A couple of writers for this site recently proposed that we stop previewing games. We could still talk to developers before games come out, they suggested. We could still visit studios early or even play games before release, but somehow, some way, we’d no longer write previews.
Given that I prefer to be absolutist only about not being absolutist, I nixed this idea. If you declare you’re not writing previews pretty much all you do is voluntarily roadblock one avenue of reporting while opening yourself up to criticism that the thing you did write about a game is a preview in masquerade.
The problem with previews though is that they mostly suck. You might agree. So let’s talk about that and how to do previews right.
Previews mostly suck because they rarely serve any of the constituencies we want them to serve. There’s you, the reader, who we figure would like to know about a new game. So we go to some hotel suite or development studio and play a game early. Or we watch someone play a game early. We chat with a producer who may or may not have been closely involved with the development of the game. We hope that 10 minutes of access to the game and a handful of questions that we politely or rudely throw at the producer can produce something we can share with you — something that will be edifying about the game.
Our inner critic worries that we’re having to size up a game that won’t be out for six months based on little more than a tease. One might more effectively predict the quality of some future meal by sampling one of those cubes of cheese they put on toothpicks at the supermarket.
Our inner reporter worries that whatever truth there is to know about the game we’re previewing is not on display. A guy can check out 50 things that are in Assassin’s Creed III, but of course, he won’t know about the bugs that wind up being in the finished game.
How do you solve this problem? Ramp up the old ethics standards and declare that thou shall not eat any EA-crafted mini-burgers at the snack tables that seem to always be close to the preview builds we see? Demand exclusive previews from big, bad publishers and settle for nothing less? Write previews that are more negative? (Well, yeah.)
The obligation of any good reporter or critic is to be truthful. The reporter seeks to identify and convey the truth of the world around them. The critic strives to present the inner truth of what they make of the thing they have experienced. At Kotaku, we don’t consider these roles to be in conflict. We accept that all reporting might be tinged with the subjective. We must simply disclose when opinion is entering into the reporting and be obvious when we’re transitioning from dispassionate witness to chatty analyst. To preview a game, one must be a bit of both. When previewing a game, we’re reporters and critics. And we’re trying to find the truth.
The problem with previewing games is that many previews are themselves engineered to obscure the truth. There need not be any malicious intent. An EA or Activision or even an indie developer invites the press to swing by. We show up at a hotel suite. We’re offered water or coffee, maybe a snack while we play. A psychological ploy or good manners? It doesn’t matter. Whether we say yes or no, we’re still only playing a sliver of a game. That’s what matters. Slivers can always be good. Think about it. You could grab the worst game you own and mine a decent sliver out of it. So who’s to say what we’re playing six months before release is any good? It’s just a sliver. We don’t know about the whole game. It’s not even done yet!
Ask the developers or producers about the game you’re previewing and even the most honest creators aren’t going to divulge the worst disasters their game is facing. Maybe they’re showing you BioShock Infinite at E3 2011 and dazzling you with a demo. Are they hiding flaws or showcasing potential? Are they conducting a magic trick or are they showing you that they’ve at least made enough progress to have one awesome little thing to show off? These developers are not about to tell you about the struggles they and the makers of all great and horrible games are going through, years before the game is out. What is the truth of the game on display? It’s nearly impossible to tell. Even the developers probably don’t really know. They can’t predict the disasters or successes to come.
The concern that we have at Kotaku about previews is that you, the reader, will feel misled by them. You’ll read an optimistic preview in May and then wonder why the game we previewed seems, in November, to be junk. You’ll wonder if the preview was de facto promotion, if it was the result of lazy, unskeptical reporting or even an honest effort made by people too foolish to identify the impossibility of assessing an autumn game in the spring.
To all that, I can say that we recognise the potential pitfalls more clearly than ever. To that end, we’ve been turning down an increasing number of invitations from game-makers big and small to see small pieces of their games. We skipped a chance to play the multiplayer in the new Luigi’s Mansion and turned down an opportunity to try the new DLC for Battlefield 3, both at publisher-run showcases. When we’re offered to see a single level of a game, we say no. Even when we are attending preview events — showcases where slivers of multiple games are on display — we’ve become more willing to spike boring interviews with producers whose comments would only generate interest when taken out of context.
We’ll still gamble on some previews. We spent several hundred dollars to send one of our top editors across the country to Bungie to see their new game, Destiny. The fact that Bungie then showed so little is noted in our preview. We still dropped in at an EA event in New York City last week.
We’ve turned down more previews that offer eye-blinks of time with new games, favouring longer sessions like the one that got us 4.5 hours with BioShock Infinite (the game’s second 4.5 hours might be dreadful for all we know; but it feels like it is worth your time — and ours — to assess the first 4.5 hours, which are very good).
Some previews we write may still compare awkwardly with the quality of the game that is eventually released. We’ll keep our reporting hats on to investigate the divide, as we currently are in order to reconcile the gulf between the 2012 Aliens Colonial Marines demo and the 2013 finished (!) product.
The main pitfall that I see with the video game preview is the propensity for the preview-writer to overstate what they’ve seen, to extrapolate from a fragment of the game or a fragmentary comment from a developer something grander about the whole game. That pitfall applies to a lot of criticism and reporting. Mountains are made of molehills. Small glimpses are puffed up as exposés. Taste-tests are reported as full meals. That kind of careless inflation is hyperbole. It may hype a company’s new game, but perhaps more damaging, it hypes our own experiences, making more of them than is appropriate. The fat-free truth should be enough. Our gut reactions should suffice.
It is our intent to present to you video game previews that resemble what we’d tell you about a game if you’d entered our chatroom or if you bought one of us a beer. We’d tell you what we *really* thought, because what we *really* thought is what you, the Kotaku reader, deserves.
Going forward, one thing we’ll be adding to previews is a footnote that states clearly how many minutes of the game we’ve played at a preview event and/or how many minutes of the game we’ve seen. That will help ground the lofty expectations writers and readers have of previews, I think. It will bring us one step closer, I hope, to taking you there with us and to presenting you what feels like — and what is — What Really Happened.