On blacklisting and reviews: it’s just a part of the game

Wednesday, 22 June 2011 08:17 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Reviewer blacklisting is one of the industry’s dirty little secrets. Or is it? Let’s all calm down and take some deep breaths. This is just everyday business on the PR-media merry-go-round.

Duke Nukem Forever on Meta critic

Xbox 360: 50%

PlayStation 3: 56%

PC: 57%

Highest Score: MEGamers – 88

Lowest Score: 1UP – 0

Last week, a PR firm working with 2K responded to negative reviews of Duke Nukem Forever with what amounted to a threat to withhold future review code. Jim Redner’s little meltdown on Twitter and the furore that followed provide an excellent excuse to talk about one of the most controversial issues in gaming. Thanks, Duke!

In an impassioned response to critics, Redner defended his actions in awarding and withholding review code from media outlets based on the likelihood of good scores, and it’s currently very fashionable to respond with sneers and jeers.

But Redner’s implication that blacklisting – from the mild form of selection process he described right up to “we shall never speak again and are withdrawing our six-figure advertising campaign” – is a thing that happens all the time is completely true.

Publishers, developers and PR representatives regularly cease business with individual members of the media and whole outlets over review scores, and sometimes far less. This really happens.

It happens because it’s good business practice if you’re a videogames publisher to try to stop people speaking negatively about your products for a variety of reasons.

Key word: business

The games industry produces some amazing works of craft, some of which are arguably art. The people that work within it are passionate and talented. The results of their determined, sustained efforts can be, and frequently are, life-changing.

But all that exists based on you reaching into your pocket and handing over some fucking money. The games industry is here to sell games, and we in the games media are almost universally in the business of helping them do it, whether overtly or otherwise.

Even when we put out negative criticism, even when we laugh at ourselves and each other, even when we express disgust, that’s what we do and that’s why we exist.

If you want, you can treat games as technical achievements or art works, you can take them apart piece by piece, analyse them, have long discussions about them, and generally expand human knowledge in meaningful ways. Some of the best games writing in the world – maybe some of the best critical and academic writing in the world – does exactly this.

In the light of this kind of culture – a Holy Culture which exists only on the fringe of gaming, popular and academic circles even now – the idea of withholding review code for business reasons is fundamentally repugnant. People selling products have a duty to allow the general public good time to read professional critiques and judge whether or not they want to spend money. They should do the “right thing”.

Back in the real world, and in the light of “do we want to sell some games,” it makes perfect sense to withhold review code from certain outlets in certain situations, and it’s something games critics outside that Holy Culture simply have to live with.

This goes way beyond reviews. Games PR is locked down so tightly that, despite our best efforts, the vast majority of everything you read about games is something someone in a suit has decided you can know. It’s not ideal, and many games writers work very hard to deliver more than that and to effect change.

But it’s the system we have to work in, and, to be fair, it’s genuinely not that dissimilar to that of other entertainment industries. We need the words that grow business, and we need the words that foster art. There’s room for both.

Were you honestly surprised?

The mysterious review

As all commercial media outlets want to make money and continue hosting content by definition, almost all of them are careful not to piss in the faces of the companies which make that possible, but that’s not the only reason reviews normally end up clustered so tightly around the 7-10 end of the scale.

There are actually two reasons for this. Firstly, there’s a commercial reason, but there’s also the need to be “right” in the reviewing community.

The subject of the review scale’s disproportionate weighting is one for another day, so for now, let’s just accept the fact that most reviewers are uncomfortable giving low scores and negative reviews – until somebody else does.

When a real stinker of a game comes along – or just a game that fails to live up to the hype – it only takes two or three brave critics saying so, however mildly, and suddenly we’re having a free-for-all. The canister of tightly guarded vitriol bursts and reviewers can pour out their years of frustration and anger in a no-holds barred attack, and everyone will nod their heads because we have critical consensus.

I have no doubt that the review which Jim Redner took exception to (which I have no means of identifying, and couldn’t even guess at) was indeed venomous, because I read a lot of venomous reviews of Duke Nukem Forever, in which writers took low blows at Gearbox, made personal attacks, and indulged in the darkly humorous cynicism which is a lot easier to write than tight criticism.

Jim Redner’s outraged response to such a review, while unprofessional, may well have been a fair call. You don’t continue doing business with people who insult you when they ought to be critiquing, however poorly. Encouraging what amounts to trolling games companies for their failures doesn’t help anyone.

You never feed the trolls. You ignore them.

You blacklist them.

Who cares, anyway?

The existence of blacklisting, brownlisting, exclusives and selection processes may get up your nose, but you must understand that this is a business manipulating a situation to make money. This will not change.

People like Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford would have you believe that reviews don’t matter. This isn’t true. Reviews do matter – especially with core products – but only when they’re timely.

As has been mentioned in public by various media owners and sites, review code for Duke Nukem Forever was timed so it would have been extremely difficult for anyone outside of the “process” to deliver a review that would have a chance of affecting pre-orders. Kotaku, for example, only published its review yesterday.

Again, this is normal. The review embargo on many triple-A products lifts on launch day. It doesn’t take a genius to see why.

So, according to reviews DNF is a dog’s breakfast, but it sold like hotcakes. It does have passionate online defenders. Again, the failure of review scores to track performance is a whole other debate, but in the end what matters is that review scores are maybe not the barometer of raw sales success you think they are. The truth is that they are very easily manipulated, maybe not on a score level, but certainly in terms of when a general judgement can be found online.

The Duke Nukem situation is not a normal one, for so many reasons. We can’t speak for 2K, but its likely in this case the priority was to make sure pre-orders weren’t cancelled. No one honestly expected DNF to score highly. Right?

Review scores do usually matter to PR people, because the higher the Metacritic average, the more likely they are to keep their jobs, which are not as easy as people like to pretend.

Review scores matter to executives, because the higher the Metacritic average, the more likely investors are to back the company’s decisions again when the game turns out to not be one of the five games per year which reach blockbuster status.

And review scores matter to investors, who have a lot more power in this industry than you imagine, because it’s an easily understood measure of whether the last two years of forking out cash was a worthwhile thing, and whether we might potentially make some money next year.

None of this, of course, matters more than simply selling videogames.

Restriction on review code and all the behind-closed-doors push-me-pull-you that goes with it is just part of the game. And Jim Redner now knows that better than any of us.

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