PressSpotting: What reviewers can say and when

Although this column usually tries to look at the broader issues and personalities in the game-journalism world, there are plenty of smaller topics swirling around that don't necessarily warrant a full column of their own. The PressSpotting Round-Up will take a quick look at some of these issues on...

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Although this column usually tries to look at the broader issues and personalities in the game-journalism world, there are plenty of smaller topics swirling around that don't necessarily warrant a full column of their own. The PressSpotting Round-Up will take a quick look at some of these issues on a periodic basis.

What to Say When They Say You Can't Say That
The wider gaming world got a peek at the complex give-and-take between journalist and game publisher earlier this month. MTV's Multiplayer blog was the one that pulled back the curtain, reporting that Konami was prohibiting those with early review access to Metal Gear Solid 4 from discussing the game's install times and cutscene length in their reviews. The rumor was essentially confirmed later that day when IGN UK's review of the game admitted, "In return for letting us play Metal Gear Solid 4 before its release, Konami issued us with a list of things that we're not allowed to discuss." A few days later, a Kojima Productions team member revealed to Kotaku the exact contents of that list. A few days after that, 1UP's Jeremy Parish added the shocking revelation that Konami "presented [the nondisclosure agreements] to us at the literal last moment...and made it clear that we wouldn't be leaving until we signed them."

Nondisclosure agreements are a pretty common prerequisite for reviewers who get early access to games for review. These agreements usually preclude the journalist from talking about the game before a certain date, or, occasionally, from discussing certain story elements that might spoil the game for the reader. But Konami's NDA went even further, asking reviewers not to reveal technical details that were directly relevant to any fair review of the game. GameSpot's Kevin Van Ord probably put it best on this site's own Reviews Blog: "I believe it is flat-out wrong for any publisher to request that pertinent information be left out of a review. The journalist decides what information is most important for the review--not the developer or its publisher."

So what should a journalist do when confronted with demands like these from a game publisher? One option is to offer a slightly delayed review of a full retail copy of the game, which is exactly what outlets such as GameSpot and Electronic Gaming Monthly did in response to the Konami situation. Nevertheless, this is a less-than-satisfying solution because the delayed review is both less useful to the reader and less lucrative to the outlet publishing the review. The better option is probably to leak the unreasonable publisher's demands out to the press anonymously, allowing the court of public opinion to punish the company for their overreach. As long as the press continues to adamantly and vociferously call out these types of situations when they come to light, publishers will eventually learn that trying to restrain what a reviewer can say about a game is just not worth it.

Battle of the Associations
With all of the attention paid to the Konami NDA controversy, you may not have noticed this month's shouting match between the Entertainment Software Association, which organizes the annual E3 trade show, and popular news blog GamePolitics, which is owned by an ostensible ESA rival, the Entertainment Consumers Association. Here's the five-cent version of what happened: The Escapist pointed out that Texas Governor and E3 keynote speaker Rick Perry supports some controversial statements from controversial pastor John Hagee. The story then got picked up by GamePolitics. All fine and good, until ESA Director of Communications Dan Hewitt issued a statement to Joystiq saying that GamePolitics is "tainted with anti-ESA vitriol" and accusing the site of being more of an ECA recruitment tool than an impartial news site.

This is pretty clearly an overreaction on the ESA's part, in my opinion. Yes, there is an inherent conflict of interest in ECA-owned GamePolitics covering the ESA, and the site should probably do more to disclose this conflict when its writers discuss the E3 organizer. That said, claiming that GamePolitics has a history of "anti-ESA vitriol" just isn't supported by the facts. Yes, GamePolitics covered the ESA's recent troubles retaining members, but so have countless other sites that have nothing to do with the ECA. What's more, GamePolitics' coverage has been relatively moderate compared to the blistering portrayals of the organization in some corners of the gaming blogosphere. There's a difference between being owned by a company and being a paid shill for that company. GamePolitics is clearly the former but not the latter.

The Anticlimactic Entertainment Expo?
Is it me, or does the buzz about this year's E3 seem a little less buzzy than it has in years past? Maybe it's because a lot of the behind-the-scenes action for this year's show is taking place weeks before the show actually starts. Already, large swathes of the press have been out to Los Angeles to see pre-E3 presentations from the likes of EA, LucasArts, THQ, Sega, and Sony, just to name a few. A select few journalists even went back to check out more games as part of the judges panel for the E3 Game Critics Awards. Although much of the information revealed at these meetings is embargoed until the show officially starts, this stuff has ways of leaking out through the journalist grapevine and making brand-new games seem old even before they're officially unveiled. Beyond the preshow events, the leaked contents of a preshow marketing survey have stolen the thunder from a number of announcements that Microsoft and Activision seemingly had planned for the show.

Though these events seem to point to a rather pointless E3 this year, I wouldn't be so quick to assume that there won't be some blockbuster announcements. The fun of a major trade show like this is that you never know exactly what will be revealed, or what new game will catch the collective eye of the thousands of journalists assembled in Los Angeles. Remember, it's pretty easy for a weak buzz to become a deafening roar of news and excitement once the show actually starts.

Chartz-ing out the Wrong Course
Business journalism is based on having good, fast, reliable data available to analyze and work into stories. So it's easy to see why some in the game press fell in love with VGChartz, a site that organizes historical and current game and hardware sales data by week and region. The free site provides some rather robust graphing and comparison features, and even earned a glowing write-up from O'Reilly's popular Radar blog. Is VGChartz the answer to every game journalist's data-based dreams?

Not so fast. Simon Carless over at Game Set Watch has put together a pretty thorough expose of some of the shoddy practices behind the creation of the VGChartz "data." Carless' piece details a variety of statistical sins, but the most egregious is probably the way the site adjusts sales figures after the fact to line them up with more reliable (and fact-based) estimates from the likes of the NPD Group. In light of this revelation, it would be pretty irresponsible for a game journalist to treat VGChartz data as anything more than an educated guess. It's a shame, because a site with VGChartz' presentation and accurate data would be a must-visit for any journalist.

This Month's Must-Read: GameRankings Derangement Syndrome
Anyone interested in the interplay between reviewer and developer should check out this great piece from the Dallas Morning News on how publishers and developers pay way too much attention to game-review scores on aggregators such as GameRankings and Metacritic. The best quote comes from Matthew over at Magical Wasteland, who compares a nervous developer trying to please feature-hungry critics to "a food company performing a taste test to find out that people basically like the saltiest, greasiest variation of anything and adjusting its product lineup accordingly." It's nice to know that critics have the power to affect the course of game design, but I have to wonder sometime if we have too much power in constraining designers to the path of least resistance.

Quote of the Moment
"That looks like one of those new-fangled toys the kids play with, the why-eee"--Anderson Cooper mispronounces the name of Nintendo's nearly two-year-old system on CNN.

For more about PressSpotting, check out the introductory column.

Kyle Orland is a freelance journalist specializing in video games and based out of Laurel, MD. He writes for a variety of outlets, as detailed on his personal site, and he's also the co-author of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual. Orland's views do not necessarily reflect those of GameSpot.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? Bitter invective? Send it to Kyle.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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