I have some friends in PR and marketing. They’re not major fans of my work sometimes, and with good reason. I often have less than flattering things to say about their role in the grand scheme of things, the circle of life governing this, the gaming industry. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate what they do (quite the contrary), but I spend far more time focusing my words on how they get in my way than how they help me – and you – get what we want out of life. A good advertisement, in the words of David Ogilvy, sells the product without drawing attention to itself, and that’s something I can get behind.
I can’t even begin to account for all of the products and services I enjoy on a regular basis that I’d never have heard of if it weren’t for advertising. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that far more of my product choices are made via how influential their advertising efforts have been versus my own independent free will analysis of whether it’s a good fit for my lifestyle. (Memories of Levi’s 501 commercials flash through my head like Pavlovian response triggers every time I put on my jeans to go to work, reassuring me that I’ve made yet another correct lifestyle choice.) But even when I am able to resist the siren song of a great ad and apply my conscious will toward the choice of whether or not to spend money on a thing, I’m thankful for the TV spot, billboard, magazine ad or viral video that brought the … whatever … to my attention. Even if I ultimately refuse the chance to spend money on it.
And that’s all that PR folks and marketers are out to do: grab your attention. It’s what they’re paid to do. They may not even personally use what they’re selling, but they have to make you want to use it, and that takes skill and creativity. I don’t envy them. I have a hard enough time stringing words together in a meaningful way when I care deeply about something. Having to do this on demand for a paying customer would probably kill me. But just as every defendant in the legal system deserves equal treatment under the law, deserves the best efforts of his defense attorney, so, too, does every product on the market deserve a fair chance to be seen or heard. After all, if you’ve never heard of it, how can you decide whether or not it’s for you?
But what about products that are too expensive to try and discard? What about products, like cars, that you really need to have some experience with before you buy, or else get stuck with something you can’t get rid of, but can’t enjoy either? In these cases, in addition to plentiful advertising and marketing efforts, the generous dealers will allow you to test drive their vehicles before you actually buy them. They even set aside whole allotments of their cars for this very purpose, then they let the sales team drive them home, so that they, too, can become intimately familiar with them.
We do this in the game industry, too, with demos. You can often find a level or two of most big games somewhere on the net or on a disc in a magazine when a game first hits retail. So you can actually try it out before you buy it and see if it’s what you’re looking to play. This is a very good thing, and over the years has saved me from wasting hundreds of dollars on games that looked great – based on the advertising – but that I ultimately didn’t enjoy. But a demo, by its very nature, is only part of a game, and driving a car for a few minutes can’t possibly expose you to all of the various ways in which it may or may not fit the way you drive and live. This is where journalism comes in.
When I bought my last car, I knew exactly what kind of vehicle I wanted, what features wanted it to come with and how much I wanted to spend. What I didn’t know was what it would actually be like to own the vehicle I imagined nor who made the best fit for my preferences and budget. So I hit up Consumer Reports. They’ve got an exhaustive list of articles and research into almost every commercially available vehicle, including journals written by testers who’ve lived with the machines for days or weeks at a time.
Through my research there (and other places) I discovered the best match for me was probably a Toyota Tacoma, how much I could expect to spend on one, and what it would be like to drive it day after day. For example, one of the testers lauded the Tacoma for its rigid, truck-like suspension, stating that it was perfect for hauling materials and being treated roughly, but that when it came to highway commuting, the stiff ride was a bit of a pain. At the time, I was looking for a work truck that would also double as a day-to-day vehicle when needed, so I didn’t so much care that it would be a bit stiff on the highway. And sure enough, that truck suited my needs quite well when it came time to do heavy lifting. But on the highway? Murder.
Would I have known about the vehicle’s unforgiving ride handling were it not for the exhaustive reporting by Consumer Reports? Probably not. The marketing campaign for the Tacoma praises its toughness, but says nothing about how well it rides on the highway. Likewise, the sales guys I talked to on the floor repeatedly referred to it as a “tough, little truck” which it is, but didn’t go anywhere near the subject of what it would do to an over-full bladder on a long commute. You can’t blame the guys – they were just doing their jobs, but their jobs were to sell the vehicle, not necessarily make it possible for one to make an informed decision. And this is where the circle of life begins to turn into a Silly Straw.
With a product as complicated and involved as a videogame, there’s a lot that can go wrong; a lot of ways that a game can fail to suit your entertainment needs. And when you’re investing 20-80 hours of your life and upwards of $50 dollars a pop on a thing, you want some reasonable assurance that you won’t be disappointed. This is where marketing most often fails you, as a consumer. If you’re looking for a Madden title, or something similar, something so much like what you’ve already experienced that all you need to know is it’s out there and how much it costs, marketing will suit your needs quite well.
If, however, you’re taking a chance and want to know how deep the rabbit hole of the game’s story really goes, and how pretty it’s art looks after the 17th dungeon, how the mechanics compare to what you may have played before and, not to put too fine a point on it, how “fun” it is, you’ll need the videogame equivalent of Consumer Reports. And that’s where my colleagues and I come in. We play the games so you don’t have to. Talk to the developers to see what’s in their heads (and, consequently what goes into the games) and generally do our best to dig out the juicy nuggets of what we’re looking for in a gameplay experience, so that we can do our part in matching person to game.
Oblivion, for example, is a fantastic game, and for somebody looking for a never-ending story with which to occupy one’s mind for (literally) hundreds of hours, it’s a bargain at twice the price. What the marketing won’t tell you, however, (and what the PR guys are trained to avoid talking about) is that for someone with a busy schedule, it’s a horribly frustrating ride. I tried shoe-horning Oblivion into my 60-plus hour per week work schedule, on top of my 20-plus hour per week writing and podcasting habit, and found it wasn’t nearly as satisfying in the short bursts I had available to play it, as, say, Fable which, although it’s also a fantasy RPG, is a bit shorter in length and more suited for quick trips as opposed to a long excursion. Similar products, totally different experiences and one was a better fit for me than the other. Yet to talk to the PR and marketing guys, they’re both “amazing games.” They’re not lying, but they’re also not telling you the whole truth; just what they’ve been paid to say. And that, my friends, makes all the difference.
I feel the need to reiterate that I don’t have anything personal against the business of PR and marketing, nor the folks who make their living at it. They, like my colleagues and me, perform a valuable service and often are more successful in getting their messages across. Also, judging by the cars they drive, they make a significantly better living than I do. I suppose this is something I might have to look into at some point. But where I do get edgy with the folks is when they actively interfere with the role I must play in this drama – stonewalling our attempts to get at the actual facts of a game or obfuscating aspects that may be less than appealing. There are a lot of PR folks who understand that not all games are for every gamer, and that the good and bad of a product should get equal treatment in the press. There are others, however, those who see their role as gatekeeper to the truth and attempt to doge through interviews, “protect” developers from the press and weave around uncomfortable subjects like O. J. Simpson leaping over suitcases at the airport. These folks deserve every bad thing I’ve ever said about them, and although they are a rare few, literally ruin it for everyone.
It is possible for journalists and marketing folks to live side-by-side, napping in the same bed like puppies and kittens raised together from birth, frolicking in the high grass of the Savanna, but to do so each must understand each other’s role in the circle of life. The puppy, raised to expect such things, will understand, for example, when the kitten gets messages from the kitty planet and starts scratching and clawing everything in sight – including the puppy. Just like any journalist worth his salt will understand the meaning of the words “embargo” and “off the record.” But when the roles become blurred, when marketers begin acting as journalists, and journalists as marketers, that’s when things will start to get confused for everyone.
Last year Sony pulled the plug on the Official Playstation Magazine, just a short time after announcing the new “independent” blog, Threespeech. Also last year, Microsoft and Ziff Davis joined hands to create Games for Windows magazine, a mag which also claims to be independent, but prominently displays the same “Games for Windows” logo as every single game released under the Games for Windows banner. This week, Microsoft’s “independent” blog, Channel 10, “broke” the news regarding the newest version of the Xbox360 and potentially their own embargo at the same time. The result? Every news story covering the news yesterday included a link to Microsoft’s video coverage of the event and the Microsoft-approved story accompanying it. Had any other outlet broken the embargo, they would have been ostracized and excluded from all future exclusives – and possibly interviews – but Microsoft, through their official blog channel, can essentially do whatever they want, and there’s not a thing you – or I – can do about it.
It’s a brilliant marketing strategy, blurring the line between PR and journalism, but it creates the possibility for rampant abuse of the system. The job of a marketer is to sell a product, not, necessarily, to inform. When you’re getting your news from the marketing folks, you’re only getting half the story, and what you don’t know, as they say on the local news, could kill you. Not really, though. I mean, after all, we’re talking about games here, not “where your children are,” but it’s your money, and you have a right to know what you’re spending it on; to make, in other words, an informed decision. Imagine if Toyota had assumed control of Consumer Reports, and that tiny – but critical – scrap of information about the Tacoma’s bladder-busting suspension, or critical analysis of a family vehicle’s safety features, or hard comparisons of race cars’ horsepower were omitted in favor of the glowing prose adorning showroom brochures, in which all products are “perfect for you” and there isn’t a cloud in the sky, nor a drop of rain on the perfect polish.
With hundreds of games on the shelves, it’s more important now than ever for you to be able to make an informed choice as to who gets your gaming dollar. A lot of folks, like Microsoft, think they can get by without the efforts of those of us with press passes, and from their perspective, they’re right. With their own official blogger, media outlet and marketing channels, they can pretty effectively get their message out to whoever they want, which is every marketer’s dream. The problem, however, is it’s not always the message you need to hear. They’re counting on the assumption that you can’t tell the difference between informed journalism and journalistic marketing. And if they were wrong, there wouldn’t really be a problem. But they aren’t. And that, my friends, is a terrifying thing.