[Note from Jim: Ben McCurry made headlines last week for his amazing review of Pac-Man 256, in which he detailed the shoddy business practices of his own publication knowing full well they wouldn’t check it before it went up.
Brash Games, his previous employer (read: exploiter) has become notorious for not paying staff, altering writers’ review scores, and removing credit for work if somebody quits. Since Brash doesn’t pay its writers, I decided to pay a former Brash writer to talk about his experience. Because I can.
There will also be more on Brash this Monday. You know what that means.
I now hand you over to Ben McCurry himself!]
After I’d finished furiously typing out the now-infamous Pac-Man 256 review last week, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was, at that point, just a disgruntled employee who wanted to stick it to my editor as I walked out the door, intending to show the world what he was up to as I buggered off, never to be heard from again. If I could contribute anything for the next generation of freelance game writers, it would have been that they never had their emails darkened by the opportunistic Paul Ryan ever again.
As such, when I quietly uploaded it to Brash Games, I shrugged and hoped for a handful of people to find it funny and useful. I then ate pizza, played San Andreas, and went to bed.
To put it shortly, I was not ready for the ensuing chaos and the unravelling of Brash Games. For those uninitiated, the Brash Games fiasco started with a whisper, or, more accurately, a tweet.
Brash Games is an English gaming hobbyist site that recently landed in an Olympic- sized swimming pool of hot water due to extremely shady practices exposed by former writers. Thanks to the work of Meg Read and Olly Smith, Brash Games’ most elementary case of malpractice came to light on Twitter when they revealed their by-lines had been removed by the editor without warning and replaced with the credit “Brash Games,” encouraging others to check if theirs had followed suit into the void.
No matter if you leave a publication on the best of terms or if you’ve just been found in bed with the editor’s wife (not my situation), nobody should ever have their credits removed for simply departing.
This was later compounded by my realization that Brash Games was listed as “Out of Business” on GameRankings, and that their pages had been removed not just from OpenCritic, but from the Wayback Machine too. Also adding cause for concern was how Brash had a penchant for breaking embargoes, most recently for Yooka-Laylee.
I wasn’t entirely sure of the extent of the damage then. I was only sure of two things: Brash Games was a dead-end, and – in the words of Owen Hart – enough was enough and it was time for a change.
I wrote an extremely polite letter to Mr Ryan giving my notice, explaining I was doing so regarding the changing of by-lines and the removal of public records. I hadn’t worked at Brash Games for even a month, but there was zero point in staying if my work was eventually going to get accredited to Brash (and by proxy, Paul Ryan) so I decided to cut my losses entirely.
I asked him plainly why he had made the portfolios of young writers useless, and that I’d be finished after publishing the Pac-Man 256 review as an act of goodwill. By that, I meant I’d write a proper review; no jokes, no tricks, I would bow out respectfully and allow Meg, Olly, and others to continue the positive work they’d been doing. After all, I was a nobody, and I didn’t really have a stake in the fight.
That was until Paul Ryan completely ignored my email. I knew he’d read it because I’d been quietly removed from the staff list, but he ignored me and that was enough – to have zero decency, and to disrespect me like this when he’d been caught red-handed? It was a slap in the face [“Hehe – Jim“], and if he wasn’t listening to me, I was going to make him pay attention. Thus, I wrote the review.
For those who haven’t read it yet, I exposed the business practices of Brash Games in a series of sneaky asides as I talked about Pac-Man 256, very explicitly resigning at the end.
Paul has tried to quiet the storm by taking it down, but it’s now been archived about a thousand times. Oops.
I tried as earnestly as possible to properly review the two- year-old game, and I did – I felt I gave it some good praise within the scope of review, and I eventually gave it 9/10, but ultimately the game was a vehicle to highlight and call out Brash for what they were doing. The intent was to gain a bit of attention and put Paul Ryan on the spot, as I didn’t want him to be able to dismiss these issues easily; I did it in the most public and humiliating way possible.
If I had done my resignation as an open letter or a blog, it would have only gotten lost in the internet void; Paul could have pretended everything was fine, and this article wouldn’t be on The Jimquisition website right now. I may have been a firestarter, but at least people sat up and took notice when the smoke started to rise. Most have told me they enjoyed the review, which I greatly appreciate.
A few people have come out of the woodwork to tell me I was unprofessional. Personally, I think some people have their priorities twisted if they believe I’m a bad guy for “disgracing” a video game and – this was actually said! – the medium of reviews, when there was a much greater problem staring them in the face, but I guess facts aren’t accounted for in the “who’s the cleverest man on social media” contest.
I’m still laughing at the idea that I gave the game a 1/10. I didn’t – I awarded a 1 to protest how Mr Ryan changes scores to either appease publishers or mimic Metacritic, making a reviewer’s opinion on any given score redundant, and my real rating lies in the text clear as day. This has been an issue suffered time and time again by other Brash Games alumni.
The review contained some scathing (and completely verifiable) commentary on what Brash did where I quit in a public and humiliating way, and I make no apologies for any single comment. If I did this to any other publication, I would be blacklisted universally, and I would accept that, but the simple fact is this: I can’t be unprofessional on a website that has done nothing but act unprofessionally for years.
A quick side note about how I could do this so easily: Brash Games uses the WordPress content management system as many sites do, but the publication has absolutely zero editing or mediation process. Contributors are free to post their reviews without even so much as a glance from the editor to prevent what I did from happening; as long as reviews “look alright”, Paul never passes on much of anything in the way of commentary or feedback. So much for calling himself an editor – it felt like he was more interested in calling himself the boss rather than acting like it, and when it came to “review o’clock,” as he called it, he wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
This was one of the most frustrating things about working for him, the fact that it was a sterile and soulless experience with very little camaraderie to speak of.
The only person I ever spoke to, besides a colleague I knew from previous work, was Paul, and he only emailed me to throw the hilariously outdated list of games my way. These were filled with shovelware, some two years old; with colleague Thomas Hughes identifying a good deal of them as Humble Bundle purchases. This is not illegal, just shady – especially as Brash’s list of “clients” includes an image lifted directly from Nintendo’s website.
I can’t speak on what Paul’s relationship was like with developers; all I can comment is that using Humble Bundle as a source for games is a serious cause for concern, especially when PR and asking for review codes is not difficult. What I can say is that I never received any guidance – professional or otherwise – from the man, and working under him just left me spinning my wheels.
What I did was just the straw that broke the camel’s back; the smallest piece of the puzzle that probably had the greatest consequence – what came out next was truly unbelievable and escalated the Brash Games affair from “iffy” to “scandalous”.
Olly, Meg, and I had been scooping up as much information as we could on the website, trying to piece everything together in light of an impending OpenCritic report on Brash Games and Paul Ryan. With the release of the Pac-Man 256 review/resignation, more disenfranchised Brash alumni joined the fray.
Kay Purcell came forward and told me her struggles with Paul Ryan and the web hosts of Brash, Freeola, and that they had been ignoring and outright rejecting her pleas to get the content that she had written removed from the website.
Worse for Paul, OpenCritic confirmed that by-lines and scores had been changed – whilst Paul had excluded Brash from the Wayback Machine, he had no idea that OpenCritic had their own internal Wayback that took HTML “screenshots” of reviews as soon as they went live [“HAHAHA” – Jim]. As it stands, they have the data – and it proves that articles were written by original authors as opposed to Brash Games, as well as retaining all original scores.
Finally, Paul responded with an internal staff email hurriedly sent on the Sunday after the review dropped – two days later. Amusingly, I was still on the mailing list, even after what I had done, so I received the full text. Most of it was libellous nonsense and dark claims about me and past writers. Paul brazenly suggested that ex-writers had been “contacting publishers & devs for months requesting codes on behalf of Brash Games.”
I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else, although other ex-writers have soundly denied this. As for me, I have my own website called Ludotempus, and even in its small infant state, it has more positive cache than Brash ever will – as such, I simply have no need to use anyone else’s name to obtain review codes.
Paul also defended deleting “old” accounts from the site, saying this was not done without provocation, yet was keen to point out those with positive relationships with Brash still remained, citing a Tom Leclerc as an example. Aside from myself, many others left the site on completely positive terms, making Paul’s claims another lie, but that’s not the story here – Paul Ryan and Tom Leclerc have known each other for at least 13 years, with Leclerc being a regular contributor for Ryan’s old site Ace Gamez. The two men are friends, being listed as such on Facebook, and it’s more than likely that this is the reason Leclerc gets to keep his credits.
Ryan lambasted contributors for not producing reviews quickly enough, regularly placing the blame on freelance workers for daring to write for other outlets – excuse us for trying to make a living, Paul – but even then, working for other sites was something that was always encouraged by the editor – Paul even went to the length of trying (and failing) to poach contributors from other websites.
Finally, in direct response to changing review scores, Paul argues that he only ever did this with full consultation from writers, such as the author of the Toy Odyssey review. In actuality, all writers who have suffered this corroborate that nothing was ever ran by them – it was just done under their noses. It felt like Paul didn’t truly respect us as his staff, which is what made it easier to post my review under his nose.
Things got truly calamitous with the release of two exposé videos by Kirioth. A great deal of his findings coincide with mine, but he unearthed something very interesting that warrants renewed interest.
There are dozens of articles attributed to the writer David James, and most of them contain advertorials to gambling websites that read like they were paid for. If this is the case, Brash Games were, and still are, featuring paid advertorials on their website under the guise of articles without properly stating they were advertisements – I’m in no way a legal or advertising expert, but Paul Ryan can probably expect a letter from the Advertising Standards Agency very soon.
This perhaps gives a good indication of how exactly Brash were making money, especially considering they have surprisingly poor engagement on social media for having 115K+ Twitter followers. Bots? Paid-for followers? Crowdfire automation? I don’t have a concrete idea.
More intriguing is the emergence of David James. After the Brash Games controversy escalated over the last few days, Paul Ryan entirely removed himself as the owner of the website, attributing all contents and copyrights to David James. I tried to track down David James for comment, but all one can find is reference to the former England football team’s goalkeeper.
David James seems to only exist within the vacuum of Brash Games, which presents some odd possibilities – is David James even a real person? Is he a front for someone else? I find it hard to believe that he’s just a man that really, really loves gambling, especially considering how quickly ownership of Brash was passed to him.
While I have the microphone for 15 minutes, I’d like to tell two personal stories told to me by former Brash writers that will solidify what kind of human being Paul Ryan is; we know more than enough about how he does business, but just in case you think this is all a misunderstanding: no, this man is as terrible as has been reported.
The first is from Dylan Chaundy, a fellow former writer who told me that Paul Ryan asked him to change Wikipedia articles for the benefit of Brash Games, such as inserting review scores and links to Brash on relevant pages in order to put eyes on the website. This is, of course, an ethical nightmare and an absolutely unacceptable request for an editor and boss to make.
However, I think the story I’m about to tell now beats everything you’ve ever heard about Brash.
Another contributor who chooses to remain anonymous talks of how Paul regarded his mental illness. Only the full, unabridged quotation from Paul Ryan to the writer in question will do:
“I gave you the benefit off the doubt last time and even though you posted all that crap that started all this I still took you back after no-one else would touch you with a bargepole as I understand mental illness and the effects it has on you but I should have listened to the devs who sent you codes via TA for your own blog that never materialised.”
Paul Ryan openly told one of his employees that mental illness made him unemployable in a ploy to get that employee to return. This is disgusting. The outright lying, the removal of bylines, the libellous accusations, these were bad enough, but this? To drag mental illness into the fray, suggesting it makes a writer undesirable? Absolutely sickening.
Paul Ryan is irredeemable. Brash Games is irredeemable. Its practices are Draconian as far as games media goes and have no place in any professional environment, even if their writers are volunteers. Nothing excuses any of this. Due to how they’ve treated their staff, I’d like to tell Paul Ryan precisely what it is I want from him.
What do I want most? Apart from world peace, a jetpack, and for my girlfriend to live closer to me, I want Paul Ryan to apologise – and right now, Paul, I’m talking directly to you.
Everyone else reading this article may as well not exist; this is between you and me; and I hope wherever you are, you’re feeling yourself twitch in your desk chair. I want you to apologise to me, Meg Read, Olly Smith, Thomas Hughes, Dylan Chaundy, Llewelyn Griffiths, Luke Ladlee, Mark Brearley, and everyone else under the Brash banner that you have used and abused over the years, stealing their work for your gain.
You’ve used them to build a fat portfolio for yourself so you and David James – whoever that is, it doesn’t matter – make a cool profit on all those gambling editorials you’ve ran with zero disclosure. Save a bit of face, be professional, and protect the next batch of kids from becoming totally disillusioned with games writing.
Apologies for being so brash, but we trusted you, and you abused that trust for your own gain. It is, sadly, people like Paul Ryan and Brash Games that give games journalism the terrible name it currently has. No more.
Paul Ryan is a relic of the past, and that’s exactly where he and Brash Games should be left.