Friday, 19 September 2014

Whiskey Reviews: Review Embargoes (and competition!)

Being the cynical git I am, my mind jumped to the worst possible reasons when Whiskey Reviews was hit with a review embargo recently. The sensible bit of me however decided that there must be something more than that so in the interest of being fair and informative Whiskey  Reviews decided to reach out to various levels of the industry to ask about the subject and get a broad range of views.

For those who don't know, review embargoes are when a developer or publisher tells a review outlet that they're not allowed to publish their review until a certain date, usually the day the game is released. For the purposes of this article we're not interested in any of the other stuff that happens surrounding review embargoes or 'professional' games journalism and are wholly focused on the embargo itself.


I cast my net far and wide, initially planning on talking to a wide range of people; an indie developer, a bigger developer, a couple of publishers, a 'professional' games journalist or two, and a couple of gamers. However, and somewhat predictably, many of those didn't reply.
One person did reply though, one person that made the whole endeavor worthwhile and gave such insightful and helpful answers that the article bounced right back out of the bin and threatened to blackmail me if I didn't publish it.

So who is this mysterious person who replied? A veteran of the gaming industry, a legend in his own right; Fireproof Games' Barry Meade!
His answers are so good that my original plan to chop them up and write a big article out of them couldn't possibly do them justice so I present to you his full, unedited answers from the woefully incomplete email interview:

Have you had any experience where a review or information embargo has prevented you from speaking about a game you've worked on?
Historically, sure but not now. At Fireproof we give away lots of information about ourselves, I think Indie devs in general aren't worried about talking about their work, in fact we're happy to. Developers in big studios however aren't really allowed to talk about the games they work on because their executives still entertain the happy illusion that making the fifth sequel to shooter IP num. 284 is as important as the Manhattan Project. Forget the public, those devs can't even talk to other devs about their games, often even devs from the same team or company if you can believe that shit. But both of these examples are separate from my understanding of embargos, which are exclusively about asking critics and people outside the developer not to be giant spoilers for games that aren't released yet.


What would you think the impact would be (if any) if embargoes were abolished?
Not much really. Increasingly embargos don't exist anyway, certainly not in the waters Fireproof swim in: the Indie and PC scenes generally are going for transparency, seeing it as an aid to PR/awareness and a gift to their communities or fans. At Fireproof we just see secrecy as silly in a market that's all about entertainment for a mass audience. AAA gaming is many years past the old days where brand new ideas could be ripped off and replicated before the original comes out. You have to remember, executives at most big companies really do believe the current iteration of their terribly generic franchise is somehow important and novel. I think the people who would be most shocked if all game embargos fell would not be journalists or the public - it would be video game execs with delusions of working for NASA.

Do you think review embargoes are necessary for day-one sales, and how much of an impact do you believe/know them to have?
I don't know. I do know as a gamer, when I spot a game I like the look of I often never read anything about it again until release, so personally I appreciate and benefit the anti-spoiler effect of embargos. Other people take the opposite view, they like to enthuse over every morsel of info and that's cool too.

Do you think the publisher or developer has more control and desire for embargoes? Who usually imposes the embargo for big/small studios?
I think I'd have to say the publisher cares more, but remember sometimes a leak is a real blow to a dev team, sometimes not. But publishers and developers employ marketing and PR departments strictly to control the messaging of their games. Leaks and spoilers interfere with marketing's totalitarian grip over information and ergo undermines the case for them to be so massively funded. So there will always be pressure to keep information out of the public, for institutional reasons if no other.

In the case of an embargo being put in place by the developer, do you think that's because of a lack of confidence in their product or the market, or even journalists, or something else?
Sometimes of course but mostly it's just what happens and devs/publishers do it unthinkingly, like a tradition. Honestly, games are so different that there is no yes/no answer here.  For example, I might love reading about Elite:Dangerous but Fireproof are developing a puzzle game - If stuff leaked about our game, the spoiler effect would ruin the discovery, the gameplay itself. So we choose not to release screenshots etc. because we love surprising our players. It's far removed from being sinister.

Has there ever been an instance where an embargo has caused an issue for yourself, the project you were on at the time, or the company you were working for?
Nope not really.

Anything else you can think of on the topic?
Just to say that embargos generally are relatively benign tools and to the industry they're like reaching for an old coat - they are boring, unexamined and used by rote. Most devs don't put much thought into them, certainly not enough that they could be weaponised into some sort of smokescreen or method to fool people. In 20 years I've never worked anywhere that knew their game was so shit that nobody could talk about it, though I know it happens occasionally. Embargos become seedy when used to protect a really bad game, but otherwise are just to avoid spoilers.


There you have it ladies and gents; review embargoes aren't in place to help boost day one sales in case of a bad review, they aren't there to fool consumers or suppress information. It's just the marketing department exerting what little influence they can to make themselves feel better.

Big thank you to Barry Meade for talking with me and a big thank you to the readers for putting up with my lengthy break from posting new articles. As a way of making it up here's the first Whiskey Competition for a free game!

Competition:
THE COMPETITION IS CLOSED

As always, prizes are as-is. There's no age or country restrictions and the prize is for Humble Bundle/Steam. The winner will be contacted by email so don't forget to provide me with your email. Either leave it in your comment or email it to me separately at wskosc@gmail.com if you don't want it to be visible for all (make sure you include something so I can identify you, like copy-paste your comment in the email).

All you have to do to win a free copy of AVGN Adventures is leave a comment below (with your email) about the topic of review embargoes. It can be funny or insightful and the one I deem to be most worthwhile will win a copy of the game. Get commenting kids!