Game Review Site Says Square Enix Blacklisted Them To Punish Low Review Scores
from the that-should-work dept
As you may have heard, the past few years have seen a significant uptick in concern over video game journalism and the ethics surrounding it. While much of the consternation expressed appears to have journalistic ethics playing only in the periphery, there have indeed been stories that should concern anyone that looks to game reviews as a method for deciding on purchases. Like in other industries, some in the gaming industry have chosen legal backlash to combat reviews they don’t like, whereas companies like Nintendo have attempted to trade access to unreleased games to institutionalize positive coverage. Instances of game companies trading access for slanted reviews are certainly alarming, though they only represent the carrot part of that approach.
The other side of it is the stick, of course. For an example of that, we can look to Square Enix reportedly cutting off access to unreleased games for review to a Spanish website purely because the company doesn’t like its review scores.
AreaJugones, a website based in Spain that says it reaches around 700,000 people per month, said in a blog post last week that they heard about this decision from the publisher Koch Media. Koch handles PR and marketing for Square Enix in several European countries, including Spain. After posting their review of Final Fantasy XV last week, AreaJugones editor Juan Alberto Linares got a call from a Koch representative, who reportedly told him that Koch and Square would no longer send them review copies of their games.
“The PR told me that we had scored one point less than the current average of Metacritic and that this hurt their interests as a company,” Linares told me in an e-mail this weekend. “I could not believe what he was saying, so when he asked for more explanations, he told me that we also almost always scored his games with lower scores than the other Spanish magazines and other Metacritic media,” Linares said. “We started talking about scores given to other games of his brand and they insist that we score their games lower than the other media, and this is not really true. If we score lower under their games we hurt them, so we were erased from the list of media because we were going to continue hurting them.”
Now, let’s be clear: game companies don’t owe game review journalists early access to their games. This isn’t unethical in the same way as, say, requiring positive reviews or editorial control in order to get access in the first place. But it might actually be more insidious for the same reason. Where we can look at Nintendo’s YouTube affiliate program and recognize it for the shill-factory that it is, Square Enix’s move is more subtle. It relies both on the idea that the approved reviewers, those that tend to give out more positive marks for Square’s games, will impact the consumer market before the untainted reviews are in, as well as the chilling effect blacklists like this will have on other review sites that haven’t been targeted by the company yet. If you’re the editor of a game review site that has seen AreaJugones get blacklisted and one of your staff is about to post a less than groveling review of a Square Enix game, it might cause you to change the review score and/or article if you aren’t committed to the ethics of your craft. That’s a problem.
A problem, ultimately, for Square Enix, in fact. Because the ultimate effect that moves like this will have will be to condition the consuming public to distrust positive reviews of Square Enix games, and put more faith in reviews with scores that aren’t as good. After all, once the blacklisting process has been started, the only review a gamer will know for certain hasn’t been influenced by the game-maker will be the review that is negative.
It’s important to point out a couple of things as part of this. First, Kotaku asked Square Enix for comment and they chose not to comment on the story at all. There is no denial that any of this took place, in other words. Secondly, Metacritic suggests that AreaJugones does indeed tend to score games somewhat lower than its peers (although still higher than critics as a whole). But even if that suggests some kind of pernicious negativity within the site’s review scores, blacklisting them won’t ultimately accomplish anything positive for Square Enix.