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State of Games Journalism, Part II: Press Talks Publishers, Pressure

Continuing Gamasutra's look at the state of game journalism, notable game site/magazine editors debate issues including publisher pressure ("not something we've ever experienced") and the pertinence of review scores ("a useful gauge... adds context").
The specialist gaming press often gets a bad rap. Viewed as little more than hobbyists covering an adolescent industry, game journalists tend to get little respect from their peers, while bearing the brunt of vicious skepticism from their audience. This stereotypical overview is grim, but the gaming press is far from impotent -- it's got enviable raw readership figures to prove it, and even small publications can exert a considerable global influence on the industry in a way that few other specialists can. Following a first instalment extracted from a larger feature spotlighting the state of the games press in 2008, GameSetWatch spoke to a few leading editors on a broad range of issues it faces -- here, discussing the often tenuous relationship between publishers, advertisers and journalists when it comes to coverage and reviews. Pressure And Influence Though horror stories about advertisers leaning on publications in an attempt to influence review scores are common, Edge Magazine's Tony Mott says, "That's not something we've ever experienced on Edge." IGN's Tal Blevins stresses the separation between the site's editorial and sales departments, who "even work on different floors in our office building." Says Blevins, "The editorial teams have no prior knowledge to what ads are running before they appear on the site, and don't know how much a publisher is spending on any given campaign." Eurogamer's Tom Bramwell bluntly states that his method for dealing with publisher pressure is to have "absolutely no professional connection with them whatsoever!" Nonetheless, fallout does happen between the industry and the press. So in what ways do publishers levy reprisal? The Penalties Edge's Mott says, "I honestly don’t think anyone bothers to try that sort of stuff with us, so I couldn’t say. While IGN's Blevins says it's a rare occurrence, "We have had a few requests not to run a review before a product is released unless we give it a favorable score – which we’ve never agreed to and violates our editorial review policy." Some publishers, he says, also withhold pre-release review builds unless they get a promise of a certain score, and Blevins says IGN never agrees to that, either. "We would never change our score just to post a review early, so we just wait until the game is publicly available in stores," he says. "At that point, we go and buy the game and rate it as we see fit." Eurogamer's Bramwell says that in his experience, few publishers engage in these tactics. "The ones who do will threaten to withdraw advertising money or access to games we want to write about," he says. "My boss insulates me from the former and sometimes you have to accept the latter." So when the publisher tries to bring the hammer down, what's the worse that can happen? "We may get a terse phone call after the fact, but it usually doesn't affect the relationship in the long run," Blevins says. "The publishers understand that we have to maintain an independent voice lest we damage our credibility with our readers." Says Bramwell, "We've had five-figure advertising deals pulled and I've been shouted at on the phone a number of times." Scores: Pointless or Pertinent? The reasoning behind publisher pressure most often comes down to review scores. If that's the case, why even keep them? "It's a weird one," says Mott. "On the one hand, you want to say that you shouldn't need to put a number at the end of an opinion in order to communicate what you think, but then you look at how people talk about your magazine and see that most of the discussion centers on the numbers that appear at the end of its reviews." Mott recalls a time when he wasn't working on Edge, when the team experimented with removing review scores. It didn't work, he recalls, because the scores just appeared in a group at the review section's end rather than alongside the individual reviews. He says he'd be amenable to trying that again, without including scores at all this time -- "I’m not convinced that the majority of readers would really go for it, though." Says Mott, "The problem, I think, is that review scores have existed for so many years that they've become deeply embedded in the commercial critical process. So it’s a conditioning thing." Blevins says scores are pertinent, but not the end-all. "Review scores are a useful gauge for readers to compare games that are released around the same time on the same platform," he says. "Seriously though, you can't compare an Xbox 360 score today to a PC score from 1993 -- but they don't live by themselves; the text is the most important part of any review, and should do the job of explaining what a score means." Blevins points out that many of the arguments around IGN's review scores tend to focus on a small point value in the number, rather than debating assertions made in the text. Finally, Eurogamer's Bramwell doesn't see "absolutes" in the debate. "Review scores add context to a writer's comments and I find them valuable," he says. "I think our readers do too, although there are always debates about how things are weighted or explained."

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