Critic Roundtable – Critic and Developer Conflicts of Interest (Ft. Phil Kollar and Tom Hatfield) Laura Kate April 3, 2014 Features A few weeks ago Indie Haven Editors Laura, Jose and Andre got together with Phil Kollar, Deputy Reviews Editor at Polygon.com, and Tom Hatfield, Writer for PC Gamer, Gamespy and The Guardian, to discuss all the biggest topics currently of interest to critics covering the Indie game scene. In this second segment of our roundtable series we discuss where the conflict of interest line is drawn between critics and game developers. Laura Kate: Okay, let’s switch topics a little to something that effects me personally and also critic Jim Sterling, being involved in the creation of Indie Games as a critic. Where do you think the line is of what constitutes a conflict of interests when it comes to creating and being a critic? Laura Kate: It’s a tricky question I’ve been wondering about at the moment, as I’m someone not only making their own Indie game, but also helping on the script for another persons. Andre Miller: I think games are games, and they are capable of so many hard to define things. To place broad labels on them is kind of a disservice to looking at videogames as a capable artistic medium Philip Kollar: If anyone at Polygon is involved in any way in the creation of a game or very close friends with a game’s creator, our policy is to make sure they are not involved with the review process. As a recent example we’re doing a series of features behind the scenes of the creation of Defense Grid 2 where our features editor, Russ Pitts, is actually embedded with the developer. When it comes time to review Defense Grid 2, neither Rus nor anyone involved with that feature series will be eligible to be involved in that review. Andre Miller: I think Polygon’s impartial approach is the best means of ensuring there isn’t a conflict of interest, it doesn’t mean your audience won’t still be sceptical, but I fail to see what more can be done. Jose San Mateo: It’s only a conflict of interest if you’re the creator or have a direct vested interest in the product and are being asked to give your opinion on it. That’s where I stand on it Tom Hatfield: It’s worth saying that many of the journalists I know who’ve worked in development have said they felt it helped them understand games better, and become a better critic as a result. Laura Kate: Well this is where I ask the question from, I’ve gotten into making my own RPG as a way to try and get a better understanding of the process involved making games in the hopes it will help as a Critic. As a measure in response, I’m not reviewing any RPGs on Indie Haven. (Which sucks, because they’re my favourite Genre). Jose San Mateo: You just don’t want somebody reading a review to say “yeah but this person is biased” whether it’s real or perceived. Tom Hatfield: Sadly sometimes that’s an impossible goal. There are some people who will always consider you biased, even if there’s no reason for them to do so. Laura Kate: That’s the point exactly. Our stance for my game is no coverage outside clearly labelled dev blogs, I don’t do RPG reviews and I make my position clear in coverage. But yes, some will always accuse. Philip Kollar: I know one of our reviewers, Danielle Riendeau, has done a lot of work creating small games in her free time. As long as she’s not actively selling them or competing with others, I personally do not see that as a conflict of interest. But obviously if that changed, it’s a discussion we’d need to have and take very seriously internally. Andre Miller: Yeah, your audience is always sceptical. I’m sure Phil or Tom have been excused of taking bribes from companies before to enhance a score. That kind of irrationality would inevitably extend to “you are bias because you have a colleague/close friend working on that game” in any capacity. Laura Kate: I always wonder also where that line is for covering developers you have grown to know. I’ve made friends with Indie devs on the basis that we have a very similar set of gaming interests to discuss and I’m not afraid to give bad reviews of their games as I have in the past, but you’ll always get calls of bias if you know the dev. Philip Kollar: Yes. Danielle got accused of being biased with her Gone Home review because she was on a podcast that creators of the game have also been on (at a different time). It’s impossible to combat that level of conspiracy theory nonsense. Jose San Mateo: Haters gonna hate Laura Kate: It does sometimes seem possibly more common in the Indie space, just because there’s this real tangible chance you do personally know the sole creator of the project. Andre Miller: Critics need to maintain dialogues with creators though, otherwise its a disservice to readers and undermines the entire point of what we are doing. Laura Kate: And I personally hate the thought I cannot befriend developers Philip Kollar: The longer you’re in this industry, the harder it is to have no ties at all to anyone whose work you’re talking about. Tom Hatfield: Yeah, they’re a public figure in a way the person who designs gun textures for Call of Duty isn’t. The indie space is so much more personality driven in that way. Jose San Mateo: It’s not wrong to make friends with developers either. Philip Kollar: I would say I’m friendly with a lot of game developers. I respect them and I keep an open dialogue with them. But if there’s someone who I went and got beers with twice a week, I’m going to recognize that I’m too close to review their game. Andre Miller: You have to reinforce the idea to your audience that you do everything in your power to make your work as impartial as possible. Tom Hatfield: I’ve always maintained that it’s not your job to avoid influences, that is impossible. Developers, other critics, fans, everyone has their own opinion and wants you to agree with them. The trick is to hear those influences and still stick to your guns. Jose San Mateo: Tom got it correct there Laura Kate: Indeed. It’s the difference between have a drink at an event every now and then and meeting regularly because you’re super close friends I guess. Tom Hatfield: Yeah, exactly Laura Kate: Tom, spot on again haha, you’re full of little nuggets of wisdom. Philip Kollar: Let’s all keep typing super long sentences and then have Tom wrap them up in a single brilliant phrase. He’s on point! Andre Miller: Good work Tom! Jose San Mateo: There is no such thing as being unbiased that’s humanly impossible. You just have to be aware of the biases you do have and account for them when approaching the job. It’s always going to be a judgement call. Tom Hatfield: If I might sidetrack a little, I think it’s a shame people don’t talk about fans and communities whenever we talk about influence. I know people who get death threats if they like certain games. That is surely far more powerful than a free promotional t-shirt. Philip Kollar: Yes! This is a huge, important point. Laura Kate: Yes it is. I’m kind of amazed that isn’t brought up more. Philip Kollar: When I reviewed The Last of Us and gave it a lower-than-the-average score, I got so much hatred for hardcore PlayStation fans. Andre Miller: Interacting with your audience is, tricky. Philip Kollar: It was to the point that when The Last of Us DLC released recently, I actually hesitated to review it. I’ve never done that. I was scared, because what if I didn’t like it as much as other people again? Andre Miller: It’s like a Telltalle game, every decision you make is going to inevitably piss someone off. Philip Kollar: I had to actually back off, clear my head a little, and make sure that didn’t affect me when I wrote. But that’s not easy. Tom Hatfield: Admittedly that’s more of a problem with AAA than indie, unless you happen to like something labelled ‘not a real game’. Philip Kollar: Arthur Gies and I talked about it. We considered giving the DLC to a different editor to review. But eventually, after I had stepped away and thought about it, I realized that as a critic I cannot let myself feel afraid like that or be essentially bullied into not reviewing a game by fans who may disagree with my opinions. Laura Kate: When I reviewed Anodyne, the Dev pointed out my review to his followers and laughed with a link to my Twitter, that was fuuuuuuuuuuun. That definitely stuck with me, got lots of hate for a few days from his followers, that was a deterrent to negative reviews that really slam a game people generally like. Tom Hatfield: I remember something similar happened to Indie Gamer Chick a while back Jose San Mateo: As you climb the ladder and become a voice that people turn to I think it’s impossible to avoid someone getting mad at you. Andre Miller: Well Laura, a lot of smaller devs live on what we say apparently. One of our critics wrote a relatively positive review of a game and it drove the design lead to tears. It’s a matter of staying professional. Laura Kate: A “AAA” game PR team will never direct people to a negative review and expect their fans to act on that, but an Indie Dev might do that if you slam their game. Philip Kollar: Yes, and at this point, triple-A PR teams also know that it’s not really acceptable to call an editor and complain about scores they dislike, but a small indie team might not realize that. Jose San Mateo: Only difference between the fanbase for Anodyne getting mad at you and the one for Last of Us is the number of people flaming you on twitter. Andre Miller: It’s ultimately more damaging to the dev slinging insults I’d think. Laura Kate: That’s the point though. I can give a friends Indie Game a constructive negative review and they will understand it was my job. Review an Indie strangers game and they may well choose to send the crowds at you. Andre Miller: I think part of it is due to the kind of aggressive rise to the top competitive nature of indie games development. It’s a bunch of small fish in a big pond, one trying to be bigger than all the rest to get noticed, so when its threatened it feels the need to fight back Jose San Mateo: Seems to me like it’s a reality of the job to deal with aggressive fanbases. Can you just chalk that up to hazards of the position? Philip Kollar: Andre, I think to some degree it’s a “hazard of the position” but I also think we’re at an interesting times as critics of a relatively new and growing medium and an interesting moment in time where fans have never had more immediate access to critics. Instead of writing an angry letter to the editor, they can post on Twitter and know we’ll see it immediately. Or write a NeoGAF post and know they’ll get a half-dozen people joining them in anger. Andre Miller: If I mortgaged my house and spent 4 years of my life making this game, then a critic reviews it in a weekend and says “Meh”, well I couldn’t really blame a human being for being upset lol. Tom Hatfield: Exactly Andre, especially when some indie developers are (intimidatingly) young. If I’d gotten into the limelight at 19 I’d probably have acted like an arsehole too. Jose San Mateo: Right, that’s the price we have to pay for that direct access. There we go, that’s it for the second segment of out critic roundtables series. We have one final segment in this interview still to come, so keep your eyes on the site.