Editorial: Press and Pressure

Reggie blanket is best blanket.
When asked for comment on why games journalism isn’t alway honest, Reggie held this pose for five straight hours.

A good week to you, fine reader, as I hope the depressing nature of my previous week’s article did not sour your mood too much. Nevertheless I venture to expand on the idea this week, fear of depression be damned!, in a an attempt to examine a matter somewhat close to home. I mentioned in the previous article about the sad business of press relations with developers and publishers in today’s increasingly costly internet age. But I only outlined in brief the problems that can plague an otherwise right-meaning gaming website that may poorly influence the choices it makes as it accrues fame and in turn upkeep cost. It is for this reason, and for its threatening ubiquity, that I always suggest any wise reader make a good range of gaming websites a part of their regular reading. In my experience a mix of some large scale but mostly smaller scale websites makes for the best diversity of opinion that includes the milk toast mainstream offerings and also the varying hard lining independent points of view. In this diversity it becomes easier to pick apart bias or predilection from something approaching the fact of the matter regarding an industry where all the inner details are seldom revealed. It provides, for example, an instance where some may be quick to report that Nintendo has sold through substantial quantities of Mario Kart 8 while others will be quicker to include that this was during the same time Nintendo presided over a nearly $100 million operating loss. A bevy of reasons may inform why this is the case and I hope to identify the key ones this week.

One of the oldest and greatest challenges to the integrity of any gaming publication outlet is in handling reviews. In the days of magazine publications, reviewers would receive copies of games months in advance to make up for the long lead time of a print medium and this would naturally require good relations with the distributors of those games. It would become a source of pressure, if nothing else, for the publication to keep those relations at an arm’s length from the content of the review itself. Even if no explicit words or offers were made in exchange for positive reviews, it was not uncommon for a backlash to occur in response to an unfavorable review. This might take the form of a call from the developer or publisher involved or even pulling of planned ads which help to fund the reviewing platform. Whatever the recourse it can lead to a soft agreement that if a review is overly harsh that some response is possible from the creator of the product. But barring negative reinforcement, distributors have also been known to make attempts at positive reinforcement with offers of on-location reviews where multiple reviewers are flown out to a single location and asked to play a game for review amidst others including the game makers and representatives. Attempts like these are meant to create a positive or grateful atmosphere that might pass a sense of obligation to the reviewer or genuinely cause them to feel better toward the product. The lack of a neutral atmosphere means the review is less likely to be an accurate one. And in the face of a potentially less accurate review or a late review, some outlets might feel pressured into seeing the former as a lesser of two evils.

Reggie blanket IS best blanket.
Impressions from E3 are not very valuable beyond being a heads up for unannounced titles.

In hand with pressures from creators come the pressures from advertisers who make a job solely of relating with press outlets on a monetary level. While most advertisements are handled by a separate department from the editorial or reviews sections, the increased costs of running bandwidth hungry websites or the few print magazines that are left mean that alternate forms of advertisement are sometimes entertained. While benign enough if the intent is obvious to the reader, articles that offer product rundowns or previews typically serve little more than promotional material for both the press outlet and the game creators. As a long standing policy, many games media sites will only preview game content from a “cautiously optimistic” perspective that offer only soft blows of criticism while focusing on a drum up of anticipation. Likely this policy stems from an agreement between the game makers offering the press-only preview and games media accepting a naive outlook on development. Whatever the origin, positive-only previews have been an old form of covert advertising that only recently has been bucked by newer gaming sites irritated by the trend. For the consumer such previews do little beyond inform them about the coming product while discussing less than honest opinions of the game.

Aside from industry pressures there is much to be said for the consumer-side pressure exerted on a popular media outlet, particularly with websites where access is free and user feedback is instant. Major outlets at some point need to take into consideration the reaction of the masses when publishing an article or review, and if they claim to do otherwise then such reactions can never honestly be far from the mind of the writer in question. Whether cynically attempting to generate controversy on a matter or composing a populist piece to receive reader acclaim, both criticisms have been levied often against all the most popular gaming sites. And while more than half of those accusations are probably false, it does not sit outside possibility that the fallible people who comprise games media cannot be affected by the same group of people that justify their existence. It is rare indeed that I find a media outlet that does not at one point or another offer a dubious review with thin critiques. This is a matter apart from divergent opinion on a review and wholly about a flimsy critique or praise that at the very least speaks to a weakness in the writing.

It’s not always easy to tell if something’s bullshit. But sometimes…

And yet if writers and readers could free themselves from the dependency on a review score I believe a great deal of reviewer distress and reader distrust would evaporate in short order. But this will not happen, despite any unpopularity, because the existence of a numerical summary of a review is all too valuable a tool for publishers as a form of advertising. The media may believe it valuable too, as such a simple summation of hours of hard work can make the site easier to read and thus a bigger draw. But I think in the absence of a score of any sort the readers would move on from the crutch of not having to read the whole review of a game they are interested in. The game publishers and other higher ups, however, would lose a potent tool in the subsequent loss of aggregate sites like Metacritic. It has been a poorly kept secret that aggregate scores are wielded as a cudgel against development teams who do not meet a certain score threshold, sometimes in the form of withheld bonuses on a pre-established agreement that these bonuses are contingent on such scores. Like with many other industries, such as retail, a scoring system has its value only in its justification to take something away from the evaluated or excuse a sudden drop in funding, employment or expense. Without this tool it becomes much more subjective and thereby less easily justified that payments be withheld or a franchise be discontinued. It goes a long way in underscoring that people will adhere to a system, no matter how poorly designed or to their detriment, so long as it remains a clear system.

That will have to do it for this week, depressable readers. I would like to take this opportunity to say that we here at Lcom know you have a choice in gaming websites and we thank you for flying with us. Please take this time to notice the comments section located just below this paragraph and if at any time you feel sick please use the supplied paper bags located on the back of the seat in front of you. If you would like to discuss your experiences as a reader here or at other sites we encourage you to do so and, as always, have a Lusi day.


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