In our previous column, we took a look at four generalizations that are commonly made about the video games industry, and I offered some thoughts about how these myths can be debunked. Most of the forum discussion that ensued revolved around the issue that reviewers are paid by developers for good scores.
I’d like to address the general theme of the comments around the paid reviews topic. Most of the comments inferred that although press outlets may not receive actual cash by developers in exchange for positive review scores, individual writers may still get “wooed” with the promise of free games, swag, parties, or other privileges. Further, there have been some allegations that because a site sells advertising to developers or publishers, those companies in turn have some influence regarding review scores.
In the first scenario, it’s very true that developers and publishers do their utmost to streamline the review process and, shall we say, grease the wheels. They’ll often invite press to special events, send them review codes and in-game items, and overload them with kitschy swag. This practice is overwhelmingly common, public, and no secret to anyone. It’s obviously in the best interest of a company selling their product to not only facilitate the review process in the easiest way possible, and at the same time, recognize that everyone likes receiving free stuff and making new connections in the industry. Yet, and this is the kicker, any reviewer worth her/his salt can separate personal relationships and privileges from objective review scores.
Let’s take a typical blockbuster game marketing and review process. Typically, when an MMORPG is announced, say, 2-3 years before launch, a developer or publisher will hold some type of hands-off press preview event at a major conference to get the word out about their new game. As the hype train continues, the company will increase their presence at industry shows and host at least a couple of press-only, hands-on tours of the game leading up to release. They’ll likely also give out themed swag, beta keys, and eventually, review copies for enthusiast writers to play before launch.
The nature of this particular beast is that press and developers foster working relationships that sometimes turn into friendships, which may seem strange in an industry that is dependent upon clear boundaries between content creators and consumers. Still, and I’ll repeat this, any reviewer worth her/his salt can separate personal relationships from objective review scores. It’s an aspect of professionalism that I’d say is necessary in most any vocation where there are work connections mixed with friendships and other types of relationships. Even though I may receive a tote bag from a company, pick up a beta key at an event, play a free review copy and, unthinkably, make a new friend on the development team, I’m not going to give the game a good score if it’s crap. I’m not even going to give it a “better” score because its devs were nice to me. I might say in the review that “I would really have liked so-and-so to have done better with such-and-such feature because they seem to really want to deliver a good product” (and would do the opposite if they had a great game but were themselves jerks). The company’s actions, and my relationships with them, would not change, because I’m reviewing their game, not reviewing them. If they don’t like my verdict, tough pumpkins.
There are also checks in place to ensure the professionalism and integrity of the review process. At least on our site, if someone submitted a review that seemed overly positive (or negative), biased, or otherwise lacking substance for the opinions expressed therein, there would be red flags all over from everyone on staff. Furthermore, there are specific cases where developer-press relationships have become close enough that writers might choose to not engage with a particular company’s product for fear of being biased or stepping on toes. Because of my history with Perfect World and Cryptic Studios, for example, I simply don’t write about their games. Problem solved.
The second scenario, in which press websites are said to be biased towards certain games because of selling related advertising, is a bit easier to unpack. For most top-tier gaming websites, there’s a clear division between the editorial department and everything else. The people who do ad sales should most certainly not be the same people doing the writing. Because of this division, it’s not uncommon to see a website plastered with advertisements and banners for a particular game, even on the review page, regardless of its final score. Essentially, a proliferation of advertisements on a website does not necessarily equate with a bias towards a game.
One more niggling comment on this topic that may be out there is the idea that because writers are human, somehow all the swag, parties, and privileges must in some way influence their thought process when they go into a review, even if by a 0.1 score margin. To be quite honest, I’m not the biggest fan of swag, and while I do enjoy going to parties as much as the next person, I’d be just as happy attending a lecture-style preview by a developer and paying for my own lunch. The truth of the matter is that the video games industry, as any other field, has its own way of functioning, and free stuff, game shows, and schmoozing are all part of it. What I can do as an individual is make sure that I keep a professional outlook with all of my written work, irrespective of whatever kinds of bobbleheads or unwanted themed USB drives come across my desk. As in most other lines of work, being professional is the best way to keep up one’s credibility, and enthusiast reviews are no different in this respect.
I hope this clears up more of the misconception around game reviews in relation to bonuses and privileges. Keep commenting!
Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.