Recently, it was revealed by Norwegian news site NRK (an English write-up is available at BF3Blog) that Electronic Arts had been manipulating reviews of Battlefield 3 in that region, largely by withholding review copies from sites that had been critical of Battlefield in the past, and in extreme cases, making sites who wanted review copies of the game fill out a question form asking them how much promotion they’ve done of Battlefield, if the reviewer was a Call of Duty fan, and other questions to weed out anyone who might even think a bad score of 8.5 to a game. In short, it was a cynical ploy from a company that’s done everything short of spray graffiti on Activision’s offices in marketing their game.
Here at Gaming Bus, we believe in bringing back at least the spirit of proper journalism, which means getting off of the proverbial tit of publishers. Like in most “enthusiast” presses, where being first equals being relevant, advertising money is dolled out by click totals, and without publisher access both are incredibly hard to come by, the larger games sites – many of whom are owned by massive public conglomerates whose one and only goal is to make money by any means legally possible – have no problems granting favours to the publishers. It’s a vicious cycle; these sites get early access from publishers, who now have leverage to use that access in a carrot/stick relationship with sites who don’t want to play nice, sites who will suffer because fans will go to whoever’s first, not necessarily who’s good. It’s why IGN continuously gets “exclusive” reviews that just happen to all be above 9.0s, and it’s why a lot of writers who are almost openly bought off and continuously give slobbery reviews to AAA developed games continue to have gainful employment. In short, it’s financially viable to be a publisher’s bitch, for lack of a more polite term.
However, one of the benefits of owning my own site is that I get to determine what is financially viable or not. I have wanted the opportunity to put my money where my mouth is for all of the years I’ve written about games. As the one who pays the bills, I have the right. And my business model for Gaming Bus is to cultivate a few hundred dedicated followers who trust us over a hundred thousand yahoos coming in off of Google, who stop by just long enough to call us gay, nazis, homosexual slangs, or “noobs”, a term I thought had died off years ago.
Therefore, I’ve made the decision to embargo all non-news coverage of Electronic Arts for the rest of the year, effective immediately. We will still cover factually based news items (financials, etc.), but we will not host previews, reviews, or other coverage of the company, their games, or anything from their subsidiaries. This means that a review of NHL ’12 that I was working on, and a preview of Star Wars: The Old Republic that Brandon was going to write, will not go live.
This decision does not come lightly, as I am fully aware that offending a company EA’s size will have an adverse affect on our visibility, could offend other AAA publishers, and will set us up for scorn in some circles, from people either saying that we/I hate Battlefield (not true, I actually think it’s a good series) and EA (bullshit, I’m playing NHL ’12 *as I speak*), to people mocking us because we’re a small site and who gives a crap about a site with an average of about 700 hits a day, right? It’s true we’re small, and we won’t make a dent in Electronic Arts’ policies or the business practices of sites who cater to the wills of larger publishers to line their coffers. However, this is about our writers, our readers, and our integrity. I will put my money where my mouth is, and say that I would much rather cultivate 500 readers that trust us and read us regularly than cater to the whims of search engines, who will bring in 10,000 fickle readers who will likely never come back.
This is about integrity. The VG Chartz problem exposed an uncomfortable truth: they aren’t the only site – by a mile – who are willing to sacrifice their journalistic integrity for the sake of “doing business” in the internet age. Trust me when I say it’s more common than some people think. I grew up with Steve Harris of Electronic Gaming Monthly telling Acclaim to take their advertising money and shove it over threats to pull advertising from Total Recall. Even if I’m screaming into a wind tunnel, I will run my business with similar principles. Though it will make me poorer, and get me a few dirty looks from some of the few PR folks in the industry I am actually friendly with, I’ll at least be able to look at myself in the morning.
EDIT: I am aware that EA Norway has apologized for this incident. Frankly, it’s too little, too late. Furthermore, I refuse to believe that such a coordinated decision was the act of a rouge PR worker.
POSTSCRIPT – 3/21/12: I see people are coming in from the Forbes piece regarding Jeff Gerstmann. Hi, Forbes!
I just wanted to give a postscript on this situation and point out that in a company the size of EA, there are good elements. Soon after this piece went up, Popcap, who was bought out by EA earlier in 2011, sent Gaming Bus a copy of the DS version of Bejeweled 3. Being the first boxed product that we’d received for review, it was a hell of a milestone. Furthermore, I was sure at the time that Popcap was still running their own PR department, and weren’t totally beholden to corporate EA headquarters.
Despite this, I held to my embargo and sent the game back. I did this fully expecting to be removed from Popcap’s mailing list – I’m sure being told “sorry, but we won’t review your game because your parent company pissed us off” offended them – but deciding that my word would be no good if I reviewed their game. They asked if we wanted to be removed from their list, and I let them know that I would love to work with them in 2012.
For Christmas, they sent me a PR box that included a 3D Viewmaster with slides advertising their coming games, and some standees of their characters including the plants and zombies from Plants vs. Zombies. It is typically Gaming Bus policy that we don’t accept “swag” from publishers in order to keep the relationship professional, but I relaxed the rule this time, mostly because my mother wanted the Viewmaster.
Later, they sent me a copy of Zuma’s Revenge! for DS, which I wrote a largely ambivalent review for. Despite this, they still talk to us.
We at Gaming Bus took a stand, held to our principles, and made a point that easily could have hurt us. Instead, it didn’t affect us in the slightest, we have a good relationship with the publisher (these things ARE important in this industry, so long as integrity remains), and we kept to our high-ideal mission statement. Everyone won.
Some sites could use that lesson from time to time.