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Is games journalism corrupt? The Mobile Gaming Mavens reveal all

A write up on the writers
Is games journalism corrupt? The Mobile Gaming Mavens reveal all
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The Mobile Mavens is our panel of experts drawn from all sectors of the mobile gaming industry.

The last few weeks has seen game journalism put under the microscope in the UK, with many questioning whether the relationships those working in the field have with games developers, publishers and PR impinges on their impartiality.

Some, however, have suggested that there's a clear divide between console and PC games journalism. It's claimed those covering the mobile sector - where the kind of free trips and gifts many are afraid corrupt writers are far less prevalent are essentially working under different circumstances.

And so, we asked the Mavens:

How have you found working with the mobile games media, and how easy is it to gain coverage for your games or projects? Is the mobile games media a credit to the sector, or does it fall short?

Oscar Clark

Oscar Clark

Chief Strategy Officer at Fundamentally Games

I thought's article was spot on. This is an incredibly tough area as there is an inevitable symbiotic relationship between a companies PR and journalists.

If you don't build relationships how can you get an inside track on the next titles and write the best story? If you get too close will you be worried about questioning their mistakes?

It's similar for running an app store, as I remember. For me, at the time I simply focused on one thing: who was my customer? It wasn't the PR or sales guys of the developer or publisher - it was the guy buying the game. They had to trust my selections if I wanted to build a successful app store.

I believe that this is a vital attitude for this debate also as without the trust between the journalist and the player; there is no value for the advertiser, publisher or developer. In fact, if you stick by your reputation, in the end I believe they value you more.

Of course, the question is how biased in favour of a game will you be if you have been treated to an incredible event with beer and dancing girls? Personally, it would make me suspicious - after all, what are they hiding if they have to distract you from the game itself?

John Ozimek

John Ozimek

Co-founder at Big Games Machine

I'd divide the mobile games press into two broad camps: those that write detailed, comprehensive reviews and news about apps, and those that produce link-bait articles or try to charge for 'accelerated' reviews.

Perhaps the problem in the minds of consumers is that they don't see the difference between the two.

I've dealt with the mobile games press since 2003 and I've always found them to be enthusiastic and passionate about mobile, and keen to take the good bits of console and PC games journalism and reflect them back into mobile - basically, they have always wanted to showcase mobile games as something unique and great in its own right.

Yes, there has been the occasional disagreement, and yes there are always 'personalities' that have to be dealt with - but that's the same in any business. As for the link-bait guys; they'll die out as the better sites rise to the top and readers seek out quality.

As a PR/marketeer, I've always seen the difference between mobile and console/PC as the difference in the product cycle. In the console world the development cycle is long, creating the opportunity for lots of development updates and 'coming soon' previews.

Plus, when you have a development budget of a few million (at least) then you will end up with a marketing campaign into the hundreds of thousands; so your PR activity scales as well.

Finally, most of the games media (especially the print media) absolutely depends on the advertising spend of the big publishers; so you have an interconnected cycle where the media depends on the publishers for advertising spend, and the publishers depend on the media for hype and coverage. It's no wonder that lines can get blurred in the search for more advertising or better review scores.

In mobile, product cycles are short, budgets are smaller, advertising is only an option for publishers with the biggest budgets.

Therefore the influence of the press is markedly different; plus, the user-led reviews in the app stores does in a way decouple sales from coverage - most evidence we see shows that reviews don't have a huge influence on app store behaviour, and that word of mouth and store rankings drive more activity.

I believe this is because only a small percent of phone owners would read game reviews before making a purchase, whereas console and PC gamers (the 'hardcore' ones) would be more likely to, leading the influence to be seen to be greater.

This may be starting to shift, as mobile budgets become bigger and launch cycles longer. But in general, I'd say that the mobile games press manage to navigate the daily avalanche of new apps very well. If there's a frustration, it's that there are not enough outlets and not enough hours in the day to review all the great apps that deserve some journalistic love.

Scott Foe

Scott Foe

Chief Product Officer at Ignited Artists

Everything that Keith [Andrew, editor] says in his article is 100 percent on the mark, and, one need only to look to Hollywood - where a movie reviewer can walk out of a press junket holding a gift bag that contains a Cartier watch and a bag of diamond-studded Orville Redenbacher's - and you see that this problem is not uniquely gaming's own.

Game companies buy ads, which pay for the media outlets' staff-salaries; game companies choose which outlets get advance copies of titles for review, and getting a review out first can mean a world of money for a media outlet (in those same ad impressions that the game companies paid for); and, open bars are open bars, and the games industry is a fucking lush.

If you think 'Doritosgate' is bad, look back to the GameCyte fiasco* from a few years back: Essentially, it's alleged a public relations firm started its own media outlet for games reviews and coverage, cutting out the need for bribery altogether.

The promote/review system is held together by a tenuous array of Doritos and paperclips: there is no fixing it.

If you instituted an immutable ethics policy requiring outlets to accept no monies from games-related business in the form of ad buys nor sponsorship, if you insisted that writers never sipped complimented well whiskey at publisher parties, if you cleaned all the house...the house would fall down.

The good news is that shit stands up at the end of the day.

If the oldest profession is prostitution, the oldest advertisement is, "she has syphilis." Word-of-mouth, world-of-mouth: if marketing is warfare, consumers are the bullets. Truly remarkable products and services will always shine through.

In the words of Hugo, "No army can stop an idea whose time has come."

Will Luton

Will Luton

Founder/CPO Village Studio Games

Getting coverage for mobile games is relatively easy in all instances except traditional console press and Touch Arcade. Both of which are standoffish to your average mobile dev.

However, the question that's really important is: is it worth it? Mostly the answer is, no.

Mobile consumers aren't seeking a great deal of off-portal reviews or press. Press simply doesn't drive a lot of downloads, unfortunately.

Industry press is much easier to crack - or at least I've found it easy - and essential if you're B2B.

I think our industry is extremely lucky in that we are well served for inward facing media.,, Gamasutra and Develop all do a brilliant job of covering what's going on.

Oscar Clark

Oscar Clark

Chief Strategy Officer at Fundamentally Games

'Is it worth it' is a good question.

Personally, I think that, whilst coverage for mobile games in consumer games press doesn't have an obvious direct impact on sales, it does form another opportunity to reinforce the network of messages about your game in different channels.

Of course the sites and magazines focus on a small niche compared to the wider audience we are trying to sell to. But, if it helps create enthusiastic advocates who will share their 'find' with their non-expert friends, or provides a reference which can be googled, then that's all good.

However, there are also probably lots of other places where we should be trying to get heard and you have to make a decision about where to put your time and effort.

Nothing beats sharing a video of you playing the game of course.

Tracy Alan

Tracy Alan

Developer Relations

As a former games writer - several years spent at Pocket Gamer - I've long felt that issues related to games journalism have been brushed aside.

Unlike other industries in which journalists are respected as critical voices and paid reasonable wages, very few games writers are taken seriously and receive a liveable salary.

This is why we have inexperienced writers that aren't taken seriously by the industry - nobody wants to pay for an editor with 10 years of experience when it's easier and more cost-effective to hire a college student willing to work for free games. Even large publications are known to offer salaries below what is viewed as competitive.

This must change.

Writers and editors need to step up and take themselves seriously; too often we see controversy for the sake of page views.

Content should be meaningful, relevant, and timely. Reviews are fun, but should only be part of a comprehensive editorial strategy.

Publications should offer reasonable wages to maintain editorial standards; for those outlets without cash, look beyond advertising for ways of generating revenue--selling white papers, reports, and other commercial projects can subsidize payroll.

But it's not just writers - developers and publishers need to be respectful and not exploit the situation. Press events aren't so much the problem - where advertising dollars are spent, which editors publishers choose to work with, the outdated concept of exclusives, poor media relations strategies, and a myriad of other issues define attitudes. We can make changes in all of these areas.

Why not help mid-tier and small websites grow by spending ad dollars with them? Too much money is concentrated in a few outlets.

Why not do away with "exclusives"? It's 2012 and everything is shared instantaneously - exclusives are meaningless, create stress for publishers, and leads to friction and irritation among editors.

Why not be honest about the state of media relations? Ask editors who they want to work with; spending tons of money on an agency that doesn't have good rapport with media is not wise.

By no means do I claim to have all the answers or that my perspective is authoritative, but I've lived this. I know what writers are going through and the pressures they feel--it's time for positive change.

Jason Bates

Jason Bates

Director of Marketing and Public Relations at Ubisoft RedLynx

As someone who wrote for gaming magazines and websites in the 90s, I can tell you these controversies are nothing new, they just kind of polymorph right along with the outlets and the platforms they're attached to.

From where I am now, the mobile games media is great. What fascinates me is how they even manage it.

I used to think we had it bad trying to cover PC games "oh there are so many games, poor us, we overworked PC guys compared to you console nerds" but we were dealing with a leisurely trickle compared to the firehose of content on mobile these days.

At the risk of stating the obvious, that's what mobile games media needs to focus on  that, and pulling in an audience and convincing them they need guidance on games that cost very little investment of time or money to begin with.

So it's fun to watch how the different outlets address these challenges.

There are models that range from great editorial alone, others are mixed in with podcasts, with forums, blogs, or game content attached to hardware content (where there is more of a hunger for expert information) or part of a larger network.

I wouldn't be surprised to see sites built around the or Reddit models, where the community is doing the bulk of their work. Or will it become like the music press, divided up by genres? Do you hire some fast-talking Yahtzee Croshaw to review a hundred games in one hour every day?

That's what's interesting to me about mobile games media - it's the bleeding edge of games journalism in a lot of ways and you could make the case that so goes the mobile games media, the larger games media ultimately may ultimately follow.

Jon Hare

Jon Hare

Owner at Tower Studios

The problem we have at the moment is that the overload of content means the press has no idea where to focus in regard to games about to come out - except big sequels or monster license tie-ins.

In the 90s, name developers still existed and generally delivered quality which enabled journalists to anticipate titles before they came out. Currently it is the lack of anticipation of brand new IPs that is killing the journalistic buzz.

600 game reviews per day would service the lot, but it would be entirely wasteful - it is the volume that is the problem.

We have a very egalitarian games market now - it is a level playing field except for the triple-A market and the license tie ins (including remakes). Level means we are all worth nothing until we prove ourselves, again and again with each title.

When you choose to measure success in terms of revenue generated rather than critical acclaim it doesn't lead to very exciting press stories.. Games journalists in general have become too used to being spoon fed and have lost the art of making a noise themselves and championing their own new games and developers.

It is what the Newsfield guys did best, and some of the Future and EMAP mags in the 80s and 90s.

If journalists can learn to grow balls again, the world is there ready to listen to them, but for 15 years bland has been the order of the day. Time for a change and some good old fashioned blinkered and bigoted championing of favourite new games offset by a healthy dose of bile for others.

Kyu Lee

Kyu Lee

President (Gamevil USA)

I don't think it's a mobile issue. Rather, digital distribution is the reason why everything has been changing. Companies don't have to work with retail channels anymore, and are trying to build their direct relationship with their own customers more and more.

The same thing is happening also in the PR world.

In the world of PR 2.0, most of the companies either have or are currently building a direct relationship with their own users, whether it is through Facebook, Twitter, or through blogging. The best people who can represent their games the best way is probably through their internal channels.

Although companies have spent more time, money and effort on the PR channels in the past, it's becoming less and less relevant where only the few major PR channels will survive, since less and less business is brought to them for this reason.

Coverage is also distributed among hundreds of titles, which means the return on interest when it comes to getting a title covered is also decreasing too. Only few of the channels really move the needle on the app stores when it gets covered in a developers perspective.

This doesn't mean that I feel like these media should go away. There should be some stronger competitive edges, differentiation and focus to create value. Differentiation by bringing stronger editorial could be one way as people below mentioned.

Also, I think is one of those sites that are different, since it's focused on B2B rather than B2C.

Brian Baglow

Brian Baglow

Managing Editor

I've been doing PR in the mobile sector since I joined Digital Bridges back in 2000. The mobile games and app media has a number of advantages and benefits which help developers a great deal.

(For a start, we're having this whole conversation on an industry expert group created by Pocket Gamer, which should tell you a great deal.)

As a grizzled PR veteran (and part-time journalist), I've always found the mobile media very approachable and willing to pay attention to new games. This is entirely separate from those who want to be paid for reviews/coverage. They're just plain wrong.

Tip: Don't EVER play for coverage or reviews. Ever. No good can come of it.

The biggest problem from my point of view is not the sheer volume of games, but, as Mr. Hare says, the fact that few developers bother to put out any information prior to the games release. This completely ignores the way in which the specialist press works and skips nearly all of the potential coverage which could be secured - news, work-in-progress, previews can all be generated before going anywhere near a review.

If you don't do them, then not only do you reduce the overall amount of coverage by a huge amount, but you then pin your entire marketing effort on a single event - the review. And if, as many people have said, the reviewers have 20 plus games to get through, then you better have made your tutorial as slick and effortless as possible.

Your game better be flawless and your press kit better be exceptionally well stuffed with wonderful things. Otherwise you're crippling your games chances.

Yet we still see practically every small developer keeping everything completely invisible until the game hits the App Store.Then they sit and complain that the reviews were poor, that the media didn't give the game a fair chance or that PR doesn't bloody help anyway...

When I started doing PR, the games media was the only way to get your news out into the world. That's no longer the case. Google and the social channels have changed things entirely. Now, if you're generating 'noise', tagging everything and making your company and your games visible, then you're creating entirely new ways for people to come across your games.

The value of the games media and mobile media has changed. It's not the audience - as such - that you're now after, it's the credibility they give you and the link which you can then share through dozens of other channels. (Again, few developers bother with this.)

Now, on the PR versus journalists question, it's very simple. My job as a PR guy is to make the lives of Keith and Jon and Mark and the guys at Pocket Gamer (and GamesIndustry and Eurogamer and 148Apps and The Guardian and GamaSutra and SlideToPlay...) as simple as possible.

The harsh reality of the media is that even outside mobile, there's more and more news and fewer and fewer full time journalists - all of whom are now required to produce news on a 24/7 basis.

If a PR representative can provide a journalist with simple, well written, objective copy which ideally, can be cut and pasted, plus a choice of slick screenshots and artwork, without requiring a 45 minute phone call, meeting for lunch or otherwise disrupting their busy day, then you can make it easy for them to say nice things about the company or game you're working for.

I like pretty much all of the journalists I've known and worked with over the years. I'll have a few beers with them at Develop or GDC, or MWC, but I've never organised launch events, or luxurious press trips to try and sway their judgement.

(And, trust me here, a couple of days in Dundee is NOT going to give anyone the warm and fuzzies for any game, no matter how good, or how much beer is involved.)

However, the relationship between a journalist and a PR is necessarily a close one. The journalists need to know the good PR people they can rely on for a quote, or materials within a (normally ridiculously close) deadline. PRs need to know and trust editors and journalists to allow them to be effective and pass on information under embargo, or let them know about news off-the-record, prior to release.

I find it very odd that the games media has been undergoing some serious discussion and debate, while the major publishers and the vast majority of PR people have looked on bemused and haven't lost a moment's sleep over the whole debate.

Far from journalists disclosing who's bought them a beer, or paid for a flight, I think the media should be highlighting the publishers who demand perfect review scores in return for advertising, the PR people who use bribery and underhand means to secure coverage and gain high scores. If every publication, magazine and website stood together, the whole idea of 'black listing' or embargoes would vanish.

In the meantime, for all your home-grown, organic, free-range, fair trade and entirely ethical PR needs - you know where to come...

Christopher Kassulke

Christopher Kassulke

CEO at HandyGames

In the end, the consumers are paying the bill one or the other way.

It doesn't count if you are a developer, mobile review site/media, a network operator, handset manufacturer or a third party portal. If you lose the trust you will lose consumers! If you lose consumers you will lose marketing budgets and those guys who pay the flights, consoles, hotels, etc.

I have been n the games business for too long and, believe me paying a beer, dinner or lunch as a dev is one thing. Getting asked for coverage for a private vacation or a new console another.

No names here but, at the end, they received what they were asking for from someone else. EVERY person and company need to draw the line how far it should go and the ethic rules they have.

So, don't complain - change it, my dear editor friends. It's your job, your trust, your consumers.

By the way, we haven't seen a lot of coverage from HandyGames on Pocket Gamer for a while, but believe me, we will not pay.

Dave Castelnuovo

Dave Castelnuovo

Owner at Bolt Creative

I hope game journalism doesn't decide to take itself too seriously and start to add things like discloser of relationships or whether they received a beer at the hands of a producer.

The journalists who act unprofessional will continue to act unprofessional regardless of what procedures reputable sites decide to take. Sites like Pocket Gamer are already reputable - increasing transparency and going over and beyond to be impartial will not fix the crappy sites but it may reviews a little more sterile.

I think the entire issue is just a few writers that are trying to cause some controversy and get other sites to link to them. This isn't the financial industry - my folks are not going to be investing their retirement money based on a good game review.

People read game reviews partly to figure out what games to buy, but mostly because they are huge fans of the industry and game industry news is a form of entertainment to them. Taking things too seriously will suck the fun right out of games journalism.

Creating connections is mandatory from both sides of the equation. Developers need to meet and impress journalists anyway they can and if you happen to meet Jon Jordan at WWDC I would say you are an irresponsible dev if you don't buy the man a beer.

That shouldn't mean you are guaranteed coverage or guaranteed a good review but it should at least lay the groundwork for some kind of relationship where you can at least keep him informed of what you are doing in the hope that you do something interesting enough to get covered.

I've personally given out posters, toys, comics, etc in the hope of getting covered and I have to say that it hasn't always resulted in good coverage or even an article.

I've found most game journalists care most about what their readers want to read and if my app wasn't a fit for their crowd, they thank me for the gift but then are pretty clear about whether or not it would make a good story for them.

They may however tell me what they are looking for in case I have something in the future that is in line with their readership.

From the other side, journalists need to meet developers and producers. If they just cover the press releases they will not have anything new and interesting to say. They need to have early access to large releases and ideally access to the designers so they can cover a unique angle that will drive readership.

Now, if you are at an event that has free drinks and food, are you really supposed to abstain? That just seems dumb.

Are you supposed to turn down swag? Turn down advertising or tell your readers that the game you are reviewing just purchased $100,000 worth of advertising this month? I really don't think it matters.

If you allow things like this to influence your reviews and give a golden review to a brown turd, readers will see through it. You'll end up risking your career because readers will notice that you are the only journalist that likes borderland legends and will stop reading your articles.

The skill of a journalist comes through in their writing. If you have integrity, it will show. If you have a valuable opinion, it will show. If you are a douchebag that charges for good reviews then you will be on the lower rung for a few more years before you are forced to get a job at McDonalds.