Friday Slide: We Solemnly Swear

Running a games website is tough–harder than I ever though it would be, honestly. It takes a lot of work to build up an audience from scratch, to keep quality content flowing in, and to come up with the exclusives that drive newcomers to the site. And then, of course, you have to figure out how to make money!

Before I started STP, I made a number of assumptions about how iPhone gaming was likely to evolve that shaped the site’s design, as well as my initial editorial and business approach. I figured that Apple would set the tone by publishing a lot of high quality first-party games, and that the App Store would soon come to be dominated by major mobile and console games publishers. I also felt that adopting a “premium content” strategy–meaning depth and detail over breadth of coverage–was the right way to go. By concentrating my resources on big-name titles, I would be able to leverage my longstanding industry connections to bring major sponsorships to the site. If all went well, I would be making money and owning the space before the end of 2008.

How idiotic. I was horribly wrong on all counts. Small developers have run away with the App Store; big, expensive titles are (currently) a losing strategy; and Apple hasn’t lifted a finger to publish games or manage its investment. I seriously underestimated the competition I would face on the journalism side, too. On the one hand stands an army of WordPress-armed enthusiasts have set up their own blogs, diluting traffic and advertising dollars. On the other stands a smaller number of well funded, highly professional sites that started before I did, and found the pulse of the App Store a lot faster to boot. Just to raise the degree of difficulty a little higher, the economy’s crashed.

Luckily, I relish a good fight, and I don’t mind changing my game plan when the writing’s on the wall. So by playing some serious catch-up over the last couple of months, and through the efforts of my talented and hard-working partners, I think STP has managed to claw its way out of the abyss and towards the top of the heap. We still have a long, long way to go, but I’m confident we’re now pointed in the right direction. We’re marching up the ranks.

Of course, the competition isn’t standing still, either. In fact, some of the less scrupulous reviews sites are starting to fight dirty.

Let me be absolutely clear. The vast majority of STP’s competitor sites are honest, and I have a lot of respect for them. They are working just as hard as we are to bring you the best possible coverage. If they beat me to a story, review more games than we do, or figure out a more effective way to drive traffic, that’s something to be admired and learned from. Plus, this isn’t really a zero-sum game; we are part of the same community, and there’s room for a diverse range of opinions.

But when I find out that certain sites are using gutter tactics like selling reviews on the sly, that’s where I draw the line. I recently lost an advertiser to a competitor that offered him a review along with his advertising package–“impartial,” of course–to better promote his game. He gets plenty of eyeballs to his ad, as well as some nice quotes for his App Store page, and the site in question gets a leg up on the competition (read: STP and other honest sites).

The readers and gamers who digest this garbage and take it at face value, without knowing it’s “advertorial”? They get screwed. In my last editorial, I explained why choosing which games to cover is one of the most important things we do. Coverage and publicity of any kind is a precious commodity on the App Store, which is why these so-called “journalists” are able to charge for it. Auctioning it off to the highest bidder is ethically bankrupt, especially when readers aren’t told about what’s going on behind the scenes. Plus, it’s a destructive strategy in the long run.

Nevertheless, after losing that sale, I thought carefully about whether I would be willing to offer some kind of paid coverage as well. I sometimes have to remind myself that STP is a business, and that the goal of every business is to make money. I decided that I would rather see STP fail than resort to defrauding my readers.

Games criticism couldn’t exist without developers, but it isn’t for their benefit–that’s called “consulting,” which I actually have a lot of experience in as well. We do what we do for gamers, first, last, and always. At GameSpot, we were occasionally on frosty terms with publishers that felt we weren’t being fair with our reviews–that, for whatever reason, they were unable to get through to us and “communicate the game’s unique, subtle qualities,” or what have you. Eventually, they’d stop sending us review copies. We just went out and bought our own.

Here’s the upshot: we’re going to hook up with a few other like-minded sites to create a “Reviewer’s Oath,” or code of ethics, in which we will forswear paid reviews, advertorial, and any other such sleight of hand. When you see that Oath on a site, you can be sure that the opinions you’re reading are our own, for better or for worse. We’ll police one another and try to raise the standards of coverage across the board.

As for the sites that have already sold out… you’ll just have to hope for the best, won’t you?

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