will sometimes alienate me from PR companies and developers? When preparing reviews that end up in the 40-69 score range, then sure. I do a lot of thinking. Am I fair? Do I understand the title enough? When it’s written, at the very worst I’ll simply omit from emailing it to the PR company. It certainly helps us out when they spread reviews, but no self respecting journalist will create a review specifically for the purpose of being distributed by the developer.
YouTube, being a ‘non-journalist’, and everything in between
The easiest way to avoid all the unwritten laws of the industry is to be on YouTube, as a ‘commentator’. TotalBiscuit has made a career out of avoiding the various clauses that come with working within the industry, rather than just outside it. I’m not insulting him or others like him, merely pointing out a product of ‘new-media’. These non-journalists often have the same privileges as legitimate industry journalists, and it’s certainly not a ‘Mickey Mouse’ form of reportage. These are some of the hardest working guys in (or around) the games industry, and its usually these guys who take the bulk of the flak when accusations of bribery are thrown around.
There’s this idea that critique is all subjective. That it’s an opinion. This sometimes works in the favor of the journalist, and others as ammunition for trolls. What I can tell you is that reviewing a game is not a solely subjective vocation. Any argument should be judged by the clarity of the prose and depth of observation, in accordance to the evidence provided. There are times in a niche, where a reviewer has been tasked with critiquing a game and just can’t get his head around it, and that will inevitably skew the score. That happens to us all, and we have bad reviews and good reviews.
Only today TotalBiscuit has responded to accusations of being bought out (once again) with another video. So in bullet-point form, here’s another lesson:
What YouTubers are sometimes paid to do:
- Play a game – This is about exposure, not scores, and I’ll actually admit that if they’re paid to play it, they’re less likely to start riffing on all its issues. That said, there’s a difference between playing a game and reviewing it. If they do later decide to review it, I can’t think of a single example where a YouTuber has clearly given it a higher score because he has been paid to play it previously.
That’s really about it. In the same way that risible critique was thrown at Conan O’Brien’s ‘Clueless Gamer’ skit, YouTuber’s are often attacked for being paid to expose a game. That’s marketing, folks, and if you enjoy watching your favorite internet personality play games for a living, what’s the difference between watching them play one they’ve been paid to play, and one they bought themselves. Give me evidence of a YouTuber bigging up a game he’s been paid to play, and I’ll put it in this article.
What YouTubers are not paid to do:
- Review a game
- Review a product (sometimes they’re given a product to review, and sometimes the PR rep doesn’t ask for it back — although they often do — but most examples of this have been from companies who have faith in their product, and can predict what the reviewer will think of it.)
- Give a positive score for a game they’re looking at
Your reputation on YouTube is perhaps even more of a make or break situation than classical journalism, in that the demographic is often more vocal. It’s also a much more personal affair, with guys working 24 hours a day because they enjoy it more than anything else. Besides, if they were being bribed cash dollars to sway your opinion either way, they wouldn’t be so annoyed about YouTube’s ContentID system taking away all their advertising revenue, which is what a lot of these guys support themselves on — not, in actual fact, dirty money.
Money isn’t as valuable as reputation
And so we come to my closing sentiments on all this. You should by now understand that money isn’t everything to a journalist, where his career progression relies solely on his ability to work ethically, and appropriately. A journalist is always trying to further his career by producing better and better work, and it simply isn’t worth jeopardizing that for a small cash payout. A YouTuber follows the same ethical code, despite claiming they’re not journalists. They often work just as hard, but have to contend with a louder, more aggressive demographic.
Reputation is the only currency that matters, and yes it’s true that PR companies treating YouTuber’s like real journalists can sometimes be seen as an effective way to buy them on your side, this really isn’t the case. YouTuber’s are useful for marketing a game to a great deal of people, but they’re not used to sway opinion about a game once its in the public domain. It doesn’t matter if you invite the whole of YouTube to a Titanfall weekend spectacular (and that has happened), they’re going to come home and give their honest opinion on your game. Should you trust them to do it? That’s up to you, but think twice before you accuse them of being bought out. That stuff hurts.
As for journalists, being underpaid and overworked is not excuse enough to chase alternate cash-flow. In fact, such sources of cash-flow don’t exist. There isn’t a reputable PR company on the planet that will pay you for a positive review, and in reality, it’s a thankless line of work that is little understood as anything more than subjective non-fiction. For 90% of games journalists, the very most you’ll get from a publisher or developer is a slice of pizza and a cup of coffee for arriving in time to spread the word about their new multi-million dollar project.
There are a lot of myths about the industry, and I hope I’ve at least added to a more nuanced conversation on the subject. While there are situations where journalists and magazines should be called into question, these situations are ultimately as scarce as hen’s teeth. Despite our ability to cherry-pick information, we belong to a self-regulated industry where doing a good job is its own reward.
I have intentionally avoided the subject of hardware manufacturers turning to bloggers for exposure, because that’s not really relevant to this discussion despite what your brain might tell you.