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EDITORIAL | A Note On Previews

Matt Gardner
Aliens: Colonial Marines, Games journalism, Games previews, Hype, Impressions, Marketing, Medal Of Honor: Warfighter

EDITORIAL | A Note On Previews

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.

EDITORIAL | A Note On Previews

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.

EDITORIAL | A Note On Previews

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.

EDITORIAL | A Note On Previews

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.

Add a comment8 comments
ChrisHyde  Feb. 23, 2013 at 13:27

I think if anything, the issues around A:CM have taught us the real dangers of assumption.

It's so easy sometimes to assume that whatever specific material we receive as a preview will be indicative of the game. It feels like that assumed trust has not been realised on occasion, and the silver lining in all of this is very much your last point - it calls for a re-evaluation of how we deliver preview information.

For me, it's probably about being clearer with the caveats of what we have seen and haven't seen, and also what that could potentially mean for the game. Just because we haven't played a game (or a relevant chunk of it) doesn't necessarily mean we should ring the alarm bells and state that all consumers should be worried, but at the same time we shouldn't assume top quality finished product from a gameplay video either. It's the cautious, informative middle-ground sweet spot that we need to try and hit.

For me as a gamer, when I'm trying to gain information for a new game, I look to previews for solid actual facts about the game, but outside of that I want to know how those facts work together as a functioning game, and for me that's why subjective previews are so very useful. It's the mixture you speak of, which for me is very much required.

But even after garnering said information, being a tight git, I still would only pre-order games I'm confident from my own experiences that I will like. Games that are from the same franchise for example or spiritual sequels to games I know I have enjoyed. Embracing different titles for me tends to come from physical reviews, but I know not everyone is like me in that respect.

Sorry for the waffle, but that's my two cents :)

Quietus  Feb. 23, 2013 at 15:33

Generally speaking, I look to previews for basic information about a game: What type of game it is, the graphical style, control scheme - that sort of thing. Outside of that it can sometimes be helpful to pick up little bits of information that I may not have thought of, but, more than anything else, this is why I always look to gameplay.

If a company doesn't want me to see how their game plays, then I instantly think 'why?' If I were making a game, I'd be itching to get something together to show people, and not FMV sequences or scenes where characters are talking - I mean actual gameplay, where some body is actually playing it.

So, to come full circle, that's what I look to previews for. It's not what the previewer thought of it, or even what they were shown, but it's the stuff I get from reading between the lines of the preview. Did the previewer have fun playing what they played or not?

Korma  Feb. 23, 2013 at 16:16

I am looking for salient points about what makes the game unique. If it's an FPS, 3rdPS, Driver, Brawler etc. I know what the basic gameplay is going to be like.

A game like Blur for example that really did something different with driving games was something that benefited from a preview. Marketing departments are responsible for many crimes against morality though and I find you have to treat them all as people to be doubted. Once you get second/third hand information sourced from them, you end up with people you do trust feeding you info you only might trust.

More info is better, so read other sites and compare previews if you really are interested in a game. Pre-ordering it is a nonsense in this day and age. When did you ever find a store that ran out of a game on launch day? The only COD games that do are ones being sold at £25 with only 10 copies in the store, but generally the only reason is the store exclusive content.

They mess about the consumer so much with that you are a loser whatever store you pre-order from, so instead of missing out on 4/5 of the items why not just miss out on 5/5 of them and not pre-order anywhere, see how bad/good the game is and see if it ends up like Hitman Absolution http://www.dealspwn.com/hitman-absolution-1348-hut-ps3-360-130736 - Under £15 now.

Last edited by Korma, Feb. 23, 2013 at 16:18
Breadster  Feb. 23, 2013 at 19:44

I've never been that interested in previews to be honest. Obviously they're ok for the basic facts (graphics/type of game/interesting features/etc) but I often feel there isn't enough information there to find them worth reading.

I am far more interested in reviews and I find it really annoying when there is an embargo, and I start to doubt the quality of the game. When there is an embargo I tend to look on forums and things like that for posts from people who have gotten hold of the game early by whatever means. It's certainly not the most reliable information, and I don't place much weight on their overall opinion (whether they like the game or not generally) but you can often find out about bugs/glitches, other technical problems, the feel of the gameplay, game length, etc.

It's not ideal, as they are often heavily biased (maybe one slight niggle early on really annoyed them so they just fully condemn the game) but if you know what to look for it's often far more informative than any preview.

ODB_69  Feb. 23, 2013 at 21:31

Good stance guys

How's about something like a Friday post about what's

- currently under review
- reviews coming soon
- review copy requested
- review copy being chased

Therefore we know what's going on and which companies are holding back (allowing us to form our own opinion)

Not perfect but with a bit of tweaking that would work well I think

Realhoneyman  Feb. 24, 2013 at 15:11

I'll try not to go over the same ground too much but yes, previews with player impressions are always helpful. Knowing what the previewer thought of the game is normally helpful for gathering an opinion on said game.

It does depend on the outlet the preview is done by. If it reads like a PR press release, it probably wants to be one.

davidpanik  Feb. 25, 2013 at 08:52

This article really flags up two of the main reasons Dealspwn is my gaming-blog of choice:

* Very intelligently written, honest content
* A small but equally passionate and intelligent community of readers

If this was Game Informer, there'd be thousands of comments, but they'd all be one line long and be 80% ****. Here you've only got 6 comments, but each one is like an extension of the main article.

So well done DealSpwn, and well done commenters!

PS - My other two reasons for loving Dealspwn is that there isn't too much advertising, and the design and layout is very nice and simple, not too much effort to read (like some other sites).

Late  Feb. 25, 2013 at 15:30

To be fair, you guys have nothing to apologise for or feel guilty about - though I can appreciate why you would. I think we'd all feel the same.

As others have indicated here, previews aren't reviews - and that distinction isn't subtle. It's always abundantly clear that what's been seen is not the finished product. If it were it'd be a review! Whilst it's always hoped that what's reported on will bear some resemblance to the finished article - and usually the final product is better than expected - there's never a guarantee that that will be the case.

I'm with most of the above folk, in that I'll only preorder a game if I'm certain it'll be fantastic and that I need to play it as soon as possible. It's very rare a game fulfils both of those criteria, and in fact I think I've only preordered two games in the last two or thre years (Portal 2 and COD Blops 2).
I almost always wait until a game has been out for a while before I buy it. I'll have a much better idea of whether I'm likely to enjoy the game, and it'll usually be cheaper.

In short:
Don't worry - you're doing it right. ;)

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