“If you disagree with me, you do so at your own peril,” wrote Trip Hawkins, president of the now defunct game publisher 3DO, in an irate e-mail to the editors of GamePro magazine in 2001. “....And do not patronize me by telling me the reader is the customer—your real customer is the one that pays you your revenue. And it is game industry advertisers.”
In a way, he's right. Advertising dollars from game publishers and hardware manufacturers pay for the production of the popular gaming magazines. But it's your interest in candid stories about those products that makes ad space valuable in the first place. And that's when marketing gets more subtle. It should be obvious to any reader that marketers control the content of their ads, but did you know they have a hand in almost every story a game magazine prints? This isn't some conspiracy to secretly sell you junk you don't want.
It's the natural consequence of an undeniable fact: The games press is almost entirely dependent on access to information, people, and products that only game publishers can provide. You want the latest details on a game that's still a year away from release? What you get, when you get it, and who you get it from are ultimately decisions made by that game's marketers.
Think of it as a giant information spigot. The folks with their hands on the valve—the ones who tell games journalists about upcoming games (or don't), set up interviews with the game's developers (or don't), and eventually send out early review copies of that game (or don't)—are the publicists, or in the insider lingo, PR reps (public relations representatives).
You've probably heard the term thrown around, but what, exactly, does a PR rep do? “I work to educate and inform the media about our new product offerings and services,” says Michael Wolf, the PR manager for Games for Windows (the initiative, not the magazine). “The job of the media, in turn, is to carry their opinions about what I’ve told them to the public. The ultimate goal being to get coverage through online outlets, print publications, broadcast media, podcasts, etc.”
Wolf's diplomatic description of PR represents the ideal relationship between game industry journalists and the products they cover. But more often publicists seek not just to drum up press coverage, but to deliver positive coverage, preferably framed by certain points the game's marketers have deemed important to get across to the public (Spore is about evolution. Crysis is pretty, etc.). In short, they try to influence what the game press tell their readers, and how they say it.
As a simple fact of life, game writers and editors work with publicists on a daily basis, gathering the stories that populate their publications. But does PR really influence coverage? Do publicists really affect what you read in gaming publications across the web and on the newsstands? The very existence of the profession would seem to imply so. The real question is: How and to what extent? To find out, we spoke to several current and former game industry publicists—though many representing top-tier publishers refused (or were not allowed) to be interviewed—about their methods.
The Carrot: Exclusives
The motivation for companies to court and shape media coverage of their games and products is obvious. “If I can get Prominent Games Magazine X to publish a six-page spread of my title for free,” says Laura Heeb Mustard, a long time game publicist who has worked with Namco, Enix, THQ, Midway, and Majesco, “why would my marketers bother tacking on an advertisement to the end of that? The message is already in there. And if it's preview material, it's all but guaranteed to be a positive one. That's just good business sense."
The difference between an ad and a published story, of course, is that a writer can say anything he or she wants about a game. But in allowing a publication access to a game and the people who created it, publishers exert a subtle influence. The greatest tool in their arsenal is the exclusive, often taking the form of a sought-after cover story for magazines.
In this age of instantaneous online news distribution, print publications rely on exclusivity deals with game publishers to give them a leg up on the electronic competition. The publisher gets choice real estate (several pages of story and an eye catching cover image peeking out from newsstands across the country), while the magazine gets a promise: Their publication will be the only place to read about that particular game, at least for the time being. No money changes hands, of course, and the publication gets to present that info (and any opinions they might have about it) in whatever way they choose.
Illustration by Joshua Ellingson
But trouble can arise from how publishers distribute those prized cover stories. According to sources interviewed for this story, the doling out of exclusives and cover stories can either be a simple business decision (Who sells more magazines?) or an unsaid reward for previous positive coverage (What have you done for me lately?).
“It's a business,” says Tricia Gray, Marketing and Communications Director for developer Flagship Studios. “...The good of my product comes before all other considerations. And if I deem Magazine X is the best option with the most numbers, I go with it. There's no sinister plot, no conspiratorial agency, no bribes, buyouts, threats, or clandestine operations.”
Todd Zuniga, a writer who served a stint in PR with publisher Rockstar Games before returning to journalism, had experiences to the contrary. “In part, it’s a numbers game,” says Zuniga. “Otherwise, it’s history. Who wrote negatively about the games, and who hasn't? We never worked with [gaming website] GameSpot while I was there because 'they just didn't get it.' Same with Wired [magazine] because of a story in 2002 by a writer who now teaches high school in Indiana.”
Sometimes exclusives are given less as a reward for previous coverage and more as an insurance policy for publishers unsure about how a game will be received by the press. “I have chosen an outlet for an exclusive review based on who I thought would give it the best review,” says Mustard. “That's not unscrupulous. It's smart. You should never, ever consider letting the first review of your game go to an outlet that you have any doubt likes your game.”
She says that publicists can usually get a feel for how a game will be received through a publication's previews and other early coverage. “That's not to say you negotiate the review. It means that through the course of working with outlets, you know who likes the game and who doesn't. However, an exclusive review doesn't guarantee it’s going to be good.”
“It Was a Weird F*cking Place to Work”
Judging by activity in online forums and letters to the editor scribbled in red crayon, it's not uncommon for readers of game magazines and websites to believe that nefarious dealings and company loyalty (bias) often come into play when determining how a game will score in a review. While no one we spoke to said that they had witnessed or participated in seriously underhanded behavior to win good scores for their games, most publicists believed that their efforts had some affect on the outcome of reviews.
“I think PR can influence scores, definitely,” says Zuniga. “At least by a half point (in a 0-10 scale).” It sounds like small change, but for Zuniga during his tenure at Rockstar, every half-point counted. The company, he says, put heavy pressure on their PR department to deliver stellar scores. “At Rockstar there was a fear factor,” says Zuniga. “Our bosses tried to intimidate us into doing everything we could—it was total mental warfare. The big guys knew in their hearts that we couldn't change a journalist's mind, but they still pushed hard for us to try, just in case we could.”
To further this push, the higher ups at Rockstar emphasized person-to-person contact between publicists and editors, which included transcontinental flights to hand-deliver new games for review. “Rockstar is very big on personalizing things,” says Zuniga. “So, we'd go out to deliver code by hand. We'd get up at 6am, fly to the west coast, deliver code all over the place by hand, then we'd leave that night and head to Minnesota [home to the offices of Game Informer magazine]. For journalists, it was embarrassing and wasn't special at all. But the higher-ups wouldn't believe it.”
Illustration by Joshua Ellingson
As part of the effort to personalize, Rockstar's PR department tracked scores for reviewers on a person-by-person basis, often hoping to influence which writers were selected to review their games. “Rockstar was big on trying to get specific people to review specific games,” says Zuniga. “But it’s a fine line—you can't just come out and ask, because it seems like you're trying to take away editorial control.” They went so far as to track seemingly pointless personal details of some writers. “Hilariously, we even had a list of journalist preferences: Likes cake, married, went to school at Indiana U. Shit like that,” says Zuniga. “It was a weird f*cking place to work.”
In the end, the efforts never earned the kind of scores head honchos wanted. “The score would never live up to the expectation,” says Zuniga. “If it scored a 99, the expectation was for every other review to be 100.” What the higher-ups wanted was what business tends to want: predictability, something that can be planned and executed. “They wanted to feel comfort,” says Zuniga. “They wanted to know that when we went to Company A and talked with Person B that we could expect result C.”
Pressure from above on publicists to deliver good review scores for the games they represent isn't limited to Rockstar Games. It's a given for a profession that's expected to work miracles with the press. Flagship's Tricia Gray: “I was once in contract negotiations with a nameless publisher. 'The bonus scheme,' says nameless publisher's nameless boss, 'is determined by how well our games are critically received.' I've felt bullied by superiors in the past to get review scores altered.... So, I told this potential employer that I'd like to strike this particular review bonus from my contract. That's not my job. I don't sway scores. I inform. I advertise. I even spin and investigate.... I do not threaten, bribe, kill, et cetera.”
The Stick: Blackballing
Though, certainly, some do threaten, if not bribe or kill. Some even follow through on their threats. “Though it's unlikely entire corporate entities are capable of holding grudges,” says Gray, “it's easy for an individual PR representative with some modicum of power to throw down the ultimate hammer of stoppage and ruin an editor's day. I am not saying every single PR person is like this, but this stuff does happen on occasion.” It's called blackballing. When a publisher doesn't like the coverage they've received, they might decide to block access to information about their games, decline to send review copies, or refuse to set up interviews with their developers and executives.
Retaliation against the press was common practice at the house that Grand Theft Auto built. “That's all we ever did at Rockstar,” says Zuniga. “Even the lamest line of text that didn't praise the game would be viewed as a sleight. If a preview read 99.9% positive, they'd labor over how to 'fix' that .1%. It was ridiculous and frustrating. 'Ban IGN, let's go with 1up! Wait, 1up said something .2% bad—ban 1up! GameSpot's already banned—what now?' It just felt like the blind leading the blind.”
You don't have to say something negative about a company's products to get permanently disinvited from their Christmas party. Sometimes, the far greater crime is digging for your own stories, leaving the confines of the marketing plan for the wilderness of investigative reporting. Game weblog Kotaku did just that at the beginning of April this year, when—days before being officially announced at the Game Developers Conference (GDC)—the site posted a story about a new online service for the PlayStation 3 called PlayStation Home, against heavy protest from Sony.
“It was information we discovered on our own, through our own sources,” says Kotaku's editor Brian Crecente. “I contacted Sony, like we do with any rumor story, whoever the company involved, and asked them to comment.... About ten minutes later, I received an e-mail from [Senior Director of Corporate Communications] David Karraker, essentially saying that we shouldn't run the story because it would hurt our relationship with them. I said, basically, 'OK, I understand, but I'm afraid we're still going to have to do this, because we work for our readers, not for Sony.'”
Sony's Phil Harrison introducing Home at GDC
Crecente, who'd spent years as a police beat reporter for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colorado, followed the appropriate protocol, highlighting the fact that his information was from a single, anonymous source. “I went to great pains, because they were so worried about this story, to make sure that people really understood where the information was coming from and could form their own judgment about whether or not they should trust this story.” Sony, however, seemed to be concerned less with the accuracy of the information and more with Kotaku stealing their planned marketing thunder. “Shortly after that story ran, I received a letter from Karraker that was an official—he didn't use the word blackball—but it was an official blackballing of Kotaku. That's the e-mail I posted.”
From Karraker's e-mail: “...I am very disappointed that after trying to work with you as closely as possible and provide you and your team with access and information, you chose to report on this rumor.... I can't defend outlets that can't work cooperatively with us. So, it is for this reason that we will be canceling all further interviews for Kotaku staff at GDC and will be dis-inviting you to our media event next Tuesday. Until we can find a way to work better together, information provided to your site will only be that found in the public forum....”
Nasty e-mails aside, is there anything technically wrong with practice of blackballing? “No,” says Crecente. “There's nothing wrong with that. They don't have an obligation to talk to us, just like we don't have an obligation to write about them. I posted it because I thought it provided an interesting glimpse into the way things are done in the industry. Not the blackballing part, but the fact that they were so surprised that I wouldn't just not run the story because they asked me. I'm not saying they did anything wrong.... They're supposed to ask me not the run the stories that they don't want me to run, and I'm supposed to post the stories that I think should be running.”
Of course, this isn't a matter of life or death. We're talking about entertainment here, not the war in Iraq. Games press readers are mostly out to waste a little time boning up on the future of time wasting. Should they even care about the influence game companies have over what they read? “I think readers should care,” says Crecente. “Let's say I hadn't run the story. What do you think the reaction would have been had I posted something that said, 'We have this story that we were going to run, but we decided not to because Sony asked us not to?' The only difference is, when someone enters into an agreement like that, they don't post about it.” Kotaku's readers did care, and when the story caught fire on gaming blogs across the net, Karraker and Sony soon re-established professional contact with the site. “In theory, everything sort of returned to normal,” says Crecente.
Veteran Laura Heeb Mustard says that, in the end, blackballing isn't an effective strategy for a publicist—that, in fact, it's bad PR. “While there are many ways to attempt to persuade a journalist to hold on a story, one way I would not recommend is by trying to bully them into not reporting the item,” says Mustard. “While there are some outlets that may retreat in fear of being cut off, there are others that will retaliate against your threats. Now, they're in a position of scooping your news—with the added bonus of a juicy story about how you tried to strong-arm them. We've seen a number of different cases of this recently, and quite frankly, in each case there are more effective strategies that could have been applied.”
Often, she says, such strong-arm tactics are not born in the PR department, but further up the chain of command, where executives have less experience in the trenches with the media and more power to wield. “While it may be the PR person that is ultimately tasked with carrying out the threat, you should dig deeper into where the actual threat is coming from. I bet it’s from someplace in management,” says Mustard. “Execs have a hard time reading bad press because they very quickly see the negative impact of it. And because they usually have the authority to do so, they often come down on PR to either 'fix the problem' or to punish the outlet. However, because they aren't involved in day-to-day media relations, they often fail to see the long term negative impact of retaliation against the media.”
Illustration by Joshua Ellingson
For Companies: Not a Game
While such a public gaffe can tarnish the image of a company in the eyes of the relatively small crowd of enthusiasts who follow the business closely, game companies are out for a larger audience. In today's hyper-competitive environment, with millions invested and millions up for grabs, the games industry is serious business.
“PR can be controlling, depending on the publisher and how they deal with their PR plans,” says Flagship's Tricia Gray. “This is because triple-A, next-gen games cost millions and millions of dollars to make. And at the end of two-to-five years, you roll two dice and hope a seven comes up. Otherwise you just dropped $25 million and ruined the lives of 30 or more people.... So don't blame them for being tightfisted. They're just trying to protect their investment the safest way they know how, even if that makes them seem like zealots.”
Cutting Out the Middle Man
While blackballing is usually a temporary punishment doled out to publications who find themselves on the wrong side of the marketing plan, a growing number of publisher-owned media outlets look to cut journalists completely out of the information food chain.
First came Larry Hryb, a Microsoft executive who blogs under the pseudonym Major Nelson. Hryb runs his own site, writes his own news stories, and records podcasts about all things Xbox from behind the corporate curtain. More recently, Luke Smith, News Editor for 1up.com, took a job with Halo developer Bungie, where he now conducts interviews and podcasts for direct distribution to the game's fans.
"I think there is a very interesting potential shift about how people are going to cover and get information about games,” said Smith in an interview with Kotaku. “Right now you have four bridges between developer and reader: Developer to PR, to journalist to reader. This could get rid of those middle two bridges.” Soon enough, as the Internet breaks the readerships of older, larger publications into smaller and smaller online communities, we might see publishers completely bypass independent editors and writers.
Without that filter, it will be up to readers to sort the newsworthy from the unremarkable, the back-of-the-box hyperbole from the honest assessment. But as long as the audience for gaming news continues to value quick, raw information over thoughtful analysis, the power may remain in the hands of those who own the information: The marketers and publicists.