Publishers: withholding review code is wrong

Friday, 5 April 2013 08:26 GMT By Dave Cook

In the past fortnight we’ve seen a handful of middling games release ahead of reviews. VG247’s Dave Cook argues that the practice of withholding code can do more damage than bad metascores.

Dear publishers,

I don’t like being called a game journalist. I prefer to be called a game critic. For a long time my job has been to offer critique of games and topics for a variety of outlets, so that I can inform the buying decisions of my readership. These are your customers. These people pay you money for your products.

To properly assess a game I need time to play it through and to closely inspect every mechanic, element of design, multiplayer components and other separate parts to see if the complete package warrants the top-line asking price.

It’s a failure if I can’t give an accurate picture of what your product is like, then my readership spends good money on an inferior product.

When you realise you have a bad game on your hands, and you choose to hold no preview events for the press, or withhold review code until the game is already out, then, I’m sorry, but you’re effectively conning your customers.

I understand that “shock and awe” is a term used regularly in the game marketing world. I’ve interviewed enough independent developers who hate the phrase to understand that it exists. It’s the notion of keeping elements of a game secret until your marketing plan allows them to be made public.

You can file teaser trailers, screenshot reveals, release date reveals, pre-order incentive reveals and soundtrack composer reveals under “shock and Awe”. I call it something else. I call it deception. The games industry has become a circus of half-truths, mystery and false messages. You see this whenever studios release tarted-up bullshots of games. It’s a false image.

Transparency was once a dying virtue in the games industry, but it has found new life in the PC scene, where paid alphas and Kickstarter campaigns live or die depending on how open and responsive a studio can be. The open forum approach and the dialogue between consumer and developer can make for a superior product, but this is a rare thing in the triple-A market.

Developers now have to hit certain Metacritic scores in order to keep their publishers happy, keep their bonus pay and, in some cases, keep their jobs.

So when a publishing house like you knows it has a dud game on its hands you often engage in in a spate of dishonest rug-sweeping. Should you choose to give me and my press colleagues an early glimpse of such a product, it’s usually a cleverly-orchestrated ‘vertical-slice’ that makes your game look better than it is.

You may also push out trailers that give an incorrect view of the final product, but at times publishers might choose to hold no preview events for a bad game, or to withhold review code so that the press can’t tear it apart pre-launch. But here’s a better solution: make a better game. It’s not our fault that you ended up with a poor product. Stopping us, agents of the gaming press, from properly appraising your product before it goes to market reflects badly on you.

Sure, you may still squeeze sales out of people before the bad reviews come out, but what does that say about how you view those paying customers? From this side of the fence it looks like you see them as money in the bank, rather than loyal fans who have perhaps saved and squandered for your game for some time. That is no way to maintain customer loyalty.

Take your poor reviews like grown-ups and learn from the experience. See and understand what you did poorly and use it to better your next project. Iteration is a major part of game development.

Why not hold preview events early, read the resulting previews and use that feedback to make much-needed changes? How about paid alphas that evolve over time thanks to the input of gamers and the press? We can help you make these games better at a distance.

The games press needn’t be your enemy. Read what we have to say and use it like a tool. Talk to your fans properly.

Stop hiding behind misleading marketing campaigns and doctored images that dupe customers into parting with their money for nothing more than a fantasy. When they see the reality of your poor product having paid for the displeasure, they will pin the blame squarely on you.

Insight is crucial. Last year I argued in a blog that game reviews should tone back the philosophical fluff and just explain whether a game is good or not. That’s the core of any review. I was quickly accused of missing the point, and was told by a commenter that reviews shouldn’t just be a straight list of product features and opinions.

That’s not what I was saying at all. It’s just when I read an article about game that rambles on for four paragraphs about what the interviewee is wearing and having for lunch, I switch off. I’m not interested in how many big words a reviewer knows. Just tell me if the game is any good or not. When you, publishers, withhold final review code because you fear a poor Metacritic score, then you’re effectively curbing that insight.

I’ll concede that, yes, publishers in the majority have lifted the ‘red rope’ on studios. And I’ll agree that gamers today have never been given so much insight into how development works.

But there is still much work to be done. When I see a five second teaser for a teaser trailer that shows nothing, I can’t help but think we’re all missing the bigger picture here. Transparency can be useful for all corners of the industry – press, developer, publisher and consumer – but until certain companies realise that their customers are more than just money then this malpractice won’t cease.

Withholding code does your customers a grave disservice. When I see your game placed high in the charts without any reviews to criticise it, that doesn’t make me think you’re shrewd. I’m sure that many gamers reading this feel the same way.


Dave Cook, game critic.