[Citation Needed] – Journalism and gaming’s summer of PR.

Reportedly, the Playstation 4 is 50% more powerful than the Xbox One. Hooray! Debate settled, right? It’s the better machine, it’s more powerful, huzzah and hurrah, game over!

But wait, because it isn’t quite that clear-cut, and once again gamers are being dragged into the murky world of marketing, media spin and public relations.

We’ll come back to the original story in a minute, because first I’d like to travel back in time to earlier this year, and the swinging bridge of PR that’s enveloped our hobby for half of 2013.

 

A quick trip to recap-ville.

On May 21st, Xbox 360 owners settled down to watch the Xbox One reveal, Microsofts unveiling of their third generation of console, and the backlash was almost immediate. The revelation of restrictive DRM and a perception of an anti-consumer stance by Microsoft was compounded by comments from executives that angered gamers. Telling someone that if they can’t access the internet every 24 hours to log on that they should just buy an Xbox 360 was never going to go down well – although I still feel that the argument of “what if a sailor wants to play games on a submarine” is somewhat farcical.

Things improved somewhat after E3, but it was only with the complete turnaround on Microsoft’s DRM policies that people’s attitudes began to improve towards the console.

On the other side of the Marketing fence, Sony immediately sensed the blood in the water. Capitalising on Microsoft’s mistakes, they started hitting out with videos mocking their opponents used games policy. They undercut MS on the Playstation 4’s price. Even the announcement that you would now have to pay for multiplayer on the PS4 was a whisper amidst the deafening mockery of the ‘Xbone.’ It was practically a TKO – Microsoft was out on their feet.

In the American corner, things got rather quiet. After the entertainment heavy presentation of the media reveal, E3 was all about the games for Microsoft, with a Halo reveal and looks at Forza, Project Spark and the relaunched Killer Instinct. Microsoft held firm on their policies for a short while longer, then dropped them like a hot rock. Pre-orders began to trickle in for both consoles.

Other conventions have been and gone, with both consoles announcing their launch date. Sony continued their snarkiness at Gamescom – its always difficult to let go of a good thing – but with Microsoft having deprived them of a large portion of their ammunition, the act began to fall a little flat. The companies, ceased their volleys and settled for warily eyeing each other over then net.

But quiet marketing departments don’t pay journalists salaries, and that, folks is never a good thing.

Split decisions and hungry Journalists.

When the sales start, the largest part of a marketing departments work is over. When the dust has settled, the graphic artists, the copywriters and the communications managers can take a deep breath, have a well deserved drink, and turn their attention to the next project.

From a departmental split of 90% console launch/10%Future work, the split will flip to 75% future work/25% console, with further scaling back to come.

You can see this in the new consoles at the moment. From the massive launches of the products, we’re down to a virtual drip-feed of information. Most of the focus now is on the games. Many people commented on the length of time it took for Microsoft to announce the launch date of the XB1; from experience, there will be a massive communications plan written up at Microsoft that they will stick to like glue, because the knock on effect of changing it would be like pulling out bricks on a Jenga tower – take out too many and the whole thing will fall down.

The problem for journalists, is that there’s only so much you can write about a game before its launched – and with so many games journalists now writing for online publications that rely on advertisement revenue, they need to be doing enough to bring in those hits.

Which brings us back to our original story.

 

A Source Engine.

Take a look at that story. Read the opening few paragraphs. It’s all very exciting – the high power level of the PS4, set to trounce its Microsoft rival. But there is one quote that sums up the problems with the article – and, by extension, the problems with modern videogame journalism.

PlayStation 4 is currently around 50 per cent faster than its rival Xbox One. Multiple high-level game development sources have described the difference in performance between the consoles as “significant” and “obvious.””

Multiple High Level development sources. Sounds ominous, right?

Well, it is right up until you notice that nowhere in Edge’s article are these sources ever named. They are all completely anonymous.

Now, this isn’t a comment on either console, or a knock on either set of fans, but that is something that always sets off a big warning siren in my head whenever I see it. I’ve worked in marketing for a government department. I’ve prepared draft copy and been on the editorial cycle for a UK government newsletter that gets transmitted to thousands of people, and one thing I believe is that if you want credibility, you give your sources. To do anything else is to invite skepticism.

I don’t know if the PS4 is more powerful than the XB1 – and an anonymous quote from a “High Level Developer” is not something that will immediately convince me otherwise. If a “High-Level Developer” claimed that the Xbox One’s cloud processing gave it a significant advantage in boosting graphics over the PS4, I’d be equally Skeptical. Give me a name, give a me a soundbite. Don’t give me an unsourced quote.

For all the information we’ve been given, that quote is from someone as SCEE. Hell, it could be Phil FIsh – god know he’s got his dislikes of Microsoft. At its best, this method of reporting is misdirection. At its worst, its downright sloppy work.

 

Paying the Bills.

At the risk of getting a bit ‘Back in my day‘, this is not the same games journalism I grew up with. Once upon a time, you had to wait for the end of month to get your gaming news – in a magazine. You may remember these archaic products.

These days, news is instantaneous. When the Xbox 360 launched, the idea of streaming the product launch online would have never even have been mooted, never mind used to make the opening volleys of a marketing campaign.

The problem is, journalists no longer have the time to report. There’s breaking news? Write the copy, get it on the site. something like the above story breaks and you have to get it out there. Delay costs you site traffic, and a loss of site traffic means a loss of revenue. With gamers now able to provide a  running commentary via the comments panel and spread the word via sites like N4G, its far to easy to spread information before it can be validated.

As a group, perhaps we need to stop taking news with a grain of salt. Perhaps we should try the whole salt cellar.

Nullius in Verba.

In a world of contradictions, it’s very difficult to find the middle ground in stories – if I may use a rather crude idiom, opinions are like arseholes: every bugger has one. Gaming’s community is an especially vocal one, but one thing they also are is far from stupid.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who was skeptical about Edge’s report. Yes, there are fanboys who are declaring victory for their console for the twelfth time this week, but most fans are smart enough to at least ask the question “Who said this?”

Mainstream journalism has had its own share of scandals over its methods. They’ve been held accountable by governments and law enforcement. Video games journalism isn’t quite at that point, but it does need to be held accountable by one group of people – us. Mostly what we have had from the companies themselves is facts – spun facts, certainly, but facts none the less – they can’t give us much else, because ultimately we can see the truth. It’s this dead zone in between the hype and the console launches that creates the most misinformation.

So don’t be afraid to ask questions – developers are no longer on a pedestal; hell they’re more accessible than ever before, and most of them are incredibly open about their work – with nearly every other quote we’ve seen having a clearly defined source, there is no excuse for anonymous quotes being thrown around as fact. After the summer we’ve had, we’re naturally suspicious of what games companies are telling us.

There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be as suspicious about what journalists are telling us as well.

(Also published on Gameosaur.com)

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