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RealGamerNewz Interviews Alex Hinkley: Are AAA Publishers Scared of Free Speech? Censorship Exposed

By Jon Ireson in Interviews

Censorship in the Game Industry

In the following article, myself (Editor-In-Chief of RealGamerNewz.com) took the time to interview with Alex Hinkley who you may all remember authored a huge piece on the AAA industry’s failure to budget games correctly leading to massive losses and the shut down of many companies in the past few years alone (consequently leading to the losses of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the video games industry). This article ended up getting him fired and exposed a massive amount of censorship that exists in the video games industry today as AAA publishers are scared of free speech and try to use pressure (and in some cases their bank) to get writers hushed up. Here at RealGamerNewz we are not subject to that, so here is an interview exposing some of the more deep thoughts of the author which you likely will not find anywhere else. Enjoy.

Jon: Did you have any idea that the article might get you in trouble when you were writing it?

Alex: Well obviously when one is writing an article criticizing overspending in an industry, you naturally expect that the people you’re criticizing aren’t going to take it very well. As for trouble from Examiner though, I never thought there would be a problem. I had been writing for Examiner for over four years at that point. I had published nearly two thousand articles across three separate columns and my work had received almost six million views. I would have expected that after dedicating so much time and effort to Examiner that they would have at least given me some forewarning if there was a problem with my work. What’s funny is that the week before getting fired, they had just “promoted” me to the A-list review team and praised me for what great work I had been doing.

Jon: How did you learn you had been fired?

Alex: At first I had no idea I had actually been fired. My access to the site dashboard simply went away on the night of June 28th without any notification from anybody. This was three days after I published the article mind you, so I didn’t suspect a connection. It is also worth mentioning that all of my numbers were cited from trusted, verifiable sources so nothing I wrote was factually inaccurate. I had no reason to suspect I had been fired for writing an article that was reporting on-record facts.

I emailed several content mangers to ask what was going on but nobody replied until the next morning. Then I got an email from the managing games editor named Steve Ruygrok that they had decided to let me go because of the article. He said he wasn’t going to debate the content of the article but that “major developers, publishers, and public relations people” had complained to them about it and they did not want my article to damage their already fragile relationships in the industry among other writers on the site. So basically it wasn’t the content that got me fired – it was solely due to the fact they thought it threatened their future ability to obtain free games.

What makes it even more baffling is that a majority of readers actually liked and agreed with the article. It had 9,000 Facebook likes on it by the time it was taken down. A “rebuttal” article that was written by a game developer had less than 1,000 likes. Have you ever heard of being fired for writing an article that 90% of people who read it agreed with? It was simply a very vocal minority, comprised almost exclusively of game developers and other industry professionals, that made it seem worse than it was by repeatedly insulting me in the comments and on Twitter.

Ruygrok wrote in his email that he wished there was some other way to handle this but that they were left with no choice. Really? How about instead of firing me, simply take the article down and explain why it had to be removed. Or better yet, why not simply task one of the other writers on the site with penning a counter article to mine? No other choice? C’mon there are two better choices right off the top of my head.

Jon: Do you feel like the video game industry rewards censorship and punishes freedom of speech?

Alex: Yes I think the answer to that one is obvious since gaming industry professionals got me fired because they didn’t like my opinion. Trying to shut up a journalist because you don’t like what he said is not the proper response and the fact Examiner capitulated to their wishes goes to show the sorry state of affairs that game “journalism” is in today. The game industry has a history of this. Jeff Gerstmann being fired from GameSpot for a negative review and Rab Florence leaving Eurogamer after they edited an article he wrote about PR and journalists being too cozy are just a few examples.

Examiner, at least the gaming division, has become nothing more than a mouthpiece for the video game industry. How can the information you read on that site be trusted as the writer’s honest opinion when people like myself get fired if someone complains? Most of the top people in the gaming division at Examiner have next to no qualifications so they will do whatever it takes to further their career. Take the games editor, Steve Ruygrok, for example. According to his profile on linkedin, he went to college for a degree in sports management. I’m not one to judge education since I also have an off-topic degree (a Bachelor’s in Criminology to be exact) but he’s never worked in the gaming industry whatsoever. He’s never been a journalist. Prior to becoming a writer at Examiner, he worked as a sales intern. He had only been with Examiner for a little over a year before he became a content manager and the managing games editor.

As previously mentioned, I had been writing with Examiner for four years. I have been running the most successful play-by-post RPG online for thirteen years (it’s also free to play, mind you). I have also been published in the Software Developer’s Journal and have published a book on game design and RPG mechanics. Why wasn’t I the managing games director?

The answer to that is Ruygrok does what the industry wants him to. He’s a puppet. I am not. He writes to make industry professionals and the higher ups at Examiner happy, I write to inform gamers. The latter is frowned upon and the former is rewarded. Is that really how things should work?

Jon: Do you think video game publishers bribe big sites too much by allowing even authors who aren’t writing a review to receive free copies of games while other sites have to beg just to get 1 copy?

Alex: Yes review copies and exclusives are definitely a form of bribery. Examiner pretty much admitted as much when they fired me and said it was because they didn’t want to hurt relationships in the industry. That means they didn’t want to stop getting free stuff. Too many “journalists” today temper their opinions because they want to keep getting free things and feel like an “insider.” If you write a scathing review of Black Ops 2 and say it is the worst game you have ever played, Activision probably isn’t going to send you a free copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts regardless of whether or not your opinion was honest and backed up by valid reasons.

I encountered this earlier this year during an interview with the CEO of Sledgehammer Games. I was asking him about the upcoming Call of Duty game. He answered all of my questions because he is a great guy but then a public relations rep swooped in and told me I couldn’t publish anything he said because they had to control exactly which publications get that information first. Not cool.

And that is why game journalists aren’t honest. They just want to become that publication. The gaming industry is small and everybody knows each other. It’s like an exclusive clique of people who are all friends and you really want to be in that clique so you’ll do or say anything that will make them accept you as one of their own. I got that out of my system in high school.

Jon: Would the video game industry be selling as many AAA games if people were allowed to score them as they really feel rather than with the weight of publisher relationships in mind?

Alex: I think game reviews do affect sales because casuals often rely upon them to determine whether or not to buy a game. Unlike hardcore gamers that know about every game coming out and are up on the latest news and previews, casual gamers don’t dedicate as much time to the hobby so they simply see if a game scored well or not and base their decision off that. That’s why publishers and developers care so much about review scores. It’s not just to boost their own ego but because it really does affect sales. I’m sure that Call of Duty wouldn’t be selling so many copies each year if reviewers actually wrote honest opinions about it (Black Ops 2 sucks).

Jon: Do you really believe Examiner reads through every article before approving them, or do you think they just say that?

Alex: Yes there is a staff team that supposedly reviews every article after publication. For a while they even had a scoring system where all the articles got a certain number of points based on some editing criteria so I have no reason to think that Examiner is lying about this policy. In fact, I had an article taken down in the past because they thought the wording was too similar to the wording of a press release (it was a list of patch notes so I don’t know what they were expecting). That article got taken down within ten minutes of publication. If they were able to catch that one within ten minutes, I have a hard time believing that the staff team wouldn’t have taken down this article prior to the backlash if they personally had a problem with it. I published it on June 25th. There weren’t problems until late at night on June 28th. Obviously Examiner did not find the content objectionable.

Jon: Did you receive any unexpected support from employees or ex-employees of the AAA video games industry? What did these folks tell you about their experience in the biz?

Alex: I did get some support from indie developers who agreed with my conclusions. One funny thing to mention is that a prominent developer from Visceral tried to tell me that indie gaming was dying when it is in fact the complete opposite. A source at Sony confirmed that they have signed on more indie developers for the upcoming year than they ever have before. So either the guy at Visceral was horribly misinformed or was just flat out lying.

Jon: Ever since your article and subsequent interviews, RealGamerNewz has heard a lot of major publishers’ and developers’ employees expressing their belief that huge budgets lack creativity. This is even being reflected in public now by people like Jade from Ubisoft. Do you think they are just jumping on the bandwagon, or do you believe a change is coming to the industry next-gen focusing more on art and less on money?

Alex: Well I hope that it is indicative of a coming change to the industry since it is obvious the current model won’t work for much longer. Even game developers recognize that but they try to pin the blame on gamers saying we don’t spend enough money. Cliff Bleszinski made a tweet saying the “numbers just don’t work” when talking about used games. Guys like him think used games kill sales and thus kill the industry. Yet he drives a Lamborghini. That was the entire point of the article. Gamers are not the problem. Wasteful spending is. Deep down developers know what I wrote in my article is true which is why it got so much backlash. The industry is going to have to change.

Indie games are really where it’s at. Indie developers don’t make games because they think they are going to get rich off them like some people in the industry. They make games because they want to see that game in the hands of gamers. That’s why you see so much more creativity in indie games. You can also get tons of indie games for on the cheap. Why spend $60 on Final Fantasy when I can spend $5 on Doom & Destiny on Xbox LIVE Indie Arcade and have just as much fun, if not more?

There’s no innovation in big budget games anymore. Developers just go with what has worked in the past in hopes they can continue to keep the cash flowing. Their goal isn’t to make a fun game, it’s to make a game that will milk the most money out of gamers. Remember when sequels to successful games were few and far between? Half-Life came out in 1998. Half-Life 2 came out in 2004. That’s a six year wait. So why does there need to be a new Call of Duty game every year? Why is there a new Assassin’s Creed every year? It was bad enough when franchises like Madden did it but at least their excuse was that sports games need up-to-date rosters.

***Editor’s NOTE: Alex’s views are his own and may or may not represent those of RealGamerNewz and the rest of their staff. This article will not be taken down for any reason(s) citing the 1st Amendment of the United States of America. Thanks, -RGN Staff

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