Race for the Prize

There is no room for second place



This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

Vince Lombardi once said, “There is no room for second place.” The need to be first dominates all types of reporting, from the local news to your fluffy game magazine. And almost everyone grapples with what’s lost when you push for speed over everything else.
Since the type of reporting we do around here isn’t exactly critical to keeping a vital democracy, there are no watchdog groups designed to keep us in line when the pursuit of a story gets in the way of ethics or accuracy. This leaves the burden of monitoring the game press on its own shoulders, which is problematic because it’s typically considered bad form to raise issues concerning the competition.
Consider this bad form. The March issue of PC Gamer features an “Exclusive” review of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell, while the same month’s issue of Computer Gaming World features a regular, non-exclusive review of the same game. They based their reviews on an unfinished “Alpha” version of the game that was mostly complete but had a number of game-crashing bugs (which is normal for software that point of its development). The legitimately “final” version wasn’t available until after the game was truly finished, which occurred at about the time those two reviews appeared on newsstands.
We’ve never really felt the need to state any formal review policy since it’s always seemed obvious that we’d only review final copies after playing through the entire game. As far back as its February issue, each CGW stated, “We review only finished games—no betas, no patches.” PC Gamer has never publicly stated a policy on reviewing alphas or betas. In the case of Splinter Cell, our competitors were able to publish their “exclusive” and “less-exclusive” reviews one month before ours because both are willing to review incomplete software.
There are other stories of publications visiting companies for a single day to get “exclusive review” cover stories, as if that’s enough time to explore all of a game’s features, to play its single-player to completion, and to try its various multiplayer modes not just over a LAN but also over the Internet. (If the game’s not finished, this assumes that the team has implemented all of those features.)
While the pressure of competition and the reality of lead times can force magazines to cut corners, websites end up rushing reviews in pursuit of the one-day traffic boost you receive for posting the first review. A representative of Electronic Arts verified that no publications received advanced copies of Command & Conquer Generals, yet the website Gamespot put up its review the same day it appeared on store shelves. (The EA rep said they were surprised they got the review up so quickly, as an editor from the site had told them that they’d purchased the game a day earlier.) Another website, IGN, posted a glowing review of Master of Orion III [see page XX] a few days after receiving a “final” gold master version, which was weeks before it appeared on shelves.
Are these situations fair to anyone expecting a thorough review? Why is everyone so willing to risk their easy-to-lose, harder-to-build reputation in pursuit of being first? Who knows? There shouldn’t be an issue with reviewing incomplete versions of games, as long as the publication discloses that information to its readers. You can’t discuss bugs or design issues that may change before the game is completed; you would have to assume the publisher and developer is going to fix whatever problems exist. Frankly, no PC game company has earned that level of trust.
For now, we’re sticking to our policy of only reviewing final copies of games. And when others review incomplete games and don’t disclose that information to readers, we will continue to draw attention to the practice. We are by no means infallible, and we fully expect to be called out, criticized, or flambéed if and when we screw up. We’re willing to accept that level of scrutiny; even if you don’t consider issues like these ethical ones, a fear of public embarrassment is enough for a publication to reconsider its review policies.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150