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The Storm?

One of my daily stops when I’m making news rounds or when I just want to read about an old man living in Austin, Texas is Bill Harris’ Dubious Quality blog. I’ve known Bill for a long, long time. I only “met” him once at a drive-by “hello!” at E3 one year but we have been talking games for over a decade.

Fun fact: Bill Harris is responsible for me hiring Brandon to write at GameShark and thus why Brandon is co-hosting the podcast and why he writes here for your reading pleasure on a daily basis.

Yes…yes…you have Bill Harris to “thank” for that.

Today I came across an interesting story at DQ. It’s about how mega publishers are starting to limit access to the media in terms of review copies, overall access, as well as in potential ad money.

Bill calls it a storm.

I’m not so sure…

There are a lot of great things about working in the games industry.

You know what the best thing is?

I work in the games industry.

Every day I get to play, talk, and write about games. I get to talk to people who make games. I get to share my opinions with other people who play games and they get to tell me how brilliant or how stupid I am when it comes to games. When people in the sleepy Ohio town in which I live ask me what I do and I tell them they stare at me with both amazement and sometimes derision.

“Yes, Marge, I’m a 39 year old child. Just give me my mail already.”

You know what I don’t like? The other stuff.

Fighting with PR over review copies. Being told that we can’t post a review of game X before the embargo “unless the grade is at least an 85 on Metacritic.” The sites to DO score that high get all the pre-release traffic so we’re forced to ether inflate a grade or lose the hits.

Being told that sites which use letter grades do not get advanced copies. (Because of the way those scores are translated on Metacritic.) Knowing this is untrue because 1Up sure does. Then realizing we aren’t 1Up.

Defending my writers’ competence when they “score” a game lower than the average for a game.

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Defending Tom Chick. (Which I will do until they kick me out of the business.)

Being told that we can’t get review code (at all) for a game because we didn’t post positive previews and/or screenshots every time new ones were released.

Having to worry about how many hits we’re going to lose because we don’t have a day one review of the hot new title because we tend to get review copies later than everyone else (don’t get me started on this one) and the fact that I let the staff take their time when evaluating games.

Add those together and you usually get reviews that are several days late. It is what it is.

So when I read something like the post at DQ the only thing that pops in my head is, “It was a matter of time.”

This is the truth: Publishers have every right to give out review copies and offer access to whomever they wish. It’s their dime. Just because we claim to be “media” doesn’t give us the right to complain about not having said access. They hold every card when it comes to that side of the relationship.

The gaming industry, the media part, has always struck me as a very odd entity. 15 years later — it still does. We are in an extremely unique situation in that our livelihood, well, to an extent, is reliant on complete cooperation from the people we are trying to objectively cover. I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but if a publisher thinks I am, why bother dealing with me? Kindness? Do you know how many websites are out there that cover games? All a game publisher has to do is cut off access and poof. You’re done.

But would that really be a bad thing?

“Day one” reviews have been a problem in the industry for YEARS. It used to be, back in the old PC magazine days, that reviewing “late betas” allowed you to get your review in a magazine a month early. There was a magazine that was notorious for this and everyone had to follow suit. So what if the code wasn’t final? Close enough! We have a deadline here people!

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Today, the idea of reviewing betas isn’t as prevalent but instead reviewers review special builds that will only run on special units. When you review games on these machines you (normally) get the full experience, unless a day one patch is issued which can then make you look like a dope. (NCAA 11…) It’s also really hard to test multiplayer — especially in games with a high use rate. So in a perfect world reviewers shouldn’t have to worry about day one reviews as much as they should worry about writing good reviews. Even if it takes longer.

Speed.

We’re so concerned with speed in this industry. First to review, first to post news, first to post a rumor. It’s everywhere. Games are hyped to no end and after they are released they’re usually ditched to the side of the road and the next big thing starts to make the rounds. You see huge displays at conventions, all hyping the next great game from Publisher X and after it’s released you don’t hear from it — until the sequel/DLC/expansion is announced. Reviewers are pressed by their editors to get a review done by an embargo date at all costs even at the expense of actually finishing it. Miss the review window and the freelancer doesn’t get called again.

Fact is, the game media needs desperately to cut the cord from publishers and if you believe what the DQ piece says, it sounds like the publishers are going to do the cutting for them. I haven’t seen any evidence of this yet, (well, maybe some but it’s hard to say) but that’s not to say it isn’t happening. Regardless, we honestly need the media to be more Consumer Reports and less Entertainment Tonight and definitely less Fan Club. (Stop cheering at a press events.)

Now, it’s important to note that I abhor generalizations and there are many examples of media outlets, and many individuals, that don’t fall into that category. And I would be equally wrong to insinuate that every publisher and PR person is an “only numbers matter” monolith of impenetrability. There are a lot of good people in this business. But it’s such a slippery slope.

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What does all of this mean to you?

Let’s say this comes to pass and that publishers will only play ball with “the top two game outlets” then the question flips around back to you.

Just how gullible are you? Would you notice? Would it matter? If publishers try to control the message to that degree, wouldn’t you be able to tell? I think you would.

In another perfect world the game media would be no different than the average gamer. Sure, we’d have access to trade shows, talk to people, do interviews, maybe a preview if a game truly interests us, but in the review circles the fact that the media and the publishers have been working so close to one another for so many years simply isn’t good — for the consumer.

The other part of the article — the ad part? Maybe it’s not the best idea for media who cover the industry to have ads plastered all over the place to begin with? I have never been told to write a good review because company X advertises with whoever I was writing the review for, but it just looks bad. If your website has a lot of traffic there are many ways to advertise other products. Trust me — if you have the numbers ad agencies will line up.

In the end it’s a losing proposition for publishers because they can’t completely control the message. They’re trying, though. Why do you think we’re seeing so many internal interviews and developer diaries? It’s all message control. It’s just business. Why HOPE an editor or some jaded writer will say what you want when you can do it yourself? Self Press. It’s the future.

That said, that only goes so far. People talk. A bad game will still be a bad game regardless of when the reviews go live and if we only see two or three sites with day one reviews, you’ll notice it. And if this happens game websites will once again have to reinvent themselves, which may not be a bad thing.

But people will always want that fast review. It’s like I said Sunday.

The Whales need feeding.

Bill Abner

Bill has been writing about games for the past 16 years for such outlets as Computer Games Magazine, GameSpy, The Escapist, GameShark, and Crispy Gamer. He will continue to do so until his wife tells him to get a real job.

8 thoughts to “The Storm?”

  1. I think that the people probably most obsessed about seeing those day one reviews are people who either a) are going to buy the game anyway and just want affirmation that their precious baby is great, or b) hate the game and are never going to buy it and just want to see it get dragged through the mud. I don’t trust reviews from any site going off these controlled conditions anymore. This is why I love sites like this. I’ll stick with it and trust your opinions when you actually get to them, not a month early with beta code. If that means I don’t buy a game on launch day, so what? I’ve got a backlog stacked up at home anyway.

  2. Bill, you and I have the same opinion on things. Have an acquaintance working in the games press industry, and a couple years ago for their thesis they asked my opinion on the gaming press. I said almost exactly what you outlined here, albeit probably a little more ranty.

    Right now the media is dependent on the publishers, because that’s the proven model that seems to work. But, basically, some journalists (note: not just enthusiasts — actual journalists) are going to need to say, “You know what? Screw early reviews.” Review as much as they can off of purchased copies in need be, promise nothing to PR peeps in ads, and just try their hardest to slowly build up readership with 100% honest reviews. It would be really hard, maybe even impossible, but ideally when the readership gets big enough publishers would just have to accept that they can’t control the message from that site. And maybe other sites, realizing they can untether themselves from the publishers, will follow suit. In an ideal world I guess…

  3. First new gaming website to explain in the how we work section “We review games we buy for testing” ” this means reviews will be slower but more accurate” probably has my money.

    This is discouraging and sadly the norm for most things in the world nowadays.

  4. I’m more than happy to spend $60 on a game to review if it buys me the ability to call it total shit without censure if it is, in fact, total shit. If I’m given a review copy by a company under the assumption that they’re going to get a back-scratching review out of it, they can fuck right off. Don’t care if it’s Sony or the smallest indie out there.

    Review copies help us to do our job. They help us professionally to not have to spend money to make money, and they help us to get reviews out to readers in timely manner. But if the cost is some kind of intellectual vassalage to publishers or the corporations that run this industry, they can keep their games.

    There are undoubtedly companies both in the video games and tabletop gaming industries that expect their press copies to go into the hands of people who will somehow be charmed by getting something for free into writing a positive notice. I’ll tell you from experience, that lasts for about one time when you first start writing about games. Then, if you’re a real professional and a good writer, you realize that integrity and accountability are much more important than getting a free game in the mail.

    In one sense I do see their point in this draconian and possibly evil policy. The media environment today is all about the cult of the amateur, and there are plenty of Metacritic-ranked blog sites that I barely consider professional. I’m sure that PR offices are bombarded daily by everybody from startup bloggers to forum posters trying to lay claim to review copies. I’ve never even been able to get a PR firm to respond to a request for a promo without Bill Abner interceding for me. It’s an easily exploitable system, and I can see where the thinking might be that review copies do not always wind up in professional hands.

    But that’s not really it, is it? It’s more about that intellectual vassalage, making sure that “friendly” reviewers and sites lead the publicity charge. It’s why you see some blogs that have all of these free promo items to give away, writers that coyly talk about playing advance copies of games weeks or months in advance, blogging about going to these exclusive events, and generally playing PR lapdog to companies they’re seeking to appease.

    Pulling ads is a bigger deal since that means revenue for sites and revenue means that the lights stay on. Pulling ads could seriously hurt smaller (and typically more independent and outspoken) sites and restrict discourse to a few “sanctioned” outlets.

    The interesting thing about all of this is that games press is still very young, and it’s coming of age in a very different kind of business and intellectual environment than those that fostered the emergence of film criticism and rock journalism. Writers in those fields aren’t nearly as dependent on the companies that produce the media, and those fields also emerged before the internet and this kind of thought-policing wasn’t nearly as prevalent, regardless of situations like “payola” scandals and other instances of impropriety.

    But this…this kind of thing could seriously damage games journalism in the long run. Or, it could engender a more rabid, more fiercly independent “underground” press…that would not be recieving any review copies.

  5. I think there is more potential for good than bad here. There are some important distinctions that set “classic” games journalism apart from music or film criticism, the most important among them (in my eyes, anyway) being the interdependency created by the preview system. Certainly, these other fields of criticism are privy to advance versions, but it is nothing like the gaming world. Publishers rely on game sites to help fuel the hype machine, and the sites/mags rely on the benevolence of the publisher to keep paying the bills. Problem is, the sites have hardly represented a united front in the face of publisher intimidation, so the latter is currently far more important to the system than the former.

    People are accustomed to drawing movie reviews – even preview information – from places devoted to diverse subject matter, such as news sites. Who does this for games? Is the devoted game site really a good thing for the industry? Many of the problems this field of criticism face could be resolved if the mainstream gaming press were integrated into other sources…but how accepting would these other sources be? And would people actually take notice? I’m aware of several mainstream attempts to get a gaming “branch” moving, but I’m not sure how many have earned credibility.

    I dunno, it’s a complicated issue, and I’m not sure how long I want to drivel on about it. All I know is my interest in gaming sites has effectively bottomed out, largely because of this incestuous relationship between the journalist and the marketing rep. I read blogs like NHS, Qt3 and RPS. I try to pick up on a game’s buzz from sources like gaf or friends. I might skim a few reviews via gamerankings, but that’s it. I don’t even trust the gaming sites to deliver an honest impression of a preview build…why would I? How often is a big game criticized with harsher words than “it shows promise” or “a little rough around the edges” in a preview feature? The whole concept of the preview, as it stands, strikes me as completely wrongheaded and destructive. If a publisher wants to put out video of a build along with a press-only demo presentation…fine. The exclusive preview feature should not be a form of currency.

    It all comes down to control. Movie studios have absolute control over their content: they can rest assured that every reviewer will have the exact same experience. The exclusive preview works for publishers, because it’s easy enough to control one critic when three or four developers and studio reps are bouncing around while he plays, pointing out what’s great about their game and what he should do next to get the most out of the preview. Reviews have always been a tricky beast, since they not only cannot have that same assurance, but they can in fact be assured the polar opposite is true. Game experience is so variable, it is easy enough to blame a bad review on an incompetent or lazy reviewer who could not/did not get enough out of the game to write an objective review, even if they don’t publicly say so.

    I’ve never felt game critics should be bound to finish a game to review it; if you play it for five hours and hate it, the review that springs from this experience is probably enough information for me to make a decision. When has it ever been clear how much a critic should play a game to write a good review? I want game critics to play a game *as they would otherwise play them;* just let us know when you put it down and what you got out of it! The only person capable of making that decision is the talented, intuitive writer with the game in front of him, and for that reason one might expect publishers to reward skill and professionalism above all else. If only.

    I certainly hope gaming journalism as a field looks at these actions as an opportunity for an overhaul. Everyone has a point at which their trust for these sources will evaporate; keep on pushing that propaganda machine for the publishers, and before long it will be too late. For them, anyway. Of course games journalism will survive in some form, but the standard accepted model for a “big” game site, particularly how it manages its relationships with publishers, is completely unsustainable.

  6. (as I see them)

    #1: We generally can’t trust reviews anymore.

    Seriously. There are so many cases of hands in pockets in this industry, that it’s often very hard to know what motivates a review nowdays. It used to be I’d look at a review and take it for what it was, an opinion piece. Now I’m not even sure if I’m looking at an opinion piece or a sponsored fairytale.

    #2: Preview and Review are becoming the same thing.

    Previews are supposed to let us know the game is coming, get us hyped for it. The stuff going around for Skyrim at the moment is great, I want that, it tells me it’s coming and lets me formulate opinions on it. I’ll read those and take them for what they are. I don’t mind if these are publisher sponsored.

    A preview should not ever also be a review. A review is an opinion piece written after the game comes out that tells us if the game lives up to the hype.

    Can we stop merging the two in to the Early Pre-Review? It’s so unprofessional, yet it’s the standard now!

    #3: Developers Follow the Trend

    This is easy to see, but to lay it out, the publisher pressure doesn’t just effect the reviewers, it effects the developers, and that’s why every game now is “Call of Duty”, “Grand Theft Pointless Open World” or “Not Quite But Almost World of Warcraft”. I’ve played those games. I enjoyed the later a lot. But… I want to play new games. I get the impression that developers want to make new games too. So why are only the indys doing that? Because new games don’t always metacritic well…

    #4: I miss Buy/Rent/Ignore

    If rent is a big issue to publishers, call it “Wait ’til it’s $20 in the bargain bin”. It’s not actually about that though.

    It used to be that the review was about more than just the score at the end. If you wanted to take anything away from a review, you had to read it. Now it’s just a tagline and a score.

  7. Bill, as you’ve said, Day One reviews might be assessing the game that didn’t ship. Reviews based on earlier builds might have radically different gameplay, controls, graphics, sound, you name it, because of all the last-minute tweaks that game developers frequently make.

    That being said, however, trends in software development, which should include console and PC games, have led to increased solidity of earlier releases. For example, a lot of game developers have embraced Agile, which forces teams to deliver smaller chunks of working code at each relatively short iteration (a few weeks, on average). In theory, this software development approach should mitigate against the “Holy crap, nothing seems to work, or even fit together” problems that plague games late in the development cycle. (Elemental might be a prime example.) Therefore, when you see an early preview of a game like the W40K Space Marine title, chances are better than they were 10 or more years ago that the piece you’re looking at resembles the final product, to a significant degree. Better software development methods are not a silver bullet, but they at least lower the risk of last-minute problems with usability, stability, and design.

    That being said, the build that’s worth reviewing, whenever it appears, takes time to review. Over at Boardgame Geek, I get cranky with boardgame reviewers who rush to review a brand new game, well before they’ve had a chance to play it more than once. Or at all. Man, I hate the “I just took it out of the shrink wrap” review, because it’s worthless. No game, physical or digital, reveals itself until you’ve played it a while. Premature evaluation is just unpleasant and disappointing.

    Therefore, you could be evaluating a pre-release build that, given improvements in how software teams work, might be close enough to the release version that it’s worth reviewing. However, no matter when you review it, it takes time to figure out if you’re playing a game that’s as good or bad as it looks upon first impressions. You guys are the experts on how long you give a PC or console game before you’ve given it a fair shake, but first impressions are always untrustworthy. That’s a maxim that anyone who has purchased a bad game, based on a positive Day One review, already knows.

  8. The interesting thing about all of this is that games press is still very young, and it’s coming of age in a very different kind of business and intellectual environment than those that fostered the emergence of film criticism and rock journalism. Writers in those fields aren’t nearly as dependent on the companies that produce the media, and those fields also emerged before the internet and this kind of thought-policing wasn’t nearly as prevalent, regardless of situations like “payola” scandals and other instances of impropriety.

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