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Aliens: Colonial Marines is widely perceived as a disappointment. This weekend, we published an editorial that accused the press of misleading the public about the game, of collaborating with publisher and developers in this effort. This was a mistake.
Assistant editor William Usher pointed out, correctly, that the final version of Colonial Marines is in much rougher shape than the E3 demo. His contention was that the press who received hands-on access to the game last December should have noticed the discrepancy between the E3 demo and the finished product. They should have then warned the public so that they didn’t pre-order or purchase the game.
Instead, William's editorial said, these sites were “in on the coverup.” They kept their mouth shut in order to maintain their relationship with Sega and Gearbox, to ensure that they keep getting exclusive access in the future. This access in turn leads to more hits and more traffic. However, the truth is that there’s no conspiracy at work here.
It’s true that publishers do have a certain amount of power over the media. Early information on an upcoming game is an effective way for press outlets to attract readers. The publishers can choose who to dole out early access to. They’re also able to dictate the terms of these previews. They can show off what they want when they want.
When the press is invited to try out a game before review copies are available, they’re not playing the full game. Instead, they’re playing a polished slice of the game that is designed to make the final product look as good as possible.
I’ve been misled by early hands-on previews of a game. I loved my five minutes with X-Men Origins: Wolverine at a press event and then hated the full game. I thought James Bond 007: Blood Stone looked promising. These cherry-picked demos are effective at making you think the full game could be better than it really is. Even if a demo didn’t win me over, I was hesitant to crap on the full product based just on a short hands-on experience. I can completely understand how previews turn out to be so muted in criticisms. At their most scathing, previews are usually just unenthusiastic or skeptical.
In the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines, the press invited to try out the game in December played through the Hadley’s Hope level of the campaign. They were not effusive in their praise. Games Radar said that “shooting swarming, claw-swiping monsters in corridors isn’t as exciting to do as it is to watch.” CVG noted in their preview that Colonial Marines “doesn't look cutting edge” and “won’t be a technical accomplishment.” IGN, the publication William called out by name in his editorial, wrote that the xenomorphs are “a lot less scary when they’re in full view, skating around on all surfaces and occasionally bumping into objects.” These previews aren’t as negative as the reviews that these sites ultimately published, but they’re far from “selling lies” as William suggests.
If the press didn’t know Colonial Marines was a mess from the preview build, they knew once they got their hands on their review copies. William contends that these sites should have warned gamers before Colonial Marines’ release date that it was bad so that they didn’t spend money on it. They should have done this, he says, regardless of the fact that Sega forbid reviews to be published until the game’s launch.
“Gaming media won't break [non-disclosure agreements] to stand up for consumers, because that's basically handing hits to the nearest competitor who will bend to the will of the publisher.”
He’s assuming that the only consequence to breaking a non-disclosure agreement is that the publisher will limit or stop future access. That’s really only scratching the surface, though. An NDA is a legal contract. Breaking it gives the publisher license to sue the publication, which could potentially sink the outlet for good.
Put yourself into the role of an editor for a gaming site with a paid staff. Would you publish a damning review a day early to alert consumers at the cost of getting yourself fired? Would you endanger your employees’ livelihood as well, simply to crap on a game that everyone else is going to crap on a day later? You're going to claim that you would but let's be honest, here: you wouldn't. Spare me the "if I had my gun I woulda" bravado.
Journalists are perfectly happy to trash games when they deserve it. You need look no further than the avalanche of terrible reviews heaped on Colonial Marines. The fact that gamers had to wait until the day Marines hit stores to find out it sucks is really unfortunate. However, it’s not the result of some dark pact between publishers and journalists to dick over gamers. It’s the result of the deck being stacked in publishers’ favor. At the end of the day, they have a great deal of control over what you find out about a game before it hits stores. That’s not likely to change anytime soon, so be cautious about what games you pre-order.