ScreenCritics Sam tackles the subject of paid video game reviews – is there some truth to this practice or is it nothing but a myth?
By now, I’m sure the video game journalism community has come under plenty of fire for inconsistencies in the way reviews are structured and scored. Many curious readers have assumed the reality behind the more notorious instances of companies paying out major publication sites not only for advertising space, but their products receiving a good reputation in the process. This usually results in the popular myth that journalists are secretly being paid out to intentionally give games good reviews regardless of their actual opinions. I’m going to explore a few aspects of the industry that has lead me to believe there may be some weight to these claims, but I implore you they do not reflect my personal feelings; rather an investigative process that shouldn’t be regarded as the absolute truth… merely an observation.
In scrolling through hundreds of online reviews by major gaming publication sites, I’ve come to notice certain trends emerge in the way reviews are given finalized scores. Usually the scoring method is a solid way for journalists to sum up their overall experience of a game in a singular number or rating system, and the reviews merely act as a justification for that purpose. While this is not the case with all publication sites, who would rather not give a score but let the reader decide based on their written opinions, it is a strenuous process of sifting through a lengthy article in search of the pro’s and con’s that unfortunately (and the harsh reality being) many readers would prefer to just look at a final score or verdict.
While that may seem like a negative, it’s very much in a positive light as journalists have come to expect many readers would rather watch an online review or just jump to the end of the article. This has lead journalists to really push their creative writing abilities in order to keep readers invested in the articles they write, rather than sticking to a mechanical, if not slightly contrived and conventional, approach to structuring reviews for the sake of having something to read. Unfortunately, the common problem stems from this idea of journalistic integrity. I’ve worked in a couple of publication sites myself to notice the radical changes in the way critics often communicate with their audiences. It’s not necessarily pandering as it is a very inconsistent thought process that usually defies the consensus. In some cases, this is intentionally done to provoke reactions. After all, the publicity, be it good or bad, keeps the site afloat. But what happens when what is written and what is eventually given in numbers don’t always click?
This is where the idea of paid video game reviews really comes to light. As an example, I’ll use the 2015 video game Evolve to justify this process. Keep in mind, I’m not directly targeting the developers or critics that reviewed the game, but rather stating the observations I’ve made regarding the most infamous cases of inconsistency in gaming reviews (and some I do consider also entirely subjective). Evolve, for all intents and purposes, wasn’t a bad game. In fact, it delivered an original experience with solid gameplay mechanics and an interesting take on multiplayer-focused game design. What did hinder the game greatly, however, was its upfront marketing campaign. Evolve stirred a storm in the gaming community when it outright revealed its intent for DLC future plans before even getting a glimpse of what the actual base game looked like.
Upon its release, the damage had already been done, and Evolve was heavily panned for its extremely bare-bones vanilla release, lacking severely in content; or rather, the content being locked behind paid walls. However, despite the extremely shady business practices on display, the game strangely gained a handful of confusing critical acclaim. Infamously, IGN’s review (which many still question to date) handed out a solid 9/10 in spite of this. That would mean its on-par with the greats of the gaming world as, in the case of the company’s history, 9’s and above usually were cemented in either cult status or truly memorable in their own right. A couple of years later and seeing the deterioration of the game, it seems more and more unlikely that the review was a product of an honest opinion, not forgetting the relentless marketing campaign 2K games ultimately pushed prior to that.
Another example I’ll use that I feel quite strongly about is Activision’s Call of Duty: Ghosts. In 2013, I fondly remember Ghosts headlining almost every major publication site, showering the backgrounds and pop-up ads with its own relentless marketing strategy. As far as the business of advertising goes, publishing companies approach these major sites understanding the audiences (or I should rather say clicks) that the site gains on a daily basis and uses it to their advantage in promoting a product. This puts the sites themselves in a bit of a stalemate upon reviewing the game. As I mentioned before, journalistic integrity comes into play when dealing with the fact that publishing companies and developers intentionally approach them as their means of advertising. Revenue is earned through this, and in turn, the sites make their fair share of the bargain. Developers and publishers are fully aware of what bad press can do to hinder their products sales, so stepping in to make sure this doesn’t happen doesn’t seem like too much of a far cry. In the case of Call of Duty: Ghosts and its puzzling glowing reviews at launch (which directly contrasted the moderately negative general consensus of most gamers, even die-hard fans of the series), I couldn’t look past the idea that this wasn’t a coincidence.
On that note, a few years ago, I wrote a modest blog on gaming news, opinions and reviews. It didn’t exactly hit the biggest numbers in terms of clicks, but was enough to build a decent readership. In one case, I was approached by an indie developer to play and review one of their games; a modest side-scroller in the vein of Castlevania but without the dramatic flair. As much as they appreciated honest feedback, I couldn’t bring myself to say what they wanted to hear. It wasn’t until the readership numbers for the month came in that they swayed their demands a bit. In this case, I was asked to give a positive review for a nominal fee. Of course, this wasn’t a direct paid review as this fee only stipulated the advertising space I gave the game, but nonetheless, the bottom line was I was being given an ultimatum to say positive things. A while later, I did close down the blog but that stigma remained with me for a while. If it would happen on a smaller scale, who’s to say it can’t happen on a larger one?
The problem ultimately stems from the belief that if media sites can relentlessly promote a game for the sake of earning back some sort of revenue, it can also be subjected to hold that specific game in high praise upon release. This means that scores can also be swayed in their favor. Subjectively, this could also be false. After all, critics are paid to give their honest opinions on video games and if something doesn’t always align with another popular opinion, it doesn’t mean the review was bought out. However, seeing as how the gaming industry operates on a more business-driven agenda now more than ever, the profits need to be secured as the industry grows. With the growth of the industry comes more gamers looking for solace and peace of mind in reviews to make their final decisions. Publishers understand this concept, and have never underestimated the power of the journalistic media; they hold the key to a vast majority of sales.
In a pre-internet boom era, this was never the case as the early days of modern gaming as we know it relied mostly on word of mouth to turn profit. However, seeing as how more money is being pushed into the development of games gathering in the hundreds of millions, there’s a strong reliance on critical opinion in an age where gamers can simply judge their purchasing of a product based on what their favorite media site had to say. And with this comes the pressure of success on a companies part. The key to this success ultimately being achieved? Well, you can figure that one out.