Duke Nukem’s Awkward PR Fallout

By Alec Meer on June 21st, 2011 at 11:30 am.

No kissing and making up here, eh? Oh god, hang on - those are sisters. EW

Come the first breaking of news that the Redner Group, a US PR firm representing 2K Games, had publicly announced that “Too many went too far with their [Duke Nukem Forever] reviews…we are reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom”, the glacial RPS hivemind elected not to post about it. An unfortunate spat involving a PR firm and sites from another country: no need to seek drama from such a thing. But now it’s rolling on – despite a public apology, 2K dropped Redner and announced as such on Twitter, adding that “We maintain a mutually respectful relationship with the press and will continue to do so. We don’t condone The Redner Group’s actions at all.” This then led to Eurogamer revealing that they’d been “blacklisted” by 2K themselves (EG chose not to say why), something that “seems to be standard practice.” Blimey.

Then, after a few days of silence, Redner boss Jim Redner last night cropped up on Wired defending and clarifying his outburst – plus claiming that a journalist who went ‘too far’ should “have to pay for his actions.”

While it’s still not clear which particular review triggered his all-too-public, career-damaging outburst, he does claim this:

“Hardworking people, including myself, spent thousands of hours away from family and friends working on Duke Nukem Forever. The game is what it is, but we poured our hearts into bringing the game back from video game purgatory. That single story hurt and I acted rashly, vented my frustration and I am paying for my actions, more so than you know. Shouldn’t the journalist have to pay for his? Should I continue to support him?”

And a whole lot more. It’s hard not to feel that his defense is a rather contradictory piece, as he says the above in one breath and “I do not support the McCarthy era notion of blacklisting” in another. Crucially, he tries to draw a distinction between “reviews, when backed by fact” and “a scathing diatribe masked as a review“, which apparently the mystery writer was guilty of.

For me, his argument is primarily undone by the fact that this wasn’t a private dispute with one writer/site, whether or not that writer/site had gone what others might agree was “too far”, but instead a public shot across the bow to, essentially, any and all journalists Redner worked with. Maybe he believes that he didn’t mean that, but my reading of that initial, since-deleted tweet that cost him the 2K contract was an inference of ‘play my marketing game or you won’t get to play my videogames’. That’s just what my mind conjectured after reading it, not what it actually said, of course. I have no doubt that any amount of nuance wasn’t conveyed by the tweet, however – because let’s face it, 140 characters is never enough to tackle a controversial issue.

Here’s more: “Publishers are under no obligation to send out copies of their game for review. They reserve the right to pick and choose who they want to send their game too, just like writers have the right to publish a review in any manner they choose. It’s call selection. It’s a choice. Hopefully all PR professionals make their selections based on any and all data available. They should weigh past coverage, personal information gathered from conversations and past dealings. I personally have sent first person shooter games to one editor knowing that he likes FPS games, but then not sent him a copy of a game based on our national pastime because I know he finds baseball boring. That’s not blacklisting. It’s a selection process.”

That’s true. They’re under no obligation. Any journalist can simply go buy their own copy of the game after all (I know I’ve often had to). But publishers are not sending out review code as a favour, from the kindness of their philanthropic hearts. They’re doing it because, in theory, the more coverage their game gets, the more copies it might sell. Historically, code is sent ahead of release so oodles of hopefully positive coverage can seep into consumer’s minds before they head money-in-hand to a game store. (That’s happening less than it used to, however: withholding code until release day is a very good way of delaying bad word of mouth so that launch-week marketing can result in maximum sales). Clearly, there will be and are situations where they don’t want a particular game to be reviewed, or feel a particular site is likely to be cruel. Disputes happen. But giving out code is not in and of itself an act of big-hearted sympathy – it’s part of a huge, ongoing barter system where both parties profit.

Then there’s this: “Why would I send out a product for review to someone who has previously shown that they unfairly write over-the-top stories? Let’s look at this in a different context. If I walked up to you today, and you hit me in the face as a form of greeting, do you think that I should I approach you again tomorrow? Would you?”

This or any PR who worked on Duke Nukem Forever was not, to the best of my knowledge, physically assaulted by a journalist. Rather more to the point (and without my being pseudo-naively literal), he also wasn’t personally singled-out and insulted in a Duke Nukem Forever review. That or any other PR is not Duke Nukem Forever, much as they might quite rightfully feel they’re very closely involved with it. Duke Nukem Forever is a videogame that journalists played and wrote their opinions of, in order to tell their readers whether or not they thought they should buy it. It’s important to maintain distance: but that very rarely happens.

Quietly, behind the scenes, this kind of conflict happens a whole bunch more than you might suspect, between any number of firms and any number of sites. Both sides of the fence have screwed up as often as the other, and burned bridges usually do get fixed after a time – but what does seem sure is that public pillorying of the opposing camp is unlikely to turn out well.

I do strongly believe that a games journalist should only ever criticise a product or decision, not the people behind the product or decision, and feel deeply uncomfortable about any write-up that does become personal – but I’m not sure it’s healthy or accurate for specific people who worked on a game’s marketing to equate themselves with the game.

Partly, that’s because marketing is often essentially independent from the quality (to use a probably unhelpful abstraction, but there you go) of the game itself – it’s passion primarily about the game’s success, rather than about what the game does or doesn’t achieve creatively.

There are few better examples of this than Duke Nukem Forever, which is very much about the brand standing apart from (and arguably selling far more copies than) the contents of the game itself. The marketing line from the various firms involved in DNF’s surprise comeback has, at times, seemed to have a certain implication that the fact this game has the Duke Nukem character in it is reason enough to love it, regardless of other flaws. Quite a few people feel rather differently – myself included.

Did I go too far? I don’t think so – and I certainly promise you that I never once thought of any person or persons behind the game as I wrote what I thought of it. I thought only of what was in front of me, and how I didn’t think it overall worked too well. Had most critics felt that the game was generally as creative a success as the hype had suggested – well, then this whole mess would never have happened, would it?

(I’ve seen ‘those cynical, fun-hating critics just don’t understand the common man’ used as a defensive marketing line any number of times – Michael Bay said it about his dreadful second Transformers movie, for instance, even though he’s now claiming that film was cock-up as part of a promise that the upcoming third one is the best one yet. I shall be very, very interested to hear what the various firms involved in DNF have to say about that game once they’re out on the promotional trail for the inevitable next Duke game.)

Redner also added that “Life is too short to surround ourselves in such baseless hatred. We should focus on the hundreds of other writers who are capable of being fair, even when writing a poor or low scoring review. Reviews are subjective but fairness should always be a constant.” So: who’s objective enough to decide which writers are “capable of being fair”?

It’s certainly a good thing that passions about games run high, on both sides of the fence. But let’s not forget that it’s a business fence, and one that business products are regularly passed across for mutual benefit.

__________________

« | »

, , .

165 Comments »

  1. manveruppd says:

    Not to defend Redner (after all, 2K fired him even though he was basically defending their games, so he obviously went too far!), but there is a point that it’s unfair for a review to go on and on at length about how puerile and tasteless the humour, don’t you think? I mean it’s WELL KNOWN that this has been a rather divisive issue, with some people saying “OMG spanking girls on the bum is wife-battering!” and others saying “there’s nothing wrong with a bit of sex- or toilet-themed humour from time to time”. So therefore the wise and diplomatic thing to do would be to accept that Duke fans will find it funny however much you find it offensive and that it should be accepted that this is a matter of taste, and left alone.

    It’s one thing for a reviewer to say “the humour wasn’t my thing” as an expression of subjective taste (like you guys did on here), and another to say it was the lowest scrapings of the dredge at the bottom of the latrine pit of those who suffered diarrhoea after drinking the scrapings from the humour-barrel (like the EG reviewer did), as if it’s axiomatic and self-evident truth that the game is an unfunny, tasteless abortion of offensive garbage. There’s some pretty smart people working in games journalism but none of them are professors of ethics at the fucking Sorbonne or guest lecturers in humour engineering at MIT , and I find it condescending to be lectured by them.

    • V. Profane says:

      Have you played DNF? That’s a really pathetic appeal to authority there. How many degrees and titles does one need pass judgement on the merits of a video game? If Steven Hawking said the game was unfunny offensive garbage would that be okay with you?

      I don’t think I’ve noticed anybody even bother to mention the bum-slapping capture the flag in the reviews, probably because there’s stuff in the single player campaign that crosses the line from Benny Hill to Henry Lee Lucas. I’m a big fan of Duke3D (recently played a GOG copy), but I found DNF to be quite shocking and not just in terms of quality (which was no surprise).

    • manveruppd says:

      I wasn’t actually appealing to authority, I was doing the opposite – I was saying that even if Stephen Hawking, the Pope, Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama all agreed that the humour in this game was absolutely crapulous it would STILL be nothing more than their subjective opinion and they really shouldn’t be insulting the people who DO like it. And if you’re saying that the jokes in there are so puerile that you’d have to be a lobotomise adolescent baboon to like them you’re pretty much insulting them aren’t you?

      And whether *I* think the game is funny or not is besides the point – indeed, my point was that it was besides the point! By all means express an opinion, say I didn’t like this, or I was offended by it etc, but if you’re a reviewer and commenting on a brand of humour which you know is divisive, then if you couch your opinion as objective fact rather than an opinion, and in such strong terms that you basically offend the people who do like it, you can expect to get some hate mail for it.

      A lot of people may agree that the game isn’t funny, but I wouldn’t take the majority opinion as an arbiter of taste in humour. After all, Arrested Development got cancelled due to shit ratings 2.5 years in, and The Big Bang Theory consistently gets more viewers than Community in the same time slot.

      And the sheer vehemence of some reviews does make me suspect that this is a case of games journalists trying to overcompensate for the fact that people consider them immature because they play games for a living. Your audience isn’t those people, your audience isn’t other journalists, your audience is people who play and enjoy games in a way in which some journalists seem to have forgotten.

    • Acorino says:

      Humor is inherently subjective, as is everything related to taste. Yet there’s craftmanship to comedy, as is there to gameplay design, production values,…
      No reviewer can escape his taste, that’s why they shouldn’t just say “this sucks!” or “that’s great!” but instead illustrate the criticisms.

    • Urthman says:

      If a reviewer honestly thinks that the content in a game is vile and offensive, then I want to hear that opinion. I don’t want reviewers censoring themselves out of some misguided idea of “fairness” or “objectivity.” There’s plenty of other reviews available if I think I need a second opinion.

      I don’t want to hear reviewers say, “I suppose some other people might theoretically like this.” I want to hear them say, “I liked this” or “I hated this” or “I though this was mediocre, and here’s why.”

    • steviesteveo says:

      For all that people can disagree about humour I think the one liners (“You’re fucked”) about people being raped to death by aliens probably get close to ‘everyone can agree this is bad’.

  2. Lost says:

    SO.. I should buy this game then?

  3. Jabberwocky says:

    > “This or any PR who worked on Duke Nukem Forever was not, to the best of my knowledge, physically assaulted by a journalist.”

    Oh come now. Obviously he’s using an analogy here when he talks about being punched in the face. He’s simply saying that if you burn him once, he won’t give you the opportunity to burn him again.

    I’m not saying he’s right, but I think you’re picking apart his statement unfairly.

    • Jabberwocky says:

      I followed the link over to the Eurogamer review. It is a scathing review, which is fair. But here’s a quote that crosses the boundary of acceptable:

      “it beggars belief that of all the hundreds of people involved in this game over the years, nobody could come up with a single idea for a new gun or enemy. ”

      This is a direct insult to the developers of the game. It also displays an astounding ignorance of how games are actually designed, it certainly isn’t by committee of “hundreds of people”. And last, I find it ridiculous to insinuate that elements of the original were the same because “nobody could come up with a single idea”. I’m sure this was an intentional, if flawed, decision to stick to the original title’s design, perhaps for nostalgia. Trust me, in any game studio, the problem is not people having no ideas. It’s people having too many.

      So, all this being said, I do believe that Redner Group took a serious misstep here. But it is not as one sided as you make it seem in your article, Alec. Part of what he was saying was “I’m not going to do business with reviewers who personally insult the developers”. That part, I can fully agree with. Although I agree with you, where he misspoke is to seemingly lump all journalists in to the same category on his twitter post.

    • Jimbo says:

      It’s still a dumb analogy. Putting a game out there for review isn’t like approaching somebody in the street and getting punched in the face, it’s like entering a boxing ring and getting punched in the face. If you don’t want to get hit then don’t get in the ring, or get better at boxing.

    • Jabberwocky says:

      I think the analogy holds.
      If you’re expecting a conversation, or a critique, getting punched in the face (an analogy for being personally insulted) sucks.

    • steviesteveo says:

      I’ve got an analogy: it’s like sending your new game to a professional reviewer and asking “would you please write about my game?” and then calling it a punch in the face if they don’t say it’s fricking awesome.

      I mean, seriously.

    • Jabberwocky says:

      You’re bad at analogies. ;)

  4. etho says:

    Surely I am not the only person who assumes that the only reason this guy got in trouble is that he described publicly a practice that most publishers engage in, but would rather keep quiet. The Eurogamer thing linked in the article seems to suggest that blacklisting press outlets is pretty standard practice, not to mention the fact that stories like this seem to crop up several times a year.

  5. Wozzle says:

    I know this isn’t fair to say, but after this I’m even less likely to purchase DNF.

  6. Jambe says:

    Seems ironic that such a highbrow discussion of PR evolved from something as crass and ridiculous as Duke Nukem.

  7. PearlChoco says:

    Law should forbid pre-release reviews, that way all reviewers are on equal terms. No more bought “world-exclusive” first reviews.

  8. Grayvern says:

    Do they not think that games will eventually become like films where anything not shown in advance is usually ignored because it;s assumed it will be horrendous. Speculation can be more damaging than proof.

    Except ‘core’ games like Duke are small enough in sales compared to Films for critics to matter.

  9. Gvaz says:

    Why have reviews at all if the only ones available on release day are those with no criticism?