It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye
The drama du jour is served up by the combination of Darkfall (srs bzns PvP MMO) and Eurogamer.net (mostly solid games news site). I’d imagine if you’re reading this that you are already likely acquainted with the affair but for those of you who may have missed it, the summary goes as follows:
- Eurogamer review Darkfall and give it a very unflattering review.
- Darkfall devs complain publicly about the quality of the review on their forum. Highlights of the complaint are that, according to their logs, the reviewer only spent 2 hours playing the game and most of that was in character creation.
- Eurogamer responds, standing by their reviewer and his review but offer to re-review it with a different staff member.
- Darkfall comes right back with another post in which they’re very clear that they don’t want insinuate that Eurogamer are lying but this is somewhat disingenuous as they all but state outright that they believe this to be the case.
- Finally, the whole event comes to a (temporary?) close when the Darkfall devs categorically refuse a re-review from Eurogamer. Their rationale seems to be a little patchy however, they claim they don’t want the game to be re-reviewed because the old review will stay up until the new review is complete, but of course if the game isn’t re-reviewed then the old review will stand regardless. It’s a puzzle.
The review, is of course very hostile and is apparently factually inaccurate in some areas, what’s interesting is that none of the meatier criticisms of the game are unique to this article. Tasos rails that the reviewer didn’t give it a fair shake of the stick and was clearly biased against the game, but there are no new things being said in this article that haven’t already been pointed out by other reviewers. While Tasos and the Darkfall fans are complaining about the minutiae, the takeaway from the article is hard to dispute. Is it accurate? Possibly not. Does it accurately convey Mr Zitron’s feelings about the game? Very probably.
Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about Darkfall particularly but rather the relationship between the gaming press and the industry they cover.
As the ‘Gerstmanngate’ affair brought home to many gamers, the relationship between the journalists and the industry is a complex one. Both parties have a different brand of sweet, sweet candy that the other can’t do without. The usual balance is to indulge in some quid pro quo where marketing visibility is traded for marketing dollars. It’s not always quite as blatant as that, some places do hold their integrity in the face of some not-so-subtle persuasion from publishers to be more gushing, but at the end of the day, the publishers pay the meal ticket and integrity doesn’t taste very nice with ramen.
On the other side of the aisle, the publishers obviously have a strong interest in only seeing positive press for their product, a lot of money and a lot of people’s jobs can be on the line and one punk writer who wants to parade his rebel credentials can make a big mess of a carefully stage-managed launch. Because, as we’ve seen with the Eurogamer incident, this is news. Games sites aren’t talking about Darkfall right now, they’re talking about the 2/10 review and that’s not the context any developer wants their work framed in.
If I’ve given the impression that the gaming press is a bunch of craven hacks who can mostly be relied on to fellate publishers on demand, that’s not entirely fair. There are sites like that and for the most part you can spot them quite easily. Their news pages are entirely cut and paste jobs from press releases and no game gets less than an 8/10 except for easy targets from publishers who couldn’t afford mainstream advertising anyway. The rest of the industry however has to live with the uncomfortable truth that publishers spend more money on sites that they like and you can make publishers like you by writing nice things about their games. I’m sure that you, the astute reader, can spot the potential for a certain ambiguity of purpose in that.
Even when you go beyond the crass conversion of marketing budget to review scores, the publisher still has some aces up their sleeve. The gaming press is a very competitive business, there are hundreds of sites in all languages that are all serving much the same fare. For your site to stand out you want to have special things. You need access to publisher junkets, face time with devs, freebies to give away to your readership, exclusives etc because otherwise you’re republishing other people’s press releases and writing words into the internet that no-one has much reason to pay attention to. Whether you’re a huge portal like TenTonHammer or a tiny startup, you still need to compete with the entire rest of the internet for eyeballs. Again, as an editor, you get these perks by having a good relationship with the publishers and you get that good relationship…. by making sure that no-one in the publisher’s marketing dept is going to get a call from the CEO asking why his game got slammed on your site.
It’s why gaming editors all die at 35 years old.
So what does all of this have to do with Darkfall? Just that a hostile review is a newsworthy occurrence in itself. For Ed Zitron to have written the review and for Eurogamer to have published it, represents a rare conjunction in the symbiotic world of games journalism. Cheer on reviewers like Ed Zitron if you like the idea of integrity and impartiality in your games press – even if you disagree with his views on Darkfall.