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.


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  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 13 Dec 2016 @ 12:49pm

    Good to know

    So Square Enix feels that their games are bad enough that they have to actively keep people from finding out just how bad before purchase via pressure on reviewers. Well, I certainly don't want to buy games from a company that admits that they are pushing rubbish games, so looks like I'd best avoid anything coming from them in the future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 6:36pm

      Re: Good to know

      Another reason to not buy from ye olde Square Enix is the shady DLC fuckery they pulled with their latest Deus Ex game. From the original "augment your pre-order" fiasco, to the one time use nature of the DLC in the eventual release, Squeenix is clearly anti-consumer, and should be shunned for such.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 14 Dec 2016 @ 12:50am

      Re: Good to know

      I'm always equally suspicious about movies that don't provide pre-screenings to critics. Sometimes, it's logistics or the fact that the movie's such a guaranteed hit that reviews really don't matter. But, 9 times out of 10, it means that even the studio realise it's a pile of crap and they need to be able to fool a weekend's worth of people into seeing it before word of mouth kills it.

      So, refusing a review copy of any media is always a red flag. On the plus side, I've just bookmarked a nice Spanish games review site to read and help me brush up further on my language skills.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 14 Dec 2016 @ 2:29am

      Re: Good to know

      They weren't in financial trouble recently for nothing. I personally have been taking anything from Square with large grains of salt for a few years now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Violynne (profile), 14 Dec 2016 @ 6:33am

      Re: Good to know

      "So Square Enix feels that their games are bad enough that they have to actively keep people from finding out just how bad before purchase via pressure on reviewers."

      It's worse than this and almost every game publisher is going this route: review embargoes.

      I no longer read game reviews of titles before their release date. The information simply cannot be trusted.

      I also refuse to pre-order a game now, because all this ties together. Embargoes are purposely imposed so they don't affect pre-order sales, which often start months before the actual release date.

      Gamers who refuse to change their behavior means publisher behavior will continue to get worse.

      Stop reading reviews posted before release date.

      Stop pre-ordering games.

      Very simple to do but will have massive impact on a publisher's bottom line.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Frank Cox, 13 Dec 2016 @ 3:06pm

    Consumer Reports

    Consumer Reports always purchases the stuff that they review at retail. So you know that they are testing what's actually on the shelf at the store, and since they actually bought it themselves they have no bias either way.

    The video game reviewers should be doing the same thing. "I bought this from the same place you bought it" creates a lot of credibility.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 3:23pm

      Re: Consumer Reports

      What you describe would be nice, however it ignores the reality of the games industry. Unlike washing machines and lawnmowers, people like to buy games on the day of release. That means for them to be informed consumers, the reviews have to be ready ahead of time. They will need early access to the games to give the customers what they want.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Thad, 13 Dec 2016 @ 3:54pm

        Re: Re: Consumer Reports

        But how many day-one purchasers make their decisions based on reviews? Seems to me that if you're getting a game on the release date, you've already made up your mind.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 4:17pm

          Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

          Vast numbers do. The rest of us, wait a few weeks to see how the latest reviews are trending. I've been burned too many times on overly optimistic reviews that didn't match the game I ended up buying.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 6:32pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

            I just pirate, then if I like it, I buy it.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Chuck, 14 Dec 2016 @ 2:37am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

              This. Piracy is your friend here.

              I know, I know, "good" people aren't supposed to advocate Piracy. On the other hand, "good" game companies used to offer a "14 day free trial" of most games (just like every other kind of software.) Frankly, if you're going to love or hate a game, you'll know it within 14 hours, much less 14 days, so this really did solve most of the BS marketing issues games have today.

              So what do I do? Usually I'll just buy it. But if I'm feeling iffy about the publisher or developer (looking at you BioWare) then I'm just going to self-impose my own 14 day free trial. I've done this many times, actually. In 14 days, I delete the pirated copy and either buy it or don't.

              Last time I got burned was Mass Effect 3. My little 14-day free trials have saved my ass about a dozen times and counting now.

              If that makes me the bad guy, then so be it.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                I.T. Guy, 14 Dec 2016 @ 7:20am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

                Let's play videos are the best source to judge a game, IMHO.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2016 @ 7:52am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

                  They're a good source, but for some game genres, they're not good enough. Any game that require some in depth thinking can't be easily judged via let's play videos, because the guy doing the thinking isn't you. Whether it's strategy games, puzzle games, roguelikes, or something that merely requires lots of planning, you can't get a good feel from it without trying it yourself.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  streamSmurf, 14 Dec 2016 @ 7:31pm

                  Let's Plays can be subject to the same industry pressure as reviews.

                  Prominent streamers often receive free games and other consideration. Sometimes there are developer or publisher reps in Teamspeak. The streamer may be playing with or against devs or marketing reps.

                  Nothing against Let's Plays, they can absolutely be a good source of info and entertainment. But every show has a backstage, and these are no different.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Thad, 14 Dec 2016 @ 11:20am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

                On the other hand, "good" game companies used to offer a "14 day free trial" of most games (just like every other kind of software.)

                What game companies "used to offer a 14 day free trial"? When and where did this happen?

                I'm aware of some major software publishers -- MS, Adobe -- who provide 30-day trials of their major software. That's not the same thing as "every kind of software".

                Game demos are still pretty common, and have been since the old shareware days. But I'm not aware of "you can use this complete game for free for 14 days and then pay if you want to keep it" ever being a widespread distribution strategy.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • icon
                  Frozen Njal (profile), 15 Dec 2016 @ 3:04am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

                  I think it may be 'buy but can be returned within 14 days'. At least some European countries require this for ALL purchases.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Chuck, 19 Dec 2016 @ 8:33am

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

                  Basically every single company that ever had their game on a PC Gamer Magazine demo CD. Those demos were almost always good for 14 days.

                  Mechwarrior 1 and 2, the original DOOM and maybe DOOM 2 (not sure about DOOM 2), Simcity and Simcity 2000, and many, many others.

                  When I say "used to" I am referring to the era prior to Steam. 14-day free trials died about the time Steam came along, roughly 2004-ish.

                  But yes, it was a very priminent industry practice for about a decade, starting with the months just before Windows 95 and ending right around 2004.

                  You must be a millennial, right? Question: why do millennials assume that every single thing in the whole world that happened prior to them turning 10 years old either didn't happen or doesn't matter?

                  Apologies if you aren't one. It's just hard to fathom anyone over 25 being unaware of all the 14-day free trials offered by practically every single publisher for the first decade or so of PC gaming. Only explanation I could have is millennial.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Thad, 14 Dec 2016 @ 11:11am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Consumer Reports

            The rest of us, wait a few weeks to see how the latest reviews are trending. I've been burned too many times on overly optimistic reviews that didn't match the game I ended up buying.

            Well, yes, that's my point: if you're waiting for the reviews, then it doesn't matter if they're released before the launch date, does it?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 4:08pm

    What good for the goose is good for the gander

    game companies don't owe game review journalists early access to their games.

    The reverse is also true. "We here at Acme Game review do not review games that are not available to us in pre-release even after they are in general availability. We discourage the purchase of unreviewed games."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 4:26pm

    This is how we end up with reviews like:

    "This game barely works... when it's not crashing. There's nothing innovative brought to the table with this game and the awful story is only outmatched by the even worse gameplay. I loved every minute of this game. 8/10" -IGM

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 13 Dec 2016 @ 5:39pm

    Marketing driven by suits

    The two issues for publishers is checkbox hell (everybody has X, we *must have* X) and financials. A single Metacritic point is *allegedly* worth some money. Either the suits' investment cabal wants a number somewhere that they can assure themselves that their investment is good. Or they fear first day or first week sales are negatively impacted by the *numbers*.

    Which is mostly BS. Correlation != Causation and all that.

    Please note that solid game implementation, strong server (and license activation) support, good game idea, game mechanics and the myriad little details that make a game fun, playable and worth the player's time and cash are not considered. The suits are not gamers. They just want a ton of money and they will beat anyone down that gets in the way of their money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 5:52pm

    Whomever made the comment of scoring less than the average has failed math (and the dictionary). The average is supposed to be a middle ground and there will be scores that are higher or lower. If it's a true average (Metacritic probably has weighting and other factors in play), half the scores will be lower than the average and half will be higher.

    The only way you're going to meet an average is if everyone gives it the exact same score, so everyone is equal to the average!

    "Consider how dumb the average person is. Now consider half of them are dumber than that."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 13 Dec 2016 @ 8:23pm

      Re: Whomever made the comment of scoring less than the average has failed math (and the dictionary).

      If by “average” you mean “arithmetic mean”, then you are wrong.

      Consider the numbers [2, 1, 1, 1]. Their average (arithmetic mean) is 5 ÷ 4 = 1.25. Therefore most of the numbers (3 out of 4) are below average.

      Similarly, consider [2, 3, 3, 3]. Here the arithmetic mean is 11 ÷ 4 = 2.75. Here most of the numbers (3 out of 4) are above average.

      Your comment would be correct for the “median”, which by definition is a value chosen such that half the values are above, and half below.

      Oh, and your use of “whomever” is ungrammatical. “Whom” is always an object, never a subject, of a sentence.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2016 @ 8:29am

        Re: Re: Whomever made the comment of scoring less than the average has failed math (and the dictionary).

        If you want to get pedantic about the use of the word "average":

        https://www.google.com/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&i e=UTF-8#q=average

        av·er·age ˈav(ə)rij/ noun 1. a number expressing the central or typical value in a set of data, in particular the mode, median, or (most commonly) the mean, which is calculated by dividing the sum of the values in the set by their number.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Isma;il, 14 Dec 2016 @ 11:10am

          Re: Re: Re: Whomever made the comment of scoring less than the average has failed math (and the dictionary).

          I think you just proved Lawrence's post. From the link you posted:

          "a number expressing the central or typical value in a set of data, in particular the mode, median, or (most commonly) the mean, which is calculated by dividing the sum of the values in the set by their number."

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 14 Dec 2016 @ 11:00am

      Re:

      The average is supposed to be a middle ground and there will be scores that are higher or lower.

      And ideally, a rating system would give an average of 50% to make use of the full range. But game and movie ratings generally seem much higher: 50% is awful, 60% is bad, and anything decent is squeezed into 70-100%. The area below 50% is hardly used--the difference between 10% and 40% is insignificant, but going 70% to 100% is huge.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Frozen Njal (profile), 15 Dec 2016 @ 3:39am

      Re:

      They aren't talking about exactly meeting an average, they are talking about getting an initial average and then dumping anyone under that who doesn't provide a better score. This of course bumps up the average as well...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 13 Dec 2016 @ 6:21pm

    I hope you realize what you've just done, you misogynist filth. You just complained about ethics involving games journalism. Next up you'll advocate raping women and joining the Drumpfkins and their alt-right nazi ilk.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Moby (profile), 13 Dec 2016 @ 7:06pm

    Not surprised

    This would explain why I tend not to trust reviews like this anymore. I like negative reviews because it provides perspective. Some times features I personally liked) vs the reviewer didn't) are criticized in a negative review. I now know it has a feature I like. The fact the overall review was negative doesn't necessarily matter to me in that regard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Jeremy2020 (profile), 14 Dec 2016 @ 7:02am

    As someone who worked in Video Game media...something about this smells fishy. No PR firm would tell them point blank that they're not getting review copies because of a low score.

    I suspect there's more to this story. Something like they published the review early or something like that which tends to be more egregious than a just slightly below average score.

    It's disappointing that no attempt was made to contact Square Enix either. Although, I don't expect much out of stories written by Tim, this seems like something basic to do.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 14 Dec 2016 @ 7:26am

      Re:

      "It's disappointing that no attempt was made to contact Square Enix either. Although, I don't expect much out of stories written by Tim, this seems like something basic to do."

      Presumably because Kotaku tried to do that in the linked story:

      "A representative for Square Enix did not respond to a request for comment. When reached by Kotaku, Koch Media’s PR manager in Spain said: “We have no comment to make on that story.”

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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