‘Duke Nukem Forever’ Reviews And The ABCs Of Blacklisting

By now you’ve probably heard that game critics have not been loving “Duke Nukem Forever” en masse. The current Metacritic score is sitting at a paltry 57, and the general buzz from those who have played the game ranges from unfun to offensive. (Sidenote: Our reviewer is making his way through the game, with our review scheduled to go up on Friday.) Apparently some of the negative critical reactions were not fondly received by The Redner Group, a third-party PR firm tasked with representing the game. Last night, at around 11PM EST, Jim Redner updated The Redner Group’s Twitter account in response to the negative reviews with the following tweet:

The tweet has since been deleted, but the above image was captured by Ben Kuchera of Ars Technica. The implication was that reviews that “went too far” with negative criticism would result in that publication receiving games from 2K in the future. Shortly after Redner’s tweet went out, outrage filled the halls of Twitter. Was a game publisher’s PR rep threatening to blacklist reviewers deemed too negative? In public, no less?

A few hours after the offending tweet, Redner sent out an apology to members of the press, saying that he “made a huge error in judgement.” He continued, “We are all entitled to our opinions regardless of score, tone or meaning. My response was a juvenile act on my part. I know better and my emotion got the best of me. I have worked very hard on this project. I want it to succeed. I just got upset and acted out.”

Earlier today, 2K Games released the following statement:

“2K Games does not endorse the comments made by Jim Redner and we can confirm that The Redner Group no longer represents our products. We have always maintained a mutually-respectful working relationship with the press and do not condone his actions in any way.”

Now here’s where we get to the interesting bit: What Redner wrote in his tweet is absolutely, 100% accurate for many, if not every, game publisher in this industry. Game publishers don’t need to send games to members of the press, nor do members of the press have a right to demand games from publishers. A game publisher’s job is to make their game look as good as possible, and if that means not sending review copies to publications they believe are unfairly negative, they absolutely have the right to do that. And why wouldn’t they? If you know you’re going to get kicked in the shins, do you really want to give the guy in front of you a free pair of steel-toed boots?

The flip-side to all of this is that blacklisting publications is silly and counter-productive on a number of levels.

First of all, if a publication is important enough that a game publisher worries about what they’ll have to say in their review, they can probably afford to buy the game on their own, thus circumventing the publisher’s blacklisting. The threat of not sending free games would really only be effective against smaller fan sites, but their reviews don’t have nearly as much reach or affect on Metacritic rankings.

Secondly, just about every games writer I know does not have an ax to grind. They didn’t hate your terrible game for some obscure reason. They hate it because your game was terrible. I can assure you, there’s no one in this industry that likes playing bad games. We do, however, like telling people when games are bad because it lets them know where they shouldn’t spend their hard-earned money. If game publishers don’t want to worry about bad reviews, they should make better games.

And lastly, working in the media or in PR is about building long-term relationships. If you blacklist a publication after a bad game was reviewed negatively, won’t you be upset when the awesome game you have coming out next year doesn’t get covered at all? Yeah, that’s not the sort of game of chicken you really want to be playing.

Despite all that, blacklisting still goes on. The difference is that Redner publicly acknowledged the practice, whereas most game publishers will simply stop contacting that publication outright. John Teti, a writer for The Onion’s AV Club and Eurogamer, experienced it first hand after his negative review of “Mafia 2,” a game published by, wait for it, 2K Games. “An outside agency recently invited me to a 2K event. When word got back to the mothership, they made the agency circle back and UNinvite me,” Teti said on Twitter.

But, as I said, blacklisting is absolutely within the right of game publishers. It’s even a viable option if they want to control the spin on what they think will be a poorly-reviewed game. You, the reader, should be pleased to know that it won’t affect our reviews (or the vast majority of reviews you read on major publications, for that matter), since getting free games is not the reason we get up in the morning. When it comes to reviews, we’re just trying to tell you where to spend your money. If that means being more honest than a game publisher would prefer, we’re willing to suffer the consequences.