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Is honesty the best policy?

Weekly round-up: EA's new YouTube rules and Game Awards premieres call for more transparency from a highly exposed industry

The increasingly savvy and, in some cases, skeptical global games audience means that in an age where everything is preserved for posterity by the internet, developers and publishers must be extremely careful how their titles are presented.

Two forms of alleged dishonesty, recurring topics among both the games media and its readership, were once again addressed this week: EA called for 'influencers' to disclose sponsorship deals, and The Game Awards' founder Geoff Keighley promised more representative premieres at this year's show.

The former is another step forward as the nature of games marketing changes. With videos and livestreams becoming more central to how players discover new games and potential future purchases, publishers are continuing to experiment with how they can control the message - or rather guide the player to that message - without deterring viewers with blatant advertising ploys. It's a delicate balance, relying on co-operation and understanding between the games publishers and the YouTubers, streamers and other influencers they bring into the fold. But that relationship, quite rightly, needs to be defined very clearly.

EA's instructions that influencers are to specify whether a video is part of a partnership with the publisher - even providing a self-explanatory watermark for them to use - is a step in the right direction after previous examples of sponsorship or similar relationships going undisclosed, particularly this summer's FTC case concerning Warner Bros and paid YouTubers.

It is more than understandable that publishers seek to harness the power of these users and their channels. PewDiePie alone accounted for 3.7m views in the Warner Bros case, so it's no surprise that while review copies of last month's releases Mafia III and Skyrim: Special edition were not issued to the press, timely previews appeared on countless Twitch and YouTube channels in the run up to launch. But with consumers so quick to call shenanigans if they suspected they are being 'tricked' into engaging with purely promotional material, especially from the traditional games press, doing so needs to be handled with care.

The onus is not purely on the publishers, of course. This is a learning curve for the influencers, many of which most likely started out with nothing more than a passion for games and the drive to create new content but have since found themselves part of the industry machine, a key cog in several PR and marketing plans. While games firms have a responsibility not to exploit these relatively new players in the media scene, equally those creators seeking to establish a relationship with the industry need to understand the nature and limitations of that dynamic.

"With consumers so quick to call shenanigans if they suspected they are being 'tricked' into engaging with purely promotional material, working with influencers needs to be handled with care"

In many of the cases where a relationship between industry and influencer has not been disclosed, it is not the partnership itself that has caused controversy but the conditions of it - more often than not, this means the publisher or developer has stipulated videos may only show the game in a positive light, and not share any flaws or criticism. The result is the product has been misrepresented to the buying public, something that audience is increasingly taking umbrage with.

Arguably the most notable case of consumers claiming they have been mis-sold a product was this summer's outcry surrounding Hello Games' ambitious No Man's Sky. Since the game's launch, disgruntled users have scoured previous footage for inconsistencies between previews and the final product, leading to viral parodies aplenty.

It led to interesting comments from Geoff Keighley, games journalist and organiser behind annual prizegiving-cum-showcase The Game Awards. No Man's Sky was announced during the 2013 awards and previewed during the following year, with the footage being used as part of consumers' arguments against Hello Games. While The Game Awards trailers are far from being the only source for these accusations of downgrading, the fact that such debate has prompted Keighley to promise deeper, more representative previews from developers is nonetheless encouraging.

However, it can be argued that changes between announcement and release are inherent to video games as a medium - more so than any other form of entertainment. The average triple-A title takes two to three years to develop; ideas and mechanics may not be as easy or quick to implement as developers may hope. The direction the studio wishes to take with a title may change, whether subtly or significantly, meaning early glimpses may transpire to show nothing but content that was eventually cut. The E3 2011 gameplay demo of BioShock Infinite is a prime example; while still largely in line with the game's eventually quality, it features events and locations not seen in the final product - an echo of what was once intended, rather than what would be.

"The average triple-A title takes two to three years to develop; ideas and mechanics may not be as easy or quick to implement as developers may hope."

It's also worth remembering that video games are highly exposed before release. By comparison, books, films and TV shows are previewed in nowhere near as much depth as games - rarely will you see more than a few minutes of a forthcoming movie, while hours of gameplay footage are released before a title hits shelves.

This has become even more pronounced as more developers - especially smaller and independent studios with less marketing budget and a greater need for exposure - have adopted an open development policy. Monthly, sometimes weekly updates on how work on a game is progressing is a great way to keep potential customers informed with what they can expect when the project is finished, but only if devs are transparent about major changes and the reasons behind them.

It is perhaps unsurprising that this week's big release, Ubisoft's Watch Dogs 2, was announced just six months ago, at a time when work was largely complete and changes to the final product would be minimal - at least in terms of what information, screens and footage are publicly available. It's clearly a lesson hard learned by the publisher, which faced accusations of downgrading the original Watch Dogs by consumers comparing the finished game with its reveal two years prior.

To address the seemingly rhetorical headline for this week's roundup: yes, of course honestly is the best policy. But that comes with a caveat. Both industry and influencers should be completely honest about the nature of any partnerships, but the footage shown - whether through these channels or more traditional outlets - should be representative of where the product currently is. If where the product aims to be is preferable, that needs to be made clear. Customers increasingly want to see what they're going to buy, not what developers hope to but may never make.

Other news on GamesIndustry.biz this week:

Zelnick: Annual releases burn out franchises

Hideo Kojima to pick up Industry Icon prize at The Game Awards 2016

Battlefield 1, Mafia 3 and Gears 4 drive US October game sales

Warner Bros. to acquire Machinima

id veteran Steve Nix starts VR/AR studio

Ubisoft expands in Eastern Europe with Serbian studio

GAME to outsource sales function for smaller titles

Nintendo ships 10m units of Pokemon Sun and Moon

Ubisoft moving away from scripted narrative

Australian Competition Commission wants to fine Valve $3m

EA CEO stresses diversity and representation in games

Indiegogo adds equity crowdfunding with Microventures partnership

EA cautious over Nintendo Switch potential

Ubisoft apologizes for and will remove genitalia from Watch Dogs 2

Sviper completes second funding round

Ubisoft execs accused of insider trading, publisher denies claims

Amazon ordered to issue refunds for children's IAP

Wargaming launches free-to-play publishing label and signs Total War: Arena

110,000 PS4 and Xbox One machines sold in the UK last week

Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare UK physical sales drop just 55% in Week Two

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James Batchelor

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James Batchelor has been a journalist in the games industry since 2006, joining GamesIndustry in 2016, and also runs Non-Violent Game of the Day (@NVGOTD). He does play violent games, but always on Story/Easy mode.

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