Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Eidos orders journalists to hold bad reviews

A year ago this week, game reviewer Jeff Gerstmann lost his job. After 11 years of overseeing editorial content at GameSpot, after earning a reputation as one of the most honest and most entertaining reviewers in the video game industry, he was let go.

The gaming community thinks Jeff lost his job because he gave Kane & Lynch — a shallow, foul-mouthed travesty of a game, a 6.0 review, at a time when its publisher, Eidos, had just spent thousands on an elaborate wall-to-wall advertising campaign.

The story seems simple enough. Jeff embarrassed a major GameSpot advertiser and lost his job. But a year later, it’s still just a story. Eidos assures us that Jeff’s firing “was purely for internal reasons” and was not related to any publisher or advertiser.

Both parties have signed legal agreements that keep them from talking. Gerstmann and GameSpot have moved on, but gamer suspicions remain.

Eidos was widely regarded as a bullying, sleazy company, but there was no hard evidence to prove it.

With legal agreements in place, we’ll never really know if Eidos was involved in Gerstmann’s termination, but this time we’ve caught them red-handed.

On Nov. 19, Gamespot UK journalist Guy Cocker got a call from Eidos’ PR firm Barrington Harvey. He was told, “If you’re planning on reviewing Tomb Raider Underworld at less than an 8.0, we need you to hold your review till Monday.”

In other words, if you’re not going to give our client’s game at least an 8 of 10 score, hold your review until after we launch.

Videogaming247 contacted the company and a spokesman at Barrington Harvey did his best to douse the firestorm, by confirming the allegations.

When asked about the controversy, the rep said, “That’s right. We’re trying to manage the review scores at the request of Eidos. We’re trying to get the Metacritic rating to be high, and the brand manager in the US that’s handling all of Tomb Raider has asked that we just manage the scores before the game is out, really, just to ensure that we don’t put people off buying the game, basically.”

And this is where it gets fun. The guys at Penny Arcade picked up the story on Nov. 24 and made it the subject of a webcomic and a podcast.

The podcast is so funny, I can’t do it justice here, but Gabe and Tycho have perfectly captured the absurdity of the situation — a PR company caught telling the truth about a shameful practice, in a tone that suggests they’re proud of it.

I’m trying to imagine the scene at Barrington Harvey, once the antics of this unnamed spokesman got out. I imagine dozens of men in suspenders and pastel dress shirts, sliding down fire poles into the Secret Barrington PR Cave, accompanied by alarm sirens and flashing red lights.

“Somebody asked the intern about our arrangement with Eidos and he told the TRUTH! Yank his scholarship and have his family killed!”

One of Barrington Harvey’s directors — named Simon Byron, everyone in this story is named like a Bond villain, tried to calm things down by, you guessed it, confirming the allegations again.

Byron starts off well enough. “Barrington Harvey is not in the position of telling reviewers what they can and cannot say…” This statement is literally true. Barrington Harvey does not tell reviewers what they can or cannot say, but they seem very concerned about when they say it.

“Our original NDA stated that in order to receive an advance copy of the game, reviewers agreed not to post reviews ahead of 5:00pm, Wednesday 19th November 2008,” Byron said.

In order to receive an advance copy of the game, reviewers had to hold their reviews until after the game’s release date. This seems like murky ethical territory to me, but I’ll focus on the matter at hand.

Barrington Harvey is not in the business of telling reviewers what to write. But then, in the very next paragraph, Byron says, “Barrington Harvey has been working hard to ensure the launch scores of Tomb Raider Underworld are in line with our internal review predictions…”

I don’t what to get bogged down in advanced symbolic logic here, but Statement B seems to contradict Statement A. Maybe I’m not taking Byron literally enough. Maybe he really doesn’t care what reviewers say, as long as their numerical review score is 8 or higher.

You can say Tomb Raider Underworld is a “bland, overproduced piece of crap” and no one at Barrington Harvey will complain, as long as you give it an 8.3.

So who’s the real bad guy here? Every game company tries to put their best foot forward and seduce industry journalists. I think the NDA is a bit suspect, but I blame the journalists who sign it more than the companies who offer it.

What we’ve got here is a PR company that admits to being a PR company. We’re not outraged because they lied to us. We’re outraged because they didn’t.

Written by Michael B. Duff

December 3, 2008 at 14:21

Posted in Games

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