Microsoft's Oprah Winfrey gambit
The E3 news the media was most excited about was not the Nintendo 3DS. It wasn't Microsoft's Kinect. It wasn't Sony's Move + 3D double-whammy. It wasn't even all those gorgeous remakes of classic games.
It was a free Xbox 360 slim for everyone in the audience of Microsoft's press conference on Monday. Only a stone statue of a monk would fail to be moved such a gift, but both the action and the reaction raised serious questions about where marketing should draw the line, and whether the media is overstepping it.
It could be argued that this conference was not Microsoft's strongest, especially after the million jaws they dropped with last year's Project Natal first-look. Perhaps someone felt there was a need to find an extra way to alight the press' imagination. That would be a false argument. A clutch of new games on exciting new hardware, an assortment of sequels to major IPs, and a brand new, better-looking, cooler-running, sleeker Xbox 360? That's a hell of a hand.
There was no need for anything else. The press would have and should have been entirely interested and entirely excited, and pumping out headlines and analysis for days to come. Why try to sweeten the deal with several thousand free Xboxes?
Because there will be unboxing posts, there will be gloating posts and there will be endless photo galleries. An incredible amount of coverage all told. Perhaps much of that would have happened anyway once review units shipped, but it's the difference between journalistic excitement and personal excitement. Doing this ensures Microsoft's is the most talked-about conference of the show, but not just because of what they showed. It also means E3 2010 will forever be remembered as the one where Microsoft gave everyone a free Xbox.
The whooping and self-celebration on Twitter and Facebook didn't do those members of the media who couldn't censor their glee at being given a free console any favours. What other press thought is academic; it's what the many readers who likely follow them thought that's the problem. "If games journalists are rewarded like this this by major publishers, how can we trust anything they say?"
Of course most of the journalists have integrity, and won't have their opinions swayed by this hand-out. It just won't look that way to onlookers. A mass agreement to review the consoles then pass them onto readers or charities would be a splendid way to demonstrate that readers' faith in the games media is not misplaced.
It's not a new problem, of course. There have always been gifts both small and large, and different media outlets have different policies about what can legitimately be accepted, while sometimes hardware (and software) are simply the tools required to do the job - which is fine if it's provided under such auspices.
People will make judgment calls, and people will also make mistakes. But when it happens so publicly, and it is responded too with such untempered glee for all to see, it brings a whole new level of discomfort. It looks like mass bribery. Of course that wasn't Microsoft's intention – more likely it was intended as a celebratory gesture – but it's the public perception that matters.
We must not let them down.