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Duke Nukem's Awkward PR Fallout

Atomic aggro

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.

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