How blurred are the lines between gaming journalists, game sites and game developers allowed to get before ethical concerns are raised? Sir, You Are Being Hunted is a situation that tested those associations to very little comment, but it is something I believe demands close consideration.
The crux of the issue with Sir, You Are Being Hunted (SYABH) was developed by Big Robot, a studio operated by gaming journalist Jim Rossignol. Rossignol is also a founder and contributor to the PC gaming site Rock Paper Shotgun (RPS). It appears that Rossignol’s profile was removed from RPS in January 2015, but it was up on site until at least December 2014, which covers the period discussed below.
“Exciting Conflicts of Interest”
By my count, RPS covered SYABH in fourteen different articles between March 2012 and May 2014. Nine of these articles were written by Rossignol himself. One of these articles was the announcement of SYABH’s Kickstarter, which was a direct appeal for money to fund development of the game. Another was SYABH’s Early Access announcement, which also promoted pre-funding the title before it launched. (Big Robot also has had a number of RPS articles written about its games, with overlap on the SYABH articles, but SYABH is the first time Big Robot would directly financially benefit from the articles.)
RPS is an important site for PC gaming. Getting any article up there for an indie game from a small studio would be a big deal, let alone fourteen of them. Having a unique Kickstarter appeal article or Early Access announcement? Those appearances could be quantifiably valued in dollars.
Crucially, being on RPS gave SYABH exposure. Other gaming sites take and re-publish content that appears on RPS, which is part of the Eurogamer network. For instance, Eurogamer repeated the Kickstarter announcement – a fantastic result for an indie game developer with no major titles under its belt.
RPS elected not to review SYABH due to Rossignol’s concerns about perceived bias, but did write a feature article on what it was like to play the game, meaning the title got some more free advertising (as it did in the article that indicated SYABH wouldn’t get a review, but was now available to buy) . Eurogamer reviewed SYABH with someone carefully selected who did not have a personal relationship with Rossignol.
It is a problem when a games writer uses their games site to promote their game. And RPS knew it.
RPS did lead each SYABH article with a comment that Rossignol had a conflict of interest with SYABH, noting that these posts were “blatant self promotion”. These posts were written and tagged in a way that turned this issue into something humourous – the tags were “exciting conflicts of interest”, “corruption”, “shameless self-promotion”, “gratuitous self-blatherings”. These aren’t commonly used tags – “exciting conflicts of interest” has only been used for Big Robot titles.
What RPS was trying to do here was be upfront about the relationship that Rossignol had with the site (although arguably the constant joking about it downplayed the issue’s importance). However, as a “long time” PC journalist Rossignol should have had an inkling that it wasn’t just enough to announce a relationship to SYABH. He was seeking to financially benefit from SYABH by using RPS as a promotion platform. It was a case of wearing both his game journalist’s hat and that of a small business owner at the same time. This is a conflict of interest, no matter how “exciting” it is to Rossignol.
It’s also an easily avoidable conflict of interest, since it is relatively simple for SYABH and RPS to be kept completely separate. The development of SYABH wasn’t a major industry event, or something the public was clamouring to know about. It was a commercial product that Rossignol was involved in and that’s it.
The ethical path for RPS to walk should have been to not mention SYABH in the volume it did, certainly not at the point of Kickstarter and Early Access. Ideally it wouldn’t mention SYABH at all, keeping Rossignol’s paying work away from each other instead of letting him leverage his site games writing to support his games developing.
I understand that this is a hard path. Working in the industry as a developer is a dream of many games writers. Rossignol’s friends at RPS want him to succeed in games development, so letting a few articles through and assisting in the promotion of the title seems is the kind thing to do.
However, it’s also not the ethical thing to do. Promoting SYABH through RPS is a crystal clear conflict of interest that a disclaimer at the top of the article doesn’t fix. Again, appearing on RPS gave SYABH the kind of exposure that other indie studios would do terrible, terrible things to achieve.
Rossignol’s view on this issue was that “it [didn’t] make sense for [RPS] not to cover Big Robot at all” so he should just be open about his involvement and let people decide for themselves. That’s an immensely self-interested view of the topic when promoting and fund-raising for his own game.
Accepting this kind of behaviour opens up a potential grey area for pre-funded games: hiring a games journalist to (at least in part) promote your game through the site they work at. The journalist could be working as a writer on the game, or other capacity – they may not only be working on game promotion – but getting their title extra attention would be a key role for them. If all it takes is a disclaimer at the top of the article, that’s easy to slot into a promotional piece and start earning a title those page views, maybe even more Kickstarter money.
Easy, but certainly not ethical.
After all that, was SYABH worth it? The review results collected at Metacritic point to SYABH as a being a mediocre title overall but with some interesting ideas and a unique style.
It’s impossible to assess if SYABH would have been pre-funded without Rossignol being able to use RPS in promotions. As a small studio Big Robot would have been a lot more restricted in visibility, even in 2012, compared to the actual reach of SYABH. Maybe Rossignol’s association would have been enough to attract SYABH attention – it certainly wouldn’t have been Big Robot’s other titles – but he would have been relying on other writers to turn his press releases into articles instead of writing them himself.
It also raises the issues of being a games journalist and a game developer at the same time. As more games journalists take up development as a sideline (or vice versa) it is an ethical issue that the gaming industry is going to have to grapple with or risk further erosion of its perceived integrity.