December 02, 2008

I've sat for a few minutes unsure whether or not to write this blog. Firstly, because my soul sorce for information is the ever-cynical RAM Raider which, let's face it, doesn't exactly hold positive comments about the games industry in its highest regard, and secondly, because I tend to have a pretty good working relationship with the PR agency with which this is concerned. To be entirely fair to them, it's not BHPR that have stepped out of line; quite the opposite, if the allegations are true, as BHPR have been surprisingly honest about the whole thing. That's what's kicked up such a fuss.

It's regarding the new Tomb Raider game, and Eidos' apparent attempts to control its Metacritic aggregate before release. The story - which, I will say again, is based on a howling lack of evidence - goes a little something like this.

Many press agencies are asked to give priority review code to certain publications. That's a given, and completely understandable. What's odd is BHPR's quickly-retracted claim that Eidos had asked them to contact the very few blessed with early code, which requested that no negative reviews should be published before the Monday following Tomb Raider's official release.

We have Gamespot's Guy Cocker to thank for his honesty. His quotation of the phonecall:

"If you're planning on reviewing Tomb Raider Underworld at less than an 8.0, we need you to hold your review till Monday."


Videogaming247 contacted BHPR, who - to their eternal credit - gave this response:

"That's right. It's just that we're trying to get the Metacritic rating to be high, and the brand manager in the US that's handling all of Tomb Raider has asked that we just manage the scores before the game is out, really, just to ensure that we don't put people off buying the game, basically."

Hats off for the honesty. I really like Barrington Harvey. They're lovely, lovely people to work with, always helpful. But in light of this, and the troubles we had over at another place I work for over actually getting review code for this (resulting in us being denied access to it altogether), it seems a little odd.

BHRP later released the following statement, which seems to pretend the previous comment simply didn't happen. Oo-er. I hope no one lost their job or anything.

"Barrington Harvey is not in the position of telling reviewers what they can and cannot say. We love Tomb Raider and believe it merits a score of at least 8/10, but if someone disagrees that's entirely their prerogative. No problem at all. Seriously: no problem.

Our original NDA stated that in order to receive an advance copy of the game, reviewers agreed not to post reviews ahead of 5:00pm, Wednesday 19th November 2008. Nothing else. No further obligations whatsoever."

Anyway - this is by no means an attack on Barrington Harvey, who I continue to relish working with (always contactable, always friendly and always helpful, unlike a great number of other agencies). It's merely an interesting insight into the relationship between publishers, PR agencies and the press. But it's also one that might not be at all true, so take it with a pinch of salt, and an apology to anyone involved who may feel wronged by my words.

EDIT: RAMRaider article reinforced by a bit of Googling, finding a few pages who tell their versions of the same story. Blog updated as a result.

Most recent blog posts from Lewis Denby...

zippdementia zippdementia - December 02, 2008 (10:39 AM)
The whole thing's an unfortunate bureaucratic mess, really. I haven't done much of my own research into the matter, so I'm limited to basically my own opinion, and it goes something like this...

What should we care if a company wants to hold bad reviews of a game until it's out? These days the burden is on us, the consumer, to make sure that what we're buying is a viable product. The only games I buy at release date are ones that I would buy no matter the reviews, a la Mirror's Edge and Dead Space. Otherwise, I chill on it for a week or two, looking at reviews, playing demos... getting the general sense of things.

I just don't have the money to blow on a "potentially" good game. Hell, I don't even usually have the money to buy games I'm SURE will be good. I rely on begging in the streets, hitting up relatives, and petty theft.

For the month of October (Fallout 3, Dead Space, Far Cry 2), I had to rob a goddamn bank.
honestgamer honestgamer - December 02, 2008 (11:12 AM)
I pretty much agree. I don't doubt that Eidos is managing the date that reviews are posted, but I also have a hard time caring. It's a common practice and there's nothing unethical about it. If the company was putting pressure on outlets to change their scores, or trying to say that they couldn't post bad reviews, that would be a different thing. All that's happening here is that Eidos is providing outlets with advance copies of the game and saying "But don't post anything bad until the day it releases or after."

Honestly, it sometimes feels to me like gamers are just looking for an excuse to gripe. They try to call the embargo unethical, too. It's absurd. Sometimes I think that as a whole, gamers are the most jaded and bitter group of people on the planet.
sashanan sashanan - December 02, 2008 (12:17 PM)
Often it seems the same people complaining about how the reviewers have got it all wrong and their 8.8 is far too low are the same ones who are up in arms about this kind of thing. It would appear you cannot have it both ways - either the reviews and their scores matter or they do not.
Lewis Lewis - December 02, 2008 (12:28 PM)
"I just don't have the money to blow on a "potentially" good game."

That's the thing, though. They're specifically manipulating the press in order to ensure that the release weekend sells a lot of copies, before a more measured set of reviews emerges afterwards.

You can look at it from whatever angle you want, but the meat of it is: they're trying to delay negative press of their product, and encourage positive press early, in order to fool buyers into thinking their game is receiving higher accolades than it really is.

Or are they? I'm not so sure it's even that.

In my eyes, what they're *really* trying to do is give publications an incentive to artificially ramp up the score. It doesn't matter so much for Gamespot, but what about magazines? What if a mag's due to be published the day of the Tomb Raider release? If they've planned to have it in that issue - and, let's face it, it's enormously beneficial to have early reviews of a big release, as it'll coax more people into buying your mag - what are you going to do? Hold it off for another month for the sake of a couple of points? Or just ramp your mark up to 80% because, in the grand scheme of things, it's not that important?

And, of course, the difference between, say, 78% and 80% is completely inconsequential, but it's what it symbolises that matters.

I'd love to know whether or not Guy Cocker was ready for his Gamespot review to be posted before the 24th. As it is, it went live on the 26th.

JV: Just because "this stuff happens" it doesn't make it right. Eidos is a major player, and it *will* get away with manipulating the press like this, until people take a stance against it. And it's worth noting, they didn't say "no bad reviews before release date." They said "no bad reviews until AFTER RELEASE WEEKEND." That's a big difference, and gives three big days for buyers to be fooled. Friday, Saturday and Sunday sell more games than any other days.

Sashanan: it's nothing to do with whether scores are important or not. It's an attempt at press censorship from the bottom up. It simply isn't on.
honestgamer honestgamer - December 02, 2008 (03:06 PM)
I should mention right out front that I don't particularly like Eidos. They continually ignore any of my attempts to establish a press contact within their company and they continue to be about the only third-party publisher under the sun that won't send us anything to review.

With that said, I don't think that Eidos should be crucified for this action while other companies continue to do it without attracting comment. Nor do I think that there's anything inherently wrong with the activity (or I'd be right by your side calling for companies to stop doing it). I'm not just defending the action because every other publisher does it.

When Eidos provides a media outlet with an advance copy, this permits the game critic at said outlet to play the game extensively ahead of its release. This is a very good thing. It gives those outlets an advantage, clearly. It enables them to post a game on the day that it releases--or even the night before--while other sites and publications (such as ours) have to buy the game and then play it a few days. There's no way we can reasonably post a day-of-release review for a beefy game along the lines of Tomb Raider. And since most sites don't update over the weekend, that means that any site that didn't get an advance copy wouldn't be able to post until after the weekend of release.

Basically, Eidos said "You can play the game early but if you don't like it you can't post your review until everyone else is doing so." That's what it works out to.

Now, someone might say "But Eidos has no right to censor the truth!" There's a part 2 for this story, though: Eidos said that any review below 8/10 would have to be held back until other reviews start hitting. It didn't say 9/10, just 8. Why? Because Eidos genuinely believes--and is probably quite right, given the quality of game Crystal Dynamics tend to produce within the series--that a reasonable analysis of the game is likely to result in a score of around 8/10. Furthermore, one can assume that it feels most gamers would agree with that rating. Again, that's probably true.

Remember that Eidos--and other companies too, but especially Eidos--is dealing with game critics who might have agendas. When a PR person sends the game out to an outlet, he or she has no idea how the game will be received or who will review it. There's nothing to stop it from going to some hardcore gamer who won't give the game anything above a 5/10 unless it switches genres, or is undeniably mind-blowing or packs an emotional punch the size of the Titanic. None of those things are reasonable expectations--not really--but a reviewer might very well say "Meh, it didn't really work for me" and slap a 5 out of 10 on the game because it failed to do one of those things. It's also possible that some reviewer with a high opinion of himself will think that it's time to teach a game publisher a lesson by penalizing an individual release. And with Eidos in particular, some reviewers still have an ax to grind over the infamous Kane & Lynch debacle.

Now, reviewers do have the right to post a review that reflects a minority viewpoint, and Eidos isn't saying "You can't do that." Eidos is merely saying "Wait until everyone else is doing so." Eidos provided critics with the opportunity to really play the game and give it a fair analysis and they don't want to be stabbed in the back as a result.

Remember that low review scores can and do affect a game's sales... substantially, in the case of a franchise like Tomb Raider. Three critics posting bad reviews of a game because they were mad about the GameSpot saga, or because they're tired of the Lara Croft character or whatever else can prevent thousands of units of a game from selling that otherwise might have. Such reviews can and do prevent the game from reaching the hands of gamers who might very well love the final product.

It's true that this rule might cause some sites to upgrade a review score from 7.8 to 8.0 just to be able to post it sooner. But that's not Eidos forcing anyone. That's the individual publication making a judgment call. Right or wrong, the choice is left in that individual's hands.

Is Eidos the bad guy here? No. I'm not sure there really is a bad guy.
Lewis Lewis - December 02, 2008 (04:28 PM)
There's nothing inherently disagreeable about your argument, JV, which is why I'm having a difficult time contending it.

Let's have a go anyway.

If Eidos had said "absolutely no reviews before this date," then that's fine. Completely their perogative. No one would argue with that.

But instead, they've said "no negative reviews by this date." Not even negative - just anything that isn't gushingly positive.

Quote from Byron at BHPR:

"Barrington Harvey has been working hard to ensure the launch scores of Tomb Raider Underworld are in line with our internal review predictions over the launch weekend - but to suggest that we can in some way "silence" reviews of the game is slightly overstating our influence."

It reeks of disgusting arrogance that they even have "internal review predictions", let alone push for people to stick to it.

What this is trying to do, as BHPR told us, is attempting to ensure that the reams of potential release-weekend buyers only see one side of the press before they make their purchase. The fact that they only asked for a few days' delay isn't the point. If this becomes the precident, what's to stop this amount of time increasing? Will we have publishers in the future that request no negative reviews for weeks, or even months, after release?

As for it being a publication's choice to up a score artificially, then yes, you're right, and that's a dispicable and cowardly move in itself. But my suspicion remains: this is what Eidos wanted people to do. This was one of their aims.

Depending on which way you look at it, it's a publisher either attempting to control access to the press surrounding their title, or manipulate critics into rating their game higher. The length of time, the score chosen, whatever: these are variables within that system. They're not relevant to my argument, nor should they be to anyone's.

Try this:

"We're wanting to pass a bill that allows people to shoot children in the face next week. Feel free to write about it, but only if you're in support of the motion. If you're not, you'll have to wait until a while after the bill has been passed in order to say anything."

Obviously an extreme example, but built upon exactly the same principles.

In my opinion, when you release a product specifically for review, you waive the right to complain about anything other than factual inaccuracies in the writing. Other than that, it's all opinion. To prevent people from voicing certain opinions is censorship, no matter how short a period of time this is for.

If they're that worried about their game scoring badly, maybe they should have sent it back to Crystal Dynamics for them to fucking make it better, instead of trying to prevent professionals from doing their job properly, and cheating the public into thinking people are responding more positively than they actually are.

As an aside, I don't know who deals with US PR for Eidos, but Gary should get in touch with Barrington Harvey for UK review code. They're dead, dead lovely. Shame about their awful, awful client.
honestgamer honestgamer - December 02, 2008 (05:11 PM)
I'm ignoring some of what you said at present because I haven't much time to explain why I don't agree... ;-)

I did want to address your slippery slope argument, though. You suggested that if Eidos and others get away with three days today, they'll get away with weeks or months tomorrow. That might be true but for one thing: posting reviews quickly is what gives sites the scoop and gains them readers. A delay by more than a few days wouldn't really be something that a publisher could enforce. Even if it threatened no more game journalist luncheons and no review copies, delaying the posting of reviews beyond a few days just wouldn't be feasible. You'd see sites like IGN buy their own copies and review that way. Sites like us would be hurt some because we can't possibly buy everything ourselves, but the hugest outlets would still be cranking out reviews on time.

Anyway, I've said my piece on this topic in general. I think you know where I stand and why, so I don't plan to add much beyond this post. I think we can both agree that there's plenty of potential for abuse in publisher-critic relations. I just don't think the situation we're discussing is an example of such abuse.
Lewis Lewis - December 03, 2008 (01:20 AM)
"I think you know where I stand and why"

I kind of don't, really.

If a big publisher approached HG and said "you can have EXCLUSIVE REVIEW CODE of this HUGE NEW RELEASE, but if you want to publish the review at the same time as other major outlets, you have to give it this score," what would you do? Imagine if HG relied on early or exclusive content to stay in existance... how would you respond then?

It's really, inherently wrong, and it has the effect of devaluing the job of a critic entirely. Of course, you're entitled to your opinion; I'm not going to 'pull an Eidos' and claim differently. It just seems a little odd to me. All you're saying is "I don't think there's anything wrong with it," but you're not mentioning exactly why this is the case.

I'm terrible at debating, so I admit I'm relying on repeating the same argument over and over again in the hope that someone agrees with me. Ho hum.

It just strikes me that, if Eidos are insecure about the quality of their game, they should go some way to improving it, instead of telling the press what opinions they are or are not allowed to publically voice.
honestgamer honestgamer - December 03, 2008 (09:24 AM)
The problem with that, Lewis, is that even near-perfect games will get scores of 5/10 (or less) from critics who just have a bone to pick with the company or maybe are drunk. A developer can polish something for years and that'll still happen. It's unavoidable. Some game critics are idiots sometimes.

If Eidos approached me and said I could have the exclusive if I gave the game a certain score, I'd tell 'em to take a hike. That's not what they're doing in this instance, though. I'll admit that the difference is subtle if you strip it down from a certain perspective, but that doesn't prevent it from being a substantial one.
wolfqueen001 wolfqueen001 - December 03, 2008 (09:39 AM)
I agree with you, Lewis. I think it's BS that companies are trying (from the sound of it) to censor (or at least delay) reviewer output, even if this case isn't as big a deal as some others that might have happened / might happen.

However, I understand what Jason's trying to say about the angry critic who just wants to give a game a bad score just for the sake of giving it a bad score or whatever other personal agenda the person has in mind. However, I can't believe that tose kinds of people are prominent... and I also can't believe that if the game receives 10 good reviews, and 1 bad one, that the general public is going to believe that one critic. However, there have probably been instnces where this is the case... perhaps because human logic doesn't really exist in the manner it should.

I also have a generally more optomistic outlook in regards to people's characters, so that's why I can't believe that 5/10 for nitpicking would be all that common.
honestgamer honestgamer - December 03, 2008 (10:14 AM)
Reviews do affect sales, WQ. I spent two years working for a contractor that provided customer service for a major online retailer. The retailer did a study and found that each customer review resulted in approximately $50 in sales (or so we were told). This was true even of the two-sentence messes typical of customer reviews on many large retail sites. The fact is that reviews sell games--and also prevent them from selling, as the case may be. That's especially true when the reviews come from a prominent, generally trusted source like GameSpot, IGN, 1up, Eurogamer or Kotaku.

The number of people who receive advance copies of a game is generally limited, since a publisher can't possibly send out too many copies due to piracy concerns. If they're not particular enough, the game arrives in the hands of someone who copies it and throws it up on a torrent. So there actually aren't that many outlets with a chance of providing an advance review. If one or two of those sites turn around and post a negative review, the cost to a company like Eidos could be extremely significant.

Obviously that doesn't excuse forcing critics to post positive reviews, but again, that's not what's happening here.
wolfqueen001 wolfqueen001 - December 03, 2008 (10:36 AM)
I know reviews affect sales - otherwise our (well, staff) job wouldn't be as important. But my point is that why would one negative review in a sea of positive ones affect sales that badly, regardless of how trusted the site is? (Like if there were multiple reviews for a game on that site). But, in regards to advanced reviewing, since there appears to only be a few games released early for this purpose, there probably wouldn't be a sea of positive reviews to silence a negative one upon release date, and there might only be one review per site until more get submitted... so I guess in that regard, it makes sense.

Plus the fact that most people probably don't do a whole lot of research... They just look at one review and say "Yeah, that's enough." Nor do they have common sense that says "Wow, 10 good reviews and one bad one? This game's probably good." That could sway people's opinions.

But still, you would think, just based on logic, that one negative review in a sea of positive wouldn't hurt too badly, but... I guess that's just not how the world works sometimes.
Felix_Arabia Felix_Arabia - December 03, 2008 (11:09 AM)
It boils down to whether you're looking at things from the perspective of the consumer or the company. It's the company's job to make money, and it's the consumer's to ensure that the product they're buying fits their perception of quality. I can't imagine Tomb Raider fans having a high perception of quality.

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