A Price Of Games Journalism
For the past two years, Kotaku has been blacklisted by Bethesda, the publisher of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. For the past year, we have also been, to a lesser degree, ostracized by Ubisoft, publisher of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and more.
In those periods of time, the PR and marketing wings of those two gaming giants have chosen to act as if Kotaku doesn’t exist. They’ve cut off our access to their games and creators, omitted us from their widespread mailings of early review copies and, most galling, ignored all of our requests for comment on any news stories.
Neither company has officially told us that we’ve been cut off. For a time, it was possible to make a good-faith assumption that this was just a short-term disagreement. Maybe their spam filters were misplacing our emails. Maybe they’d get over it. Or perhaps they feared a repeat of 2007, when then-Kotaku editor-in-chief Brian Crecente embarrassed Sony out of blacklisting this outlet for reporting the existence of then-unannounced PlayStation projects.
The truth is that we’ve been cut off from Bethesda since our December 2013 report detailing the existence of the then-secret Fallout 4. Ubisoft has been nearly radio silent since our December 2014 report detailing the existence of the then-unannounced Assassin’s Creed Victory (renamed Syndicate). When we ask representatives from either company for comment or clarification regarding breaking news, we hear nothing in response. When we ask them about their plans for upcoming games or seek to speak with one of their developers about one of their projects, it’s the same story. Total silence.
This has happened at a PR and marketing level, leaving any developers at those companies who do want to talk to us or who do want to facilitate Kotaku coverage of their games to do so on the sly. It is, after all, PR and marketing who try to control how big-budget video games are covered. If they or their bosses don’t value an outlet, that outlet is left out.
We’re far from the only gaming media outlet that has been blacklisted. It happens to smaller outlets. It happens to ones like Kotaku with millions of readers, too. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in gaming media, though it’s seldom discussed publicly.
The Bethesda blackout came after a year of reporting that was not always flattering to the Maryland-based publisher. In April of 2013 we reported insiders’ accounts of the troubled development of the still unreleased fourth major Doom game. In May of that year, we reported that Arkane Austin, the Bethesda-owned studio behind Dishonored, would be working on a new version of the long missing-in-action Prey 2 and that some at the studio were not pleased about that. When top people at Bethesda started making statements casting doubt on our reporting, we published a leaked internal e-mail confirming that those statements had misled gamers and that Arkane had indeed been working on a version of Prey 2.
The current Ubisoft blackout is actually the second in as many years. The company tried a similar approach in the spring of 2014 after we published early images of the then-unannounced Assassin’s Creed Unity—imagesthat had been leaked to us by an independent source. That article confirmed news about the company’s extraordinary plans to release two entirely different AC games in the fall of that year, one for new consoles and one for old. Ubisoft had warmed back to Kotaku by the summer of 2014, several months after the Unity report, but has cold-shouldered us since the Victory story one year ago. It’s possible other articles angered them, too. But that Victory piece is a safe bet.
I’m sure some people will sympathize with Bethesda and Ubisoft. Somewill cheer these companies and hope others follow suit. They will see this kind of reporting as upsetting, as ruining surprises and frustrating creative people. They will claim we are “hurting video games,” and, as so many do, mistake the job of entertainment reporting for the mandate to hype entertainment products.
We serve our readers, not game companies, and will always do so to the best of our ability, no matter who in the gaming world is or isn’t angry with us at the moment. In some ways, the blacklist has even been instructive—cut off from press access and pre-release review copies, we have doubled down on our post-release “embedding” approach to games coverage. We’ve experienced some of the year’s biggest games from street level, at the same time and in the same way as our readers.
Some will think about all of this only in terms of numbers, focusing on the hundreds of thousands of pageviews we’ve gotten for our stories about leaked game announcements. Those stories have indeed done well. They are nevertheless a small part of what we do, and not something to which we devote much journalistic energy. I prefer to marshal our reporting to tell readers things they’ll otherwise never know or that they need to know sooner—the underpowered nature of upcoming hardware, the plight of fired game developers, the reason a high-profile game was released in rough shape.
At times, though, we’ll stumble on information about a new, unannounced game or, more often, will find some unsolicited information in our inbox. The news value to such leaks is often exceedingly obvious in what it says about the state of a game, a franchise, a console or a company. In such moments, it is nearly unfathomable to me that a reporter would sit on true information about what’s really happening in gaming, that we would refrain from telling our readers something because it would mess with a company’s marketing plan.
Too many big game publishers cling to an irrational expectation of secrecy and are rankled when the press shows them how unrealistic they’re being. There will always be a clash between independent reporters and those seek to control information, but many of these companies appear to believe that it is actually possible in 2015 for hundreds of people to work dozens of months on a video game and for no information about the project to seep out. They appear to believe that the general public will not find out about these games until their marketing plans say it’s time. They operate with the assumption that the press will not upend these plans, and should the press defy their assumption, they bring down the hammer. We make our own judgments about what information best serves the news value of a story, and what our readers would prefer not to know—which is why, for example, we omitted key plot details from the Fallout 4 scripts that were leaked to us. We keep covering these companies’ games, of course. Readers expect that. Millions of people still read our stories about them. The companies just leave themselves a little more out of the equation.
I’ve held my tongue in talking about Bethesda and Ubisoft publicly for a long time. I did so, initially, while trying to achieve mutual understanding with both companies behind the scenes. That failed. I prioritized covering these companies and their games as we would any other, reporting and critiquing them neither with rancor nor attempts to curry favor. I trusted that in time it would be appropriate to loop readers in.
In recent weeks, readers have asked questions. They’ve wondered why I, someone who has enthusiastically covered Assassin’s Creed games for years, didn’t review the most recent one. They’ve wondered why we didn’t seem to be subject to Fallout 4 embargoes of embargoes and why we didn’t have a review of that game on the day it came out. In both cases, we managed some timely coverage because Ubisoft and Bethesda did send review copies of their games to one of our remote freelancers, presumably with the hope he’d cover them for the other main outlet he writes for, The New York Times. Make no mistake, though, their efforts to shut out Kotaku have been unambiguous. Our colleagues across the world in Australia and the UK have been met with the same stony silence. Representatives from both publishers did not reply to requests to share their perspective for this story. Points for consistency.
For the better part of two years, two of the biggest video game publishers in the world have done their damnedest to make it as difficult as possible for Kotaku to cover their games. They have done so in apparent retaliation for the fact that we did our jobs as reporters and as critics. We told the truth about their games, sometimes in ways that disrupted a marketing plan, other times in ways that shone an unflattering light on their products and company practices. Both publishers’ actions demonstrate contempt for us and, by extension, the whole of the gaming press. They would hamper independent reporting in pursuit of a status quo in which video game journalists are little more than malleable, servile arms of a corporate sales apparatus. It is a state of affairs that we reject.
Kotaku readers always deserve the truth. You deserve our best work. It doesn’t matter which company is mad at us today, or which companies get mad at us in the future. You’ll continue to get it.
What other publications think on this:
Ars Technica: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2015/1...-gaming-press/
Who has the power here?
That’s far from guaranteed to happen this time around. Since Kotaku published the blacklisting details, many journalists and readers have cheered the site for asserting its independence and arguing that publishers should be less reactionary over a few stories they weren’t able to control.
More and more, though, I’ve seen people making the kinds of arguments discussed above. They're not especially sympathetic to Kotaku's argument that publishers are trying to "hamper independent reporting in pursuit of a status quo in which video game journalists are little more than malleable, servile arms of a corporate sales apparatus."
And the fact is that Bethesda and Ubisoft don't need a site like Kotaku in the way they once did. In 2007, Kotaku had risen from a blogging upstart to become one of the most important sites in the gaming press, a widely read source that helped to drive the daily conversation in the industry. Back then, getting on the bad side of Kotaku’s writers and readers was enough to make Sony think twice about its planned retaliation for a rumor post.
Today, the market for gaming information and opinions is far more fragmented. Kotaku remains a major outlet, but many players now get their gaming news and opinions directly from the publishers' own blogs, from cult-of-personality YouTubers and Twitch streamers, or from a firehose of tidbits that they happen to see on Twitter or Facebook.
In this environment, it’s hard for any one outlet to demand cooperation from the biggest publishers; those publishers have countless other effective methods to get their message out. These publishers also know that early interviews, previews, and review access are a big part of the lifeblood of a site like Kotaku and that readers may well start looking elsewhere if that lifeblood is cut off. These publishers hope that controlling such access is enough to prevent sites like Kotaku from messing with their marketing plans by reporting true but inconvenient information.
Kotaku has gone a long way to proving this wrong. Despite months of blacklisting, they've stuck to their guns, running "unapproved" news from insider sources while finding creative ways to deal with their newfound lack of access. We hope readers will continue to appreciate their efforts to deliver important industry information that hasn't been spoonfed despite the efforts of some of the powerful companies they cover.
You want to write about layoffs, bad business work environments, canceled games, go for it. But stop trying to claim to be something you’re not. Kotaku is a tabloid, and this argument that they post about leaked games for “truth” instead of pageviews is a blatant lie.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to write about leaks, but don’t justify them as “truth”. There is a big difference between being truthful in your reporting of a game and simply leaking information just for the hell of it. For example, I was truthful in my review of Fallout 4, and guess what, it didn't involve me spoiling the setting months in advance.
Don’t play the game, Kotaku, and then complain when you get burned. You published significant Fallout 4 leaks years before the reveal. Imagine the backlash Bethesda would have suffered had the game, for some reason, been canceled before its full announcement. Marketing plans exist not to screw over the press or the average consumer (that's what DLC is for); they exist as a carefully constructed (usually) plan to unveil specific things when they are ready to be fully announced. Don’t attempt to use “reporting truth” as a defense for spoiling these companies’ plans early.
A game publication has a responsibility to its readers first and foremost. As Totilo notes, “We serve our readers, not game companies, and will always do so to the best of our ability, no matter who in the gaming world is or isn’t angry with us at the moment.”
Maintaining a good relationship with the industry is important, too, but not at the cost of doing the right thing. If I, as a journalist, vet my sources and give the companies and individuals I cover a chance to tell their side of the story, then the only wrong I can do is not
give my readers the information they deserve.
A good PR team will treat leaks not as a crisis, but as an opportunity. Leaks go viral. Leaks build hype. Even controversy can help a game get more attention. Good PR will bend the circumstances to fit their agenda; lousy PR will retaliate with petty retribution.
So as you read this, as you discuss Kotaku, I hope you can look beyond your dislike for any of the personalities involved. You may not like Kotaku, you may not like Totilo, you may not like me. None of that matters. All that matters is that we understand what each of our roles in this is. A journalist’s job is to tell the truth to their readers, even if that upsets the powers that be. A company can retaliate for this, too. That’s their right. But just because it’s their right, doesn’t make it the right thing to do.
After all, while Bethesda is quite literally retaliating against Kotaku for posting leaked information about Fallout 4
, Kotaku is not, in turn, punishing Bethesda with a bad review of that game. Their review is actually quite positive
, giving the game a big green YES. They could have been petty and retaliated in the same way, but they chose not to. That matters.
Nor do I think Bethesda and Ubisoft are somehow “bad guys” for any of this. I think they’re wrong but I think both companies do plenty things right also, and I respect and admire what they do well even while condemning bad actions. It’s a nuanced world we live in, folks. Them’s the breaks.