A Price Of Games Journalism

A Price Of Games Journalism

For the past two years, Kotaku has been blacklisted by Bethesda, the publisher of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. For the past year, we have also been, to a lesser degree, ostracized by Ubisoft, publisher of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and more.

In those periods of time, the PR and marketing wings of those two gaming giants have chosen to act as if Kotaku doesn’t exist. They have cut off our access to their games and creators, omitted us from their widespread mailings of early review copies and, most galling, ignored all of our requests for comment on any news stories.

Neither company has officially told us that we’ve been cut off. For a time, it was possible to make a good-faith assumption that this was just a short-term disagreement. Maybe their spam filters were misplacing our emails. Maybe they’d get over it. Or perhaps they feared a repeat of 2007, when then-Kotaku editor-in-chief Brian Crecente embarrassed Sony out of blacklisting this outlet for reporting the existence of then-unannounced PlayStation projects.

The truth is that we’ve been cut off from Bethesda since our December 2013 report detailing the existence of the then-secret Fallout 4. Ubisoft has been nearly radio silent since our December 2014 report detailing the existence of the then-unannounced Assassin’s Creed Victory (renamed Syndicate). When we ask representatives from either company for comment or clarification regarding breaking news, we hear nothing in response. When we ask them about their plans for upcoming games or seek to speak with one of their developers about one of their projects, it’s the same story. Total silence.

This has happened at a PR and marketing level, leaving any developers at those companies who do want to talk to us or who do want to facilitate Kotaku coverage of their games to do so on the sly. It is, after all, PR and marketing who try to control how big-budget video games are covered. If they or their bosses don’t value an outlet, that outlet is left out.

We’re far from the only gaming media outlet that has been blacklisted. It happens to smaller outlets. It happens to ones like Kotaku with millions of readers, too. It’s not an uncommon occurrence in gaming media, though it’s seldom discussed publicly.

The Bethesda blackout came after a year of reporting that was not always flattering to the Maryland-based publisher. In April of 2013 we reported insiders’ accounts of the troubled development of the still unreleased fourth major Doom game. In May of that year, we reported that Arkane Austin, the Bethesda-owned studio behind Dishonored, would be working on a new version of the long missing-in-action Prey 2 and that some at the studio were not pleased about that. When top people at Bethesda started making statements casting doubt on our reporting, we published a leaked internal email confirming that those statements had misled gamers and that Arkane had indeed been working on a version of Prey 2.

The current Ubisoft blackout is actually the second in as many years. The company tried a similar approach in the spring of 2014 after we published early images of the then-unannounced Assassin’s Creed Unity — images that had been leaked to us by an independent source. That article confirmed news about the company’s extraordinary plans to release two entirely different AC games in the fall of that year, one for new consoles and one for old. Ubisoft had warmed back to Kotaku by the summer of 2014, several months after the Unity report, but has cold-shouldered us since the Victory story one year ago. It’s possible other articles angered them, too. But that Victory piece is a safe bet.

I’m sure some people will sympathize with Bethesda and Ubisoft. Some will cheer these companies and hope others follow suit. They will see this kind of reporting as upsetting, as ruining surprises and frustrating creative people. They will claim we are “hurting video games,” and, as so many do, mistake the job of entertainment reporting for the mandate to hype entertainment products.

We serve our readers, not game companies, and will always do so to the best of our ability, no matter who in the gaming world is or isn’t angry with us at the moment. In some ways, the blacklist has even been instructive — cut off from press access and pre-release review copies, we have doubled down on our post-release “embedding” approach to games coverage. We’ve experienced some of the year’s biggest games from street level, at the same time and in the same way as our readers.

Some will think about all of this only in terms of numbers, focusing on the hundreds of thousands of pageviews we’ve gotten for our stories about leaked game announcements. Those stories have indeed done well. They are nevertheless a small part of what we do, and not something to which we devote much journalistic energy. I prefer to marshal our reporting to tell readers things they will otherwise never know or that they need to know sooner — the underpowered nature of upcoming hardware, the plight of fired game developers, the reason a high-profile game was released in rough shape.

At times, though, we’ll stumble on information about a new, unannounced game or, more often, will find some unsolicited information in our inbox. The news value to such leaks is often exceedingly obvious in what it says about the state of a game, a franchise, a console or a company. In such moments, it is nearly unfathomable to me that a reporter would sit on true information about what’s really happening in gaming, that we would refrain from telling our readers something because it would mess with a company’s marketing plan.

Too many big game publishers cling to an irrational expectation of secrecy and are rankled when the press shows them how unrealistic they’re being. There will always be a clash between independent reporters and those seek to control information, but many of these companies appear to believe that it is actually possible in 2015 for hundreds of people to work dozens of months on a video game and for no information about the project to seep out. They appear to believe that the general public will not find out about these games until their marketing plans say it’s time. They operate with the assumption that the press will not upend these plans, and should the press defy their assumption, they bring down the hammer. We make our own judgments about what information best serves the news value of a story, and what our readers would prefer not to know — which is why, for example, we omitted key plot details from the Fallout 4 scripts that were leaked to us. We keep covering these companies’ games, of course. Readers expect that. Millions of people still read our stories about them. The companies just leave themselves a little more out of the equation.

I’ve held my tongue in talking about Bethesda and Ubisoft publicly for a long time. I did so, initially, while trying to achieve mutual understanding with both companies behind the scenes. That failed. I prioritised covering these companies and their games as we would any other, reporting and critiquing them neither with rancor nor attempts to curry favour. I trusted that in time it would be appropriate to loop readers in.

In recent weeks, readers have asked questions. They have wondered why I, someone who has enthusiastically covered Assassin’s Creed games for years, didn’t review the most recent one. They have wondered why we didn’t seem to be subject to Fallout 4 embargoes of embargoes and why we didn’t have a review of that game on the day it came out. In both cases, we managed some timely coverage because Ubisoft and Bethesda did send review copies of their games to one of our remote freelancers, presumably with the hope he’d cover them for the other main outlet he writes for, The New York Times. Make no mistake, though, their efforts to shut out Kotaku have been unambiguous. Our colleagues across the US, Australia and the UK have been met with the same stony silence. Representatives from both publishers did not reply to requests to share their perspective for this story. Points for consistency.

For the better part of two years, two of the biggest video game publishers in the world have done their damnedest to make it as difficult as possible for Kotaku to cover their games. They have done so in apparent retaliation for the fact that we did our jobs as reporters and as critics. We told the truth about their games, sometimes in ways that disrupted a marketing plan, other times in ways that shone an unflattering light on their products and company practices. Both publishers’ actions demonstrate contempt for us and, by extension, the whole of the gaming press. They would hamper independent reporting in pursuit of a status quo in which video game journalists are little more than malleable, servile arms of a corporate sales apparatus. It is a state of affairs that we reject.

Kotaku readers always deserve the truth. You deserve our best work. It doesn’t matter which company is mad at us today, or which companies get mad at us in the future. You’ll continue to get it.

Image by Jim Cooke

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