Buying Positive Reviews: Poor Video Game Journalism
We get all sorts of interesting emails through the “Contact Us” form here on Forumwarz. Sometimes I even get hundreds of emails saying “EVIL TROUT IS A <uppercase racial slur removed>.”
Earlier this week, I got the following email (I’ve edited out the boring parts but I promise I didn’t remove anything important to their message):
From: Blog Writer
Subject: Marketing Op
Apologies for the cold-calling. I’m (name removed), and I’m co-manager and advertising lead over at a media company known as ‘The Three Rs’. Our main site/blog over at Reviews, Rants and Randomness attracts around everywhere from 10,000 to 55,000 hits a day from our global audience. Many of these views consist of a loyal readerbase, whilst attracting referrals from enterprises such as The Escapist Magazine, PC Gamer (UK) and ABC as well as our continuous close work with sites in the Gawker Media network (Kokatu and Gawker Artists respectively) [update from ET - see bottom of this post]. So, you know our credentials; what do we want from you?
As with all large-scale media outlets; we are continuously searching for advertising partners to work with our writers to get their message out there. Unlike traditional, simple banner advertising (which I deem to be somewhat ineffective in the age of Adblock), we opt for the approach of giving our advertisers a post of their own; basically a press release which speaks positively about their website and/or business. For examples of this in action, take a look at our coverage of the band Status Green, the free MMO Fallen Sword and, more recently, the promotion of Gawker Artists. As you can see, these posts consist of somewhat more than the average subtle image link; where our experienced (and, for the majority of the time, sincere and able) writers (including myself!) write thoroughly about your website, project or product. So far, our advertisers have reported great success rates (I believe the forum over at ARG had an increase in sign-ups by tenfold after we featured them). Our rates are reasonable and we charge on a case-by-case basis which is totally dependent and what you want.
I’ve always heard rumors about people buying good reviews from websites. Last year, Kotaku broke the news that Jeff Gerstmann was rumored to have been fired over his poor review of Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. I never thought I would be approached so directly about it though!
Perhaps I was mistaken about their intent. I sent them back an email to be sure:
From: Evil Trout
Wait, so essentially we’d be paying for a positive blog post about us? Isn’t that somewhat dishonest?
I got a reply the next day:
Hah! A common question, mon amie.
Not necessarily, Robin. We only contact businesses which appeal to our target audience, for a start. Secondly, they actually have to be good. This isn’t indiscriminate advertising, but rather we see that several sites across the net specifically have the potential to benefit from our fanbase and writing. Its not totally dishonest, because all we’re saying how great an already good site is. We don’t make out that our advertisers have encompasses a piece of divinity in their work, but we certainly do focus on the more positive aspects (Fallen Sword and ARG make two good examples – http://www.reviewsrantsrandomness.com/2008/03/16-17-fallen-sword.html and http://www.reviewsrantsrandomness.com/2008/03/21-48-argcom.html respectively.). Advertisers get a good review, audience and circumnavigating AdBlock, whilst readers get a decent post, somewhere to go on and new experiences; essentially, its a win-win for both sides, negating any real dishonesty that sets the foundations anyway.
First off, it’s kind of weird that he called me his female friend in French. I guess that kind of creepiness comes with having a gender-neutral first name (for the record, I’m a guy.)
It seems that their justification is that it’s not dishonest, because they only review things that they like already. However they will leave out the poor bits about a title and focus on the good ones.
Personally, I think that even if a writer likes a product, approaching someone for money in exchange for a good review is not only dishonest, it violates basic journalistic principles. Blogs such as this one with modest readership are probably under a lot less scrutiny than print magazines, but that doesn’t mean they should go about their business this way. I replied again:
From: Evil Trout
I’m sorry, no matter how you state it, you are asking for money in exchange for a good write-up.
I think that this kind of poor journalistic integrity would only end up hurting consumers. I would be very upset if I bought a bad game because of a review I found out was bought.
I wonder if this kind of practice is even legal? I doubt the police would ever knock on their doors, but at the very least this surely violates some kind of basic journalistic principles. I got his final reply this morning:
However, all of the stuff we do advertise (or, at least have in the past) has basically been free. Free to access and play. Its just about getting views in, not asking consumers to needlessly spend money directly. Again, its your loss if you worry about our integrity over spending more cash on shoving large, loud banners everywhere for 30% of our average success rate.
Ah, so it’s my loss if I’m worried about things like integrity.
First of all, I’m not worried about missing the opportunity to advertise to an audience of 10,000 hits a day. Who seriously judges traffic in hits anymore? We’re currently buying ads that are shown to hundreds of thousands of unique visitors per day. Forumwarz itself is serving more “hits” in five minutes than that site is serving in an entire day. Also, even if a banner ad gives 30% of your success rate, they are still bringing in many more multiples of users daily than your reviews would.
Even if our game was poorly received, it would be our own fault for building it poorly. The better way to increase our audience size would be to improve the game, rather than purchase positive criticism.
Finally, I think our users are just smarter than that. One reason we have a loyal user base is because they know we won’t stoop to levels like that. People can smell when things are fishy, and it would reflect poorly on us (not to mention the blog that wrote us up).
So not only can I provide a solid business case for “integrity,” but it helps me sleep at night too!
Update: Sep 16
I’ve been contacted by PC Gamer UK stating what I already suspected: this person who approached me has nothing to do with their magazine, and the only time they’ve referred to him was when they printed a letter of his stating their forum was down.
I probably should have said this when I first posted this: you should not believe that any of the third parties mentioned actually condone or support or have ever referred to what was suggesting in any way.