Allegations, sleaze, & treachery: A tale of Two Worlds

To say Topware has been suffering from bad PR lately is to put it lightly. A number of anonymous sources have accused the publisher of attempting to influence review scores by threatening to blacklist any outlet that gives Two Worlds II less than a 7/10. 

If true, this paints a very grim picture of the company in an industry that already comes under fire for questionable PR practices. Topware has responded to, and denied, many of the accusations thrown its way, but there has been an increasing amount of these accusations from all corners of the business. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve personally heard Topware’s name in association with shady behavior. Last night, however, we uncovered a list of allegations that would make even Eidos look like Jesus Christ. 

Destructoid spoke to people within the industry, within Topware itself, and within the videogame press. Several of them preferred to remain anonymous; some of them I know personally. With that in mind, I’ve chosen to respect their request for continued anonymity, as much as I’d have loved for them to step forward. 

The allegations against Topware are numerous, so it would be best to simply list them. The following is a rundown of the various stories we have uncovered over the past few days; do bear in mind that these are allegations.

  • European reviewers have accepted ad buys from Topware in exchange for favorable reviews. 
  • Topware was caught by IGN attempting to influence the rating score of IGN’s GameStats and inflating Two Worlds II‘s ranking.
  • GameReactor was pressured to take down its Two Worlds II review because it used preview code to write it. The rub is that more favorable reviews released at the same time as GameReactor’s were not asked to remove their reviews, despite being based on the same code.
  • Topware employees have been writing Amazon reviews, posting YouTube comments, and posing elsewhere as members of the public to generate positive feedback on its own products.
  • Threats of legal action against one reviewer were made without the permission of management, and rest entirely on the head of the PR department. A reviewer was accused of pirating a copy of Two Worlds II for his negative review, despite having been sent code.
  • Destructoid itself was planned to be approached with a bribe. Topware paid for a Two Worlds II site skin, but withheld half the pay. The other half was allegedly planned to be paid in exchange for an 8.5/10 review from us. 

As you can see, that is a considerable laundry list of trespasses. If this were just coming from one random source, I’d be a lot more hesitant to run this. The fact it comes from multiple areas of the industry, and the fact that I can speak to nearly any of my industry peers about Topware and have them suck in air through their teeth and be totally unsurprised by anything the company is accused of, seems to say a lot. 

Where Destructoid is concerned, I personally received no bribes from Topware, but then, my main point of contact was Southpeak, a company that worked with Topware on Two Worlds II‘s promotion. Southpeak has never approached me about review scores, and never threatened to blacklist me, or anything of the sort.

James Seaman, Managing Director at Topware, categorically denies the allegations or any wrongdoing, either in this country or Europe. 

“There is absolutely no correlation between review scores and ad buys,” said Seaman. “We do not even have the budget for ad buys that people would even take that seriously. On top of that Topware does not handle PR in Europe. Zuxxez Entertainment, our parent company, does.”

As far as the GameReactor business goes, James explained to me that it was far more benign than the accusation presented to him. He did not explain how only select sites were asked to remove their reviews, while more favorable reviews were allowed to remain published. 

“We had issues with a multi-platform launch that shipped at different dates to different regions that were not polished for English reviews as the VO was not complete,” he said. “We asked people to wait for the UK/US version to be sent out, but many people imported the German version which made multi-player almost impossible as it was in German completely. We asked people to hold off on reviewing the product until we launched the English version, if they felt pressured then I will issue an apology to them.

“Topware does not engage in any manipulation of media sites or customer sites, but we are happy that people like our game.”

We’ve spoken to a couple of European reviewers about Topware, none of whom wished for their names to be made available, but all of whom seem to have a negative experience with Topware. One contact said that “for a Topware guy to post in the comments that they haven’t been blacklisting sites is utter utter bullshit.” He added that his site has already been blacklisted, and that his reviewer was accused of playing the game for one hour on an illegal copy. He maintains that the site’s review was sound. 

Destructoid has received copies of a number of emails sent to the team at Topware, one of which most certainly seems to indicate that Topware did, at least once, attempt to manipulate the media. In it, James himself is quoted as saying, “The review is down, get the review pulled from Metacritic. However it is being reviewed again. Contact this guy and give anything he needs to get our score up.”

Seaman went as far as to admit that his team had argued with outlets over scores, expressing frustration at reviews that scored the game less than 7/10. He stated that, in hindsight, it was “stupid” to do so and promised it wouldn’t happen again. Again, he said that tantrums were as far as it got. 

James did not address the allegations of Topware staff inflating hype for the game by posing as consumers online. Once again, we have a copy of an internal Topware email that states, “Please post one favorable review of the new trailer daily for the next two weeks on youtube with different user names. Please make this a priority I want your user names and comments posted in your weekly reports — reports that are still coming late or not at all. I would appreciate not having to be a jerk and start fining people so get them in on Friday. Make this a priority.”

This kind of practice is as old as snake-oil salesmen, and is of course not limited to Topware. There have been reports in the past of publishers doctoring Wikipedia articles, and one simply assumes that companies do what they can put out the buzz, even if it’s done in a disingenuous manner. If these emails are legitimate, then it’s clear that the company put an incredible amount of effort into manufacturing the hype. 

As far as accusing reviewers of piracy is concerned, Seaman contests that this was the result of a miscommunication. 

“The other issue was handled originally by our intern Bert and then I followed up officially with Microsoft and since it was a potential piracy copy that was involved … I then took this over,” he stated. “I have sent you two emails from our guy at MS UK — the first saying that no discs were given out — thus our opinion that it was piracy, next the following week with a ‘oops we found out that we sent them out.’  Still blown away that a German language disc was given to them, but they had the right to review the game as they wished.”

The emails I received did indeed confirm that Topware had possible cause to believe that the site in question had not received a legitimate review copy, and that Microsoft later set the record straight. As far as we know, this issue has been resolved and the legal threats never went anywhere. It does not explain why Topware’s PR department jumped directly to accusations and threats before trying to first speak to the website, nor does it address the notion that the PR department made such threats without the approval of anybody further up Topware’s ladder. 

James said he wouldn’t even begin to know how Topware could manipulate services like GameRankings and GameStats, claiming that he’s “not sure what happened with IGN and when that happened and how anyone could manipulate game rankings.” From what we uncovered, it’s entirely possible to do with around five dedicated computers refreshing the Two Worlds II GameStats page. With each computer having twenty tabs open to the correct page, and the computer refreshing said tabs at least once per minute, you can drive up the rankings, since GameStats measures consumer interest in each page. 

Hiding behind IP masking techniques, a publisher can manufacture the interest level for any game it desires on a site that is watched by GameStop, Best Buy and other major retailers. One party explained to us that this is how Topware had generated retail interest for the game. 

So how did IGN find out about it? Well, it was explained to Destructoid that Topware’s IP masking failed them last spring, revealing that all the traffic was coming from a single source — Topware itself. 

We reached out to IGN for comment, but are waiting for an official response from the department in charge of GameStats. In the meantime, we did get a quote from IGN Editor-in-Chief Hilary Goldstein, who replied with, “Gamermetrics isn’t my area so I can’t comment on anyone getting caught or anything like that or even why a popularity metric matters prior to release. What I see is our traffic — uniques and pvs — and can say it’s a rare occurrence for a unique individual to read the same story 100 times. That is the unique-to-pageviews average I’m seeing. Must be one hell of a preview.”

So basically, if Topware or some other company wasn’t falsely manufacturing pageviews, there’s several people out there so enamored with Two Worlds II that they read the page 100 times. I’d love to meet those guys. 

We also spoke with Jake DiGennaro, a former Topware PR manager. While he would not address some of the specific allegations, he did tell us that he was not happy with some of the company’s conduct. 

“I certainly did some things that I believe were morally grey,” he explained. “I felt uncomfortable doing some of the things I was asked to do, and that is part of the reason I left. Sometimes I felt I needed a shower after writing a particular email. I can’t say I was explicitly asked to offer bribes, but it was certainly joked about in a way where you couldn’t be sure if someone was being serious.”

For Jake, the worst part of his job was being expected to put pressure on people within gaming media that he had a good relationship with. He said it was one thing to ask for some extra coverage and attention, but another to ask a writer to skew his opinion in favor of a game. After refusing certain requests and finally putting his foot down, he ended up leaving the company to find work he was more comfortable with. Jake explained even more on the Forever Alone Podcast on an episode yet to be aired, where he stated that he would neither be surprised if all the allegations were true, or that some of them were malicious rumors. In any case, it seems Topware was making some shady requests, if Jake is to be believed.

Of course, if you ask James Seaman, then Jake is not to be believed. Last night, Seaman emailed Destructoid to claim that Jake had been speaking with a Topware producer, where he said “that he wanted to take Topware down and that this was his chance. He also said that he was using his relationship with [Destructoid] to get this online and get back at us.”

Seaman claims that DiGennaro was fired “with cause” and is now attempting a revenge plot by helping us with our story. 

On the Forever Alone Podcast (hosted by Ripten and HotBloodedGaming), DiGennaro did not confirm that money was withheld from Destructoid in the hopes of getting high review scores from us, but he did say that Seaman has consistently ignored an invoice for the rest of our ad payment. DiGennaro did not speculate on why Destructoid had not been paid the rest of the ad money. Seaman told us that anybody who was planning to make a bribe offer to Destructoid would be fired on the spot, and offered to pay whatever it is we are owed (that offer has been put through to our marketing department). As far as I can tell, Destructoid wasn’t directly offered a bribe. I certainly wasn’t, and didn’t know about any potential plans for a bribe until this past Friday night. Whatever we may be owed, however, Seaman still protests that DiGennaro is a liar. 

DiGennaro, however, is but one of the individuals we spoke to. So far, aside from James Seaman, I personally have not spoken to somebody who has a positive opinion of Topware. This leads us to one of two situations — either Topware is guilty of the shady business it stands accused of, or it’s innocent and there is an industry seemingly full of people with a reason to make up serious professional trespasses. It makes one wonder what Topware did to make so many enemies, if these accusations are false. 

As it stands, this is one man’s word against the word of several others. Whether or not Topware is engaging in questionable business tactics is something we’ll likely never know for sure without a confession from the men in direct control of the company or unquestionable recorded proof of bribes being offered and threats being made. We know a former employee has stated that he wasn’t comfortable with things asked of him, we know reviewers claim to have had unpleasant dealings with Topware, and we know Topware categorically denies any crime greater than complaining about low scores due to Metacritic pressure. 

All one can really know for sure is that this is a lot of bullshit over Two Worlds II, of all games.

James Stephanie Sterling