Grumpy Gamer: Phat Swag and Bias
Wherein the author asserts that favorable attitudes cannot be bought, but must be earned.
Okay, full disclosure: I have received stuff from game developers as a result of being a gaming journalist.
Xerin just wrote an article defending his own journalistic integrity, and I will vouch for him. When something is crap, Xerin is going to call it crap, the same as any other TenTonHammer writer, and none of us gets paid by developers to write laudatory things about their games.
That being said, game journalists do get more from the developers than the average gamer. Developers depend on the gaming media to spread the word about their games, to build a market for them and generate (hopefully) positive buzz about their product. To that end, game journalists often get preferential status when developers start giving out closed-beta passes. We also occasionally get free product keys for games or expansions. This is absolutely not unique to TenTonHammer - all major gaming sites get these. If a writer denies getting free games, free expansions or preferential treatment for beta access, he's either writing for a smalltime blog the developers haven't yet noticed, or is lying.
One might make the argument that getting free product keys would make the author more inclined to write positive things about that game, or about that company. Sure, that might be true for the sleazy neophyte blogger who doesn't yet realize that he's not being shown some kind of insider favoritism by the developers, but is instead being given the tools to do some cheap viral advertising for them, and for far less than the cost of an expensive ad campaign through a professional agency.
The rest of us know better, and are more or less innoculated against that kind of thinking. I would direct your attention to our very own Lewis "Persistent Worlds" Burnell.
Back when the Elder Scrolls Online was still in the final stages of beta, ZeniMax Online handed out some free product keys to those of us in the gaming media. I had already purchased the pre-order and didn't require the key they sent me, so I offered it up to the TenTonHammer staff. Lewis claimed it, and I was pleased because I had hoped to win him over with the game. It didn't work. He still tore it apart without mercy, and hates the game to this very day. Even with the free product key.
As for me... like I said, I had already bought the game. I was already saying positive things about it because I enjoy it. A free product key isn't going to change my mind, because I'm already a fan. That's why TenTonHammer staffers generally write consistently about the same games. We're fans of the games, and our obvious bias makes us more interested and therefore more able to provide salient, in-depth content. That's why you won't see me writing articles about annoying games like WildStar or Guild Wars 2, and why you won't see Lewis writing about any games that are actually any good.
There's another avenue through which many gaming journalists receive special items from developers: convention swag. At PAX and E3, every year, developers set up booths and give away free shit to anyone who stops by. Thousand and thousands of people attend these events, and all of them get bags full of game-developer loot.
Game journalists are more or less required to attend these events. Not all of us, thankfully - just the thought of walking into a giant room full of thousands of yammering, clamoring people, loud noises and flashing lights makes me want to go hide in a dark closet and hyperventilate into a paper bag - but any major gaming site will send a team to cover all the big announcements, interview the big-name developers and get hands-on experience with upcoming games. Reuben goes to pretty much all of them and then often gets ill for a few days after (because he gets almost no sleep during the entire event, after wading through a thick stew of airborne nerd-germs all day). I imagine he also walks away with bags full of shiny game loot, because everyone does at those things.
Most of the time, this isn't anything real big - t-shirts, lanyards, mouse pads, posters and other plastic tchotchkes of limited value to those outside of gaming culture. Sometimes it's codes for in-game items. When Star Wars: the Old Republic was making its post-launch PAX East debut, our convention team brought back a bunch of codes for in-game Taun Fawn mini-pets and gave them out to the writers on the SWTORHUB team. Since I was writing for that site at the time, I got one of the codes without having to suffer through a hellish crowded convention hall.
Going back even further, though, my work on TenTonHammer's old LotRO sub-site has earned me some interesting items from Turbine. Better stuff than they give away at conventions, I'm certain.
About four years ago, when I started writing here, I was solely focused on the Lord of the Rings Online. I wrote a ton of guides for everything in the game, plus editorials and other stuff. I was (and still am) a genuine fan of the game, and I would have been writing a lot of that stuff anyway on the community site or a personal blog. Eventually, my writing got noticed by the team at Turbine. Even after the hub-site got shuttered and I wasn't producing regular LotRO content anymore, I would still write about every major content update, and do reviews of the expansions. That's when they started sending me stuff through the mail.
When Riders of Rohan was announced, the Turbine PR team sent me this big green Rohirric flag, which is now hanging on the wall near my computer:
It came in a box packed with a bunch of straw, and came with a cool Riders of Rohan card which I have since tucked away somewhere safe/lost. They also sent me a product key for the most expensive pre-order package, which I had already bought anyway with my own money. As I have done with every LotRO expansion.
When it came time to review Riders of Rohan in October of 2012, I gave it fairly high marks. Not because I got a cool giant flag, but because it was a genuinely great expansion to the game. It was enormous, well-constructed, and added an innovative mounted combat system that is unparalleled in any other game so far.
By the way, that old review system used a weird and sometimes confusing combination of letter and number grades - we assign something a "B+" when we write it, and it translates to "90" when the article is published. I always felt the letter grades felt fair, but the number grades often seemed a little generous.
I also heaped praise on the soundtrack - after a couple of expansions' worth of less-than-stellar musical scoring, they brought back Chance Thomas, who had done a fantastic job with the original release and hit a home run with the Riders of Rohan score. Well, word got around to Mr. Thomas that I said some nice things about his work. He sent me a personal thank-you email, and Turbine's PR team sent me a soundtrack CD.
It was never my intention to score a free CD for writing something gushy. I said good things about the soundtrack because I genuinely feel it was well-done, and because I noticed people commenting on it in-game and elsewhere. The community - me included - was glad to have our guy back at the helm making the awesome music again. To be honest, the email from Mr. Thomas meant a lot more to me than the CD.
A little later in the year, when the first Hobbit movie was about to hit the theatres, they sent me this:
It's etched with a Green Dragon logo, and it's huge and heavy. Turbine's PR guys sent it through the mail shortly before Christmas 2012. Last year, they sent a code for two free tickets to go see the second Hobbit movie in the theatre. This is all Warner Brothers stuff more than it is Turbine, I reckon. The Hobbit movies echo down through all of their Tolkien-related properties, so there's a good bit of cross-promotion going on whenever the movies are released. I expect there will be something similar later this year when the final movie comes out.
Does this mean the Grumpy Gamer is in Turbine's pocket? Not goddamn likely.
If anything, I feel compelled to hold LotRO to a somewhat higher standard than I hold other games, and when they make a misstep, it's my duty to point it out angrily. I'm still a fan, and unabashedly so, but I'm also a critic. Beer mugs and flags don't change how a game plays. And I've said some less-than-flattering things about the game over the years when I have encountered things I felt were sub-standard or dodgy. I will freely admit my bias when it comes to LotRO (or SWTOR, or TESO, etc), but those biases existed before the swag.
The cool loot is nice and all, but I'm going to say the things I'm going to say, regardless of the swag. That's how TenTonHammer rolls.