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Publishers: withholding review code is wrong

Friday, 5th 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.

Sincerely,

Dave Cook, game critic.

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35 Comments

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  1. Samoan Spider

    Excellent letter Dave, I hope some of them sit up and take note. But like anything they know that a shiny turd, if given proper attention, will be shown to be a shiny turd and people won’t buy it. I don’t see this practice changing as much as we would all like it too. As with all industries, there are good guys and there are arseholes.

    #1 1 year ago
  2. Lord Gremlin

    See, some of those publishers get around exclusively by lying to the customer. So, this entire article is basically telling thieves to stop stealing.
    It’s how they roll, stupid. They will die before they change.

    #2 1 year ago
  3. solsticegamer

    “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. ”

    I disagree because reviews can never be objective. What you refer to as “philosophical fluff” is often the reviewer’s perspective. There is a place in reviews for pros and cons, but beyond that, it’s about the experience, and that is very subjective. It’s something that can’t simply be explained with good or bad. That’s why it’s also pointless when certain reviews try to cover aspects like graphics, story, sound, just for the sake of it, like its a box that needs to be ticked. Sometimes those areas need to be left out, and at others they need to be highlighted more. It changes with the game.

    #3 1 year ago
  4. Dave Cook

    @3 Yeah, box ticker reviews are bad, I said as such in my piece above and yeah there is scope for insight and back-stories and other information that help give real value to a review.

    But do I really need to know what Ken Levine is wearing or having for lunch by the pool of some expensive hotel in a BioShock Infinite interview feature? It adds no value to the piece.

    #4 1 year ago
  5. life28

    I call myself game critic too, because I review games for few years. Me, as editor in chief of independent office is always hard to get review copy of game, and usualy, we get them at day of release. There are still much publishers, who can access us into game before release and we can tell reader if game is bad, or good just before release, before buy. But…we are small office and I am scared every time, when I have to post my review back to publisher and their game has poor score. I am scared, that beacuse our reviews have poor score, we won´t get another game in future. So I think, this is one reason why publishers are bit late with review copies, they fear of sales in first days of release.

    #5 1 year ago
  6. Dave Cook

    @5 “They fear of sales in first days of release.”

    Yeah that’s true, and that’s perfectly understandable. But it gives off a bad message. I see gamers often ask us why no reviews have gone live for a game that’s out in the same week. Suspicions get raised and everyone assumes the game is shit. It’s negative.

    #6 1 year ago
  7. DeyDoDoughDontDeyDough

    I agree.

    #7 1 year ago
  8. rbevanx

    “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.”

    It’s their choice to show the game or not, you don’t see magicans showing their tricks before the show…
    I think it’s when they show footage as “in game” when it’s not in game it’s conning people, like with the recent Aliens game.

    It’s not a legal requirement for the publishers to issue a review copy and calling then con artists doesn’t help your argument I’m afraid.

    #8 1 year ago
  9. OmegaSlayer

    Great read.
    Publishers must hear the customer base or they bomb like DmC.
    Because we’re not cash cows and we know what we want.

    Also Dave…nice guts to pull out a piece like this.
    It will gather hate more than enlighten publishers, because…simply because it seems all the people in charge of something in this world are presumptuos, dumb and full of themselves, so they refuse others’ people honest and well thought opinions.

    #9 1 year ago
  10. silkvg247

    Good read.. not sure on the “grow up” part, I think really it’s more to do with them being professional and taking responsibility.

    I wonder which game/games triggered this article?

    In either case, at least the more experienced gamers know to wait for scores before they buy. I made my gf hold back from that walking dead trash.. she’s a fan of the show, she was going to buy it.

    #10 1 year ago
  11. sb319

    This seems curiously naive.

    #11 1 year ago
  12. ps4some

    Nice words Dave I agree entirely.

    You’re pissing in the wind though :)

    #12 1 year ago
  13. viralshag

    What’s the difference between a bad game getting withheld review code and a good game held under wraps by an embargo? The news of whether they are good or bad games will generally come to light at the same time and it’s often at the same level of risk.

    Not to mention the fact that game sites, like VG, will often promote/hype/release any info about said bad/good game before launch. I think game journalism is just as bad for misleading potential customers or catering to their readership.

    #13 1 year ago
  14. frostquake

    Adapt or Die? Evolve or be Replaced? They make perfect sense! But not to a Company run by a Board!
    Remember the ONLY responsibility a board has is to its shareholders! And the only responsibility is P R O F I T!
    While the CEO of Gaming companies may know what is going on, the majority investors, either are on the board, or have a pawn on the board, and some of these people are extremely clueless about how the gaming industry only works! The only reason they are there, is the potential for profit!
    There are great many Documentaries that explain this concept, and why consumers will always be the last concern, ALWAYS!
    The Upper Echelon\Board\Majority Shareholders, will do whatever it takes to make a profit, Not giving review copies, gutting and splitting up a company to make a profit. Their goal is to give the LEAST for the Most! Least for Maximum Return.
    There is a Major Shift in the Economy right now in the USA, and parts of the rest of the world, but most Corporations will NOT change their formulas. As long as they get their profits, they could careless about the workers\developers or the consumers. Once they get their profits out, they are more then happy to let the company go Bankrupt.
    A company I worked for, which I shall not name, was bought by a certain past Presidential Candidate here in the USA. Instead of Him or his board being happy with a smaller profit over the long term, it was much easier to make a quicker profit by gutting the company and then putting it into bankruptcy! Even though thousands of people lost their jobs, the Board and CEO made a ton of quick money, even though if they would have kept the company they would have made more in the long term, but it was too tempting to turn a quick buck! This type of behavior exists in all Companies, including Game Companies!
    So good luck in getting any Company\Corporation to change!

    STAY FROSTY MY FRIENDS!

    #14 1 year ago
  15. Dave Cook

    @13 good games deserve your £45, bad ones don’t.

    #15 1 year ago
  16. viralshag

    @15, How do I know it’s a good game or not? Embargos are usually lifted upon the day of release. People will often have the games pre-ordered anyway if the hype train has been at work.

    So what’s the difference? It’s not like hyped good looking games have turned out to be disappointing before.

    #16 1 year ago
  17. silkvg247

    @15 No game deserves £45, that’s extortion :p

    #17 1 year ago
  18. SameeR_Fisher

    Great read Dave and totally agree, I hope other ‘game critics’ take the same stand as you, and start voicing concern regarding such matters.

    #18 1 year ago
  19. Dave Cook

    @18 They aren’t. They mostly disagree, but thanks for reading.

    #19 1 year ago
  20. Samoan Spider

    @19 And that Dave, is why we are here. We know that you guys aren’t just shills so fuck ‘em.

    #20 1 year ago
  21. ps3fanboy

    very good written article by dave cook here, he hit the nail on the head with this one.

    #21 1 year ago
  22. SameeR_Fisher

    @19: wait what ?!, I thought they won’t talk about it to not harm their relationship with the publisher or something, but disagree ?!

    I mean yeah sure people can disagree, but what is there to disagree about holding out a review copy ?!

    #22 1 year ago
  23. Dave Cook

    @22 I was told my opinion was naive and uneducated. I admit I could have offered more insight into some areas and presented the case of the other side better – I mean that sincerely – but mostly I was told that a PRs job is to help their employer make money and if shrouding the facts is the way to do that then who I am I to argue?

    I still cannot accept that with a smile. I don’t even blame the PR though, I blame the top tier marketing execs. I know lots of PR folk and understand they’re just doing their job, but again it’s my failing for not explaining that better in the piece.

    I used to work in PR for a legal firm though (nothing to do with gaming though) so know full well what parts of the job entail. I should have just stated it better. My bad on that one.

    Live and learn eh?

    #23 1 year ago
  24. SameeR_Fisher

    @23: Dave, I am sure you could have written it better, but to me when I read this piece it felt coming out from me, it was easy to relate to what you are saying as a fellow gamer.

    And really these people see that kind of PR the way to go ?!, seriously ?!, I mean as you said the top tier execs want something specific, but the amount of deceive the consumer goes through should matters most, to say this bluntly we are the reason company X is kicking, loyal consumer who have faith that company X give quality titles, betraying such trust is really dangerous.

    yeah Dave, live and learn, you know most readers here love your pieces, so keep them coming, keep voicing our concerns that may go unchecked, I for one will be always supporting.

    Cheers

    #24 1 year ago
  25. Dave Cook

    @24 thanks pal, much appreciated :)

    #25 1 year ago
  26. Lengendaryboss

    Very impressive letter Dave, stick it to the man :D. I can understand why publishers do it: to fool the uninformed crowd, get as much sales as possible thats the sort of anti-consumer, greedy and sad tactics i don’t like in a publisher. Everyone should know what they are getting into, which is again something the uninformed crowd don’t know about.

    #26 1 year ago
  27. DSB

    It’s certainly brave.

    It’s just another case of control being given over to publishers and PR because the press refuses to stand up for itself.

    If a movie studio refuses to hold press screenings before a premiere, the press responds by covering that irregularity and letting everyone know just how little confidence they have in their movie.

    The obvious result is that 99% of all movies have press screenings after which the press can write what they like.

    The videogaming press doesn’t respond in the same fashion, and so they don’t get the same respect.

    #27 1 year ago
  28. RocknRolla

    I haven’t been registered on this site long, but Dave this is the best I’ve seen from you! Great job man! Keep this up :) this is why I never buy games not known to me before I watch a review, I sudgest the whole should wait for a review as well haha :)

    #28 1 year ago
  29. salarta

    As Dave said, withholding the chance for critics to review a game until it’s already out is ultimately a bad thing for sales. If it’s a bad game, then it’s the difference between a loyal customer seeing the review and merely skipping that one game, or the customer wasting their money on a bad product and deciding not to buy countless future games that they’re on the fence about in case they suck as bad as the first one they wasted their money on.

    Using deception to sell one game is not worth, in the eyes of a sane person, the loss of a sale for ten future games. It’s also one of many reasons I stopped buying anything associated with Squeenix back in 2011. Among the many horrible things about Squeenix’s practices, both FF13 and 3rd Birthday as well as other games involved the writers, directors and marketing openly lying about the content or purpose behind the content as a ploy to boost sales. I can’t support or respect a company that treats its customers like morons.

    #29 1 year ago
  30. Dave Cook

    @28 and @29 thank you guys. Much appreciated.

    #30 1 year ago
  31. Gekidami

    Pat would not agree:
    http://www.vg247.com/2012/05/21/how-diablo-3-gave-metacritic-a-giant-middle-finger/

    “Reviews written after launch, especially those for games which feature a heavy online component, are more accurate and less susceptible to being tainted by publisher control. For the most savvy consumers in the games space – yes, that’s you – that means you’re going to get better reviews from unhurried experts”

    Interesting divergence in opinions.

    “They aren’t. They mostly disagree, but thanks for reading.”
    Indeed.

    #31 1 year ago
  32. Dave Cook

    @31 divergence of opinions is good though I’d say. We are two different people after all. Shows we’re a democracy in the end. Thanks for reading bud.

    #32 1 year ago
  33. scott_wright

    Having just read this I hope you don`t stop doing pieces like this they are great!

    I understand you don`t want people to dislike you Dave but you are doing great work!

    #33 1 year ago
  34. FuzzyPixels

    @31: It depends on what you hold the function of a review to be, and indeed the nature of the game at hand. It’s impossible to successfully review an MMO before launch, and indeed irresponsible to do so, but the vast majority of games may certainly be critiqued in both a timely and thorough manner…

    …given that the actual code arrives on time.

    But it depends what we’re writing for. Are we writing for consumers? Are we writing for developers? Ourselves? Posterity? All of the above?

    Personally, I think Dave’s frustration is warranted, but the practices of PR and marketing folk must be in the interests of their clients rather than those clients’ customers. Sadly the two are not always the same. As critics, it’s up to us to try and change the culture of blind buying, to make transparent what reps seek to make foggy, report on delays and stonewalling and hold publishers to account when code is late. We need articles like this from more of the top tier sites, honest writing (what a novelty!), but coupled with action.

    #34 1 year ago
  35. Dave Cook

    @34 thank you :)

    #35 1 year ago