Embargoes: the enthusiast press is not special

by Darius Kazemi on June 1, 2011

in marketing,press,publishers,rant

This is the "embargo" playing card from the game Dominion.

Yeah, I went there.

Last night I read an opinion piece by a journalist for MCV UK complaining about stupid embargo tactics used by big game publishers. The gist of it is: Activision told a bunch of press about new Call of Duty information. As they usually do, they made the journalists sign NDAs saying “You don’t get to publish this until time X.” But (also as they usually do) they gave an exclusive to one outlet that got to publish early. The journalist complains about this a little, but it seems like they’re most upset that the exclusive was given to the Wall Street Journal and not to an enthusiast press outlet — such MCV UK, one presumes.

In particular, I want to respond to this paragraph:

“This [mistreatment] is despite the fact that we will slavishly report any and all information drip fed to us about the new Call of Duty. Despite the fact that, in the consumer sector at least, we will rave and rant about the game’s brilliance, securing it millions of sales in the process.”

The first sentence is obviously stupid; the second sentence is not stupid so much as subtly missing the point regarding some key business realities. To break it down:

1) Your slavish devotion is exactly why they give you nothing. They say “Jump,” you ask “How high?” There’s no incentive to give you anything more than exactly what is required to ensure your continued devotion. And as the author put it, that’s tiny drips of “any” information.

2) Yes, when the enthusiast press raves about how awesome a game is, on the whole that helps sales. But the WSJ is a different beast. You know who reads the WSJ? People on Wall Street. You know who is a publicly traded company? Activision (ATVI). Wall Street buzz is as important, if not more important, than their quarterly sales.

Why? As a publicly traded company, ATVI has one goal: to increase shareholder value. Yes, good sales numbers will generally cause stock value to increase, but so will Wall Street buzz. And Wall Street buzz can be bought at the low, low price of temporarily pissing off the enthusiast press! Remember that next week the same press will be back to slavishly reporting that you’ll be able to dual wield modified Mauser pistols for five minutes during a minigame in Call of Duty: Superfluous Ops. (“G-golly that’s awesome Bobby, what ELSE can you feed us poor saps?”) ATVI owes the enthusiast press nothing.

The thing is, the problem discussed in (2) can be solved by ceasing the slavish devotion outlined in (1). ATVI uses and abuses you and you keep coming back for more. I’m not without sympathy: I know it’s hard. You have to make ends meet, and CoD headlines rake in the ad revenue or the subscribers or the freemium iPad app dollars or whatever doomed monetization fix you’re jonesing for these days. But maybe you should stop reporting exactly what their marketers ask you to report. Maybe you should tell them to fuck off until they give you something worth reporting. You might lose a “friend” in ATVI’s marketing department. You might gain a little dignity as a press outlet.

{ 44 comments… read them below or add one }

Marco Fiori June 1, 2011 at 8:55 am

Sadly while it’s harsh, Activision have done what makes total business sense. You’ve hit the nail on the head.

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Strangeblades June 1, 2011 at 9:02 am

Amen. To all enthusiast press guys out there – don’t give publishers the time of day. Trust me. As a regular news reporter I have government officials calling me asking if I can run a story – not the other way around. No, this is not a power trip of mine. It is the result of a back-and-forth relationship I have with government officials and some of the businesses in my coverage zone. They ask me if I will run something in my publication and later I might ask them for an interview with an expert on forestry or ask for some difficult-to-get data.
The gaming press needs to establish a healthier, more respectful relationship with publishers, developers, etc. The same applies to publishers and developers.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 9:03 am

Yeah, exactly! Hopefully we can get there one day.

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Marco Fiori June 1, 2011 at 9:04 am

No you’re totally right. I work in Tech PR and I have to practically grovel with the IT trade press to get coverage. It’s a lot of work. Gaming is the complete opposite – it’s a completely mad industry.

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Brian 'Psychochild' Green June 1, 2011 at 12:57 pm

As a reformed indie developer, I can tell you that not every game press site falls over itself to give every game company attention. It definitely tends to be a case of the larger companies dictating the terms. I have an anecdote about how a magazine back in the day invited us to give a preview of Meridian 59‘s new rendering engine for a special MMO issue. We bought a new laptop and a few of our employees drove 2 states away to give a presentation. We got fobbed off to an assistant, and when the issue came out focus was on a big-budget game that had 6 full-page ad spreads in the magazine. Our game got a blurb where we were called a “throwback” accompanied an image from our old rendering engine.

Some sites are obviously better than others, but at the end of the day it’s about the page hits and how many ads get served up. Bigger companies and games do that better, and an article about a huge franchise like Call of Duty will do that better than most.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Yeah, (as I’m sure Brian knows) I’m strictly talking about big publicly traded companies here.

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Strangeblades June 1, 2011 at 9:03 am

As an aside I really wish there was an edit function. Not a delete function. An edit function.

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UK journalist June 1, 2011 at 9:04 am

While you have a point, there is no evidence that the WSJ had an exclusive agreement with Activision to run the article. Anyway, that’s a side issue, and not the main reason why I felt the need to comment.

You totally ruin your argument by describing MCV as an ‘enthusiast press outlet’. There’s nothing enthusiast about it. It’s a professional trade publication; one that if you asked many in the gaming and wider entertainment industry – both on the press and industry side – is better respected than the WSJ when it comes to report games business matters. A point which was demonstrated by the fact that the WSJ got several facts wrong in its ‘exclusive’ article. Had you properly researched your comment before that, you’d have realised and saved yourself the embarrassment.

Anyway, I believe Ben Parfitt’s point wasn’t so much that it was the WSJ that ran the story, but that once the story broke, the games press still wasn’t able to report on the story for fear of breaking their embargo – not that they were upset that the WSJ got to run it first.

MCV’s publisher Intent Media is ran by experienced journalists. They know how the ‘game’ works. The point I feel Ben was trying to make was was that the second that the story broke, they should have been able to report on it. i.e. the embargo should have been nullified.

Reviews, previews and other non-news content is different, and embargoes around those are fine. News, however, is different, and it shouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 9:18 am

Huh, okay. I’ve been in the game industry for seven years and I’ve never heard of MCV, but I’m based in the U.S. so maybe I don’t have that kind of exposure. As a U.S. developer, when I think of UK business publications I think Develop and GamesIndustry.biz. On a quick inspection MCV seemed enthusiast to me; on a closer look it seems like they serve a mixture of business and enthusiast stuff… I see business headlines like “IGN appoints games editor” but I also see enthusiast headlines like “PREVIEW: Alice: Madness Returns.” But lots of publications ride that line, so I’m willing to trust you on that.

But also: it doesn’t matter that the MCV is better respected than the WSJ among some subsection of the population like “game industry people in the UK” or whatever. It wouldn’t matter if MCV were the most famous and respected trade publication in the entire world! You’re missing the same point that Ben misses: the audience for a WSJ article is not people who know anything about video games. The audience is brokers and investors, who maybe know nothing at all about video games.

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Keith Andrew June 1, 2011 at 9:24 am

Develop and MCV are one and the same, Darius – i.e., sister publications.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 9:26 am

Ah, I see. Thanks.

I might take them a little more seriously if they didn’t have Call of Duty pre-order banners blanketing their website!

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Keith Andrew June 1, 2011 at 9:37 am

Everybody’s gotta make money. ;)

Ken Lowery June 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Any publication that will run the quoted segment is not worthy of the name “publication,” let alone “journalism.” That is advertising that you are shills, bought and paid for, and that being shills is one of your primary virtues. I cannot imagine press in any other medium acting this way, and certainly not acting this way and being taken seriously.

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Ben Abraham June 1, 2011 at 9:09 am

*slowclap*

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Zaratustra June 1, 2011 at 9:21 am

Just because it makes business sense doesn’t mean it’s not an asshole thing to do.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 9:26 am

Yeah, but no matter what the press says, through their actions they’re saying, “Please continue being an asshole! We love it! Thank you!”

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Chris Parsons June 1, 2011 at 9:37 am

Terrific article, Darius. It’s understandable that the games press would miss the obvious here. I read a lot of game business and enthusiast press articles (sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference) and it’s rare to see an opinion that reflects a view of the industry as part of something larger. Not that there’s anything innately wrong with press focusing on the area they specialize in, but it can lead to situations like this where they miss the forest for the trees.

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Leigh Alexander June 1, 2011 at 10:06 am

Also, when people get obsessed with being ‘scooped’ or whine about this type of situation, I kind of just wanna go ‘welcome to the internet.’ There are nine million websites. Basically single games writer I know, from small trade press to amateur-hour community conglomerate to huge enthusiast magazine saw Elite. The idea that it matters which of a hundred outlets, even when one of them is the WSJ, is “first” with information we will all basically be printing at about the same time is absurd these days. This is not original reporting we did here. As Darius points out, we were all invited to participate in a timed reveal of a product Activision wants to sell. We played along. It’s not a scoop.

Further, for most of us, the WSJ readership and our audience have fairly little overlap. They also have fairly different angles; it’s fair to say that a gamer who reads “our” stuff would have looked at that WSJ article as a business announcement and still been eager to hear our take on it. To a company like Activision, games are a business before they are games, and so it makes sense that a business publication reports first. For my part, I appreciate that the WSJ, FT, CNN, MSNBC, NYT and LAT didn’t ALL get to report before us.

Again, there are nine million games magazines. If you want to be the one to break a story, you ought to do some reporting. Our job instead, I think, is to understand that after people read about the general facts in a mainstream publication, they’re going to look to us to give them the context and detail provided by the industry expertise we have that big old newspapers never will. That’s an equally-legitimate role to the front-line reporter role for which so many games writers seem continually to be jockeying to be validated.

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Craig June 1, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Exactly. WSJ got the announcement, but the actual details they ran were pretty sparse. Any Call of Duty fan who read the article would have instantly hopped onto Google to search for more. I don’t even play the series anymore, and that’s what I did.

The rest is spot on too. If you want to stand out, do something unique. I don’t really care where I get my game news, but I go to Patrick Klepek for this, Tom Chick for that, Kill Screen for the other, etc.

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Patrick June 1, 2011 at 10:30 am

What about soon-to-be-public companies who never had much of a press following with game enthusiasts? You know who I’m talking about. Paradoxically, it’s much easier for them to get Wall St. buzz.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 10:31 am

Well, they’ve been optimizing for Wall Street for a long time!

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Leigh Alexander June 1, 2011 at 10:32 am

You mean Zynga? Actually, I have never felt like a second-class citizen with that company; we’re able to get executive interviews just as readily as any bigger outlet, so that might have to do with their individual press strategy. Some companies are just more interested in buzz-building and more accessible than the others (an examination of the obvious difference between ATVI’s audience/biz model and Zynga’s is illustrative), hence it being a little bit erroneous to discuss “the industry” and “the enthusiast press”, since each company takes a little bit different approach.

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Nels Anderson June 1, 2011 at 10:59 am

Oh Darius, if I could hug you over the internet, I would.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 11:00 am

That’s basically a hug right there.

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Dennis Scimeca June 1, 2011 at 11:02 am

I had a similar idea, that Activision gave WSJ the exclusive on a day the NYSE was closed to whet investor appetites by announcing a virgin revenue stream attached to the most successful franchise in history, and then riling up the enthusiast press to make sure they plastered the elite story all over their front pages.

The potential investors, then, unable to act on the information on Monday, would check the enthusiast press as barometer for how viable the new service would be, and then be inspired to make purchases of the stock.

That’s probably just a conspiracy theory, but if it *was* the plan, it didn’t work. ATVI’s stock price didn’t move from the rough price it’s been locked in at for a while, and the volume on trading yesterday was at normal levels, according to an analyst I got in touch with out of curiosity.

The only other motivation for giving the WSJ the exclusive which might make sense was provided by a colleague who suggested that Activision wanted to engender good will with the WSJ moving forward, to “consciously or subconsciously” make the outlet positively disposed to Activision in the future.

Does one of the largest game publishers in the world really have to worry about something like that? And is the WSJ an outlet that’s considered swayable?

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 11:03 am

When you’re publicly traded, there’s a whole lotta shit you have to worry about that mere mortals do not.

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Matthew Millsap June 1, 2011 at 11:11 am

Darius, I think you’ve made excellent points, and Leigh, I think you have as well. The problem is that the enthusiast press has no incentive whatsoever to blow off publishers or rebel against being abused, because that takes a willingness to be “scooped” or some equivalent by someone else. A particular outlet may gain credibility in the process of standing up, but that must outweigh whatever the cost may be of upsetting “Publisher X,” in addition to the cost of not having a story directly from the publisher like competing outlets. Perhaps there is only so far an outlet can go before it reaches of point of having high credibility, but little substantive, breaking news. Is such an outlet still competitive? I don’t know. I do think Leigh is right on the money, though: hardly any gamer would stop with the WSJ article and call it a day, not bothering to read any other outlets.

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wolfkin June 5, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Perhaps there is only so far an outlet can go before it reaches of point of having high credibility, but little substantive, breaking news. Is such an outlet still competitive?

There’s an argument to be made that it’s a fast competition to the bottom. Just because sites are getting every story doesn’t mean they should be posting EVERY story. That’s how we get articles about stuff like “Maybe this is what the CoD menu look like” or “This is our review of this 80 hour game that we’ve had for 3 days” or even more fun the “This is an article on brain chemistry but the author has the same name as Mario so we’ll post it”. There’s a lot of room for the gaming press to slow the snot down. A lot of articles don’t need to be posted. Press releases can be summarized and/or linked rather than regurgitated.

Maybe outlets would be MORE competitive if I didn’t have to wade thru “look at my gaming tattoo” or “check out my wedding mario cake galleries” to get to actual news.

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Strangeblades June 1, 2011 at 11:31 am

This is a great discussion. It hits on topics I’ve always wanted to see from the gaming press – the ins, outs, the difficulties, the heartbreaks, the boozin’ and the lovin’.

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Keith Andrew June 1, 2011 at 11:33 am

The ‘lovin’ tends to be a solo affair, in my experience.

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Patrick Klepek June 1, 2011 at 12:30 pm

While I sympathize, outlets and writers shouldn’t waste time complaining about how their reiteration of the same facts was published somewhere else earlier. If *that’s* your chief complaint as a reporter/critic, that’s a problem. Find an angle to attack. Jason Schreier did that, for example, by talking to Call of Duty fans about their response to the news.

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Darius Kazemi June 1, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Yeah, that’s similar to Leigh’s take above, which I would summarize as: do some reporting.

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Keith Andrew June 1, 2011 at 12:43 pm

With the greatest respect, on a magazine, that’s possible. On a website, that’s not always possible, or appropriate. In fairness, I don’t really consider talking to fans for a reaction as ‘reporting’ – it’s actually a little bit lazy in my opinion, and in regards to other stories, acts as little more than filler.

The other point is, editors and writers and websites often don’t have time to go to such lengths in my experience. Unless you’re actually breaking a story off your own back, stories detailing news handed to you by the publisher or developer itself is often all you have to go on, lest you get left behind each and every one of your competitors.

Websites live and die by hits, after all.

I think the happy medium is for publishers to work with websites. While I would never let it taint my coverage, if a PR contact I’ve previously worked with hands a timed exclusive to one of my rivals via NDA, I’m going to be less willing to give him or her the time of the day the next time they have something newsworthy to offer.

Publishers need to understand that the press is just as competitive as the market they operate in, and NDAs that don’t apply to everyone don’t lead anywhere good in the long term.

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Strangeblades June 1, 2011 at 6:13 pm

To expand on this: Instead of talking to fans talk to competitive players – the ones who work hard not only to be better players but to foster communities around their chosen games. Get their take on what’s new with their favourite title. For example changes in Starcraft 2? Go to talk to Team Liquid.

And throw in comments from other press. Often on international news coverage a newspaper reporter, who is on the ground as it were, will be the anchor for a television network. At least until they get their own TV people on the scene. Has this been done? Podcasters do this all the time where someone from Site A will be a guest on Site B’s podcast.

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Strangeblades June 1, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Ach. Edit! Where’s my copy editor?!

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Patrick Klepek June 1, 2011 at 1:21 pm

I didn’t say Jason’s story was the best angle, only that he tried an angle.

“I think the happy medium is for publishers to work with websites. While I would never let it taint my coverage, if a PR contact I’ve previously worked with hands a timed exclusive to one of my rivals via NDA, I’m going to be less willing to give him or her the time of the day the next time they have something newsworthy to offer.”

That is an ideal world. We don’t (and won’t) live there. Publishers have zero incentive on a industry-wide basis to show any respect to any publication, writer, reporter, whatever. At the end of the day, they know if they have a great game, they’ll hook you or find someone else willing to take the bait. I find it easier to accept part of that as “it is what it is” and strive to do what I can from within the system itself–or work around it. Some influential individual will be able to rise above the PR hook, perhaps, but working within the enthusiast press means accepting certain realities. I don’t say that as someone who’s rolling over to PR, only to realize my efforts are better spent pursuing other matters.

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Keith Andrew June 1, 2011 at 1:27 pm

Maybe I’m in a privileged position, given I work within the mobile gaming industry rather than the industry at large. Indeed, many games don’t even have publishers, so it’s possible to build up relationships with individual developers or their PR contacts.

Issues like MCV brings up certainly aren’t as common.

Even when it comes to the ‘big boys’, like Chillingo (now of EA), it’s just as possible to cement a working relationship where certainly publications aren’t put ahead of everyone else.

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Matthew Millsap June 1, 2011 at 1:49 pm

I think you have a valid point, but doesn’t that undermine Darius’s essential argument? If a publisher has zero incentive to show any respect to anyone in the gaming press, then irrespective of whether a few outlets stand up to the publisher, the publisher will always have multiple other outlets who don’t care about being bullied one bit, and are willing to play by the publisher’s rules.

For the type of change Darius is advocating to occur, it will have to happen more or less wholesale across the enthusiast press. From my (admittedly limited) perspective, I’m not entirely sure that a few influential individuals would be able to pull it off.

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Patrick Klepek June 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I’d love for their to be collective action, as it’s the best way to make a difference, but I’m not convinced it’s possible. Not enough people care about the biz on that level.

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Keith Andrew June 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm

In relation to Darius’ original post, I (largely) agree with him – it’s just a fact that, while publishers need press, there are so many press outlets out there that, when you’re Activision, you can afford to pick and choose – especially when the franchise is huge.

However, I do sympathise with MCV’s view. I think there is a difference between picking and choosing which press outlets to go with, and actively being arrogant about it. Whether Activision has crossed this line, I don’t know.

The difference with the mobile biz is, so crowded is the market, that the press arguably has more power. Developers, publishers and PR contacts clamber to make friends, gain coverage – even the big ones. That may change in the future, but we haven’t got to the stage where publishers dictate to the press just yet.

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Chris Parsons June 1, 2011 at 1:26 pm

And the other point Leigh makes, which I would summarize as:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIfNtUttcYk

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Dhin June 6, 2011 at 3:58 am

As long as you realise MVC isn’t part of the enthusiast press this article is pretty decent, nice going.

But I must point out that MVC is aimed at the trade and they aren’t too interested in critiques. What they really want to know is where the advertising money has been spent so they’ll know which titles to push to the front. So MVC is pretty much the only magazine with a decent excuse to print marketing fodder to their readers.

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Jeff June 6, 2011 at 5:26 am

Can you please stop the obnoxious practice of referring to companies by their stock ticker symbol? Honestly, what is the point? Who actually prefers this? The name of the company is Activision, not ATVI. You can put the ticker symbol in parentheses once, but any more than that is completely unnecessary and it makes the article less readable.

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Darius Kazemi June 6, 2011 at 6:25 am

While I generally agree with you, in this case it was a calculated rhetorical move meant to remind people that Activision is a publicly traded company. It is meant to alienate the reader and make them feel like no, they really aren’t the audience of these corporate machinations — the stock brokers are. (If you look at the rest of my blog, you’ll see that I never use stock abbreviations.)

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