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Two Worlds II and the Seedy Underbelly of Game Journalism

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You may have read the blistering article at Destructoid about how developer Topware may have used, well let’s just call them ‘interesting’ tactics, to inflate review scores for the RPG Two Worlds II.

I’m not going to rehash the article as you can head over to Destructoid to read it and then onto a few more sites who are covering the story with published emails and all sorts of craziness.

I want to talk about something else, which you can read after the jump.

People like a juicy story like this. Whether or not you care is another matter entirely but any sort of behind the scenes drama…it gets eyeballs. This is particularly the case I imagine because a lot of people already think that a lot of game writers and websites are on the take or are at least heavily influenced by outside sources so this sort of thing just fuels the fire.

I will tell you my own little Two Worlds II story.

As some of you know I run the Mad Catz site Now, I know GameShark isn’t the name you think of when you think ‘review site’ but we get a good amount of traffic, have assembled a great team of writers, and I deal with various PR people and firms on a daily basis to procure review builds, set up interviews, and so on. I’ve been dealing with PR in some capacity since the mid 90s so I have a pretty fair grasp on how this little dance works.

We get a good number of early review builds from various companies. We have been working on our Fight Night Champion review for a few weeks, Barnes has had Killzone 3 for a week or two, and Brandon has been De Blobbing like mad for the past several days.
But we don’t always get early code like your IGNs and GameSpots and other large, mainstream outlets because

A: We aren’t as high on the pecking list as those sites
B: PR sometimes gets a limited number of review copies to hand out and that have to pick and choose who gets what.

After all I am working out of my house in rural central Ohio. I miss a lot of press tours that aren’t called E3 and PAX. This is why some of our reviews go up on launch day and others…don’t. It’s all part of the process and I have learned to deal with it.

Anyway I tell you all of this because we rarely get Southpeak (the US publisher of Tw2) games early without me sending out an inquiry “Hey we’d like to cover Game X” email.

Southpeak responded with a “We are only giving out review copies to sites who posted screenshots, positive previews, and trailers.”

We didn’t qualify. Oh well. We’ll survive without an early review of Two Worlds: the Sequel.

Still, the Southpeak rep was basically saying in no uncertain terms, “You didn’t scratch my back so I’m going to take my toys and go home.” Again, that sucks, but they can hand out copies to whomever they want.

What is concerning to me — and what should concern you if you read websites to obtain information about a game you are considering purchasing is that we work in a terribly unique field. The gaming press simply cannot function without help from the companies we cover. I can think of very few industries where the relationship is so intertwined. We can’t operate like Consumer Reports even though that sure would make things a lot clearer to the people who should be priority number one in all of this: you guys.

It’s an inevitably toxic relationship that the press has with game companies. It’s unavoidable. The companies want good coverage for its games, and the press wants, above all else, that magic word that every editor has to have in order to succeed:


Without access you’re cooked.

This is why, in my opinion, the Destructoid article had to rely on so many anonymous sources. No one wants to get their access cut off. It’s our lifeblood.

This also leads me to Metacritic, a site that many gamers rely on to obtain a quick snapshot of how a game is doing in according to various media outlets, of which GameShark is one.

The gaming press uses Metacritic as the Gold Standard upon which to judge a game’s critical success. Nevermind the fact that Metacritic alters review scores to its own grading system and that various PR outlets either don’t realize this or simply don’t care.

Example: Websites that use the letter grading system (1Up, GameShark, etc) will see its score of a “B” metamorphosis into a Metacritic score of a 75. A “B-“magically turns into a 67. A “C” is a 50.

Metacritic isn’t really at fault here even though I would love to see that site at least show what the original score was and not just its self-determined number. The issue is that people see “50” and they don’t think “average” they see 50 and think “whoa, that’s a failing grade. This game sucks” when that’s not what the Metacritic scale or the website scale wanted to convey – worse still, you better believe PR sees a 50 as a failure. It may as well be a 0.

Anything below the “green” score and you are likely to hear about it from PR, depending on the game and the PR person in question. (Not all of them operate like this, so lumping them in one ball isn’t fair.) A yellow or red score on Metacritic and unless you are a really, really big site you run the risk of getting on a PR’s bad side which could then limit your preview access to future games, early review code, and even game convention appointments.

Sound petty? It’s nothing new. Hell the political news scene is the same way and those are supposed to be grown ups covering important stuff, not the framerate of the hottest first person shooter or the dialogue in a shitty RPG.

So, what does this mean to you?

Laughably, very little. In the press and gaming industry in general we tend to wrap ourselves inside a plastic bubble and forget about the people who matter, which is the user. All of this press and insider trading mumbo jumbo doesn’t affect you at all – or at least it shouldn’t.

My advice has always been from day one, when it comes to game coverage, if you honestly read such things to base a buying decision upon then you should follow writers – do not follow websites. Websites are entities. Writers have their own opinions. Leave all of this other nonsense to us and hopefully we won’t forget about the reader in the process.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

14 thoughts on “Two Worlds II and the Seedy Underbelly of Game Journalism

  1. I read Jim’s article last night, and though how many times I had heard similar stories during my 25 years in the bicycle industry. Any bit of journalism that relies on reviews to pull readers eyes will have this problem. In the bicycle world you’ll start noticing that some places only give glowing reviews. Generally this is the beginning of the end of the cycle.

    The cycle starts with a new publication trying to gain readership by having forthright and honest reviews. The positive reviews start to garner readers and advertising dollars. At some point they start to softball the reviews, or drop them completely, to appease the advertisers. You’ll also start noticing full-page ads right next to positive reviews of said advertised product. This is when the readers start departing and bad-mouthing the publication. Finally a new editor, publisher, or PR manager is brought on board and the cycle starts all over again.

    I think this same cycle has repeated itself time and time again in many industries. What makes this particular incidence interesting is the publicness even with all the anonymity. Hopefully articles like this keep the debate at the forefront of the minds of the consumer/reader. Speaking about it only increases the confidence readers have with the reviews. Hopefully this translates, if nothing else, into a less sleazy and more open use of PR within the video game industry.

  2. Great insight themanmonkey (first time I have ever typed those words, ever). But you’re right. I even get skittish when sites do the whole “site skinning” ad thing. Gameshark does this too — an outside dept handles that and every time we do it I feel just a little dirty.

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