Editorial: Are Embargoes Really Necessary?

By John Keefer

One of the first things that aspiring journalists learn about in school is the embargo, the concept of not posting information until your source tells you it is OK. Embargoes in the real world have a definite place: national security, public health and welfare, public safety, and financial information that could affect stock prices.

But in the gaming industry, are embargoes really necessary? What is the overarching public concern? In my time in the games industry, I have run into a few different embargo types:

1) A review cannot be posted until a specific date. Most of the time it is because that date is the day the game is released, but in some cases that date is because another site has an exclusive review.

2) A preview cannot be posted until a specific date. These tend to focus around events, such as E3 or the Tokyo Game Show, when writers get a sneak peek at what is being shown ahead of time and stories are embargoed until the start of the show or some other specified date.

3) A new game cannot be revealed until a specific date. This is sometimes tied to number 2, but can also be tied to an earnings call or a meeting with shareholders.

Let’s dissect the process of the first two types of embargoes a bit more, beginning with reviews. When gold masters or boxed copies of a game arrive at an outlet for review, the embargo (if one is in place) is set for the date of release. Reviews timed for when the game hits shelves make sense, since that is when a review is most valuable: It informs the reader if the game is worth buying. If the gold master or boxed copies arrive early, the only concerns for the outlet are making sure that it has enough time to properly review the game before the release date, and ensuring that the information it provides to the readers is accurate.

But there is often an untold aspect involved in setting an embargo date: Some embargoes are in place for no other reason than to give another site an exclusive on that review. Let’s call bullshit on this process right now. Did that site do any extra work to get the exclusive coverage — and I mean, real legwork or investigative work, not just putting together the best “deal” for the publisher? No. The only work involved may have been making the review sound effusive enough to justify the high score that allows the site to keep the exclusive, thanks to certain restrictions occasionally requested by a publisher’s marketing department. Embargoes designed to protect the publisher from a bad score, or a competitor’s deal with a publisher, fly in the face of why embargoes were originally created, to protect the public interest — not the publisher interest.

Yes, in the past, pre-Crispy, I was in the business of negotiating for exclusive reviews. First review always means the best traffic, right? The numbers bear that out. I came to realize exclusives were not worth the risk for games with extensive multiplayer components, because they couldn’t properly be tested pre-release. How do you review a multiplayer game when you can’t test it in real-world conditions against people who aren’t developers and on servers not belonging to the developers or publishers?

Eventually, I came to my present mindset that exclusive reviews in general are a bad idea. Unfortunately, there is a probability that gold code isn’t final code, or that the game the reviewer played is not what will appear in the box for whatever reason. Mistakes are made, no matter how diligent a site tries to be, and isn’t worth risking a review’s integrity. In the end, a thorough gameplay review with boxed code, coupled with posting that review as close to the release date as possible, is the way to go. Do we always succeed? No, but at least it allows for one less stone thrown at our profession from the folks looking for honesty in the gaming opinions they read.

The concept of embargoes on previews does have some merit. Some writers are of the opinion that an embargo after an industry event puts everyone (especially smaller sites) on even footing, giving journalists time to digest what they have seen and write a thoughtful piece, rather than throwing a piece together quickly just for the sake of being first. A couple public relations people I chatted with for this story reiterated this concept of “even footing,” also pointing out that, with the Internet making information instantly available worldwide, embargoes help coordinate coverage so journalists attending events at different times around the world have a chance to post their reports without being scooped.

To the issue of giving journalists more time to write a quality piece, I have to say that where I come from, working on deadline is what keeps a journalist’s adrenaline flowing, not only to make deadline, but also to dig out quality information and find the insight to make the story the best it can be while making deadline. By taking away this sense of urgency, embargoes on previews can make writers lazy — which leads me to ask whether being on an “even footing” at the expense of losing a journalistic edge is a good thing. Not for me. Think of any event as breaking news, and let every journalist be on an even footing by sharing the same rush.

As far as keeping the press worldwide coordinated with preview embargoes, the truth of the matter is that embargoes started after many game journalists complained they weren’t getting a fair shake if they were anything other than the first stop on a transcontinental public relations tour. The first stop, after all, gets the first story and all the traffic.

But the challenge here again falls on the journalist, to ask probing, provocative questions to get thoughtful responses that force the industry reps to diverge from the planned PR spiel. Treat a preview as an experience that makes for compelling reading and not the regurgitation of a press release. Beat the competition with the quality of the work, and it will negate the ground won by the speed of their fingers. Yes, first on the scene will get the initial hits, but in the end, no matter when info is released, intelligent readers will gravitate to the best-written, the most evocative and the most accurate information available. A readership built on a solid foundation of trust will eventually outweigh one rushing there for the quick hit.

As the videogame industry keeps growing, publishers are vying with each other for that almighty gamer dollar. Game companies seem to be micromanaging more and more information and parceling it out to the news outlets that give them the best placement or conform to the guidelines laid down by some marketing department that, many times, has little handle on what it means to be a journalist, let alone the meaning of the word integrity.

And in turn, it has become easy for journalists to sit back and wait for that information. If they don’t want to wait, they jump through marketing hoops and make promises to the publisher in order to get it.

For games journalism to gain more credibility, journalists need to play by their own rules. Do more informative pieces, do humorous pieces or biting satire, do more critical pieces, seriously explore avenues other than PR representatives for information. Journalism isn’t about always making nice with everyone. Journalism is about providing accurate information to the reader even when it isn’t readily available, unless there is an overriding public concern. In many cases, infringements on the free exchange of information about games between journalists and our readers are not backed by any legitimate overriding concern.

Granted, not all publishers impose limitations. Many understand that the journalist has a job to do and that, in the end, what is written is just an opinion, and as long as that opinion is based on facts and not erroneous information, the writer and publication are free of scrutiny. However, there needs to be a divergence from the cozy two-step that some marketing departments do insist on dancing with the press by threatening to pull ads or blacklist a writer or publication if a story paints an unfavorable picture. If any “journalists” willingly do dance to that tune, they need to look in the mirror and examine who they are really working for and why.

The sad part of this whole equation is that the existing system, coupled with many gamers’ insatiable desire to read whatever information is first available on their favorite big games, leaves those trying to establish some type of journalistic credibility in the dust. As I said before, the first review, the first preview and the first details on any big game (or scandal, for that matter) will generate the most amount of traffic or subscriptions. Traffic leads to profitability and more clout in the industry. But the first review of an unfinished product, a rushed story, or hastily compiled feature, is hardly ever the best. This catch-22 leaves writers and editors with the dilemma: Is it better to be accurate or first? The correct answer for any true journalist has to be that a story must be accurate. Quality must be the deciding factor.

Granted, I don’t have all the answers, but having been a part of this industry for more than eight years has brought to light many issues that need to be discussed by our peers for our profession to evolve from an enthusiast press to true games journalism. The issue of embargoes is just one of them. Taking a stand that we won’t abide by embargoes, no matter how much I disagree with them, isn’t the answer. Integrity and accountability are vital to the job we do. But a line needs to be drawn in the sand, and conversation needs to take place on ways to retake control of our profession. We are supposed to serve the readers and no one else. Serving the reader means giving them accurate information and an informed opinion. Yes, readers will read the first thing posted whether it is accurate or not; they make a buying decision on a flawed review and they lose. We all therefore owe it to them to give them the best possible piece we can, not some rushed hack job to beat the competition. If that means trying to get our information through extra legwork and research, and buying our games when they are released in stores and being a bit later to in order to be accurate, so be it.

We need to take a critical look at our industry and how we as journalists do business. And readers need to continue to hold their favorite sites up to scrutiny and call bullshit on shoddy writing (which is totally different from an opinion you disagree with). If you are a journalist, ask yourself: Are you content with the status quo? Are you enthusiast press or a games journalist? I know my answer. Do you?

(Originally published on Crispy Gamer, September 2008)


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