Opinion Piece

Yes, I’m Reviewing Middle-Earth: Shadow Of Mordor, But Let’s Talk Shady Deals First

shadow-of-mordro

Games, people, GAMES! The dry spell known as Summer is over and hordes of games are coming out of the woodwork, resulting in many of us clutching our wallets in terror. After having so little to play for so many cruel months suddenly we have a raft of new titles demanding our attention, each vying for a few hours of our day.

I’ve had a few Emails over the past week or two asking if I’ll be reviewing Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor, especially given how much of a Tolkien fan I am and how well received the game has been by other critics. The short answer is yes, I’m reviewing it, but you won’t see the article for a little while yet. The simple fact of the matter is that review code for the game hasn’t been forthcoming despite my best efforts, and due to being left in the dark as to whether it would be coming or not I only just got around to ordering up a PC copy a few days ago on Friday the 3rd. However, the people selling it via Amazon hadn’t even gotten around to dispatching it five days later, which is why I cancelled the order and purchased it on Steam instead. Sadly that means a 34GB download using a speed of just over 500Kbps. As I write this I have about 8GB of downloading left to do.

On the plus side the lack of review code does mean that I’ve somewhat dodged a bullet, namely the controversy surrounding shady Youtube marketing deals for the game in which PC code was in rather short supply to anyone unwilling to promise a positive video.

I’ve got a lot to say on the subject and I’m going to tackle at least some of it here, but suffice to say it was a bullshit situation that should never have occurred, and I’m glad that the legendary man known as TotalBiscuit, A.K.A. John Bain, made it public. The deal was mostly aimed at Youtubers who did Let’s Play style content, which is obviously why I wasn’t approached since my total contribution to Youtube is a few truly terribly videos, although I cannot help but wonder if this entire situation was why I seemed unable to get PC review code, despite having a normally solid relationship with Warner Bros. The good news is that no reviewers outside of Youtube seemed to receive any sort of shady deal, or at least none that I’ve been able to find out about, although one cannot rule out the possibility that they simply weren’t going to admit to it.

The bearded one, TotalBiscuit

But let’s assume for a moment that you’ve not heard anything about this, and if you haven’t then I wouldn’t be surprised because strangely while the GamersGate controversey garnered so much attention around the world this incident has gone by relatively unnoticed, despite being pertinent. Indeed, many people have openly defended the publisher’s attitude while vehemently berating the very same tactics that have been talked about within GamersGate. The gist is that TotalBiscuit publicly revealed that pre-released PC code for Shadow of Mordor was being withheld to those unwilling to sign a deal in which they had to make one Youtube video and produce one livestream of the game in which they would have to strongly encourage viewers to purchase the game, focus on certain mechanics and say nothing negative about the title, nor focus on any glitches or bugs. In return the content creator would be paid, although what sort of cash was involved is entirely unclear. We can, however, safely assume that the more popular the Youtuber the bigger the payment.

I don’t actually have a problem with sponsored content provided it’s made extremely clear to the viewer, and doesn’t become the sole driving force behind a given Youtube channel. Over the years Youtubers have seen the money made from pre-video advertisements dwindle, and thus have had to look for further sources of income in order to keep the Internet on, PCs running and videos flowing, all while feeding the family. Take Boogie2988; Youtube is his full-time job, and thus he takes contracts to make sponsored videos in order to gather some extra cash. Since he clearly states when a video is sponsored myself and other viewers don’t have a problem. Other channels include messages from sponsors, such as LinusTechTips. Again, no problem there, either. Even TotalBiscuit makes sponsored content in order to pay the bills.

Sponsored content has also become a fact of the business, especially on Youtube since video creators now often have more influence than traditional journalists. Indeed, I’ve personally chosen a dying path in the form of writing about games, since traditional written reviews and such are getting slowly squashed by Youtube personalities. However, the rate at which sponsorship deals are becoming commonplace is worrying, and is slowly but surely degrading the reputation of Youtubers. While there’s plenty of focus on traditional journalists in regards to corruption and questionable ethics, most people simply ignore that Youtube is far from safe, and that contracts like the one seen for Shadow of Mordor indicate that the problems so often associated with written journalist may be slowly seeping into Youtube’s world.

Boogie reached a million subscribers earlier this year.

So why have people largely ignored the Shadow of Mordor controversy while GamersGate has garnered so much attention? This is largely because Youtubers have cultivated an image of being everyday gamers, the voice of the public, just general Joe Bloggs who love videogames. For guys like TotalBiscuit, Angry Joe and Boogie their entire career is built on this premise. I watch their content practically everyday, and indeed TotalBiscuit has been a big influence on me and my writing due to his calm, careful and considered approach to talking about games. Yet when you consider the stance logically there’s no difference between Youtubers and those that choose to write about games. Why automatically trust one above the other? Why assume that the Youtuber is above corruption and is therefore inherently more trustworthy when, at least in the beginning, they are both equal, neither deserving of such trust until it has been earned. Game writers start off exactly the same as Youtubers: people who love games that probably spend years writing about their hobby for free, struggling to make any money and simply doing it for the love. Likewise TotalBiscuit and AngryJoe didn’t just become famous: they had to work at it, growing from unknown creators to sensations.

So, let’s take a completely new imaginary Youtuber called Dave, and a completely new writer or critic or whatever word you’d like to use called Jack. Let’s assume nobody knows anything about who they are, and that neither person has produced any videos or written content before. From what I”ve seen if they both produced the same work, one in video form and one written, based on the same game, the likelihood is that the Youtuber would be trusted more, while the writer might be viewed suspiciously, or accused more of being paid off or otherwise corrupted.

There are, I feel, two reasons for this. The first is that written journalism has been around far, far longer. It has deep roots and over the years has had a certain reputation associated with it, often one of not being in tune with the general public. There’s a lot of reasons why game reviewer’s opinions often differ: they tend to play a lot more games and therefore have a broader experience of mechanics. What isn’t tired and old to you, may very well be to them. It’s there job to dig deeper and pick apart a title, rather than simply looking for how fun it is. Moreover gamers have been through a lot of scandals within the written world, developing deep-seated fears of bought reviewers, dodgy advertising, favoritism and much more. Any writer entering this world is automatically branded and viewed with deep suspicion, regardless of whether they are morally questionable or not.

Youtube, on the other hand, is very, very new, the vast influence of its many big personalities only truly coming to power over the past few years. IN that time the often dark and corrupting influences of publishers and PR companies have pretty much ignored Youtubers, an idiotic and shortsighted mistake on their behalf as any person with half a brain could have predicted the rise of the video critic. But that ignorance means that Youtube has been relatively free of controversy in terms of shady deals, bought reviews and the like.

AngryJoe has a staggering 1.65-million subscribers. His Destiny review has been watched almost 2.5-million times.

AngryJoe has a staggering 1.65-million subscribers. His Destiny review has been watched almost 2.5-million times.

Furthermore, I believe more trust is given to the Youtuber because they can be seen and heard. It’s easier to trust and relate to a person that you can either seen or heard or both, it’s easier to view them as just like you or I. A man or woman who just freaking loves videogames. The writer, though, well, he or she is just a name at the top or bottom of an article, a faceless being whose personality and opinions gets sucked up into the more “corporate” identity of whatever website they are working for. They are not Dave the Writer or Amy the Critic, they are THISBIGGAMEWEBSITE.COM. It’s why I like running my own site, because I feel like I can present more of myself to those that read these pages, rather than coming across as nothing more than a name. That’s the theory, anyway.

What makes the contract for Mordor stand out over others is how controlling it was. It stipulated that viewers should only be made aware of the sponsorship via a piece of text in the video description below links to buy the game or visit the website. While this does meet legal requirements in my eyes sponsored content should be announced at the very start of the video, because as we are all aware very few people ever bother to read the description. Using Boogie2988 as an example he accepted the contract and created a sponsored video showing off Shadow of Mordor to his viewers. He clearly states at the beginning of the video that he was asked by Warner Bros. to create the video. He makes it plain and clear to his viewers. That’s how it should always be done, and like many I find it hard to like or trust those who do opt to simply have a tiny piece of text buried away with the description.

The contract itself is incredibly strict, demanding that content creators heavily encourage people to buy the game rather than simply showcase the game more naturally. Indeed, the contract specifically states that the Youtube videos must have a “strong call to action” and that required live Twitch stream have at least “five calls to action” that attempt to persuade people to buy the game. Unsurprisingly no negative aspects can be mentioned, which is a clause I don’t actually take issue with since that’s a natural stipulation for promoted content. One hardly pays for advertisement that openly admits to any serious problems. Furthermore the PR company had a clause that forced the video creator to send in their creation two days before publication for review, and if the video was found unfit in their eyes it would not see the light of day.

Other aspects of the contract ensured that creators would be little more than puppets, demanding that the focus be on the Nemesis system, a stupid request when you consider that any smart Youtuber would highlight that feature quite a bit anyway. Emphasis also had to be placed on brutal finishers and wraith powers. With such restrictions in place Youtubers were essentially slaves. Sponsored content is nothing new, but rarely is it this draconian.

MiddleearthShadowofMordor_Screenshot_TalionMelee2Here’s the excerpts of the contract Jim Sterling of the Escapist used for his video after managing to acquire a copy of it:

“Maximize awareness for the Shadow of Mordor video game during the ‘Week of Vengeance’ through gameplay content, keybrand messaging, and information and talent usage on Twitch channels. Persuade viewers to purchase game, catch the attention of casual and core gamers who already know and love Middle-earth.”

While I can certainly see why a contract would demand that the content creator attempt to pursuade people to buy the game, in my own view no such clause should ever exist. At most a deal of this nature should only ever ask that the creator present the game in a good light and demonstrate their enjoyment, but never actively encourage consumers to purchase the game. That’s going too far.

“Requirements involve 1 livestream, 1 YouTube video, and 1 Facebook post/tweet in support of the videos. Videos will have a strong verbal call to action, a clickable link in the description box for the viewer to go to the game’s website to learn more about the game to learn how to register and play the game. Twitch stream videos will have 5 calls to action. Videos will be of sufficient length to feature gameplay and build excitement.”

“Videos will promote positive sentiment about the game. Videos must not show bugs or glitches that may exist. Videos must include discussion of the story of the game (do NOT mention Lord of the Rings or Hobbit movies, characters, or books). “

Aside from the idiotic demand that videos be of a sufficient length to “build excitement”, a request which clearly indicates a lack of knowledge in regards to creating videos, the most confusing aspect of the contract is obviously the strange demand to not mention the Lord of the Rings movies, books or even characters, nor anything of the Hobbit. Given that Youtubers are asked to catch the attention of people who already love Middle-Earth ignoring the films and books is a little odd.

“Videos must include discussion of the Nemesis System. This really should take up the bulk of the focus, such as how different the orcs are, how vivid their personality and dialogue are, gathering intel and domination abilities, exploiting their strengths and weaknesses. Videos must include discussion of the action and combat that takes place within the game, such as brutal finishers, execution moves, and wraith powers. The company has final approval on the YouTube video…at least 48 hours before any video goes live.”

The company having final say is a shocking clause, one that I’ve never heard of before. Usually the company accepts and trusts that the person in question will do their job, and in return the creator sends along the link and a quick summary of the video as soon as it goes live. To demand full control over whether the video sees the light of day is a stipulation that I’m surprised any Youtuber would agree to.

But the real kicker is that seemingly almost everyone who did not receive and accept a contract offer was hit with a copyright claim upon uploading any gameplay footage of Shadow of Mordor, thus ensuring that the only videos available, aside from reviews, were strictly controlled and painted the game in a positive light. The copyright debacle surrounding Let’s Play videos and other types of content has been bad enough on its own, but when combined with questionable contracts such as the one for Shadow of Mordor it creates a troubling picture.

middle-earth-shadow-of-mordor-07-25-14-1_1u1b

The truly sad thing, though, is that none of this was needed. Both the critical reception and fan reception of Shadow of Mordor have been brilliant, and all this shady deal has done is tarnish the game’s reputation needlessly. C’mon, guys, if you’re going to use shitty tactics at least use them on  a terrible game that needs every bit of help it can get. All that you’ve succeeded in doing here is placing the seed of doubt in people’s mind, making them question the validity of not just gameplay videos but reviews as well, therefore also undermining the sense of trust that Youtubers seem to be able to naturally generate opposed to their counterparts in traditional media.

The entire escapade is a farce, one that further reinforced the idea that all reviewers and journalists are corrupt bastards, something that I vehemently argue against since getting to know quite a lot of them. From my experience the vast majority of critics are just people who love games, but crap like this ensures a lack of trust will continue. And ultimately these companies are shooting themselves in the foot, because a divide between gamers and reviewers isn’t good for anyone, neither is a divide between gamers and Youtubers, especially given the vast amount of influence held by Youtube personalities.

Sponsored content is fine, provided it’s done fairly and transparently. I’ve considered doing one or two sponsored posts in the past since some companies have put forth the offer, but have turned down each, largely because I feel that while people seem to accept it on Youtube, they’d be less accepting if I did it, despite it being the same sort of situation. And I can’t blame them in a way: trust is hard to earn but easily lost, and the written medium as a whole has largely lost that trust. Youtube, as a relatively young platform for game critique, has a chance to build a solid foundation and form a good relationship with viewers, and avoid the many pitfalls that written journalists fell blindly into.

One thing is at least true: the download is finally completed, and thus I’m off to play Shadow of Mordor. Apparently one can simply walk into Mordor after all.

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