Exclusive: Critics Admit to Lowering Scores for Attention
Update: It has come to our attention that people aren’t happy that we haven’t named sources or names. We apologize for not having that information available but we respect the privacy of the critics in question. They asked not to be identified and as several still have ties to the sites of which they speak, they understandably choose to remain silent.
We also didn’t realize that a fourth critic hadn’t opted to explain his situation, which would’ve validated the title. The title does imply that critics admitted to doing it, not just seeing it. The fourth person decided not to say anything at the last second and the original writer of this article didn’t change the previously agreed-upon headline. We’ll see if we can get him to come forward and go on record but it’s unlikely.
As for our anonymity, we’ve explained that in the past. It will remain this way for the express purpose of putting the spotlight on critics and game reviews, where it belongs. Thank you.
Most people already suspect (David Jaffe and Ready at Dawn touched on it) but we’re here to expose it: There’s something rotten in the critic community, which has a direct impact on how games are perceived. But before we get into it, we’d like to make one thing perfectly clear: Most major sources have perfectly legitimate rules for approaching game reviews, and most critics do adhere to those rules. We are not talking about the clean majority; we’re talking here about the rotten minority.
And unfortunately, that minority typically involves small to mid-range sites that need the traffic. It also usually centers on those who are, let’s say, less than professional (i.e., just a gamer pretending to be a journalist with no real credentials). Given the way the Internet works, and the fact that anyone can post a review of anything, nobody should be too surprised. Now, moving on.
As you can see on our About Us and Mission Statement pages, we are a group of current and former critics, most of whom have been involved in the industry for over a decade. We do this on a part-time voluntary basis; some of us have moved on to other things, and a few have done so because they wanted out of the industry. More on that below. The bottom line is that we started VGRHQ to give critics recognition they deserve but never get. We have no writing awards for our field and gamers typically just spend their time trashing and insulting reviewers. But we’re also here to give people a candid, inside view.
After The Order: 1886‘s fiasco, some once again started to wonder: Will a critic give a game a lower overall score simply to get clicks for the website? Remember, these reviews are provided free of charge; it costs nothing to see these reviews and as such, all critics are at the whim of ad revenue. And as ads are driven purely by clicks, digital editors obviously encourage articles and reviews that would get the most attention. This has become a bigger and bigger problem in recent years, and it has led to purposely sensationalized reviews and scores. Three of our critics, who will remain anonymous and not disclose where they work or have worked, have stood up:
“Back in the ’90s, none of this was an issue. The Internet has changed things, though. The only way any site survives and the only way anybody gets paid is via ad revenue. This is why the overwhelming majority of game journalists only receive what equates to part-time pay. I was always okay with that, until I was told how I’d be generating revenue. I had one editor tell me flat-out that the site needed a boost one month, and I needed to give a big-name release a low score.
He even said he’d post it before the embargo because as everyone knows, early reviews get a huge amount of attention. Plus, early reviews that have a low score for a super anticipated game get the most possible attention. For the record, I didn’t do it. But I do know that site still issues that directive to its writers whenever ad revenue is low.”
“I got into reviewing games for some smaller sites in 2008. I’ve bounced around a bit and now I’m writing for what I suppose is a mid-size site. Before the new generation of systems arrived, many sites were hurting for revenue because gamers just seemed tired of the PS3/360/Wii era. We were pretty desperate and one of the editors proposed what he called a “legitimate attention-getting tactic” in the digital world. Basically, you just do your research as to what gets the most attention, and then do it. Just like any ad campaign, so-to-speak.
That’s why one of our writers was told to deliver a review for Killzone: Shadow Fall as early as possible, and with a score no higher than a 6. It would be posted ASAP and before the proper time. It happened and it worked. It’s not the last time I heard about such a “tactic,” either.”
“I’m so tired of this sh**. You can’t have a review community you can trust when nobody is actually paid for their services. If they’re paid indirectly via ads, then what matters is attention, not the quality or integrity of the work. The bottom line is that gamers want dissension and argument, and nothing generates that faster than a low score for a hugely anticipated game. I knew people who were convinced that some sites like Destructoid benefited from such crap (remember the 4 they gave to Heavy Rain?). Personally, I like that site and I don’t believe the accusations in that particular case, but I know such a problem exists.
I’ve been playing games since the late ’70s and I was a critic on and off for multiple publications (digital and otherwise) between 1989 and 2010. That’s a long time. But I started seeing that in a world where traffic dictates everything, and the causes of that traffic have nothing to do with the tenets of criticism, sh** was going sideways. Have I heard of sites directing reviewers to issue lower scores for the sake of attention? Um, yeah. Happens all the time. Most of the bigger sources aren’t in the discussion, however, because they’re not entirely dependent on clicks for one particular review. But a small site can earn a month’s worth of revenue with just one article or review that hits big.
So yeah, I had to get out. I don’t want any part of it anymore.”
We would like to thank these critics for standing up. The video game critic community needs some recognition for doing good work, but we also need to point out the flaws in the system.