I received an e-mail today that really took me by surprise. In order to protect myself, CVGames, and our contacts, I will not disclose who it is from. In the e-mail I was told that an upcoming release from a major studio was lifting their NDA on all details from their new title. As I read the e-mail, I was excited to hear that I could finally talk about this game in any detail I wanted. However, before my fingers could begin writing a preview, I noticed a strange asterisks next to that phrase. The disclaimer went on to say that the game was still a beta and there were many things within the game that were not final and would be changed before the final product. I then was given a list of things I had to say if I mentioned any details about graphics, art, interface, gameplay, characters, etc. If I wanted to show what the final graphics we're going to look at, I needed to point my browser to a specific website and view the images there.
This e-mail is just one of many I receive all the time. In the world of videogame journalism, we as critics are often told what we can say and when we can say it. At times this makes sense. For example, if a particular Publisher is about to reveal several big announcements, they can give us the information beforehand with a verbal or signed NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) that we will not reveal the information to the public until a certain time. But when the press is shown a Preview or told we can write about a Beta, there are still many rules in place. These rules include:
(1) Always be positive
(2) Remember this is an early build
(3) Element X Y Z will be fixed and changed upon release
(4) Disobey any of the above and you will be banned
Not only do the rules above apply to Previews but some Publishers are willing to extend this to include even Reviews. At times we have been told that we are not allowed to give a game a bad score. If we refused to take it down or revise the score, we had to have a second writer cover the game who had not been tainted by our previous coverage. If we refused, the company threatened to blacklist us.
I am not here to name names or point fingers at any particular individuals. But this kind of stuff goes on in our industry everyday. Yes, I understand that the videogame industry is big business and Publications like CVGames, other online Publications, and Print Magazines can all negatively impact the sales of software by posting negative Reviews or Previews. But is it fair to try and force a Publication to hold a particular point of view?
In my dealings with companies and individuals like this, I have stood my ground and backed up either what I had written or what any of my writers had written. Sometimes the particular individual would back off but at times we have been blacklisted. And this isn't the kind of thing you can overcome very easily. Relationships that were tarnished years ago are still not even on good speaking terms simply because CVGames refuses to become a PR mouthpiece for any company, on any product, no matter what.
This issue has come up in the news recently because Denis Dyack of Silicon Knights had a recent interview with EGM. At E3 2006, EGM played a very early build of Too Human in Microsoft's booth. While we were busy being shown a behind closed doors session with Denis Dyack, EGM was trying to cram in as much coverage as possible. They were unable to attend the closed door session and instead played the game on the show floor with no guided tour. As the show concluded and they published their E3 2006 issue, EGM gave Too Human a "Terrible" rating and gave the game a tremendous amount of bad press.
To be fair, Microsoft had no business showing this game on the show floor. The build was very early and unless we were given a hands on tour by one of the Developers, CVGames would have also given Too Human a very bad preview or just decided to follow Rule Number One and not previewed it in order to stay positive.
Will Too Human recover from their bad press? I sure hope so. The game shows incredible promise and could be one of the best games of this generation. But this is going on the promise I was shown during my demo session with Denis Dyack. And since he has never let me down and always delivered on promises, I can give him the benefit of the doubt and honestly write it in my preview without sugarcoating anything.
Denis feels like the videogame industry needs to move to a new standard for showing titles. He says that we need to let Developers finish a game and sit on them for several months to a year before releasing them. During that time the press can be shown previews, minor development issues could continue, and there will never be any problems with enforcing the "rules" I mentioned above.
Unless Developers and Publishers want to get into the business of forcing the press to sign agreements to stay positive about every preview build they show us, they need to let the press cover the games the way they see it. If that is not good enough or if the game is not far enough along, they should let it continue in development until it is ready for a showing. As it stands now, larger Publications, whether they are online or print, are given preferential treatment with early, exclusive showings of games because they are being forced to abide by the "above rules."
How do I know they are forced to abide by "the rules"? Well, what would happen if EGM took their cover story of the new Ratchet and Clank Future and said negative things about it? How would Sony and any of their First or Second Party partners treat them in the future? The same is true of any other company--including Microsoft, Nintendo, or any Third Party. I can only imagine what a rough time some of the EGM folks will have with Microsoft and Silicon Knights in the future because of their Too Human rating they gave back at E3 2006.
Despite the dangers of speaking your mind, I want you all to know that you can trust CVGames to give you honest opinions on all Reviews, Previews, Editorials, News Coverage, and anything else we throw up here. While we choose to remain positive on the large majority of previews--mainly because we give the benefit of the doubt to a Developer promising they will fix things--we will always mention potential pitfalls and problematic areas in those previews. We will also never be told how to rate a game nor will we stand by and let a Publisher or PR firm tell us what to say.
We at CVGames fully support Denis Dyack's plan to have Developers get completely done, or very close to finishing a game, before it is shown to the press. At that point, I feel like Publishers should hold special events and invite a multitude of press to all see the game for the first time. This is similar to how movies have an early showing for the press and all are given an equal opportunity to see it at the same time. This also avoids any perceptions about Publications exchanging money for exclusive looks at titles. And while you may not believe it, this happens with Publications you read online everyday.
Hopefully with the vision Denis Dyack has laid out and support from CVGames and other Publications, we can change the landscape of videogame journalism for the better. In the end it is you, the reader, who will benefit by getting true unbiased coverage from a variety of sources. And when you win, we in the videogame press have done our job well. And that is all that matters to me and to CVGames.