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.
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.
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.
- So Videogames Ep. 329: Just So You Don’t Know - March 24, 2023
- Dredge Review - March 23, 2023
- So Videogames Ep. 328: What About Marlene? - March 17, 2023
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »