Editor’s Letter in Progress

Editor’s Letter is a series of ongoing articles on the state of PSLS, its future and the future of the industry as a whole.

Exclusive content is what every site, and every editor, craves. It’s part of what makes a site unique, makes it different from the vast multitude of competitors all vying for a finite audience.

There are two kinds of exclusive content:

  1. Home-grown – exclusive scoops, features and articles that a site has created under its own initiative. Like the one you are reading right now.
  2. Given – exclusive game announcements, reviews or trailers that are arranged by the publisher or developer of the title.

Now home-grown content is clearly the one that requires actual (albeit often limited) investigative journalism skills, or (hopefully) quality feature writing skills. The site has to work to get that content: the impact of the scoop depends on the writer and how good he is at hunting them down, and the quality and enjoyment of any features depends on how well it is written, and if it’s on a point that’s worth making.

Given content, however, requires a site to be given content (shocking). For the purposes of this editorial, I’ll look at exclusive given content from publishers, but it should be noted that indie developers often give small exclusives to sites they like. Publishers, however, generally focus on the stats. They obviously want as many people to hear about their game, so they find out how many hits a site gets and give out exclusive content accordingly, just like they do with viewer numbers and engagement for events like the VGAs and shows like GTTV. As an editor for a reasonably sized, but not GameSpot/IGN sized, site, I’ll admit it’s a tad annoying, but perfectly understandable.

What is far more chilling, however, is exclusive reviews. That shows close collaboration and interaction with a publisher over a content that is supposed to be a critical analysis. The problem is that an exclusive review guarantees lots of traffic (revenue) and lots of prestige (long term traffic/revenue). That’s one hell of a powerful allure, which is why many games journalists are up in arms about IGN grabbing a timed exclusive review deal for 2K’s BioShock Infinite.

On Twitter, I conversed with equally outraged Geoff Keighley of GTTV and a confused Associate Editor of IGN, Mitch Dyer, as well as some other journos, about the ethics of having exclusive access to a review. Dyer argued that (edited for correctness) “The notion, especially from my peers, that [it’s] corrupt is sad”, apparently oblivious to the possibility of bias or corruption. He also came out with such gems as “@geoffkeighley to me, it’s less grosser to arrange exclusivity for a largely and expected my positive preview or reveal than a criticism”, which I still don’t understand.

But Keighley’s main worry was that bias, or the appearance of bias, or even worry of bias by the writer (that they score the game lower to not look biased) renders the entire review utterly pointless and damaging. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but question how the deal came about, and why it was accompanied by a week of publisher-provided exclusive content titled (in PR-ish speak) “BioShock Week”. Dyer remained coy on how 2K and IGN came to agree on an exclusive contract and, after 6 hours, curtly said “Having the audience + asking = simple math.”

But “asking” is horrifically vague, and the fact that he won’t specify does lead one to wonder. The problem is, we don’t know if IGN had already written the review, shown it to 2K and then been granted an exclusive – and PR people do ask to see reviews before they’re published, trust me. If that’s what happened, that can lead to a cycle of high scored reviews being sent off to publishers in the hope of an exclusive in return. Which is, of course, horrifically damaging to the games industry, consumers and games journalism.

I haven’t played it, but BioShock Infinite is probably going to be very good. However, even the best of games has received a bad review from at least one major publication, due to the fact that every reviewer has an individual opinion.

Do you really think 2K would risk letting a hugely publicized review on a massive website go up days before anyone else for one of their biggest games without knowing the score, without knowing that they’ll be safe? I find that hard to believe, and we won’t know unless IGN comes clean.

– Sebastian Moss, Editor-in-Chief, PSLS