A Slave of Two Masters

By Gary Hodges in Gaming News
Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 7:35 pm
twomastersimage.jpg

Technically, gaming news and review site GameCyte.com isn’t owned by TriplePoint PR – “the leading international agency serving the interactive entertainment industry” – despite many sources' allegations.

But it turns out the truth isn’t any better.

Richard Kain, TriplePoint PR’s General Manager and Founder, in fact formed a new company – Pantheon Labs – under TriplePoint’s roof to create GameCyte, as a way to bring “quality journalism” to the gaming media – and then deliberately concealed his ownership of Pantheon and GameCyte.com using domain privacy services like Domains By Proxy, a Joystick Division investigation indicates.

Then, when it came time to put together the GameCyte team, he staffed the site exclusively with TriplePoint PR employees – his former account executive the site’s most prolific reviewer. And by Mr. Kain’s own admission, some of the highest-reviewed games on GameCyte are from Telltale Games – a company he just so happens to be invested in.

In lieu of what we were hearing and learning for ourselves, we contacted TriplePoint directly for comment. After leaving a few messages asking to speak with someone “who can answer questions about the company,” Mr. Kain called me late Tuesday, and agreed to let me tape the call for accuracy. What followed was a shockingly revealing conversation, and one that has sent all three companies scrambling to more clearly disclose their unseemly relationship in the days since.

* * *


Richard Kain, General Manager & Founder of TriplePoint PR

Alright. Basically, credible sources have alleged GameCyte is owned by TriplePoint PR.
It is not.

It is not?
The original domain was registered under TriplePoint LLC but… there are two separate LLCs. One is TriplePoint LLC, one is Pantheon Labs. Pantheon Labs created-- officially, I am the 100% owner of Pantheon Labs, so the shareholder/ownership basis is ultimately different. There… I mean, there is overlap here. It, the point of origin is me in both cases. Uh, but I don’t have any editorial influence over, um, GameCyte.

Would it be more accurate to say Pantheon Labs owns GameCyte?
Uh, strictly speaking that is true, but for all intents and purposes I have been running both.

Okay. It appears, according to each company’s website, that Pantheon Labs and TriplePoint have the same physical address.
That is correct. The people who work for GameCyte do not-- basically, that is about to not be correct. They largely work from home. We have met in TriplePoint’s offices, just as any other journalist actually does occasionally meet in TriplePoint’s offices.

Okay. From what I’ve read on the GameCyte staff, it seems like the three people I’ve been able to identify – Jason Babler, Jesse Henning and Sean Hollister – are all either current or former employees of TriplePoint.
They are. All three of these – basically, the origin of this is, as with any business: I try to find the best fit for, um, employees’ talents. It’s clear in Jesse and Sean’s case, these guys were journalists, not PR people. We had looked very much at what the Themis Group had done with Warcry and The Escapist, and I thought it was fine setting up a separate entity. Jason (Babler, GameCyte’s Managing Editor) doesn’t really do anything editorially.

On his profile on Bigsight.org, Sean described himself as a TriplePoint intern. Is that correct?
No. He is a fulltime employee for Pantheon Labs.

But Jason Babler is currently a creative director at TriplePoint?
Yes.

And also the managing editor at GameCyte?
Yes.

And Jesse Henning—
That also, by the way, will likely evolve. Um, that is the ambition. Jason is a very avid designer toy guy, it’s the site he wanted to do. I was completely fine with that and didn’t see it as any conflict.

Okay. Jesse Henning, now is he a current or a former account executive for TriplePoint?
He is a former account executive. All of the… who have had an affiliation with GameCyte had been TriplePoint staff. They are not allowed to write on any subject that affects a client that they used to work on. Again: Sean Hollister was an intern for, I dunno, two months. He was not very involved. Jesse had worked for us for about a year, and again I just thought he was, uh, he came to me saying that he felt he was more of a journalist than a PR person… um, and that’s why we moved him to GameCyte.

"Quite honestly, we had not given it that much thought, but we are, you know, we are thinking about doing that as we speak."

On disclosing TriplePoint and GameCyte's relationship to GameCyte's readers.

Is Telltale Games a client of TriplePoint?
They were a client; they are not a client.

Not currently? Now, according to the TriplePoint site, you’re an investor in Telltale Games.
I am.

Okay. And—
This is something by the way that Jesse did not know. He is a very big, uh, Telltale fan and a Strong Bad fan (I had not mentioned Henning’s glowing reviews of the Strong Bad games - gwh). He also wrote reviews of games from Empire Interactive and products from Nyko that were quite negative. The reviews of Telltale were obviously positive.

Don’t you think… um. Obivously, it looks like there’s a conflict of interest here, when you have former and current TriplePoint employees – who still work for you, the founder of TriplePoint – reviewing and evaluating games from companies TriplePoint represents. Do you have a response to that?
Um, I don’t… people used to be… when Jesse used to work for us – and when I say “us”, I mean TriplePoint – you’ll see he does not review any game that he worked on, any client that he had any affiliation with. Um, otherwise I think the reviews credibly stand on themselves. Some have been positive, Telltale’s were, most actually have been negative. His review of Myst DS, for one. They did a review of, um, I think it was Double D Dodgeball, it was very negative, so I mean, the editorial independence, I think, speaks for itself.

Do you feel it’s fair to GameCyte’s readers to not disclose this relationship? I mean, I noticed GameCyte was registered privately, it could be argued to conceal any kind of relationship with you and TriplePoint.
Um, most people know. We have had a discussion about that, um, we are in the process of actually hiring another journalist who suggested that, and we are thinking of doing that declaration, uh, ourselves. I mean we… You know. Quite honestly, we had not given it that much thought, but we are, you know, we are thinking about doing that as we speak.

Okay. So why was GameCyte registered privately?
…I mean, a lot of sites we register privately, um, I mean, no particular reason.

Because ToyCyte wasn’t. That was registered by Kohnke—
Kohnke Communications.

The former name of TriplePoint. And then InvestCyte, that was founded in your name.
We have a variety of different Internet registrars we use, lots of different people register them, some we do privately, some we do not.

Pantheon Labs, that was private as well. Correct?
Yeah. Honestly, I think so.

So… Pantheon Labs and TriplePoint, they’re occupying the same space in the same building—
No no no, hold it, they have the same legal address. Jesse and Sean work from home.

So Jesse and Sean are Pantheon Labs?
Yes, they are the writers of GameCyte.

So… is it fair to say Pantheon Labs and GameCyte are synonymous, or would you say Pantheon Labs is the parent company of GameCyte?
Pantheon Labs is the parent company of GameCyte, we are also doing uh, there’s some web development going on, a site called Topicdrop.com. We have a few other programming projects. I mean essentially, let me give you… the basic conceptualization is that, you know, we had people that were talented that were not PR people. They were interested in doing a game site. Looking at the survey of the origin of so many of the sites in the game industry – GameDaily was started by a marketing firm, Warcry and The Escapist are still owned by the Themis Group – they actually work side-by-side, to the best of my knowledge. And I didn’t see any particular conflict.

"The frustration with the game (journalism) websites is the quality level. The quality level was... pretty poor in many respects."

On why games journalism has a bad reputation.

Um, it seems… well, something you said brings me to something else. I noticed – I was reading over GameCyte, and on more than one occasion they describe themselves as journalists, but the only records I can find on any of them is that they’re current or former employees of a PR firm. What are their credentials as journalists?
Jesse used to work at a San Diego TV station, I forget which call letters… They are young. Sean Hollister was previously an intern at Wired.

Oh?
Wired Game|Life, not Wired the magazine.

Okay. It seems like this sort of thing diminishes the already shaky reputation of so-called games journalism. Doesn’t it feed into those concerns about the game media’s relationship with publishers and PR companies?
I think when you look at the media landscape, it’s very hard with… to create something that is entirely independent. GE owning NBC, most notably, is the famous example here. Fox Corporation has all sorts of entities that cover things that are related to Rupert Murdoch or Rupert Murdoch’s investments. Um… (sighs) you know in the end, I, in an ideal world… I know there have been some projects, I think, the founder of Craig’s List, Craig Newmark, he did an independent foundation which was trying to do, um, you know, completely standalone journalism.

The frustration with the game journalism websites is the quality level. The quality level we thought was regardless, you know, through my experience, pretty poor in many respects. Jesse and Sean were both eager, active, energetic journalists. There was another journalist who was with us at the beginning, he left to get his creative writing MFA… um, and all three of those guys, I said “You know what? I think you could put together a quality site.” And what I’d encourage you to do is talk to Jesse and Sean and for that matter you’re welcome to talk to anybody at TriplePoint PR to see if there is any conflict, um… or pressure associated with them. I certainly feel that I have, there’s been no pressure on behalf of clients, and you see that in, again, what I believe is even-handed coverage, um... you know, amongst the client base, Telltale is really the only client of TriplePoint who’s gotten a very favorable review. Had you seen otherwise, had you seen some rave review of—

Well now, an example could be Off Road. That was an Empire Interactive title, a current TriplePoint client. Now granted, it wasn’t a glowing review – but the non-GameCyte reviews were just dismal, I mean I think the Gamerankings average is like 40%, it’s just really bad, and when you look at the GameCyte review it’s kind of mitigating, “It’s not a bad game, it’s okay, it’s just not fantastic…” It seemed to be the best possible spin you could put on a bad game.
They took Empire Interactive to hot coals over Myst DS. And I, again, that particular review, which I didn’t read, I mean that sounds, I dunno that sounds 55-ish, if the average was 40 I don’t think there’s a statistical variance there that is anything to write home about. Uh, yeah, if there’s a, I mean we’ve thought about putting this up (a disclosure of the relationship to TriplePoint). If this is a concern, if I’m hearing this from the larger journalist community, I’m happy to put that up. Many people in the industry know about it, uh, I, I have investments in all sorts of different things that sometimes are prospectively in conflict with each other, I--

"I think people are responding to the high quality of work they see there."

Explaining GameCyte's remarkable access to game companies.

Are all of TriplePoint’s clients aware of the relationship with GameCyte?
No… but I don’t think it’s, I mean, it’s not particularly relevant to them. When Jesse or Sean were to talk to any of them, I mean, their bios are well known as having worked at Game-- having worked at TriplePoint.

I noticed they get invited to a surprising number of PR events for being a relatively new, small site with not a ton of readers, but all the events they’re getting invited to are from TriplePoint’s client list. Is that how they’ve getting entry?
No, they did lots of interviews with Sega, Sega’s not a client. They’ve done a ton of reviews with Nokia, Nokia is not a client. I think people are responding to the high quality of work they see there.

So the way they’re getting into all these EA events and the Nyko demos – those are clients of yours – you’re saying it has nothing to do with—
EA, we only do EA Mythic. The other divisions of EA don’t let them in, they feel the site’s not big enough. But Nintendo feels the site is big enough. I mean, all sorts of other clients… some of our clients don’t talk to them, nor do we push them on it.

Do you know the readership offhand?
We had 62,000 unique visitors last month, which is pretty high.

It seems to me – and then this will be pretty much it unless there’s something you’d like to add – it seems to me it’s not… I’m not necessarily accusing that there’s been abuse. I can’t point to a review and say “This is way too positive” and it happens to be a TriplePoint client’s game, or “This review seems kind of negative” and it’s a game from a someone who’s not a TriplePoint client. I’m not suggesting there’s a pattern, but what I am suggesting or pointing out is: how is there not a conflict of interest, or at least a temptation towards impropriety, when you have these two bodies so closely intertwined? I mean, Jesse and Jason and Sean… maybe they are writing totally valid, independent reviews. But it’s hard to believe if there was a large client of TriplePoint’s that you guys made a lot of money off of, and they reviewed that client’s game and just panned it, it’s hard to believe that there wouldn’t be some pressure to not piss off the client.
But, I mean I just… I appreciate this, because what you’re saying is not some irrational consideration. I mean in a world, if an agency was trying to influence the media and decided to, um, you know, open a website, obviously that would, that could be subject to examination.

Isn’t that what this looks like? I guess the simple way to put it is: it’s designed in a way that allows for abuse. Even if abuse isn’t happening, it doesn’t seem like there’re many controls there. And I think that’s what people will react to when they read this.
But, in the nature of… I mean, any control is the mechanism through which abuse would occur. I mean, I’m just curious, what would the-- I do not, again: neither I nor anybody else at TriplePoint has any editorial input or governance over the site.

But ultimately aren’t you the boss?
…ultimately, I am the boss. That’s incontrovertible.

Okay, well Richard I think that’s about it. Unless there’s anything else I can…
Can I ask what this article is for?

I’m a writer for Village Voice Media, it will certainly appear on Joystick Division, which is their gaming blog--
Owned by AOL/Time Warner. [This is incorrect.]

…and then it will possibly appear in Game On, which appears in most of the Village Voice Media papers, and certainly on the web spaces for each of the respective papers. I think the local one out there is SF Weekly.
And all I would hope is that you talk to Jesse and Sean because the core of this story is that they end up being impugned, and I don’t think that that’s a fair [inaudible] the reality of the situation on the ground.

I’m not really interested in impugning them. I’m interested in illustrating the relationship between the three companies, and letting readers take what they will from that.
(pause) Okay…um… I know you have deadline, I would prefer… I have seen inaccuracies occur, so if there’s… I’m not asking to review your print coverage, but if you have any questions about this I would be happy to elaborate in greater detail.

Mm-hm.
Our objective here is try to create a high quality journalistic website. We have influenced nothing editorially about it and um, I’m proud of the work they’re doing and proud of the work TriplePoint does for its clients.

Okay.

* * *

After transcribing the conversation, it was passed to a few of the original sources for comment. One clarified that Nokia, though not a current TriplePoint client, was a client in the past when TriplePoint did PR for the N-Gage – verified by simply Googling “N-Gage, TriplePoint”. Also, in response to Kain’s remark that Nintendo viewed GameCyte as "big enough" to cover their events, a source referenced the posted bio of TriplePoint PR’s Vice President, Julia Roether:

Prior to joining TriplePoint, she worked for Golin/Harris where she oversaw public relations activities for Nintendo in the United States, and spearheaded the hardware launches for the Nintendo Wii and DS as well as Nintendo properties such as Mario, Zelda and Metroid.

Since this interview, the "About" pages of GameCyte, Pantheon Labs and TriplePoint have all been changed to reveal some of the information discussed here. GameCyte's now reads:

Pantheon Labs LLC is the owner of GameCyte, ToyCyte, VerticalWire, and TopicDrop. Pantheon Labs consists of:

Richard Kain, Publisher: Richard Kain is the lead investor of Pantheon Labs, LLC, TriplePoint PR, and various technology and video game companies “including Telltale, Unknown Worlds, and Mindfuse.

GameCyte’s pre-interview “About” page is pictured below (click to enlarge).

gamecyteABOUT.jpg


Thanks to Anton Gordon, Chris Ward, and Jeff Shaw for their help and advice in every step of this story. Thanks also to Richard Kain for his willingness to speak with me.
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