I don’t agree with everything Ars Technica’s Ben Kuchera writes, but he was right on the money with this piece right here. Marketing plans are starting to rule the world, and not just in the games industry — though given my intimate familiarity with it, that’s what I’ll be particularly focusing on here.
I remember the early days of gaming. There were no carefully-orchestrated reveals, no countdown websites (largely because there were no websites) and no pre-order incentives. And it was good. Sometimes you’d hear through a magazine that developer X had just had a great idea for a new game, and it sounded interesting, but they didn’t have anything to show yet because it was just an idea. That was cool — it gave you an insight into the creative process and didn’t always come to anything. That was cool, too — cancelled games passed into the stuff of legend and became myths.
I’ve been trying to pin down exactly what it is that bugs me about all this, and I think it’s the whole element of “you can’t talk about this until we say so”. Embargoes are the bane of the games journalist, particularly when, as in some cases, you find yourself seeing a game literally months before you’re allowed to publish anything about it. There is absolutely no reason for this to happen in an online world of immediate information — particularly with the growing number of leaks that spring from developers presumably frustrated with the shackles that PR firms place around their necks.
The problem with the whole thing is perhaps best summed up by Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford stating “if we haven’t announced it, it doesn’t exist.” Why on Earth should that be the case? What a way to disrespect your development team, who are probably quite proud of what they’re working on. What a way to insult the intelligence of the public. And what a pointless exercise — in this case it was less than a day between Eurogamer breaking the story that Borderlands 2 was “probably” on the way and Take-Two announcing that Borderlands 2 was on the way. Pitchford called this “shoddy journalism” when in fact it was the exact opposite — reporters should go off-piste from time to time, as they’re not PR mouthpieces — PR mouthpieces are!
As one who reports on the news in the industry, I come face to face with this sort of thing every day. Don’t get me wrong — I very much enjoy reporting on new announcements and helping drum up excitement for new products. There is always something going on in the industry, whether it’s a small developer putting out an interesting-looking iPhone game or a massive publisher announcing a new means through which they’re attempting to bum-burgle used game customers.
I know why it happens of course — it’s so competitors don’t get to find out their awesome new features and then put out a better version. But in all seriousness, there’s a whole load of generic military shooters out there already — keeping the fact that New York gets attacked in one/both/all of them isn’t going to change that fact. Ironically, the most original titles are often the ones who are most open and humble about their innovations.
As a consumer, the constant parade of cock-teasers is inordinately frustrating and is causing me to shy further and further away from mainstream entertainment in my own free time. In recent years, the titles I’ve got most excited about are the ones that weren’t embargoed, the ones where developers were open about what they were up to and the ones where I could find out things about the game at my own pace by doing some research and trawling through developer websites — not by following some schedule that the marketing department had dreamed up. Recettear, Chantelise, Groove Coaster, Pocket Academy, Breath of Death VII, Cthulhu Saves the World, Dungeons of Dredmor, Minecraft — these are the games I’m excited about and it’s perhaps no coincidence that most of them are independently developed and published titles. All of them either suddenly appeared out of nowhere without months of cock-teasing, or were extensively documented by their creators during development. I can only imagine how satisfying it will be for Notch and his team when Minecraft is finally released to the public and they have a complete and public record of the entire development process which they can look back on and think “Yes. We did that.”
The only exception to this rule in my case is Catherine, which Atlus carefully drip-fed information out to the public about, but, notably, didn’t stop people talking about the Japanese version which had come out some months earlier — including a playable demo. By the time the reviews for the game came out, I’d already made up my mind — I wanted to play that game, and a review wasn’t going to change my mind. I’d played the Japanese demo and was intrigued by it. I was interested in seeing what the Persona team made of adult relationships, and I liked the idea of the story being married to something other than a typical JRPG. I felt like I was making an informed choice, not the choice that PR wanted me to make. Even then, as a European I still have to wait until Deep Silver bring the game over — by which time most of my American buddies will have played and beaten the game and will have already discussed it.
It’s difficult to say whether this situation will continue — it seems that most weeks I see journalist friends suffering some sort of embargo frustration, or gamer friends fed up with the constant prick-teasing of countdown sites and “exclusive reveals” during sports events they weren’t going to watch anyway. But it must at least be having an effect because it seems to be the model to follow these days.
I miss the days of bedroom programmers selling cassette tapes at car boot sales and type-in listings from magazines. Can we have those days back, please?