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"The end of comfortable publisher-journalist relationships will lead to better journalism"

The impact of publishers going direct to consumers is having a liberating impact on the games press

The following article is part of a series of daily year-end content on GamesIndustry.biz analyzing the most notable news and trends we've observed over the last 12 months

When EA decided not to attend E3 in the traditional sense this year, some commentators believed it was a statement on the waning importance of the US trade show.

But that wasn't exactly the case. E3 was still as noisy, and as busy, and full of announcements and excitement, as it has ever been. In fact, more so. EA was actually just next door, with an even bigger showing than it had enjoyed previously within the walls of the LA Convention Center. There was even a pretty dreadful consumer element sandwiched in-between, which saw the E3 show floor spill out onto the streets.

The only reason EA moved was because it wanted to invite consumers along to the show. E3 began life as a retail event, with stores ordering stock and signing deals on the show floor. That barely ever happens anymore, if at all. E3 has since evolved into a giant press briefing (although you have to question how many of those that crawl the halls of E3 can genuinely be called press). Event organizers the ESA regularly extol the benefits of having the world's media descend upon LA for a week-long celebration of gaming as the show's biggest selling point.

Now even that media angle is starting to lose power. The press conferences held at E3 are today more for the people sitting at home than those seated in the room (who needs an internet connection, eh?). E3 has become a consumer show in all but practice.

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E3 has become a consumer show in all but practice

Going direct to consumers and bypassing the press is a trend that has been emerging for a while, and it certainly continued in 2016. Nintendo was one of the first companies to swap press briefings for 'Direct' videos, which are targeted first and foremost at fans. It's a concept it kept this year, and it felt significant that Nintendo decided to use a video - and not hold a glamorous press conference - to showcase its next major games console.

By letting consumers go hands-on at E3, EA is effectively cutting out the middle man when it comes to game previews. By streaming all its announcements online, Nintendo is handling the distribution of news itself. And this year, we're seeing publishers attempt to control how their games are being reviewed, too.

Just last month, Bethesda announced that it would only distribute games to journalists the day before it launches the title. It means that the critical reaction to a game won't - in theory - negatively impact the first week sales of a game.

EA bypassing a media event to go directly to consumers, Bethesda delaying game criticism, Nintendo cutting out the press when announcing the Switch... together it suggests a growing disregard for specialist games media.

"A number of challenges have arisen this year including the growing impact of streamers and video personalities and internal blogs and developer-written articles," acknowledges Brian Crecente, executive editor at Polygon. "The result has been publishers bulking up their own blogs, creating their own shows as they start to divest themselves of E3 and, in at least one case, publishers removing critics' early access to completed games."

So considering all of that, where does that leave the traditional specialist games publication?

Wesley Yin-Poole, deputy editor of GamesIndustry.biz sister site Eurogamer, observes that the professional specialist media comes with a certain level of independence and trust that you won't get from direct-to-consumer messaging and even certain YouTubers. "At a time when trust is under scrutiny," he says, "if you have a media brand that is trusted, you are suddenly more worthy."

Crecente concurs: "From a broad perspective, the rise of fake news only increases the need for traditional journalists who use the basic tools of reporting, fact-checking and truth-squadding to cut through the white noise and deliver the information readers need to make up their own minds about a thing."

He continues: "Publishers and developers want to control the stories surrounding their games, which makes sense, but that's not necessarily the best thing for readers, for potential players and for the industry itself. It's fair to assume that, left to its own devices, the video game industry, a multi-billion dollar industry, would fall back on what's safe. It takes the prodding of critics, of players and of journalists to push some game makers outside of their comfort zones and the result is often the sort of creations that change and broaden what defines a game.

"It takes the prodding of critics, of players and of journalists to push some game makers outside of their comfort zones and the result is often the sort of creations that change and broaden what defines a game.

Brian Crecente, Polygon

"The good news is that a free and independent press is still very much alive in the game industry."

Indeed, ask any public relations executive and although they'll acknowledge things have changed, they are adamant that the specialist media still plays an important role in the overall process of talking about upcoming games.

Caroline Miller, the founder and head of game PR agency Indigo Pearl, says: "Whilst it is clearly the case that the traditional games media don't dominate the conversation in the way they used to, they are still a very important part of the discovery process. Consumers receive information from lots of sources including magazines, websites, influencers and social media, so it's important that any PR campaign reaches all of those touchpoints.  Also we don't live in a vacuum, influencers read games media as well, we've seen examples in the past of titles being picked up by massive influencers who read about the title on a gaming specialist website.

"I don't think it's wise to cut out the press, they are still a vital part of the process and lets not forget they are adding valuable commentary."

Stefano Petrullo, who used to run PR for Ubisoft in the UK and now operates his own agency, has a similar view: "The role of media has changed, but it is still very relevant. It is part of a wider ecosystem where the biggest challenge is reaching your consumers using all we have available: media, direct communication to the end user and influencers. 

"Media and influencers are constantly looking at each other so as soon as one game is picked up by one channel the other is following up. They foster each other in a cycle... so why exclude one?"

The implication from Miller and Petrullo, and indeed many of the PR execs that we spoke to, is that although the specialist media is still playing a crucial role, it's simply not as important anymore - it is now one voice within a larger conversation.

However, there's a counter-argument that suggests that publishers are not cutting the specialist media out of its plans at all, but rather it's a reaction to the fact that the press has changed what it is writing about.

Perhaps EA wasn't snubbing journalists when it decided not to attend E3, but rather reacting to the fact that journalists are writing fewer previews than before.

"Not being part of the marketing beat is, overall, a good thing, for gamers, for the media and for publishers."

Wesley Yin-Poole, Eurogamer

When we discussed Bethesda's decision to delay sending out review copies, Gamesradar's executive news editor Leon Hurley said: "There's increasingly a move away from preview, review and finish coverage anyway. You're not competing for a single big review traffic win, you're after the longer lasting interest of a community that bought the game, sticks with it and wants more."

If the media is moving away from preview coverage, is it any wonder that publishers are trying to engage consumers earlier in the cycle, via social media and events and YouTube partnerships? And by doing so, the traditional games media has - to an extent - gained a bit more freedom from the tightly controlled PR and marketing cycles of the past. Far from being a threat to the games media, publishers going directly to consumers with their PR messages have provided journalists with the time and justification to explore more interesting, unusual and unique stories related to games and the communities around them.

Here's Yin-Poole again: "There is still interest in doing previews around the big games, just not doing quite so many.

"There's not so much interest in five previews for Dead Rising 4. The media has changed to reporting on a game in the immediate run up to release and increasingly post-release, because that's when things are happening, that's when communities are doing interesting things and when we're discovering stuff and playing together. So there has been a shift in coverage, but not in how much we're covering, just when we're doing it.

"You get more out of games this way than with a carefully constructed, PR-managed demo where spokespeople can only say so much.

"Combine that with the fact that publishers are discovering new ways to talk to gamers pre-release, through influencers, directly at events, via social media, with developers talking online... it changes the roles we play, a bit. The press is still involved pre-release, but just not as much.

"Not being part of the marketing beat is, overall, a good thing, for gamers, for the media and for publishers. Games get coverage long after release. You talk about Bethesda and its review strategy, but some of its games are being talked about for months and months after launch. Fallout 4, even Skyrim are being talked about now, even if you go further back, games like Oblivion are still being discussed 10 years after it came out.

"So things have changed in the media, but for the better."

Crecente concludes: "While access may help a publication, the lack of it won't kill one. In fact, I think lacking the sort of comfortable publisher-journalist relationships that have long plagued the game industry and coverage of it, will actually lead to better journalism and stronger, more interesting stories."

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Latest comments (5)

Interesting article and I think you've explained the symptom but not the cause. The symptom is that the press is covering games post release more, and less pre release. The cause is that the press has transitioned from being the trend setter to the trend follower. The press finds it easier to generate traffic and clicks on articles about popular games so they keep writing more articles about popular games. This makes it extremely difficult for anyone else to get any attention. Most games getting no coverage whatsoever, unless they first prove they are popular.
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Christopher Dring Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA month ago
@Iain McNeil: I agree, although I think that's somewhat a separate issue to the discussion here. It is increasingly hard for smaller studios or niche games to get attention.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist A month ago
With regards to the press covering games in a more in-depth manner after release (due in part to day-1 patches, publisher actions etc.), do you think this is also having a knock-on impact on consumers holding out to buy games later, affecting the early (week 1-4) sales?

This aspect was not really analysed (IIRC) in the recent articles on this topic...

I had always assumed that the 'review' had minimal direct impact on sales as part of a marketing campaign but this is making me question the extent of their impact.
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Christopher Dring Senior Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA month ago
@James Prendergast: When the sales of Dishonored 2 happened, we did suggest that maybe the lack of reviews had harmed it somewhat - but sales didn't really improve much in its second week, despite the fact the reviews hit and were really positive.

Upon saying that, the opposite was true with Doom. That game came out, did pretty badly, the reviews then hit and things started to swing upwards. It coincided with a switch in PR, which began focusing on the multiplayer but then switched to the single player campaign.

Most games, with the exception of big multiplayer titles and Bethesda products, are still being reviewed ahead of launch. But for games that are being reviewed later, there's bound to be some consumers who are holding off until their favourite critic has delivered their verdict. It'll be interesting to see how Steep does when the reviews for that game start to emerge.
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James Prendergast Research Chemist A month ago
Fair point! Though I still think looking at week 1-2 is still too short a term. And looking at a consumer response from a marketing push (if you can even call a review that) a half-week or week later is still too soon for all but the very most anticipated titles or vastly exaggerated of viral groundswells. There's a reason most good marketing campaigns work from a year out to release, building to a crescendo at and around release date (or Christmas if you're in the children's toy market).

The obvious exceptions are ones that have been rightly predicted to be highly anticipated and thus a zero-day approach is a mastermind manoeuvre... unless of course the product and demand are miscalculated -as has happened upon occasion. :)

The other thing for Dishonored 2 is that consumers may have already spent their 'dollar' on other competing titles and thus a positive (or overwhelmingly positive) review would have little effect because it's not a F2P title.... As always, it's very easy to read too much or too little into these things and it makes them very nebulous and intangible when it comes to real world effects...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by James Prendergast on 8th December 2016 11:54am

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