Published on October 17th, 2014 | by gareth0
Game Journalism 101: Explaining The Method Behind The Madness
Last week I wrote that article about why we will not be covering a certain company much in the near future due to issues we had with them over their review and press process. Naturally this type of article got us a mixed response as some listed us is entitled whiners, while others in the industry applauded our stance and have cited similar frustrations with the company in question.
With this in mind I think it is important to look at how the review process typically works especially since this is been a big topic in the media in recent weeks Typically media is broken down into several categories such as online, print, broadcast, and so on. Online is a website or blog, print this typically newspapers and magazines, and broadcasters television and radio. While not exclusive, companies often hire PR firms now to handle the media process and various firms handle different types of outlets. For example, since we are a multi-media outlet, it is not entirely uncommon for us to receive promotional e-mails from different agencies regarding the same titles as they represent different ends of the coverage spectrum.
The way the process works is that outlets typically receive several e-mails in the months leading up to the release of a product. The e-mails are often trailers, images, summaries, and also opportunities for outlets to conduct interviews related to the product. There can also be the opportunity during certain times the year to meet with developers and publishers at various conventions for up close and hands-on time with the product.
Typically your publication is contacted by the various publicity outlets that constantly create and maintain lists of their media for coverage and mailing lists. This can constantly be changing as unfortunately reps do have a tendency to move on so often you may have to establish a relationship with a new representative and hopefully your prior rep often hands off the list of those that they have worked with as well as recommendations citing past positive experiences working with an outlet.
In some instances, a company often has to contact the company by her their website and request to be on the press list and this often happens with smaller or newer companies or for publications that have expanded into new areas of coverage.
Now is where the publicity dance gets a bit tricky. Publications provide coverage and after doing so provide links and other proof of coverage to the companies and the publicists. Companies can express their interest in covering future products, some companies automatically put you on the list and give you all the new releases that come out, and others evaluate things on a case-by-case basis but will ask you to specify which titles and formats you wish to receive materials in.
Some companies will also arrange a promotion at this point where you can have giveaways and other fan friendly events happen.
Typically speaking review materials are the cost of doing business. This is not to say they are required as we certainly do not require them however if we receive a product we evaluate it as we see it and do not factor in perks in the basis of our reviews… One very large movie site that I will not name at this point flat out told me that they openly solicit gifts and perks from studios. One famous example was several years ago when Roland Emmerich brought us his disastrous vision for “Godzilla”. The film was universally panned by the vast majority of critics worldwide however said site gave it glowing reviews and was later revealed to have accepted travel, top-notch accommodations, and other perks, to attend a screening in New York City of the film. Clearly this was a prearranged effort where a positive review was offered or at the very least expected in exchange for the gifts.
In Hollywood gifts are commonplace as any Academy member will tell you screeners of the films up for awards often come with very elaborate gift baskets as well as parties. One executive told me once plain and simple that you by your nominations and awards based on having the best ad campaigns.
In gaming you see all sorts of interesting conundrums arise. A gaming magazine will charge thousands of dollars for a prominent advertisement in a magazine but may also pay to get first images, trailers, announcements, and reviews of titles. This is always surprised me a bit because while I understand it is the nature the business I find the potential for a conflict of interest to be huge because it you have paid big bucks to get something first you’re far less likely to be overly critical when covering it especially when it’s somebody you’re hoping to do business with long-term who also happens to be dropping thousands of dollars in advertising on your doorstep on a regular basis.
We do not accept paid reviews for products and we have always had a policy of being fair and objective regardless of whether a company is big or small, has provided perks are not. In the nature of publications receiving review material, part of it is based on the fact that publishers want to have reviews for their products out when the product hits the market. They use reviews as a marketing tool in order to push sales. Some publishers get material before the product ships, while others get them on the day the ship or soon after. This is partially because after the initial wave of reviews companies like to see an ongoing wave of reviews continuing to come in for a product as it helps to show that it is a fresh, viable, and exciting product.
Some companies are unable to provide review material to all the outlets that request them as naturally, supplies can be limited. One companies handled the publicity directly themselves this was not as much of an issue as it is now that many of them have hired PR firms to do this duty. I can also tell you about numerous situations where a publicity firm has said they do not have evaluation material available at this time only to have material arrive in the mail the same day or via e-mail directly from the publisher. This is often based on supply, market reach, and prior relationship with the publisher. I know a publicist who in a moment of frustration over what he perceived were highly unfair reviews for the last Duke Nukem game one on social networks and implied that they would be keeping record of those who gave negative reviews to the game and as such would be evaluated differently for future releases when it’s determined who does and doesn’t Review material.
This is not the way the industry operates that being said if a publication is constantly tearing product to pieces and being unfair then you can understand why companies may not want to solicit their coverage especially when they have so many other options.
One of the biggest issues is determining exactly how much of a reach a publication has. Alexa, Compete, and Quantcast, are big tools in the industry as they provide a good estimation of traffic for a website. However there are several sites, ours included who are not read correctly by Alexa and such as not even 10% of traffic is accurately collected. This is often remedied by sending direct stats to various publicists and as we’ve attempted to do place custom code into the header for the site but this can be erratic and as we learned recently, any time you move to a new server, your traffic counts reset unit can take 90 days to get new traffic estimation.
This is absolutely critical because when it comes time to dole out review material publicist are basically taught run the site through these outlets and determine the ranking for them based on traffic. If they are not able to rank your site properly this can and will affect how many publications are dealt with. We also have a magazine, a syndicated radio show, and a weekly newspaper article, as part of our network as well as syndication. This can provide a real nightmare as many companies simply cannot get past using the web ranking systems to determine the overall reach of an outlet. The site is one small part of what we do with a large combined overall reach.
This is where some publications have areas of frustration with certain publishers. Publishers come to you asking for coverage because based on the information they have gathered prior to their initial contact they value your outlet to be of worth to promote their materials. From time to time outlets are encouraged to go above and beyond the normal coverage with reassurances that review material, interviews, contests, and what have you will be provided a later date. Some companies cut the run after they get their coverage and this is what leads to some potential issues down the road.
People will say well your responsibility is to cover these games regardless of whether you get anything or not. While we agree that is true there is also an established pattern of business that needs to be looked at. We get flooded with e-mails asking for coverage for games, hardware, accessories, DVDs, movies, events, and Kickstarter projects. While we attempt to cover as much of it as we can the simple facts are that even with two offices, regional staff throughout the country as well as in Europe and Canada, you simply cannot get to it all in a timely manner.
As such you have to prioritize the information as it comes in. The matter how much we expand our coverage team there are always more request then you can immediately get to. Although technology has made things simplified, writing, posting, editing, recording and publishing as well as syndication does take time. People say to me oh radios easy you just have to go on a talk for 20 to 30 min. and you’re done. Nothing could be further from the truth as there is a huge amount of research that needs to be done as you have to decide which products or topics are going to make your list as time is limited.
Then you have to take the air checks, links, and what hav done and send them off to the various representatives.
I’m not saying this is overly difficult rather it is time-consuming especially when there are multiple titles to be dealt with as you want to make sure that your coverage is done in a timely fashion.
As such you can guess it is human nature and good business to make sure that the companies who have regularly supported you with review material are given priority in the review status. Not only is this good business this is simple courtesy as if you have been sent a product for evaluation you should strive to make sure that the review is done regardless of whether or not the product was sent to you solicited or unsolicited.
It is known that certain people in Hollywood are given considerations to provide quotes for films before they’re released. I’ve always found this funny as in our two main markets we are forbidden from posting any movie reviews before the film opens. When we ask about this were told that is what the studios want yet you can go on any publication and seek countless reviews up ahead of time that the studio seems to not mind or do anything about.
The same could hold true with the gaming industry. I am not going to say that companies are paying for reviews but I am not so naïve to believe that that doesn’t happen or at least fall into a gray area. I have been doing film and game coverage since I was in high school and prior to starting the site I worked at both Monolith and Sierra. I saw all sorts of things that honestly could make a very interesting book in regards to how games were evaluated, marketed, and developed, as well is how the media was handled. Larger outlets would regularly request multiple copies of the title upon release for their office staff. While only one person would be doing the review, 25 to 50 copies or more of said titles would be shipped to various outlets for coverage. The result of this is often that several smaller outlets can be lost in the shuffle. In recent years code to download the games has been offered more and more as this cuts down on the shipping cost as well as the limited physical supplies products that publicist often have to contend with.
So when you consider the topic of game journalism you are looking at a very long and complicated issue. Yes, there are expectations that differ from outlet to outlet. That being said there is also an established method of doing business and standard rules of conduct that can often band and fall into some murky areas. When we announced that we would not cover a certain company people said that we were only going to suffer as it would cost us a large number of readers. The fact is, our traffic is been up since we posted the article despite the publisher having two high-profile releases out. I’m not saying this to simply do a see I told you so, but rather to point out that there are several other options for coverage and as such we like many other publications as well is the publicist prioritize their coverage and handling of each other based on several factors not the least of which is the past and future relationship between them.
Some larger and most often corporate outlets put the financial factors first. When you have a big office on Wilshire Avenue staffed with hundreds of people, you have a large overhead that as such has to be maintained. In the constantly evolving field of gaming journalism revenue streams change of time. This is why you’ve seen so many publishers big and small disappearing from the industry.
It is those that stay consistent and stay within themselves and their means that have survived and continued to grow. We’ve gone past 12 years and have growth every single year partly because I believe we stay consistent with our message. We are not a big corporate mega-site, we are an outlet that has grown into multimedia channels but remains consistent by being fair and objective and not run into corporate cash first basis.
Yes we have companies that we do not like to do business with due to issues from the past. Guess what, every company on the planet has people they like to and do not like to do business with. Some are forced to do business with one another out of the necessity of the industry and this is much the way they game journalism industry works.
Technology has allowed people to put sites together much easier than they could a decade earlier. As such publicists are inundated with new outlets touting their worth and asking for review materials which is put a further strain on their resources. As such publicists often look at traffic rankings, reputation, prior interactions, and longevity in determining the level of cooperation an outlet will get. Some come on big, demand the world, only to crash and burn a few years later. Others start small but growing year-to-year and while they do not have the gaudy stats, there is something to be said about longevity and being it may able to maintain a core audience.
In closing, somebody said to me that journalists should simply go out and buy their own games. While I found it an interesting idea my question to them would be how many people can regularly purchase several games a week. The answer to this would be wealthy individuals and corporate sites as such this is where you start the slippery slope again of finance becoming involved. There is no easy answer to this situation other than journalism outlets need to remember to be fair and consistent and publicist also need to be more transparent and realize that publications do have options and just because you represent big company A you cannot expect outlets to get all excited because you send them a press release especially when time and time again they provide coverage which let’s be honest, is a form of free advertising and do not get considerations in return which have become an industry standard.
It is not a pay for play situation it is a matter of this is how business is done and common courtesy, as those who do not demand payment for positive reviews will tell you that it is supposed to be a mutually beneficial relationship were companies provide outlets information and review materials and in turn are given the publicity and an honest evaluation of the final product. It is unfortunate that to some, corporate greed has marred what for the most part is a very good and mutually beneficial system for all involved.