Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 08, 2014
Sauron works in marketing

Earlier this month a story broke how various YouTubers were offered a free preview copy of Shadow of Mordor under the condition that they would persuade their viewers to buy the game and talk only of the strong points of the game. There has been surprisingly little talk on the internet about that. I wished there was an internet gamer movement against corruption in the review of video games!

When TotalBiscuit said he rejected that deal, he got comments stating "I don't know what he's complaining about, if he wants it early he has to give something in return", to which he replied. And I would like to say something about this sort of deal too: It is okay to accept a free review copy if there are either no conditions at all attached to it, or if the condition is that you actually write (or film) a review. It is not okay to hand out / accept free review / preview copies if there are conditions attached that force you to write a positive review or remain otherwise "on message" with what the marketing people want you to say.

Sauron, who now works for marketing company Plaid Social, not only tried to get early YouTube reviews to be all positive and on message, he then also hit negative YouTube reviews with a DMCA takedown notice. If you use copyrighted material in your YouTube video to say nice things about Shadow of Mordor, that is fine. If you use the same material to say something negative about the game, marketing will use copyright laws to shut you up.

It is known that Metacritic scores decrease over time. Day one reviews of a game are more positive than reviews of people who actually had the time to play the game for a while before writing their reviews. But a lot of people buy a game on day one, so manipulating the early reviews can pay out big. If all the people who got a preview copy of your game are legally obliged to give a good review to it, you can score a lot of sales before honest reviewers who had to buy the game on release and play it thoroughly get a chance to disagree.

On a personal note, I did accept free review copies of games or other products in the past, but I never accepted any restrictions on what I was able to write in those reviews. I will continue this policy in the future. People are already enough worried whether there is a psychological effect of being more positive to a gift horse than to a game you bought, which is a doubt I can live with. But being under contract to write certain things in certain ways about a game is not acceptable to me.

Damn, I've never heard of Shadow Of Mordor, but holy crap it must be spectacularly bad.
That's the funny thing. From TotalBiscuit's WTF video, it looked like a solid game. Something I might have left on my wishlist for a sale. But after plaid's dubious at best practices, I've written it off entirely.
I don't approve of the idea of reviews for cash (or early copies of the game) but I'm not sure SoM even needed that kind of aggressive marketing.

Everyone has been in agreement (and having spent quite a few hours playing myself, I can also agree) that it outshines AC and Batman, beating them at their own game.

I feel a bit sorry for Monolith as I doubt they had any idea this was going on and they have produced a quality piece of work that I hope they build on for years to come.
I've never heard of Shadow Of Mordor, but holy crap it must be spectacularly bad

As far as I could make out from the not corrupted reviews, it actually isn't a bad game. People describe it as Assassin's Creed 5 : Mordor. Personally I wasn't interested because I'm not a huge fan of the Assassin's Creed and Batman games, but it doesn't appear to be a bad version of that genre.
Wow... this is sad to hear. If this kind of thing progresses, it'll be hard to know what's legit and what isn't. Props to TotalBiscuit for turning it down.
"Little talk on the Internet? "

Are you kidding?

It's everywhere. But you don't use Twitter do you?

Of course whilst Boogie2988 took the cash, he DISCLOSED it (legal requirement) and when queried about it he didn't indiscriminately abuse his entire audience and tell them they were "worse than isis" and "dead".

A lesson in disclosure (unlike the Nexus incident) and how not to pour petrol on a fire.
It's everywhere. But you don't use Twitter do you?

Rarely directly. But I *did* see one of those famous word clouds describing what subjects were discussed under the #Gamergate hashtag this week, and Mordor didn't appear at all.
You read the comments on the paid promo videos of course? Boogie2988 even made a video in response to the complaints and you can read the comments there too.

I mean that is where the complaints would be right?

When your guys at Polygon or Kotaku are caught being corrupt people complain on their forums (until they get censored and accused of beheading people/being women haters).

When Youtubers misbehave people complain to them in their comments.

Why don’t you tell your readers about the Machinima/Xbox One scandal? Plenty of us were vocal about that too. That was this year.

Of course Boogie2988 and co didn’t misbehave. Youtubers are legally obliged to disclaim in their video description that it is a paid promotion.

Journalists on gaming sites are not legally obliged to disclaim that they took a free Nexus 7, advertising revenue or are flat mates with the developer when providing publicity/reviews for those titles.

What I find odd Tobold is that this blog post looks suspiciously similar to MANY other posts I’ve seen – from the anti-GG side on all those sites! Now I am not saying you are part of their gang but I have noticed that you keep mistakenly sourcing links and opinions from them and never seem to read sources from the other side. I’m betting you saw that statement “why aren’t the gamergaters talking about this” on the anti-gamer sites! Then you repeated it here?

I first heard about the story from Jim Sterling in his Jimquisition. I’d been busy at work and hadn’t checked Twitter all day so that was the first I knew of it. No doubt that was the first time a lot of people knew of it.

Yet well well well well……………………his video went live at 6pm and within 30 minutes someone had posted “oh how come we don’t hear the gamergater people complaining about this” followed by some more smear campaign nonsense about misogyny. I mean hey give us chance! I’d only just found out and I am already being accused of misogyny before I’ve had chance to start typing.

Weird that….. Going back over 10 years people complain about the Driver 3 scandal, the Kane and Lynch scandal, the machinima scandal, the Nexus 7 scandal, the recent nepotism scandal but.....suddenly people demand that we make a response within minutes of something being posted otherwise we are all misogynists and baby killers. Hell I didn’t even see Boogies paid video until that night and as I say he hadn’t done anything wrong as it was fully disclosed.

The key word that Gamergaters have been using for the past month is DISCLOSURE. Guy discloses a conflict of interest and doesn’t face much criticism. Well you don’t say! Lesson there for journalists!

If don’t disclose and launch a vile sickening attack on your audience you get your ad revenue pulled.

If you disclose and make nice comments about your audience people are like “ok I don’t trust your opinions that this game really is good but I will keep watching your vids as I find them entertaining and you are a nice guy”.
So what you are saying in your incoherent wall of text is that if I write a blog post accusing a marketing firm of trying to corrupt video game journalism, that makes me ANTI-Gamergate? I would have thought that you would agree with me here.
"So what you are saying"

99% probability when you see that phrase on the internet that it will be followed by a strawman. Your post was no exception.

What I am *actually* saying is that there was clearly some kind of narrative being pushed on the anti-GG side over this Youtube issue given that within minutes of the news of the leaked contract coming out, the web was full of comments and articles saying "why aren't gamergaters talking about this".

Which as I say is kind of odd given that:

1, the gamergaters had only just seen the leaked contract so what do you expect them to do? Be psychic?

2, they spoke out over the Machinama scandal earlier in the year so don't try to make out that we don't hold Youtubers to account.

3, the Youtubers disclosed the conflict of interests which is exactly what the GG crowd have asked of the traditional journalists!

The marketing firm and the Youtubers operated within the law and more importantly they were morally in the green (or a faint shade of green) because they disclosed their conflicts of interest.

I am not a fan of the practice but so long as a Youtuber like Boogie says "WB are paying me to say this" then I don't have a problem. I mean if WB are paying him to say it I am not going to base any purchase decision on his words. I treat it like a developer interview at E3.

I simply questioned how you came to make that inaccurate statement about Gamergaters not talking about it.

Did you come up with that independently or had you read it on the anti-GG websites?

I know you have inadvertently visited them in the past following Google searches and you mistakenly thought one of them was independent and posted a link to it.

My assumption (which I will stand corrected on if wrong) is that you saw that phrase being pushed out and you thought "that looks like good ammunition, I am going to use that".

My further assumption is that you didn't verify by going to the comments sections on the videos involved and those of the videos discussing the contract to see what Gamergaters were actually saying.

I know that the "further assumption" is absolute 100% correct because if you had done that research you wouldn't have made the inaccurate statement on your blog.

I view you as an innocent victim. You got duped into posting their propaganda because like everyone (me included) you are quick to believe statements that support your existing view.

Human nature.
I already answered you that, Woody: I don't follow every tweet of Gamergate, but I do look up what is talked about in Gamergate once in a while on Twitter, and by looking at statistical summaries, for example word clouds.

Just for the exercise I searched for the Gamergate hashtag RIGHT NOW, and found not a single post against shady marketing by Plaid Social on the first page. I *did* however find an apologist tweet saying that being anti-corruption for video game journalists didn't apply to YouTubers, an opinion with which I disagree.
P.S. Talking about "strawmen": It appears to me that you are trying to avoid discussing the actual corruption going on on YouTube, by trying to derail the discussion with an overly lengthy protest against a single side remark in my post.
Interestingly enough, the three sites you have linked to would all be considered 'gamergate friendly' - not because they have been supporters as such, but because they listened to the transparency concerns and gave both sides a voice.

"P.S. Talking about "strawmen": It appears to me that you are trying to avoid discussing the actual corruption going on on YouTube, by trying to derail the discussion with an overly lengthy protest against a single side remark in my post."

I have made three posts in this thread.

In every single one of those posts I have addressed that point.

I will repeat it for you again though:

1, There is no "corruption" because they DISCLOSED that they were making a paid promotion. They declared the conflict of interest and didn't try to pass it off as "my unbiased opinion". Unlike the corrupt games journalists, the Youtubers are legally obliged to not be corrupt!

2, We attacked Machinima months ago because they ran a paid promotion with Microsoft and didn't disclose it. I clearly have never avoided the discussion. I even mentioned the Machinima incident weeks ago on your blog (when you were convinced it was about "misogyny") and I was listing all the previous scandals I was involved in fighting. Youtubers haven't been given a free pass. The first person to bring up Youtube "corruption" on your blog was probably me.

3, I have objections in terms of the visibility of the disclosures. I'd be very happy to have a debate and would support efforts to make the disclosure of the promotion far more visible. I'd like to see a logo in the corner of the video.

Would you rather all paid promotions were illegal? Would you prefer a more prominent disclaimer?

Given that you previously defended the journalists against accusations of corruption for UNDISCLOSED conflicts of interest (like Tablet-gate and flatmate-gate), how do you justify calling a fully disclosed paid promotion "corruption"?

When I open my Cycling Magazine and see a bike review on one page and on the adjacent page a big advert for a Cervelo and text saying "the best bike in the world" is that "corruption"?!

They don't even have a disclaimer! It doesn't say "advertisement".
There is no "corruption" because they DISCLOSED that they were making a paid promotion.

One of the contract terms of that promotion was that the disclaimer had to be at the end, way AFTER telling people to buy the game. And they didn't disclose the terms of the contract, to the uninformed observer it looked as if the opinions in the videos were real, and they just got a free copy of the game.

If you sign a contract that states that you MUST give the game a positive review, you are corrupt. Disclaimer or not.
"One of the contract terms of that promotion was that the disclaimer had to be at the end, way AFTER telling people to buy the game."

There are clear FTC rules on disclosures. All the Youtubers I have seen put them in the video description field which you should see before viewing.

The FTC states that the disclosure must be "conspicuous".

I'd like a discussion about that because I believe it should be a water mark in the corner of the video.

"If you sign a contract that states that you MUST give the game a positive review, you are corrupt. Disclaimer or not."

The contract doesn't say that afaik. They are not reviews or rather I have not seen one in review format. There is no score. It is a promotional video and looks exactly as I expect a promotional video to look.

Boogie for example is not even a reviewer. The videos I saw were all "let's check out....".

It is a paid "promotion". Aka a commercial or advertisement. Many developers/publisher produce their own in-house. Companies have merely started outsourcing it to the social media experts.

I notice you dodged my point about adverts in a Cycling Magazine but you should have considered it.

Those that are just basic adverts carry no disclaimer.

Some are more cunning and actually replicate the format of a magazine review and look very similar to the magazines regular content. Those adverts must have clear disclaimers at the top and bottom.

The level of disclaimer varies with how "advert-like" the commercial appears.

Your use of the term corruption is wrong in relation to the Mordor videos I have seen. Feel free to write to the ASA in the UK with a link to any UK based Mordor videos if you believe the video was misleading.

There is a valid argument about how conspicuous disclaimers are because striking the wrong balance between the appearance of the content and the prominence of the disclaimer could be corruption.

I haven't seen such a case with Shadow of Mordor but if you find one please show it to me and I will tear them a second a-hole in their comments section as well as writing to the ASA if they are UK based.

FWIW I'd be happy with a "review" format paid promotion if it had a big flashing message on the screen saying "PAID PROMOTION".
Imagine you give a journalist a tablet and a bag of swag, including your latest game. You can *hope* that he is so happy about all those goodies that he'll write a positive review about your game. But you can't do more than hope, you have no control about the review, and no legal recourse if the review is bad.

The Shadow of Mordor paid promotion contract included clauses like "the review must show the game in a positive light". In addition to that the YouTubers had to send their finished videos 48 hours before publishing to Plaid Social for approval, with Plaid Social having the right to edit out critical passages or forbid the whole video if it wasn't positive enough.

I do not think a "paid promotion" disclaimer ANYWHERE is enough to balance this degree of corruption. Plaid Social has total control of the content of the videos, and legal means to pursue anybody who doesn't stick to the outrageous terms of the contract.
"If you sign a contract that states that you MUST give the game a positive review, you are corrupt. Disclaimer or not."

Either you have never seen an advertisement or you walk around all day in a constant state of outrage from all the corruption...

People who acknowledge from the beginning that they are doing a paid promo (or can obviously be assumed to have - such as a TV commercial) have done nothing to be angry about.

If someone does a paid promo under the guise of being a neutral third party, then they're basically selling their integrity. For the past 60 years or so we've called it "selling out" - and it's not worth getting all spun up over it. The problem typically solves itself. When someone recommends what turns out to be a piece of crap, no one will listen to his reviews anymore.

I think you're taking this entire issue way too seriously - particularly your role in it. You got a press pass to go to Blizzcon; that doesn't mean you're a reporter. It's like calling yourself a soldier because you got a temporary access pass when you visited a military base once.

On a side note: I recommend you reflect on your dogged use of the strawman fallacy. I'm not sure why you resort to that every time you debate someone, and I'm not sure you realize that you do it.
@blackhawk Apples and oranges. An advertisement is known to be biased. A review is supposed to not be. That's the difference, and that's why people seek out and listen to reviews instead of seeking out and listening to advertisements.

Shadow of Mordor is a pretty freakin' fantastic game, I've been having tonnes of fun with it, but I didn't know anything about the marketing shit. The thing is oozing personality in how you interact with the orcs, and it's stolen the best parts of Assassin's Creed and Batman games, giving you an unashamedly bloody, visceral orc-politics/dismemberment (often the same thing) simulator.

I think it's fantastic. But I'm not really happy with the review corruption. That's pretty on the nose.

I think the most apt line from the TotalBiscuit response linked to is this: "I sometimes think the biggest enemy in the battle to protect consumers, are consumers."

With publishers watching where we spend our money, what we DO not what we say, and the apparent acceptance if not popularity of pre-orders, regional pricing, always-online DRM, and retailer-exclusive DLC, I'd say that yes, consumers are doing very well at endorsing the pollution of the industry.
Please tell which is the apple and which is the orange.

I think the difference is you're talking about apples - mainstream games journalism - which should never accept money for positive reviews because they operate under the guise of journalistic neutrality.

The conversation in this thread is about the oranges - youtube channels and blogs.

If a youtube review starts off with "Blizzard Entertainment asked me to show you some new features of this game," then you have no reason to be outraged. The person is announcing their status as a paid shill.

If a youtuber disguises a paid endorsement as just another video, then yeah, he's sold out.
Why were these YouTubers offered a preview copy and money in exchange for positive reviews? Not because they are advertisers. But because they had a history of posting honest reviews on their YouTube channels that a large number of followers trusted.

Whether you have a press pass in your pocket or not makes no difference to standards of journalistic ethics. The commercial game sites that refused to preview Shadow of Mordor under the corrupt conditions of Plaid Social have a lot more journalistic integrity than those who posted a more positive review than they would otherwise have and then claimed it was okay because they put a disclaimer they were legally required to put anyway.
"Why were these YouTubers offered a preview copy and money in exchange for positive reviews? Not because they are advertisers. But because they had a history of posting honest reviews on their YouTube channels that a large number of followers trusted."

Again - I fail to see the reason for the outrage.

A reasonable adult takes "Activision wanted me to make this video and show you..." to mean "the following is an advertisement." How is that wrong, exactly? These aren't journalists we're talking about - they're entertainers.

Yeah, selling out is a crappy thing to do. Youtubers and bloggers who are clearly taking money without full disclosure will undoubtedly see their fanbase dwindle after they recommend crap software. But to act like this is some sort of major scandal? Come on...

"disclaimer they were legally required to put anyway."

Except it's not legally required.

The FTC encourages notification of sponsorship; however, it is not legally required that Youtubers do so. The legal "requirement" you're referring to is the FTC guidelines which are completely unenforceable and are designed to steer companies away from actions that might lead to a violation of the FTC act. If, in fact, this was a violation, the company providing the sponsorship (who asked the youtuber not to disclose the sponsorship arrangement) - not the Youtuber - would be legally liable. That's why most companies require the Youtubers to acknowledge the sponsorship status.
Again - I fail to see the reason for the outrage.

Okay, then let's turn that around. Why the outrage about video game journalists being invited to a game preview show and getting a bag of swag?

In that case the marketing HOPES that treating the journalist nicely and giving him goodies will make him write a positive review. The "reasonable adult" you mentioned *knows* that the journalist got that swag bag, and is thus sufficiently forewarned that the review might be influenced.

How can that be possibly worse than a situation where the marketing company has full control over the review of a YouTuber? Why wouldn't all people writing / filming reviews on the internet be bound by the same set of ethics?
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