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Disturbing Happenings in iPhone Land and more...
by Marshal Hernandez on 12/18/09 05:39:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraĺs community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

What I am about to disclose is not necessarily the most shocking instance of this situation; however, it should be quite sobering to indie iPhone developers -in terms of what they are up against that is. These are my personal experiences and do not reflect a common practice in the game industry media... I think...

As some of you may know, rayBLAST just recently shipped its first debut title for the iPhone. And, many of you out there may even be indie developers yourself. So when I mention budgets and how indies don't really have one, we can all relate to a certain degree. It is without a doubt one of the greatest struggles for the small developer to manage creating a great piece of software, run a business, and wear the numerous hats involved.

One of those hats, whether you know it or not, is called a media manager or PR person. Basically they are the evangelist preaching the truth to everyone about your new product and how it will bring glorious divine pleasure into their lives. There are a number of tools at the disposal of the Media Manager. For example, press releases to get the word out, programs used to promote a product, contests that work great to create brand awareness, and the list goes on and on. Sometimes the Media Manager is involved in buying ad space either in print or on the web in the form of banner ads.

What is the point to this? Well, quite frankly, I want to point out that in all my experience in marketing and wearing the Media Manager's hat, I have never... and I mean never, ever... bought a review for a product or paid for someone to interview me. But that is exactly what I was offered just recently by a very large network with high traffic on the web! I was approached to buy web banner ad space for impaXor, our new iPhone game, in a most harmless manner. But a third email from the Editorial Director, which will remain unnamed, later divulged they would include an interview and a review in the price of the web banner ad. Huh?!?!

Wait a minute! Pay to be interviewed?!?! Pay to have impaXor reviewed?!?! Oh, no no no! That is a most nasty reality to think about, folks! This is like the old "pay to play" schemes the DJs used to nail up-and-coming bands to get their music out on the airwaves. Hell No! I, for one, will not participate in such a violation of ethics. This not only insults my intelligence, but undermines me as a professional.

First off, this destroys accurate and informative reviews for the public. This also undermines all developers out there trying to make it. These practices cause honest developers with great products to fail. Without objective, impartial editorials or reviews, there exists no real non-competitive exposure for indies outside of the number of web banner ads their budgets can support. Pay attention! I stated non-competitive above. Competitive means are available in the form of web pages and forum posts. Try keeping a thread visible on a popular iPhone forum and you'll see the definition of competitive.

Now whether or not this individual knew they were committing a true disservice to the game industry, game industry media, and especially the indies out there, is totally up in the air. I wouldn't doubt for a second that they thought it was good business. And, they may have even genuinely thought they were giving me a leg up. But it was wrong and I knew it right away myself.

It reminds me of a situation not so long ago, where I ran across a fellow on LinkedIn that made a comment on a blog posting about how padding, or essentially lying, on your resume was acceptable. I confronted this miserable soul only to be accused subtly of being a hypocrite by this fellow quoting Jesus Christ. He said lying on a resume had nothing to do with ethics. And, I think he wholeheartedly believed himself. In any case, that is another story, but it relates in that certain people out there may or may not understand proper business practices. This leads to corruption plain and simple.

So what are we to do about this situation? How many people out there have paid to be interviewed or paid for a review? I would hope none of you have. You don't pay for interviews! You don't pay for reviews! You develop the best application you can and then you roll up your sleeves and the real work begins. Marketing and brand awareness is a beast. Be smart about what you do out there and don't let bottom feeders try to take advantage of you.

I will NOT be following up with this person to buy the ad space, or pay for the interview and review. Makes you wonder about all the reviews out there, right? What about the interviews? Nothing is as it seems.

Originally posted:
Disturbing Happenings in iPhone Land and more...


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Comments


Luis Guimaraes
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Sad events...

Stephen Northcott
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This has been going on since the App Store opened. We are contacted regularly by people offering various dubious ways to market our Apps. From your article you don't make it clear if they guaranteed a good review in that "package", but from the tone of your article this is implied...



But yes it almost goes without saying that if you pay for inclusion with any of these companies a "good review" comes with that paid "advertising". In fact even getting reviewed these days seems to require some commitment from a publisher in my experience too. This seems to be the model that most startup blog and iPhone / iPod App review sites are following. Mostly small ones, but also a few of the "bigger" ones too.



I simply ignore and blacklist any blog / website or magazine that suggests this, and so should everyone else IMO. But I don't think it's going away any time soon.. and I think it's a lot more widely accepted than you perhaps think.



And actually it's the way that most of the big firms and large publishers seem to work, and always have done.

Certainly when I was working in house many moons ago it seemed part of any software house directors job was to wine, dine and bargain for a minimum review score alongside the advertising package they bought.

Jacek Wesolowski
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I used to work for a printed games magazine before I moved on to development, and the way local games magazines (both printed and web-based) worked at the time was the main reason why I left. I'm not sure which was more sad: the fact that your own editor would recruit you to do a side job for a publisher (e.g. one local publisher would hire reviewers to write localized user manuals), the fact that you could secure enthusiastic reviews for your game simply by inviting a bunch of reviewers to a party, or the fact that everybody seemed to think it was all perfectly okay.



It's not like there are no honest people out there, but a gaming journalist's "moral backbone" is more easily broken that you would normally expect, for a variety of reasons:

- it's often a side job to them, so it's not to be taken seriously,

- they don't have professional background (e.g. they have not trained or studied journalism),

- they're young and easily impressed,

- it's part of their employer's business model, so there's a lot of economic pressure,

- you could write an entire book on how to fool an unprepared sucker into thinking they love your product even though they haven't seen it yet (e.g. why do you think hostesses at gaming expos are not exactly elegantly dressed?),

- the audience can't tell the difference between an honest review and a "sponsored" one,

- and they most often don't care about one's honest opinion anyway (partly because many reviews are bought, so they have been largely unreliable in the long run, so a reviewer's opinion doesn't mean much -- see, there's a feedback loop in there),



My last paid job as a games reviewer/columnist was in 2003, and once I left, I never looked back.

Bart Stewart
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There was a big stink a couple of years ago when the PR firm Kohnke Communications sued the former Gods & Heroes and Star Trek Online developer Perpetual Entertainment. The court filing included this sentence: "Kohnke's public relations campaign was successful in creating pre-release 'buzz' around Gods & Heroes, and in convincing reviewers to write positive reviews about the game."



When this was revealed by TenTonHammer (http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/15616), Kohnke VP Sean Kauppinen followed up with a statement (http://blogs.pcworld.com/gameon/archives/006061.html) that included the following:



"This has gotten completely blown out of proportion so I have to say something. This was nothing more than a typo in the complaint. The game [Gods & Heroes] was never released, so it should be clear we didn't mean 'reviews,' but 'previews.' It's a missing letter in the complaint that, unfortunately, changes the meaning of the sentence to something we never intended to suggest.



Flat out, we don't convince people to write positive reviews. Period."



Except that by then the damage was done. Not only was there a perception (perhaps false) that PR firms could influence game reviews, there remains a question of the degree to which PR firms continue to influence *previews* of upcoming games.



Where does energetic marketing morph into unethical tampering with objective journalism?

Marshal Hernandez
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All great feedback on this issue! It is truly unfortunate that these things occur. I think the only thing that can be done about it really is to inform as many people as possible. Both the developers and the public should be aware of these things. First, the developer needs to know, if they don't already, that dealings like this happen. Second, the public must be aware so that they can decide whether or not to trust everything they see. It may not be as objective as it should be.

Dean Longmore
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I congratulate you for discovering something that has upset you and for bringing this to light, but please don't preach and na´vely act as if your personal set of morals are somehow superior and should be adopted by everyone. It's almost a little sickening, and it doesn't say much for your character to insult other people that are different from you, that you clearly don't understand.

But well done for sticking to your guns and standing by what you believe in when faced with a great opportunity to push your product forward.

Stephen Northcott
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Following on from what you've said Dean..



I don't know what other people's motivations are for creating stuff, but mine has been, and always will be because I want to make fun and interesting things both for myself and for others. Actually one of the biggest issues I have had in my career is that I will love an idea, and want to make that game *for me*, but by the end of the creative process I can end up not getting much enjoyment out of the product simply because I have been over exposed to an idea or concept during it's creation. So although I am happy with my creation I don't actually ever get to really *play the game* the way I originally wanted to because I know it too well at that point. It's one of the curses of being a creative person in this industry IMO.



So overall I would far rather receive honest and critical reviews and not sell a single copy than have others lie on my behalf in order to simply make money. Perhaps I am na´ve. In fact I am sure I am. But I would feel cheated and dirty if I saw a review in print or on any media about something that I had made that was tainted by a sales strategy.

Christopher Enderle
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Does it really matter if an interview is being paid for or if it's freely given to advertise the interviewee's game? I've been starting to view the majority of interviews/reviews/etc as nothing more than marketing and pr spin. I'm sure there are some honest interviews given to impart hard earned wisdom, guidance, inspiration and such to the rest of the industry and fans, and even honest reviews meant to highlight and pin down the exact failings and achievements of a game, but it's hard not to become cynical, jaded, and dismissive toward such outlets.



Ultimately, I believe this sort of behavior will hurt the industry. The people who offer and partake in such deals as these might certainly see short term benefits, but if all you want is money then there are plenty of other industries to strip mine for a quick buck.

Marshal Hernandez
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@Dean

Wow! Deja Vu! Sounds like the LinkedIn guy I mentioned. Obviously you have misinterpreted the blog post. This is not about me; however, it is about my experience. It is also about something that the public does have a right to know about. Or, do you prefer they wear blinders? I'd like you to point out where I insulted anyone in particular. If you are referring to my 'bottom-feeders' comment, then understand that it is directed at corrupted individuals that do not care for good business practices. What is there not to understand, friend? It is very simple. The only ones that would find it sickening are those that prefer developers, like me, not say anything at all and choose to partake in such acts. If that is you, then be my guest. I'm not stopping you nor is anyone out there. Matter of fact, I encourage you to go for it if you think that is as you say, "a great opportunity to push your product forward." If you are a developer, maybe you should plug your games and state that you don't mind influencing reviews with money. Buy that interview and buy that review. In the end, it does not prop up a bad product. And, if you have a good product it will sell itself. That is classic sales 101. Sometimes it takes a while, but quality will sell any day. Good luck!



So do I hold myself to a higher standard than succumbing to the underhanded practices of paying for reviews or interviews? You bet I do. Is that wrong? Nope. Not at all. Will people come along and bash it? Yep. Am I worried about that? Nope. I would not have even posted this in my blog if I were. Treat the pubic right. Don't help perpetuate lies.

Brandon Davis
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Thanks Marshal. If review readers expect an unbiased opinion, that it is exactly what they should get. Watch out for some screwy politician getting hold of this--they already have the game industry by the short-hairs, as a 'whipping boy' for other issues.

Dean Longmore
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Marshal, after reading your retort, I guess I have simply confused your genuine insulting of others with your overall aggressive, antagonistic tone of writing.

I wont attempt to bring you down off your high horse, because apparently you're immune to the larger moral argument, and I take no issue with you bringing light to this practice, I just think it's a little naive to wake up and suddenly realise the world is a business machine that revolves around money.

I'm not trying to silence you or stop you from making this post, I guess I'm just questioning whether it was really necessary, but by looking at some of the comments by surprised readers, I can see it was.



While quality is important, and I strive to make the quality of my projects the number one priority, it's a little silly to think that is the sole factor when trying to market and sell a game. I'm sure you've studied up on all the methods to 'game' the AppStore to give yourself the best exposure possible, interviews, previews, reviews are all just additional tools for a developer or publisher to expose the public to their title, hopefully, in a positive light.



And as far as "a great opportunity", I would think exposure on "a very large network with high traffic" would be exactly that. I'd also be interested to hear about your correspondence in more detail, specifically, was it mentioned that you'd receive any special treatment with the review? Or would it still be fair and balanced?



I feel it's also necessary to say that I don't believe this practice is right, or inherently wrong for that matter, I just enjoy playing devils advocate when it comes to arguments of people's fixed morality.

Marshal Hernandez
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@Dean

Yeah, I think it is necessary. Most people I have spoke with, including developers, were not aware that this was happening. However, some have been aware. Now, don't think for a second that I am naive; been around the block a few times in 3 different industries no less. But, I can honestly say that I was taken back by how bad paying for reviews has become. It has without a doubt destroyed my confidence and trust in review sites. And, many that discover this feel the same way.



As far as morality is concerned, to each their own. But the big picture is about business and it is very clear that the little guy gets burned once again if this becomes standard practice in the industry. He who has the gold makes the rules. The game changer that Apple has introduced in the form of iTunes becomes null and void when large corporations with deep pockets can buy off just about any review they choose. Thus resulting in a very unfair and non-objective look at any title they so choose to publish. While ultimately giving a false impression to the public with tons of exposure -that game published by said company may or may not be any better than the next title. But the next title never sees the light of day because it never gets any attention due to a lack of reviews or coverage.



Here's a test: Look up the top 40 iPhone app websites out there and compare the frontpage contents. I guarantee you will see a pattern. It gets worse on certain days of the week.



Now there are sites that seem to have not been compromised, which are not in the cross-hairs of my so-called high-horse, aggressive, antagonistic, insulting observations. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. A reed in the wind can only bend so far before it gets ridiculous. Looking the other way does not remedy the issue. Does it need to be discussed? You bet it does. Awareness is key. Each individual out there is responsible for the decisions they make. An educated public is the best way to handle this.



No doubt, I think you're a good fellow, Dean. And I don't mind the point and counter-point at all. But to insist that I am somehow putting myself on a pedestal because I choose to make a stand is not accurate at all. Apple has just recently made a stand on this issue too. If you'll recall they just pulled over 1,000 apps because a company was falsifying customer reviews on iTunes.



@Brandon

Thank you, Brandon, for reading. Yeah, politicians. Oh boy! Please, don't get me started. Need I say more. :-)

Itamar Weisberg
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Marshal, why don't you state which site was it? Why not let everyone know and let that impact the site?

Sean Parton
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@Itamar Weisberg: As great as that idea sounds, it would be a huge black mark on his reputation. Not to mention that the discussions between parties like this (including individual details) is likely not intended to be public, and that can have legal repercussions as well. That and the website in question could deny it, and we have a he-said-she-said debate that goes nowhere and just is bad news for all parties involved.

Sean Kauppinen
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@Bart Stewart - Thanks for bringing up awful memories of poor document control (not on my end) that led to a ridiculous circumstance for me ;) That was not the definitive moment of anything related to PR. It does make a great case for the need to track changes when working with attorneys so they aren't working in parallel on a different version and only looking at one paragraph where they expect your feedback, rather than the entire document where you've made corrections throughout.



When it comes to previews, there's always positioning. If you have a final polished level of the game and another that needs a ton of work, I don't know anyone that would choose to show something that would poorly position the game. Previews are always presented in the best positive light. If you aren't positively positioning your product, you're not actually doing a good job at marketing.



Reviews on the other hand, are out of the hands of the PR people. They can control who gets a game directly form them, and when, but any reviewer can pick up a game at the store and say whatever they want about it. The game needs to stand on its own merits. Also, PR people also don't buy ads, that's marketing.



@Marshal - Recently, there have been a lot of iPhone sites popping up and asking for money to review titles. They say this is to cover the costs of the review. That's crap! I recommend exactly what you're doing, don't send them any more news, info, screens, and definitely not review code. If you want to advertise, buy ads somewhere that doesn't offer coverage for advertising. The value provided by the site you are targeting is the credibility they have with their audience. If people are paying for positive press, it's worthless and the audience will go elsewhere.



And you can report the site directly to the FTC since new laws are in place to prevent this as of December 1st: http://www.ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005endorsementguidesfnnotice.pdf

Marshal Hernandez
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@Sean

Thanks for the URL. That should come in handy.


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