Video Game Publishers Strong-Arming The Media with Embargoes, Content Restrictions

We have a pretty strong sense of how the relationship works between the media and companies that make the products that get reviewed, but according to Dan Whitehead of Games Industry, that relationship has become rather strained when it comes to news outlets and video game companies.

Whitehead wrote a piece discussing the flaws he sees with covering games these days, noting that he feels as though these companies are too heavy-handed when it comes to giving out reviewer’s guides and enforcing embargoes. He says that embargoes can seem arbitrary, and reviewer’s guides can seem condescending at best and manipulative at worst--such as the example he gives of when one company sent out a “helpful” reviewer’s guide after its game had already received a lot of bad press.

Whitehead also complains about the restrictions companies give on what he can and can’t reveal about a game. For example, he says that he wasn’t supposed to reveal that in Gears of War: Judgment (spoiler alert), General Karn dies but points out that concealing that tidbit is pointless. General Karn is the main antagonist, so of course he’s the final boss that you have to kill at the end of the game. He also notes that sometimes, he’s prohibited from mentioning what happens after a certain level or that he can’t criticize a certain character.

Screenshot from Starcraft II

If that is the state of affairs, he’s right to feel hamstrung by it,

For those who aren’t aware of how the process works, companies send review units (be it hardware or software) to reviewers to evaluate. Generally, the item will include a reviewer’s guide, which typically has specifications, salient features, and sometimes not-so-subtle selling points to think about. When a product hasn’t been released yet, reviewers must agree to abide by an embargo date; before that date and time, reviewers are not supposed to release any details of that particular item.

When you review products, companies understand that there are essentially no restrictions on what we can or can’t say. If a product is terrible, we say that; if it’s the best we’ve ever seen, we say that, too. And throughout a review, it’s the reviewer’s job to discuss any and all features (good and bad) that readers might find worth knowing about. There’s a delicate relationship between the media and companies that make products that we review and critique, for sure, but there’s an understanding that we both have a job to do.

There is a difference, however, between reviewing a video game and reviewing a piece of hardware. As Whitehead notes, games fall into an awkward area where you’re evaluating both whether a product delivers on its promise of performance and also how artistic it is in terms of visuals, story, and characters.

In any case, when a company starts trying to do a reviewer’s job for him by forbidding him to discuss certain aspects of a product or insisting that he promote others, that’s a problem, and that’s apparently where Dan Whitehead is sitting.