An interesting deal was struck yesterday that could turn one of the largest video game sites on its head. News Corp’s IGN and Grapevine TX based video game retailer GameStop have combined to increase the online profile of both companies and to mutually assist each other.
Under the terms of the deal reported by the Wall Street Journal, IGN will get to brand advertising and provide commentary on the GameStop website, whereas GameStop will buy advertising on IGN and IGN will provide purchase links for GameStop. Their web numbers will also be combined, likely for aggregation and improved search engine positioning.
What isn’t addressed in the WSJ piece is the obvious question: how the hell is this NOT a massive conflict of interest? There has to be a separation between content and anything having to do with purchasing a game. Now, there’s not even the flimsiest wall between content and marketing/retail, in what has to be the most blatant money grab I’ve seen by a journalistic institution in my career. It is no longer in IGN’s interest to slam a game, at least one that has to sell well in order to benefit GameStop. I’ve had multiple PR representatives from multiple companies – some of a decent size – tell me flat out that they can’t get certain sites to cover their games because they don’t purchase advertising. Now, we’re expecting IGN to maintain any journalistic standards, and to keep a line between content and marketing when the stakes are so high, and when they’re figuratively sleeping with the largest games retail chain in the world? Imagine we were to enter into a deal with Big Fish Games, who focuses on smaller indie games. Could anyone reading us knowing this ever trust our reviews on games covered on that service? It’s the same principle.
Yes, it’s entirely possible that nothing bad will happen, and IGN will go about their normal business. After all, they’ve done a good job of keeping the status quo of inflated review scores in this business, maintaining (according to Metacritic) an average score of 68 on an adjusted 1-100 scale, with 60% of their scores being higher than the average critic. When people complain that “7” has become the new “5”, IGN is one of the companies they refer to, which is sad considering that 5.0 is still average on their metric, unlike Game Informer, who’s average is explicitly a 7. Hey, what do you know, GameStop owns Game Informer.
To me, this is IGN’s Gerstmann Moment: the moment when I personally decided that I could never trust the company with any piece of editorial content ever again. To this day, I haven’t read anything Gamespot has provided other than news from their Australian site regarding the 18+ rating; in the words of their anonymous staffer when Gerstmann Gate hit, “our credibility is in ruins”. IGN’s credibility, to me, is in ruins, but I’m sure that doesn’t matter to NewsCorp, as enough casual gamers will come in from Google to make the juncture profitable. Who cares how you’re perceived if you’re bringing in hits? It’s always been a dangerous dance between trying to retain integrity and trying to bring in money, and this deal stamps that line.