[Editor’s Note: The following article contains inside information about the practices of game reviewers among a cross-section of British print publications. The Escapist neither endorses nor condones these practices. To learn more about The Escapist‘s review policies, click here.]
There was a time when “cheats” were synonymous with videogames. Whether skipping levels or granting invincibility, cheat codes and “Easter eggs” were a developer’s way of allowing legitimate access to locked content. They were a core part of their designs. Now the Konami code is all but forgotten and the few remaining cheats exist to enhance a game after completion rather than aid you in getting there. But there’s one rather unlikely corner of the gaming space where cheating still runs rampant: games journalism.
It’s partly the outcome of a gradual shift in game design philosophy over the last 25 years. Today’s games are less interested in short, difficult stages that need repeated playing to master. Instead, they’re increasingly turning to mechanics like regenerating health, convenient checkpoints and quick-saving to make sure players don’t become frustrated. (See previous Escapist features “Save Our Souls” and “Killjoy” for more on that subject.) In short, you don’t really need to cheat anymore.
To counter this loss of repetition, games have become both longer and more varied. That’s where the problems begin: As a game journalist, how do you write a three-to-four-page review of a 20-plus-hour game when you have less than a day to do so? The only logical option is to cheat.
Before resigning in early 2007, I was employed for six months in-house at one of the U.K.’s biggest publishers of print games magazines. Prior to that, I had been an external freelancer, witnessing two publisher bankruptcies. During my time in-house, magazine deadlines were scheduled around allotments of four weeks, by the end of which the entire magazine had to be at the printers. Games, therefore, were normally reviewed in the issue published just prior to their scheduled release.
Along with playing the games I reviewed, I was expected to write between six to eight pages (roughly 4,000 to 5,000 words) of copy per week. Due to understaffing this was frequently more, and on one occasion when I divided my monthly paycheck over the average number of hours I worked, I found I had earned less than the minimum wage.
This isn’t uncommon among British gaming publications. To alleviate understaffing, publishers allow their writers to freelance for other internal magazines. It’s cheaper than hiring extra staff or external freelancers, and it also boosts an internal writer’s wage without allowing them to seek writing opportunities outside the company. It’s an ingeniously Machiavellian set-up, but one byproduct of this is that internal freelance deadlines are extremely short. Few writers, however, can afford to turn down the extra work.
So when the editor of a single-format magazine in the cubicle next to mine asked if I wanted some freelance work, I wasn’t going to say no. He had Rainbow Six: Vegas on the Xbox 360 available, but it had to be four pages and the deadline was in less than 48 hours. I estimated that if I could survive on five hours sleep a night and take meals while playing Rainbow Six, I’d have 12 hours across two days to play the game in my free time, take screenshots and write the review. But I had one ace in the hole: Along with the game and the debug console, the editor also handed me a torn scrap of paper with a code to unlock debug menus allowing full customization of weapons, level select options and more.
This isn’t an unusual occurrence. Pre-release copies sent in by publishers will occasionally contain debug options to make navigating the game easier. Need invincibility and infinite ammo? No problem! Just make sure the coverage is positive and the screenshots look good, the publishers always asked. Publishers encourage this type of cheating, because they don’t want reviews of their multi-million-dollar blockbuster to describe only the laborious areas and feature bland, uninteresting screenshots. For Rainbow Six: Vegas, Ubisoft flew journalists to Vegas for an all-expenses-paid holiday just to guarantee massive, positive previews. With so much already invested, Ubisoft certainly didn’t want the follow-up reviews to look poor.
Initially, due to a desire to experience the game authentically, I decided against using the debug code the editor provided. But nearly three hours into the game, I was still stuck in a Mexican slum. For a game supposedly showcasing the glitz and glamour of Vegas, its opening location was distinctly brown and a chore to play. So I did what was natural: I loaded up the debug menu and skipped ahead. All my colleagues cheated, and I was no different.
Another option for reaching later sections is using downloaded save files, as I did with the RPG Blade Dancer. To get our review out before the U.K. release, we used an imported retail copy from America. After several hours, I saw no end to the repetitive battles, so with my deadline looming close I emailed an American friend, who sent me his personal save file. Several hours later, it was clear the game didn’t improve, so I scored it appropriately. Anyone who thinks professional games journalists in the U.K. are allowed to play lengthy RPGs through to completion is sorely mistaken.
These are just two examples of how games journalists cut corners to make deadlines. Sometimes, the cheating takes place outside of the games themselves. Take screenshots, for example: To save time, a lot of reviewers use the press shots conveniently collected at Games Press, a site that aggregates PR materials for game journalists. It’s possible to minimize even that effort, though. Once, when Games Press didn’t have screenshots from toward the end of a game, a reviewer I knew let the attract sequence run and screen-grabbed from that. He only played for two hours, but the screenshots in his review implied he had reached later stages.
Perhaps the worst example I witnessed was when an editor ordered his subordinate to write a review based on an online video. It was for Clubhouse Games on the DS, a collection of classic board and card games. The editor’s thinking was that his writer could glean everything necessary to pass judgment on the game simply by watching a gameplay video on YouTube. The review ended up being half a page with an average final score, and the game was completely overlooked by the readers.
Implications and Exceptions
While cheating enables reviewers to quickly experience later portions of a game, the consequence is a loss of pacing and challenge. Rather than judging a game as a holistic experience, cheating puts the focus on easily accessed spectacle. These reviews may better present precisely what a game contains, but the skewed perspective that results from cheating makes accurate critical judgement more difficult and assessing long-term satisfaction with a game even harder.
There are, of course, exceptions, since not all games have debug options. With print magazines, you can often trust early reviews of import games, which are sometimes bought using the reviewers’ own meager salaries instead of relying on copies sent by domestic publishers. After I had bought the U.S. version of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and completed it long before it was released in the U.K., the editor of PlayStation 2 Official Magazine – U.K., a man of genuine integrity, asked me to write a review of it, stating that he specifically wanted an honest assessment from someone who had completed it. Unfortunately, with tight deadlines and the skinflint way magazines are run, taking the time to actually play games is a luxury which writers seldom have.
What’s the alternative? Having enough staff to cover each game properly while paying them enough to dissuade them from freelancing? Or asking reviewers to be honest that they’ve only given a 40-hour epic one-tenth of that time? Magazine publishers won’t consider the former, and it’s doubtful readers would accept the latter. It appears, then, that until something drastic happens in this corner of the industry, cheating will continue as a way to maintain the illusion of comprehensive and accurate coverage.
John Szczepaniak is a South African-born journalist, formerly employed by a British games magazine publisher, and then afterwards by a Time Warner subsidiary which was paradise in comparison.