Honesty is such a lonely word.
Everyone is so untrue.
Honesty is hardly ever heard.
And mostly what I need from you.
Lara is back and I am happy. I have been playing Underworld since the release last week and think this is the best Tomb Raider since the first one. The environmental puzzles are great fun and not the too hard ones from later Tomb Raiders, the graphics are updated to exactly where they should be, and Lara's moves are updated and connecting me to Lara the way they did in the first one. She still shakes her head when I ask her to do something she doesn’t want to do, and I am duly impressed by the way she angrily brushes the side of her face when I rudely walk her into the foliage. Apparently, the critics don’t feel the same sense of nostalgia. Sure, bringing the identical Duke Nukem to Live Arcade justifies an 85, but roughly the same amount of time it took to build the Eiffel Tower to improve the experience and restore an icon justifies only the middle seventies. Or does it? The reviews are coming in mixed, and Metacritic, unsurprisingly is focusing on the lower ones.
Eidos, sadly lacking in experienced PR and weak in the product pipeline department, like most publishers knew the scores would be all over the board. Allegedly, they wanted to control the artificially and wrongly influential Metacritic, by timing the release of the bad reviews. There are two flaws in the strategy. First, Metacritic picks and chooses reviews like a four year old choosing M&Ms out of a bowl. The site happily skews a score in one direction or another, often ignoring reviewers included in aggregations on its own site. Second, Eidos was honest. All publishers manipulate retail promotion and review scores. They just don't talk about it.
I remember walking into EB years ago, before I joined Eidos, with a publisher who still thought EB promoted the games based on quality. She was in charge of the late, not so great GTE Interactive and had shipped Timeline the day before. The title was really expensive and somewhat of a break through in some regards. Tomb Raider was two and a half months from shipping.
"Hi, have you heard anything about Timeline?" I said, beginning my one act play.
"No, never heard of it." Considering my positioning in the store blocked his view of the box full of Timeline shelved behind me, the response was somewhat reasonable.
"How about Tomb Raider?" I prodded.
"Of course, it's amazing, they go this chick and she jumps and moves, can't wait for that one." Considering he was one of the recipients of a coffee mug and squishy ball from Eidos a week before, this response was reasonable as well.
It was a lot cheaper to buy counter guys then. They got squishy balls, mugs and shirts, managers were wined and dined at the EB shows and E3. Critics were in a whole other league. In those days junkets were not only permitted, they were expected. Game presentations would happen in Las Vegas, or on a cruise or something, with lots of liquor, free airfare and stuff I shouldn’t write about. This treatment started to be frowned upon in the late nineties, only to be transformed into after hours basketball games, happy hour meetings and of course, the ever present "cute PR chick." Kind of like Chicago in the thirties, everyone knew this was going on, but unlike Eidos last week, no one put it in a press release.
The market has evolved, a bit, but the only changes are the nature of the payoff. When it comes to dollars, many of the review sites employ carrots and sticks. The carrots are more obvious than the sticks. Did you ever notice the review scores for games tend to be higher on sites where their artwork is the background image for the page? This may give you cause to question the integrity of the review when you read it on the review site, unfortunately, the ad is not there when you see it on Metacritic. The whoring of review scores can lead to good things. If reviews weren't skewed by ad dollars, we wouldn't have unbiased sites like Giantbomb to read. The sticks are harder to find. A consumer may see an exceedingly low review on the site, but they may forget Atari sued a critic and may never even know another game's publisher stiffed the site when it came time to pay for the ads. All they say are inexplicably low review scores. This is not to say publishers are entirely innocent.
Publishers in all media time release of reviews. Sometimes the timing is based on content. Movie studios don't hold screenings if films are going to be bad. Book publishers hold back galleys, and game companies don't send out review copies. Other times marketing decisions drive the timing. If the review comes out too early, marketing may peak before the product is available. If all the good information and really cool screen shots are revealed in one magazine prior to release, the others may not even mention it – and the publisher can forget about getting a cover without a grant of exclusivity. By definition, exclusivity means the publication will be the first to reveal the information. The only way for a publisher to live up to its end of the bargain is to – gasp - ask others not to release reviews until the exclusive period is over. In the interest of timing and efficiency, they are willing to let the others have copies prior to the expiration of the exclusive period so other reviews can get out quickly. These copies are provided with the understanding the results will be kept confidential. It is actually all pretty innocent. Especially when you are sitting on a very good game.
Kotaku, who did not get any exclusives on Tomb Raider, got all up in arms at the suggestion, later stated to be untrue by Eidos, that Eidos' PR was holding by review scores to influence Metacritic. If true, shame on Eidos, this is bush league stuff. If Eidos truly wants to influence Metacritic scores it should do what the other publishers do to ensure high Metacritic. Buy ads, get critics in early, dole out exclusive content and get guaranties of 90 and above in exchange for exclusive content.