Series Info...“Potlatch” Responses: The Other Views

by Jessica Mulligan
July 17, 2001

One thing that tends to irritate me about the press is how some reporters and columnists use their publishing power to get the last word in a patently unfair manner. Columnists especially; we usually have a regular audience and we don’t like to be accused of foolishness, mopery or dopery in front of them. Getting the last word in can often be nothing more than a hatchet job.

This tactic is especially noxious when a columnist or reporter is criticized for a piece of work and then uses his or her forum to lambaste, ridicule or otherwise make the respondent(s) look foolish. I think that stinks; if you can’t stand the heat, it is disingenuous to remodel the kitchen for cooler temperatures. When it comes to writing, if you can’t stand that there are alternate views, you’re in the wrong business.

So below, I present some criticisms and other views of my June 5th column, Potlatching Your Way To Riches, without comment or rebuttal. Some of these comments came by way of email; many of these quotes came from a message thread called Bite this! Why Mulligan's wrong, wrong, wrong in her latest column at the Quarter To Three game news and comment site. This was also the title of veteran game reviewer and columnist Mark Asher’s rebuttal column to ‘Potlatch.’ Qt3 is frequented by many game reviewers and commentators.

Mark Asher (Veteran game reviewer and columnist, a host at Qt3)

While everyone loves a conspiracy, common sense tells you that reviews aren’t being bought and sold. Don’t most bad games get poor reviews and most good games get glowing reviews? How long would you read a magazine if the reviews were consistently better than the game warranted? A magazine that sells review scores or lets publishers influence review scores unduly will see its readership dwindle. Do publishers try to influence editors? Of course. Does that mean reviews are bought and sold? Please, show me the evidence. Show me the piss-poor game that gets the good review and the mediocre game that gets the 5-star review.

Derek Jacques (a long-time player and observer)

Dear Ms. Mulligan:

The subject of your latest "Bite the Hand" is certainly topical, given the discovery that Sony has been using a fictional movie reviewer to hype their films.  While I agree that the relationship between the gaming industry and press is a bit too close for comfort, I had some trouble with a few of the things in your column.

First of all, despite the big interdependency between publishers and magazines, I don't see much evidence of reviews being bought or even influenced.  For example, I didn't see any good reviews for Daikatana, despite the relationship its publisher, Eidos, has with the gaming press. Even at this year's E3, the biggest story was how disappointing Microsoft's X-Box was. Microsoft has always shown the willingness to do whatever it takes to win -- if the industry has the gaming press in its pocket, how come the industry's biggest player came away from E3 with a negative story?

Now I don't know, maybe Microsoft didn't give away enough trinkets at E3, and maybe you have some examples of improper influence on reviewers at E3 and elsewhere -- but it wasn't in Monday's column.

I think people are smart enough to separate the hype of such events of E3, with all the strange bedfellows it creates, from what really matters, the game reviews themselves.  And as long as the reviews are honest (and they generally are, in my experience) people aren't much bothered by the symbiotic relationship between industry and press.

Jeff Lackey ( (Jeff is a freelancer writer for Computer Gaming World and Computer Games magazines.)

Again, what gets lost is the fact that much of the material in the mags is written by freelancers. Who care not a bug fart who advertises and who doesn't. And I've never had anyone from CGM/CGO or CGW EVER even hint that a review should be "softened up" because the game was from a major advertiser.

The thing that irritates me about such irresponsible articles is that they never give examples. If these corrupt reviews were so prevalent, then it should be easy to cite high rated reviews of crappy games from big advertisers that are obviously shady. Likewise, no one ever explains why a high profile EA Sports or Sierra game gets a 2 star review. I suppose it's just easier to make blanket accusations because it's what people like to hear.

Steve Jakab (MMOG developer for Sony Online/Verant)

While I agree with your (blatantly obvious) observation that advertising affects editorial content, I don't understand why you think game reviewers should have worked in the gaming industry. Has Cokie Roberts been in Congress? Has Nina Totenberg served on the Supreme Court? Yet they're respected journalists, and why should game reviewers be any different? What I look for in a reviewer is someone who has played (all the way through, preferably at easy, medium, and hard difficulty levels) many games of the genre he/she is reviewing, and can make clear exactly what they liked and disliked about the game, and why. It doesn't matter to me if they know how hard it is to make a good game, that's my job. :)

Steve Jakab
Programming Dude
Sony Online/Verant Interactive

p.s.: This letter is in no way intended to influence your opinion of Star Wars Galaxies. :)

Jason McCollough

I don't think anyone's pointed out what *I* consider the biggest travesty in gaming journalism: consistent praise of mediocre games if they're from a big publisher. Tiberium Sun, which was pretty horrid game, got consistent 80+%; ditto for Force Commander. I'm sure everyone can think of further examples.

You can explain why they do this for a bunch of reasons, from outright corruption at the smaller mags to smaller forces of habit at the larger ones, but the question still remains about why it happens.

Dave Alpern (a 20 year player)

Following Mulligan's logic, that would mean the X-box would have gotten lots of good press and buzz from E3, right? But I think we've all heard how underwhelming it was.

"Aldo Ghiozzi" ( (RPG and Minatures games; former Computer and Video Game Magazine publisher and manager)

I really cannot believe what you just wrote.  Have you ever worked at a computer or videogame magazine company?  You need to do some research and interview some people before you make these outlandish conclusions.  The three biggest video game publishers have internal policies that do not let editors accept any gift for over $100 nor do they go on press junkets unless the magazine is paying for the trip.  Do you know how unsuccessful Namco was when they invited editors for a day of snowboarding?

Brad "Supertanker" Wohlenberg ( (Long-time gamer and observer)

What bothered me about Mulligan's column was her assumption that all game writers are unable to resist the "unwritten quid pro quo." It reminds me of a saying I heard attributed to Willie Brown (former Speaker of the California Assembly, now Mayor of San Francisco) on the effect of lobbyists: "If you can't come here, drink their liquor, eat their food, and then still vote against them, you don't belong here." Similarly, I expect professional writers can take the junkets, eat the food, drink the beer, and write a savage review if the game warrants it. It is the same thing I expect out of any other specialty magazine. If a particular writer breaks that trust ("I forgot I wrote the strategy guide and the only positive review."), then I will remember that when I read any other reviews from them.

Her assumption doesn't even pass a facial test. If all it takes is free stuff to sway a review, why is there ever a negative one? Why didn't Swamp Buggy Racing win at least one Editor's Choice?

Checking Back: The Launch Pad is Ready... For Testing

In the June 19 column, I expressed some worries about the then-upcoming launch of Anarchy Online from Funcom. As it turns out, those worries were justified, darn it, though you won’t find much word about it on the ‘professional’ game news sites. And what information you can find about it there is usually accompanied by a Funcom PR release about how the problems are rapidly being fixed. (Gamespot’s reviewer gave the problems a nod, then gave the game a rating of 7.6 out of 10 which gives it a Good rating under Gamespot’s rating system. Meanwhile, over 900 Gamespot readers have rated the game since the June 27 launch and gave it at an average of 4.7, which scores in the Poor column. One wonders if the reviewer and the players are in the same game.). To their credit, Funcom did turn off the billing clock until some of the problems were resolved.

I say ‘darn it!’ because I really like the folks that I’ve met on the AO team and wanted this one to go well from the outset. It would seem, however, that there are quite a few people who still can’t play AO with any sort of regularity or efficiency, due to extreme lag, frequent connection drop rates, poor frame rates, massive memory leaks, CD keys that still don’t work and a host of smaller problems.

Most of those will probably be cleared up over time, although it certainly impinges on their reputation today. This being the first MMOG they’ve done, I guess we have to expect some problems, although these seem a tad extreme, especially as some of the launch problems were widely discussed on messages boards during the Beta period.

That’s all bad enough; Funcom also initially used an unsecured page for registration, potentially opening up a few thousand credit card numbers to the Net. Instead of just posting, "Oops! We’ll take care of that immediately!" (It takes about 15 minutes to set up an SSL page), a Funcom CS spokesman told consumers that if security was a concern for them, just don’t sign up a subscription. Two days later, they finally had an SSL page available. To top it all off, as of about a week ago and even though there seem to be quite a few people who still can’t play, they’ve announced that the clock is now running and players will be charged after the free month offer expires.

And the ugliest is yet to come, I think. In a September of 2000 column that focused on AO, I had this to say about the customer service issue:

"Chances of being a customer-service nightmare: Depends. The Funcom people are nice, but you really don't understand how frustrating it can be to manage one of these games until the exploiters and grief players show up and start driving away customers. This is the company's first online game; they are about to learn that lesson under fire. How they deal with the jerks will be an indicator of the long-term survivability of the game in a competitive market."

The true test is going to come in a month or so, after the AO developers can spend some time actually looking at play patterns for exploits and griefers. To my mind, Funcom has already shown they didn’t learn a whole lot from the development and launch mistakes of other MMOGs. Considering that, I can’t see this going well initially, either.

We’ll check back in a month or two and see what is happening here.

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