One of game industry’s oft-ignored truths that gets conveniently shifted into shadows — is the cozy relationship between the publisher, distributor and the reviewer. It exists perhaps in all mediums — films or music but in a field where first reviews out of the embargo matter from a popularity standpoint, this problem only gets exacerbated in games.
The Developer Angle
It’s an industry-wide accepted fact now that companies give out bonuses if a game achieves Metascore of 80 or 85 plus. It was infamously documented by Obsidian who missed the 85 mark for the excellent Fallout New Vegas and thus did not get bonus. There have been numerous examples of this which only serve to remind that the problem doesn’t just affect those on the reviewing side. Developers are affected by the scores as much as reviewers are. It’s a sad truth when developers have to resort to spamming Metacritic with 10/10 scores not simply because they’re biased but because they just want to earn their bonus on a game that they worked so hard for.
If the developer-publisher relationship has some rotten truths, the other side involving journalists and reviewers turns out to be the different side of the same coin.
Yet, this uncomfortable truth, that many sites often deny to the point of reiterating isn’t as simple as it seems. The relationship between a publisher, its crony– the distributor and the reviewers can at its best be that of a supplier-buyer, each of whom have their own vested self-interest in the exchange (of the game to be reviewed) they are committed to stand for. At its worst, it resembles the relationship between a captor and a hostage where the publisher threatens to stop giving out any review copies of the games — or blacklist them as we call it.
Sometimes, the coziness of the relationship between journalists and publishers comes out in the open and the journalists get mocked for the “lack of integrity” and being “sell-outs” like the Geoff Keighley-Doritos fiasco or it can quickly turn ugly like the unfortunate Lauren Wainwright incident.
Yet the larger truths always gets concealed behind the more obvious details. By simple political theory, we are always at hostage to the greater powers, no matter how benevolent they may be. Corporates, governments, even your boss. We all work for them and the illusion that they need us is a delicate one that they nonetheless manage to maintain. This is the case with the publisher-reviewer relationship as well. You get the feeling you are in an equal relationship where the act of helping each other is above individual gains.
Of course, that’s just bullshit. Because the publishers will always be bigger than any one of us and if ever things go awry and the scenario supports them — like a game that broke six Guinness records, they will pull the trigger. The reputation hit that a publisher gets for blacklisting one of the 1000 gaming sites is negligible compared to what impact it has on that individual site if the publisher blacklists it.
This is really not a problem for the big sites. Blocking off review copies for big sites like IGN, GameSpot or Polygon can only be detrimental to the publisher’s efforts and can even result in negative publicity if the reviewers spread the word via the social media. The worst they can do is blacklist a specific reviewer like Konami blacklisted Destructoid’s Jim Sterling and even then they appear like childish acts of a kid who didn’t get his way.
What I see happening here is two sides — reviewers and developers being pitted against one another by the publisher who holds each as hostage if things go awry either way, the loss of either the individual developer or the reviewer not being their concern.
The scenario gets more complex the more specialized scenarios you explore. In a country like India, where not every publisher has dedicated offices and PR teams, the role of the distributor — who would becomes pretty much a glorified middlemen in countries like ours — gain an even greater importance.
The problem with that? The distributors are complete “businessmen” (emphasis on the quotes) who have no fucking clue on how games work.
E-xpress India is a popular distributor for companies like Ubisoft, Rockstar, 2K and in any given year probably has the catalogue to some of the most sought-after games.
Now, in India, we do not get our review copies in advance like the reviewers in West do. It’s partly because they are shipped late and the distributors sit on them for too long to give out review copies generally on the release day. So much for the “time advantage” the reviewers in India get.
Our relationship with E-xpress was hunky dory because we hadn’t reviewed a big game release negatively. Until BioShock Infinite happened. In our trio review, one of our reviewers, Sahil, this site’s founder, no less gave Infinite a 5/10. Low score for a game that was receiving acclaim almost everywhere else. But he cited valid reasons in the review.
Next day, we get a call from the PR of E-xpress and are flat-out asked to change the score. So much for freedom of speech.
If the fact that we got our BioShock Infinite copies three days after it released wasn’t already an insult, they wanted us to change ONE negative score out of three scores (the other being a 9 and an 8).
We moved on without altering the scores but we learnt the lesson: Even here in India, scores mattered for the distributors and in the absence of a publisher to oversee, the distributor was the sole supplier with zero gaming sense and they could very well have a reason to blacklist us in the future.
Turns out we eventually gave them a reason.
Los Santos Blues
We reviewed Grand Theft Auto V a while back and it was once again a review where three of our reviewers discussed what Rockstar’s latest entry in their crime sandbox juggernaut of a franchise was like. We mostly agreed on few points but differed on some other core points.
The final scores were a 10/9/7.5. That averages to 8.8/10, in case you’re reaching for the calculators. It’s a glowing score that topped off a mostly glowing review of a game that despite its flaws is still as fun as GTA always was.
We weren’t exactly worried that one of the scores was 7.5/10. Even in an industry as driven by inflated scores, we expected nothing to happen. A week passed and we didn’t receive any call from E-xpress forgetting all about it.
Today morning, we got a call from them however and for our GTA V review –they blacklisted us from all publishers games that come under their umbrella. Not just Rockstar but Ubisoft, 2K — the whole lot of them.
It’s a kamikaze where they blacklist one of the two popular gaming (the other being IVG) outlets this country has while not caring for the repercussions.
Worse, it’s for an offense we literally cannot understand. Blacklisted for a 7.5? For a review whose overall score was 8.8? Is this what the industry, even if this is local has devolved into?
One where even a 7.5/10 review is considered “negative”. Is the blame to be put on those who give the 7s or those who inflate it? Or is the blame just in the eye of the beholder(that eye being possibly myopic).
One where distributors — who don’t either play or make games by profession and at are best glorified middlemen in country like ours get to call all the shots.
I had heard stories of behind the scenes manipulation happening, but witnessing it first-hand has just made me realize how rotten things are.
I’m not the biggest fan of corporates, but apparently that’s the only language these people understand. So, let me wear a tie and a suit, and speak the “corporate talk” and lay down some straight, cold realities for the publishers in their style:
To Rockstar Games
GTA needs no publicity here and our belated review came long after everybody who wanted to play it had already bought it. But it’ll add to the pile of controversies (not the Jack Thompson kind either) you have already found yourself into.
You surely don’t want to add more controversy after all the countless criticisms for its unwarranted and poorly written “satire” on gender issues. Or how the series has devolved from a fun satire into a childish parody ?
To The Innocents — Ubisoft, 2K and the rest
As for Ubisoft, 2K and all the other publishers in the roster of E-xpress, you are the innocent party here who has nothing to do with this and YET you have been harmed by this action of E-xpress. The game concerned was not even yours and yet your games get barred from being reviewed here(not that it’ll stop us as we all love Rayman Legends or Splinter Cell ).
This shady incident has only ended up giving us a ground reality of how rotten things can get. Even in India, a country where gaming is a premium hobby for the upper middle-class, this has showed us that when it comes to “The Wrathful Ire of The Master” also known as “The Publisher”, we are just mere minions and the illusion of freedom of speech and that “reviewers are important too” are just smokes and mirrors companies employ while the sailing is smooth.
When it gets rough and scores do not go as expected, you can be assured that the gun is always pointed one way.