Yesterday, reports that a sequel to Call of Duty: Black Ops would hit this year circulated all over the internet, sourced to a product page that went live on Amazon. Gameblog.fr reported on this apparent slip-up, as did other French websites, but they refused to pull the story when asked by Call of Duty publisher Activision.
That refusal resulted in Activision apparently cutting off Gameblog.fr's access to their titles and media events, effectively killing the site's ability to cover the biggest games publisher around.
Kotaku reached out to Gameblog editor Grégory Szriftgiser (known on the site by the nom de plume RaHaN) to get his account of how this story and its repercussions happened. What follows are Szriftgiser's answers to questions sent via e-mail.
Kotaku: How long has Gameblog been around? How long have you been covering video games?
Szriftgiser: Gameblog.fr is has been live for 5 years now. We created and funded the company ourselves a little before launch. "We", here, stands for several journalists including myself, who have been covering video games professionally for 15 years or more, first in print magazines like Joypad, Joystick, the French PlayStation Magazine Officiel or later Gaming. Some did TV and Radio as well, and some of us have been writing about games professionally for up to 20 years now.
Kotaku: Can you describe the sequence of events as they happened? How did you find out about Amazon's product page? When did your article go up?
Szriftgiser: The journalist who wrote the first newspiece—"Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 confirmed by Amazon "—Julien Chièze (who is one of the co-founders of the company with others and myself), originally spotted the info on Twitter.
He then proceeded with verifying it, by witnessing it first-hand on Amazon.fr and getting a screenshot their product webpage. The French website Jeuxvideo.com also had done a piece of its own, with their own screenshots, by the time our article was posted, and this was included as another reference in our own piece. We also had confirmation later that several people had received the Amazon France newsletter in the meantime, with a reference to Call of Duty : Black Ops 2 in it.
Our article was posted at 1:05 p.m. French time (that's CET). Activision first tried to call me at 2:16 p.m., but I couldn't answer, then sent an email (subject : "Pulling of a newspiece - URGENT") to both Julien and myself at 2:24 p.m., asking to "please take down the newspiece now", that "Activision didn't make any announcement", that "Amazon took upon themselves to publish this information without consulting [Activision]" and that it was "asked as a favor". I returned the phone call at 2:30 p.m., during which Activision asked the same thing, as a favor, insisting that this was a very serious matter to them for internal reasons they couldn't elaborate on and that the other major web outlets had already taken down their piece.
They also made clear that the relationship was to be severed, all advertisement plans cancelled, games not sent, and invitations to later events cancelled.
I explained that I couldn't do this and why (mainly, that Activision didn't have any right to intervene in our editorial, that it was newsworthy to us, that our job was first and foremost to inform our readers, that the newspiece didn't argue that it was anything official on Activision's end, and was correctly phrased to reflect it, notably, with the question mark), at which point Activision argued that they were disappointed - they asked that we please consider it "with all the consequences this could lead to". I agreed to do so, told them I would get back to them later to give them my final decision. They were unreachable for the rest of the afternoon. After business hours, I had a short text conversation in which I re-stated that we wouldn't pull the article, and asked if we should consider ourselves blacklisted as a result. It was around 8:30 p.m., and Activision answered we would resume the conversation by phone the next morning.
The newspiece stayed online untouched during the night.
The next morning, we talked on the phone. They tried again to explain they needed us to pull the article, I refused again. They insisted again that it would seriously deteriorate the professional relationship we had, that we weren't fully aware of the consequences this could have, and that they had already contacted their Advertising Agency (which buys ad space for them). I asked them again if we should consider ourselves blacklisted, and more precisely if my journalist (another one) was still to attend the preview event of Transformers: Fall of Cybertron that was planned next week and to which we were already invited. Activision said no. They also made clear that the relationship was to be severed, all advertisement plans cancelled, games not sent, and invitations to later events cancelled as well. I explained that if this was their decision indeed, we had to inform our readers of it, and would do so later in the day.
We then proceeded with writing the article stating we were blacklisted, and we published it at 3:01 p.m.
Kotaku: Was there any other additional detail on the Amazon page about Black Ops 2?
Szriftgiser: There was no additional detail on the Amazon page other than the title "Call of Duty : Black Ops 2" and a pre-order price at 69,99 euros.
Kotaku: What was the tone of the call from Activision?
Szriftgiser: The call(s) from Activision were professional, as we've been working together for 15 years. It was several phone calls as explained above. At no point did those calls sound "angry" on either side of the conversation, but I would say that Activision's spokesperson was rather agitated and preoccupied, obviously.
Kotaku: What did they say to you? Were you calm in your reactions? What was their justification for making these demands of you?
We made it clear that such pressures were unacceptable.
Szriftgiser: See above. Again, there were no insults or angry talk or anything at any point, the conversation was obviously tense, but professional. Their justification for making these demands remains unclear, other than it was a serious issue for them, and that it was, it seems, putting people in difficult positions (though I don't know at this point if they were meaning people at Activision or Amazon).
Kotaku: Did you speak to anyone from the sites who took down their coverage? Why do you think they capitulated, if that's what happened?
Szriftgiser: Regarding Jeuxvideo.com, with whom I haven't had any contacts regarding this whatsoever, I don't know what their exact position is. All I know, from my discussions with Activision, is that they were contacted in the same way we were, and agreed to take down their piece.
Regarding JVN.com, I also know from the discussions with Activision that they were contacted and subsequently took down their article. I didn't speak with JVN.com until after we posted the article "Activision blacklists Gameblog". I then had a written conversation on a wider angle about our views on the work, in which JVN argued they pulled the piece, after being asked to do so, because they couldn't verify the info first-hand, and additionally that they didn't consider the info to be important.
It is important to understand that we talked about those sites pulling up their articles (and proved it with screenshots) in order to clearly establish that there was pressure put on several outlets by Activision, and not just us ; that we were not making this story up. It was important to us, as well, that we made it clear that such pressures were unacceptable, and we hope that this event will help everyone in refusing those pressures. Obviously, we regret this course of events, but we had no other choice than to proceed as I explained.
Kotaku: Were you a fan of Call of Duty? Are you still? If Black Ops 2 winds up being this year's CoD game, will you buy it?
Szriftgiser: I am a fan of Call of Duty (as my reviews of the previous games in the series show). I remain a fan of Call of Duty. I will buy Black Ops 2 if it turns out to be this year's CoD (but at this point, I think we're all pretty sure it's going to be), and would buy it as well if it was something else. Most definitely, we will buy it in order to be able to review it, as we know we will not be invited to any official event related to this game, or any other Activision game for that matter.
Kotaku has asked Activision for comment on Gameblog's supposed blacklisting and will be happy to include their comment if they provide any.
UPDATE: Activision's responded to Kotaku regarding this matter with the following statement:
Activision doesn't blacklist journalists. We believe this was a misunderstanding and are working towards a resolution.