It's a difficult thing when you realise that you've been played, but that's a feeling that critics and consumers alike have been dealing with this past week. We were led to believe certain things about Aliens: Colonial Marines, shown screenshots, watched video, played demos, and run previews of material that simply wasn't up to scratch in the final game, or worse still, didn't exist.
Jonathan issued an apology at the end of his review the other day that went as follows:
I can only apologise for how long it took to get this review on-site and how useless it will be to many of you who bought the game at launch. SEGA only sent us review materials several days after Colonial Marines released, which is rather suggestive in and of itself.
I also feel responsible for anyone who pre-ordered Colonial Marines on the strength of my hands-off preview, which as it turns out, was based on a made-to-order demo build that doesn't resemble the final product in any meaningful way. Many of my peers have already weighed in on this reprehensible bait & switch, but frankly, any of my feelings of betrayal will pale in comparison to paying customers and loyal fans.
I'd like to add my voice to that, along with a few words on how the 'system' operates currently, along with a few points on how we'll be dealing with previews going forward.
Everything these days is geared towards encouraging consumers to make a commitment before a game shows its face. Pre-orders have become everything - encouraging gamers to make a financial commitment ahead of release, and driving that decision with trinkets and treasures that would normally perhaps have been unlockable prizes just a few years previously, but now tend to exist as day one DLC for those who had the strength of mind to be rather more conscientious with their money. That'll teach 'em.
Only this week, pre-order listings emerged for the Bioshock Infinite Season Pass - essentially a pre-order for a pre-order for multiple blocks of downloadable content that are completely unseen and have yet to even be announced. We're pre-ordering pre-orders now. How did it come to this?
But retail culture has created good reasons to pre-order a game. To tap into the central foundation of this very site - fluctuating prices that stack up well against RRPs make snap investments fairly attractive at times. If you can save a fiver by pre-ordering a game, why wouldn't you do it? You don't even have to leave your seat. The long, slow, painful death of the high street means that pre-ordering has essentially become de rigeur for games that you know you're going to want. Trends can fade fast, and being able to tap into prevalent excitement surrounding a new release is something special. You can order quickly, get on with your day, and it'll arrive when it's ready, whether that's a new book, a DVD boxset, or that shiny new copy of FIFA.
Of course, that excitement has been fuelled by a carefully orchestrated campaign that involves asset dumps, reams of trailers, and tightly wound preview events. Sometimes at those events, you'll be left in a room with an early version of the game in question for an hour or four. Sometimes you'll even have an opportunity to sit down with a dev representative and have an open flowing conversation. Sometimes, though, you'll be sitting there while someone talks at you for half an hour; if you're lucky, they'll talk you through a video of some gameplay' if you're even luckier, you'll get to play a heavily scripted sequence, followed by a ten minute "interview" in which any question that deviates from the publisher's list of acceptable topics is met with a shake of the head and sewn lips.
So why do we do it? Well, part of it is that desire to want to catch a glimpse of the new shiny thing and, lamentably, the drive to be first when it comes to online coverage. Being first equals favourable SEO, which equals hits, which equals happy advertisers, which means that sites can go on living. I firmly believe that there's a place for preview coverage, but the perception of that coverage, the manner in which it's conducted, and the emphasis placed on it needs to change. Knowledge is power, and new information is like gold dust. Gaming has grown up in a symbiotic relationship with the internet and, as such, has sprouted many a community that wants information and wants it now. But more transparency is needed, a more descriptive and critical approach too - not necessarily when it comes to making value judgements of the game in question (that would be churlish and unfair, it's an unfinished product after all), but to the 'preview' process in general.
We need to be rather more savvy when it comes the events themselves - disseminating between opportunities for useful gameplay insight, and events that amount to info drops that could have been done via bullet points in a press release or dev demos that will almost inevitably wind up on the net. We will no longer be running 'previews' for anything we can't get our hands on, instead focusing our time and efforts more on breaking through the publisher wall to chat to developers and get the story behind the barricade of PR guff. That's not their fault, that's what they're there for; so we have to up our game. If it's a disappointingly opaque event, we'll tell you. If interviewees are stonewalling, we'll write about it. If the gameplay demo we finally get our hands-on is shorter than 'November Rain' and strikingly scripted, we'll tell you about it. We won't call these things previews, and we'll actively tell you not to make any pre-order decisions off of the back of them.
The fact is that, as a smaller mid-range site (that is to say one with around 110k+ visits a month at the time of writing), we are a fair way off the top tier, corporate media entities such as Eurogamer, Game Spot, IGN, and the retailer-backed Game Informer, though situated above smaller enthusiast sites. As such, we'll often get review code reliably sent to us without question at times (although not having a debug console has its drawbacks), but at others we'll be judged on how much related coverage we've run. We've been refused review code in the past because we didn't put up enough promotional coverage - screenshots, trailers, limited edition news.
The difficulty is that this is a deeply ingrained system, and publishers have a stranglehold over the emergence over final review code, hence the shift in importance towards those previews. Increasingly, we're seeing embargoes only lift on the day of the US release. Look at the Medal of Honor: Warfighter situation: even IGN had yet to receive review code for the game at the last minute before it hit shelves. In this event it's up to us critics to preach supreme caution, and up to consumers to be discerning with their money. The tying together of late reviews with a dodgy game is something that's slowly coalesced into a solid theory amongst consumers. Perhaps it's time to elevate that notion, and try to restore some balance. To this end, we'll be providing you with review updates for the larger releases going forward. If a review is late, you'll know why.
Above all, though, we need to promote a greater understanding of the situation. Should we, as Jim Sterling has indicated in the wake of the Colonial Marines fiasco, throw the baby out with the bath water and stop doing previews completely? I don't believe so, no. Gaming's growth, alongside that of the internet, has created a global community that is both hungry and impatient. But if we as writers are representatives of interested consumers, we need to be less complicit in fuelling the hype train, and more grounded in our early impressions. We don't need to be sceptical, nor cynical - it's important that we don't swing too fully towards the negative - but instead refocus on reliably, transparently reporting what we know and what we see, and always looking to go beyond and behind the PR curtain wherever possible. And if we can't do that, we'll tell you why.
Let's be honest, we love discussing how a game is shaping up, debating its prospective qualities, and keeping an eye on the horizon. But it's high time we re-evaluated the best way of doing that.
How about you, dear reader? Do you read previews, and if so what do you look for? Is it developer insight you want? Objective facts, subjective impressions, or a mixture of both? Do you tend to pre-order games or wait for reviews and the first round of public opinion? Let us know your thoughts in the box below.