Crispy Gamer

Press Pass: Q4 Roundup

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Activision's unorthodox early review access

Press Pass readers know how hard it can be for journalists to secure early copies of games so they can prepare those crucial release-day reviews. But a couple of recent stories highlighted the hoops one company is making reviewers jump through to get limited early access to its games.

The first story, from Ars Technica, highlights the somewhat unorthodox situation behind early reviewer access to Activision's Modern Warfare 2. Rather than send reviewers a final build of the game, as is customary, Activision instead flew select reviewers out to Santa Monica, put them up in hotel suites, and had them play through the single and multiplayer modes during a tightly scheduled event. As the Ars article described it (based on a report from an anonymous attendee): "Reviewers were given a hotel room with a high-definition display, a surround-sound system, and a headset. The game was delivered on a hard drive, and progress was saved on memory cards that were collected after the event. The game was played in marathon sessions so reviewers could finish the single-player campaign."

Press Pass Q4
This is not the ideal environment for reviewing Tony Hawk: Ride...

Activision also granted somewhat unorthodox early access to the recently released Tony Hawk: Ride, as Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann described in a recent podcast. Instead of sending Gerstmann and others a copy of the $120 skateboard controller bundle, Activision invited them to a three-hour company-hosted event to try the game on a Saturday. Gerstmann bristled at this limited early access and ended up purchasing his own copy for the review. "Do you really want to read the Day One review I would write after fighting the public and maybe playing the game for 20 minutes?" he asked rhetorically. Most other sites apparently felt similarly about this limited access, as Metacritic listed only one review for the game on the evening of its launch.

While these kinds of limited early-review access events are rare, they're not entirely unheard of -- publishers held similar events for Halo 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV, recently. Even if they're rare, though, such tightly controlled review access definitely brings up some important questions about the relationship between reviewer and publisher. Should a reviewer accept free travel and/or controlled conditions from a publisher, even if it's the only way to get early access to a game (some outlets struggled with the decision, but many were apparently unconcerned)? If they do accept, should outlets reveal the circumstances behind such reviews to their readers (a few did, but many did not)? Should sites reject such early access and simply run a later review of a retail copy (Crispy's own Scott Jones certainly thinks so)? Does the controlled environment affect the content of the review (I'd say yes, even if the effect is subtle)? Does the exclusive nature of some of these events lock out smaller sites that need release-day reviews to compete and grow? (Definitely.)

The most important question I have for these publishers, though, is: What's wrong with the system of simply sending games to reviewers? Sure, it's not perfect (again, see this earlier column), but it's worked reasonably well at allowing many outlets to get timely and relatively independent reviews up. I'm afraid by trying to tighten their grip on the circumstances surrounding early access to games, these publishers are going to find more and more reviewers trying to wriggle out from the restrictions, either by holding off on their reviews, noting the circumstances in the text, or simply being more negatively inclined toward the game itself.

On the spoke missing from IGN's MusicHub

Back in October, One Last Continue's Austin Walker noticed an odd omission from IGN's then-newly-launched MusicHub page. While the site had plenty of coverage for Activision's Guitar Hero, DJ Hero and Band Hero, there was next-to-no coverage of MTV Games' competing Rock Band titles. While the site wasn't labeled as an advertisement, the odd coverage gap and description as an "official" site was enough to get Austin asking the obvious question: "Is this entire site a massive, dayglo advertisement paid for by Bobby Kotick's Activision?" Even failing that, there were plenty of other questions for IGN: "Why make a centralized music game site that doesn't cover both of the industry's biggest titles in that genre? Is this just poor reporting?"

IGN's Peer Schneider soon responded to these and other questions, describing the site as simply a community hub for the Hero games. Much like IGN's Vault sites or GameSpy's Planet network, this hub is hosted by IGN, but not written or fully controlled by IGN staffers, Schneider explained. While Activision happens to advertise on the site, it has no control over the editorial content, Schneider said.

Press Pass Q4
On first glance, does this really look like a "community" site? Really?

As for the omission of any Rock Band content, Schneider explained that the site was always designed to be focused exclusively on the "Hero" series, just as IGN community sites like Grand Theft Auto 'Hood or City of Heroes Vault focus on those series. While acknowledging that the "MusicHub" branding makes it seem like the site should cover all music games, Schneider hinted there were legal issues with more Hero-specific names. "We didn't try to pass off our 'Hero' community site as a site that covers all music games -- but we've received some complaints, including yours, that told us the site's mission isn't defined enough," he said. "Since we're dealing with a third-party brand, there were limitations to what we were able to call the site. We're looking for ways to make the presentation more clear."

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Since then, IGN has changed the site's headline banner to make the focus on Hero games clearer. Still, the site's general layout and branding make it look much more like an official IGN or Activision entity than comparable IGN community sites like Planet Call of Duty or PlanetDOOM.

Regardless, the fact that there was any question as to who or what was behind the confusingly named site shows not just a problem on IGN's part, but on the part of game journalism in general. On the Internet, it can be harder than ever to tell what's an advertisement masked as editorial content, what's user-produced content masked as original editor-produced content, and who, exactly, is behind what you're reading or watching. The difference between these different types of content has to be crystal-clear, or we risk losing the trust of our audience altogether.

News bits

  • Think game magazines are disposable and worthless a month later? A near-mint copy of the May 1989 first issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly recently sold for $200 on eBay.
  • G4 reports the developers of Alan Wake are considering removing the ending from early review copies sent to the press, for fear of spoilers leaking out. I understand the concern, but isn't seeing the ending kind of crucial to writing a coherent review of such a story-based game? Maybe the developers should consider a polite request to reviewers not to spoil the ending, instead.
  • Back in October, Kotaku had a great profile of some of the obsessive gamers who spend days crafting GameFAQs guides for little or no pay. On the one hand, it's always encouraging to see people with such a passion for writing about games, even without much monetary reward. On the other hand, it's disheartening for professional game journalists to realize there's always someone just around the corner willing to do their job for free.
  • Industry-Gamers reports that nearly two in five Nintendo Wii games released in the first half of 2009 didn't receive a single review from a major print or online outlet. Is the gaming press failing its audience by ignoring these (mostly casual) games and the (mostly casual) gamers they attract? Or is there no point in reviewing games meant for an audience that doesn't pay attention to game reviews anyway? The answer to both questions is probably a qualified yes.
  • Press Pass Q4
    Why won't anybody review World of Zoo? The world is clamoring for a World of Zoo review!

    Quote of the moment

    "There is no compelling reason to focus on quality, you should literally just spend that money and time on marketing." -- EEDAR Director of Analyst Services Jesse Divnich, at the Montreal International Games Summit, on whether advertising or review scores has more influence on the sales success of a game. He also said that advertising affected a game's revenue "three times more than game scores." (Both quotes courtesy of Edge).

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