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Starfield review controversy traces game journalism's orbital decay | This Week in Business

More concerning than Bethesda's decision to withhold early review codes from certain outlets is how heavily some sites are relying on the game to drive their business

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

Starfield launches today for those who paid extra for the Premium edition, so in the grand tradition of Bethesda games, we're going to talk about how broken stuff is.

No, not Starfield stuff. For all I know, the game has been polished to a shine with nary a glitch in sight.

Instead, we're going to talk about how broken games journalism is, prompted in part by a mini-scandal around who got review codes in advance, and who didn't.

QUOTE | "Access to the game appears to have been heavily restricted in the UK, where Bethesda has also not provided copies of Starfield to other websites and YouTube channels owned by Eurogamer parent company Reedpop." – On Tuesday, Eurogamer editor-in-chief Tom Phillips explained to readers that Eurogamer would not have a review of Starfield in time for Thursday's embargo.

Writers from UK-based outlets The Guardian, Edge, and Metro also publicly confirmed they had not received review codes of the game. also did not receive a review code, which could be because we're also owned by Reedpop, because we don't actually review games, or because the one time we did run a review, we gave the biggest game of the year a zero out of ten.

There's been a lot of speculation about why Bethesda snubbed these sites, and a lot of it doesn't really hold water

There's been a lot of speculation about why Bethesda snubbed specifically these sites for Starfield, and a lot of it doesn't really hold water.

Was it revenge for scathing reviews of Bethesda Game Studios' last big title, Fallout 76? That game reviewed poorly everywhere, and some of the American outlets who got review codes were among its biggest detractors.

IGN and GameSpot came in on the low end of the Fallout 76 reviews with a 5 out of 10 and a 4 out of 10, respectively. They're also two of the harshest early assessors of Starfield, both giving Bethesda's latest a 7 out of 10.

Was it a roundabout way of following through on Microsoft's implied threats to the UK after the country's regulator blocked the Activision Blizzard acquisition? I have all the time in the world for stories about massive companies being laughably petty about all slights both real and perceived, but even I find that one far-fetched.

Was it targeting the UK for a more deserved transgression, like Peppa Pig? If so, there would be no reason to be so secretive about the motive and risk coming off as the bad guy here.

Does Starfield's narrative cast Space Britain as the evil empire and climax with you hunting down and killing King Charles, who has been kept alive as a Futurama-like head in a jar? Come on. Do you really expect me to spoil Starfield on the day it launches and ensure ReedPop sites never get Bethesda review code ever again?

Was Todd Howard travelling in London for a Starfield promotional tour and ordered fish and chips at a restaurant, only to vow revenge when he was instead served fish and french fries? …Hmm. You know, this might be the best theory we have.

I just don't get the motivation here. If Bethesda was trying to teach somebody a lesson, it's not going to stick when the somebodies in question are all wondering what the hell the lesson was supposed to be and who it was directed at. Even if Bethesda was content to act on old grudges quietly, it's a curious grab bag of outlets to target unless the DC-area studio is still harbouring a grudge over The Stamp Act. Wait a sec, make that "harboring a grudge."

A Starfield screenshot showing a character standing in the distance on an alien planet, looking toward the camera. The near- and middle-ground is taken up by large and glistening-but-worn metallic walls that seemingly get darker as they get closer to the camera's viewpoint. A large planet with rings around it is visible in the sky behind the character.
Bethesda has put some journalists between a hard place and a hard place.

Regardless of Bethesda's actual rationale here, this whole scenario is another bad sign for the field of game journalism in a year full of them.

[Thinks about literally any other year.]

Even more full of them than usual, I mean.

We ran a feature on 2023's gauntlet of games media layoffs in July that was interesting not just for how it detailed the many things that have gone wrong of late, but also one of the big things that went right.

QUOTE | "Layoffs in games media have been taking place with alarming frequency, with businesses often citing 'structure change,' 'supply-chain issues' and a 'very tough market environment.' Yet amidst conversations around these layoffs, there's one game that keeps cropping up: Elden Ring. Or, to be specific, its pivotal role in introducing much-needed traffic to a website." – In a feature from earlier this year on why games media layoffs keep happening, Khee Hoon Chan underscores what a huge boost From Software's game had on gaming sites after its February 2022 release thanks to guides and other supplemental coverage.

This has already been a strong year for games, but many sites have been looking toward Starfield expecting an Elden Ring-like boost. That's the real harm in denying early codes, particularly to sites that run guides. The traffic and ad impressions done by reviews pales in comparison to the traffic of walkthroughs and strategy guides.

"How much is Todd Bethesda worth?"Google

For years now, the best-trafficked pages at game journalism sites haven't been reviews. They've been stories with headlines like "Pokémon Go Type chart, Type effectiveness and weakness explained" and "Mystic Messenger email guide - all correct answers for every guest in Casual, Deep and Another Story". And as much as they continue to drive traffic long after their initial publication, having a robust set of guides in the early days of a launch is hugely beneficial not just in taking advantage of the largest wave of people looking for guides on a game, but in convincing them it would be easier to just go straight to your site in the future instead of trying out the alternatives offered by Google, which seem to be getting noticeably less helpful as the years go by.

QUOTE | "How much is Todd Bethesda worth?" – One of Google's "People also ask" suggestions when one of our writers was trying to confirm Todd Howard's job title earlier this week.

The problem here is that search engines, social media, and the advertising industry they rely on have been the black holes of the Internet for decades, exerting an incredible gravitational force on everything around them to the point where many outlets seem to focus more on serving ads than serving readers. The ratio of advertising space to editorial space on gaming sites is the most obvious example of this shift, but that inexorable pull has warped the remaining editorial space as well.

Content creators Astro_Alexandra, Filspixel, LilyPichu and Myth in flight suits at a NASA space camp in Huntsville, AL, where Bethesda sent them as part of a promotional campaign.
Traditional game journalists lost favor with audiences for obvious conflicts of interests like accepting lavish experiential trips from publishers promoting their games. As a result, audeinces increasingly trust influencers, who are famously incorruptible and would never go along with stunts like being sent to NASA space camp because something something Starfield.

My first published writing about games was covering the Dreamcast launch for the University of Texas student paper. I was paid $10 for it, which might be more than a freelancer could expect for such a piece today after taking into account inflation.

Since then I've seen the focus shift from magazine subscriptions to ad-driven sites centered around reviews and previews and then podcasts and then short-form video and then Skyrim coverage forever and then strategy guides and walkthroughs. Every step of the way was reasoned as a necessary adaptation to meet changing audience tastes and consumption habits. Each step also happened to be chasing traffic, increasing our dependence on advertising whether the things we were selling were actually attracting more advertisers or not (*cough* podcasts *cough*).

The attempt to maximize eyeballs and advertiser support has gone hand-in-hand with the minimization of things games journalism reasonably should be focused on

One other thing I notice about the progression of games journalism over this span is that the attempt to maximize eyeballs and advertiser support has gone hand-in-hand with the minimization of things games journalism reasonably should be focused on, things it can do better than anyone else.

Games media is now overly dependent on hit games coming out (not in our control), on writing walkthroughs and guides for those games (things the publishers and developers could do better themselves and can be easily plagiarized and found anywhere online), and on gaming the system with the right combination of keywords and SEO best practices to be lucky enough for Google to direct readers our way. And that process is less about communicating information to another person clearly and concisely, and more like performing spatulamancy to understand the whims of an uncaring and unresponsive god.

There's pressure to defer your editorial judgment to focus on whatever you see moving the needle in traffic reports, but doing so is basically embracing the notion of "The customer is always right." And as anyone who has read a comments section before should be able to tell you, "The customer is always right" does not apply to journalism.

A scene from ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman where one character dressed like a hero with a halo around their head lectures another hero character, yelling, "Heroes aren't gods! When we get punched, it hurts! When we eat stuff off the ground, we get diarrhea, or worse!" A third character, a woman with a clock necklace and a large floppy bunny ears hat, stands by watching.
Gaming outlets must find the right balance between what the audience needs (unending critical discussion of ZHP: Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman) and what the audience reads (not that)

And all of this – all of it – is done to serve an advertising industry harvesting obscene amounts of personal data on every user and feeding it into machines that will examine every aspect of your life and every subconscious behavioral habit you have before concluding that what you really need to see right now is a bunch of ads for dishwashers since you bought one last month and are giving off powerful "about to go on a dishwasher-buying spree" vibes.

But ads are where the money is, so the media does whatever the ad people want, even if we're as bad as the ad people when it comes to understanding what others really care about.

QUOTE | "People might want to wear shorts today because it's like over 100 degrees, but we have to remind them it's not allowed in the office because advertisers. They didn't want to scandalize advertisers." – In the latest episode of People Make Games' podcast The Games Press, former Kotaku editor-in-chief Patricia Hernandez says site owner G/O Media enforced a business casual dress code on staff just in case advertisers might have felt uncomfortable doing business with a site where people might wear T-shirts.

Outside of wardrobe choices, the actual articles that keep the lights on are also getting uncomfortably close to automatable processes, something executive ghouls with dreams of a worker-free workplace have taken a keen interest in as the AI hype wave has crested.

STAT | 200 to 250 articles – The expected weekly output listed in a Gamurs Group job ad for an AI editor posted a couple months back, not long after laying off more than 50 people across its network of sites.

So how could gaming journalists future-proof themselves against AI? It turns out the stuff AI can't do has a lot of overlap with the sort of content that has fallen out of fashion over the years.

QUOTE | "If you're writing something that has been written before and there's no really unique human insight that you need to pull out of it, [AI] can be a useful tool for that. But if you're doing something that requires some sort of insight in a broader context, some sort of extrapolation as to what could be useful or reasonable, you're going to hit certain limits." – In an interview with us this week, Hidden Door CEO Hilary Mason, who has a history of working with generative AI and machine learning, explains the limits of the tech to replace people.

Instead of focusing on delivering insightful analysis and interpretation, on expressive writing that showcases expertise and unique perspectives, or rigorous reporting to make clear the facts of an industry obsessed with obfuscation, game journalism has spent decades living hand-to-mouth, chasing whatever payday will keep the lights on in the near term even as it makes us less relevant and easier to replace in the long run.

That's not to say there aren't outlets trying to course correct with subscription models, or use the bill-paying stuff to finance the worthwhile stuff, because of course there are. But that work is often resource-intensive, and management's faith in the ability of quality journalism to carry the day is prone to wavering, as we have seen with Polygon, Glixel, Waypoint, the Washington Post's Launcher, and others.

We're at the point now where the industry's big companies can't even be bothered to put on their annual dog and pony show because they can just deliver any marketing message through their own channels at their own convenience in full knowledge that their ravenous fanbases will eagerly tune in on demand with no need for the traditional press to serve as a filter. Granted, the press arguably never played the role of a filter as much as it should have, which might be why the consumers largely haven't noticed its absence.

Game journalism outlets are living and dying based on their ability to do things that have nothing to do with game journalism

We're at the point now where one publisher withholding review codes for one release can mean the difference between a good year or a bad year for multiple outlets, because game journalism outlets are living and dying based on their ability to do things that have nothing to do with game journalism.

We're at the point now where I wonder whether there will be much of a games press to speak of in a decade, with the proverbial good stuff scattered between personal blogs of individual writers, video essayists on social media, subscription newsletters for a handful of "known" journalists, and a handful of cameo appearances each year from mainstream press outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, each one of them saddled with an editor-added lead saying that video games aren't just for kids anymore.

But is this point we're at now past the point of no return? It's tempting to lean into the old man yelling at clouds thing and just warn that you'll miss us when we're gone. But honestly, I'm not sure the industry at large or consumers as a whole really will.

What I am sure about is they will be worse off without a healthy games press in a number of tangible ways, just as I am sure we are already worse off for every accomplished outlet that gets shut down and every talented games journalist who jumps ship to another field when staying in this one becomes financially untenable.

Whether the industry of the future would recognize that – or even understand how and why it is hurt when journalism only happens despite the realities of the market – I have my doubts. It can be hard to understand such problems without people to describe them for you.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "[The Starfield launch] emotionally captures and draws gamers into the community." – Xbox chief marketing officer Jerret West talks to us about the extended marketing push around the game.

We know, Jerret. We've had "emotionally captured" gamers in our mentions for months now, thanks ever so much for that.

QUOTE | "Children of the Sky (a Starfield song)" – The name of the new Imagine Dragons track used by Microsoft for a Starfield promotional trailer explores new frontiers in product placement. Back when Paul McCartney wrote the Destiny song Hope for the Future, big musical acts writing generic songs about the narrative themes of sci-fi blockbusters with no connection to actual gameplay could only name-check the game in the lyrics instead of baking it straight into the title of the song.

QUOTE | "[Embracer] evaluated strategic and operational goals and made the difficult decision to close Volition effective immediately." – Volition Games announces that it is shutting down because Embracer – the company that acquired the company that acquired the studio after the company that acquired the studio in 2000 went bankrupt – hyperextended itself in an acquisition spree a few years back, took on a load of debt, and didn't care about what would happen if the economy didn't continue growing forever.

QUOTE | "As we celebrate this landmark anniversary, we look back with pride and forward with excitement. The future of Volition is bright, filled with new adventures, challenges, and unexplored worlds waiting to be created. We're thrilled to have you with us on this journey, and we can't wait to see what the next 30 years will bring." – Volition Games recognized its 30th anniversary in a now-heartbreaking post on the studio's official site in July.

QUOTE | "Dedicating the past decade and a half of our lives working on increasingly ambitious games took a heavy personal toll on us and our families. After the release of Shadow Gambit we decided it was the right time to prioritize our well-being and to pull the brakes instead of signing up for another multi-year production cycle." - Mimimi Games co-founders Dominik Abé and Johannes Roth explain why the Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew studio is shutting down.

QUOTE | "We got hit by a series of unfortunate events while working on our last project, and weren't able to recover despite our best efforts." – A developer with Ronimo Games explains why the Awesomenauts studio declared bankruptcy last week.

STAT | 41 – The number of developers laid off by Blackbird Interactive this week as the Homeworld 3 developer cut 13% of its workforce in the wake of several unannounced projects being cancelled.

QUOTE | "This dream is done, Imagendary Studios has deeply restructured, and most of us were laid off. I remained on as one of the last skeleton crew members to tidy some things up." - Artist David Luong says that FunPlus' AAA studio is effectively done after three years, without so much as having announced its first project.

STAT | 1% - The year-over-year growth in US spending on video games in the past 12 months, according to Circana.

We're getting plenty of grim headlines about developers being laid off and studios going under these days, but it's good to remember the actual business of games is not in terrible shape.

QUOTE | "We have seen from Devolver and TinyBuild that subscription is under pressure at the moment. The cheques coming from Sony and Microsoft are just not as big as they were." - Patrick O'Donnell, technology and video gaming analyst at Goodbody, says the deals for developers putting their games into subscription services are getting worse.

STAT | $160 – A one-year PlayStation Plus Premium subscription starting September 6, a $40 increase over the current price. On a related note, Microsoft also raised Game Pass prices in July because the deals for people playing games through subscription services are also getting worse.

STAT | $799 / €799 – The reported asking price for Lenovo's competitor to the Steam Deck, the Legion Go. This is truly the golden age of handheld gaming, in that you gotta have a lot of gold to enjoy handheld gaming.

QUOTE | "Even though Starfield received the most coverage after Opening Night Live, Bethesda actually only saw 4.91% of total coverage. The company that saw the largest share of voice overall was in fact Bandai Namco with 11.54%." – Fancensus' breakdown of media coverage after Gamescom Opening Night Live found Bandai Namco had a big night thanks to Tekken 8 and the debut of Little Nightmares 3, one of only a handful of new games announced at the show.

STAT | 80% - The percentage of Call of Duty players warned about toxic speech or chat since Modern Warfare 2 launched who ignored that warning and did it again, as revealed in a Call of Duty blog post about its new AI voice mod technology.

STAT | 33% - The percentage of Xbox players temporarily suspended in 2022 who went on to get a second suspension.

That's a pretty big gap in the gamer recidivism rate, and you could probably take a few things away from it, but one I'll lean on here is that actual consequences like a ban or suspension are considerably more effective in getting the message across than a simple warning. Don't coddle toxic players, create consequences for their toxicity.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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