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    Tuesday, August 29, 2006

    Future Haemorrhages Credibility

    We’ve already told you about Future’s loss of readers and money. Now we’re going to tell you why.

    Future is desperate to put a positive spin on readers flocking away from their magazines along with their money. In last week’s omnipotent trade-weekly MCV (happy now, Lisa?), they summoned their mouthpiece James Ashton-Tyler to take a leaf out of Sony’s book of PR arrogance. In one fell swoop, he brushed aside a suggestion that hadn’t been made in the first place that websites are killing mags all whilst sidestepping the real reason Future is haemorrhaging readers and money.

    The discussion about websites taking over from the mags has been limping along for years, but has never been convincing. Although websites provide up-to-the-second news and reviews for free, the writing itself has always been questionable. Even the websites championed as spearheading the online games-info revolution attract the dregs of the industry. The unreliable Eurogamer and IGN lead the way in posting up woefully bad copy that’s uninformed, overly-indulgent or both.

    Magazines have always been the place to go to read the views of the industry’s leading critics. You have to pay a few quid for the privilege, and mag lead times mean that reviews might be published a bit later than the instant-update websites, but the money and wait has always been worth it for well-written, funny, honest views to help you spend your money.

    Not any more.

    Despite Ashton-Tyler’s snide comments in MCV, Future is running scared of its online competition. They’re so frightened, they’ll do anything to compete. They’ll publish official magazines for unreleased consoles that their journalists haven’t played with yet. They’ll set-up “world exclusive” reviews to give the illusion of being ahead of the websites. They’re so desperate, they’ll jump into bed with publishers and lie to their readers to keep the illusion running.

    The October issue of PC Gamer is in the shops on Thursday. Inside is an 8 page “world exclusive” review of Company of Heroes. Although it takes Tim Edwards a while to get going (“I could tell war stories all day, but you might want to know how CoH actually plays” says Edwards on the sixth page) but it’s an otherwise reasonable account of the game. From what we’ve played of CoH, it’s a very good game which will probably be worth its 94% when finished. The trouble is, there’s so much dishonesty and deceit around it all, they’re not even trying to hide it any more.

    Page 44-45 has a two page advert for Company of Heroes featuring a quote and the score from the review which, remember, is in the same issue. The front cover is adorned with CoH worshipping. “BEST RTS SCORE EVER” lies the front cover, as later on the magazine cheerfully reminds the reader the 95% they awarded Rome: Total War in issue 141. The last time we checked, 95% is higher than 94%.

    It screams dishonesty. They’re so desperate to beat the websites to a review, they’ll base the review of the game on unfinished pre-release code. The guy who reviews it will be flown around the white cliffs of Dover in a WWII plane to France, and wined and dined in a luxury hotel and casino. His fellow journalists will be sat in front of preview code to write previews whilst he’s given “world exclusive” unfinished "review" code. Future will give the advertisers the score and a quote from the review as part of the deal. A lie will be told on the front cover.

    It’s been going on for years. The RAM Raider has written reviews for magazines from disks with “preview code” written on them. The RAM Raider has written reviews for magazines from code that’s less than 75% finished. It’s becoming more of an open secret now, and the readers are realising.

    This is why magazines are dying. They’re dishonouring themselves by reviewing unfinished code and making advertising-for-coverage deals. They’re cheapening the quality of an excellent game by reviewing it through dishonesty.

    That’s why Future is haemorrhaging readers. That’s why Future is haemorrhaging money. If its morals and honesty are haemorrhaged too, more readers will realise they’re being lied to.

    Would you rather read a “world exclusive” review of unfinished code in conjunction with advertisers, or a later review of finished code that’s independent and uncensored?

    28 comments:

    1. Rammy, somtimes you really are a tard.

      KG

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    2. Wow Gillen, you really put me in my place there. That's me told.

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    3. Anonymous1:04 am

      Why is he a tard? If Ramsbo's lying, say so.

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    4. hey mr raider (and kieron?) umm, unrelated maybe, but where do you feel that gamespot.com sits on the credibility scale? Out of the other big ones (1Up, IGN, Eurogamer...?), it's the one I prefer. But I have a nauseating suspicion that my opinion is incorrect. But then, I read Amiga Action rather than Amiga Power, so maybe I've always been wrong.

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    5. Anonymous1:44 pm

      Yeah and to be honest there are some valid points that need answering. Cause to be honest we're all tards at some point or another, but that doesn't mean you can brush aside a valid critique with a juvenile insult.
      If websites are killing mags why aren't the same drops being seen across the board? Quality in other sectors is as good as it ever was - can you really say the same about games mags? If not, why not?
      As for unfinished code being reviewed, that's a bit of an old one, but it's never been fully justified.

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    6. Steve - we rate Gamespot.com as one of the best reviews websites. Beats IGN hands down.

      Anonymous Knights - we think Gillen's just upset because we slagged off PC Gamer and Eurogamer, and he writes for both.

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    7. James Lyon3:47 pm

      Ram, you appear to be implying that reviewing preview code is a fault exclusive to print magazines. True?

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    8. It's not exclusive to print magazines, but it's much rarer for websites to review preview code. The larger websites have been guilty of it, but the point is magazine lead times have led to the practice being more common with mags.

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    9. Primary flaw: Rome Total War isn't an RTS in the way CoH is an RTS. Total War is a big sprawling strategy game, crossing at least a couple of genres. When you say RTS you're talking about what's in a direct line from Dune II - that is, your Rise of Nations, your Dawn of Wars, your Total Annihilations, your Age of Empires and so on. Total War is separate from all of that.

      To skip genres, the (hypothetical) statements that Deus Ex is the best game ever doesn't contradict the fact that (say) Halo is the best FPS ever. Yeah, Deus Ex includes elements of the FPS - hell, at a glance, it looks almost identical to one at times. Yeah, Deus Ex is a better game than Halo. But - no - as far as what "FPS" means, Halo can still recieve that accolade.

      When people say "FPS" they don't mean Deus Ex. When people say "RTS" they don't mean Total War.

      Rammy should know this.

      Secondly: FFS! Taking the score as some kind of magical objective rating. That's the sort of thing that gets forum kids sneered at by their peers, let alone games journalists. Scores are made by different people at different times. That someone else gave (say) 95% to Max Payne doesn't mean that I would have to give something 96% for me to say it was a better game, especially when the marks were given years apart from one another. Because the alternative denies any form of human subjectivity and is just a straight recipe for slow mark inflation.

      (i.e. Every time a Best Game Ever appears it gets one mark higher than the last Best Game Ever. From 94 to 95 to 96 to 97 and so on)

      In conclusion, I'm calling Rammy a tard as either...
      i) He's a games journalist and doesn't know these absolute basic facts, in which case he deserves the insults.
      ii) He's a games journalist, knows these facts all too well, and is making a troll-bait post like this anyway, in which case he deserves the insults.

      In this post, he's either being mentally retarded, ethically retarded or some exciting combination of the two.

      So, in short: Rammy, somtimes you really are a tard.

      KG

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    10. I remember one notorious example when one Dreamcast mag (I forget which) 'reviewed' a copy of Half Life for the console.

      Of course it was never released in the end due to the fact the console was dying.

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    11. Nice try Gillen, but no cigar. You’ve got a problem with the bit about PC Gamer’s “Best RTS Score Ever” headline, so I’ll clear that up for you.

      Games often cross genres, but it’s very rare for them to be true crossbreeds. Deus Ex is one of those rarities being almost half and half FPS/RPG, but the majority of games can easily be pigeonholed. Oblivion’s FPS elements don’t stop it from being an RPG any more than the loading-screen shoot’em up bit in Ridge Racer stops it from being a racing game. Rome: Total War is an RTS, and having turn-based strategy elements doesn’t stop it from being an RTS.

      Rammy knows this. Gillen should know this.

      Your second point about taking scores as a “magical objective rating” should be addressed to PC Gamer, as they’re the ones who chose to bring the score into it with the “Best RTS Score Ever” cover strap. If “Best RTS Ever” was used instead, then I wouldn’t have pointed out that they gave Rome: TW a higher score. Remember – PC Gamer crowed about the score, I just corrected the issue.

      As for being “ethically retarded” – I’m sure our dear readers can the see the beautiful irony in that coming from a reviewer who seems to endorse all of the practices I’ve criticised in this post.

      So, in short: Gillen, you have fucked up.

      But I still love you.

      RR

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    12. ywfcf9:36 pm

      "Rome: Total War is an RTS, and having turn-based strategy elements doesn’t stop it from being an RTS."

      Not really. Played this game to death, and it really ain't an RTS.

      Sure you can play it like one if you choose, but more importantly, you can play it entirely differently from an RTS, either by auto resolving battles or by judicious use of the pause button, whereupon it becomes more a case of tactics than strategy. Or the other way round, I can never remember.

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    13. Rammy: You do all the bad practices you critique in your piece. You admit as much, which is why I don't even touch that part of it. I'm actually in a more morally clean position than you, as I don't review code which is noticeably unfinished. I just say no.

      (The "correct" position for reviewing late-Beta code is to assume if there's an error which would effect the mark in the code, it'll be in the game and write as such.)

      If it angers you so much, I'd suggest you try also just saying "No" rather than hiding behind your pseudonym. You think you're being a whistleblower here, but in fact you're just being a hypocrite.

      (And if I ever was going to do a "Why reviewing code in extremely late-Beta is actually fine, and better than the alternative" rant, I dare say that I'd do it on my blog rather than in your comments section. I'd like the hits.)

      Regarding your take on genres... well, if I were to take your position, I'd be forced to argue that the best First-Person Shooter ever was Thief or something. When people think "RTS" they're not thinking about Total War. It's that simple. As ywfcf says, people can go all the way through Total War without ever manouvering troops around in real time. It's just a different thing.

      (I must admit, I would have just gone with the simple "Best RTS Ever". Mentioning "score" just makes the sentence really ugly)

      KG

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    14. "If websites are killing mags why aren't the same drops being seen across the board?"

      Actually the same drops are being seen across the publishing board. Of all national newspapers only two reported a rise in ABC figures at the last count with the overall majority dropping (often considerably) in sales while their executives rush to promote and develop ever more complex and generally unuseful online versions of each brand.

      One other point: I think you over-estimate the quality of print journalists over web journalists in your piece RR. While historically that might be true, and certainly most of the best web writers were first print writers at the moment, that's a traditional snobbishness that won't bear up much longer as more good young writers cut their teeth online.

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    15. Gillen: I’ve never pretended to be anything other than a hypocrite, which is why I specifically included the paragraph admitting to reviewing preview code myself for magazines. You claim you say no to reviewing beta code. If that’s true, then it’s only possible because you’re in a (deservedly) privileged position as a well-established industry veteran.

      Although I do occasionally snipe at fellow journalists, my real anger is directed at the magazines – they’re the ones who give us the take-it-or-leave-it code. Most journalists can’t afford to say no. They have to do as they’re told or the magazines won’t use them any more, and that’s just the freelancers.

      As for the genres argument, we seem to have different perceptions (which is fine) but at least we agree on the scores issue.

      RR

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    16. Anonymous1:37 pm

      Disagree with ywfcf. The main campaign of Rome is a mixture of turn based startegy and rts, but you can't say it's not rts just because you can pause it and issue orders. It's definitely rts. Love that game too!

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    17. Anonymous3:03 pm

      Err, it's more the fac that you can turn the battles into a turn based type thing, except you choose how long each turn is. Pause, issue orders, pause (next turn) issue orders.

      It's that it's no longer in real time (as compared to an RTS) that actually makes me enjoy the combat. As I said you can play it like an rts should you choose, but that doesn't make it an rts more than deus ex 'is' an fps just because you can play it like one.

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    18. There are plenty of us who say no, and we continue to get work.

      However, if having half a testicle of integrity means you can't continue your Playing Games job, then I'd venture there may be other jobs one could get.

      It seems deeply peculiar to me that you rail so vehemently against a practise to which you so willingly adhere. You're in a position to fight against it. How about you do so?

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    19. Like I've said, you can only say no and continue to get work once you've got a reputation, or if you're in one of the sinister elitorati old boys' networks.

      As for doing something to fight against it, welcome to the site.

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    20. Anonymous4:21 pm

      "There are plenty of us who say no, and we continue to get work. However, if having half a testicle of integrity means you can't continue your Playing Games job, then I'd venture there may be other jobs one could get."

      I have a question for Gillen and Walker. Would you have said no if the CoH review was offered to you?

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    21. Anonymous8:31 pm

      Yes, it would be interesting to see if either Kieron or John said no at the start of their careers. As a full-time member of staff at Future (KG) I'd seriously doubt it. It's very easy to have integrity when you're spoilt for choice.

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    22. Anonymous9:03 pm

      Solution - at the end of every review (print or web) the reviewer has to list all the free shit he was given, romantic trips to New York thrown his way, advertising space on his ass he sold etc.

      That would be funny.

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    23. Internet just ate 20,000 words. Redux version.

      I didn't say I would refuse to review late beta code. I just said I would refuse to review it if it was unreviewable.

      Since Tim reviewed the code - and he has a good record on exclusive reviews, including a clearly publisher-angering seventies score for B&W2 - I presume the code was in a good enough state to review. If that presumption is true, I'd have reviewed it at the start of my career, the middle and the current dreary present.

      KG

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    24. Anonymous8:33 pm

      I still think the US model, which isn't built around exclusive reviews, is one we should adopt. You have to agree that exclusive reviews are half the reason mags are so bad (and the other half being the weight put on exclusive demos and cover CDs, which is thankfully being eroded by the internet.)
      Unfortunately Future are behind both. They were the first mag to covermount and the most aggressive company at chasing exclusives. Publishers would put both before stimulating content and will carry on doing so unless something inherently wrong at the base of Future is changed.
      The only bright side is that if they carry on the way they are - in-fighting and all - they will implode. Just look at the share price, which is a 10th of the value of their float and a 30th of its peak. Yes it might have been over-valued initially but not to that extent. Their desire to expand and become the 2nd (or is it 3rd) biggest publisher of mags in the UK has seen to that.

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    25. Sanity9:37 pm

      This thread has spiralled into the most ill-informed babble I have read in some time. Look:

      An advert with the game score? Gee, how could that happen?! Perhaps that the magazine informs the PR that "the game has done incredibly well and would he like the score and some quotes for his box/advertising"? The PR informs the relevant advertising blokes and current advertising is changed? If the mag can get the review into the magazine it can certainly get an advert changed before press!

      And so if the mag reviews the game in its almost-finished form, so what? It's not like it's beta code (or do you understand what 'beta code' actually means?). The game is *very near complete*, month's before its release in some cases (submission to Sony and Microsoft can be literally *months* before on-sale). At the end of a development cycle the majority of bugs being ironed out on PC are incompatibilities with drivers. The code, if it runs fine, is 99% of the time indistinguishable from retail code. It is the magazine's prerogative to choose if the code it is supplied is representative of the finished product or not. Magazines do a service by telling their readers *before on-sale* dates whether a game is worth buying or not. What's your problem?

      Oh yes, corruption. Well your points above have nothing to do with corrupt editors. Merely a system that you feel is *open to* corruption. Perhaps there is some corruption going on in our industry but until you find an example of it (rather than simply pointing out the workings of our industry), please keep it down.

      BTW, anonymous - The US is as it is because the magazines have a far longer lead time than here in the UK. Do not for a second think it is to do with a want to be whiter than white!

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    26. Anonymous9:50 am

      One thing's for sure, Gillen will never be a rock critic judging by his ill-informed musical ramblings about GH2 on his blog. And he would need to start spelling the word 'rhythm' correctly too.

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    27. Anonymous11:22 am

      Your complaint about 'snide comments', takes this blog to new heights of unintentional irony. Congratulations.

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    28. When it comes to magazines you should never adopt the US model for anything.

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