A bit of context for folks out there who might not know, care, other otherwise be involved in gaming: Kotaku is one of the bigger games media sites out there, falling within the umbrella of the Gawker media group, which is to say that it’s awful and you should never go there for anything. That having been said, they’ve been in the news lately, so I figure I’ll say my bit on it, since I am a gamer of sorts, and this does touch on larger issues regarding journalism in general.
A few days ago Kotaku posted an article bemoaning the fact that they’d been blacklisted by Bethesda and Ubisoft, two of the bigger games development companies out there. Why then would those two corporations allegedly blacklist one of the bigger sites out there for them to spread news through? Well, according to Kotaku, and if they are in fact blacklisted I would tend to agree with their reasoning here, it’s because they published unreleased information about games that were still in early development and that Bethesda and Ubisoft didn’t want anyone to know about yet.
It raises some interesting questions surrounding journalism in general and the subsets of such that could be defined most readily as “enthusiast press”. The thing is, games journalism revolves around games.
Journalism about media is uniquely positioned and vulnerable to things such as blacklists. There is, however, a time and a place to bite the hand that feeds you. Specifically, when it is in the public interest. If, say, Car and Driver published an article wherein they discovered that a major car manufacturer had produced a car with known safety flaws that had killed people more than once, they might expect to get blacklisted by that corporation, but it would be worth it. Not only that, but they could then publish an article bemoaning the fact that Corporation X blacklisted them for doing the right thing and let public outcry handle the rest.
Make no mistake, that’s the motivation behind Kotaku’s article. To try and leverage Bethesda and Ubisoft into taking them off the blacklist.
But that sort of opportunity is rarely possible in games journalism. Nobody is going to die if the next Call of Duty game doesn’t… I don’t know, include an advanced face-stabbing mechanic?
Sue me, I don’t play first person shooters. I get lost and run around in circles until someone who wasn’t born without an innate sense of direction puts me out of my misery.
The point though is that games and the people who make them are pretty much the only thing that games journalists can write about, and they’re things that happen fast. If you don’t have a review up and running for the latest game the day it goes live, chances are you can spare yourself the trouble of writing one at all, because nobody is going to bother reading it. You might do a more detailed retrospective later on, but you’ve missed out on an opportunity for those sweet sweet advertising dollars, and that’s that.
With other products, timeliness is less of an issue. People are willing to wait for a review of the latest car, or television, or blender, or whatever other bit of durable goods you care to name. But in things like games and movies… To quote the immortal Ricky Bobby: If you’re not first, you’re last.
Writing about people and corporate practices is still an option, of course, and probably the only time it’s worth biting that hand. While nobody will die from a game (except possibly epileptics), people’s lives can certainly be affected by the corporations they work for, and the public does have at least some interest in knowing if they’re supporting a corporation that treats its employees like garbage, or if some particular personality in the games industry is a duplicitous monster.
Kotaku, of course, being a giant pack of gossip-driven agenda-mongering idiots, burned their bridges over a few preview shots and some script leaks. Basically, they provoked the ire of two major developers, over spoilers.
Because spoilers get clicks, and clicks mean dollars. Kotaku can try to present themselves as working for their audience, but realistically they’re working for their advertisers. That means using their audience to drive ad revenue, and that typically means the sort of clickbait articles that way too many of you are probably sharing on Facebook right now.
So who’s the bad guy in this story?
There isn’t one. There’s nobody here that’s acting in a particularly egregious fashion, and nobody that’s covered themselves in glory through their utter nobility. What you do have is a situation where various groups made calculated business decisions, and one of them feels like they made a poor one and is trying to correct it without losing face.
That would be Kotaku.
As I said, by going public with the story of the blacklisting, they’re effectively trying to leverage Ubisoft and Bethesda into rescinding it rather than face public outcry over “shady” business practices. The thing is, they have relatively little incentive to do so.
What Kotaku did seems innocent enough, but think about just how fickle consumers are these days and you suddenly realize that displaying unfinished products can often have a significant negative effect on sales. Once word gets out that something is bad, regardless of where it is in the development process, and people will flee from it like it was crawling with plague rats. You can functionally guarantee that neither developer wanted Kotaku to run the stories they ran for that exact reason, and that Kotaku either ran them anyway despite the objection, or simply never asked to begin with. There’s no incentive then for developers to talk to Kotaku; if they will do what they feel is best for themselves, regardless of your needs, why would you?
There is, of course, one more thing regarding Kotaku.
Kotaku has been one of the nemeses for the Gamergate crowd pretty much since the day the hashtag was coined (to the point where what is basically the Gamergate board in Reddit is simply called KotakuInAction), and their rep among other core gamers isn’t all that much better. They’re a reasonably popular site still, but they don’t have a huge following that’s suddenly going to boycott two of the biggest developers over trivial concerns; most of the people who are so devoted to Kotaku as to consider such an action aren’t the ones buying the games in the first place.
You can’t lose a sale you never had to begin with.
Weighing your options, you’re faced with maybe losing a few sales by blacklisting Kotaku, maybe a few more if Kotaku tries to mobilize public opinion against you, but realistically you’ve a dozen other, more respected outlets who you haven’t blacklisted to advertise and hype for you, and won’t sting you halfway across the river.
Not a difficult choice at all.