I’ve banged out a lot of words about the odd relationship that exists between the media and game publishers. You can scour the backlog of Sunday Time Wasters to catch up but it basically boils down to this:
It’s a potentially toxic relationship; sooner or the later the publisher isn’t going to like what you say about a game. If the writer is doing his/her job that’s simply going to happen, eventually, and it’s the truly professional public relations specialist that can look at a review, or a preview, or even an interview and roll with the punches. Of course there are times when I get the “You gave this a 75 (a B) and now we’re below a 90 on Metacritic…”
Those are fun conversations…
Now, this isn’t always a case of PR being mad at a bad review and lashing out. Sometimes it’s the case that a writer simply offers up a terrible article, doesn’t give a game a fair shake, prints factual errors, and goes overboard in their criticism. I can only imagine how frustrating it is for PR to read a review that’s not only factually off the reservation but is written by someone who clearly either doesn’t like, or has little experience with a certain genre. It’s one thing to read Mike’s Portal 2 review and think he’s insane — that’s not what I mean. Simply disagreeing with an informed opinion is healthy and is a huge part of the review process. I’m talking about when a review is unfair and is written by someone who is in over their head just to collect a check and/or a free game. I get on PR for a lot of things but it’s not always their fault.
When that happens it’s usually not the writer who has to defend the article – it’s the editor, and rightly so, for assigning someone who isn’t qualified. I can understand that frustration. This normally happens with niche games. It’s not too tough to find people with the expertise and experience and desire to review a shooter or a third person action game or the latest in the Rockstar Open World stable. I seriously doubt you read too many Skyrim reviews by people who have never touched an Elder Scrolls game.
Trying to find someone to review a wargame, a turn based wargame for that matter, a flight sim, an adventure game, an indie strategy game, an MMO (and will devote the time necessary), or a sports game – that’s different.
I’ve been a sports game writer for 15 years. I know the genre and feel qualified to write about most sports games at length – and I have. There are exceptions. You will never see an article where I offer up my thoughts on the latest NASCAR game. I am simply not qualified to do it. I have no interest in it and anything I write about a serious racing game would be of little help to anyone. It’s not that my opinion on a NASCAR game is irrelevant, but it’s certainly going to be irrelevant to those who know that sport. There are details that I’m going to miss and the fact that I don’t particularly like NASCAR is going to cloud what I have to say.
As an editor, part of my job is assigning articles – be they previews, interviews, features or standard reviews. It’s tougher than you think. I love the team I have assembled at GameShark. When I joined GameShark a few years ago the cupboard was mostly bare as far as writers were concerned so I went to work, along with former EiC James Fudge who now writes for Game Politics, in building a staff. I know my team. So this part of the job has grown much easier over the past year or so but the thing about freelancers – they’ll lie to your face. When money is on the line a writer will accept almost any assignment on the table – if you let them. It’s a lesson I learned the hard way.
Think about it: how many articles have you read where the writer started off saying:
“You know I never play adventure games but…”
“I cannot stand real time strategy games…”
However, what’s worse is when they aren’t so blatantly honest and you have to read the article to determine that, yep, this person has no idea what they are talking about. So not only have you wasted the reader’s time but also the publisher’s time and now you’re about to get your editor in hot water for assigning a game to someone who has no idea how to approach the genre.
It happens more often than you think.
I don’t mean to imply that a writer needs to be a certified expert in a genre in order to offer an opinion, but a formal review isn’t the place for such experimentation. A column? A feature about how a writer is trying a new genre for the first time? Those can make for great (and often times hilarious) reads but matching the writer to the game, as an editor, is a critical part of the job. This has been made more important by the emergence of Metacritic because if you hand over an assignment to someone who goes into a game with no experience and thus no sense of history for that type of game, and then they trash the game in a way that the publisher deems unfair – hoo boy get ready for a phone call.
I’ve had phone conversations with people in PR who didn’t like what I had to say about a game, and most can take criticism far better than you might expect. Yes, PR still uses Metacritic ratings to discuss reviews even though most sites don’t use the same grade scale Metacritic uses, and it’s a conversation that I’m quite frankly surprised I still have with PR – you’d think by now the way Metacritic does its business would be well known. Normally, though, after a discussion about why a game received a score (the text itself is rarely the issue) the PR rep has at least an understanding as to why a game criticized.
For readers, it comes down to this, and this is something I have told people for a long, long time. Do not trust websites. It’s a mistake. If you are truly interested and use reviews in order to make buying decisions (a topic for another day…) do not blindly trust websites. Trust people, be they forum members, writers, or those in your immediate gaming circle. If you find a writer whose reviews you enjoy reading, follow them, find out where they write because in the end that’s you who are reading. You aren’t reading IGN or GameSpot or Giant Bomb or GameShark. You are reading people. And until you can get to know what makes them tick you’re basically reading a stranger’s opinion and honestly –
How much weight should that carry?
OK a few notes before the holiday tomorrow:
I don’t know how much we’ll be updating the website Monday. I have every intention of playing boardgames, HOPEFULLY Merchants & Marauders or maybe a game of Troyes, and smoking the ever loving hell out of this lovely blade roast which should take about 6 hours. I did a trial run yesterday and man…Brandon would be proud.
After a lot of plays it’s time I reviewed the boardgame Endeavor. Sometime this week, I think.
I’m also working on a game diary detailing a season in our online Out of the Park Baseball league. Should be fun.
We have a contest coming this week! I’ll likely post the details on Wednesday or Thursday. It’s a big one!
Have a great Memorial Day and remember why we have this holiday; it’s not just a day off work, although that part is kinda of cool. For those outside the States: Back to work!