About Us | Game Reviews | Feature Articles | Podcast | Best Work | Forums | Shop | Review Game

Payola!

Brad Gallaway's picture

Need for Speed: Most Wanted Screenshot

Although I haven't talked much about my upcoming book Speaking in Forked Tongues, expect that to change fairly soon. I just sent a completed, revised draft to my publisher for editing, so it's one step closer to being a readable thing out for sale.

Not much more to report at the moment, but I'll be posting updates on this as they happen.

I was listening to a podcast recently (and I've heard this same thing multiple times from other people over the last week or so) and I was shaking my head at the way the speakers were discussing recent Events Which Shall Not Be Named. Over and over, they were so insistent that reviewers are "getting paid off" for good scores.

Look, I'm not denying that there are pressures on writers and websites out there—it's pretty clear that certain outlets need ad revenue to survive, and smaller sites often rely on review copies of games in order to be able to provide timely coverage. When bad scores are awarded to certain games, there's always a risk that advertising will be discontinued (read: income lost) or someone will be removed from a distribution list (read: no advance or free copies).

The simple fact is that anyone who writes about games today is at the mercy of the people who publish them, and their PR representatives. It's not like a reviewer can go around uncovering some early dirt on an upcoming title unless someone connected with its production gives access. Under such circumstances, it's just a reality that everyone involved in games writing (publishers, PR, websites, writers) has one form of tension or another with everyone else.

A brief outline: Publishers want good scores for their games in order to promote sales. PR people want to give free copies and swag to outlets which will be favorable, or at least fair. Websites want readers in order to generate revenue, and they need coverage of whatever's in demand that day. Writers want to earn a living and have their work seen, so they need to write about what's hot.

This all forms an easily-understood web of interconnectedness which definitely has implications on various degrees of honesty and/or agendas, and I'm sure I could write another thousand words on that. However, that's not my point at the moment.  No, the reason I bring all this up is that I think the common misconception of reviewers being bought off outright needs to be put to bed, permanently.

Although I'm certainly not omniscient (hello, @failnaut!) I've been writing reviews and been in the game sphere for around twelve years. During that time I've never personally heard of or been approached by any developer, publisher, or PR person and been propositioned with anything in return for a good score. In fact, my experience has been just the opposite—I've had PR people go out of their way to say that they don't expect any certain number, just that I should be fair, and nothing else.

Halo 4 Screenshot

Of course, I'm not saying that everyone in the games industry is innocent. If someone receives some cool stuff and has great drinks on the tab of a publisher, it's realistic to think that person might be a little more favorable towards their game when it comes out. If someone depends on the revenue from their site to pay their writers (and to feed their family, too) then I think it's possible that a tough viewpoint might be softened in order to maintain a good relationship with the people who pay the bills.

Sometimes this sort of bias comes in another way—it can sometimes be difficult to be brutal about a game that might deserve it when you know the people who made it on a personal level. Speaking about this last example, I've had to recuse myself from a few reviews over the years because I felt I was too friendly with the developers. Honestly, after spending so long in games, it's almost inevitable that relationships of that nature will occur.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that people are people. Humans are fallible. They can be swayed (consciously or not) and there's not a single reviewer out there who's a totally unbiased and impartial machine able to turn out effective analyses and criticism. Given that no one is perfect, I think it's worth saying that it's up to the reader to gauge the worth of any particular review, or of the reliability of any given reviewer.

As an example, there's one particular writer who I've followed over the years (and no, I'm not going to say who it is) who consistently gives a good score to big-name games that don't deserve it. This person "takes one for the team" more often than not, probably for financial reasons relating to their affiliated outlet,  and when I see this particular name on a review, I immediately discredit it because it's pretty clear (to me, anyway) that the writer leans that way.

However, it's not like I think this person is being "paid off" by some publisher showing up with an envelope full of money (lulz!) or even that any threats are made about revoking ad revenue. It's probably more along the lines that this person lives with certain pressures and responsibilities on their shoulders, and that colors how they write. Hell, maybe they even believe what they're writing, and they just have really bad taste? Who knows. Regardless, rather than trying to call them out on this, I'm fine marking them down on my "do not read" list and moving on to find someone who suits me a little better.

Reviewing games is a squishy thing with a lot of gray areas and ethical conundrums, but with the exception of a few very isolated instances, I'm of the feeling that most people doing this work are doing it because they love it, and they have good intentions. Maybe sometimes things go a little awry, or maybe someone's being a little too nice for one reason or another, but that's a world apart from being "paid off" for a favorable review.

...And besides, ask anyone who's been doing this for a while and they'll tell you that there's no money in reviewing, crooked or otherwise. Anybody with flexible morals and a desire for fast cash? They get into politics.

Lucasfilm sells Star Wars to Disney

I think pretty much everybody on Earth has heard about this by now, but I have to say that hearing about Disney buying LucasFilm didn't bother me in the least.

George Lucas has proven QUITE CLEARLY that he is not fit to handle his own properties, and if flying an X-Wing over to the Mouse House is what it takes to get some decent Star Wars films, then I'm all for it.

The upcoming Episodes 7, 8 and 9? They can't be worse than the last three Lucas gave us.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   3DS   Vita   Wii U   Nintendo DS   PSP   PC  
Developer(s): Criterion   Bungie   343 Industries  
Series: Need for Speed   Halo  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Business  

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Great Piece for a podcast

I actually came to this site in my quest for trustworthy reviewers, especially to discover games among those low-profile titles that are easily dismissed by IGn and the like. There is only a handful of reviewers who give their opinion without bending into what the publisher (or the fanboys) expect, like Jim Sterling or Tom Chick, and of course, like the respectable people at Gamecritics.

For instance, your GOTY discussions is the only meaningful GOTY discussion for me on the net, all the rest could basically be called "sales of the year".

I would love to hear the other guys on this during a podcast!

Yeah, I doubt anyone's buying as such

I do find the notion of straight up bribes implausible - the gaming press doesn't have that little integrity. And that games journalists keep hearing that certainly explains a lot of the annoyance with the issue I've spotted.

That said, I think they still significantly influence most games unless they shit the bed. Look at all the taste testing (Soda, Wine, etc) studies where so much of the enjoyment comes from things that have nothing to do with the product - whether it's your favorite brand, or more expensive, or whatever. Even people like doctors aren't immune, and they have a lot more objective basis for their work. They've cracked down on pharmaceutical marketing these past few years, because even the stupid stuff eventually worked. Sure, much of of the reason the pharmaceutical stuff worked was because of unclear judgement calls between similar products, but (beyond the obviously awful) that is a hell of a lot of game reviewing.

To take a game I recently played - Jet Set Radio HD. A bunch of the reviews were "This game hasn't aged well, look at the controls/camera/design decisions". This is nonsense on a certain level; all of those things were issues with the game when was released. (I played it then as well and remember). With such good visuals, music, environment, and basically everything else it outweighed the bad for me (then and now). But that is really a judgement call - and how you make it affects not just considering whether the good of X outweighs the bad of Y, but how bad Y is in your actual experience (and how good X is). And, well, maybe the newness of so much of what it did back then affected the way the judgement call went to differentiate reviews then from now, even though the game aged so little that with some texture work it could have been released as new today*.

And hype, relationships, and the environment in which you review something (I understand the anti-piracy justification for those "fly people in to review games on site" but I'm not sure they're a good idea) are going to affect that judgement call. I think the relationships are a particular thing here - on the game industry side, journalists work with professionals, often face to face, while on the consumer/gamer side, they work with ... well, the internet. Particularly for larger sites, which will work with more and more professionals and more PR and more and more of, well, the internet - I know which side I'm going to be more inclined to be friendly with.

* Except for the inclusion of Dragula. Oh, late 90s/early 2000s.

Comparison with the wine industy

Yes, I would like to add a few things about the comparison with the wine industry, being French and all. The wine review business used to be exactly like the game reviews are today: reviewers were offered gifts and invitations, ads in their magazine etc.

Everything changed when an American named Parker founded "The Wine Spectator" with no advertising and where every wine would be tested blindly (it is unfortunately not possible to find a equivalent of this practice for games), that is tasted without knowing the name of the wine. The results were astounding. Some completely unknown wines scored better than the most expensive bottles. We are far from this revolution in games, but websites such as yours, with no ad revenue and ethical reviewers, are the closest we can get to the wine spectator

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Code of Conduct

Comments are subject to approval/deletion based on the following criteria:
1) Treat all users with respect.
2) Post with an open-mind.
3) Do not insult and/or harass users.
4) Do not incite flame wars.
5) Do not troll and/or feed the trolls.
6) No excessive whining and/or complaining.

Please report any offensive posts here.

For more video game discussion with the our online community, become a member of our forum.

Our Game Review Philosophy and Ratings Explanations.

About Us | Privacy Policy | Review Game | Contact Us | Twitter | Facebook |  RSS
Copyright 1999–2010 GameCritics.com. All rights reserved.