Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

2 August, 2007

Playing the review game
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 9:38 AM

I wanted to some of you a glimpse into the inner workings of the game industry. I’ll warn you, this is almost exactly like making sausages; you probably really don’t want to see this, but your morbid fascination will make you look anyway.

Let’s say you’ve worked your ass off to make a game. You put the final few touches on the game and now you’ve submitted your gold master and ready to ship. What now? Well, time to get some good reviews, of course! But, even assuming you made a wonderful game, you might run into a little problem: You’re giving your code to the reviewers too late.

Wait, what…?

Reviews are highly sought after because they can really help a game. A sparkling review of an otherwise obscure game can mean more sales.

But, the problem is that reviews are highly competitive. With everything moving at “internet speed”, the first site to post a review for a particular game has an advantage and will get more hits. Taking time to do a thoughtful review means that the game will be old news by the time anyone reads it.

Unfortunately, even print media falls prey to this thinking. A friend of mine forwarded me this email from a game reviewer for the NYT. I filed off the identifying information, but this should give you a bit of insight into the mindset of a typical reviewer.

With the busy fall season approaching, I wanted to make sure everyone was clear on how very, very, very important early review code is for those hoping to have their games reviewed in the New York Times. I apologize to those for whom this is not relevant and those who already do a good job of sending me games early; I have a “game pr” address book and I’m just sending this out to the entire list. If it isn’t relevant to you, stop reading now.

Sending early review code is really important if you have any interest in getting a game in my column. Sending early review code doesn’t guarantee I’ll review a game, but it does virtually guarantee I’ll look at it. If, on the other hand, I get a game two weeks after it shipped then I’ll only look at it if I simply have nothing else of interest to review, which is a rare, although not unknown, occurrence.

I have debugs for everything except the Wii, and should be on everyone’s review code list (but should not be on anyone’s preview code list, since I don’t write previews or play unreviewable code).

Now allow me to explain how I choose games. When a game comes in I add it to a list of all the games I could consider for a review, listed by release date and notated with how many days before or after the shipping date I received the game. When deciding which games to check out first I look at the games I can give the most timely reviews to, which are games whose ship dates falls in the two weeks between each review. I turn in my column a week before it runs, and spend two weeks playing games for each column. So if a game ships the day before my column runs, I need to have finished playing it about two weeks before that date.

So, first I play any games in my possession that ship in that ideal two week period. Sometimes, if the games came in a month or two before their ship date I will have played them already, so there are times when I know what my column will be on a couple of months in advance, although that’s rare. I do try and give games that come in extremely early just to reward that sort of behavior, although it won’t help if I don’t like the game.

If there aren’t games any that fit my ideal criteria, or if I don’t like any of the games that do, I start playing games that would ship a week or two earlier, so this is the point at which I might consider games I didn’t receive until they shipped. If I don’t like any of those I move to the games that were sent to me way after the ship date; one of those games might make it into my column two or three times a year.

I am slightly more lenient with Wii games, because I don’t have a Wii debug. I am particularly strict in cases where I receive a game, go to gamerankings.com and see that 15 online game sites all published reviews a week before I even got a copy of the game. That is aggravating.

I work this way to make sure my column is timely. My editors feel it just doesn’t look good if I review games a month after they ship. It makes the Times look a bit sluggish and irrelevant to gamers, something I would like to avoid. And unlike online game sites I can’t just get a game when it ships, play it obsessively and turn out a review in a couple of days.

I realize not all of you have publishers who are amenable to passing out early review code. I do cut a little slack for games represented by PR people who aren’t passing out early review code to anyone else either and who have expressed an understanding of my issues and the desire to help in any way they can. But I can only cut so much slack because of the aforementioned wish to not seem irrelevant.

Some publishers are great at getting me early code, and if you want to know who they are check my columns and see which publishers keep getting reviews. If you notice that certain major publishers almost never make my column, you should now be able to guess why that is.

It’s funny because there seems to be the mistaken impression that gamers use the Times for game reviews. If I want to find out information about a game that is about to be released, I don’t go hunt down a copy of a print newspaper; no, the internet has always been more convenient and accessible for this. I have always thought that print media is silly to try to compete with the internet on the same level. The strength of print media is that it does move at a slower pace so that you can get more reasoned and thoughtful commentary. Unfortunately, it seems that the print media doesn’t see this as an advantage; it would rather try to compete with the internet in terms of speed despite that whole “lead time” issue. (I think this thoughtful commentary angle should apply to more than just games, too.)

Of course, this just touches the surface of the complex system that is game media. You might want to read this article from a smaller review site’s editor for some more insight into the world of reviews. I even posted a comment about how internet sites compete in terms of speed, which can hurt the quality of their writing. That article is recommended reading for anyone interested in games as a business.

But, I can complain until I’m blue in the face and it won’t change things. The practical reality here is that PR isn’t something you can put off until the end. As this shows, you need to get your review code out to people in time for them to get a review done. Get it to them early so that the review can be “timely”, even if a more thoughtful review cycle would be more appropriate. It’s yet another hurdle to jump through in order to get attention to your game, and yet another way that indie developers have to work that much harder to get attention.

What are your thoughts? Is this email reasonable? Am I ignoring harsh reality? Or, would thoughtful reviews be better even if they do arrive sometime after the launch of a game?







4 Comments »

  1. Is there really much benefit from reviews being ready on the day of release? As Ophelia stated, previews are probably more important to the consumers who read gaming coverage. And odds are that a gamer who isn’t hooked by the previews by a month before release isn’t going to pay much heed to the game’s review.

    Reviews probably make a bigger difference with non-gamer parents and other non-gamer, or very occasional gamer, consumers than with regular gamers. And even then, most parents are more likely to simply ask the store clerk about the game than to look up a review on a website they’ve probably never heard of.

    Not many are going to look up a newspaper’s review. A newspaper’s review is just for people who happen to notice the review on their read through the whole paper and happen to think “a” video game would make a nice present for a child they know.

    Reviews probably have a more significant effect in influencing delayed purchases than purchases on the first day or even within the first week of release. If that’s true, perhaps it makes sense to worry less about getting a finished product in the hands of reviewers early, and worry more about getting the finished product to all reviewers at about the same time.

    Comment by Aaron — 3 August, 2007 @ 9:20 AM

  2. How horrible is that. I personally would instantly add that person to the “people who will never get a free copy of the game list…” but if I was in the industry would probably also find that they are also on the “people who my bosses/financiers/suits want me to give a copy of the game to as early as possible so we sell more copies” list. Which of course takes priority over the first list. Over all though, I found the tone of that entire e-mail fairly negative and even arrogant in places. There are nicer ways to say to people, “look I can only review your game if I get it early because that’s how the editors want it.”

    If anything though I would argue it makes the Times or any other online/offline magazine look out of touch with gamers anyway. How can a review be considered a review if it’s based on an unfinished product… Doesn’t say much for journalistic integrity! That’s like reading the first six chapters of an unedited Harry Potter and writing a review from there. “JK Rowlings spelling errors and badly knitted grammar are a…”

    The alternative is delaying release until after the press have seen the finished game – that’s what the big blockbuster movies do after all. Or an industry wide, “we only send games after completion,” stance.

    Comment by Jpoku — 3 August, 2007 @ 12:00 PM

  3. There’s a HUGE problem with previews being more important – it is very hard to be critical of a preview. Unless it’s a gold master and how many get those?

    People who hit sites for previews are looking for their opinion. People who hit sites for reviews are looking to form an opinion as to whether they should buy.

    SeanMike from my site did a fantastic editorial on the type of code and nature of previews and why they are (and should be) so often positive – http://www.gamersinfo.net/staff_blogs/htsrvpq/trackback.php/64

    Comment by Ophelea — 8 August, 2007 @ 12:18 PM

  4. Jpoku, unfortunately I think you’ll find that a massive amount of the so-called reviews in the games industry are based on unfinished products, sometimes as much as 25% unfinished. Individual journalists may have integrity but on the other hand they need to pay their bills, and probably can’t easily pick and choose which games to review for their magazines. I guess that publishers tend to force your hand on these matters and the individuals do the best that they can. I’m not saying it’s acceptable, but I do think it’s inevitable.

    Comment by Ben Sizer — 14 August, 2007 @ 2:54 AM

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