Bought and Sold? - How Game Developers and Media Work Together
I’ve worked as a writer, editor and community manager for Ten Ton Hammer for 9 years. During that time, I’ve come across many gamers who assume all sorts of things about how games media works. There are tons of misconceptions, so I thought I’d lay some of the most popular ones to rest.
Let me begin with one big caveat—every gaming journalist’s experience is different. Every media outlet is different. Ask one of my teammates for their perspective, and it won’t be quite the same as mine. Ask someone from a different media outlet... same story. This article reflects my experience with one MMO network and a number of developers over the years.
“Game developers buy good reviews from you guys!”
I chose this misconception to die first because it’s hands down the most oft-repeated. If I write a positive review it’s a safe bet that someone who doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the game is going to show up and post a comment about how developers have paid Ten Ton Hammer for good press.
Not true. Not here. Not ever.
When I write a positive review it’s because—surprise!—I actually happen to like the game. Yes, I’m going to do my best to objectively criticize those things that don’t work as well as they should, but if I found the game entertaining that’s going to be reflected in my review.
Are there media outlets that basically rewrite press releases in their own words and hardly ever say a critical word about the games they cover? My sources say yes. And it’s really not difficult to figure out which outlets they are. (No, I won’t point fingers. Just pay attention and you’ll figure it out easily enough.)
“But there’s an ad on your site for the game you just gave a good review for....”
That may well be—sites like Ten Ton Hammer are funded by advertising, and game developers get their games noticed by advertising on sites that cater to gamers; it’s a symbiotic relationship. But I have never once had anyone in senior management say to me, “We need to write good things about this game because the developer is advertising on our site.” In fact, I wouldn’t do it. Advertising is important to the continued success of this network, but so is integrity.
“Well, but... don’t developers wine and dine gaming journalists?”
Yeah, they do. (And that woo-the-press dynamic is not exclusive to the gaming industry.) Developers will invite journalists to parties at industry events like E3, and there’s no doubt that it’s because they want to win the journalists’ favor. We also attend special press events hosted by dev companies during key times in their development cycle—pre-launch cheerleading sessions where the developers show us what they think is cool about their game in hopes that we’ll think it’s cool, too. They grant us interviews with key figures on their team. They treat us to everything from hors d'oeuvres to the full monty—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and drinks. We get swag, too, which is one of the perks (or curses, if you're averse to stuff cluttering up your home office.)
This lunch box is press swag from SOE Live. No, you can't have it. I put in long hours for that metal box.
I was at a press event for Sigil Games Online prior to Vanguard’s launch 7 years ago. SGO flew us out to San Diego, put us up in a a swanky hotel, provided a continental breakfast and Mexican lunch buffet, and took us out for dinner and drinks at a restaurant in the Gaslight District. The following day, they herded us onto a charter bus and drove us down to Rosarito, Mexico where we had lunch and then retired to sip margaritas and ride ATVs on the beach. (The header image you see above is a photo from that event.) It’s the most elaborate (and likely expensive) press event I’ve attended (my colleagues definitely have stories, too), but it didn’t stop me from tearing into Vanguard and pointing out its many flaws. It hasn't stopped me from being critical of Brad McQuaid (former Sigil CEO), either.
So, is this bad for the industry? Opinions vary widely. Personally, I don’t think the point-and-wink show that is press events is the awful form of collusion between devs and journalists that some would have you believe. It goes beyond a simple networking opportunity (although it definitely is that), but it's not a nefarious means of buying journalistic favor, either. Developers want us to like their games, and in catering to the gaming press, and making sure we're well informed about their title, they’re investing in that cause. They also want us to like them, not only as game developers but as people. And that really is what it boils down to at any event—behind the PR spin, it eventually becomes clear that we’re just a bunch of gamers talking about the thing we love, games. Do developers hope we’ll be influenced to say good things about them? Of course. But I think they also hope to be able to show us how hard they’ve worked on their title, and how invested they are as a team—to humanize the people behind the game.
Keep in mind, this attempt to woo journalists can work both ways—sometimes the impression the dev team leaves isn’t a favorable one. Sometimes we notice that the team seems bored with their own game, or worried about unresolved development issues. (That was definitely true of the Sigil team and Vanguard, to name just one example.) There can be an undercurrent of anxiety beneath any ra-ra fest, and that leaves us journalists chatting amongst ourselves about what’s gone wrong with the game instead of what’s going right. Press bashes are not without inherent risks for the developer, because the insight the journalists gain isn’t always positive and, after years in the business, our bullshit detectors are finely tuned.
It should surprise no one that game developers and gaming media work together—after all, one can’t exist without the other. We’re all human, and we journalists do form professional relationships and even friendships with developers. In the absence of those relationships, members of the gaming media would be woefully uninformed. At the end of the day, it’s information that we’re after—what are the developer’s intentions, what’s their philosophy, who is their audience? We take that information and form opinions (yes, opinions—all reviews are subjective). At the end of the day, regardless of my interactions with developers, it’s on me to honestly share my experiences with a game. Any good gaming journalist does just that, and any good game developer expects them to.