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Opinion: 'PR’s Dirty Little Game With 11th Hour Reviews'
Opinion: 'PR’s Dirty Little Game With 11th Hour Reviews' Exclusive
May 27, 2008 | By Simon Parkin

May 27, 2008 | By Simon Parkin
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    11 comments
More: Console/PC, Exclusive



[In a sharply worded opinion piece, British games journalist and producer Simon Parkin discusses how limited access to Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV may have affected its initial reception by the press, suggesting that withholding pre-release versions may be affecting reviews of many big game titles.]

Judgments cast before they'd been adequately weighed; words sold before they’d been properly valued; shallow opinions that should have been presented as the first word in a conversation but were dropped with the clacking gavel pound of a conclusion. Yeah, every writer has regrets.

Four weeks ago in this publication I referred to Grand Theft Auto IV’s depiction of immigrants as being more nuanced and sympathetic than that demonstrated by the exquisite Baltimore-set television drama, The Wire.

The exact words were: “[Niko Bellic’s] portrayal should do more to warm viewers to illegal immigrants than any of the (nevertheless awesome) characters in, say, the culturally-acclaimed TV series, The Wire.”

While it seems like a harmless enough statement it was an idiotic comparison considering the heavyweight dramatic nature of the television series and the shits-and-giggles, tongue-in-cheek parody of the video game.

But what’s really nagged and irritated me over the following weeks is that, with a little distance and perspective, the bold proclamation was so obviously made, like so many from within our industry, with the aim of elevating video games to the respectability of more established media via bald association.

The opinion piece was written following a short weekend's playing of the game just prior to its release and, as I’ve played on through the rest of the story, the fault lines in that specific claim have become ever more apparent. While I adore the slow pacing of the first few hours, the way Nico starts off on the straight and narrow and is dragged into the shadows of the American Dream by forces of poverty and necessity, the game soon enough swings into full adolescent-posing-as-adult narrative fizz.

There’s nothing particularly unusual or wrong with that, especially when sat alongside Hollywood’s output, but claiming it has anything particularly meaningful to say about the immigration issue is stretching the game beyond its purpose.

More interesting than this whiny narcissism are the forces that brought about my (and ten thousand other professional) snap judgments of the game.

In the weeks prior to GTA IV’s release, Rockstar made promises that print and online publications would receive early review code so that they might fully ingest and digest Liberty City in order to deliver mature and balanced opinions on its day of launch.

In reality, this was not the case, with precious few publications getting to spend prolonged time with the game ahead of release. The first review of the game came from the UK’s Official Xbox magazine bearing the worrying caveat “based on unfinished code”.

Eurogamer, wise to the fact promises of AAA title retail code ‘a week before release’ are rarely upheld, arranged to play through the game over a period of days in Rockstar’s offices instead (along with a couple of other UK publications). From speaking to other editors (some of high profile titles) this was not an opportunity offered to all and, when review code failed to turn up the week before release, many were left panicking about how they were going to serve their readers in a timely manner with any integrity.

The reason for the withholding of review code was, according to Rockstar, a result to the game’s leaking onto the internet seven days before its release. Speaking to the company at the time it was claimed that this leak came from an unscrupulous journalist.

As a result, there was a lock down on all review code: everybody would get their copy just one day before the game’s release, and, despite the wonky logic (after all the game had already leaked to those with the capability to play it so why punish the many for the indiscretion of the few) there were to be “no exceptions, no arguments”.

At best then, by the time the game had been played, copy written and subbed ready for the Tuesday morning, most journalists (both in the UK and the US) had played for only a few hours, experiencing just a fraction of the game’s content, a situation testified to by various admissions in professional reviews.

Time Magazine dubbed their piece Grand Theft Auto IV: The 6.24% Review while the Associated Press reviewer, Lou Kesten, admitted to having spent only spent eight hours with the game.

Slate Magazine’s excellent Chris Baker admitted he only had chance to ‘scratch the surface of the game’ going on to say in a comment on N'Gai Croal’s Level Up blog: "I couldn't even attempt to be definitive…it was kinda liberating”.

The BBC noted the phenomenon saying: "Most reviewers were not sent advance copies of the game, and instead had to attend Rockstar offices or sit in booked hotel rooms to play the game,” where Rockstar could keep an eye and some pressure on them. While these few admitted the partial and necessarily subjective nature of their reviews, how many passed off their impressions as being definitive of the whole?

Rockstar aren't the first ones to handle big title reviews in this way. Nintendo’s recent ploy, in the UK at least, is to require reviewers to visit the ‘Nintendo Flat’ in London, a place where one can book slots to review titles for a period of time (depending on what slots are left over from the prioritised lifestyle mags and newspapers) from the comfort of one of the company’s armchairs.

For the reviewer it’s an inconvenience at best, at worst a pernicious and blatant attempt to colour their opinion in as short an amount of time as possible. Halo 3, Super Mario Galaxy, Mario Kart Wii: all big name titles (in both size and stature) only supplied to many games reviewers a few days before their release.

But what’s the benefit to a PR or publisher in holding back code from non-exclusive reviewers till the eleventh hour, especially if the game is hotly anticipated and good? In part the practice has been fueled by the internet, where there are simply too many websites about video games. The competition to be first to ‘print’ with a review, while always a consideration in magazine publishing, is exacerbated through the global competitive nature of the net. In this environment many gaming website publishers are willing to publish a final review even if it’s only based on very tentative impressions of a small portion of the game.

After all, the effectiveness of a ‘buyer’s guide’ review is reduced the closer its publication gets to the game’s release. Any reviews appearing a few days and weeks after a game’s release is almost completely superfluous, thanks to the industry and its consumer’s obsession with the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.

By withholding code until a late stage then (be it through design or ineptitude), a PR can force a journalist to rely on marketing hype and information to fill the gaps in their knowledge of the game when writing copy. In this way, control of the critical reaction is shifted back to the PR in a subtle and (arguably) legitimate way.

Add into this the journalist’s natural inclination to want to say something, anything, that will distinguish his/ her copy and opinion from everybody else and you start to get bold proclamations being made and unlikely comparisons being drawn. The pressure to say something, anything serious and unique to distinguish your piece from ten thousand others that litter the Internet is heavy. There are too many games journalists tussling over too few opinions with too little time to make them and the PRs have learned to turn that to their advantage.

What’s interesting is the recent rise in a different approach to reviews, one that isn’t dependent on their being published on the day of a game’s launch and that doesn’t doesn’t come with a score attached. The staggering popularity of Ben ‘Yathzee’ Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation videos (which, according to Alexa.com have booted host site The Escapist’s profile up several internet leagues), are almost always focused on games that the viewers have already experienced first hand post-release.

Of course, its popularity has been driven by excellent knob gags but behind the stickman puerile humor there is something more serious and profound going on. People might come for the cock jokes but they stay for the critical chutzpah that props them up. It mightn’t look like it in the classical sense, but Zero Punctuation is one of the first pieces of games criticism, as opposed to reviewing, to hit the mainstream.

A more serious example is Edge magazine’s excellent monthly ‘Time Extend’ feature, which attempts a more orthodox approach to criticism, placing a game in its wider context, drawing out its long terms achievements, identifying its aims and its various success and failures in those goals (disclosure: I'm a long time Edge contributor who has penned numerous Time Extends).

Perhaps it’s time for the industry to treat reviews as snapshot buying guides, inconclusive first words in the conversation, and to nurture the more fertile and under-populated ground for more helpful and insightful long-view criticism in the weeks and months following a game’s release.


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Comments


Anonymous
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I think most people understand that "reviews" only scratch the surface of what's there, especially with games. Blaming it solely on the publisher extending an advanced copy in "not enough time" is such a ridiculous claim. It's completely forgetting that the reviewers have deadlines and constraints of their own. No game ever gets a solid, complete review - not even the small guys who don't get their game reviewed until a month (if their lucky) after sending it. Most games have so much going on in them that reviews don't have the time, space, or experience to write about them. That doesn't even take into account multiplayer portions which can't fairly be reviewed until they are played in a retail environment.



You guys owe it to your readers to take specific events of the game that stand out and write about those. If you are bone-headed enough to try to encapsulate the entirety of any game in the few words you've been given then you deserve to regret what you wrote.



As for review scores, I think most people know not to try and analyze them too much. A 10 basically means if you only buy one game this year than buy this one, a 9 means if you only buy three games this year than buy this one, an 8...



If you want to get serious about reviews and your words Simon then I suggest you start revisiting your reviews. Do a "first impression", then a "2nd impression" 6 months later, and finally do a "3rd impression" when the sequel comes out. Your readers will love you and the people that could care less about the follow ups probably didn't catch "The Wire" comparison or any other sentence you wrote that wasn't in the conclusion.

Simon Parkin
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Anon: The piece doesn't lay the blame solely at the feet of the publishers and their PR departments. Rather, it's just pointing out that holding back review code until a late stage is an increasing trend within the industry, especially as we move from a predominantly print-based media with long lead times to a web-based culture where opinions can be formed, written and posted within the hour. This trend exacerbates the reviewer's own deadlines and constraints and can, in desperate situations, shift the critical lens towards marketing and away from truth.



Your point about there never being a comprehensive 'review' of a game - particularly when they are so huge and multi-faceted these days - is true, but that's where criticism should step in. I think you can have nucanced, deep and insightful criticsim without having to cover every mechnical element of a game's contruction in delivering it.



Re: scores, if you think that the majority of readers don't expect a review and its associated score to be the last word on a subject then you don't know many typical readers. While it's cute that you outlined your particular metric of what scores mean, there are as many different meanings attached to numerical scales as there are publications using them, and indeed, readers interpreting them.



I am deadly serious about my reviews and my words, that's why I wrote this piece. I agree with what you're saying about how reviews should, if applicable, be presented as 'first impressions' at point of a game's release with a deeper, critical long view in the weeks and months (in fact, I'm pretty sure that's what's suggested in this article's conclusion) but, no matter how eloquent or perspicacious the words used in this approach, it won't sell many magazines or satiate many readers.

Roberto Alfonso
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Who is the culprit, the company that does not send early review copies or the reviewers who deliver perfect reviews without having experienced the full game for longer periods of time?



I think many reviewers read other sites' review and complete their own with others' impressions, which explains why are willing to risk giving a perfect review for a game they haven't even finished. Had the early punctuation of the game in IGN been lower than perfect, all the other reviews would have been lower.

Steve Amodio
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EXCELLENT article, tackling some of the issues that plague game reviewing, though the sad part is that this review of the issues cannot hope to be anywhere near conclusive.



Also to be considered: the vast amount of game "press" that depends on the developers and publishers for complimentary access and advertising income, and the petty nature of studios to "blacklist" you after receiving negative reviews.

Bryson Whiteman
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It seems like its a shady practice to offer so little review time for a game as grand as Grand Theft Auto 4. It's fortunate that game actually deserves the praise that its received, because I'm sure we're all familiar with heavy-hyped games that start off great but fall short before their ending.



To Simon Parkin, it's good that you've brought up the immigration issue among other things in your article. GTA is incredibly ridiculous at times, and I think it owes much of that to its video game roots, but it still has a lot of important things to say about our society. I wish more developers were more bold enough to actually have an opinion about something. I hope it keeps people talking, thinking, dreaming.



To address the first Anonymous, I think most people expect the reviewer to have done more than "scratch the surface" of the game. They certainly don't present reviews in that manner.



"You see, I only played half of the game, but this is what I think of it so far because I have a deadline."



By the way, I only read half of this article. jk

Anonymous
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Simon: I'm glad we agree that reviews should be extended beyond the initial article because I think that this is the future of video game reviews although I disagree with your statement that it won't sell magazines or satiate readers. The reason being that the initial review for the most part is being looked at by consumers as "what's wrong with the game".



Most gamers looking for opinions on a brand new full-priced game are looking to hear that they aren't going to regret spending $60 on something that they can't get their money back for. And publishers, rightfully so IMO, are protecting their art by letting reviewers get a reasonable time, and no more than that, with the game to describe this to its audience. If a player/reviewer can't decide within 8 hours of the game whether they like it, love it, tolerate it, or despise it then they should be writing about that.



Anything that comes outside of those first impressions, should really be reserved for the kind of talk you would have after having experienced the game with others who have done the same. IMO, it's at this point when you can dig deeper and make clearer comparisons to other forms of media. There are many gamers looking for critical thoughts on games they've already played by talented, responsible writers. Obviously it's not a cover story but it is something that makes for good reading or watching - as you have pointed out with "Zero Punctuation".



P.S.

As a "Wire" fan, I know you know what I'm talking about. There is a distinct difference between two people, who have watched the Wire, talking about the episode after the fact or at the end of the season versus when you "Review" (professionally or privately) the series to people who haven't seen it yet. The former is a much longer and exciting conversation that is appreciated by both sides.



Bryson:

I think that a lot of gamers who care about reviews, have seen time and time again that reviewers routinely miss the point of a game, a storyline, or a feature because they did not spend enough time on the game or they rushed through it. They have seen, for no clear reason, mediocre games get stellar scores and vice versa. So they take it all with a grain of salt (ahem meta-critic, game rankings, forum posts) but they do take it because they don't have many other options.



You make the joke about reading half of the article, but everyone knows that a good percentage of people looking at reviews flip/scroll right to the score first.

Robert Farr
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Nice article, I must admit to being somewhat concerned by how joe public interprets game reviews - Knowing full well that there are plenty of beta testing game players who complain about MMOs lacking polish on forums as if the game has just been released and seem to be lacking the realisation that it is, after, beta code that they are playing, so of course it would unpolished.



If there are beta testers doing that, then I can easily see people reading game reviews and assuming (Through no fault of their own) that the reviewer has had plenty of time to draw their conclusions.



1. I think there should be more extended play articles, especially for large open ended games and in particular - MMOs which have ongoing development and therefor change over time.

2. I also think there should be more articles about the difficulties of games journalism getting into game review websites and magazines, partly because it makes interesting reading as above but also because I think, as any ambitious journalist loves to say, "The public needs to know". ;-)

Claire Blackshaw
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I whole heartedly agree with this.



While I don't normally allow reviews to sell me your statement about Nico's portrayl sold me on the game. When the game started with I agreed with you but as playtime went on the weight of all the negative humour and swearing caused me to shelf the game.

Kaye R
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Great read.



It basically follows up on the previous article where metacritic and scores in general are criticized for being the goal of the industry as of late. I myself have never bought or didn't buy a game based on its score, but over the larger population, I would have to agree with small findings that claimed it did.



Perhaps some of those games would have become "cult hits" if they had not also received high ratings, as opposed to "complete hits", but it's something no one will see if reviews are not brought to a level that is worth mention. Until then, I will continue to play high rated games and continue to be confused as to what the reviewers were thinking.



Regarding the deadline, there was a recent Ars Technica review of Age of Conan, in which the reviewer is up front and claims to only have gotten to level 25 of 80. He had generally positive things to say. As it would so happen, the first comment is a reader pointing out everything that is wrong with the game approximately level 45 and up.



Now, my question is whether or not we can or should expect reviewers to actually complete a game? During times when games are mostly becoming shorter, yes, yet the distance from the readers, due to the internet, is just about non-existent.



I would have to disagree with Anon@12:42 about the content of reviews. Those first eight hour impressions are what the publishers want, so they can sell a product. I believe reviewers should be more objective, first of all, and most definitely look at games as a whole rather than just first impressions. Looking at Mass Effect's review at IGN. They spend one page objectively looking at flaws. The other three pages are spent on the 'RPG elements' of which there aren't that many. I admit I enjoyed them, but the flaws prevented me from actually getting to them. Instead, there is little to no mention of how the UI is poor compared to many RPGs, specifically the map/radar. There is no mention of being forced to watch your character sit in elevators (something I thought we had long grown out of forcing players to do), or the rather poor pacing of combat, which is more unforgiving than even Ninja Gaiden on a higher than normal difficulty.

Anonymous
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@Kaye R - "t basically follows up on the previous article where metacritic and scores in general are criticized for being the goal of the industry as of late."



you mean like MS and it's recent XBLA 'delisting' shenanigans, and press releases flaunting metacritic scores?

Brandon Van Every
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I don't trust reviews, I trust demos.


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