Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
More on game reviewing ethics

Larisa is pondering whether to review Dragon Age Origins, having been offered a free copy of the game by a public relations company working for EA. In the end she decides against it, but mostly because her blog is only about WoW. As I reported earlier, the same public relations company sent me PR material about Dragon Age Origins, which I linked to because I found the game interesting. They also asked whether I would be interested in a free copy of the game for reviewing purposes. I said yes, but haven't received anything yet. I'm not sure the game has even gone gold yet, and then I don't know if that offer of a free copy is valid for Europe.

While I agree with Larisa's assessment that EA apparently sent the same offer to many MMORPG bloggers, my blog has always been about more than just WoW, or even just MMORPGs. I did review single-player games in the past, so a review of Dragon Age Origins certainly wouldn't be out of place here. That reduces the matter to a purely ethical question, of whether it is okay for a blogger to accept a free copy of a game in order to review it.

In my opinion, accepting a free review copy of a game is perfectly okay, as long as you disclose having received it in the review you write. Which is pretty much the content of the new FTC guidelines as well. In the specific case of video game review copies one added factor is timing: As far as I know (never got one up to now) review copies of games are sent our BEFORE the game is available in stores, so that the reviews appear simultaneously with the game release. A review copy isn't a cash payment in return for writing a favorable review, but a means to enable the blogger to write that review without cost to himself, and in time.

Of course EA is profiting from bloggers writing reviews about their new game, which is why they are willing to hand out free copies. And one could argue that by receiving a free game, the blogger would be more favorably inclined towards the game company. But the offer contains no actual conditions beyond "We thought you might be interested in receiving game related assets and a review copy. It would be great if you could share your initial impressions of the game with your readers prior to the release date on 11/3." As I mentioned in a different context, I never said that I couldn't be bought under any circumstances, but I certainly insist on the fact that I can't be bought for 50 bucks. So I do think that as long as I disclose any free review copies I get, I'm not only okay with the FTC, but also with my conscience. It's a win-win-win situation where EA gets cheap advertising, I get a free game, and my readers get an earlier review. It is then up to the readers to decide whether they are willing to trust a review based on a free copy, knowing of course that real game journalists not only get free copies but also work for publications financed by advertising from the same game companies.
You are 100% right about that.

I'm kidding, I'm kidding. I'm actually really interested to hear what you have to think of Origins, a game I'm greatly anticipating. And hey, if you save $50 that's all fine and dandy for me.

I'm just curious why EA is sending Dragon Age out to MMO bloggers. Maybe they feel right now that MMO players are looking for something new and deep?
It is common practice for reviews to be based on a review copy in most major publications. I would assume that your readership is larger than a lot of magazines so it makes sense to send you review copies.
It's standard practice to give out free copies for review purposes. I don't even think it's something that needs to be disclosed.
I don't think it hurts to disclose it. However an intelectual reader should know that if your review is out at or before a game launches that you got the game early.

From personal experience I do some work with an 4X4 suspension company. One of the major magazines reviewed our product and said that it will kill every other product out there.

Other manufactores that spend alot of money on advertising threatened to pull there ad space if they didn't retract their statement... and the magazine did retract it.
This is completely ridiculous. *Everything* that gets reviewed (books, games, movies, etc. etc.) is based on a free review copy. It's 100% standard practice, and by the way, does PC Magazine have to disclose that THEY got a game for free if they review it?

This is all about the existing, established media trying to suppress competition by dirty, stinky bloggers in their moms' basements. It has nothing to do with ethics.

Tobold you should consider yourself completely free to offer your opinions on a game without worrying about being "corrupted" by the developers' oh-so-generous $40 gift lol.
I don't even understand why some people think a reviewer will be biased just because they got a free copy of a game. Anytime I can get anything that's free I'm likely to jump on the opportunity. What are they too stuck up to accept free stuff or something?

Like Jim and Mark said, review copies of products are normal. What if you never planned on buying the game, but since you can get it free you decide to play it and write about it? If it's good, that can only help the publisher.
The issue is that bloggers provide for free what companies want to charge money for, and that is advice. When media companies complain about blogger "ethics" all I hear is "Hey you mean bloggers...stop threatening my revenue stream!"
If Blizzard sent me a copy of Diablo 3 beta... I honestly would think about the possibilty of getting a Starcraft 2 beta if I give them a bad review.

It's something to think about. I do however think this applies to monetary gifts rather than games for publicity purposes.
Right, I agree with you tobold. However, by receiving the free copy and doing an UN-biased HONEST review entitle your readers to better insight?

I believe that if at any point if someone gets ANY TYPE of monetary compensation for their work they are no longer amateur.

This serves two purposes. It shows your audience that you are not a rookie or amateur (writer). And also gives the game company, in this case EA, free advertising.

This puts both of you on a slippery slope. Some readers might doubt your view of the game is biased and EA's biggest risk is a bad review.

I've been following this game for months now. It won't be a horrible review, it is Oblivion meets Darkfall with better graphics and storyline. There is an online function in there somewhere but I can't pin it down, it's not an mmo by a long shot. This connection will enable Bioware to tap into the XBLA market by releasing a XBOX 360 version of the game. That's my gut feeling.

I already have it on reserve at gamestop and looking forward to your review.
They give you a copy or playtime to increase hype and awareness. Ethically, there is not much wrong at all with receiving the free copy -- if you feel it is hype-worthy, then mention it. If not, remain silent about even knowing about it.

Since you have not even received a copy nor reviewed it, but have already mentioned the game thereby giving the product "value", you have already given them something and short-changed yourself in the process.
I would be considerably more likely to trust a game review from a blogger than some standard media source. Bloggers hang all their dirty laundry in the same place. I can look back at nearly everything that particular blogger has had to say and use that to understand where the blogger is coming from with his review.
I don't think there is anything wrong with receiving a free copy. People jump at the opportunity to get an early preview of many games beta's, and then post beta reviews (NDA not withstanding).

I think it is a smart tactic to go after bloggers this way, too. As far as I know, there are no aggregate sites that compile bloggers review scores. In fact, you don't even use a scoring system Tobold, and other bloggers likely use a wide range of different ones.

Bloggers will drive the marketing hype a bit, but even with luke-warm reviews, the bloggers themselves are not likely to make a very negative impact. Seems like a safe way to promote a game.
This seems like such a non-issue. Review copies are standard in just every media industry - I'm an author, and my publisher gives away tons of review copies of my books.

Publisher's Weekly doesn't pay for a single book they review, but all those free books aren't "perks," they're an industry standard to prevent review publications from having ridiculously high overhead costs.

So, dude, you review games. Game publishers will therefore sent you review copies. It's really ok.
One thing that might be worth mentioning about review copies at mainstream media outlets: Those copies are generally intended for review purposes only.

So while a blogger may get a free copy of something to review and then have access to it later, many MSM reviewers (particularly newspaper reviewers) don't.

Most newspapers (and this would include their Web sites) generally don't allow journalists to accept freebies of any kind. Review copies and other freebies are usually donated to charity. I know of at least one major chain that holds sales every few months for employees to buy the items for a minimal price and then donates the proceeds to charity.

Of course, not all journalism is so concerned with ethics. :) Take magazines -- particularly beauty magazines. Those are even worse than gaming magazines in terms of product placement/hype.
Here is a Slate item on these asinine new guidelines:
(a) There's absolutely nothing wrong with reviewing a game you got a free copy of. As has been pointed out, this is 100% standard in "professional" circles, e.g. magazines

(b) Disclosing that you got a free copy is a fine gesture, and enhances the credibility of your blog in two ways. Firstly, by making it clear upfront what the situation is. And secondly, by making it clear that your blog is considered significant enough by a PR company that you made their list of "people we should send review copies to".

p.s. and on a selfish note, please review Dragon Age, I'm really interested in the game and would love to hear your thoughts! :-)
For a blogger to write more favorably about a game just because a company sent a free review copy makes the flawed assumption that the blogger was going to write about the game anyways. This is probably the case less often than you'd think.
"As I mentioned in a different context, I never said that I couldn't be bought under any circumstances, but I certainly insist on the fact that I can't be bought for 50 bucks." -- Tobold

I think I found a new forum sig. :D
My blog was a WoW-only blog for a long time. Still even has a WoW-related name, but I'm branching out into other games nonetheless. As personal bloggers, the only one directing our content is us. *shrug*

I was also asked to do a review of Dragon Age: Origins, and agreed to it, but I haven't received a copy of the game yet either. Glad to know I'm not the only one waiting. :)
This is ridiculous lol. I have been trying to get review copies of games for my site for awhile now, and you're saying that EA emailed this like unknown blog to review their game? Gah! Sigh, hopefully we'll catch a break sometime.
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