Kotaku on Preview Ho's

In this column’s March debut, we laid out the basics that gave life to Preview Ho, explaining how hyped-up previews are the enemy of good games, since publishers use them to secure shelf space from the major retailers, no matter how crappy the ultimate title. (And read this great Escapist story to understand how dependent the industry is on chains like Walmart.)

Later in the month, we found out it was even worse than that, with major gaming sites selling premium editorial space to publishers. When called on it, one editor adorably defended the practice by saying it was “pretty common both in print and online”.

The first Ho contender was spotted by Kotaku editor Brian Crecente on the blog of a site called, appropriately enough, RedAssedBaboon. (If a Preview Ho were a baboon, he’d have a…) Props to Red Assed’s “Rappateng” for joining us, whether he knows it or not, in a bloggers’ call to arms against the gaming press. His post focused on “Splinter Cell Essentials” for the PSP, a game that was, on review, almost universally slagged, even by Gamespy, which gave it a withering 2/5 review. But Gamespy’s preview by Will Tuttle called it “One of the best games on PSP”.

And that’s the line Ubisoft used in the advertising for the game.

Pause and consider that. Gamers like you stop at the PSP retail shelf, presented with a few dozen games to choose from. You pick up “Splinter Cell Essentials”, maybe because you like the Clancy franchise— and hey, since Gamespy says it’s among the PSP’s best games right on the goddamn box, you blow your $40 on that one.

I contacted Gamespy editor John “Warrior” Keefer for an explanation. Staggeringly, Keefer says he authorized Ubisoft to use the “best games” line in their advertising copy for “Essentials”.

The other nominee in this month’s Ho search is PC Gamer, as helmed by editor-in-chief Greg Vederman. As it happens, Vederman brought himself to our attention by publishing a widely-praised editorial announcing that his magazine would no longer accept ads from “virtual gold farming” companies which sell gold coins from World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs.

In the US at least, this is still a small cottage industry, so it’s hard to believe a teeny company like IGE could afford to spend much in advertising, certainly not compared to multinational corporations like Microsoft, Sony, Vivendi, and EA that already swamp the front pages of magazines like PC Gamer.

But still, it’s at least some kind of stand, isn’t it, with Vederman the lone hero of the gaming press drawing a line in the sand?

Maybe in his own imagination. Because here’s the thing: the pages of PC Gamer may not run ads from virtual gold companies, but the magazine’s entire preview section is an advertisement.

Have a look at May’s issue:

Preview for “Medal of Honor Airborne” from Electronic Arts, by Chuck Osborn: “[This game] has already done something I previously thought was impossible— it’s gotten me excited about yet another WWII shooter… I’ll be there, ripcord at the ready.”

Preview for “World in Conflict” from Massive Entertainment, by Logan Decker: “ITS UPCOMING RTS PHENOM… ABSOLUTELY BLOWS OUR MIND.” [sic… and sick]

But the clincher is the cover story, an extensive preview of BF2142, also from Electronic Arts (via DICE studios). Now Battlefield 2 is a great game for its genre (though hardly 2005’s all-time best), but judging from advance gameplay footage, BF2142 is basically just a mech warrior-themed add-on, with little new added to BF2’s basic design. You’d have a hard time convincing preview writer Dan Stapleton of that, however, since when shown a library of futuristic weapons and vehicles in action he is capable of achieving orgasm:

“Come the end of the year,” he promises, “DICE will be giving you an all new reason to practice your skills… [in a game] that fundamentally changes the nature of warfare. Could BF2142 be our Game of the Year in the making? It wouldn’t surprise anyone here and… we’re not so bad predicting the future.”

I guess it wouldn’t surprise me, either, since in May’s Letter From the Editor, Vederman speaks obscurely about how he “inked this month’s Battlefield 2142 cover contract” with Electronic Arts, and that he personally “brokered the deal”. In my experience, a “deal” that is “brokered” usually involves an exchange of money or services, so it’s unclear what Vederman means here, unless it was just that; his phrasing certainly leaves that impression. In any case, something was expected by Electronic Arts when they let PC Gamer have exclusive advance coverage of their unfinished game. (What that was, exactly, will have to remain secret between EA and Vederman,. Greg Vederman didn’t reply to my e-mail asking for his commentary for this article.)

Here is what Vederman said in his acclaimed editorial denouncing gold farming companies: “For the record, PC Gamer’s official stance on these types of companies is that they are despicable… [because] they all-too-often ruin legitimate players’ fun.” Call me crazy, but it will also ruin players’ fun when they pre-order copies of BF2142, Medal of Honor Airborne, and World in Conflict, based in part on the hype PC Gamer gave them, then discover all-too-often that they’ve wasted their time and money on ass product. (For by simple iteration of Sturgeon’s Law, they’ll be lucky if even one in three of these games truly lives up to the magazine’s hype.) This is not even mentioning how press previews like PC Gamer’s are used by publishers to promote and market their product, or as we saw with Gamespy and Ubisoft, actually made part of their advertising campaigns.

Any opinions on this?

I contacted Gamespy editor John “Warrior” Keefer for an explanation. Staggeringly, Keefer says he authorized Ubisoft to use the “best games” line in their advertising copy for “Essentials”.

This is interesting. There’s a similar sentiment in the comments.

I’m not sure why the fact he approved the quote is “staggering” or surprising, or even that interesting because, well, it’s not like the comment was created specially for the ad. It’s in the article. So Keefer’s right, you’re only making sure it’s correct, they identify you properly, and they’re not taking it out of context. (Something everyone has probably had to deal with at one time or another.) If you look at it after-the-fact and say, “Oh shit, did we actually say that? It’s horrible,” you should have zapped it before publishing the article. (I have this reaction to almost every quote people send to me for approval.)

I think the analysis of PC Gamer is interesting, if only because the editorial’s discussion of “brokering a deal” (or whatever the specific line was) sounds sorta dodgy. (Edit: I should say, the language used makes it sound dodgy, not that there was actual dodginess… blah.)

You missed the update:

Update: Although we try to give companies opportunity to respond before a column is run, PC Gamer’s Dan Morris had this to say, “Wagner James Au made a ridiculously cursory attempt to contact PC Gamer for comment on this article, sending one email to a general reader mailbox. Our spam filter killed it, probably due to his misspellings in the subject line. He failed to follow up, despite the fact that editors’ email addresses are prominently published in the magazine, or, for that matter, that I have repeatedly invited him to contact me by phone for comment on stories such as this.

If he had made a serious attempt to get comment from us, we’d have told him that PC Gamer accepted nothing from EA for our Battlefield 2042 cover story. I continue to be dismayed that Au is allowed to skirt the most basic ethical consideration of his trade — a good-faith effort to get comment from his subjects.

Sincerely, Daniel Morris, Associate Publisher, PC Gamer” We have offered Mr. Morris a comments invite which he may or may not use to respond to any questions from readers in the comments.

Yikes. If that’s true, that’s incredibly poor form on Au’s part. Whatever merit a crusade against preview hype may have, he’s doing more harm than good by doing crap like that.

Magazines and publishers negotiate for covers all the time as I understand it (Steve can correct me), I suppose you can equate this to mean “brokering a deal” since one may assume EA was offering magazines first rights to preview their hot, new game.

On top of that Au is going way beyond the pale here and everything he writes bespeaks of hypocrisy. He attacks PC Gamer for hyping games that he says will suck - something to which he has absolutely no idea.

If the things about his lack of followup are true, it paints a disturbing picture of a guy attacking a magazine for lack of journalistic integrity while not displaying any himself. You can make the claim he’s not being a journalist in what is essentially an editorial or essay but he certainly tries to portray himself as one, or a crusader of journalism.

And from what I understand the back cover of magazines is prime real estate. If a magazine publisher is willing to take the “little company’s” (IGE) money over the “multinational corporations” (EA, Sony, etc.) then obviously they aren’t tiny, puny, or little. IGE makes an assload of money. Something like ad rates and common sense is pretty easy to figure out.

— Alan

I asked Dan Morris to send me an update to append to the article since he didn’t feel that Au had gone through enough effort to contact them for this article. (And I agree and take the blame for that - I should have made sure we went the steps necessary to get a hold of them after the first email didn’t garner a response.)

But Au also noted to me, "The e-mail I sent to PC Gamer editor-in-chief Vederman is below, addressed to [email protected], on the perhaps over-optimistic expectation that it would go to, you know, the editor of PC Gamer. This same [email protected] address is not only listed on PC Gamer’s webpage <http://www.pcgamer.com/contactus.html>, it’s also the exact same address that’s prominently listed in May’s issue at the beginning of-- wait for it-- Vederman’s Letter From the Editor. Further, no e-mail contact information for Vederman or any other editor is listed in PC Gamer’s May masthead on page 108, nor anywhere else that I can find. If PC Gamer’s Spam filter really blocked out my e-mail due to a single mispelling (not “mispellings”) in the subject line, they may want to consider getting a different software package. "

Whatever the case, these columns are weakened by giving the impression that we don’t want people to respond, so lesson learned.

I think we’re also going to take more of a ‘show don’t tell’ approach to these pieces, too. I think contrasting the preview copy with the review copy will go a long way to prove the initial conceit.

Yeah, as I was trying to note above, calling it “brokering a deal” makes it sound more impressive and possibly dodgier, than just saying, “EA called and said, ‘um, we’re doing another Battlefield game; want to do a cover?’”

On top of that Au is going way beyond the pale here and everything he writes bespeaks of hypocrisy. He attacks PC Gamer for hyping games that he says will suck - something to which he has absolutely no idea.

I actually sent him a long e-mail talking about previews back when the second piece went up about IGN and Gamespot, which he may or may not use in some later piece. He was asking for more critical previews, which is something I disagree with, and I laid out my reasoning.

But I do think it’s fair to call PC Gamer (or anyone else) out for the kind of quote whoring that goes on. Just like Au doesn’t know if they’ll suck, PC Gamer doesn’t know they’ll be awesome either. Drawing any conclusion beyond, “Isn’t this embarassing?” and/or realizing that most people get a whee (wii?) bit too excited is a bit of a stretch, though.

You can make the claim he’s not being a journalist in what is essentially an editorial or essay but he certainly tries to portray himself as one, or a crusader of journalism.

It would be fine in an editorial to run without responses, but he did get a quote from John Keefer of GameSpy. So, the lack of one from PC Gamer makes it sound like they were dodging the issue. (As the “Greg Vederman didn’t reply to my e-mail asking for his commentary for this article” bit makes clear.) If he didn’t at least follow-up with a phone call, that’s pretty poor journalism.

And from what I understand the back cover of magazines is prime real estate.

It’s more expensive than other single ad pages, but it’s not more than a 2-page spread. (This may not be true for all magazines, however.)

There are two problems here. The first is that Au is a notorious hack who always brings a tone of smug self-righteousness to his often poorly written and juvenile philipics. So maybe he’s not the best representative for this web site on this issue.

The second is that the basic conceit of this column, that the games press has an overly intimate relationship with the industry’s publishers, may or may not be true but more to the point it seems that the consumer doesn’t really care. Everybody grows up in a world where the burger on TV doesn’t look like the one you get at Wendy’s, that the Pat So-and-So at CBS Radio may not be the best judge of movies, and the the previews in the games press are positive by design.

This is similar to the non-issue surrounding 1-Up’s early review of – what was it? Ninja Gaiden? – that some people found scandalous. When the game came out and the majority of reviews were pretty much in line with the early review, no one cared about the original dust up. Au’s image of the consumer is an innocent lamb walking into a mined field of disingenious box blurbs is some pretty thin ground on which to build such lofty indignation.

After reading the poor excuse for an article, I have to conclude that either Au’s grandmother is a goldfarmer and he’s fighting for his family honor after they lost face when PC Gamer stopped running their ads, OR he’s a talentless hack with no business impugning the integrity of anybody… even insurance agents, lawyers, and car salesmen.

Au is a ridiculous hack, this is news to who?

It’s just surprising because Joel seems reasonably intelligent and seems to have good judgement.

That was terrible…I almost wish Au would go back to his masturbatory articles about how Second Life is the new frontier.

First, we still have the bad “Ho” title. Then, as if one prostitution analogy is not enough, Au makes reference to Nevada working girls, and I don’t think he means CSI. An amazing range of wordsmithing.

It’s not clear what he means by the “at the time” comment. Does he suggest that preview writers travel to the future? Or guess? If the lighting actually did get worse between preview and review, that’s quite a story - if true. But I’m not sure why “at the time” is “particularly delicious”.

And it’s never clear why these are “Ho” previews in most of the instances. If he doesn’t want previews, he should say “All previews are bad.” He’s never described what a preview is supposed to do.

Troy

I’m not sure anyone in the press should use “consumers don’t care” as their guiding principle. Consumers don’t seem to care about quality writing; should everyone just throw up unedited articles?

If I don’t feel like being the promotional arm of a game publisher, I can choose to change how my publication handles things even if readers don’t care one way or the other. In the short term, readers may wish the previews were more exciting. After getting burned a few times, they may appreciate a calmer approach. It’s certainly a way to differentiate your coverage from that of others.

And I fully support singling people out for quote whoring. I also think you should have ethics, standards, and guidelines, even if your readers don’t really care about them.

I believe he did; they should all be highly critical, and point out bugs and flaws. And it’s our duty to make the games better by doing this.

But as I told him in varous e-mails, we don’t review beta software, and what he’s asking for is a preview that emulates the criticisms you’d normally find in a review. (I also said it’s not my job to make games better; if they want my analysis before it’s released, we can discuss a rate… well, not that I could be a paid consultant, mind you.)

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to make previews interesting, informative, and not come across as uncritical ad copy. I always tell people to convey the enthusiasm of those working on the project instead of your own, for example. Don’t write, “The AI is awesome!” when the guy showing you the game says the AI is awesome–change it to, “Smith says the AI is awesome.” Little things like that make a difference.

“I think contrasting the preview copy with the review copy will go a long way to prove the initial conceit.”

shrug

I think this type of standard could be applied in many ways.

I also mentioned to Au that if I decided to start trashing games in beta, two games that would have incurred my wrath would have been Civ II and IV. Both were in terrible shape less than two months from shipping.

So should I have warned people that they were awful games? I think you’d end up trashing more games that turn out okay than warn people away from the true dogs. You can always choose not to preview the games you think will suck.

You are correct. He did make this clear in his intro to Hos. He didn’t deal with any of the obvious criticisms of that approach.

And I wonder how that would even work for a magazine. Should 3DR hold off on Duke Nukem for another six weeks while the preview gets written and published? You know, just in case there is some helpful comment that turns the project around.

Troy

Hah, that’s a pretty funny image, a developer sitting around waiting for the magazine to arrive to see if it’s okay for them to release their game.

“Ohmygod, they said it wasn’t fun! Back to the drawing board!”

Or Troy Goodfellow does the preview and says, “It’s looking great! 5-stars already!” Then the review is assigned to Tom Chick, who says, “It’s not fun! 1-star.” Oops.

Hmm…that’s a fairly expansive interpretation of what I thought was a fairly straightforward claim, namely that consumers don’t seem to care that previews are, by their very nature, promotions of what they are previewing. What I didn’t say was that consumers don’t care about anything – although I suppose you can run in that direction and take a bold stand for principles and standards. Now may also be a good time to take a stand against child abuse and domestic violence. ;-)

Joking aside, previews already promote in the simple fact that an outlet devotes any space to it all indicates that it thinks the game is worth the reader’s attention. Now that doesn’t mean that uncritical fawning and the all-too-familiar “jaw-dropping graphics” cliches should be tolerated, only that I don’t think what is going on is quite so morally suspicious as Au does.

Hey, I’m no pushover. And Tom never has “fun” - he has wordy positive experiences.

Troy