Kotaku’s latest controversy is their article entitled A Price of Games Journalism. Was the website right to reveal blacklistings by Bethesda and Ubisoft or has it been wrongfully targeted?
Since its launch over ten years ago in October 2004, Kotaku has attracted both positive and negative attention from gamers and journalists around the world. Generally seen as the ‘tabloid of the gaming press’, its information page states that it’s about original reporting, gaming culture and humour, with an aim to explain games differently: “We hope that what you see here is a genuinely unique and interesting take on the fascinating world of video games and the people who make and play them.”
On 19 November 2014, current Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totilo published an article entitled A Price of Games Journalism. In the opening paragraph he revealed: “For the past two years, Kotaku has been blacklisted by Bethesda, the publisher of the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series. For the past year, we have also been, to a lesser degree, ostracized by Ubisoft, publisher of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry and more.” He went on to claim that the public relations (PR) and marketing wings of these companies have chosen to act as if his website doesn’t exist, cutting off access to games and ignoring requests for comments on stories.
Kotaku and its Editors are no strangers to controversy: there aren’t many people out there who haven’t at least heard of GamerGate. The online movement started in August 2014 after Eron Gjoni claimed that indie developer Zoe Quinn had had sexual contact with one of the website’s writers. It’s a complicated topic, one which swings between ethics in the video game industry and misogyny in gaming depending on the source; it’s also not a subject for this piece, but it has to be said that journalism has experienced increased scrutiny and criticism since.
Were Bethesda and Ubisoft right to blacklist Kotaku or has the website been wrongfully targeted?
This perhaps goes some way towards explaining why Totilo’s latest article has drawn so much interest from supporters and detractors alike since it’s publication last month, and why the matter of ethics in reporting is back in the spotlight once again. Were Bethesda and Ubisoft right to blacklist Kotaku or has the website been wrongfully targeted? Are there other issues at play here? After discussing the situation over the past several weeks with the 1001Up team (and taking a while to write this up – sorry!), here are some thoughts.
Reasons behind the blacklists
A ‘blacklist’ generally refers to ‘a list of people of groups regarded as unacceptable or untrustworthy and often marked down for punishment or exclusion’. Unfortunately it isn’t uncommon for gaming websites to be blacklisted by a publisher, and the action means they’re cut off from review copies of video games, exclusive interviews and press conference invitations. Totilo confirms in his article that Kotaku hasn’t been officially advised of their blacklistings but a number of guesses are made as to the reasons behind them.
Let’s start off with Bethesda: could the cause be a report published on 11 December 2013 that confirmed the existence of the then-secret Fallout 4? An unnamed reader sent Jason Schreier several documents from a casting call for a project code-named ‘Institute’, which included scripts and character descriptions. The News Editor noted that the details could have been invented for the call and were obviously subject to change, but said: “The big takeaway here is that the next Fallout game is real. It’s currently in development at Bethesda.”
And what about Ubisoft? Schreier wrote a piece the following year on 02 December 2014 announcing that the next Assassin’s Creed game – possibly named Victory (but later changed to Syndicate) – would be taking place in London during the nineteenth century. This information came from watching a ‘seven-minute target gameplay footage video’ obtained through ‘an early leak’. The News Editor wrote: “The takeaway from the footage isn’t just that Assassin’s Creed is in a new place and era yet again. It’s that, apparently, Ubisoft is pushing for some gameplay innovation… This could significantly change how these games play and how gamers move through an Assassin’s Creed world.”
Totilo’s article on the blacklistings contains a number of links to other posts as examples and there’s a common thread that connects them all. From the piece announcing that science-fiction shooter Prey 2 was to be rebooted after an unidentified tipster provided details; to the article confirming this news again through a leaked email; to the post revealing leaked screenshots from Assassin’s Creed Unity sent to the website by an anonymous source (all of which were written by Schreier). Kotaku’s information often tends to come from such sources, thus earning it the reputation of being the tabloid of the gaming press.
The argument for Kotaku
Sadly, what’s considered as ‘gaming news’ nowadays often consists of repurposed press releases and the reposting of official videos and screenshots from upcoming releases. Take a look at channels such as BuzzFeed and Flipboard and you’ll see entry after entry containing the same announcements, reveals and trailers. Hard-hitting news isn’t exactly easy to come by any longer so give some credit to Kotaku: their sources and investigative methods mean that they’re often the first gaming website to reveal the latest stories.
“They will see this kind of reporting as upsetting, as ruining surprises and frustrating creative people.”
The website’s detractors have criticised its approach however, saying that leaks which don’t highlight whistleblowing or expose corruption shouldn’t be published. In Totilo’s article he wrote: “I’m sure some people will sympathize with Bethesda and Ubisoft. Some will cheer these companies and hope others follow suit. They will see this kind of reporting as upsetting, as ruining surprises and frustrating creative people. They will claim we are ‘hurting video games’…”
But it’s hard to deny that revelations such as a new Fallout or the setting for the next Assassin’s Creed title qualify as newsworthy in terms of gaming press. As written by Forbes Contributor Erik Kain: “If a journalist covers politics, and discovers a candidate is going to make an announcement about quitting his campaign next week, the journalist’s job isn’t to wait for the candidate to make the announcement, it’s to report that information right now. If a journalist covers games and gets a batch of leaked screenshots or learns that a game is in dire straits, it’s their job to report that also.”
And it’s not as if Totilo’s reporters don’t check their facts wherever possible. In each of the examples given at the end of the previous section, Schreier made attempts to confirm the details received by talking to other sources and contacts – and even reached out to the publishers themselves. In connection with the leaked email on Prey 2, the News Editor wrote: “Our reporting of this story back in May was triggered by an anonymous tip sent to Kotaku and several other gaming outlets. Once we were confident in the tip’s information and had alerted both Arkane’s management and representatives from Bethesda, we published the story. At the time, Bethesda declined to comment.”
The relationship between PR people and reporters is a symbiotic one and can sometimes be a bit of a balancing act. The former want to sell their product, even if it’s a terrible game; while the latter what to find out just how terrible it is so consumers can make an informed choice before spending their money. Doesn’t that therefore mean Kotaku’s writers are simply doing their job properly by publishing what they’ve discovered and revealing details that gamers may never know otherwise?
Sitting on the kind of information they’ve had access to would surely be an act of marketing rather than one of journalism. As said by Totilo himself: “It is nearly unfathomable to me that a reporter would sit on true information about what’s really happening in gaming, that we would refrain from telling our readers something because it would mess with a company’s marketing plan.”
The argument against Kotaku
But you can’t play with fire and then complain when you’re burnt – and you can’t broadcast leaked information and expect publishers to be happy about it. Kotaku revealed significant details about unannounced games years before their releases, and there can be good reasons why creators remain quiet about their projects for so long. Some ideas get scrapped; others take a while to become fleshed-out; and a lot of things can change during the development process. Releasing information too early can do harm: fans get excited ahead of time, hype builds, and then reputation is damaged when plans change or releases are pushed back.
“You have no idea how damaging it is to us developers when a game we’re working on leaks. Don’t feign integrity, you do it for the clicks.”
Eric Kozlowsky, Senior Environment Artist at BioWare, echoed this sentiment in a tweet sent to Senior Reporter Patrick Klepeck (reformatted for ease of reading): “You have no idea how damaging it is to us developers when a game we’re working on leaks. Don’t feign integrity, you do it for the clicks.” Think of all the excitement around Fallout 4 over the past few months; and now imagine the backlash Bethesda would have suffered if the title had been cancelled for any reason. As written by Editor-in-Chief Matt Liebl in an article for GameZone: “Marketing plans exist not to screw over the press or the average consumer (that’s what DLC is for); they exist as a carefully constructed (usually) plan to unveil specific things when they are ready to be fully announced.”
It’s ridiculous to believe that every last detail can be kept concealed in this age of the internet, and Totilo feels that: “Too many big game publishers cling to an irrational expectation of secrecy and are rankled when the press shows them how unrealistic they’re being… They operate with the assumption that the press will not upend [their marketing] plans, and should the press defy their assumptions, they bring down the hammer.” But if it can be argued in the section above that his writers are simply doing their jobs, then surely it can be contended that Bethesda and Ubisoft are doing theirs too?
The aim of PR teams is to cultivate a desired perspective of their company’s game, and to stop an unwanted one; and marketing strategies are created so information is released in a way that maximises interest at the right time in order to make as much profit as possible. Leaks can potentially result in a loss of both money and time as strategies need to be reworked. If you believe that dealing with a particular website is going to hurt your profit in the long-run, then it could be said that it’s good business sense to limit their access.
Revealing the blacklists
So there are the arguments both for and against Kotaku, but what of the revealing of the blacklistings themselves? Totilo wrote in his article: “I’ve held my tongue in talking about Bethesda and Ubisoft publicly for a long time. I did so, initially, while trying to achieve mutual understanding with both companies behind the scenes. That failed.”
Some critics have said that the website should have stayed quiet about the situation. But if we’re to support one of the points given above, it has to be said that the facts about the blacklistings are newsworthy in their own right and should therefore have been reported on. Kain went on in his post for Forbes to say: “Some readers really do believe that even discussing the blacklist is tantamount to spilling the beans on a romance gone sour. But it’s a journalist’s job is to spill the beans. When a scorned lover does it, it’s gross and pathetic. When a journalist reports on bad industry practices? That’s the whole entire point.”
I understand his opinion but don’t entirely agree: as discussed above too, it can also be argued that the publishers are doing their job as much as the journalists are doing theirs. Maybe Kotaku felt that publicising the blacklists was the only action left open to them after Totilo’s talks with Bethesda and Ubisoft failed. In an article for Ars Technica, Senior Gaming Editor Kyle Orland wrote: “Publishing the details of the blacklisting can be seen as an attempt to marshal the public’s sympathy, putting grassroots pressure on these publishers to reopen a working relationship (and, in turn, to better serve [the website’s] readers going forward).”
The real issue
It’s hard for a single outlet to demand cooperation from publishers as they have so many other methods for getting their message out to consumers.
Today, gamers are no longer reliant on major websites and magazines for their news. Kotaku may remain one of the larger outlets but many of us now prefer to get our information and opinions from a number of different sources: directly from the developers’ websites, bloggers, YouTubers, Twitch streamers, or even from social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s therefore hard for a single outlet to demand cooperation from publishers as they have so many other methods for getting their message out to consumers.
Perhaps it’s for this reason that Totilo’s article – and its sense of entitlement – is so hard to stomach. He writes: “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. They have done so in apparent retaliation for the fact that we did our jobs as reporters and as critics… Both publishers’ actions demonstrate contempt for us and, by extension, the whole of the gaming press.”
But publishers are under no obligation to work with outlets they dislike, distrust or believe will hurt their profits and reputation. The editorial decision to publish information obtained through leaks and other anonymous sources would have to factor in the working relationship with such companies, weighing up the value to readers against a potential loss of access. Ultimately, the team should have expected the possibility of a blacklisting and reviewed this risk as part of their decision-making.
It’s not unreasonable to say that the number of clicks that could potentially be generated by announcing the existence of Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate may have been enough to make Totilo and Schreier feel the risk was worth taking. But the former wrote: “Some will think about all of this only in terms of numbers, focusing on the hundreds of thousands of page-views we’ve gotten for our stories about leaked game announcements. Those stories have indeed done well. They are nevertheless a small part of what we do, and not something to which we devote much journalistic energy.”
That’s hard to believe. After all, the majority of examples given in his article are posts which reveal information from anonymous tipsters, leaked emails and secret screenshots – and there are ‘Send us a tip’ links in a number of places on the Kotaku website. It’s about being first to break the news and reaping the clicks for doing so; and if that’s a business model which works for you, then there’s nothing wrong with that. The fact that newspapers such as The Sun have such a high circulation in the UK shows there’s a highly-lucrative market for the tabloid press.
However, the undertone of Totilo’s post seems to imply that they’re not in it for the clicks. He stated: “We serve our readers, not game companies, and will always do so to the best of our ability, no matter who in the gaming world is or isn’t angry with us at the moment. In some ways, the blacklist has even been instructive – cut off from press access and pre-release review copies, we have doubled down on our post-release ‘embedding’ approach to games coverage. We’ve experienced some of the year’s biggest games from street level, at the same time and in the same way as our readers.”
If the website’s post-release approach is working for them so well, then why decide to go public now?
It’s not illogical to assume that the reason for reporting on the blacklists was to force the publishers’ hands. Indeed, this method has worked for Kotaku in the past; in January 2007, then Editor-in-Chief Brian Crecente ‘embarrassed Sony out of blacklisting the website for reporting on the existence of unannounced PlayStation projects’ (Totilo’s words). But if the website’s post-release approach is working for them so well, then why decide to go public now? Could it be due to the fact that its readership has been declining over the past year? As written by author Richard Lewis for Breitbart: “One can only now wonder, given Totilo’s claims that the blacklists have been running for over a year, two in the case of Bethesda, how much a sense of spite informed the reporting.”
When it comes to stating whether the publishers were right to blacklist Kotaku, there’s no right or wrong answer. It can be said that both sides were simply doing their jobs; the companies will still reap millions in profit from franchises such as Fallout and Assassin’s Creed; and the website will still have access to their anonymous sources, which serve them so well, regardless of whether an official working relationship with Bethesda and Ubisoft is rebuilt. But the apparent sense of entitlement in Totilo’s article has rubbed many readers up the wrong way, and has once again brought the subject of ethics in gaming journalism back into the spotlight.
As written by Keith Andrew: “Just because you’re a prominent games website or magazine doesn’t mean you automatically qualify for pre-release review codes, interviews with the development team or press releases laying out game [information] in black and white.”