I’m not exactly sure how or when it happened but somewhere along the way the videogame review just curled up and died. What was once a place where a writer could fully express what he or she felt while playing a certain title has since transformed into what at times can seem like a full blown press release. Lines are being blurred and stretched to the point that mediocrity no longer means a 5 on a 10 point scale, no now mediocrity can get you at least a 7, maybe even an 8 on some nonsense publications. Why don’t reviewers have balls anymore?
This idea was sparked from something I read on GameJournos, a blog that’s dedicated to showcasing everything that is wrong with game journalism today. Some of your favorite sites get abused there probably on a daily basis. Does Ben Paddon, the site’s creator, do it out of spite like some industry people think? No, I think he’s just fed up with crap reporting and turned himself into the watchdog that this industry needed. I like to call him the Upton Sinclair of gaming journalism. Anyway, Ben posts interesting pieces all the time but what caught my attention most recently was the following graphic.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s wrong with that picture and unfortunately it’s a snapshot of our current pathetic reality. The question is: why is it like this? And why doesn’t anyone do anything to change it?
I’m sure that most of you immediately think of “GerstmannGate” (See: Termination from Gamespot), and that some of these bigger publications are all part of this drawn out conspiracy which involves the correlation of advertisement revenue and review scores. The idea that if a site is covered in ads for a certain title then said title will be given a good score. And while I’m certain that things like that do still occur on occasion, I don’t think it’s the main catalyst here.
No, I believe it’s the same thing that gets consumers excited about these products that begins to work its magic on the journalists, writers and bloggers in this industry… it’s called marketing.
Now when I say marketing, it’s not in the traditional sense. Don’t think that it’s trailers, screenshots, and promotional beanies and t-shirts getting these reviewers excited. No, what I’m talking about here are the all expenses paid trips, events and the open bars.
Fact: I’ve personally spent more time in this industry getting drunk at gaming events than actually playing games in my 20 months or so as a site owner/writer. You can’t judge me — if they put you in a room full of all the expensive booze you could drink and didn’t have to pay for it, you would do it, too. The difference with me is, I will smile in a public relations person’s face and then poop on their game if need be, others aren’t as quickly inclined to do so and I know why.
A couple of months back I had interesting “off the record” conversation with some marketing people from a large publisher (who will not be named) over dinner and drinks. According to one of them their main focus is “to get that Metacritic score above 80. Period.” I asked what’s considered a mediocre score, to which the person replied, “anything less than an 8 is mediocre, anything less than a 5 is a broken game.” Really?
If you don’t believe that these “perks” isn’t what gets you the Metacritic score that Publishers need, then allow me to present Activision as exhibit A.
At E3 2010 last year, the house that Bobby Kotick built had barely any presence on the actual show floor compared to some of the most notable booths there. Instead they opted to throw what some were estimating as an 8 million dollar bash at the Staples Center across the way. That event, where press had a choice of either box seats or floor access, featured a few musical acts you may have heard of: David Guetta, DeadMau5, Usher, Will.I.Am., Chris Cornell, Tony Hawk, N.E.R.D, Jane’s Addiction, Travis Barker, Eminem, and Rhianna. By the way, it was open bar for everyone in the building.
In essence, by putting together that spectacle what Activision indirectly stated was: “After this, I f*cking dare you all to write a bad review this year.” And did it pay off? Let’s check the Metacritic scores for all of their bigger titles of the year, shall we? DJ Hero 2 – 88, Guitar Hero 5 – 86, Call of Duty: Black Ops – 88. And they say no one likes a suck up.
The reason I say reviewers don’t have balls anymore is because I think that with all of the marketing and public relations ass kissing that goes on behind the scenes it can definitely guilt some writers against expressing themselves freely. Here’s what the thought process behind it must look like: “damn, they treated me so well when they flew me to (insert big city here), then put me up in (insert high end hotel here), and got me drunk at (insert trendy nightlife hotspot here), I just can’t give them a low score. What if they stop sending me free stuff and games because of this?”
As long as this fear exists, innovation will continue to suffer from it. Developers and publishers will simply take continue to take this feedback from chicken-sh*t reviewers and not change anything. They’ll just keep pumping out bad games without fear of accountability.
So you see it’s not reader backlash like some would think it is. And more often than not, it isn’t even because of ad revenue. It’s simply a fear of rejection from publishers and public relations folks along with the pressures of falling in line with the status quo. The age-old idea of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”
This is why the lines of mediocrity on the review scale have been blurred. This is why you’ll read a review where the writer does nothing but bash a game, point out more negative than positive, yet somehow manages to give it an 8. This is why the Federal Trade Commission wants complete disclosure on review products received by writers, as well as if there’s any additional goodies that were packed in when it arrived, that way they can at least try protect the consumer from this exact type of bullsh*t. This is why reviewers don’t have balls anymore.
Now if you’ll please excuse me as I warm up in my free Prototype 2 snuggie it’s absolutely freezing in the Big Apple. Just kidding. Sort of.