Game Reviewer's Bill of Rights: Treaty Edition

MTV blogger Steven Totilo made some waves with his release of a proposed Game Reviewer's Bill of Rights. I can possibly accept the idea in principal, but I think a treaty is more appropriate than a Bill of Rights. He shouldn't settle for a unilateral grant from the publisher, because what the publishers give, they can take away. Perhaps he should think about a treaty like START, or the Kyoto Accord. Having been on the receiving side of more than my fair share of reviews, I believe a treaty may be welcome.

Developers and publishers may agree with the requests, so long as they are met half way. Placing myself in the position of mediator, those who know me know I am politically oriented enough to handle the task, I could imagine responses to his proposal providing:

Item 1: A final, boxed copy of a game will be provided to a reviewer prior to the writing of a review
Item 2: The review copy of a game will be made available to the reviewer at least a week prior to a game’s release
Item 3: Developers and publishers will not be present while a game is reviewed
Item 4: Reviewers will be given access to a game’s online mode during the review process
Item 5: To be determined — this is a rough draft

Item 1: A final, boxed copy of the game will be provided to a reviewer prior to the writing of a review.

No problem at all, so long as you don't mind reviewing the game after it is released. As mentioned in the article, many times, publishers don't even have final copies of the game until the thing is already on the shelf. You can't get what they don't have. I certainly understand why you want it though. In the effort to share the same experience as the end consumer, you too want the trophy to put on your shelf and manual to ignore. Having the disk alone, even though you got it before you friend, makes your shelf-top pokemon collection of boxes smaller than your friends, and size matters. Of course, some of your less work oriented brethren may want to boxes to use for the actual review, so they can avoid the tedious task of actually playing the game . . . which gets us to our next point.

Item 2: A final review copy of the game will be made available to the reviewer at least a week prior to a game's release.

This sounds fair enough. One small request in exchange, play the game before you review it. There are reviewers out there who think the publishers don't know they didn't finish the game before writing the review. Before you blast me with "I've never written a review for a game I didn't finish," remember, you are asking for an agreement on behalf of your responsible self, and your brethren, who are not always as ethical as you are. We can tell how far you played in the game. Some reviews miss whole feature sets because they weren't revealed until a few levels into the game. Maybe the game was not compelling enough to drive you to the next level, but it is your job. You picked it. That's why they call it work. Sometimes, even game play can be work. Roger Ebert sits through bad movies. If the game is so bad you can't bring yourself to proceed, say it. Don't just go into a free expression exercise about how deeply the game sucks, grabbing random elements from other reviews or the preview you did a few months ago. We get your writing skills are above average, if they weren't you wouldn't be published. Accuracy is good too.

Also assign a reviewer who doesn't hate the genre. They don't have to like it, or be familiar with it, but actively disliking, could taint a review. This most recent review on Destructoid comes to mind. Granted the guy was forced to play for only one supervised hour (see below) but was a review containing these statements really necessary:

Due to the circumstances and the fact that racing games are not my thing at all, this review will be ungraded. . .
Overall, GRiD is something I'd recommend to hardcore racing fans. I am not a hardcore racing fan though. I do not recommend this game to myself, and instead recommend porn.
Dirty, squalid pornography.

I would rather see a Hunter Thompsonesque article about how stupid Codemasters is for only giving you an hour to play the game and expect a review, than an expression of misplaced anger against the game.

Item 3: Developers and publishers will not be present while a game is reviewed.

Sounds fair, so long as the reviewers indemnify the publisher against release of any copies of the game which make it on to the web. You will also guaranty the reviewers' mother, brother, sister, roommate, significant other, neighbor, office mate, drinking buddy or object of their affection whom they are trying to impress with their station in life does not see the game. Mr. Scott points to the piracy concern in the article, but piracy is a broader statement for all the other threats to the secrecy surrounding a title. The publishers like to control the roll out of information. It keeps the press writing stories. You guys always want new stuff for articles. You want to tell the world the game is coming with exclusive coverage a year before release, but then if there are no new features to discuss, you won't cover it again at launch.

I understand, sometimes access to a game is just too exciting not to share. I am also sorry Mr. Scott must suffer for the sins of his brethren, but they do not all share his integrity when it comes to NDAs. Information flow is the reason for the dramatic correlation between very large release, and chaperoned review. The bigger the game, the more likely the leak and the more likely you will see a chaperoned review.

On a side note, think about the first thing you do when you pick up a new game. You try to break it. How far can I run? What happens if I shoot the guy in the face? What do the textures look like up close? You know the drill and don't tell me you don't do it. If I give you a DVD of a film, you can only watch it one way. Slow it down frame by frame and you still won't see anything other than what I intend for you to see. If publishers give you the game to take home you will find errors, glitches, bugs, weirdness. After Q/A on a major release, there is nothing left which will detract from game play but there are probably things subject to being blown out of proportion and misdirecting reviews. As a publisher, it is much better to be there to keep you on track.

Item 4: Reviewers will be given access to a game's online mode during the review process.

Okey dokey. Who are you going to play against? The game hasn't been released. You said you don't want publishers involved when you reviewing, so I guess you will play in your office. Sounds fair, so you will want 60 copies of Resistance 2 a week before it comes out? Of course many reviewer argue exclusive reviews are wrong, so 60 for you, 60 for each of the other 30 or 40 other reviewers. . . I don't see any problem with several thousand copies of the game floating around in the ether prior to release.

I am sure arrangements could be made to play the game in on line sessions, kind of like the late betas of Blizzard games. All you would have to do is agree to certain clearances and playing in a monitored environment, directly in conflict with item 3 . . . I feel myself spinning into a vortex . . . can't get out. . . can't get out. . .

Item 5: To be determined . . .

This category can be filled in during the face to face negotiating sessions on the treaty. . . I can't wait for the meeting.


Daniel Boutros said…
Yeah - that's a pretty flawed Bill of Rights. And disappointing coming from that Steve guy who is said to know his stuff. As you probably know, most journalists haven't worked in or appreciate certain development restrictions, such as...

1 - Boxed copy for review.
That's just stupid.

2 - A week? Try two to three weeks. Yes, there WILL be bugs. This needs to be overlooked. Because otherwise, how does ONE GUY complete AND review several games of varying lengths and standards in a two or three week span? Games reviewers not finishing games is simply down to volume (most of the time) and some reviewers are genuine enough to admit it in certain specific cases. During the Xmas season, when imaginative publishers throw out all their biggest games, this is a HUGE issue.

3 - Developer and Publishers not present during game review. Yeah, I agree with this. For a preview, fine. A review - no. When a game is big enough to be accompanied by staff working on the game - dev, PR or otherwise - the reviewer is often one of the experienced (hopefully smart) ones. This usually means he can overlook bugs and so forth to simply look at the quality of the game. Any major bugs should be disclosed and accompanied with a note of 'we know this is a problem and it'll be fixed for the game's release'. That should cover the dev and pub's arse. Hopefully.

4 - Access to the online mode. Null and void Item 3 or this won't work obviously. And it's what devs have done in the past and it works just fine from what I've seen.

5 - I'll add one - Games reviews on large websites with a big fat ad banner for that game on the front page or anywhere else primary should disclose the amount of money that game's ad and the publisher (and all other game ads and publishers) spent on advertising on that website per month, including the month of release for that game and continually show those figures on an easy to find page. You know, just for some context and transparency between the product recommendation and the money that pays for the servers so it can be online.

Oh the stories I could tell you...

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