Say what you will about IGN, they’re one of if not the biggest video game websites in the industry. That’s why they get a week-long run of exclusive GTA V preview stories, because IGN matters. They get the word out. They set trends and put asses in the seats.
Always having my ear to the ground when it comes to inside video game journalism baseball as I do, I’m hearing that a lot of outlets that matter, big outlets, do not have their review copies of Grand Theft Auto V yet. It’s been a very interesting conversation to listen in on. If Rockstar can approach huge swathes of the professional video game journalism industry and ask them to wait for review copies to be mailed out on Monday, September 16th, a day before the game is released, it mostly tells you that Rockstar is not worried about review scores at all. I can’t imagine, unless GTA V turns out to be some colossal clusterfuck of a game, that Rockstar ought to worry about review scores.
I usually don’t hear as much frustration being expressed over the lack of early review copies as I’m hearing for Grand Theft Auto V. This makes sense, as GTA V would be a huge release whenever but at the end of a console cycle, when developers are getting the most out of the current-gen hardware, and when a developer decides to thumb its nose at the upcoming next generation consoles and not release GTA V on the Xbox One or PlayStation 4 because they figure what we have is good enough and they don’t think more processing power means a better game? That’s a game you can’t wait to get your hands on as a reviewer. Video game journalists live for this shit.
Review copy distribution is an excellent measure of the economic pecking order. A painful measure of which outlets control the largest share of the marketing aspect of video game journalism. I cannot imagine being an editor for a video game outlet that I know is important in the grand scheme of things, that has the respect of my peers and of a sizeable audience, which breaks important stories, deals with important issues, helps set trends or host cultural discussions, and basically being told to wait for my review copy long enough that I am unable to publish a review that’s probably going to mean much in the grand scheme of things other than tabulations into a Metascore, and that I’d have to think about all the web traffic I otherwise could have had if the review had published the morning of Tuesday, September 17th.
It’s not as though editors don’t already know what this economic pecking order is, and where they stand in the larger scheme of things regarding influence over the sum total of the audience, but having a reminder like this cannot be fun.
I think there’s an opportunity here, however. I was talking a week or so ago on Twitter about how I would like to see an experiment in which all video game reviewers turn down free review copies and instead purchase their own copies to review. I mused that if reviewers had to drop their own, hard-earned $60, even if only temporarily before a reimbursement was distributed, to purchase a game for review that they might be harsher than otherwise, because the job of a reviewer is to gauge the worthiness of a game for their audience, and the economic question of “How much is this worth?” is very real, and very important, for members of the audience who aren’t flush with cash.
What a unique opportunity Rockstar Games has provided to conduct this exercise!
I realize the implication one could read into my idea, namely that video game publishers buy some measure of good will from reviewers by providing free copies of games. This is stupid on three counts.
1) The audience can smell a genuine rat. No professional outlet would actually get away with glaringly positive reviews being granted upon one publisher or another over time, when everyone else realizes that the games in question are not universally good.
2) The video game journalism industry is very small. If anyone actually allowed themselves to be on the take, everyone else would know about it very quickly, and that writer’s career wouldn’t be worth spit.
3) If there is a professional obligation behind the video game review other than the need for honesty, it is the responsibility to help arm readers with knowledge to guide their purchasing decisions. An outlet cannot fulfill that responsibility to the greatest degree unless they can provide a review the day a game is released.
The “they get free games so they must be on the take” argument is so stupid that anyone who makes it publicly ought to be relentlessly ridiculed into silence. With all of that said, I do wonder sometimes whether or not the lack of a personal outlay of funds might, however subconsciously, help a reviewer forgive flaws which otherwise might go noticed.
Here’s a thought experiment for you. If you spent $30 on a game, are you as likely to be upset about any of the game’s deficiencies as you would have been if you’d spent $60 on it? How about if you spent $10 on it? You’d probably be very tolerant of potential awfulness. This sort of reaction to the potential results of the risk/reward scenario are predictable, natural, and above all, very human.
To put it another way, a colleague and friend of mine says that reviewing games is, in part, a matter of deciding how much bullshit you are willing to put up with. A game might have all sorts of issues but if you like what remains enough, you might not care about the issues very much, or even at all. That game could still get a high score from you, even as you recognize all the bullshit exists.
I would hazard a guess that the higher a personal, monetary price you paid for a video game, the less bullshit you’d be willing to put up before it affected your overall impression of the game.
No matter how self-aware a reviewer might be of this phenomena, no matter how professionally they may tackle the issue, they’re only human, and some degree of this kind of thinking is certainly subconscious. Therefore, if reviewers were freed of the obligation to publish reviews on release day — which might be a very positive development considering how quickly reviewers sometimes otherwise have to finish a game, which inevitably means having to skip what might only be side content but meaningful side content worthy of inclusion in an analysis of a complete work — they might be more willing to indulge in criticism which is more emotional in nature, and less analytic. Personal responses versus mechanistic appraisals might become more the norm.
I think that would feed into a more diverse and interesting body of consumer-facing criticism. Maybe I’m wrong. But it will be interesting to watch the late reviews of Grand Theft Auto V roll in, and to see whether the reviewers in question are a little more liberal with their criticism of a Rockstar game than they otherwise might be. And that would be no criticism of the reviewers if they did. Like I said, they’re only human.