The traditional game preview event is a no-win situation. On one hand, it's interesting to get an early look at what a studio's been up to, hear them talk about their goals, see some examples of the work in progress. On the other hand, the process is so tightly-controlled that the only possible outcome is usually that we, the press, dutifully hand forward to our audience only what a company wants them to see.
What can one learn about a long-form, interactive product from standing at a plush, crowded display for prescribed minutes, directed through a sequence by a "helpful" marketing professional? That's when we are allowed to touch it at all, which is rare.
The consumer press watches theoretical gameplay segments that have been carefully prepared for the preview day. These demonstrations are bookended by one-sided conversations: An executive proffers canned statements, lists the names of writing talent intended to engender our confidence, sketches out the promise -- and it's our job to convey that promise to our readership. Often we do this without asking questions. Often we are only allowed to ask so many.
You could use your strictly-allotted ten-minute sit-down with a busy, rehearsed executive to ask questions about how this game that doesn't exist yet fits into the company's larger strategy, how it views the business landscape as a whole. You could ask about a specific trend, you could ask a lead designer about his or her individual perspective on a popular element.
I mean, if they let you. Often these conversations are pressure-cookers, where you end up feeling the friction in the air whenever you don't appear sufficiently super-psyched, whenever you try to press for more details, to deviate from the script.
Recently a broad contingent of games writers were invited to see Bungie's Destiny, and were treated to an Activision-sponsored, imaginationland tour of what seems like an enormous concept: A massive project without a release date, rooted in the concept of creating an immense, persistent fantasia.
But the event raised more questions than it answered. Nobody really saw a game. The result: Seas of "previews" littered with careful language like "apparently"; and notations of all the details the company refused to clarify, couldn't, wouldn't, didn't say.
The result was mammoth features from most enthusiast websites packed with quotes like "social and cooperative" (join the club!) "design-controlled" (what isn't!) "shared world" (yes?). "The goal of any advanced technology is to seem effortless," quotes one website.
Clearly the venerated Halo studio has been given an enormous budget to do what it does best, and it's exciting to know what Bungie is up to, what it aims to do. The announcement, the early look, is hardly irrelevant; it's a significant studio that can be expected to leverage major influence against the rest of the industry. And it's true most writers were circumspect about what they did not see -- so much so that discussions on the role of preview coverage have kicked off all over social media.
But try to read the big sites' features as anything other than plush brochures for the studio's vision, packed with carefully-allocated concept art galleries and inspiring blockquotes. No matter how careful the press is clearly being not to contribute to the hype, it's not clear what this lavishly-choreographed, simultaneous rush to get these preview features up is for, if not hype.
Our audience is now excited to see what comes next, and nobody knows anything besides what was intended for them to know. Admirable work, Activision PR.
What harm does it do, in an industry so much rooted in vision, excitement and trend? Perhaps none this time -- nobody is liable to be being misled or bought, exactly. But a broader culture where we routinely troop as a corps to reveal event after reveal event, to view one preview build after another, tolerate scripted Q&As, file into meeting rooms in succession, breeds a lack of curiosity. It enforces our role as glorified community managers for the products we like (the fact so many games writers become community managers speaks to the common closeness in roles).
We cannot be critical of a project that isn't even finished yet, that we have had no real time with. We can't examine polished executive statements -- we know they don't have much to do with the final result, so what's the point in picking them apart? Nobody wants to enter a room of breathless, hopeful people who clearly represent an entire team of hardworking people and be the jerk asking the hard questions. Why would you want to be that jerk so early in the dev process? What's the point?
All we can do is be positive. We don't have any other logical choice but to be positive. Even if something turns us off, what about the people it's intended for, who will probably like it, who will want to know? As media we enter the situation with very little control. There is no other logical sentiment, besides cautious optimism.
Preview culture is of dubious merit to the games industry, too. These events are expensive. Publishers pay for venues, travel, accommodation, food, fancy USB keys full of assets, pens, messenger bags, swag. I don't believe the common complaint that this stuff sways writers -- we often get so much of it that we don't care to have any more, have been doing this long enough that a branded squeak toy isn't going to make us feel unduly positive.
But is all that cost worthwhile to the publisher as budgets skyrocket and staff cuts are everywhere? Is the lost time worthwhile, for devs who are tasked with frantically cobbling together stable pockets of preview build, pre-rendered trailers, media rehearsal, when they might rather be making their game?
There are ways to subvert the preview process. Here at Gamasutra, my colleague Christian Nutt focused on specific, industry-focused factual takeaways from Bungie's preview day, rather than carrying too much of the studio's poetic declarations of what it hopes its game will be like. Notably, though, Gamasutra's mandate is primarily to cover and inform the games industry, not answer burning player questions about whether they should buy things or not.
Taking an opposite tack on Crysis 3, Cara Ellison for Rock Paper Shotgun used her preview time to talk about many things other than Crysis 3, even goading the interviewee toward sex jokes, in an exercise possibly intended to highlight the absurdity of the preview-interview -- specifically, the events' tendency to focus on elaborate storytelling promises, lore and backstory about games that no one really plays for their impenetrable fictions.
That style of performative approach is a refreshing, maybe even necessary middle-finger to the hype cycle. Whether it respects the developer, who probably would rather be working on the game than being interrogated by hordes of previewers, is a more complicated question. And what about the doubtlessly-massive (?!) swath of people who had an honest interest in Crysis 3's premise, its writers?
That we have been trained to participate and not question, that we are obligated to respect the hype process, is sometimes problematic, though. At Destructoid, regularly-outspoken reviewer Jim Sterling said he no longer wanted to do previews at all -- upon being previewed Gearbox's Aliens: Colonial Marines he shared CEO Randy Pitchford's enthusiasm, and published the exec's quotes. In the wake of the game's disastrous critical reception, Sterling says he feels lied to.
Audiences often make the same complaints of the press: If the preview was "good" but the game turns out "bad", then who's to blame?
When we work in a system that virtually obligates us to show up to these things, a system that (much like scored review culture) many of us would not have chosen to install, how much should "respect" for the process be a journalist's concern, though? It's clear we don't have good answers about these things. We dispute and debate, whisper our private hypotheses about those early glimpses and how we think they might turn out, but in the end everyone publishes an obedient preview at the appointed embargo lift, cautiously optimistic.
Who do we serve? What's the role of subjectivity? What do we owe the developer?
Why have we let first-look culture train us to scratch furiously at sources so we can be the first to publish pictures of intransible black cubes, next-gen dev kits, at the risk of the hardware-maker's business? Who does that serve? Is it valuable for game fans to see that stuff eight weeks ahead of E3 instead of during it? Is this still the best way to drive traffic, or something?
Have we ever thought about this stuff, or are we just racing blindly to enforce consumer product culture around something we stridently claim is an experiential art form, a communications medium?
We have not negotiated where our own opinion, our own voice, our own reporting (if "reporting" is possible in a constrained entertainment-product reveal) belongs in this process, and that's the biggest argument against the value of this litany of reveals, first looks, demos, announcements.
At the very least, it's an argument against the way we cover them. There may be a way to write feature-length stories on products that do not exist yet and the people working on the products, and how awesome the people say those products are going to be. But I don't think we've found it yet.