Falling out with Bethesda: Why Kotaku’s ‘blacklisting’ highlights what’s wrong with games journalism

Kotaku is annoyed. The Gawker owned blog is undoubtedly one of the most read games websites on the planet, yet it claims it’s currently being “blacklisted” by two major publishers; Bethesda of Fallout fame, and the multi-IP behemoth that is French giant Ubisoft.

In a post penned by editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo, Kotaku claims it hasn’t been officially told by either party that the publication has been struck off their respected press lists, but it deduces that it has been left isolated because of a story “detailing the existence of the then-secret Fallout 4” back in December 2013 and, in the case of Ubisoft, because of a report on the “then-unannounced Assassin’s Creed Victory (renamed Syndicate)” a year later.

In the post, Totilo manages to hit the nail on the head and, conversely, miss the point entirely, all within one passage of prose. “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,” he details. “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.”

Indeed, having dipped by toe in this field myself (albeit not at the level of a mammoth title like Fallout 4 or Assassin’s Creed Syndicate), I can say Totilo is exactly right: when it comes to targeting the games media, you reach out to the outlets who you believe are likely to give your game the most favourable coverage. You make connections and build relationships with publications that have an audience valuable to the game in question, and you send those sites and magazines information and resources designed to build the profile of the game with their readers. There’s nothing underhand about that – PR isn’t an attempt to give a balanced view of a product, but rather it’s a tool used to make sure the positive messages about the game are heard. The press is, of course, free to use the information PR sends out in any way it chooses, just as PR departments are free to leave publications out of the loop in the future if the coverage they provide isn’t helpful to their cause.

Bethesda’s Fallout 4

Now, lets make things clear: the best PR in the world can’t polish a turd, and if a publisher is pushing out a constant stream of shit games, it will be found out by the press and gamers at large. All the best relationships in the world can’t fashion positive coverage for a crap release. On the same note, if a PR department or agency ‘blacklists’ every publication that publishes negative articles for a game that deserves such downbeat coverage, then it’ll soon find it has absolutely nowhere to turn. Nevertheless, the point remains that it’s entirely down to PR to determine who it wants to talk to and who it doesn’t. Just because you’re a prominent games website or magazine doesn’t mean you automatically qualify for pre-release review code, interviews with the development team or press releases laying out game info in black and white.

Without wanting to put on a pair of rose tinted spectacles, when I grew up, magazines had genuine exclusives, month after month. Games would be reviewed earlier in some magazines than others because the publishers in question deemed it would serve their cause the best, or because they had a good relationship with the publication in question. That was part and parcel of the release process and, though no doubt mags that missed out on key early reviews and features were annoyed, it wasn’t in any way unusual or strange for some publications to be favoured over others.

Things have of course changed and publishers now realise that, thanks to the advent of the internet and websites offering games coverage without charge, readers are fluid beasts who dart from one site to another. There’s no such thing as a loyal reader any  more: you or I could read up about the latest Fallout release by clicking on a link from our Twitter feed that takes us to a site we’ve never even heard of before. That’s how the internet works and, as a result, games PR has adopted a much more open, expansive position to deal with it. Now websites and magazines are given early access to games en masse and, as Kotaku is no doubt aware, it’s unusual for one of the ‘big boys’ to find themselves left out in the cold. Nevertheless, it remains the prerogative of Bethesda and Ubisoft to pick and choose the press they want to talk to, just as it is Kotaku’s prerogative to pick and choose the games it covers.

I think this is what most sticks out about the Kotaku editorial for me: a slight sense of entitlement. “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,” continues Totilo in the piece. “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.”

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

What’s curious about this statement by Totilo is that, earlier on in the article, he claims that the ‘blacklisting’ has, in a way, helped Kotaku. It has helped the site experience these big budget releases just as the consumer does, he says, and they’ve published a host of post release articles that, as far as page views go, have done very well. Yet, in this passage he claims that Bethesda and Ubisoft’s refusal to send them review code ahead of release is an attempt to “make it as difficult as possible for Kotaku to cover their games.” If that was their objective, then they’ve failed, as Totilo himself makes plain throughout his editorial. There are articles aplenty about both games on Kotaku – had Totilo not pointed out the ‘blacklisting’, it’s likely most readers wouldn’t have even noticed it existed.

Furthermore, we don’t actually know why Bethesda and Ubisoft aren’t talking to Kotaku. Totilo feels certain that it’s because the site has laid open many ‘secrets’ about both publishers’ games ahead of release but, actually, it could be down to any number of reasons. As painful as it is for the games press to digest, its role as a buying guide for the average publisher has been massively eroded over the last 10-15 years. Most people no longer use websites and magazines as guides to what games they should or should not buy, instead reading articles about games they like because…well, they like reading articles about games they like. It would appear that, for whatever reason, both Bethesda and Ubisoft have decided that a lack of pre-release reviews on Kotaku was unlikely to harm sales of Fallout 4 and the latest Assassin’s Creed all too much. A brief glance at the charts on both sides of the pond would suggest they were right, however petty it may seem on their part.

So it may actually be that Kotaku and some other publications no longer feature on the radar of Bethesda and Ubisoft because they simply don’t have much influence over the sales of the two publishers’ games. The rise of YouTubers and social media has moved into the space once occupied by the games media, and that’s something even some of the most savvy games journalists are struggling to accept.

What’s more, Totilo’s decision to take Kotaku’s apparent issues with Bethesda and Ubisoft to a dedicated editorial smacks of an attempt to shame the two parties into reconnecting with the website. As one reader comments below the article, if Kotaku was worried that is readers were starting to question why there was less Fallout 4 or Assassin’s Creed Syndicate coverage than they were expecting, wouldn’t a simple tweet have done? Did the site’s dirty laundry really have to be laid out in such a public manner?

I think Totilo’s feelings tap into what is one of the wider problems with games journalism: much of it simply isn’t journalism. I’m not sure if any of the publications I’ve ever written for have ever been ‘blacklisted’, but I have had plenty of attempts to piece together an article stalled by a complete lack of contact from the publishers of the games I’ve been looking to write about. What do you do when that happens? You find another way. You speak to other people. You do a bit of investigation. You don’t take to the web to complain simply because a publisher’s PR department isn’t spoon feeding you press releases and cosy interview opportunities.

If your definition of games journalism revolves around reviewing games that multiple other websites will review at the exact same time as you and piecing together news stories based on the very same press releases and interviews offered to your rivals, then I can understand why being ‘blacklisted’ would be something of a problem, but I think that says more about the state of games journalism as a whole than it does any spat between Kotaku and prominent games publishers. In short, Totilo should keep doing what he and his colleagues have been doing – writing about games and the people that make them without relying on help from their associated PR agencies. Chances are, if the content he produces without the help of Bethesda and Ubisoft is good enough, he may find both parties getting back in touch with Kotaku under their own steam.

This blog post is solely focused on Kotaku US, and is no reflection on the entirely different practices and activities of the Future-run Kotaku.co.uk.

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