*which isn’t actually as corrupt as some people claim
Many people, myself included, would say game reviews are the most important part of being a games journalist.
We can write news articles, previews, blog pieces and the like about a game until we’re blue in the fingers, but all this coverage is mere hype building up to the ultimate question: is it any good?
Because of their importance, it’s also no surprise that reviews are the one aspect of games journalism that gets the most criticism and accusations thrown at it. Some of this is justified, much of it isn’t.
In my nine years at Future Publishing I wrote over 500 reviews: mostly for Nintendo games but also the occasional Xbox or PlayStation title. And I still regularly get bold souls telling me my opinion is ‘wrong’, as if I have anything to gain by telling people that shit game I played was brilliant.
Here, then, is the first part of my definitive guide to the world of game reviews: how they work, the daft ‘objective review’ myth, the shitshow that is the embargo system and that most dreaded of numbers, the score.
This initial part deals with embargoes and the power battle that sometimes goes on between reviewers, publishers and PRs.
As in my introductory article, I’ll be adopting the ‘fake Q&A’ technique again for this. After all, there are plenty of lovely folks out there who think we journalists are as corrupt as Magneto’s floppy disk collection, so it may be best to address this slightly controversial topic using some of the genuine questions I’ve been asked over the years.
Right then, let’s get stuck in. Deep breaths, everyone.
Reviewing video games, eh? Must be brilliant fun.
It usually is, yup. Sometimes it can be more of a hassle than you’d expect, though.
Rubbish. Getting paid to play games all day? You’ve got it easy, mate. I do a real job, you get paid to be a kid.
I also have to meet tight deadlines and ensure my reviews are fully written and laid out in time. This may be fine for some games, but with others it can be a pretty exhausting process.
Examples, you corrupt arsehole. I demand examples.
Okay, picture this scene (which has happened to me numerous times in the past). You’re tired. You’re looking forward to having a rest over the weekend. You’re in one of those moods where you can’t really be bothered playing games, you just want to watch the telly or go out with your mates or something.
Thursday comes and new review code arrives at the office. Your editor gives you the game and asks you to review it. The deadline’s Monday. As you take the game and have a look at what you’ll be reviewing, three dreaded letters force their way into your life (and, ultimately, your weekend): RPG.
This isn’t your typical platformer you can have beaten in six to eight hours, this is a proper 30-40 hour affair that is going to take up a hefty chunk of your free time.
You see, contrary to popular belief, we don’t just play games in the office all day. There are only 40 working hours in the week, and that time also has to be spent writing, researching, taking screenshots, capturing footage, planning features and doing all the other tasks this job entails. As a result, most of the time spent playing games for review purposes takes place at home.
I appreciate that getting to play games before they’re released is a fantastic perk of the job, and I do get a little thrill every single time I load up a new game and see the title screen. But there is still a degree of stress that comes with having to play through an RPG and write 1500 words on it over the course of a weekend, especially if you’re in one of those ‘I don’t feel like playing a game’ moods. At times, then, reviews with tight deadlines can remove the fun from gaming and make it feel more like you’re taking your work home with you.
Would I change it? Not for the world. I’m just saying it’s not the all-pro, no-con job you may think it is.
Cry me a river, you crook. You could write any old shite anyway: after all, the review you write depends on how much money the game’s publisher pays you.
Ah, that old chestnut. I’m afraid this is one of those overused myths that’s completely untrue. In nearly nine years I haven’t accepted a single penny from a publisher or developer to write a positive review of their game, and I don’t know any of my peers or former colleagues who have either.
But I’m sure someone must have at some point.
I don’t doubt it. There are pricks in every walk of life so I’m sure at some point a games journalist has taken a bribe to write a positive review. But I’m also sure at some point a footballer’s taken a bribe to throw a match: that doesn’t mean every professional footballer is corrupt.
If there has ever been an incident of a games journalist being paid by a game publisher (and like I say, I don’t personally know of any), and should that incident ever be exposed in the future, in no way should this tar us all with the same brush.
In a sense, this is the other way (apart from the obvious one) in which GamerGate is deeply flawed. Let’s put aside the actual reason for GamerGate for a minute – because we aren’t idiots and we know what it’s really all about – and give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s pretend it really is about ethics in game journalism.
If that’s the case (and remember, it isn’t really), the ‘movement’ came about because of a single incident. Whether that incident was right or wrong or anyone’s business is neither here nor there: the result was that this incident somehow became ‘proof’ that the entire games industry was guilty of corruption, that the actions of a few were somehow the practices of the many.
Of course, this is coming from the same people who routinely complain that just because a Call Of Duty player killed someone in real life, it’s wrong of the mainstream media to suggest all gamers could do the same. I should probably get my eyes checked, because I’m seeing double standards.
You’re losing me here.
Our reviews aren’t bought, is what I’m saying.
But surely the publishers and their PRs at least try to sway you?
I need to be careful here because I don’t want to be a hypocrite by coming out with a blanket statement right after I’ve condemned that sort of thing.
It would be incorrect to claim that PRs regularly try to sort out deals with publications regarding reviews. Much as I’m sure some people like to picture us stuffing £100 notes into our overflowing pockets as bigwig publishers smoke chubby cigars, that just doesn’t happen. However, there have been rare occasions in the past in which I’ve been aware of certain review deals taking place. I should stress, though, that these deals were not a case of ‘buying’ review scores or money changing hands.
Instead, on the rare occasions I’ve heard of it (and we’re talking once or twice in my nine years: again, nowhere near proof that it’s widespread), it’s involved publishers letting magazines break a review embargo early because the game in question has received a good score.
Before you run down to the shops to buy a box of matches to light your flaming torch, the following should be made clear: in these very infrequent circumstances, the magazine had already decided on a score before getting in touch with the publisher to discuss the embargo, and therefore the review wasn’t influenced.
It’s not a case of “can we get the first review if we agree to give it a 9”: that’s blatant dodginess and any publication that would try to pull that shit would have its reputation forever tarnished if it was found out.
Instead, it’s more a case of “hey, we really like this game and we’re probably going to give it a good review, so it would be mutually beneficial for both of us if our review is the first one out”.
I don’t know, it still sounds a bit dodgy to me.
Well, it is a tiny bit I suppose, if only because the publication is telling the publishing in advance what score it’s giving a game in an attempt to get an embargo-breaking review and therefore an unfair advantage over other publications. But since that publication was always going to give the game a good score anyway and hasn’t been influenced by the PR in that respect, it’s certainly not in the same league as the typical “how much did they pay you to write that” quips that always crop up in the comments section of every high-scoring review I write.
So, tell me about embargoes then.
Fuck embargoes. They’re almost always the worst thing about the review process.
Why? I mean, obviously I know why, but for the sake of this article, humour me.
Well, for those not in the know, embargoes are restrictions placed on the publication of reviews by the game’s publisher. Usually these restrictions are based on time – you can’t print a review until a certain date – but sometimes they also prevent you from revealing certain information, such as hidden secrets in a game.
Embargoes have been around at least for as long as I’ve been in the industry, and to the best of my knowledge long before that too. And even though they have occasional benefits, for the most part they’re a massive pain in the arse.
What are the benefits?
When embargoes are handled properly and given to us with a good deal of advance notice, they’re a good way of ensuring that no publication has an advantage over another. If we’ve got a game to review and the embargo isn’t for a couple of weeks, that gives us time to play the game fully, do the review properly and not rush anything, safe in the knowledge that we aren’t racing against other websites to get the review out the door first.
And… um, well, that’s the only benefit, really.
And the drawbacks?
Well, the problem is that, as I said above, that’s only well and good when embargoes are handled properly. Sadly, there are plenty of ways in which a publisher can hinder a journalist’s ability to give a timely, accurate review to their readers.
A notable example of this is embargoes that lift the day before a game is released. Back in the day this wasn’t really much of an issue: you’d be interested in a game, you’d wait for the reviews to come out, if the reviews were positive enough to your liking you’d go out the next day and buy the game when it’s released.
These days though, more and more people buy games online, and these games are usually sent out to customers a few days early so it’s delivered on the day of release. This means by the time a game’s review embargo lifts, it’s already winging its way to a lot of readers who wanted it on day one.
It’s also rare these days that a big game is released without some sort of pre-order incentive. Just have a think about pre-orders for a minute and consider whether they’re truly there to benefit you. Other than the odd occasion you could probably count on one mitten, when was the last time you couldn’t buy a new game because it was completely sold out everywhere?
Pre-order bonuses may be presented to you in such a way that they seemingly to benefit the gamer – hey, be a faithful fan of our game and buy it in advance and you’ll get all this cool shit – but they’re created purely to benefit the publisher. They ‘lock in’ your sale, which is crucial for two reasons: it helps them push up the charts during that important first week, and it urges you to buy the game ‘blind’ before any reviews are published.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest some people may have cancelled their Assassin’s Creed Unity pre-orders if they’d known about the game’s numerous technical issues. They couldn’t, however, because the press was embargoed. Unity was released on 11 November, but the embargo didn’t lift until 5pm (UK time) that day. Good luck cancelling your pre-order when it’s already been pushed through your letterbox.
Essentially banning reviews until mid-way through the first day on sale is an extreme example, and Ubisoft was rightly hammered for it. But a lot of other publishers have embargoes set the day before release, and in a world where many people’s online purchases are shipped out a couple of days prior, that’s still far too late.
What’s your advice then?
My advice for the reader is this. Don’t pre-order a game unless:
1) It’s something you desperately want to own no matter what. For example, you may be a massive fan of FIFA or WWE games, in which case you can’t see yourself not buying FIFA 16 or WWE 2K16 when they’re out regardless of the scores. In that case, get in among it.
2) You’re prepared for teething problems, especially if you play online. Nintendo games aside, day one patches are pretty much the order of the day now so most games are a bit ‘broken’ to some extent at launch. Always prepare for the worst case DriveClub, Halo: Master Chief Collection or SimCity situation, and as long as you’re still okay with that then go for it. It’s shambolic, but that’s where we are.
Otherwise, wait for the reviews. The game will obviously still be out a few days after launch, and people will obviously still be playing it online, so it’s not like you miss out on anything special by waiting a few days to make sure it’s all good in the hood before buying.
But what about the pre-order goodies? I want that extra mission / character / unnecessarily revealing alternative costume and I won’t be able to get it if I don’t tell the publisher to shut up and take my money.
99 times out of 100 that pre-order bonus will be made available to buy as separate DLC further down the line. Even better, by that time the game’s price has usually dropped so much that you’ll be able to buy both the game and the DLC for cheaper than the pre-order would have cost.
In short, if there’s a new game coming out but you’ve got enough in your backlog to be getting on with, resist the temptation to pre-order and wait until the review coverage starts to appear and it seems positive.
Unless it’s a Nintendo game.
Ah, you biased prick. That’s the second time you’ve slipped in some pro-Nintendo shit.
This may surprise you, but from a journalist’s perspective, Nintendo is by far the best company to deal with. Despite its reputation for being notoriously secretive with its stuff, Nintendo sends out review copies much earlier than anyone else and has embargoes that usually end weeks before a game’s out.
I don’t believe you.
Okay, let’s take Mario Kart 8 as an example. A massive game, clearly one a lot of people would want to pre-order. It even had its own pre-order bonus in the UK, a fancy Spiny shell statue, as an incentive to get people to fork out their money early.
Mario Kart 8’s release date was 30 May in both Europe and North America. For many other publishers, this would often result in a review embargo of 29 May.
The games press started receiving download codes for the full version of Mario Kart 8 on 1 May, a full month before it was due to be released. This is a massive help for journalists because it gives us plenty of time to not only fully play through the game, but also digest it, have a think about it and take time to craft a detailed review. It’s the complete opposite of the RPG weekend rush job example I gave earlier.
The embargo date for Mario Kart 8 was 8am (UK time) on 15 May, a full fortnight after the press got the game and a full fortnight before its general release. This would have given gamers plenty of time to cancel their pre-orders should the reviews have been less than positive.
It also gives sites the freedom to choose when to post their review. Of course, most still went live as soon as the embargo lifted, but a site could have posted their Mario Kart review ten days after everyone else if they wanted to, and it would still have been timely enough for their readership to make a decision pre-launch.
The result was a situation which put the power in the hands of the press and, ultimately, the reader, rather than one in which the publisher essentially controlled the way its games were covered.
This wasn’t an exception, either. Nintendo routinely gives the press review copies of its games long before release, with generous embargoes that give them the flexibility to decide when to go live with their reviews.
Conveniently, today’s a good example of this: the review embargo for another big Nintendo game lifts later today and reviews will start going live, even though the game isn’t out for another week and a half.
So you don’t always get review code that early from other publishers?
You’re a funny guy, I’ll give you that much. I don’t want this to turn into a name and shame game: I’m not in the habit of burning bridges. So instead I’ll just say that some publishers are generally very good at getting code to us early (albeit often with typically day-before-launch embargoes), whereas others are often annoyingly late with code.
This starts the old suspicion glands throbbing, and you start to wonder if maybe you’ve been sent the game late because it isn’t very good and the publisher knows you won’t be able to turn a review around quickly enough in time before it’s released.
And sometimes a publisher simply won’t send you review code for certain games and will ignore your requests for it, because they’d rather we completely ignored it rather than give it the shit score it’s almost guaranteed to get. Fellow journalists reading this will probably be thinking of a certain publisher right now, but like I said, I’m not into naming and shaming just now so let’s move on.
What happens when you don’t get a game then?
It depends. Sometimes we have no choice but to leave it. If the game’s fairly uninteresting in the first place it’s almost pointless trying to get code after release because none of our readers will care about the review and we’d just be wasting time we could be spending on another upcoming game. Sometimes though, if we decide we do still want to review it, we’ll go and buy the game, inevitably find out that it is indeed shit, and give it the kicking it deserves. I’ve had a few angry calls and emails from PRs asking how I got hold of certain games they didn’t send us, as if the idea that we’d actually go to a shop and spend money on it is insane. Which says a lot about the quality of the game!
Why don’t you just break an embargo if you aren’t happy with it? It’s not like someone’s going to come and rip your bastard lungs out or anything.
No, but good luck ever reviewing another one of that publisher’s games ever again. Publishers hold a lot of power in this business: like I said at the start, reviews are arguably the most important part of what we do, and publishers are the ones who hold the keys (literally, in the case of downloads). Break an embargo and there’s a chance your publication will be blacklisted.
Most embargoes are mutual agreements, since the press grudgingly accepts that we need these games to do our job, and burning bridges will result in the fire spreading to the nearby grass and ultimately reducing the publishing house to ashes. Or something.
Other embargoes, however, are legal documents. Usually it’s a sort of “break our embargoes and we’ll take you to court for damages” situation, but occasionally there are some silly conditions in there. One publisher once tried to make us sign an embargo that would allow them to come to our office and confiscate our computers and consoles if we reviewed early. Thankfully, Future has a legal department who looks over all embargoes for daft pish like that before it accepts them.
But if the point is not to piss them off, surely if you give their games a bad score that would piss them off too? Wouldn’t that get you blacklisted?
It’ll piss them off but it wouldn’t get us blacklisted. Even though the publisher has a lot of power in this situation, if they were to start refusing publications review copies because their last game got a bad score, it’s safe to say said publications would probably tell their readers this was the case. Cue a backlash from said readers.
Embargoes are annoying but they’re a compromise that we have to agree to in order that we can do our job: reviewing games. If a bad score meant we didn’t get the publisher’s next game, then we’d essentially be prevented from doing our job because we did our job. If you catch my drift.
Readers may think reviewers are pricks and say our scores are bullshit, but they’d be a lot angrier at a publisher if they weren’t providing us with code. It’s the old quote attributed to Voltaire (even though it wasn’t his): “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
So, nope, giving a game a bad score won’t get us blacklisted. Usually.
It has happened to me, albeit only once in my career.
I once wrote an angry opinion piece about a game (which will remain nameless), stating my dislike for it and branding it a ‘rip-off’. At the time the publisher contacted me (via their PR, who is actually a lovely person) and demanded I pull the article.
I refused to do it. I told them it was an opinion piece and I wasn’t going to hide my opinion just because it would piss off a publisher. However, as a gesture of goodwill, I changed ‘rip-off’ to ‘waste of money’, so it didn’t imply the publisher was being dodgy.
The game ended up being successful (so my piece clearly worked, heh) and the inevitable sequel rolled out the following year. I emailed the same lovely PR and asked if we could have review code for the sequel.
“I’ve been asked to ask you if your opinion on the series is still the same as it was last year”, the PR replied.
“That shouldn’t matter,” I answered. “I review each game as a standalone title.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
I never received any code.
What was the game?
Well, that’s end of part one. In the second part I’ll…
What was the name of the game you didn’t get sent?
In the second part I’ll look at review scores. How I decide on them, whether they can be influenced by other factors, and whether we should even have scores in the first place. Also, because this piece was a little negative, I’ll talk about my favourite (and least favourite!) review experiences.
One other thing, though. A lot of this article may start to give you the impression that PRs are arseholes. Let me be really clear about this: PRs are only doing their job and I have the utmost respect for them.
But the name of…
PRs often have a thankless task: if a game does really well the publisher likes to take the credit, but if a game is critically panned and sells twelve copies, often the publisher will hammer the PR for it, as if they were expected to somehow influence a journalist into liking a shit game.
One of the big talking points surrounding the fake ethics part of GamerGate (as opposed to the actual women-hating part) is that journalists and PRs are sometimes friends, as if that instantly implies corruption. This is a disrespectful insinuation, and implies it’s impossible for two people in the same industry to be friendly with each other without their jobs getting in the way.
I have absolutely no shame in saying that I’m good friends with a number of PRs from many major publishers. I’ve still stayed in touch with some since I left CVG, some attend my That Was A Bit Mental film screenings, I’m going out for dinner to Five Guys with one in a couple of weeks (when the bastard finally opens in Wimbledon).
Even though we’re apparently on opposite ‘teams’ – it’s my job to ensure our reviews are accurate while it’s their job to ensure games get as much positive coverage as possible – we still respect each other enough to know that if a game’s shit I’m going to give it a shit score and it’s nothing personal. It’s called professionalism, and if you let your friendship get in the way of your ability to accurately review games, you’re doing it wrong.
At least tell me who the publisher was.
If you have any more questions about the review process, feel free to ask them below and I’ll reply.
See you next time!
You enormous prick.