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The game industry is abuzz about the secret connection between a game PR company, TriplePoint, and a game review web site, GameCyte.
The same owner, veteran PR man Richard Kain, owns both. In other words, it certainly looks like Kain is in the position to orchestrate positive coverage of games he represents — simply by calling over to his review site to dictate wording.
Game journalist Gary Hodges, of Joystick Division, discovered the connection.
GameCyte is run by several former employees of TriplePoint. GameCyte didn’t disclose that it was owned by the same man who serves as the active general manager of TriplePoint.
It’s just the latest story that calls into question the independence of game bloggers. Other stories have surfaced about the touchy relationship between game PR people and game journalists, including a series of articles by Dan Hsu, former editor in chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly. And there was a furor over the firing of GameSpot reviews editor Jeff Gwerstmann last year, allegedly due to advertiser pressure. But I don’t think we’re talking about entirely the same thing.
Kain says he made a mistake on disclosure but that it’s not true he was trying to engineer positive coverage for his PR firm’s clients. I know the PR professionals at TriplePoint and I have always had good relations with them. Nor have I heard anyone impugn their integrity. That’s why this whole thing surprises me.
Kain started GameCyte in April and hired its editors because he said he wanted to improve the quality of game journalism and understand blogging better. He regularly invests in game companies, including Rupture, the Shawn Fanning startup that was bought by Electronic Arts.
His PR firm, which changed its name from Kohnke Communications to TriplePoint in January, has been around for a long time and represents companies such as Electronic Arts, Telltale Games and Empire Interactive. The firm basically tries to get media coverage for its clients’ games. Kohnke Communications was started by Erica Kohnke, Kain’s wife, but Kain got deeply involved in running it a few years ago.
In a phone call with me today, Kain said readily admitted he should have done a better job of disclosing the two companies’ connections. He noted that he had links to both firms on his Facebook page but neglected to disclose the ownership in the “about” page for GameCyte. Now the “about” page has been changed to include the disclosure.
“We clearly needed to be louder about disclosure,” he said. “But we were not doing anything inappropriately and our journalists were truly independent. I foolishly didn’t consider the repercussions.”
The Joystick Division found it suspicious that the site’s ownership was intentionally hidden through the use of private registration. A sister site, ToyCyte, was registered under Kohnke Communications. But GameCyte was listed as owned by a private registrant. GameCyte’s owner is Pantheon Labs, which Kain owns and which has the same address as TriplePoint. Kain said today that the PR company often has to use private registration because it is regularly the target of hacker attacks. It seems hackers love to steal game assets stored on the company’s web site.
Kain challenged anyone to find a connection between TriplePoint’s clients and positive reviews on GameCyte. Joystick Division found instances where the game review site reviewed games from TriplePoint’s clients. But the reviews weren’t necessarily out of line with other reviews. The appearance of conflict is certainly there.
As a scheme to get better coverage, it certainly wouldn’t have worked well. Part of the problem is that GameCyte still has a relatively small audience and so it isn’t all that influential. But it’s true that GameCyte’s readers should have been alerted to the connection with the PR firm.
You can put this one down in the “major whoops” column. It’s going to be hard for people to give the PR firm the benefit of the doubt and to trust GameCyte’s reviews, given how the relationship was unearthed. But so far, it doesn’t look like anything worse than bad judgement.