Most of the time, the people who make games and the people who write about them have a cordial, mutually beneficial relationship. Sometimes, that falls apart. This is what happens when things go wrong.
This week, Kotaku’s US Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totilo chose to go public about something that has been happening behind the scenes of the games press for a very, very long time: publisher blacklisting. Kotaku is far from the only outlet to have experienced this, and most people with a casual interest in how the games press works will have heard of the practice at some point. Sometimes – in order, ostensibly, to punish an outlet for saying something out of line – a publisher will simply cut off communication.
Usually this amounts to not being invited to pre-release showings of that publisher’s games, and not being sent code to review or cover in any other way. This effectively prevents an outlet from covering those games until they’re out in the wild. Sometimes it’s a total blackout, as Kotaku has experienced with Bethesda: requests for comment go unanswered, emails and calls are ignored. In the past, I’ve been hung up on immediately after calling someone at Ubisoft, while working at Kotaku. The person called me back from a personal phone a minute later, apologising and explaining that they were not permitted to talk to anyone from Kotaku from any work email address or phone line.
There are many legitimate reasons why a publisher may choose not to work with a given outlet. It is, of course, a publisher’s choice whether to give privileged access to its products to anyone or not. Someone from that outlet might have behaved unprofessionally in the past, by deliberately misquoting an interview or breaking a non-disclosure agreement or behaving like an asshole in person. And sometimes, of course, the press does make mistakes, and reports something later found to be untrue or unfair.
"There are many legitimate reasons why a publisher may choose not to work with a given outlet. Nobody is entitled to privileged access to their products."
When this happens - ie, when an outlet fucks up - it is usually resolved quickly. You fix the mistake, you apologise to the publisher affected, you let your readers know you were wrong, and everyone moves on. Mistakes are rarely the cause of major disagreements, and rarely cause an outlet to be blacklisted. They are usually resolved with a couple of phone calls and an update. In fact, most disagreements that publishers have with the press are resolved in this way: with a phonecall and, if necessary, with an amendment or clarification if the outlet is in the wrong. This is what has happened in the vast majority of my own dealings with video game publishers over the past decade.
“The first thing that usually happens is that the PR contacts the journalist or their editor and raises the subject,” said one former high-level editorial staff member at a major gaming outlet, who spoke to me about publisher blacklisting under the condition of anonymity. Let’s call them Mr Z. “In my experience this was a phone call to me. If it was something more serious, it was sometimes a call or email to my boss. Most of the time you can work things out amicably. If you’ve fucked something up, you fix it and they get over it. If you’ve said something they don’t like, you talk to them about it and they either get over it or they don’t.”
It’s when they don’t that the situation get more troublesome. There are two things that primarily cause big disagreements between game publishers and the press, where no misconduct has occurred. The first is the press reporting on something the publisher isn’t ready to talk about: leaking a game announcement, accurately quoting a developer who was speaking outside the marketing-approved message, that kind of thing. This is what Kotaku has fallen foul of with Bethesda and Ubisoft: in both cases, a Kotaku staff member reported - truly and accurately - information about big games that neither publisher had announced.
Fallout 4 casting documents, as obtained and reported upon by Kotaku in 2013.
The second thing that causes disagreements is review scores. This is something that Kotaku is thankfully free from, as are many other publications that have ditched scores, but over the past decade or so, scores have been the biggest single point of contention between the games press and publishers. Whenever you see a middling score for a big game, you can be certain that angry conversations are going on behind the scenes.
“Publishers are fucking obsessed with review scores,” says Mr Z. “They pretend they care about the content of the review, but they really don't - it’s all about the score. The publications I’ve been at were blacklisted probably 5-10 times over a decade by various people, and most of the time it was about review scores.”
Some publishers have been known to be even touchier than this. At one of the many games media outlets I’ve worked for in the past, a publisher once got upset about a line referring to their game in an article about another, entirely different game. Sometimes it’s not even reviews, but previews that get their backs up. One or two publishers in the world of video games are absurdly sensitive to any hint of negativity. If you get unlucky, or the publisher is particularly prickly, it can lead to blacklisting.
Leaked screenshot of Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, as obtained and reported upon by Kotaku in 2014.
There is another consequence for games media outlets when a publisher is upset with them, and it’s an important one to talk about: they will pull advertising money. “They do this far more than they blacklist,” affirms Mr Z. “I had plenty of really positive PR relationships with publishers for years while their marketing departments were busy stonewalling our sales people. It’s all just power politics. It’s so that the next time they do agree to buy some ads, the sales people feel the need to promise more than usual and make all sorts of concessions to ‘get things back on track’.”
This is what was at the heart of the infamous Jeff Gerstmann episode of 2007, when a mediocre review score for Kane and Lynch from now-defunct publisher Eidos resulted in the dismissal of Gamespot’s editorial director, after Eidos pulled a load of advertising money from the site.
"It’s all just power politics."
It’s important to state that this does not mean that sites often cave to pressure from advertisers. Most established games outlets have enough advertisers - and, crucially, enough advertisers from industries outside of video games - to be able to weather whatever storm comes as a result of a disagreement. But it would be remiss of me not to address that this is one tactic used in publisher-press relationships. However, at pretty much every major games outlet (and certainly all the ones I have worked with), commercial and editorial teams are separate, and outside of the Editor-in-Chief the editorial staff generally has no knowledge of (or interest in) commercial operations.
“As a journalist, you just have to rely on having a strong sales director who understands that the cost of selling ads on a good site, as opposed to some bland shitheap that will be dead in a few years, is that sometimes people will get upset with the site for a little while,” says Mr Z. Such sales directors do exist. They are good at their jobs.
Blacklisting rarely lasts forever. Usually, after a few months or half a year, you are welcomed back into a publisher’s good graces. Funnily enough, when publishers come around, it’s usually when they have something new that they want the press’ help to tell people about.
“Review scores would be the thing that caused the problem and they would then stop sending you stuff until some arbitrary amount of time had passed. The funny thing was that the blacklisting often came to an end almost exactly when they had a new game coming out to promote! Isn’t that funny?” says Mr Z. “More than once I would get a call one month before Big Game X came out from the PR, who would tell me that, astonishingly, he or she had managed to engineer a thawing of relations. I assume they do this imagining that you will be eager to please them and keep things on track, but it was so transparent.”
Aggregate review scores remain extremely important to many publishers, hence frequent spats over review scores.
This is why you rarely hear media outlets talking publicly about blacklisting: usually the problem goes away, everybody gets along again, we’re able to resume doing our jobs and covering the affected games, and ultimately the readers have not been affected. In exceptional cases, though, readers are affected, and it is in the public interest to let them know what’s going on. That is why Stephen decided to talk publicly about Kotaku’s experience with blacklisting: it’s been going on for years, at this point, and it is affecting our coverage (at least the timing of some of it), which affects our readers.
“[Outlets] want to resume the relationship as soon as possible,” agrees Mr Z. “There’s nothing murky about that really - it is better for your readers if you can cover the most games possible, so you just roll your eyes, wait six months and then start talking again. You might get some short-term traffic by howling about it in public, but the long-term damage probably isn’t worth it. Sometimes you don’t have much choice though - if you can’t review Big Game X, you probably need to tell your readers why.”
Is publisher blacklisting a reasonable response? Again, nobody is actually entitled to privileged access to any company’s products, and in the case of video games, these are expensive-to-produce products, upon whose success the jobs of many hundreds of people depend. But when a publisher’s response to a journalist or critic actually doing their job, by reporting something of public interest or expressing an opinion about a video game, is to cut off access – is that fair? Is that a useful response?
"There’s nothing murky about that really - it is better for your readers if you can cover the most games possible, so you just roll your eyes, wait six months and then start talking again."
“I don’t think it’s reasonable or unreasonable - it’s just power politics,” thinks Mr Z. “They don’t have to talk to us and if they want to use that as a weapon to try to soften our approach, some of them will. I do think it's counterproductive though. They are upset that you didn't like them, so their solution is to do something that will annoy you? Genius!”
A bigger question, perhaps, is whether blacklisting is actually effective. Does it serve any purpose? Does it effectively ‘discipline’ an outlet that a publisher feels is not being co-operative? The reality is that it depends on the outlet. At outlets like Kotaku where coverage of games is largely post-release, once they’re out in the world, it certainly hurts us not to be able to cover something like Fallout 4 at the same time as everyone else. But it hurts a lot less than it would at a magazine or website that frequently works with big game publishers to secure exclusive reveals or reviews, and relies on those exclusives to drive traffic.
The games media is changing, though – it has been for years – and we all rely far less on what a publisher is willing to show or tell us about a game than we used to. Attempting to control coverage of games in this way is starting to look distinctly old-fashioned.
Top image via Shutterstock.