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What are video game previews for? Exclusive
What are video game previews for?
February 19, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

February 19, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
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    42 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



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.

crysis 3.jpgBut 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?

Aliens4.jpgHave 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.


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Comments


Rodolfo Rosini
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TL;DR version: hype

Vincent Hyne
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Not really.

Advertisement.

The paid tickets and a two day stay at a hotel is essentially buying ad space on game magazines, sites, blogs, whatever.

Game "previews" are simply advertisements.

No more, no less.

John Flush
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Ads are only done to provide hype at this point. Tomato / Tomato (works so much better verbally)

Vincent Hyne
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I just don't believe the word "hype" is tangible.

Even if you construe it to translate to some real benefit, what the essence comes down to is advertisement and marketing.

It's why it's the marketing department handling the output of information (Activision).

Hype or no hype, this works to advertise the upcoming product, and instead of buying a banner, you're buying the main part of the site.

Jonathan Jennings
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It's media presentation like this that makes me appreciate the simplicity and straightforwardness of sites like Giant Bomb with their Quick-looks . The main reason being it is simply a presentation of what's there in the game , hey have sold me on several titles because they generally tend to do a good job of showing off and talking about multiple facets of the game. Sure I disagree with their views on games sometimes but i can't say I ever feel like they are trying to do more than demonstrate what makes the game they are currently showing.

I know a press preview is a totally different thing entirely but that's also why I am so jaded towards the hype-train myself, after being burned by the likes of Fable ( which i admit is a great game in its own right but nowhere near what the initial "project ego" was expressedto be) it makes it hard for me to get excited for any demonstrations for a game in a closed setting.

Jeremy Reaban
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Let's be honest - the gaming media is more about pr than journalism. Even in the early days before the internet, magazines would do glowing previews of games just to have early access to the information and thus sell magazines.

I mean, it's just the way the money flows. Consumers give money to the game companies, which spend some of it on advertising, which is how gaming journalists earn a living. They can't really afford to be independent. Even one of the few sites that could afford to, Penny Arcade, have beholden themselves to publishers with the PAX conventions (and at the same time, force companies to waste even more time making demos of games for yet another journalistic event instead of working on the game itself)

Joonas Laakso
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When touring with my game, it killed me to sit through by the numbers QA sessions. For the most part, the journalists did not seem to give a damn about what they were covering. Very often you could guess their questions. It was difficult to keep up a positive attitude through all that.

And this is a case where the publisher was not giving me any strict guidelines on what I could and couldn't talk about. There would've been lots of room to maneuver and find something interesting, but to me, sitting at that table, receiving the journalists, it felt like nobody cared. Or even if they did care, that enthusiasm rarely carried over to engaging questions that would reveal something new about the story, eager as I was to participate in more in-depth reporting.

Of course there are exceptions. Those were definite highlights, when you actually had to think about an answer because it wasn't obvious, or when you would start to actually engage in a conversation with the journalist. Bottom line: I welcomed every single hard question and instance when the journalist doubted what I was saying. All I want to do is tell a great story that happens to be about my game that's still being made.

I guess what I'm saying is that the push for more engagement needs to come from the journalist side. The publisher is never going to say it, even if they're okay with it. (And admittedly, they're not always okay with it.) Right now it feels like the previews are doing a disservice to everyone (persons) involved, even if the game itself is benefitting from the (low quality) extra coverage.

Billy Bissette
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We, as readers, sometimes get to see game journalists lament being unable to seriously question developers and publishers.

We less often see developers lament that the journalists don't bother to ask serious questions. But, of course, it is the gaming press that write almost all game news, not the game developers. And the game press is less likely to admit the cases where they are indifferently doing only the absolute minimum (though they sometimes write about seeing *other* games journalists act that way at events) and only address the fear of getting a negative (shut down the interview or even a blacklisting) response to a serious question during the annual "Why don't you guys ever ask any serious questions" debates (which pop up whenever readers get tired of games journalists never asking or pursuing serious questions.)

Simon Ludgate
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"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?"

I would. I would totally be that guy. The guy that calls their bluff and pokes holes in their curtains. The guy that calls their bluff. The guy that makes them realize that the idea they thought was so good might not be so good after all. The guy probing for problems when there's still a shred of hope of being able to fix them. The guy asking the hard questions that makes them stop and realize "we didn't think about that..." Yeah, I'd gladly be that guy.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jimmy Albright
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As much as I love the folks at Id, I thought there were some good examples of them getting pegged with questions about Rage and about identity problems with games like Fallout 3 and Borderlands.

The flip side is when you have these kinds of people working for REALLY popular publications you can have some serious unintended side-effects on the outcome of the game, depending on how the public perceives what you say.

David Paris
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I think it largely doesn't matter if you do though. At such an early stage, even glaring holes can be addressed, and even the best laid plans and hopes can still flop to bad execution. So no early preview review, either good or bad, carries much in the way of validity.
rn
rnMostly you're just getting a chance to hear whoever it is talking, fountain a bit about what they hope the game will be, and probably show you some pretty concept work to go along with it. The mistake is taking such an early preview as more important than that.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Michael DeFazio
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Publishers want game journalists to be their mouthpiece for these preview events... It's all geared toward controlling the message and building hype and allowing the select (journos) to put their message in a good light. (it's "free" advertising)

When praise comes from independent journalists it makes it seem much more legitimate than from the game companies themselves "evangelizing"/"hyperboylizing" so in that regard it's actually "better" than free advertising.

Otherwise they could just reveal what they have in video form and let customers judge for themselves
whether it is something they should be interested in. (We are in the information age after all)


Edit:
By the way I do love this article and appreciate the authors self awareness... wish there was more of this honesty in the industry.

Greg Orlando
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I remember being the writer who asked the developers of the awful Evil Dead game what they learned from making it.

It was an honest question. The developers stated they learned from every product, every development cycle. And it wasn't meant to shame anyone. I think you can learn a lot from your failures.

I shouldn't have asked the question. The answer I got back was pabulum from the developers. There was no insight, no desire to be brutally honest. The response I got from my fellow game writers was perhaps more disturbing: They were absolutely stunned. People came up to me after the fact, wanting to know what motivated me to ask an aggressive question, or alternately praising me for having major stones to say something like that in a sizable press gathering.

The response was baffling. So much so I internally debated whether I had posed a legitimate question or sought to publicly shame game developers. And that's the insidious nature of game journalism right there.

Adam Bishop
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I recall an interview that ran here on Gamasutra with, I believe, some of the devs on Rage, where the developers were asked questions that put them on their toes, and arguments broke out in the comments about whether the article was being too harsh on the developers and why couldn't the interviewer just be nicer and not so prodding.

Edit: Found the interview I was thinking of (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6500/the_creative_intent_of
_rage.php) and a follow-up piece about it (gamasutra.com/view/news/127698/Opinion_Journalistic_Rage.php).

Michael Joseph
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That is a fascinating series of events. Thanks for sharing it.

We have all these weird social conventions. It makes you wonder where they all come from. When we're little kids we're told if you don't have anything nice to say, say nothing. Nobody likes a smart alec or a tattletale. Don't rock the boat. Don't use an awards ceremony to make political statements even though it can be a very opportunistic time.

It's almost as if you're being cast a social terrorist if you break with protocols.

I totally get why the company reps want reporters to play nice, but I don't get why people without a horse in the race go out of their way to exert social pressure on people who don't play the phony game.

I think the only requirement is whether your question is sincere and whether you're presenting it in a civil manner.

Ali Afshari
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@Greg: I've become much more critical of game journalism with some of the things that have happened during the last couple of years. Interested parties are ready to devour any new information about an eagerly anticipated game, while the developers/publishers need to keep a tight lid on information to maintain the hype until release. Any negative information usually causes a wildfire effect on message boards where negative views permeate the opinions of people that maybe casually heard about the game. Unfortunately, I think keeping things brutally honest only removes the game journalist from future invites to these kinds of events.

@Adam: I was one of those people. At the time, I was still pretty new to Gamasutra and my understanding of what Sheffield was trying to do was tenuous at best. Now that I've had more time to acclimate myself to the purpose of this site (and just being exposed to the changes happening in AAA development and console gaming in general), the right questions were being asked. However, I still enjoyed Rage :)

Mike Griffin
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Heya Greg. I've done the same thing, I must admit.

Looking back on the dozens of press events, I have done this on numerous occasions. Usually it can't be helped, often it's to cut through the fluff, but it's always with the intention of gathering more information -- never to embarrass or slight the individual among peers and media.

Might be a tough question, but based on facts or precedents and never disrespectful. A developer may indeed feel some personal shame if called out on something negative, but most are weathered enough to absorb and react, as opposed to taking it personally and becoming defensive.

Once the person gets to know me, they see that I'm honest and warm -- just very curious and willing to openly satisfy that curiosity with queries far and wide. And just as willing to reciprocate.

Remember: Like the development staff, most of the writers also represent a product, team or corporate entity larger than them. I've certainly had to field a number of questions about my (current) magazine or website, its policies, and even specific opinions of past coverage -- whether my own or other eds. Not merely the expected inquiries from the game's PR team regarding coverage plans, but also core team producers and designers seeking a glimpse into the media's methods.

So the dialogue flows both ways, and there's always _a ton_ of conversation happening behind the scenes.

At an event like this Destiny "reveal" where it's the earliest of early looks, with zero chance of brokering for a playable preview build, and the M.O. is pomp and circumstance versus hard details, it's all about PR "feeling out" the media and negotiating future coverage, assets, exclusives, covers, and main page features. Sometimes poked into place with reminders of advertising past and present.

Thus, perhaps there's a stigma of pressure on writers to take what little info they've been spoonfed and spin the event's vague game details and hyper-deliberate goodwill into a positive firsthand report. Laying the foundation for additional coverage without risk, perhaps intentionally omitting details under newly-penned NDA limitations, or generally avoiding jeopardizing future coverage opportunities for this seemingly Very Important Game.

It's difficult to expect much more out of events like this besides fluff, concepts, pretty words and presumption. They are precisely engineered, timed, and information-capped. Especially when there's nothing to play: It means PR has to play you, harder.

Events like the Destiny reveal aren't exactly a walk in the park for developers either. While all this hubbub is occurring in the background, they're in the midst of an enormous project and subject to an equally enormous gag order along with media training, all in an effort to carefully shape and mold the prevailing media message and response.

On the other hand, writers can justifiably roll with some positive conjecture when it comes to studios with a proven history, like Bungie. There's a level of respect for their "street cred" that sort of permits certain leaps of faith in very early event-based preview coverage.

This feeling is likely to manifest in veteran writers who can inform their assumptions with other examples by the studio, or close familiarity with team members and motivations. Lending their own credibility and history to the guesswork, and often providing a counterpoint (or a "this is why they might pull it off") to the hype.

Whereas a less experienced writer may succumb to the stature of the publisher and the grandeur of the event, presenting a fairly literal -- fluff and all -- firsthand report of the reveal, right on message. He or she is technically doing all they can do with the precisely-allotted material and message provided, but the color of the report may be altered by prevailing hype -- or the studio's "poetic declarations" as Leigh describes.

Moral of the story: As always, the reader and audience must use their own media message filters to decide which outlets and authors they can trust, and what meaningful details can be culled from the aftermath of early, corporate-driven hype bombs.

In the meantime, game writers should keep asking the tough questions and keep questioning the absence of answers, and defer most of the deal making pressures to those who are not reporting on the game!

Benjamin Quintero
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I think its pretty clear that we know about as much about Destiny as we did before the event. Some sites are saying MMO, others say definitely not. All we know for sure is that Bungie is making another futuristic mutiplayer FPS for console. They could have just tweeted that and probably gotten more positive media than what I see.

A W
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Why not separate the PR from the final Critique? The movie industry seems to do this well.

Christian Nutt
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Does it? I used to subscribe to Entertainment Weekly -- unless things have changed, it used to run big fluffy PR-driven "preview" features on upcoming films that are even less substantive than your average video game preview.

Nick Harris
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I don't see why Publishers need Journalists when they could just stick a YouTube video out.
If details are scant because so much is secret and no one is able to ask sensible questions
because they are bound by a restrictive NDA or just don't care the 'event' seems to me to
be a waste of money. Activision would have done better to prevent Joseph Staten opening
his mouth, not confuse alienate and frighten people with vague notions that it is a console
MMO (which immediately puts them on the back foot as they are forced to say that it has
no subscriptions... to which everyone erroneously assumes it must be Pay2win like Dust 514
that the iPhone app is an optional part of the experience for those who actually have friends
that it isn't as pretentious as their smug developers have made out as the technology of a
shared game world existed in Test Drive Unlimited 2, MindJack and the old Gauntlet Arcade,
indeed, one wonders if they wouldn't have been stuck showing so little if it weren't for the
earlier leak of concept art; far better to show what gameplay you've go when you have it
and let it speak for itself than blather on about how epic the decade long story arc will be as
you show some watercolours), after all you don't see me teasing everyone with a bunch of
concept art for my MMORTSFPSRPG 'Universe' that I has been in development for 20 years
as I would far rather release it quietly and let it spread by word of mouth like Minecraft, if
I could be lucky enough to have 2% of Markus Persson's community generating success.

So, what role for Game Journalists? Well, they could write intelligent criticism such as:

http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-02-01-shooters-how-video-g
ames-fund-arms-manufacturers

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/HeatherHale/20120627/173138/Mass_E
ffect_3_For_Dummies.php

Christian Nutt
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I absolutely did think about this stuff. Five years ago (!!) when I was at GamesRadar and looking for an exit, a big part of that was realizing that the consumer press is just a cog in the big publishers' marketing cycle. I was incredibly tired of that, after eight years at it (at the time.)

The thing is, these days, there's really no excuse. The readers are hungry for other types of content, the "paper of record" approach where you need to have a preview for every game is a format only feasible (and necessary, due to biz model) to stuck-in-the-1990s sites like IGN and GameSpot.

One of the funny things about the Destiny event is that, at its conclusion, every journalist I talked to was like "what the heck was that?" Essentially, everyone was deeply aware that it was all smoke, no fire. Granted, there were probably 70 people there, and I certainly didn't speak to every one of them, but I'd be interested to go check up on what they had to say about it now that it came time to communicate to their audiences.

Christian Nutt
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Actually, an editor at the event (dunno if this is privileged information or not, so I'm leaving his name out of it, but he's a prominent longtime enthusiast journalist) told me that traffic on previews has utterly cratered. Unless it's an exclusive reveal, nobody cares, apparently.

Edit to add: when I said "biz model" above, I was referring to GameSpot Trax (http://trax.gamespot.com/). IGN has the same thing, but I forget its name. They sell publishers info on who likes what and why and how, and they need previews of every game so that every game is represented in the Trax system.

Billy Bissette
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Even if everyone present saw it as all smoke with no fire, how many actually report it that way?

When readers have complaints about the gaming press, games journalists will knock the mechanics of previews or complain about gifts and PR events. Games journalists will complain about limitations placed on questions, about information embargoes, and about risks of blacklisting.

Then the gaming press sits down and writes up whatever advertising they've been handed at the latest PR event, writes the review for whatever embargoed game they've just played, and just spins on as a complacent if somewhat grumpy part of the overall machinery.

The gaming press has willingly given up whatever power it might have had.

Cordero W
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First it was "do we need demos?" Now it's "Do we need previews?"

This irritates me to no end mainly cause it's obvious what this message means.

Biff Johnson
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It isn't do we need previews. It's more, we don't need previews that are pre-choreographed. And previews that are nothing more than hype with no genuine content.

The media loves being the mouthpiece as long as you don't put the bit in their mouths.

Ahmad Jadallah
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I don't see where the problem is, events like these and previews in general helps me narrow my list to a few games, and then once they are released I check the reviews and the demo is available to make my mind out.

This way no matter how "polished" the previews are they stay more as general pointers rather than decision making means.

And yes, gaming media is supposed to just roll with it for previews and then they are free to say whatever they want for the actual reviews :)

Robert Tsao
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Forgive me for sounding redundant or possibly echoing sentiments posted before mine, but I think part of the problem lies in the fact that gaming audiences are starved for content. Publishers know this, and game journalists know this as well, resulting in a symbiotic relationship where both sides are very cordial and tread very carefully with all final printed copy. On the professional side, even Game Developer's postmortems are filled to the brim with lots of carefully worded and deliberate "what went wrongs" that speak in broad, sweeping generalizations about "lack of scope" and "inevitable feature creep."

The problem with a lot of gaming sites, I think, is that they live and die based on external, PR-produced content. You have a lot of people running these sites who are fans, but not enough people who understand content strategy or producing original writing with the gaming industry and culture writ large as a framework for content. I think Kotaku, in this regard, is highly successful (this also applies to the halcyon days of 1up.com, minus the tabloid-y elements). No one disputes they're a tabloid rag at best, but no one can dispute how successful they are in what they do. They've built up an enthusiast site centered around the community because many of their articles, for all of their groundless punditry and intentional flamebaiting, really do get people talking in their comments section. They've been successful in doing what so many other enthusiast sites have failed in, which is establish their own unique voice and culture. Previews should just be a part of a larger equation as opposed to the core mechanic for driving page views and hits.

Christian Nutt
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1UP is still good.

Robert Tsao
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@ Christian

I agree, they're still one of the best (I chalk this up mostly to Jeremy Parish's doing), but I still think the 2005-2007 period was some of their best output.

Jimmy Albright
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Kotaku gets a lot of bad rap in some places of the internet, but Stephen Totilo (editor in chief) is a standup guy. He does regular 'ama' sections on Kotaku where he'll directly answer criticism about the site or the layout or even specific editors. I've had some very strong criticisms about Kotaku and Totilo did an excellent job of explaining the situation to me, despite me contacting him in an almost confrontational manner. He's very devoted to making Kotaku a 'different' type of place for gaming while still keeping the audience happy.

They do a lot of explosive headlining but i've seen some great conversations happen on some of their polarizing articles.

Also, for whatever it matters to some Totilo has said many times that Kotaku bloggers are not paid by the amount of clicks of page views their articles get. He's stated this multiple times.

Adrian Forest
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Advertisers pay games news sites to run ads, so the sites can pay writers to write previews, that are basically ads, and that drive hits on the other ads.

That's what video game previews are for.

WILLIAM TAYLOR
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I guess for me it cracked on Final Fantasy 7 where the only coverage you saw was cutscenes and non gameplay. The game came out and I saw what it actually looked like and at that point it all made sense. The goal of all of this is to get you buy the game.

I'll blame my 8th grade mind for falling for it, but really, what else could it have been? Game developers and publishers pick and choose information to spoon feed to the games press so that they can write what they want published about the game for the sole purpose of ultimately getting people to buy the final product. What else could it possibly be? The publishers and devs hold all of the cards. They are not only the gatekeepers, but they're what lies beyond the gate as well. The games media is basically a friar paid to tell the crowds whatever the gatekeepers want. I expect kids and young teens to maybe think IGN went deep in the trenches and did investigative journalism to dig up a hidden developer made video about the 3 new Call of Duty modes that the industry doesn't want you to know about or something, but come on. No adults or people over 15 shouldn't be able to see the reality of it. Especially on previews where you can't even play the game.

You play games, you play games. You. Play. Games. Your sole interaction with a game is playing it. What possible insight that isn't marketing driven could possibly come from a situation where you're writing about a game that you didn't even get to play? If a previewer gets 10 minutes of hands on play time, what could they possible conclude? At best, I think it's, "this game is great when you're only playing it for 10 minutes." Maybe someone really young would think a 10 minute hands-on preview is enough because surely, anything that's fun for ten minutes most be fun for 8-100+ hours... I mean but come on.

It's just a bit puzzling to me that only now are noticing this or are finding it shocking. I thought this was always the point and that everyone of a certain age or maturity level were aware that this was the point and purpose of it all.

Ara Shirinian
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Christian you mentioned this in passing but I think its worthy of elaboration: The historical momentum of the industry has publishers treating the press as nothing more than high-value marketing tools ready for manipulation, explicitly if they can get away with it, or implicitly if they can get away with that. Or to any extent possible that they think they can get away with. Whatever works, they'll do it, and they are only not doing some of those things right now because it's too obvious that they won't get away with it.

It's up to the press to have enough soul and wisdom and courage to put that kind of corporate relentlessness in its place. It's too bad that all three are in short supply.

Outside of some notable exceptions, the press are the cog in their marketing wheel only because they have accepted that role. This doesn't mean that the press should smash at the machine at every turn. It does mean that there was a really important reason why free press traditionally had a set of core values, and it drives home the meaning of those values. When we compromise those things, we lose the meaning of press itself.

Kevin Reese
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That's a laudable position to take but I think it is more applicable to traditional journalism, rather than game journalism. The reality in game journalism is that journo's have to 'play ball' and play nice with the companies they work with, because it is a mutually beneficial relationship.

If a game journalism site is in the loop -- that is to say, big enough to get invited to the press events -- it behooves them to not get too critical of the hands that feed them. The reality is that if a site is seen as unfair or uninterested in at least drinking some of the Kool-Aid, the site is at risk of being ostracized. If this happens, and a site is cut-out of receiving free games to review (before release) or access to new media, it can be quite a blow.

Again: not saying your ideals are misplaced, just that it can be very challenging to achieve those goals. Especially for unestablished sites with not as much weight to throw around. And this is also compounded by the fact that fewer and fewer conglomerates are controlling ever-larger percentages of studios, making it all but diasterous to have one unappreciated article rubbing the wrong people the wrong way.

Kevin Reese
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Great piece! I love the articles here at Gamasutra.

I think this could be a summary of this topic: I don't think it's so much the 'PR event' itself that people don't like, just the ones that have so little to actually show. When this happens, the already thin-line between game journalists as critical informers, and game journalists as tertiary adjunct gaming industry PR people, becomes blurry: and this makes both the journo's (and their readerships) uncomfortable.

Wylie Garvin
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Perhaps some gamers don't really understand just how un-finished an un-finished game usually is. Of course the previews are very hands-off and developer controlled, because they can't risk showing content or mechanics that haven't been fully debugged and tuned and polished yet, because the gaming audience along with jackals in the press will rip them to shreds. 6 months away from release, a AAA game is usually still in a woefully incomplete state. Sound effects, voice dialogue, art assets, and sometimes even some core gameplay mechanics will not be polished yet, or will be missing completely. Crashes and error messages will be common. Things are in a constant state of flux, because tons of little changes are being made all throughout the game, every day. Making a stable, complete, polished build that you can do demos with, can take a lot of time and effort and can easily distract the team for 2 weeks or longer.

Compare to movies: when you see some talk show where they have a 3-minute clip of an upcoming movie, they always show a finished, properly-edited scene, not some bunch of dailies that haven't been edited and color-corrected and everything. To stir up some buzz without showing final footage, they can interview actors off-screen between shots. I think the game producer or PR person feeding quotes to journalists is sort of the equivalent of that.

Yes, hands-on demos are great, but sometimes its hard enough to get the game itself made on time, if you wanted to polish everything well enough to allow a hands-on demo of a AAA game early enough to actually call it a "preview", that implies adding several months to the schedule, its just not realistic. For myself, I'd rather accept hand-wavey previews so that developers can put all of their time and effort into the final product.

Kevin Reese
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Perhaps some fresh approaches are needed then. For Destiny, the stakes are huge. Understandly there isn't much stuff to show at this very early period. But for the amount of money of this PR event maybe they could have done something else? Examples of the top of my head: 1) created a long animated short introducing the IP, like 8-15 mins long. out-source if need be. 2) create a sweet tie-in free DLC for Halo that connects or promotes the new IP 3) hire a writing team, or other creative team, in advance of this PR release to create a website that has a depth of IP background information -- stuff like this is not nearly as subject to alteration as the actual game mechanics so should be feasible. These are just idea's off of the top of my head but the point is you need substance to generate good PR, not just fluff. No one will be more cynical than the exact target audience this title is aimed at appealing to.

Marijn Lems
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Great and vitally important article, Leigh; here's an attempt to find answers to some of your questions.

"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?"

I work as a theatre programme director and producer, and am often invited to see previews of new performances. The approach I usually take in these circumstances is to just give constructive criticism. Couch your questions in formulations such as "I know this is early in the creation process, but what I'm concerned about, is..." or "Great work so far, but have you thought of..."? The point of asking these sorts of questions is not to be a jerk, but to give the creators a critical outsider's view, and your readers a realistic assessment of the upcoming game's strengths and weaknesses. You're betraying readers and developers alike if you save all your misgivings for the review; perhaps the creators could have incorporated some of your expert observations into the final game.

"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."

"And what about the doubtlessly-massive (?!) swath of people who had an honest interest in Crysis 3's premise, its writers?"

Both of these would be valid points if we were ever in any danger of losing the "cautiously optimistic" form of preview altogether. But that's never going to happen: there'll always be hacks who literally convey anything a PR person says, so people who like uncritical hype will still be spoilt for choice. The problem is that that is ALL there is, so whenever a Cara Ellison or a Grant Howitt shows up, they automatically make the journalistic landscape richer. Besides, why are you pretending that critical coverage can't effectively communicate basic game information as well?

I never ever thought I'd say this, but hooray for Jim Sterling. It is obvious that we could use a little less "respect" on the journalistic side of the videogame industry, seeing as the publishers treat you guys like crap.

"Who do we serve?"

Your readers, and the development of games as a whole.

"What's the role of subjectivity?"

Vitally important, as long as it complements a clear account of the known facts.

"What do we owe the developer?"

An honest appraisal of their work.

Eric Pobirs
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The preview is PR, pure and simple. If you have to think about that at any length you might want to consider a new line of work with more challenge.


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