No, Game Journalists Are Not Paid by Publishers for Review Scores
Furthermore, none of my editors have ever adjusted a review score I’ve given to a game, nor have they given me any specific guidelines whatsoever regarding what I should say about a game ahead of time. This is only my experience of course, but I don’t think it’s insignificant; three of the publications I write for — VG247, Kotaku and Game Front — are among the most widely read gaming-oriented web sites in the world. As such, they would be particularly attractive to companies hoping to take advantage of the supposed lack of integrity mentioned at the beginning of this piece.
There might be a misperception among readers that makes even the most basic interactions between journalist and PR seem shady. “Many (readers) I’ve talked to consider getting early, free copies of games for review a bribe, instead of a necessary resource to do a job,” fellow freelancer Scott Nichols told me. “In my experience it’s usually a fundamental lack of realizing that ‘game reviewer’ is an occupation, rather than just a hobby.”
For further perspective, I spoke with Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo and Destructoid reviews editor and Game Front and The Escapist contributor Jim Sterling.
Six years ago, Kotaku was part of a short-lived but intense conflict with Sony over a report about PlayStation Home based on information from a source who allegedly worked at Sony. When asked for comment on the piece, Sony told Kotaku that if the publication ran the story, it would be blacklisted –- meaning Sony would no longer interact with them at all.
Then-editor Brian Crecente decided to publish anyway, and SCEA’s Dave Karraker made good on the threats, immediately canceling Kotaku’s interview slots at GDC. The kerfuffle only lasted a few hours; the Internet blew up over the affair and Karraker backed down quickly.
“The Sony incident is from an earlier time when Kotaku was smaller, gaming media outlets were seen as more in lockstep with publishers and the directive of Kotaku to put readers first — and to not tolerate bullshit — was less widely understood,” Totilo told me.
“Publishers get annoyed at us all the time, as do developers, gamers, retailers, readers … you name it. That’s the nature of being part of the media. But game companies tend to respect the distinction between what we do and what they do. As a result, they don’t try to push us around all that much. I am sure that that’s partially because we have 6 million readers a month. They want to be in front of our readers, and they know that we’ll cover them fairly and honestly — and that our readers appreciate that. The moment we start acting like shills or start cowering before game companies is the moment we lose credibility with our readers and destroy what Kotaku staffers past and present worked so hard to build.”
In other words, doing what so many people like to accuse us of would be ultimately pointless, and it certainly wouldn’t benefit our careers. Unless, as Nichols observed, people think we’re merely doing this job for fun.
Sterling took the point further, noting how little logical sense it makes for games journalists to submit to outside rule.
“Any site big enough to be worth bribing is big enough to where the writers involved can make their name off the back of exposing something like that,” he said. “In order to make any potential bribe attractive, you’d first need to offer more value than exposing your shady ass would hold, plus enough cash to be worth more than my job is, basically enough to keep me going for life. The money required to even tempt any writer with self-respect is a silly amount. In short, I don’t think a ‘paid’ review is worth paying for, nor is it worth selling.”