PR and the Game Media: Changing Review Scores, Blackballing Dissenters

Gamasutra has written up a startling new article that reveals the necessary, precarious, and often cutthroat relationship between the gaming press and the industry's public relations army. Altered review scores and corporate retribution are par for the course, in what amounts to a highly critical account of the process behind your typical Grand Theft Auto review.

"In part, it's a numbers game," said former Rockstar Games PR man Todd Zuniga on deciding which media outlet to give coverage. "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."

Zuniga was particularly critical of Rockstar: "Our bosses tried to intimidate us into doing everything we could [to change a review score]--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."

Flagship's Tricia Gray has had similar experiences: "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."

"Even the lamest line of text that didn't praise the game would be viewed as a sleight," added Zuniga. "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."

Kotaku is given as one example of a media outlet having to deal with blackballing, a term used to describe the denial of access a company employs as a means of retribution against a media outlet.

After Kotaku's Brian Crecente broke a story on Sony's PlayStation Home, he received an email from Sony PR head David Karraker: "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..."

Crescente isn't upset about the email, however. "I posted it because I thought it provided an interesting glimpse into the way things are done in the industry," he told Gamasutra. "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."

While blackballing seems to get a certain message across, veteran publicist Laura Heeb Mustard recommends another strategy. "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," she remarked. "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."

From The Chatty
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    August 10, 2007 9:00 AM

    I can't help but think of Perfect Dark Zero while reading that.

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      August 10, 2007 9:47 AM

      any tales of shacknews getting leaned on? or are we too small for them to care?

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        August 10, 2007 9:56 AM

        shacknews does game reviews?

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          August 10, 2007 10:05 AM

          It seems like previews factor into it too.

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        August 10, 2007 10:05 AM

        we've been asked to slant previews of games along side advertising campaign buys.. but that hasnt happened in a few years.

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        August 10, 2007 10:06 AM

        We don't score games.

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          August 10, 2007 11:04 AM

          so it's only scores they care about? not just tone?

          ie: this = teh suck

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      August 10, 2007 9:58 AM

      PDZ or Kameo. Both were completely average games in my opinion.

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        August 10, 2007 10:14 AM

        most first gen games usually are only average.

        What are everyone's top 5 favorite launch titles?

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          August 10, 2007 12:11 PM


          Soul Calibur, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Halo, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.

          But yeah, most launch titles are garbage.

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            August 10, 2007 12:16 PM

            I dunno if twilight princess counts as a launch title really. It is just a GC title with Wii bootup, reversed display, and maybe some improved textures. And it still came out for the gc as well. Decent port mind you, but still more of a port :)

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              August 11, 2007 5:20 AM

              I was thinking about that too, but ultimately, it launched on Wii first, a full month before the Gamecube version, so I'm counting it as a launch title.

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