Videogame Reviews Aren’t the Exciting Spy Thrillers You Want Them to Be


(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

Over the years, I’ve seen many accusations flung at videogames reviewers. Some of the accusations are thrown my way, some of them are thrown at other reviewers to highlight how honest and terrific I am. Whatever the motivation, and regardless of who the criticisms are aimed at, I need to shoulder the burden of bursting your bubble and hammering home a rather disappointing truth — videogame reviews are nowhere near as exciting as you think they are, for the most part.

Every time I see a comment claiming to know how, “All reviews are bought and paid for by the publisher,” or declaring that, “This game got a high score because the reviewer is scared of not getting anymore free games,” I have to wonder exactly what kind of world such accusers reside in. It certainly seems like an exciting world, where the rather mundane and ordinary realm of consumer blogging has been replaced by a shadowy dystopia of undercover operations, sleazy backroom deals, and merciless threats from sinister corporations. I wish the world was like that, because it would make playing through boring tripe like Mindjack a lot more enthralling.

The above video has been doing the rounds recently, and like that one about Kony, it’s pretty damn good at making a point through provocative words and apt musical choices. It is, however, an incredibly romantic view of what we do as game reviewers. It awards the job far more importance, far more intrigue, than it deserves. As a game reviewer myself, allow me to confirm to you that the majority of us are uninteresting people, with relatively generic lives. I pay my mortgage, raise my family, and waste time watching shit movies like Hardware and Puppet Master. I spend no time at all tendering or refusing blank checks from sinister executives, because nobody’s ever done that. Life just isn’t that cool.

I am not meaning to imply that sleaze does not happen. The “Gerstmann Incident” at GameSpot is a favorite example, and there are definitely some publishers who try a few questionable tactics to encourage high scores. There are certain practices I disagree with, such as “review events” where writers are invited to a nice hotel and risk having their gameplay experience subconsciously married to an awesome paid vacation. It’s true that many reviewers get free games (as in any industry, because buying them all would be financial suicide) and that swag can be tossed the reviewer’s way in order to curry favor. Of course, many fail to realize that the swag can get a bit annoying, cluttering the house and eventually being tossed out. Many fail to realize that a free game means very little to most writers — a piece of shit that wastes your professional time will still deserve an ass-kicking, regardless of whether or not it was received for free. Some gamers believe a free game comes with caveats, but outside of polite embargo requests, I’ve never been asked to give a certain score, or write in a certain way. Here’s the boring process I go through when securing a review copy of a game:

  1. I email the publisher/PR representative and ask if I’m on the list/can get on the list.
  2. Publisher/PR representative confirms, with a note on embargo time.
  3. I get the game and review it.

That really is all there is to my job as a reviewer. It’s not as dramatic as some pundits make it out to be. It’s a rather brief and professional interaction, and while some believe the existence of a free copy is proof that a review’s been purchased, all I have to say is … even if that’s true, it’s not proof that they purchased a positive review.

Another thing people need to realize is that most publishers/PR people don’t really care about your score. This prevalent fear of blacklisting that people believe exists? It’s practically nonexistent in my experience. I’ve torn shreds out of games from Capcom, Sega, Electronic Arts, Sony and Activision in the past, and the worst I’ve gotten is a, “That’s a shame” or a joking, “You’re insane” from 99% of all publisher reps I’ve interacted with. I still get titles from all of them. Sure, they like positive reviews, but let’s face it — their job is exposure, and any press is good press to them, for the most part. These big corporate publishers, the ones that could afford to pay for positive reviews, are publishing games so big that a few negative reviews won’t even harm them. I mean, will EA really pay for a positive review of Mass Effect 3, when it’s managed to sell a ton of copies with half the fanbase hating on it? Not only is it an unlikely scenario, it’s a waste of money and a bad business decision. Ultimately, the idea of the blogger receiving a check in exchange for a positive review is a fantasy. When you try and imagine that transaction going down in reality, it’s pretty funny in how farcical it is.

Over at Destructoid, we’ve had a few advertisements pulled over reviews, but it’s not like we can even blame them. After all, who wants an ad for Kane & Lynch 2 on a site that gave it 1/10? We get it. But even though the ad was pulled, no threat was made. No demands were heard. It was just a thing that happened. A rather boring, ultimately understandable, thing that happened. No hard feelings.

Amusingly, it’s not the big publishers with the ton of cash that cause reviewers the most trouble. Not in my experience. The only grief I’ve ever been given is from developers, the guys without the money. I’ve had phone calls from the makers of Hydrophobia, I’ve been blocked on Twitter by Cliffy B after responding to his complaints over getting an 8/10 for Gears of War 3. The people that put their heart and soul into the game, the “good guys” of the videogame industry, are the ones who get angry and demanding. Again, it’s a little understandable — you’ve put years of your life into a product, and therefore you take negative reviews personally. Meanwhile, the publishers are just footing the bill and looking forward to the sales — they don’t have the emotional incentive to start pressuring reviewers for high scores. Believe me when I say … none of them care, not the same way the developers do. And the developers don’t have the money or the pull to start bribing or threatening the game reviewers.

The worst I’ve gotten from someone in PR was the infamous Jim Redner situation, where he made a rather emotional public threat about blacklisting certain 2/10 reviewers for Duke Nukem Forever. He later apologized and 2K Games distances itself from the outburst. Again, it ended in a rather dreary fashion. Nothing notable happened in the long run. I got pissed at Redner, Redner got humbled, and we all moved on. Because ultimately, a lot of this perceived corruption just isn’t stood for, and most publishers know that blacklisting will just lead to more negative press. As someone at Sega once told me, “If we blacklisted you, you’d just buy the games and trash them that way. What’s the point?”

Then there are the readers themselves. The above video does make a good point about how gamers try and pressure reviewers into satisfying their predetermined notions of what a game numerically deserves. To date, I have had NO publisher ever demand a certain score from me. I’ve lost count of the amount of actual gamers who have done it. Usually they do it while telling me to be more of an “honest journalist.” The fucking irony. If reviewers are rating games too highly — and I think a fair number of high profile games get way too much praise — I’d say it’s a lot more likely that they’re simply trying to give their audiences what they want, and I almost find it hard to be angry at them for tossing out a high score just to avoid the petty backlash and harassment that readers are so happy to dish out these days. It’s not the grinning executives at EA or Activision who are demanding that reviewers sacrifice their integrity — it’s a vocal minority of angry gamers.

There are problems with videogame reviews, certainly. I think some reviewers can give in to hype a bit too much, and fans get way too angry when their tastes aren’t catered to by a particular writer. We risk an industry where 10/10 is considered the “usual” score for a game above a certain budget. I do not mean to imply these problems do not exist, because they do. However, the causes for them are nowhere near as enthralling as you might think. Most positive reviews seem more to be the result of reviewers being gamers, first and foremost, prone to the same over excitement and tendency to overlook flaws as any other fan. And while there have been instances of publishers being a bit sleazy and trying to curry favor, the scope and scale of such incidents, not to mention their regularity, are so small as to be highly inconsistent with the generally dull life of the average reviewer.

It’s flattering that some people think that game reviewing is akin to a deadly spy thriller, full of secrecy and conspiracy, but the simple truth is — it’s not. Most of us do our job like anybody else, and we don’t deserve dramatic Youtube videos made about us. Besides which — writers are inherently egotistical, and your attributing that much importance to what we do only serves to fuel our undeserved arrogance.

Nobody needs game reviewers like me to be more up our own asses than we already are.

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9 Comments on Videogame Reviews Aren’t the Exciting Spy Thrillers You Want Them to Be

Tobbii Karlsson

On March 14, 2012 at 10:48 am

Good read, of course I basically knew this already. Unfortunatly I doubt the people convinced reviewers are evil organized criminals making money off forcing readers to buy Call of Duty will be convinced by this.

NintendoLegend

On March 14, 2012 at 10:57 am

An excellent write-up on the topic. Thanks.

B.J. Brown

On March 14, 2012 at 11:03 am

As a person who’s actually getting into this industry of reviews, I couldn’t agree any more with this. I really wish gamers would realize that reviewing games isn’t some cut-throat business, it’s just us dudes writing about a game, giving a score, and maybe picking up press copies and swag once in a while.

Shawn

On March 14, 2012 at 11:08 am

Great read once again, Jim. I love when you write these types of articles. But yeah, I don’t think the people who need convincing are even going to spend the time to read this, unfortunately.

Jim Bentley

On March 14, 2012 at 11:18 am

Well, it’s pretty simple really, you went on for about a week on Twitter excited at the survival horror Amy, how it looked cool and you were seriously excited about it.

Then you got your review copy and tweeted “Don’t Buy Amy!” promising to reveal all in your review. Some people I feel either don’t appreciate the harm they’re causing making these accusations or simply don’t care, and thats really sad.
Thank god for you.

JawaEsteban

On March 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Right on. Excellent article, this is good information that the gaming community would do well to take time and read.

That said, I believe the primary reason why this whole conspiracy theory is so prevalent at the moment is the massive (no pun intended) disconnect between critic/reviewer scores and users scores for ME3. It’s a freaking chasm of opinion difference, and that makes folks a bit suious. Further adding fuel to the fire, the sites most dismissive of fan complaints are also the biggest (kotaku, IGN etc. etc.). And the final cherry on top is that IGN, who has been by far the most dismissive and in some cases outright hostile towards fans of any reviewer, has one of their own people (Jessica Chobot) scanned into ME3 as a fairly significant character. To me, that’s getting rather close to the ‘conflict of interest’ line.

Tangentguy

On March 15, 2012 at 5:46 am

I now want to see a small 30 minute video on youtube or the like detailing this exact scenario. All the stupid cheesy spy thriller nonsense fully displayed at how ludicrous this is. Just show the publishers as ludicrously evil, game journalists as freedom fighters or blinded betrayers and gamers as the only ones who have access to this information before it spreads to all types of media. Throw in the publishers trying to take over the country or world to real in the ludicrous. I’d watch that, Jim would probably be the most stubborn freedom fighter or the one so far on the anti publisher side that he goes insane and attacks everyone. Got to love public perception. Otherwise nice article Jim, hits all the points people bring up.

Ummmm......

On March 16, 2012 at 6:51 pm

I think you sir are kind of placing yourself on the same pedastal of this sensationalism as the creator of this video and ignoring the core problem here that yes – there are vested interests in the industry. I totally agree that the view taken is extreme. Im sure there’s no cyber – punk style control over the industry and some huge evil plot to control the gaming industry in place. Which is obviously the crazy spectrum of things. Im also saying that not every reviewer is a pawn in some grand scheme or fickle people to the whims of the higher echelons!! However there have been some questionable practises going on if we stop talking bout the extreme bull.

For example you mentioned the Gerstmann incident. A high placed respected editior fired on the grounds of honest yet hurtful scores. Fired for his honest opinion as the ad revenue for the game in question was pulled from the site. Yet many also highly placed writers left in utter disgust at questionable pr practises that were going on. You failed to elaborate this. And an interesting part considering that surely a game reviewing sites main source of income is advertisement itself????

There was also the incident whereby bioware employees were found to have created fake accounts on scoring sites such as metacritic to artificially inflate scores.

As someone said above a quite interesting point- a so called well known gaming journalist actually in the game….how can the site then be impartial??

Since the whole me3 debacle everything has shone on the unclear mud that is becoming the industry. From games that fans are increasingly noticing less quality ; particulary large publishing companies and the large amount of cash they are trying to rob gamers of – with lets face it dlc that should be in games. With publishers such as EA whos shares are wavering under quality conern, they DO have a commercial interest to see a good profitable sucess and to suggest otherwise is kinda naive bs. They run a huge busniess. With me3 just highlighting every horrid aspect it comes as a suprise to fans to find not one impartial review. I have not seen any score below nine despite CLEAR major fan discontent with MANY issues in the game not least the endings.

Given that these huge reviewing sites have been plastered with me3 ads in recent weeks has placed a highlight on something i think we all took for granted ,when opinions between reviewers and players have been so polorised (Dragon Age 2 and KotOR 2 notwithstanding) i think the lines have been blurred. So yeah i think an intelligent discussion is in order and lets cut the extreme bs. Because simply- how do remain impartial to something you have a vested interest in, particularily with the main player on the field ?????????

EnricoM

On March 20, 2012 at 5:18 am

IGN 2011

Dark souls 9.5
Gears 3 9.5
Skyrim 9.5
Arkham City 9.5
Uncharted 3 10
Skyward sword 10

Needless to say I don’t go to that site anymore