A Critic’s Responsibility

This week saw the release of Hydrophobia on Xbox Live Arcade. I spent some time with the developers the week before release so that I could see how the studio worked, what they were working on and how they were gearing up for their game’s release.

At the beginning of the week, I reviewed the game and gave it a very good score. I really enjoyed it. Yes, there were a few points that I could imagine other reviewers finding issue with. It’s not blatant with its signposting and as a result some of the puzzles can end up being frustrating until you work out what you need to do.

The enemy AI is unforgiving and you’re never explicitly told that shooting the people who are advancing on you is not the best way to play the game. You’re left to work out on your own that the environment is your weapon. You’re supposed to shoot the things. So I can understand where some reviewers (and for that matter, some consumers) might find that more of a negative point than I did. I loved the fact that my hand wasn’t held through the whole thing.

Now, it’s not my place to comment specifically on other reviewers and their techniques. That’s their own business and ultimately, I can only hope, they will be judged by their audience. When I review a game I avoid all contact with critical appraisal from other sources. This is so that the review I write is entirely my own, not influenced by anyone else’s. So before my review was locked in the schedule I hadn’t seen another word of critique from anyone, good or bad.

Since I wrote the Hydrophobia review I have been directed to many others on other websites, which I have read with interest. It’s always intriguing to see the differences in opinion and presentation on reviews and I spend a lot of my time reading them from a huge range of sources. I have to keep up with how people are presenting them and how consistent they are with our own. The range of scores for Hydrophobia, and the quality of the text which accompanies those scores, has been one of the most varied for any game I can remember.

The reviews, both positive and negative, are not a matter for discussion. It’s not my place to point out inconsistencies and discrepancies in texts published anywhere else. I can only account for what we publish on TheSixthAxis. Some of those reviews I agree with and some I think are entirely incorrect. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think. Other reviewers write and publish their own reviews with their own aims and purposes. It’s their business.

What I do feel compelled to speak about, what I do think is a reason for discourse, is the vehement way I’ve seen certain outlets speak about the developers. I have no personal affinity with Dark Energy Digital or any of their employees. I met several of them, including the game’s Senior Designer, Rob Hewson, and Creative Directors Pete and Deborah Jones. They were all very pleasant towards me and very candid in how they spoke about their product and what they hoped for its release, nothing was “off the record” except for one piece of tech that was in development but not in this game. I was asked politely to not mention anything specific about that until it was nearer to completion.

At the end of the day, I won’t profit in any way from their game being a success. In fact, I could probably capitalise on events more if the game was a failure. There’s more in a failure for us to work with and transform into site traffic. On the internet, negativity is more popular than success. I’m sure you all know this already; you see how sites make a big deal out of negative stories, put a negative spin on things and promote conflict in an effort to increase traffic. And it works, they scare-monger and sensationalise for traffic and that increased traffic translates to increased ad revenue. It’s the accepted way to do business at many outlets and at TheSixthAxis we always resist it as much as we reasonably can (to the point of correcting stories if readers complain that they seem sensationalist or misleading).

So it is distressing to see, out of very little, the way a couple of statements (which, admittedly may have been misguided)  have been picked at, blown up and used to gain traction with the fickle masses. Usually it’s impossible for me to be certain that what I think may be happening across other websites is actually the case. Often I don’t have any personal reference point in the matter so I don’t feel like I can comment. I have suspicions but no weight of evidence to back it up. In this instance I have a reference point; I have a weight of evidence.

The problems arose when the developers of Hydrophobia spoke out about one or two of the negative reviews their product was receiving. The quotes, reproduced in numerous ways by a multitude of outlets across several individual stories, were pulled from a chat with Pete and Deborah Jones. My personal feeling is that perhaps that was a mistake. Perhaps Dark Energy Digital would have been better off not responding at all. Nobody likes a critic. But it wasn’t my business. I read the reviews, I saw the quotes and I thought it would all flare up and fade out.

But if there’s one thing that the audience online likes more than a negative story, it’s a conflict. So the issue rumbles on. I’ve seen outlets refer to the Dark Energy Digital “PR machine”. I’ve seen outlets claim that Dark Energy are attempting to silence reviewers or manipulate scores. I am as certain as I ever could be that this is simply not the case.

In all my dealings with Dark Energy Digital nobody from the studio ever suggested, in even the slightest way, that my review should be anything other than my own view of the game. They didn’t even see the review or know the score until it was live on the site for you all to see.

When I visited the office in Manchester I saw that now-demonised PR “machine” in action. It consisted of Pete Jones on his blackberry offering to meet people at the last minute and talking about showing their game off to the staff of their local bank. They don’t employ anyone with a PR background; they don’t have a PR department. Which, perhaps, explains why they gave TheSixthAxis so much access that could have been given to a larger outlet but let’s not point that out too loudly.

Perhaps it’s not important to those of you who just want to read the latest gaming news and the odd review on a game you’re interested in (which is a perfectly valid, perhaps even admirable, point of view). But to the games industry, and those of us who hang around trying to scratch a living out of talking about it, it should be worrying.

For me, the worry is that studios will start to see cooperating with the press and entering into dialogue with us as a bad thing; an opportunity for failure rather than a chance to give us insight. They might be more guarded in what they say and when they say it. They might all hire crack PR departments to spin every statement and time it for maximum publicity. That would make for a very bland development landscape and, while it may suit certain outlets whose bread and butter is the regurgitation of press releases, it would make our job at TheSixthAxis that much more difficult.

I worry that we might end up with the last remnants of personality and character in the developer-press relationship lost under a highly-polished cloche of PR, only to be revealed when the spin doctors think it’s time to eat.

You can say what you want about a game, as long as you have the pedigree and the knowledge to back up your criticisms. But if you start milking a few choice quotes to increase your traffic at the expense of due diligence and proper research then you might manage to get yourself a merry band of followers in the short term but in the long term you’re losing more than it’s worth. Not only for yourself but for those that follow you.


  1. Can someone explain to me what happened with Dark Energy, because I’m at a loss at what you’re saying CB.

    • I thought that was explained, briefly, in the first section of this article.
      Basically, they got a few very negative reviews and the directors spoke (I think it was to Eurogamer) about how they thought it was unfair. Then certain sites around the internet turned that into a big drama and made it into more than it was intended to be (I assume). There were a number of terms used and claims made which I know to be false. I’ve never had that knowledge when this sort of thing has happened before so I felt compelled to write about it.
      So, this article is voicing my concern over what it might mean for our future as “people that write about games” if outlets start trying to make personal gains out of uncensored contact with studios.

      • Oh Ok, Thanks for that. I’ve lost track of Hydrophobia in the news lately.

  2. Hear Hear

  3. It’s disgraceful indeed, but that’s how media works I’m afraid. Mainstream media gets ahead this way, and the consumer in many cases is unaware.

    on a side note – I had no idea the studio is based here, might go and loiter in the hope of a tour!

  4. The above article is one of the many reasons that TSA is the ONLY site I use for gaming news.

    • Abso-Bloody-Exactly !!!

      • ha ha ha – awesomesauce wordage there BC – hahaha brilliant man……

  5. It sounds like some people get what Dark Energy Digital have tried to do with Hydrophobia and some people dont. Mixed reviews are always a possibility with games that try and be a little different from the norm. Yes, the reponse from the developer and ensuing storm does seem to be unfortunate, and adds to what seems to be a growing trend in gaming journalism. Well done to TSA for staying intelligent on this and heres hoping Hydrophobia comes to PS3 so I can make up my own mind.

  6. Very rarely do i write anything on this site, if ever, but I do read it every day, and I have to say this “statement” is the best I’ve read. All I can hope for is that some of these sites you were possibly referring to see this, and actually take a back step and question how they do things. It’s a long shot but heres hoping.

    Now if only the damn papers (daily mail, im looking at you) were to maybe think about this once in a while.

  7. well i always take critics reviews with a pinch of salt (no offence here of course) and would rather research up on the game my self and make my own opinions. As with all reviews its based on a personal opinion and may not reflect the opinions of others. Therefore i may like something different to a reviewer.

  8. but magazines were about before websites giving bad reviews & everything still works no press is maybe a worse thing.

  9. No one likes to be criticised and if there project has not been so highly received by some then I can understand there pain and frustration. Most press loves to blow any negative aspect out of proportion even if its down to a comment or sentence even though the rest of the article could be well written and have many good points to say, hell they even can make a double page news spread about no stories most days.
    Lets hope they learn from there minor mistake for next time and maybe have faith in us customers that we buy what we want regardless of the review.

  10. Great Read.

    I have been a gamer since the Master System and Nes days and I can barely remember C64 Vs Amiga days [maybe thats a fabrication of my memory as I am not completely sure I do] but it amazes me as to how crowded the Gaming World is which is as good as it is bad. Good for the amount of variation and quality we now all get regardless of platform or genre, but bad because its now under the spot light as the Accountants with their clasped hands and crooked smiles are watching and straining every possible avenue for revenue.

    Its interesting topics like this that put things into perspective and makes you realise that Gaming is now begining to eclipse everything in the same way Kerry Katona eclipses a Big Mac…

    A great article, totally helping me get through this dreary, wet friday afternoon.

    Thanks CB.

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