Previews aren’t the problem with game coverage, we are.
Being put in front of a game you can play and then given access to a developer you can interview is the half-pipe of game reporting. We’re all given (basically) the same rules. The challenge is what you do once you’re given the opportunity. The gaming press has been stuck peering into our own navel when it comes to previews of games, with some claiming that we’re all part of a vast press-to-publisher conspiracy, others seeing only downside to the often-controlled process, and others just kind of wringing their hands over the whole thing. I also began to worry about the state of previews after Colonial Marines was released, but after going back and reading through many different previews and the comments on the content, I feel pretty comfortable saying that previews aren’t the problem. We’re the problem. Me and you. Or rather, the press and the readers. Allow me to explain.
For the love of God, don’t pre-order a game based on a preview
Jim Sterling created a wonderful video about how much pressure the publishers put on consumers to pre-order not only the game, but the DLC, content packs, and season passes. It’s an insane situation: Not only is the game not out, but you’re prepaying for content that hasn’t been described, for a game you haven’t played. I can’t fault them for trying, but the best way to get them to stop is by not giving up your money.
The Colonial Marines reviews were filled with people lamenting their pre-order at this or that retailer, or wondering if they could get their money back for their Steam pre-order. Leigh Alexander is right when she talks about the inherent advantage the publishers have when it comes to previews; almost any game can look good in small sections with enough work and a controlled environment. Writers may also feel pressured to hide negative opinions so they don’t put their review copies in jeopardy. There is nothing nefarious about this practice, as it’s PR’s job to put the game in the best possible light, and to try for the highest possible Metacritic score. If you had 10 review copies and 50 outlets asking for them, it’s only smart to send the game to those who are going to give you a return on the investment. It’s not about being fair, it’s about getting the best outcome for your client. So read previews skeptically. Be a critical participant in the process. Pay attention to how much is played, and what the writer says. Ask about the conditions of the event, and the equipment used to play the games. Was the writer allowed to explore at his or her own pace? Even the worst preview event can give the writer and the reader a ton of information to share and talk about, so dig for it. Ask questions on Twitter. E-mail if you need to. But for the love of God, don’t pre-order a game based on a preview. Wait for the full reviews to be published. Talk to your friends who have played the game. You may miss out on a small sale or an “exclusive” gun, but who cares? All it takes is passing on one game as bad as Colonial Marines and you’ve made that money back. Previews are the worst kind of information to use to make a pre-order decision. Learn about the games, sure, but don’t get your wallet out.
Hey press, this is a solvable problem. The issue is we usually suck
People write about previews and say that the publishers are trying to make the game look as if they were somehow cheating. Guess what: Everyone tries to make their subject look good, and it’s the job of the press to try to get to the information. That’s true with press briefings at the White House, and it’s true with game previews. Getting through the PR bullshit to find a story is supposed to be hard. That’s why you’re getting paid to do it. If you do it well, you’ll get paid more to do so, and may get a staff position. Finding, and writing about, the information they don’t want you to know is the entirety of your job.If they won’t let you play a game for more than a few minutes, write about it. If the developer won’t answer questions, write about it. If someone was evasive, write about it. If you didn’t get the chance to ask a question during the demo, there’s nothing wrong with leaving the room with the producer of the game and asking them something in the hallway. If you’re watching a hands-off, guided presentation of the game, just leave. You can watch that shit on YouTube back at your room. There’s no news value for you there. The problem isn’t that PR creates a wall, that’s their job. The problem is that in most cases we’re not willing to break through it. Previews are often handled by younger reporters en masse at shows at PAX or E3, and those are the people who are often unwilling to get aggressive in their line of questioning or push for hands-on access. This is the sort of job that’s best done by a reporter with a few years of experience under their belt, but previews are often seen as something of a commodity: get them out, get them done, get them up, try to get some hits. There are some great reporters out there doing some great work with previews, although they’re rarely called previews. You don’t have to structure this content in any particular way. Try to learn everything you can about the game in your time with it, and then hammer anyone and everyone you can with questions to try to get more information. Learn to do that well, and you can get multiple stories out of a single preview. Here’s a hint: if the word “preview” is in the article headline, it’s likely no one tried very hard.
Previews can be great, but you often don’t know until you get there
There are some previews that I wouldn’t give up for the world. I once visited Blizzard before the release of StarCraft 2 and was allowed to play through a variety of missions with next to no input from PR or developers. That’s the sort of high-quality content and time with a game that can inform coverage in a major way. It also shows confidence in the game. The press was given the opportunity to play through one of Dishonored’s most interesting missions more than once at least year’s QuakeCon, and I was then able to talk to the game’s designers about what I had played. That’s not only great coverage, but it’s something I enjoy on a personal level. There is nothing like playing something that good and then getting to talk about how it was achieved. It’s like watching a magic trick and then getting to grill the magician about how it was done. It’s not common, but some publishers will simply send over early builds of games that you can explore at home, away from PR interference or meddling. I remember playing the first few hours of Deus Ex: Human Revolution in this manner, and falling in love with the game. If you do this, and the game is good, you’re going to have people in the press who won’t only write positive coverage, they will evangelize their game. Publishers that have confidence in their product inspire confidence in the press. For every crappy preview, there is a good one. Saying that “previews” as a whole are good or bad is silly, and counter-productive. It’s hard to tell how much access you’ll be given before things even begin, and I’m absolutely not above walking out with a polite explanation if the coverage isn’t worth my time. If a publisher of developer can’t share information that is worth writing up, I don’t have to a job to do. Overall, I love previews. I love talking to people and trying to find news, and I love playing games. I understand that their goal is to get the best possible coverage. My goal is to describe the game accurately and share information with my readers in an engaging way. They don’t have to be at odds, but they both require each side to show up and participate. Too often you see PR or the press, or both, sleepwalk through these sessions. In those cases, everyone loses. This is an easy fix, really. Stop pre-ordering games games on preview coverage. In fact, unless you absolutely require that super-special edition, don't pre-order at all. On the other hand, the press needs to stop being a passive participant at these events and try to do some damned reporting. There will always be bad games that are given good previews, it's the nature of the game. But we can do work on harm reduction, and these are good places to begin. This article contained an image from this Digital Trends story