Friday, June 17, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever: Press Censorship and the View from Above

Duke Nukem Forever: Probably the last outing for this iconic gaming franchise. RIP 2011.

For the past few days since the release of Duke Nukem Forever, the tweetosphere and blogosphere has literally been ablaze with postings from 2K Games/Redner Group/Gearbox Software and independent gaming media outlets; with both sides crying foul. In the process, what has been revealed of the dark underbelly of the gaming industry has given me pause to wonder exactly how much we can really trust the published reviews we use to make our purchasing decisions.

Caught in the Act: The post that started the whole ball rolling, courtesy of Ars Technica.

At issue are the poor media reviews for Duke Nukem Forever. DNF is certainly not the first game to ever get a poor review. This spot is also usually reserved for most movie tie-in games. However the level of vitriol leveled at Duke Nukem is rarely seen from the gaming press, more so that it has been unanimous across the board. In fact, the level of "venom," as The Redner Group puts it, was so great, they took the unusual step of publicly threatening to blacklist offending media outlets.

Admittedly, the level of hate for this game was pretty high. Just going by current Metacritic scores for DNF doesn't give the full picture of the reaction by gaming media. You'd have to read a few reviews to fully appreciate this. I'll get to the whys in a bit, but if I were to sum it up, I would say that everyone probably really wanted DNF to be good. While I believe expectations were kept realistically in check, everyone was pulling for the Duke and hoped he'd come through in classic underdog style. Unfortunately, DNF did surprise everyone and turned out far worse than anyone could have imagined.

To the dismay of the Duke Nukem fanbase, the classic mechanics of exploration and item collection along with rapidfire acton featured in past games were gone. Also, the humor in past Duke Nukem games were juvenile and irreverent, but never bigoted or offensive. Unfortunately, Duke Nukem Forever became an on-the-rails, corridor shooter  sandwiched between tasteless, in-game cinematic sequences. The game was dumbed down and the humor reached for the lowest common denominator. Many frankly found the game to be offensive and politically incorrect in all the wrong ways. This critical miscalculation on the part of Gearbox in terms of the tone of the game and the lowbrow humor was the final nail in the coffin.

A decade ago, these same reviewers might possibly have just laughed all of this off. But now among the target demographic, most are pushing their 40s, married with kids and are more politically correct. It's often said, "Timing is everything," and Duke Nukem Forever missed that boat 10 years ago. The lesson to be learned from this is that people's memories are sacred. Duke Nukem Forever is nothing like the classic games from the beloved franchise. Instead of reminding everyone again why they loved Duke Nukem, DNF instead reminded them of everything that the game was not.

Keep in mind DNF was a game that spent most of its 13 year development cycle in intensive care. Over the years, it got ported through several engines and eventually burned through nearly a half-dozen development teams in the process. The game was scrapped and restarted so many times the design document - if it exists - probably looked like Humpty Dumpty on a bad egg day. On the face of it, chances were pretty good the game had already lost its way long ago, certainly well before 2K Games and Gearbox got involved.

2K Games and Gearbox were probably not well prepared for the reception that DNF got. Granted, a lot of money got burned up in the development and marketing for this game but that sort of risk goes hand in hand with the potential rewards of a runaway hit for any game. Instead of taking the criticisms to heart and maybe learning something about themselves and their gaming audience, 2K Games and The Redner Group went on the offensive to defend the undefendable. In so doing, they very publicly threatened the use of blacklists against reviewers and review sites for future titles.

Publishers have historically taken a carrot and stick approach to gaming media. They reward journalists by using money to pay for them to travel, stay in nice hotels and get some nice meals as part of the process of reviewing games. Publishers also provide lots of nice free gifts. On the flip side of the coin, they use blacklists to let journalists know when they aren't happy with a review. This stuff goes on all the time, but nobody talks about it publicly. Let's just call this what it is - it is bribery and censorship plain and simple.

I'd like to think that most journalists and gaming sites have the integrity not to be swayed by these machinations.  But just as there are always those that value integrity above all else, there are also those that value the perks associated with being in the good graces of the publishers. As consumers, we have to make sure that the sites we follow are really on the up and up. Metacritic ( is a great aggregator of review information and is a good measuring stick to help us in that regard.

As gamers, we spend good money to indulge in our favorite pastime. We want to know what games are good and worth buying; and we need reliable and impartial reviews to make our purchasing decisions. Conversely, developers and publishers that make good games deserve to make money from their efforts, and those that create crap should face the consequences when consumers vote with their wallets.

Publishers and the media alike should think long and hard about the long term ramifications of the carrot and stick approach to business as usual.  Honest and impartial media helps everyone and will help the industry grow. It is the mechanism by which the wheat is separated from the chaff and helps to inspire consumer confidence. And in the long term, it will create a more healthy and vibrant gaming industry. That's a win-win in my book.

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