Exclusive Video Game Reviews--No Easy Answer
There’s a lot of discussion flying around right now regarding IGN’s upcoming exclusive review of BioShock Infinite. Competitors are raising a stink while lots of players are saying it’s a case of sour grapes. The decision on whether to publish exclusive reviews was one of the most challenging I’ve faced in my career.
It was very difficult to turn down exclusive reviews at GameTrailers. It’s a question of eliminating doubt among users versus financial gain. We were offered them all the time and for the industry’s biggest games. Even after I would tell a publisher that our editorial policy didn’t allow for exclusive reviews, a month later they would ask again. And two months later they would ask again.
Some are saying that competing publications are raising concerns out of jealousy for IGN’s head start. While there may be some of that sentiment under the surface, it’s not the primary irritant. I’m certain they’ve been offered exclusive reviews many, many times. If they haven’t run any, it’s pretty safe to assume most of them have made a conscious decision not to.
There are huge incentives for publishing a review first. The obvious is that you get 100 percent of the review traffic right out of the gate. And in this case, you’re getting almost a week of that traffic on what many consider one of the first game of the year candidates of 2013. That’s a big deal in the immediate term, but it pays big dividends on down the road as well. Next Monday/Tuesday millions of typical game players will type “BioShock Infinite Review” into Google. Which site do you think will be the first result? Years from now folks will enter the same search query and get the same result.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a much bigger deal than people who do not work online realize. It’s the reason it’s practically impossible to topple IGN or GameSpot from the top two spots. When you’re embedded in search engines for almost a decade longer than your competitors, you can stop publishing new content altogether and still have a massive audience for years to come. It’s that powerful. And that’s likely why so many competing pubs are up in arms. Publishing a review first garners you much of the SEO juice for that game until the end of time.
Which leads me back to my initial statement: it’s difficult to turn down exclusive reviews. First, there are the immediate financial implications. Stakes are high. You’re literally leaving tens of thousands of advertising dollars on the table per review by not doing them. Your altruistic side says that eliminating any semblance of editorial ambiguity will pay off in long-term traffic gains. This never happens.
While a smattering of otaku will boycott a site if they think something’s amiss, most players just want the information as early as possible. In the industry, we call it drive-by traffic, but it still builds that ComScore for the month, and if you’re doing it consistently, it makes a massive fiscal difference over the long haul via SEO. With games coverage, there is very little financial incentive to be rigid with your editorial policies. It’s been one of the most disheartening realizations of my career.
It’s easy to sit on a high horse and condemn certain practices when you’re not emotionally invested in the company in question. What about the dozens of people who work at the publication who have nothing to do with editorial? They rely on their jobs to pay their rent/mortgage and put food on the table just like everyone else.
As a leader, you have to think about everyone at your company. You get to know them and learn about their hopes and dreams. It would be irresponsible to not consider them with every decision you make. It’s a tough position to be in. Something has to be said for the fact that IGN continues to publish exclusive reviews despite the criticism. If they hurt its brand or negatively affected its business it would stop.
In my 16 years of covering games professionally, I have admittedly lived in this somewhat delusional bubble as an editorial watchdog. Looking back, has it been the right decision? While you suffer financially for refusing exclusive reviews, it surely helps with perception, right?
Talk to many games journalists who have consistently tried to keep things buttoned-up and they’ll speak about how, no matter what they do, they’re still accused of nefarious editorial practices. All the negativity and pessimism make it easier to say, “Why bother?” From both a financial and perception standpoint, there’s very little positive reinforcement to be had.
I do not assume that any publication that makes a deal with a publisher to post a review early is doing it on the condition that the score be above a certain threshold. This kind of thinking is rooted in the madness of Internet paranoia. I also respect any site’s right to run their editorial however they see fit. They have to do what’s right for their business and workforce.
However, being completely candid, conversations I had with publishers where they eventually asked if we wanted to do an exclusive review almost always started with, “So how are you enjoying the game so far?” The response to that was always, “You’ll have to wait and see in our review.” I’m also not going to assume that this is the same conversation that happens with other publications, but that’s the way they approached me. And, to be fair, they never did straight-up ask me where the score was headed.
People often forget that behind all the forward-facing, personality-driven podcasts, editorials and reviews, these sites are businesses that are often expected to turn a big profit by the parent company. Making a nice chunk of cash often isn’t good enough. So you’re constantly faced with doing what you feel is 110 percent right, or doing something that will help the bottom line and all your employees. It can be easy to rationalize because you know you would never let anything questionable happen during the evaluation. But will the users believe you? Perhaps, more importantly, does the average video game consumer even care?
Do I regret being so militant throughout my career? In some ways, yes. I’d be a fool to not accept how my decisions have affected the bottom line over the years, and ultimately, my fellow employees. I’ve always said you win with class or you don’t win at all, but is it classier to look out for all your employees’ futures or doggedly adhere to a principle that is rarely rewarded? All I know is I find it easy to fall asleep every night.
Players can complain all they want about the integrity of video game journalism, but their clicks control everything. They need to be more aware of the fact that they alone will decide how video games are evaluated and covered in the years to come. If you’ve come to trust a particular site’s opinion, does it really matter if it publishes its review first? And if you don’t trust its opinion, you should probably ask yourself why you’re supporting it in the first place.