Game reviews — Be nice or be cut off
For a video-game journalist, access is everything.
Video-game companies give out review copies of their products. They can hook up interviews with the top executives. They're the gatekeepers.
But are video-game journalists being forced to trade objectivity for access?
This week, Dan "Shoe" Hsu, editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly, called out three companies who cut the magazine off after getting negative reviews.
"Less-than-totally-positive reviews don't sit well with those who are used to those press-release rehashes," Hsu wrote. "Combine that with our candid reviews and you can imagine the consequences that we have to face constantly."
Hsu said readers of EGM can expect little or no coverage of:
• Anything related to "Mortal Kombat."
• Anything from Sony's sports department.
• Anything from publisher Ubisoft.
What Hsu is talking about isn't new.
Early in December, there were rumors that GameSpot Editorial Director Jeff Gerstmann lost his job over a negative review of "Kane and Lynch." GameSpot denies this.
Sony severed ties with game review Web site Kotaku.com for running a story based on "unofficial" (i.e. not Sony PR goons) sources.
Hsu's decision to call out the developers is unusual, according to Joystiq.com.
"Editors are usually reluctant to publicly name names in these situations, for fear of pissing off publishers further," Joystiq.com wrote.
Maybe companies decided long ago they were better off without serious journalism. Look at the sales figures for "Assassin's Creed." According to a report from VGChartz.com, it was one of the top 10 games for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2007, even though it got some mediocre reviews.
Ubisoft's marketing juggernaut carried the day for this overrated title, without help from EGM. Bad for consumers, good for Ubisoft's bottom line.
Can the video-game industry and good journalism co-exist? Yes, but only if the journalists don't lose their spine. EGM's stand is a good start. But as long as there are other outlets ready to rehash publishers' press releases, it won't be enough. And if reviewers can't trust what they read in magazines, that side of the business will suffer.
The industry has a lot to lose, too.
Consumers will eventually tire of shelling out $50 to $60 for bad games. This isn't a trivial sum of money for the average person. Without objective reviews and news, they'll be wary of huge marketing blitzes for games like "Assassin's Creed."
And there are people in this business who are out to make a quick buck, like it or not. When a game like "John Woo Presents Stranglehold" can get a three-page treatment, it doesn't bode well for the cause.
Either we live with the system or buck it. But there is no happy medium. When private companies can dictate what journalists can write, even some of the time, everyone loses.