Bethesda’s controversial decision last year to stop handing out review copies for their titles was slammed by both the press and gamers as a draconian and heavy-handed rebuttal to poor press for some of their previous titles. In essence, it was symptomatic of an increasing reliance upon aggregate scoring on sites like MetaCritic – where a number can decide the fate of not just sales but pay rates and bonuses for developer AND publisher staff. By delaying that score (at least 4 outlets need to publish their reviews before a score appears), Bethesda gains crucial days ahead of any potentially bad press to ship copies.
This is a problem because reviews are in many ways the only avenue most gamers must discover important game breaking bugs, omitted features, or dramatic shifts in what was promised or expected. Additionally, sending code to a wide variety of outlets can offer crucial differentiations in perception, since most reviewers tend to look for different things out of each title. Subjectivity is all part of the opinion building experience. Removing that avenue forces sites to rush their reviews (full of mistakes or with little progress) or push them out by weeks – well after the audience considers them useful.
So, a small local stoush that unfolded on Facebook yesterday afternoon caught my eye after fellow games journalist Joab Gilroy retweeted a Facebook screenshot of Rugby League 5 developer Big Ant Games claiming that a popular NRL Facebook page rubbished their game for clicks. They go on to mention that while “NRL Memes” claims to have received a review copy of this game, they in fact didn’t and that the following “Ethical outlets” were. Those outlets were Player2, Press Start and Nothing But League. Anonymous sources from other local sites claimed they either got copies, or passed them over when offered, while local outlet Stevivor already has a published review up on Metacritic.
The original post on NRL Meme’s Facebook page that Big Ant refers to is a savage review of the new game, focusing on broken mechanics that were not fixed from previous versions. In essence, the page was simply providing a subjective review to its (quite substantial) NRL loving audience. In most cases, PR would simply ignore the negative feedback or pass it onto the developer so they could ingest it in whatever way they felt practical. But by attacking the page, Big Ant not only drew the attention of its own followers to the poor review but directly insulted its biggest market AND other outlets who weren’t considered “ethical” – including those passed over due to previous negative reviews.
To make matters worse, NRL Memes did seem to receive an early copy – posting not only screenshots of the game downloading and being played before the release date, but also a screenshot of an email conversation with the developer or publisher (a bit of digging shows this was likely HES (Home Entertainment Suppliers – the publishers of the software) where a code was offered and accepted on the 20th of July. Presented with this information, Big Ant changed their story slightly, claiming that if the publisher did it, it still wasn’t them who provided it.
Publishers are usually always the entities providing review codes, as in most cases they either have internal sales/PR staff to promote their titles and other products. It’s not unusual at all for a publisher to provide codes to outlets without the developer knowing. But what’s strange here is the sheer animosity shown by the developer, publicly, against an outlet simply offering one of many reviews for a product that was been received almost uniformly in a lukewarm fashion. NRL Memes obviously received a code, and it was disingenuous for Big Ant to accuse them of lying when they hadn’t.
As journalists and other outlets providing game criticism become targets of attack from both gamers (expecting certain products to be good regardless of the reality) and developers/publishers, who both invest a lot of time and money into their properties and are obviously worried about their bottom line, it’s important to note that the media matters. If you are selling something of poor quality, consumers should be made aware of it before they buy it. Simply attacking them does little other than push people who might have given your title a chance away before they were made aware of its existence.
If a negative review contains misinformation, then of course it should be corrected. But handling negative feedback shouldn’t be done via public Facebook pages. Be civil. Take it to a calm and measured PM or email, and you may find a better result.