The idea that unless a game is truly monstrous, professional video game critics will score a game somewhere between seven and ten out of ten is a well-recognized and much maligned part of the gaming landscape. Many gamers accept that, one way or another, scoring is bunk. As a result, there is a widespread mistrust of video game reviews, a general acceptance that critics in general are more PR guys than writers, and an understanding that popularity will almost always equal a high score. Unfortunately, in many cases, these assumptions are all too valid. However, it may be helpful to take a look at the relationship between publishers, public relations firms, and gaming publications, so that we can see some of the reasons why things are the way they are.
At its most basic level, the source of the problem lies in the cozy relationship between the people that make the games and the people that review them. The critics want timely, complete review copies that they can work their way through at their leisure. The video game publishers and PR firms want positive reviews that ease their product into the marketplace. The result is obvious to any gamer that has browsed a major gaming site: high scores for games that may or may not deserve them, in exchange for review copies and access. But the problem goes a little bit deeper than that. It isn’t just that video game reviewers want review copies, it’s that they need them.
The gaming public as a whole, for whatever reason, has a very short attention span. A site or magazine that doesn’t keep up with releases can resign themselves to irrelevance, and it’s almost impossible to keep up without receiving review copies well in advance of the release date. It’s easy to see how a PR firm or publisher could bring leverage to bear on a publication, and although we’ve all heard horror stories about this — the firing of Jeff Gerstmann in 2007 stands out in the mind, though the more recent kerfluffle between reviewers and PR firm The Redner Group over Duke Nukem Forever is perhaps more telling — the pressure that is brought to bear is generally far less public.
The practical upshot of all this is that the critic is placed in a bind. The critic that scores high in order to secure review copies will usually find an audience, but they reinforce the idea that reviews are nothing but PR vehicles, reducing public confidence in video game criticism in general. On the other hand, the critic that scores low, or sometimes even just honestly, is endangering the their publication’s ability to do timely reviews. In this conflict, the reader and gamer is caught between the review that hedges its opinions in order to secure readership and the honest review that they’ll probably never even know was there.
In the end, the relationship between company PR and reviewers is not one that can survive the light of day. When discussion turns from the games being reviewed to the parties doing the review, it makes critics look biased and PR firms look manipulative and evil, regardless of the underlying issues at play. Although a game purchased by the reviewer or the company to which they belong may delay the review, it conveys a greater sense of reliability by showing a degree of autonomy from the publishers and their underlying motives. To be completely honest, it would be in the best interest of game criticism in general if we all agreed to not use review copies, but as long as publications have to be first with a review in order to be heard, nothing is going to change.