The motivation for companies to court and shape media coverage of their games and products is obvious. “If I can get Prominent Games Magazine X to publish a six-page spread of my title for free,” says Laura Heeb Mustard, a long time game publicist who has worked with Namco, Enix, THQ, Midway, and Majesco, “why would my marketers bother tacking on an advertisement to the end of that? The message is already in there. And if it's preview material, it's all but guaranteed to be a positive one. That's just good business sense."
The difference between an ad and a published story, of course, is that a writer can say anything he or she wants about a game. But in allowing a publication access to a game and the people who created it, publishers exert a subtle influence. The greatest tool in their arsenal is the exclusive, often taking the form of a sought-after cover story for magazines.
In this age of instantaneous online news distribution, print publications rely on exclusivity deals with game publishers to give them a leg up on the electronic competition. The publisher gets choice real estate (several pages of story and an eye catching cover image peeking out from newsstands across the country), while the magazine gets a promise: Their publication will be the only place to read about that particular game, at least for the time being. No money changes hands, of course, and the publication gets to present that info (and any opinions they might have about it) in whatever way they choose.
Illustration by Joshua Ellingson
But trouble can arise from how publishers distribute those prized cover stories. According to sources interviewed for this story, the doling out of exclusives and cover stories can either be a simple business decision (Who sells more magazines?) or an unsaid reward for previous positive coverage (What have you done for me lately?).
“It's a business,” says Tricia Gray, Marketing and Communications Director for developer Flagship Studios. “...The good of my product comes before all other considerations. And if I deem Magazine X is the best option with the most numbers, I go with it. There's no sinister plot, no conspiratorial agency, no bribes, buyouts, threats, or clandestine operations.”
Todd Zuniga, a writer who served a stint in PR with publisher Rockstar Games before returning to journalism, had experiences to the contrary. “In part, it’s a numbers game,” says Zuniga. “Otherwise, it’s history. Who wrote negatively about the games, and who hasn't? We never worked with [gaming website] GameSpot while I was there because 'they just didn't get it.' Same with Wired [magazine] because of a story in 2002 by a writer who now teaches high school in Indiana.”
Sometimes exclusives are given less as a reward for previous coverage and more as an insurance policy for publishers unsure about how a game will be received by the press. “I have chosen an outlet for an exclusive review based on who I thought would give it the best review,” says Mustard. “That's not unscrupulous. It's smart. You should never, ever consider letting the first review of your game go to an outlet that you have any doubt likes your game.”
She says that publicists can usually get a feel for how a game will be received through a publication's previews and other early coverage. “That's not to say you negotiate the review. It means that through the course of working with outlets, you know who likes the game and who doesn't. However, an exclusive review doesn't guarantee it’s going to be good.”