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Game Previews Just Game Marketing? 282

Posted by Zonk
from the unsurprising-but-sad dept.
Kotaku has a feature up today written by James Wagner Au, formerly embedded reporter in the world of Second Life. He's now doing his own thing, and he's got a fairly cynical discussion over at the Kotaku site about the real purpose behind game previews in industry rags. From the article: "For the thing of it is, game magazine previews are almost uniformly positive, even for the most undistinguished titles. So it unrolls thus: publisher makes mediocre game; press previews depict mediocre game as being good or at least worth a look; excited gamers read previews, foolishly believe them, start making pre-sale orders of mediocre game; driven by preview press and pre-sale numbers based on that press, retailers stock up on mediocre game; publisher makes money from mediocre game, keeps making more games like it."
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Game Previews Just Game Marketing?

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  • by 77Punker (673758) <<spencr04> <at> <highpoint.edu>> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:26PM (#14903933)
    It wouldn't make sense to say many bad things about a game before it's even finished; it wouldn't be fair. It does make sense that game writers would tell the eager fans everything they do have to be excited about. Should they write me an article telling me that some budgetware paintball game will have no features and the core gameplay will suck? No. That can be saved for a review. When something rad like Oblivion is being developed, it does make quite a bit of sense to tell me what'll make it so interesting beforehand. If they didn't, nobody would buy the magazine. It's not selling games, it's selling magazines.
  • Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mboverload (657893) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:27PM (#14903937) Journal
    Would you base your opinion of a car on a video of a test drive of a prototype version? No?

    Then why would you do it with a game?
  • And... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by __int64 (811345) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:27PM (#14903940)
    This is non-obvious?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:30PM (#14903953)
    Can you imagine a world where journalists were objective and direct about unfinished games? "This game sucks, it's full of bugs and there's only two levels!!"
  • by onion2k (203094) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:31PM (#14903960) Homepage
    Why do games, for the most part, unrelentingly suck such ass?

    Because making games is hard.

    See also: Websites, records, television programmes ..

    Anything that involves a creative input is difficult because thats the way we're made. We love to think of ourselves as wonderfully creative creatures all very capable of coming up with brilliant new ideas day and night .. but that's simply not the case. Thinking up something original is exceedingly tricky. Games cross a bridge between technical innovation and creativity .. that makes them doubly difficult. And on top of that it's (perceived to be) a big money, big profit, prestigious part of the IT industry .. and that attracts just about everyone regardless of their level of capability.

    So you have a difficult creative process blending with some hardcore technical requirements being worked on by just about everyone who wants fame and money.

    To be brutally honest, the article should be asking how the hell any games are any good, not why most are bad.
  • Easy to Criticize (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Trojan35 (910785) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:35PM (#14903975)
    Hard to get a solution.

    Here are your options:

    1) Gamers get positive previews and find out what games will look like, how they will play, but will not hear any of the negatives.

    2) Gamers hear nothing of new games and have to wait for reviews of the games after they are released. Or worse: purchase based on number of TV ads they see.

    Given those, i'll take option #1 anyday. It's not fair to game developers if they will get ripped for framerate issues when they let editors take an early playtest. There's lots wrong with the video-game industry (such as bought REVIEWS). However, overly-positive "previews" are not one of them. They're par for the course and an acceptable trade-off.
  • by ScrewMaster (602015) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:45PM (#14904017)
    Actually, the reason most games (movies, CDs) are bad is because once a medium goes mainstream (with big money behind it) a degree of risk-averseness sets in. That is, once something makes money, milk it for all it's worth because trying some thing new might lose money instead. There's plenty of creativity available ... the problem is getting that creativity past the money people. The motion picture industry is a prime example of the long-term dangers of that kind of thinking: eventually the buying public gets bored with your retreads. When that happens, they stop shelling out hard-earned dollars for something they've already seen a dozen times before. However the movie studios, judging from several recent public statements, appear to be waking up to this: I'm not sure the music outfits have the wit to figure it out for themselves. But that's okay ... the market with figure it out for them.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:53PM (#14904045)
    I agree with what you say, but it's not the whle story. Having done a bit of all of the above, games design, music and film media production and software projects the common theme I've noticed goes roughly as follows...
    Actually creativity is easy. Realising it is a fine line though. There are powerful forces in opposition in creative development. On the one hand you have the creative engine, the coders and designers who are extremely progressive and ambitious. On the other side you have very conservative forces of marketing, management, PR and the suits who generally seem to impede creativity at every juncture. A good project is one where these forces balance well to promote realism, the suits temper overambitious artistic and technical energy without actually stifling it to the point of failure. Problem is as industries mature, and especially so with games and film, the conservative forces now dominate. Nobody wants to take a risk on something that might actually be paradigm shifting, better to err on the safe but mediocre side. This is very frustrating to genuinely original thinkers. I've found that the best work is in small, new and ambitious outfits. In the bigger companies you get the same old crap, the suits talk the project up to the public, and talk the project down to the team. It's a cruel deception because in the end, both parties, developers and users are frustrated and disappointed my conservative thinking. Good games companies, like good artists and scientists take risks.
  • by aendeuryu (844048) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @05:59PM (#14904070)
    You might notice that a lot of reviews rate the games out of 100. I think people already have a slant about that sort of system based upon school. At school, when your efforts are rated out of 100, it feels like there's very little difference between somebody who's gotten 20 and somebody who's gotten 45. I think it's similar with how people look at games. Look at some of the reviews that fanboys put out for their games. They'll say it's worth a 78, for instance. Try to get them to explain exactly what it is that merits that exact score. What kept it from getting a 79, for instance, or what made it four points better than a 74. Chances are they probably can't, but fanboys, being what they are, like the supposed sophistication about rating something out of 100 and have to choose a number that feels right, rather than one that reflects accurately what the game deserves.

    As for reviews being overwhelmingly positive, many trade publications operate on this principle, too. Even if you want to say something sucks, you want to put a slightly positive spin on it to keep people spending money on your industry. Besides, you can't always be honest about how you feel when part of the funding for your journal or website comes from advertising, and those advertisers also happen to produce products that you're reviewing.

    I wish more places would just adopt a star rating. Rate something between 0 and 5 stars, with 2 stars being an average game. That way, we're talking about the equivalent of an average game getting close to 50%, but the stigma of failing isn't always there.
  • by MrBigInThePants (624986) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @06:08PM (#14904104)
    I believe the "review" would be in the context of this is a preview of an unfinished game. Call it a "preview" if you will...

    Why are so many posters missing this point? It NOT the goal of this article to point out that previews should be the same as reviews. (BTW: I mean unbiased reviews, because most have the same problems)

    Things like vision, core graphics models, levels and premise are MOSTLY completed at the time of previews and can be commented on. But even things that are not finished can still be evaluated on in context of an unfinished game.

    Just because it is not finished, does not mean you cannot make ANY critiques at all.

    What are you after?? Something like this: (????)

    This game has been in development for 2 years now and is set to go gold in 2 months. Currently it is only a cuboid polygon that is moved about with the mouse (with many controller bugs) on a white background. However, we feel confident that this will be THE BEST GAME OF THE YEAR, based on the marketing fluff we were given.

    Most of the beta testers of SWG knew what was going to happen on release...
  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by chris_7d0h (216090) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @06:35PM (#14904198) Journal
    Because it's better than simply reading the title and a summary at Amazon.com ?

    Really, what's your point? People pre-order cars since most cars are just new revisions / bugfixes to older models with very little changing over each revision (such as the yearly increments of the BMW E46 model for example). I don't think the car business and their merchandise can be compared to the software industry and theirs. Programmers prefer to re-invent the wheel far more often than any other engineering profession.

    The gaming industry is a segment of the entertainment industry and as such the same rules governing other practical / utility-industries do not apply. If I pre-order a non-software utility gadget which builds on an existing model (which is often the case), I know pretty much what I'll get. With entertainment this simply isn't true. Thus and apples and oranges comparison.
  • by Phrogman (80473) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @06:41PM (#14904224) Homepage
    which is exactly what City of Heroes chose to do. When you reach level 50 (the maximum level) on at least one character, you unlock the ability to make a new Archetype of character called a Kheldian. They are available in 2 flavours, and offer challenging gameplay through both regular missions and special unique Kheldian origin missions.

    Really, I think the problem is that people expect a game followed by an "Endgame". The *GAME* is the process of getting to 50, not what you do when you get there. If you don't like the proces of leveling up and developing a character, then don't play the game. I am constantly hearing of people who start a game, find a way to powerlevel through to the end of the game then whine that there is no content and that they are bored. Of course they are fucking bored, they bypassed 95% of the game to get to the end. Its like renting a DvD, fast forwarding to the last 5 mins and then complaining that it was a boring movie and didn't make sense.

    I think designers need to start designing games that are enjoyable to play as a process, as a journey, and fuck the people who think the game starts when they get to the end :)

  • by Opportunist (166417) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @06:42PM (#14904226)
    Imagine there are 2 game mags at the store. One has a preview of the Ultimate New Game you've been waiting for. One doesn't. Which one do you buy?

    Right.

    Now, how do you get a preview? Unless it's available for download (well, if it is, every mag's gonna have it, so let's ignore those for now), the game company has to send you the necessary goodies.

    And now the big question: Will they send you their next preview if you write "This sucks! Bugs, flaws and no interesting gameplay, even if they spend another year on it it will STILL suck!"?

    No. They'll send it to a magazine that hypes it into heavens and back. And the magazine that has the article about the preview sells more copies than the one that doesn't.

    Sipmle as that.
  • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by UnrealAnalysis (738653) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @06:43PM (#14904233)
    Because there's far less financial risk involved in purchasing a $45 game than a $20 000+ car.
  • by Vo0k (760020) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @06:43PM (#14904235) Journal
    What magazines lack is a "crap" column. Most reviews rate games with 70-100%, but most of these games deserve this rating. It's just that games rating lower don't get reviewed - they get very little press at all. The editors play a little, decide this is a shit, don't bother writing a review and taking up space in the magazine, then move on to the next title that is more interesting.

    People complain about how many bad games are released nowadays but they forget shitty games were like 80% of the market ALWAYS. Thing it, they got forgotten and we don't remember them anymore. You remember Zork and HHGTTG from Infocom, but you forget a dozen of more medicore games they released. You remember Revenge Of The Mutant Camels, but where's Herbert's Dummy Run? Quake is there, a dozen of Quake knockoffs is forgotten. And press rarely bothered to mention them too.

    Though I agree - we're at a crisis moment. Making a game to be of quality comparable with the market leaders is way out of reach of small developer groups. And big players want to play it safe, so they dump innovation. There's fewer good new games than there would be at any moment of the gaming history in the past. And magazines write reviews comparing games to the average. Quake 4 is still at upper 95% of the quality of currently available titles, it's just the quality of currently available titles is at about half the level the quality was in times of Quake 3.
  • Re:Why? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by krunk4ever (856261) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @06:48PM (#14904258) Homepage
    But it's that 1st review in your car magazine that actually gets you to go test drive a car, which might or might not lead to the final result of purchasing the car. Same thing with video games. You see some demos, look at people's reviews, see some actual game play, maybe even try it yourself, before you actually purchase the game. Of course that's what a "sensible" person would do... On the other hand, we have ...

    But my point being, without that first demo or review, you might not even hear of the game at all.
  • by sholden (12227) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @07:05PM (#14904327) Homepage
    Isn't the average 9/10?
  • by fondue (244902) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @07:42PM (#14904424)
    It seems that this Wagner James Au character hasn't become any more qualified to write about games since Old Man Murray used to tear his clueless, self-absorbed drivel to pieces five years ago.

    Most previews are positive? Holy shit! Previews help to sell games? Bring me the fucking Bat-phone!

    Publishers are interested in publicity, not critical acclaim in reviews that are six weeks late and which nobody reads. Magazines want as much repeat business as they can, so if they know that readers want to hear about a certain game, they can string out their coverage for months on end. Previews have never, ever, in over 20 years of games magazine publishing, served as a forum for criticism. NOBODY has EVER claimed otherwise.

    This proposterous swaggering about "naming and shaming" of journalists DOING THEIR JOBS serves no purpose other than to make it painfully obvious that WJA hasn't the faintest idea of how the specialist press works.

    The simple fact is that if you still buy games magazines in 2006 then your judgment is already in question; if you pre-order games based on fucking previews then God help you: you are part of Wagner James Au's audience, you are probably part of (rumour-mongering tabloid vermin) Kotaku's regular readership and YOU, not the publishers, not the magazines, are the fucking problem.
  • by vicotnik (556724) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @08:10PM (#14904509)
    Did you play games before our current degree of risk-averseness set in, say the C64 days? Yep, most games were clones and they sucked really bad, in fact they were a lot worse than the bad games of today. This is something you tend to overlook since you don't remember all the crappy games you only played for a few minutes or so. Sure, there was creativity then, but there is creativity now too. Also, the people who complain about the lack of creativity today are often very unaware of the wealth of games coming from independent game companies. Maybe they realize that creative is not the same as good, or they just don't have the time to waste finding the gems among these games in the same way they did 20 years ago.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 12, 2006 @09:58PM (#14904875)
    i credit nintendo power for my cynicism. i remember issue #1, with mario 2, and how excited i was when it first arrived, and how every month i'd check the mailbox to see if it came (i was in like 4th grade, i think). the two best parts were 'classified information' and the preview thing... i think they called it 'pakTM watch'...i remember seeing my first screenshots of megaman 2 in there. later on i actually deciphered the megaman 2 and solar jetman password schemes, discovered a warp bug from airman to the 2nd wily stage, and many others, and always sent them in, waiting for 'agent #888' to appear in classified information.

    but it never happened. increasingly i realized that nintendo power was basically a PR magazine. the final nail was when the pak watch (gah, 'pak'? everyone else was calling it 'cart' by that time) column had a thing about the upcoming mortal combat port, and mentioned how the blood was replaced with sweat, saying (quoting from memory), that it "seems fine to this pak watcher. nothing wrong with a little variation." at that point, in my mind i replaced "pak watcher" with "absolute fucking tool", and the cynicism was complete.

    now, as an adult, i feel pity for those people involved in making nintendo power. what a waste of life. i have a suspicion, though, that people like that will never be able to comprehend further than their paycheck. suckers.
  • by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatman AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday March 12, 2006 @10:59PM (#14905081) Homepage Journal
    I think it is good to rant about this because he has a good point: those web reviews sites don't wanna lose their jobs. So they play along with the devs, not the people.

    *sigh* PC Gamer, PC Gamer, wherefore art thou PC Gamer? Thoust were taken over by PC Accelerator, forever to be changed into a mediocre magazine. The PC Gamer thy once were is forever dead. Dead, and floating upon the winds of time. Farewell pointy stick and coconut monkey, I knewest thou well.
  • by edunbar93 (141167) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:32PM (#14905167)
    And apparently, you just don't care about actually telling the truth in your articles and serving the people who pay to subscribe to your magazine

    Congratulations. You have just independently rediscovered the principle that you are not the customer. You are the *product*. *You* are sold to the advertiser. The advertiser is the customer who pays to make the magazine cheap.

    And guess who the advertiser is in this case? That's right, the game publishers.

    Of course, you could just stop reading the magazine if you don't like what the writers have to say and how they say it...
  • Re:Why? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SuperRob (31516) on Sunday March 12, 2006 @11:59PM (#14905236) Homepage
    Exactly. Thanks for saying that.

    Most of the sites I've written reviews and previews for actually had it as a rule: Previews are to remain positive. Why? Because it's a look at an UNFINISHED product, and it's not fair to be critical at that stage, at least not publicly (we frequently give feedback directly to the development teams). I've seen good games go bad, and I've seen bad games become amazing. Everything deserves a fair shake, so we remain "cautiously optimistic."

    A well-written preview should refrain from editorializing at all, simply stating the intent the developers have with the game, and the time frame they intend to do it in. There are ways to sneak that editorial opinion in, however. ("This very early look ...", or "The game is very rough at this stage ...")
  • by 1u3hr (530656) on Monday March 13, 2006 @01:30AM (#14905469)
    Hard to get a solution.

    Sadly, the submitter and almost every commenter so far seems not to have read past the first few paras, if that. He DOES propose a solution. So, for the benfit of those non-RTFAs:

    If editors were to break this unspoken agreement they've made with publishers to write groveling previews, they'd be heroes to gamers everywhere. They'd also be out of a job. Which is why it's up to gamers to save them from themselves--and in the process, to help save games.

    This is where blogs like this come in.

    Starting in April, Kotaku will launch a regular feature called "Preview Ho of the Month", and the object is to name and shame.

    "Preview Ho" will be a compilation of the most egregious, blatant promotion for unreleased games from across the gaming press. We will challenge the editors of these magazines and websites to justify their hype on behalf of their advertisers' products. We will ask them why they gave so much glowing press to games that were so unfinished as to be design documents with conceptual art, or gave any attention whatsoever to yet another movie spin-off with no perceivable originality at all. In doing so, we will go after previews as they exist now for what they are: the mortal enemy of good games.

    And Slashdot would be the perfect place to give this some momentum. If anyone had done more than read the headline and make "duh, obvious" remarks.
  • by west (39918) on Monday March 13, 2006 @06:22AM (#14906247)
    To be honest, I really hate previews. But then, I grew up reading game reviews without a final rating (that long ago - horrors)! However, for the most part, readers value previews over almost any other feature, and they their not big fans of negative reviews.

    They read previews to be excited for a few months, enjoying the anticipation of playing the greatest game ever. They're reading the magazine to get a little lift. In short, most readers *aren't* curmudgeons.

    With positive previews everybody wins. Pages are filled, publishers get free publicity, stores pre-order more games, magazines get a closer relationship with the publisher, advertisers (who want happy game-buying readers) are happier, and readers get their thrill of anticipation (which takes their mind off the game they're playing now...)

    Outside of a few curmugeons like me (and many of the previous posters), people no more want honesty in gaming magazines than they do in health magazines ("forget special diets - simply eat less calories and get moderate exercise" doesn't benefit anyone. The advertisers don't want it, and neither do the readers). The magazines give people what they want, and the one's that chose different paths have all gone bankrupt.

    If you want *real* reviews by people who paste games that "deserve it", smaller websites that don't depend on readers or game advertising for financing (i.e. labors of love) are the only viable medium.

Physician: One upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well. -- Ambrose Bierce

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