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Can Kotaku Be Fixed?

Todd Wohling / November 27, 2015 at 11:00 AM / Gaming, Opinions

I’m not a fan of Kotaku.  I think Patricia Hernandez was the worst writer in gaming from before E3 2013 until the staff at The Mary Sue decided the title of Worst Writer in Gaming and Technology looked good enough to want to wrest it away from Hernandez. So, for the Kotaku fanbois out there, take what comes with a grain of salt.

I was surprised a bit by a commentary from Erik Kain in Forbes describing in detail why it was proper for Kotaku to go public about being “blacklisted” by Bethesda and Ubisoft.  The Kotaku commentary, written by Stephen Totilo, outlines some of the details behind the blacklisting, as well as brushes the surface of the method by which information is disseminated from games companies to press outlets.  Namely, Totilo states the PR and marketing departments of the two companies have been treating Kotaku as persona non grata.

Kain identifies two important things in the opening paragraphs of the Totilo piece:

There are two important things in this snippet. First, that PR controls the flow of information to outlets like Kotaku and Forbes Games; and second, that when blacklisting and other acts of retribution occur, they’re seldom discussed publicly. The first is absolutely true, and I would argue that the video game industry is particularly egregious in this regard. The second is also true, since many outlets don’t want to make a bad situation worse.

The first, as Kain astutely mentions, is absolutely true, but it is absolutely true virtually everywhere.  The proper channel for information on products made by corporations is the PR and/or Marketing Departments for those corporations.  Should that information be passed through a filter?  Of course it should.  Should the reporters working in the same domain try and get independent verification of PR information from other sources? Of course they should.  We in turn, as consumers, should not be surprised in the least that the people hired to interact with the public are, in fact, interacting with the public. 

Designers, Coders, Testers, and Executives are not necessarily trained to interact with the public’s media intermediaries. All it would take is one slip of the tongue to induce a 4 paragraph, 100 word, clickbait garbage article where an ideologue masquerading as a journalist demonstrates total ignorance of multiple specific niches of the video game industry.  All it would take is something personal taken out of context for a character assassination to take place without consequence for the assassin, for the editor who let the assassination happen, or for the outlet that posted the assassination.

This is not to say any outlet should sit on confirmed information if they have it.  I just wonder if editors overvalue the public interest in dropping screenshots and release dates early, or announcing to the world the internal drama of gaming companies and the people working for them.

Or the value in letting bitter ideologues run amok with Kotaku branding all over it.

Drama Llamas

Internal drama itself is an interesting topic.  Totilo talks about other stories Kotaku reported on that were less than complimentary:

The Bethesda blackout came after a year of reporting that was not always flattering to the Maryland-based publisher. In April of 2013 we reported insiders’ accounts of the troubled development of the still unreleased fourth major Doom game. In May of that year, we reported that Arkane Austin, the Bethesda-owned studio behind Dishonored, would be working on a new version of the long missing-in-action Prey 2 and that some at the studio were not pleased about that. When top people at Bethesda started making statements casting doubt on our reporting, we published a leaked internal e-mail confirming that those statements had misled gamers and that Arkane had indeed been working on a version of Prey 2.

So, clearly the timing of the blackout is curious on the part of Bethesda.  That said, I have different thoughts about the Arkane Austin situation than both Totilo and Kain.  In the tech industry, people are shunted between projects all the time, and people are asked to work on projects they either aren’t interested in, or they know going in are massively problematic to complete without working very long hours and expending superhuman effort.  The situation was commonplace in my 14 years in the aerospace industry.  Totilo posits:

There will always be a clash between independent reporters and those seek to control information, but many of these companies appear to believe that it is actually possible in 2015 for hundreds of people to work dozens of months on a video game and for no information about the project to seep out.

The difference between the rest of the tech industry and the gaming industry, apparently, is that members of the tech industry at large don’t go running off to an associated media outlet, like SpaceNews in my case, to deal dirt to a reporter they’ve been assigned to a piece of the GPS ground system they don’t like.  There’s almost no value in such a story, and even if the hypothetical person had a juicy reason as to why the personnel moves were being made, like budget and schedule problems, it’s more likely than not those specific details will be made public later.  The Joint Strike Fighter is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

The surprising thing to me is how Kain doesn’t know this goes on all the time in tech and no one talks about it.  Surely, he has friends in the technology industry and they talk shop off the record?

Issues of Maturity

So maybe the gaming industry, and the people in it, aren’t mature enough to handle the 24 hour news cycle?  Maybe gaming companies aren’t smart enough to assign Company Proprietary status to all the internal details, technical specs, and art surrounding projects in development?  Maybe the most important aspects of a person working for a game company should be trustworthiness and discretion, vice 10 bazillion hours logged in a random level editor?  I’m really grasping at straws, because there’s no good reason why any of the information Totilo discusses in his piece should have been leaked to anyone.  It’s easy to throw the book at Kotaku for biting the hand that feeds it, but the responsibility more often than not lies with people who blabbed to Kotaku’s reporters than on Kotaku itself.  That might be the one and only point on which Kain, Totilo, and I agree.

Kain says:

Well, it might screw up plans for the marketing team and the PR people, but there’s no reason that early leaked images are going to screw up the game itself. If anything, these types of leaks can build hype and get people talking about a game.

Sure, it’s not in the strict time-frame that these companies had hoped for, but it isn’t the end of the world either. If we learn the release date or the title of the next Call of Duty game before Activision wants us to, the sky won’t fall for that company. Its PR team will simply find a new way to work with the circumstances (and they have practice by now, since Call of Duty is leaky as hell for some reason.) Some PR people will spin straw into gold; others will get upset and retaliate. I simply believe that the former is better business than the latter, especially for the long-term.

In fact, I would bet good money that some leaks aren’t leaks at all, but rather part of subtle marketing campaigns, or at least that some companies turn a blind eye to leaks when they see that they can be used as viral marketing. But that’s another story altogether.

If the assertion in the final paragraph were true, then the apparent persona non grata status of Kotaku with respect to Bethesda and Ubisoft truly makes no sense.  So, I’m skeptical that leaks are part of some nefarious PR campaign, with the possible exception of CoD, but isn’t CoD itself a special case, because it is part of the Acti-Blizz enterprise?

Risk and Mitigation

The name of the game in these times, if not all times, is Risk Mitigation.

Hype is risk.  There’s no way to get around that.  A screen shot released too early, a release date reported before it can be vetted, or a technical detail about graphics or mechanics reported without context or, worse, with improper context sets incorrect expectations in the minds of consumers.  The more fanatical the consumer, the worse the company developing a game has it when trying to mitigate risk.  The PR and Marketing people at Bethesda, for example, have to manage the expectations of 10 million people through the entire production phase of Fallout 4.  Kotaku dropping the hammer on an article gushing about how pretty the environment looks without the context that the screenshot came from a tech demo or prototype makes managing expectations impossible.

Again, maybe Ubisoft and Bethesda are special cases because they are so big, but if I put myself in the role of a person working at any videogame company, I’m trying to mitigate risk to minimize negative affects to my company’s bottom line.  Then I look at the post history of Klepek and Hernandez and Schreier and Grayson, and I’m forced to ask myself why I should trust an outlet who might assign someone like them to cover my game when I can just as easily provide my game to PewDiePie, Boogie, and TB, and have a higher chance of receiving an honest, but fair, dissemination of information about my game, including it’s problems, than I could hope for if I trusted Kotaku.

Kotaku and Gaming

Maybe I’m naïve.  Maybe aerospace is so far divorced from the gaming industry I don’t know what I am talking about.  To me software development is software development, but I could very well be wrong.  Or maybe Kotaku just needs an enema. 

Some might wonder about my use of “trust” two paragraphs ago.  The reason why I use “trust” is because we’re all in the gaming industry together: developers, media, and consumers.  Everyone has an obligation to everyone else or the industry doesn’t exist anymore, but maybe I feel that way because I remember what a “gaming isle” looked like after the industry crashed the first time.  I know I don’t ever want to see a small, ragtag piece of shelf space with 8 games on it again.

The shame is how many people are willing to phone it in with respect to their obligations to the other groups that make the gaming industry strong.  In that, everyone is to blame: game companies choose not to respect their consumers; consumers choose to overreact to every piece of news about a game or when their expectations for a game aren’t met; games media hates their audience.

Totilo has to defend his people and his organization; that’s his job, and his obligation to the people who work for him.  I respect him far more for making the defense and being honest than I would had he kept the information secretive.  I also understand why Kain is defending Totilo, even though I don’t necessarily agree with everything either are saying.

So what say you, Raptor Nation?  Can a media outlet be honest, fair, and protect the health of the gaming industry?  Or is trying to do all three trying to thread the needle too much?

Todd Wohling

A long time ago on an Intellivision far, far away my gaming journey started with Lock n' Chase, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons The Cloudy Mountain, and Night Stalker. I earned both a BS-Physics and a BS-Mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Today I spend most of my time on PC. I left a career of 14 years in aerospace in Colorado, so I could immigrate to Norway.