Game Reviews & The Evil Gift Horse From Hell

by Moritz Eggert

Transcript of our podcast from 28 Feb 2007

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This time I want to talk about one subject that is brought up many a time, namely the idea that receiving free games as review copies is a bad thing, and that it clouds the judgment of the person reviewing the game.

Now this at first sounds like a reasonable argument - of course one immediately thinks of adages like "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" - at least there's a saying like that in German. If one receives a gift it will make you more favourable to the person giving you the gift, so you won't be as likely to say negative things about this person. At least in theory. There are whole societies that are based on gift giving - it played a huge role in ancient Chinese Bureaucracy for example, and right now the famous Alan E. Paull with 2 "l", designer of Tara - Seat of Kings, is actually designing a game about this subject.

When one visits the website of Steve Weeks, who heads the League of Untouchable American Gamers, one is not only greeted by Hooters-style pictures of half-naked ladies dressed in American flags, always a sign of great taste in website design, but also the proud info that this gamer does NOT accept free review copies but instead will always tell... "the truth" about how a game is.

So are free review copies a bad thing? Do they corrupt the soul; do they make you a worshipper of the big Euro monster that threatens to destroy the soul of America, the good old-fashioned proud American game?

First of all we should note one important thing: a review copy is NOT a present. It is a neutral transaction between two parties. The first party is a publisher who wants exposure for his game by giving it to someone who is considered some kind of voice in the gaming world. Some people grow into this role by doing a lot of reviews like Tom Vasel or Greg Schloesser, which is - as everybody can imagine - a lot of work. You don't simply declare yourself to be a Greg Schloesser, you become a Greg Schloesser by continuously working hard on being vocal about your opinions of games, by spending a lot of time not gaming but DESCRIBING gaming, which is - as everybody can imagine - not as good as actually gaming itself.

Now I personally also do get a kick out of writing an experimental review here and there, but I actually would rather play the games themselves than reviewing them. It's an unthankful task, but somebody has to do it. One does it out of a certain responsibility, and that is mainly twofold - you want to share your love for certain games that you find cool and that you want others to love as well. And you want to warn others from games which don't succeed that much or which are downright bad. Both are pretty altruistic motives, especially as we are talking about a hobby here, not a profession.

I get a lot of review copies at Essen, and you know what? I don't do a little jig every time I get a game like this. I don't go "wow, how great, another game, what a wonderful present". I don't go home and put the review copy proudly in my collection, full of love for the person who gave it to me. No, I actually feel a big burden with each free review copy, because each review copy means for me one simple thing: work. At our next Westpark-Gamers session we won't play Yspahan for example, but we will instead look at our pile of review copies and say "ok, what games do we have to review next". And the only responsibility I personally feel when writing about a review copy is that it has to be a thorough and detailed review, but I don't feel it has to be a good review.

When I look back at the reviews of the Westpark Gamers about 20 -30 percent of them are of review copy games. But these reviews have exactly the same distribution of good and bad reviews as the reviews of non-review copies games. In fact we often had trouble with small publishers whose games we didn't like that much, for example Henning Poehl and his game "Popeln" (which translates to boogering). He was very unhappy with the negative review we did, but we didn't falter in our opinion. We never, ever even once had trouble with experienced publishers, because they know exactly that a reviewer who simply loves every game, who always gushes about how great they are, is simply not a respected game reviewer, and actually LESS interesting than the critical reviewer who speaks his mind. What the experienced publishers are interested in is simply publicity itself. They want that people talk about their games.

Now let's move to something that has been ignored so far in this discussion: The analogy to OTHER fields of life. And you know what? The people who complain about free review copies should simply look how it's handled in absolutely EVERY other profession, be it artistic or industrial. What we have here is the concept of a sample. What does the factory do that wants to convince a contractor of the quality of their work? They will send some free samples, then the contractor will decide if he wants to collaborate or not. It's common practice. You do that as a consumer even. Very often you will be presented with free samples of new toothpaste, a new snack, or a new chocolate bar. Does it make you a drooling slave that from now on will be full of undying love for the company who gave you that sample? I believe not, what is happening here is that the company informs you of their product, and you either like it or not. That's all.

As many of you know I work in the field of music. There is also a job called reviewer or critic there, as is the case generally in the arts, theatre, literature, whatever. These reviewers work for newspapers that send them to the various concerts and performances. And you know what? These guys always get in for free, they don't pay a cent. When they enter a theatre they will be presented with what we call press tickets, they get a free program, a good seat, all so they can judge the performance and write about it in their newspaper. Wow, you might think, now they are all slaves to the theatre because they're so HAPPY to get in for free. But when you read theatre, concert reviews - do you have the feeling they're always good? In Germany it is extremely rare, that a concert review will be gushingly positive, in fact I would say that 80 percent of the reviews are VERY critical and many of them are nastily negative. But the theatre will invariably invite the same guy who wrote negatively about them to their next performance, because they don't want robots who write what they want, no, they simply want the publicity itself, and they know that a good review by an independent, critical reviewer is worth so much more than empty praise.

Look at film reviews in the US: All reviewers are invited to FREE press screenings, they get pre-cuts of the new films sent on DVD, and they get invited to banquets, to exclusive interviews. It is common practice. But does that make them positively gushing slaves of the film industry? Rather not - just go to RottenTomatoes.com and look at the average film review - they are extremely critical of practically everything. But these guys got in... for free... wow!

So please, dear League of Untouchable American Gamers: Don't live in a dream world, just look at reality for a change. And you will see that the concept of a reviewer being thoroughly corrupted by free admission, by free games etc. simply does not happen. Because the more critical a reviewer is, the more interesting he actually becomes, not the other way round. A praise by a known nitpicker is worth so much more than the praise of somebody who likes everything. That's the way it works, folks, look at reality and learn from it.

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