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Games Journalism: An FAQ

What's a blacklist? How do NDAs work? Let's find out

Since launching Aftermath, articles like our headlines post, the Insomniac hack, Suicide Squad fiasco and some old war stories have made us realise something. Well, two things: Firstly, a lot of you are weirdly interested in games journalism (that's OK, we are too!). And secondly, judging by the constant state of The Discourse around the industry, it couldn't hurt to give people an explainer as to what this job actually entails.

The self-indulgence of journalists writing about journalism aside, I think talking about games journalism can be (very occasionally) healthy, because while the job can be important (reporting on serious issues, providing worthwhile criticism), it's also something of a punchline thanks to the industry's well-publicised shortcomings (overly-positive reviews, reliance on access, etc).

For both reasons--and let's be honest, mostly for the latter--games journalism is often a hot-button topic across social media and the internet at large, for everything from review scores to news reports to opinion pieces. Yet for all the volume and frequency of these discussions, many people seem to have very little idea how the job actually works. 

Given that all of us at Aftermath have been employed at various video game websites, and given this is a whole week we're dedicating to all things Inside Baseball, we thought it might be useful to answer some frequently-asked questions (and address some frequently-given criticisms) surrounding how it all works. What an embargo actually is and why sites agree to them. The scope of an NDA. How blacklists work. How reviews are assigned and handled; how news is reported. Who writes the headlines; who assigns the stories. Hopefully at the end of it all you'll have a better idea of how the sausage is made.

Before we start, though: This is a very broad guide, covering the entire field of games journalism, but there are definitely people who don't do all of this for a living; many might, sure, but others might only be critics, or work exclusively on a news desk. 

I'm also going to be hedging a lot of bets here, saying stuff like "some sites will do this, while others do that", and while that might seem unhelpful in a guide supposedly encompassing the entire field, I think it's actually very helpful, because it shows you that "games media" isn't some single, borg-like entity. Every writer is different, every site is different, and it's a lot more constructive to view games media as a loose constellation of voices than some homogenous block where everyone does the same job at the same kind of place.

HOW DO REVIEWS WORK?

Reviews at most outlets tend to be assigned (though people definitely volunteer!), and in some cases--even at huge sites like IGN--assigned to freelancers. Often the person most appropriate for the review (usually the most experienced with that series or genre) will be entrusted with the job, though you'll also find some of the biggest releases are simply handled by the site's best critics.

How long a reviewer gets to play the game depends on how long ahead of its release they get it. Sometimes publishers are great and get you code weeks out from your deadline. In many cases they're not and send you review code just days before the game hits shelves, and sometimes (usually when they know the game stinks or if your site is in their bad books) they won't send you code before the game is released at all.

That length of time can make a huge difference to a critic's quality of life, and subsequently the quality of a review. I once got four weeks to review a Yakuza release, which not only gave me enough time to fully explore the game at my own pace, but to write a really good review of it as well. Giving someone 3-5 days to not just play, but then immediately write a 2000-word review of a 20-hour game is the opposite of that.

Getting regular access to code relies on a solid relationship between the outlet and the publisher, and the latter are increasingly playing hardball with publications who are critical of their decisions, sometimes delaying or even withholding early code entirely. Kotaku might have been the most obvious example of this given we were so public in telling readers about it, but plenty of other sites (or even just some writers at sites) are on quieter naughty lists as well (we'll get into this in more detail in a minute). At the other end of the equation an overly-cosy relationship between publishers and the media, the people supposedly reporting on them and holding them to account, is ultimately not great for readers.

Photo: Engin Akyurt

In terms of review scores, well, the process is as all over the place as the scores themselves. Some outlets let a writer score a game (or at least provide enough input), while others will make that a collaborative process between writer and editor. Review scores can be helpful to a publication because they mean its review can be featured on sites like Metacritic, which can help drive traffic and increase awareness of the site. All you really need to know about scores, though, is that they simply do not and should not matter to you, an individual person capable of their own opinions, and the second you ever find yourself wondering about or questioning a review score, regardless of where you see it, you should go outside and take a nice big huff of some fresh air instead.

DO YOU ACTUALLY GET FREE VIDEO GAMES?

Sometimes! Usually if you're reviewing a game, a publisher will send you a copy of it. Depending on the outlet's size you may also get some codes for some of their games at the end of the year (when publishers are trying to get their titles on end-of-year lists). Some indie games will send outlets free games because developers and publishers hope you play their game and write about it. With bigger releases or studios, it can sometimes be hit or miss. 

You might also get a code if, for example, your outlet is reviewing a multiplayer video game and the staff needs to test it with more than one writer, so 2-4 of you end up with a copy. And in some circumstances your outlet might buy a copy of a game for you if the game's publisher was unable (or unwilling) to send you a copy.

That's about it, though. The notion that games writers get access to every single game on the market, or even loads of them, is simply not true. We end up buying a ton of games ourselves, or missing out on big releases because we can’t justify the cost, the same as everyone else.

(I should note here that, 10+ years ago, you used to get sent a lot more games from publishers, who didn't really care how many promo and press copies were out there. Only recently have companies become more stringent with their access, and we'll get into some of those reasons soon!)

On a related note, I still see people sometimes asking us about "swag", the practice of companies sending members of the press fancy gifts and collectibles. This used to be a huge thing! It's not really anymore, simply because most games journalists don't get sent anything anymore; why would a company waste a press kit on the press when they could send one to an influencer instead?

WHAT'S AN EMBARGO?

There are different kinds of embargoes. Some embargoes are an informal, time-based agreement between a publisher and an outlet, where a site will be asked something like "Hey here's this game's release date announcement can you agree to an embargo", the site will say "Sure let's do it", and the publisher says "OK it's coming out on December 17, please don't announce this until December 16 at 9:00am Eastern".

Another type of embargo exists for interviews and reviews, where sites will receive review code and, alongside that, an embargo date. Let's say a site receives review code on December 1; that would usually be accompanied by a note that the review embargo is something like December 9 at 10:00am Pacific, so you're not allowed to publish your review until then.

Embargoes are usually OK! They exist for a very good reason: they give everyone time to digest news or play a game, and then be on equal footing when it comes to publishing their material on it. If embargoes didn't exist, you would 100% get some cowboy writers and/or sites trying to get someone killed reviewing a 60-hour game in four days, or rushing news out the door within five minutes when they haven't even understood the press release.

There are still issues with them, though. For publishers, since they're not legally binding, there will always be people--usually reckless content creators, or smaller sites--who will agree to an embargo then accidentally break it, or intentionally do so in an attempt to get their stuff out first. That's usually the only time they get away with it, as nobody wants to work with an oath-breaker ever again, but it still happens. And for outlets, sometimes different embargoes are set for different people, creating a frustrating imbalance. Twitch streamers might be allowed to post footage of a game two days before written reviews go live, for example, which can create a lot of internal resentment among the outlets left behind, not to mention concerns as to why some people received preferential access.

WAIT, SO WHAT'S A NON-DISCLOSURE AGREEMENT (NDA) THEN?

A Non-Disclosure Agreement, or NDA, is essentially a contract between a journalist (or outlet) and a video games company where the latter is agreeing to disclose something confidential, while the former is agreeing to receive the information under a legally-binding set of circumstances. Unlike an embargo, which ends at a certain time and which tends not to have consequences for breaking beyond having PR be very mad and never send you a game again, breaking an NDA can have actual legal consequences.

A games journalist would normally be presented with an NDA when the other party wants them to keep something very secret, either for a certain amount of time or more generally. (For example, if you visit a game studio, you might be asked to sign an NDA about things you might see around the office, like stuff written on whiteboards.) Essentially it's a writer saying, OK, you can trust me with this secret business information so I can write something about it, and in return I either won't talk about it until a certain time has passed, or I'll talk about some things whenever I want, but am agreeing to never disclose others.

You can imagine that there are issues with this! In almost all cases there's a power imbalance between the publisher and the outlet, because only one of those entities is presenting the contract, and in turn making all the implied threats contained in its violation clauses. The media outlet is usually just saying, OK, sure, though it can try to negotiate at least some parts of the NDA.

I have signed a few of these, and some of them were bad. I remember one, for a big review I was writing for a first-party exclusive, said I couldn't mention the entire final third of the game. Even after release! It was so absurd that it actually helped lead to a situation at Kotaku where we started throwing many NDAs in the bin, as it simply became easier to report on news or the content of a game naturally, instead of being bound by a contract's punitive conditions.

WHO WRITES THESE TERRIBLE HEADLINES?

Often a real sticking point with readers, which is why I've already written about them on Aftermath! Sadly, I have bad news: I wish I could explain the headline process to you in a way that makes practical sense, but I can't. Of everything I'm writing about here, headlines are the most "well, every site does them differently" of the lot. If you see a bad or misleading one and want someone to blame (or an excellent/funny one and want someone to thank), well, it could have been anyone. It could have been a writer, it could have been a different writer who was helping, it could have been an editor, it could have been a collaboration between writers and editors, who knows!

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio

What I can tell you is that a) freelancers almost never write their own, so keep that in mind, and b) headline creation is a craft, loads of people are very bad at it, and loads more are simply content with throwing some SEO-baiting garbage atop a story and calling it a day. It sucks, and I wish things were better, but they're not, and they're only getting worse.

(To end this section on a more positive note, not all headlines are bad; sometimes they're very, very good).

WHAT'S A BLACKLIST? WHY WOULD COMPANIES CUT A PUBLICATION OFF?

Blacklists are a way for publishers to exert influence over the media by withholding--or threatening to withhold--access to their products and information. You see that word thrown around a lot, but do you know what it actually means? And did you know they're actually incredibly rare?

Bethesda's vendetta against Kotaku is probably the most famous. As our former EIC Stephen Totilo wrote in 2015, after a succession of stories about the publisher and its in-development games that company "cut off our access to their games and creators, omitted us from their widespread mailings of early review copies and, most galling, ignored all of our requests for comment on any news stories." Ubisoft also had Kotaku blacklisted at the time, but would later re-establish communications.

That type of blacklist is very extreme, and as a result is also very rare; most companies, smarter than Bethesda's leadership at the time, realise that waging total war against a website over some accurate reporting makes them look like assholes.

In the past, I've been hung up on immediately after calling someone at Ubisoft, while working at Kotaku. The person called me back from a personal phone a minute later, apologising and explaining that they were not permitted to talk to anyone from Kotaku from any work email address or phone line.

Excerpt from a now-deleted Kotaku UK story about Ubisoft's 2015-ish blacklist

There are, after all, softer strategies available if a site writes something a company doesn't like, and in the vast majority of cases, this is a response to outlets reporting on things a company doesn't want reported, like upcoming products and/or labor conditions. Maybe they'll keep answering their emails, but won't send them review code anymore. Maybe they'll send them some codes, but not all, or answer their softball questions but nothing harder. They'll send them press releases, but ignore requests for interviews.

This kind of treatment is the stick hanging behind every carrot that's dished out to games outlets, and is at the heart of the dance so many publications have to dance as part of an industry so reliant on access. So many sites know that their traffic is reliant on being able to get review codes, on being able to run previews, and interviews with developers and executives. The threat of having that access taken away from them is often enough to make them at least think twice about publishing anything negative about a company. I'm not saying it prevents that entirely, but for many outlets, particularly smaller ones, it definitely enters into the discussion! And it doesn't always have to be a conscious discussion, either, since this is a structural shortcoming of the entire industry; less something you can blame a single site, editor or writer for, more just a general vibe around the place.

HOW DOES REPORTING WORK?

There are a few different types of reporting a games journalist can be engaged in, and they all require different levels of, well, reporting. The simplest and most common is basic aggregation work, where a writer will either receive a press release or see some news reported elsewhere, take that information, rewrite it to suit their own audience and publish it. It's basic, but this is how a lot of news works, even at the world's biggest media companies, regardless of the subject matter. It's not the most glamorous or exciting work, but it serves readers and can drive traffic to the site that did the aggregating, as well as the site that first broke the news (provided the aggregating site properly credits it).

The more complex and time-consuming form of reporting is when you try to break some actual, original news yourself. Maybe you'll get an email with an interesting tip, maybe you'll overhear something at an event and start digging into it, maybe a slip of the tongue in an interview will set you on a path to make some phone calls. Maybe you’ll have a question or be curious about how something works and start talking to lots of people to find out more about it.

Whatever the prompt, this actual reporting can take days, months or even years to put together. You'll need to speak directly with multiple people, verify their roles and identities and the things they tell you, piece together events and stories and then see if you can even work it into a story at all. If you can, you then need to write it up in a way people will actually give a shit about, get it edited then, in cases where stuff like confidential information, wrongdoing or criminal charges are involved, get it cleared by a legal team as well. Some larger outlets will have a story go through multiple layers of an organization’s editors, and sometimes even management and ownership. None of this is guaranteed–a lot of stories die on the vine in the legal review stage if an outlet’s lawyers deem it too risky, and some can even be left to rot by management if they feel the potential for commercial blowback outweighs the benefits of reporting the story.

Photo: cottonbro studio

All of which to say that proper reporting takes a lot of work, which is why you never saw that much of it in the games space in the first place, and why you see even less of it today. Media ownership in 2024 would rather spend money on guides and tips writers (which sell more ads and get more SEO juice) than reporters, and cash-strapped sites can't spare the manpower for someone to be off for days chasing up news when they could have been sitting behind a desk aggregating a dozen press releases and trailer announcements.

The reliance on access I mentioned above also plays a part in the reduced level of genuine reporting you see in games media these days. Most of the confrontations between media and publishers come about through simply reporting facts, and if the consequences can be so drastic--up to and including public feuds and blacklists--then a site more interested in access (or less equipped to swat away legal threats) would understandably shy away from it.

WHAT ARE ANONYMOUS SOURCES?

You might sometimes see websites citing "anonymous sources" in their reporting, particularly when the news in question is of a sensitive or legal nature (I did it extensively for one of our launch features, for example). That might be frustrating to read, because you're trained to associate sources with names and jobs, and in some cases people on the internet will even think that an "anonymous source" is a "made up source". Not true! Just because you don't know who the source is doesn't mean the journalist doesn't know. We know! We have to vet their identities and verify the things they tell us. We just usually keep their names hidden from the public so that we can report on the news without them being fired or, worse, sued into oblivion. 

Every outlet has its own standard for when anonymity is granted, how they identify an anonymous source in a story while still protecting the source, and how they explain why they gave someone anonymity. Most reputable outlets will err on the side of telling readers as much as they can about a source, so a reader knows why they should trust the information, while still protecting the person in question.

WHY ARE YOU ALL SO BIASED?

Whether it's giving a low review score or penning a piece of news critical of a certain company, one of the most common allegations a games journalist faces is that they're biased. And, it's like...yes, of course we are. Everyone is "biased". Most people call that having an "opinion". We've all grown up shaped by our tastes and experiences.

I don't think games writing has ever had a bias problem. I think it's had, and retains, an enormous problem with being open about our opinions. To be clear this is a problem across all modern media, from The New York Times on down, because the idea that reporters and critics can somehow be "objective" is an outdated one that persists among audiences and management alike, even when the impossibility of ever attaining that objectivity becomes increasingly clear.

People who want an "objective" video games press are chasing a childish, impossible dream. You are never going to get objective media, and the people who spend their lives trying to do it anyway (or being ordered to try) are usually the most boring writers in the space.

A far more constructive way of looking at it is this: everyone has an opinion. It's baked into us as human beings, because no two people have lived the same lives, or see the same thing the same way. The power you have, as a reader, is to simply not read websites you don't like, and to then find a website with writers who you do enjoy. It could be ones that agree with you, sure, but it could also be writers that challenge your opinions in a cool and thoughtful way. The choice is yours!

ARE YOU GETTING PAID FOR POSITIVE REVIEWS AND COVERAGE?

Another common misconception among the public--or at least among shitter elements of it--is that games writers are somehow on the take, that we provide glowing endorsements of games and platforms because we're being paid under the table by Microsoft, or Square Enix, or whoever.

I hate to tell you this, but unless there are some deeply specific deals going on games writers are--and I spent over a decade on the hunt for this--not getting paid by third parties. The idea that there's some shady financial agreement in place at some outlets, where games writers would write positively about a product in return for direct compensation, is something only the most bad faith of cellar-dwellers could come up with.

Why? Well, for starters, games writers are not one big happy club. There are professional rivalries, same as in any other field. Remember the Jeff Gerstmann x Kane & Lynch stuff? That's one of the only cases of media impropriety to ever actually come to light--albeit for slightly different reasons than someone being bribed, though it was still fishy--and that was big news. It was reported on by everyone, everywhere. You can bet we'd all have done it again if given the chance, especially if it was something as juicy as a writer at a rival site being on the take.

The even more obvious explanation is: why would companies even need to pay journalists, when they get to exert their influence for free? By now I've raised enough facets of this job to show that there are systemic issues throughout the field that, if not forcing writers to cover things positively, are at least encouraging them to avoid covering things negatively. Which, in an industry where a "7/10" game can still sell millions, is often good enough.

Photo: Turgay Koca
WHAT'S WITH ALL THE GUIDES AND TIPS EVERYWHERE?

Boy, there sure are a lot of guides out there these days. Since when did major sites like IGN and Polygon feel like they needed to muscle in on GameFAQ's and YouTube's turf?

Since their continued survival depended on it, that's when. Major (and even loads of smaller) video game websites are almost entirely reliant on advertising money, and over the last few years the online advertising market--particularly for websites--has fallen on very hard times.

So these publications have to squeeze every last pageview they can. And the best way to do that is to provide "service posts”, which are based around guides and tips, exactly the kinds of things gamers end up Googling--and thus clicking through to--the most, way more often than news and rumours.

WHAT'S THE ACTUAL JOB LIKE?

Every time anyone working in games media tells someone outside games media what they do for a living, they’re met with some variation of “Wow you must play games all day!”. Nope! This is a job, same as any other desk job, and it requires the same kind of hours and responsibilities. 

For the last 17 years, for example, I worked shifts. I’d clock on at 8am every day, five days a week, and I’d clock off at 5pm, with a one-hour break for lunch in the middle. For that entire time I’d be expected to be at (or very close to) my desk doing some kind of work for the site, whether it was writing blogs, reporting, doing image/art stuff, appearing on a podcast, answering reader emails, moderating comments, attending meetings, being abused on social media…you know, work stuff. 

Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to be able to squeeze work-related games-playing into that timeframe, often I wouldn’t and would spend nights playing a game so I could write about it later. Not the worst example of work creeping into your personal time in the world, but still, when you’ve got kids and other stuff going on in your life, it’s not ideal!

And that was as a full-time writer. For a freelancer's experience, imagine someone wandering a post-apocalyptic future (it's 2024) scavenging for cans like The Last Of Us, only the zombies aren't just trying to eat them, they're also taking your rent money.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FUCK THINGS UP?

As I said up top, whenever games media discussion blows up online, it’s usually for the worst reasons. Nobody ever wants to make a mistake, but games journalists (and editors) are human, so despite everyone’s best intentions, mistakes happen! Whether it’s an error in reporting, falling for a hoax, failing to understand something or just having a brain explosion, everyone working in the business (or even just reading our work) could recount several of their most notable fuck-ups

I don’t want to absolve everyone and every mistake here, we’re all journalists to some degree and that job has expectations and responsibilities, but I would like to remind people that nobody in this industry can be expected to know everything about everyone who ever made every game, and that now, more than ever before, sites are straining to do the best job they can with increasingly limited resources. Compounding this is the fact many outlets are trying to get by without a generation of experienced writers or editors to lead the way, since so many people have walked away from the industry altogether–many into games development or PR–thanks to its terrible pay and generally precarious ownership situation.

So, yes, mistakes happen, and they can range from annoying to downright dangerous. It sucks! Many outlets have strict policies for corrections; at Kotaku, we called it “eating shit”, where you had to be as clear as possible about how you’d gotten something wrong, and just...eat shit for the whole day/week. Other outlets will sometimes be less clear about what in a story has been corrected, either as a way to save face or in an effort to not draw too much attention to incorrect information. But every outlet wants to get things right, and wants to promptly correct things they’ve gotten wrong.

One final thing I’d like to say before we close out this section (and the FAQ itself) is that while it can seem like games journalists make a lot of mistakes (and some of them are bad ones!), one notable error can attract more attention than 1000 forgettable–but accurate–reports. Given the stresses everyone is working under these days, the increasingly limited resources available and the drain of experienced talent at the editorial level, people still in games journalism are, like everyone else, simply doing the best they can.

Inside Baseball is a week of stories about the lesser-known parts of game development, the ins and outs of games journalism, and a peek behind the curtain at Aftermath. It's part of our first subscription drive, which you can learn more about here. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing!

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