Update: Khandaker has reached out to me and pointed me to this blogpost here http://mitu.nu/2014/11/30/actually-its-about/ where she clears many of these relationships up. Please take the time to read this. I would like it expressed that I never believed that Khandaker paid for reviews.
EDIT: Originally I alluded to the fact that Patricia Hernandez shared Thanksgiving with Mitu Khandaker. This is not correct. Hernandez shared this event with Cara Ellison and Danielle Riendeau, all of whom gave Khandaker positive coverage. I’m extremely sorry for this mistake and hope this edit is visible enough that people with be updated on the story.
Over the last few months there has been heated discussion about the close relationships between independent developers and the journalists who promote their work. One example is the undisclosed romantic relationship between Kotaku journalist Patricia Hernandez and Christine Love, where Hernandez promoted the latter’s work twice for the geek culture website, and her undisclosed relationship with Anna Anthropy who she promoted six times and who she once lived with. Once the inappropriate relationships between these gamers were revealed, Stephen Totilo, Editor in Chief, stepped in to apologise for the lack of disclosure and placed them in the articles after the fact, while at the same time defending the articles appropriateness and level of interest for readers.
However, recently Reddit user AN4RCHID has brought attention to a new set of relationships between Mitu Khandaker, who single handedly developed “Redshirt” a Facebook in space simulator, and several journalists who reviewed her work. Redshirt received high critical success around the time of its release back in July 2013,on high profile gaming websites such as Gamasutra, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Kotaku, Polygon and PC Gamer, as well as receiving honorable mention at IGF and becoming a finalist at another independent gaming festival, IndieCade.
The story was not all praise for RedShirt. Overall, it received a Metacritic score of 62 from critics, and 6.3 from users. Britton Peele of Gamespot gave RedShirt a 6/10 criticising it as a dating simulator with repetitive grind, frustrating randomisation and an anti-climatic ending. Dan Whitehead from Eurogamer, who gave the title a lowly 5/10, claimed the ideas outstripped the resources, the speech was maddeningly abstract and critiqued the lack of immersion. Post release users did not seem happy with the product either, giving it a mostly negative reviews on Steam and a 38% approval rating.
Despite this barrage of negative comments, there appears to be some journalists who reviewed the game positively, without sharing an inappropriate relationship with Khandaker. Leigh Alexander of Gamasutra praises Khandaker’s game and her use of tact when dealing with complaints, while sharing a relationship with the developer, which while friendly, seems to err on the side of professional. Mike Rose also of Gamasutra, gave RedShirt generally positive coverage, while appearing to have no prior relationship with the developer. Unfortunately, this is not the only form of coverage RedShirt received on Gamasutra.
One of the most ill-advised relationships between Khandaker and a journalist is that of her relationship with Kris Ligman, news editor of Gamasutra, curator of Critical Distance and “Super Juror” of IndieCade where she was a finalist. Not only was Kris Ligman a judge at the competition this October, but she penned an article, back in March 2014, in which she describes Khandaker and her work positively. The relationship between the pair appears inappropriate as Khandaker began donating money to Ligman’s Patreon, Critical Distance, back at the beginning of March, 4 days before her article was released and several months before she judged the festival. Critical Distance’s partnership with Gamasutra could also bring Alexander and Rose’s articles into question.
Kirk Hamilton of Kotaku, promoted Khandaker and her work, without disclosure, when positively sourcing her profanity-laden speech at the 2013 Indie Developers Conference. However, an analysis of their tweets seem to show that they hold a close friendship.
Patricia Hernandez also of Kotaku, who has been criticised for undisclosed relationships before, wrote a positive article about RedShirt, where she distances herself from the developer by claiming the interview was done via email. It should be noted that Hernandez was friendly with Cara Ellison and they shared Thanksgiving dinner together. Danielle Riendeau of Polygon who gave the game an 8/10 in her review was also at this event. Khandaker was not at this event, though all three journalists wrote on RedShirt.
The focus however seems to mostly fall on Khandaker’s relationship to Cara Ellison a gaming journalist. However, after investigating it appears that Khandaker’s friendship with Ellison only started after the release of her game and not before her coverage. Positively, Ellison discloses in her article which positively reviews Khandaker’s work in PC Gamer, she knows the developer personally. Despite this ethical nod, Ellison continues to give the developer positive coverage since they began their friendship, such as mentioning her positively in an article in Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Khandaker also began supporting Ellison financially through Patreon at the start of this year, after the PC Gamer article.
While it seems the closeness of these relationships as well as financial incentives could have encouraged writers to promote her work, it should be noted that the fullness of these friendships cannot be quantified and so it is hard to objectively define a relationship which oversteps professional boundaries. Also while relationships through Patreon do not disclose dollar amounts, it cannot be said that these finances could influence a writer, such as how Jenn Frank was criticised for her financial ties to developer Zoe Quinn over what turned out to be just $15. In the end it is up to the consumer to decide what level of relationship or financial ties they find appropriate.
Was this a conflict of interest? Please tell us in the comments below.
A member of staff at PC Gamer pointed out to me that while the PC Gamer article, read to me like a review, it was a preview, I have edited to reflect this.