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The “pre-alpha” defense

Every time I go to a new event, be it E3 or community events or whatever, it seems like there’s a new buzzword that the staff working with me has been trained to throw out whenever possible. There’s always a trend that developers want to make sure you know they’re on-board with. It’s bizarrely universal, and sometimes it seems like you could swap out the games the PR folks are talking about and their message would still be applicable to an entirely different product. But this year, I’ve encountered something, what I’m calling the “pre-alpha” defense, a very disturbing and sad reflection on the relationship journalists have with publishers.

When playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3‘s Spec Ops mode during the media night at the Call of Duty XP, I made a suggestion on how to improve the mode. As he was a tester of the game, I felt it was appropriate. Between rounds, players head to ammo caches scattered around the map to restock on equipment. When players buy a single item with their hard-earned “cash”, they are instantly dumped from the menu and returned to the map. This is perfectly fine if you’re only buying one item, but if you want to stock up on flashbangs and grenades, two separate purchases, you have to go open the cache twice. I suggested they leave the menu open and give a simple cancel command to leave it.

The tester responded, “Remember, this is ‘pre-alpha‘.”

I’m not advocating design-by-committee or anything like that. If he doesn’t want to share my suggestion, so be it. What I’m searching for, and what the other journalists that I travel with should be fighting for, is simply access to raw game footage. We need to evolve to a point where we can see a game without blowing up cesspools like N4G with complaints that “games are trash” because they haven’t been polished yet. Publishers are saying games are “pre-alpha” so that we say things like “distinctly early code” before we list our complaints. This cues our readers to ignore our criticisms, or at least take them more lightly, and that’s simply wrong. “Pre-alpha” is Ridge Racer Unbounded, a game coming out more than a year from now, which I saw at E3 without sound, not a game two months from release.

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I get that game development is an involved process and I will admit that I don’t entirely understand it. But calling Modern Warfare 3 “pre-alpha” two months before release is absolutely absurd. The game will “go gold” within a month or so, give or take a few weeks. The “pre-alpha” defense is a strategy publishers (and I don’t want to single out Activision here, because I encountered it numerous times all across E3, at Warner Bros.’ booth, at EA’s booth) are now using as an attempt to keep people like me from criticizing or otherwise critiquing their games in previews. It’s another ploy they’re using to keep us from delivering messages that aren’t controlled by their PR departments.

When readers complain that previews are overwhelmingly enthusiastic for games and reviews are very different (look at the previews and reviews of Homefront for an example), remember that it isn’t always the fault of the writers. Some writers are just inexperienced and can’t see through the hype. I’m guilty of this myself, as I’m sure are several other Thunderbolt staffers. But the bigger problem is that every bit of information that we receive about a game comes from the people making it. There is no independent verification and everything is extremely controlled.

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And the staff working events like this can’t be faulted. The guy I quoted was awesome and I had a very memorable interaction with him. We made jokes, shared laughs, and together, we both beat our personal records. But he has a stomach to feed, a house to pay for, and maybe kids to raise. He has to do what his bosses tell him to do because it’s not about the job he wants to do, it’s about the job he has to do. Maybe he agreed with me and maybe he’ll pass along the suggestion, but he isn’t paid to admit that anything is wrong with the game. For all he knows, I’ll quote him saying something bad about the game and he’ll lose the job he certainly deserves to keep.

The issue comes down to money. Publishers spend millions of dollars to produce and develop games. Shareholder money. To keep the company going – to keep filling stomachs, to keep paying mortgages, to keep raising kids – they have to make sure that their games sell. And the best way to do that is to keep potential customers in the dark as to the quality of the final product as long as possible. If word gets out that a game is bad, people won’t by it, and in an industry where scoring under an 8 almost ensures total product failure (a fault I credit exclusively to my side of the industry), you can’t really blame them.

Giving journalists access to games before release is a necessary evil, so publishers do it on their own terms, not ours. Very few forces in this industry can get unfiltered access from big publishers, and even if you’re the size of Game Informer or IGN and can throw your weight around, it’s very risky. Demanding greater access can get you cut off, as can critical opinions. The makers of the Two Worlds franchise, TopWare, made headlines after several people accused them of blacklisting their outlets because they gave their games low scores. The bottom-line is, criticize and you could be cut off. Since everyone from Game Informer on down has the same bottom-line concerns as the publishers, we have to play by the tilted rules, too. Who knows, I could very well be burning bridges with this very article.

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I’m not sure what the solution is. Perhaps it will come down to time. This is a small industry in terms of the people working in it (you see lots of familiar faces at events), largely populated by young people. And as we all age, the PR firms handling games, the companies producing them and the writers writing them, perhaps stronger relationships will develop and more can be revealed to readers before release. It comes down to trust and honesty. We have to get to a point where publishers and PR firms understand that we’ll respect that a game is still in development and won’t completely pan it if we think the problems can be fixed before the product ships to stores, but they need to understand that we have an obligation to our readers to be honest about what we see. If we see something that could potentially mar a release, we can’t overlook it, and you can’t cover it up with some “pre-alpha” defense – and certainly not for products that are nearly gold.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

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