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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Publisher Power

After frequenting videogame websites for the best part of my adult life, there is always one overriding criticism of journalists and website alike that remains prevalent: the question of bias. Despite the claims of journalists and admin to the contrary, the question of whether publisher power hinders free and honest debate amongst the videogame press, and/or defines a site’s corporate direction, crops up time and time again.

However, having worked and experienced the industry from the inside, I often feel that these, albeit sometimes overly aggressive and whiny, criticisms aren’t given a fair hearing. I mean, we all know how businesses are run, right? We all know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. So why should we simply trust journalists and websites whose existence is primarily controlled by the corporations they report on?
Is not fair to say that without a good relationship with a publisher a website would get any exclusive content and therefore eventually fail to exist as a business? Is it not fair to surmise that if a publisher throws a games website a huge exclusive-interview sized bone, it, as a business, expects a return of some sort? 

Is it not fair to ask whether EA and BioWare now expect something in return after announcing the release date of the most expensive videogame of all time at their in-house trade show?
The simple fact is, that without videogame advertising, gaming sites cannot exist. Site admin know this, publishers more than know this.
As I stated earlier, I have worked in the industry and below are a couple stories that clearly underline the power publishers have over a large section of the videogame website industry:

I remember when a brand new trailer was being released for a highly anticipated RPG at a certain date, and a certain time – nothing out of the ordinary. We were all waiting to be allowed to publish it, fingers at the ready. Not only would this new trailer encourage traffic to our site, it of course, would also generate masses of new hype for this much sort-after sequel. However, about an hour before we could push the red button we received an email informing us that the video was intended for US audiences only.

Surely as soon as something is in the public domain, it’s public, right? Wrong. We put it live. We were immediately sent an email asking us to take it down or the publisher would never work with the site again. Our hands were tied.

There’s more: “Here’s some screenshots that we’ll allow you to publish so you can promote our game for us. But wait, you can only do it after a bigger site goes with them first,” or, “Here’s some review code, however if the score is less an ‘8’ please hold it back until the day after everyone else goes live or else we’ll never send you code again and thus strangle your traffic.” Better still, “We thought your review was unfair, we’re never going to talk to you again.” It happens every day. No-one does anything about it. It’s all part of ‘the game,’ apparently.

Now, sites such as Kotaku, IGN, CVG and Eurogamer can roll with the punches as their user base and following is such that they can continue to generate publisher funded ad revenue regardless of the threat of a refusal to do future business. However, if you’re starting out, such a rapport is unfortunately fundamental to success. Publishers throwing their weight around like playground bullies, while larger sites look on perhaps disapprovingly but essentially not doing anything, helps no-one. It’s the classic case of “I’m all right (financially), Jack.” However, what it won’t do is improve the major sites’ status as wholly independent and free from bias; ones that are free to publish exactly what they want, when they want, without having to toe the publisher party line. It also sends out the signal that you have to play ball in order to succeed; you have to make concessions; you have to control your content.

In my opinion, sites should start looking out for each other. I.e. next time the industry gets wind of a publisher punishing a site for whatever reason, the whole journalistic community should take a stand. Not in the name of fair business (no such thing), but to fly the flag for fair and unfettered journalism. If a site is poorly written and/or poorly presented, it’ll die of its own accord no matter if it plays by publisher PR’s rules or not. However, the fact remains that many a small site’s demise is decided by the very corporation(s) it’s helping to generate money for. A site should live and die by the quality of its content, not whether it does what it’s told.

So, let’s ask the question again, but let’s ask it as a community that wants video game journalism to be free of constraint and playing the game. Most of all, let’s hope for a straight answer:

What video game website publishes what it wants, when it wants, without fear of repercussion? And, more importantly, if not, what are you all going to do about it? 

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