Wednesday, October 7, 2009

How I almost became a game reviewer

A little while ago I got a letter from someone working for Electronic Arts. They were about to launch some game called Dragon Age Origins in a couple of months and the writer offered me a free copy of it if I wanted to write a review.

I looked at the e-mail suspiciously. Thes ender address hadn’t got anything to do with the game in question. Was it some sort of setup, someone trying to install spyware on my computer to sneak into my WoW account?

After a little bit of research I decided that the letter probably was for real. I had never ever heard of the game, but it did exist and they had some flashy website marketing it with trailers and pictures. For a second I felt a little bit flattered. They wanted Larísa’s view on this? They thought that this innkeeper somehow could have an influence on the reception of their upcoming launch in the gaming community? Wow.

But it didn’t take long before my inherent Jante Law instincts were triggered and I told myself: “I've already seen a few mentionings about this game on other blogs. They’ve probably spammed the whole goddamn Blogosphere with their offer. They have picked MMO blogs as one of many channels on their marketing plan and they send this letter to any address that remotely can be associated to blogging in the hope to get the buzz out. Cleaver. But I shouldn’t believe for a second that I’m a special, chosen one.”

Qualifications for reviewing
The next question coming up in my mind was of course: should I accept the offer and ask for a free copy? And I’m still not quite done with it.

It’s not that I’m not familiar with the concept of getting copies in advance in order to write reviews. When I worked at a newspaper I wrote a lot of reviews, never about games of course, but on books, especially novels. It was all very uncomplicated. I was an independent journalist (at least I wanted to think so) and I wrote in an unbiased way what I thought about them. Most of the time I was a very goodhearted, kind critic to be honest, since I focused on reading and writing about books that I thought would interest me. The stuff I didn't like, I usually ignored.

But this case is different. The Pink Pigtail Inn isn’t a journalistic product. It’s a personal blog, without any ambitions to be objective, accurate, covering all sides. And what troubles me even more is: am I really qualified for writing a review? Admittedly I didn’t have any degree in literature and still managed to write decent book reviews. But at least I had a broad background of reading. If you look at my experience from gaming, it’s thin to say the least.

Could a person who has played Lemmings, a few hours of Civilization and WAY too many hours of WoW have anything relevant at all to say about Dragon Age Origins? As far as I’m concerned I don’t even know how to play it! It appears to me that it’s a solo game rather than an MMO, but I’m not entirely certain about it.

Maybe you could argue that there is a certain refreshing quality when you write about games from a noob perspective. I can easily describe how this game would be experienced by someone who’s coming into it with completely fresh eyes. And there could be a point in this if they’re aiming to reach a new audience, which lacks pervious gaming experience.

But on the whole I don’t think it would work out, especially not as consumer information. To be able to grade a game and look how it performs in different aspects, you need to have something to benchmark it against – apart from WoW.

Thanks but no thanks
The letter is still in my inbox, and at the moment I have no plans on accepting the offer. The main reason is that the time I can set aside for gaming is limited, and my obligations in WoW when it comes to raiding will always have priority. I can’t see how I possibly could get this into my schedule if I want to make a serious job as a reviewer. And besides: The PPI is and will remain a blog with a distinct WoW focus.

So it will probably end up in a: “Thanks for asking, but no thanks. I don’t feel qualified to make reviews about games.”

Unless someone else can come up with a very good reason to accept the offer.


David said...

If you were keen on developing a career in the games industry, transitioning from blogger to reviewer is a good first step. But, I don't that's what you have in mind. Our friend Ixobelle, however, may be interested...

They weren't offering to pay you, were they? I wish my company could get other people to write our press releases and send them out to tens of thousands of interested customers, for free. Because whether your review would be positive or negative, they are just trying to harness your readership for their exposure and gain.

Cap'n John said...

Ooh! I should check my gmail box! Maybe I've got an invite, too!
No :(

Shy said...

I'm not sure how that works. Surely it's very possible to say how you feel about something without having to know different types of it?

In fact, I think it would be rather refreshing to hear from someone without experience what they think of a game. I've played some games, a little, but mostly WoW. If I read reviews from the veteran gamers all I can think is that it must be tainted by all their other experience, because they're constantly comparing.

I can't compare, so I would love the opinion of a new person :)

Stabs said...

I think you should avoid the Ed Zitron Darkfall effect (where he panned the game after a brief look and then got busted when the game company published the server logs showing he'd barely played it).

In other words only review something you really want to play.

I applied to one of the recent Alganon free beta keys because I was prepared to play it extensively and write up reviews if I got one.

So really it's a decision about your gaming lifestyle. Are you prepared to cut down on WoW to play another game? Do you want to do this?

If you do I don't think there's any ethical issue. Tobold has mentioned though that American law (and global good practice) now requires you to say on your blog you got a free copy.

TFM said...

Actually, you are perfectly qualified to give customer's review - they obviously do not want pro critic to review their game, but potential customer, and you are the one. Rerember famous Hobbit review given by publisher's son? Doubt he was 'qualified' but he certainly was target customer:-)

Spinks said...

I think that whatever you decide, it's flattering to have been asked. I'm sure they know this and you know it too but it's still a sign that you have a high profile (well deserved!) so I'd be proud of that.

But you're right, I think if you take the freebie you do have some moral obligation to try the game and write about it, whether you liked it or not. So if you know you won't play it then there's no point.

I have this one on pre-order myself (no freebies here :) ) so ... yeah.

Anonymous said...

Ooooh! But it's nice to have recognition as an influential blogger, surely?

Equally - I'm envious, I'm a huge fan of Bioware games and awaiting Dragon Age with bated breath. On the other hand, at least by shelling out for it, I'll feel comfortable to dislike it (if necessary) :)

Marz said...

Wow, I applaud your integrity, you have really impressed me with your decision.

I must admit that I would've jumped at the chance, even had I not been an all-round experienced gamer, just for the free game.

But if you're not interested, and it's not something you're going to invest your time in, it's much more honest to decline the offer than post a half-hearted review of a game you threw a few hours in and then left.

Larísa said...

@David: nope, no payment. It's the same as when I was writing reviews on books. There wasn't any payment there either, except from from my newspaper - after all I wrote the reviews on payed working hours, although I read the books on my free time.

@Cap'n John: :(

@Shy: While I agree that there may be a point in having different sorts of review writers, I still would expect them to have some sort of basic knowledge. It's a matter about trust. How can the audience trust a writer who apparently has no idea about what she's talking about?

@Stabs: yeah, I noticed that law thing. To me it doesn't change a thing. I take it for granted that if I write a review I've gotten a review copy. And that's something I wouldn't hide. And it definitely wouldn't affect my take on it. I might as well write something negative, if that's my view on the game.
I think most writers think this way. But well, since there are some who don't (the blurry border between ads and editorials nowadays on some blogs) - so yeah, maybe it doesn't hurt to stress it a bit. Although I doubt that the law will have any huge impact in reality.

@TFM: qualified from the point of view of the producers maybe, but not necessarily from the point of view of the consumers, which I think is more important.

@Spinks & Tamarind: well, I had no idea about how to value it. Maybe it IS something to be proud of, to have been noticed by a game producer after all?

@Marz: probably it's easier for me than for others to say no, since I'm a grown up with a full-time job. I can easily afford to buy that game if I'm curious about it, and then enjoying the freedom to play it and write about it if I feel like it - without any deadlines and obligations.

I can't help becoming a little bit curious about it. Maybe I should at some point try some single-player game, like this one, and see if it is as lonely as I fear, being used to the MMO concept? But if I did - paying for the game wouldn't really be any problem. And writing that column a little while AFTER the offical release and not on beforehand wouldn't be a huge problem either.

The thing with PPI is that it's non-commercial and that I'm writing it for fun, without pressure, as a hobby. I want to keep it that way. Paying for the games I write about is one way to make sure I won't become trapped in commitments.

Anonymous said...

Take the gig if you're interested in the game and/or the review. Don't sweat your credentials or ability.. the people that contacted you know that when it comes to the internetz, any publicity is good publicity.

Ooke said...

I'm actually a bit psyched for this game, I may even buy it for full retail price, which is a rarity for me.

It's made by the developers of Neverwinter Nights, Jade Empire, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect. Not to mention their other branch is building the next 800 LB gorilla in the MMO space Star Wars: the Old Republic

The reason I'm so intrigued by this game and setting is as a role playing game they're not hindered by existing systems and it may just be a very brooding dark story with real moral choices and their implications. IE what a good single/small multiplayer roleplaying game should be.

I understand your reticence in doing so as they obviously mis-typecast you as an avid gamer your love of WoW has put you on the radar, so to speak.

Rhii said...

Larisa - Just a note, not necessarily trying to persuade you one way or another...

I have done some game reviewing in the past (on a strictly non-paid amateur level) and I wound up learning a lot about games in the process. I'm sure that reviewing books gave you a slightly different perspective on reading than what you had when you were merely a pleasure reader, in the same way reviewing games has given me a perspective on games that goes beyond my own likes and dislikes.

So if you're interested in branching out into knowledge of games in general, it's a really good place to start. :)

Whatever you choose, grats on the recognition!

Anonymous said...

The question you would have to ask yourself, would playing/reviewing another game enhance your pleasure at playing WOW ?

What i mean is, you might see WOW in a different light having played another game, having stuggled getting to grips with the UI of a different type or a play style of a different sort.

Just keep the PPI up !!!


Tesh said...


If it's a game you want to play, have at it. If not, a kind "thanks, but no thanks" is not only polite but relevant for the PR wonks. They get information out of you either way that could be useful for their efforts.

If I were in your shoes, for example, I'd also turn them down... albeit for different reasons. Still, it's indeed flattering to be considered, and worth a kind word or two in reciprocation and perhaps a good luck wish or two.

(This is also curious considering the beta application process for MMOs. We're bound by beta NDAs *not* to disclose our participation. Also, as an artist in the game industry, I don't typically even qualify for betas thanks to non-competition paranoia. It's not like my blog is a large stump to advertise from, but I *do* have expertise that could help with development. We live in a strange, litiginous world, with the oddest priorities at times.)

Fimlys said...

I also received this email (both on my gmail and tnb accounts). I decided to ignore it after doing a bit of research like you did. While I would love to get a free copy of this game since I was planning on buying it anyway, I don't think that I really want to take the time to write a review of it. I don't really want the constant "what do I think about this" to change my enjoyment of the game.

We Fly Spitfires said...

I would've sold out and taken the free copy of the game :D

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just my inexperience in reviewing (I've never done it, and I honestly have no idea how it works), but i would've taken it (for this game). It looked like I might enjoy it. If it was something I checked the site for and it looked awful, I might turn it down. But a review I'd see as just "hey, what do you think?" without all the morality questions. I get access to the game, they get my opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. They're not really doing me a favor, and vice versa. I wouldn't see it as an advertisement, even if I liked the game.

(it annoys me far more to see an add on the side of my screen or "hey i got payed $4 to put tihs here, go check out xx!". No experience with the product, just straight up advertising. Bleh)


Arioch said...

I would be interested in a review form someone that knows WoW as their primary game - sort of a base line reading to compare experiences against.

The questing is like this part of WoW, or the level grind is like that part. The scenery is more or less like this zone. Combat is completely different. That sort of thing.

Anonymous said...

IS THERE ANYWAY.. you can get the game and give it too me ?? i would really appreciate it and review it myself :O Emai is, please consider.

Suzanne said...

They're not looking for journalism or for you to pretend you're unbiased -- these people definitely understand how blogs work. They're looking for marketing. They know that you care about games, you write about games, and people that read your blog care what you think. They know that when you post in your blog, you might also mention it on Twitter (and wherever else you talk about these things) and get them lots of exposure for their product through all the social networking you do.

I was also asked to write a review for this game and I accepted. I haven't been posting as much as I once did, but I my page ranking remains high thanks to a couple of high-profile links from my more active days. I've been reviewing a couple games lately, too, so it actually fits in quite well with my current interests.

After I write my review, I'll be very interested to hear what others have to say. particularly other WoW players. If you don't have time or interest in it, I can understand that. Please don't think for a second that you're not qualified to do this though. :)

Larísa said...

@Anonymous: Actually my doubts about this is rather towards the audience than towards the company. I don’t think they care much about the quality of my reviews. But I feel a responsibility towards the readers if I should write something that I present as a “review”.

@Ooke: hm… I can’t help getting a bit curious about it. I guess at some point I should broaden my gaming perspective to something more than WoW. But I think I want to do it on my own conditions and in my own pace, not feeling the pressure to deliver a review in a certain time.

@Rhii: You’re absolutely spot on. When you look at something from a review point of view it becomes different. Not necessarily for the better or for the worse, but it’s different.

@Cack: Actually I think you’re right. Seeing other games WOULD add something to my WoW playing. I just don’t know how to find time for it. Or maybe I do… My fruitless efforts to try to find pugs late friday and saturday nights…Since you slipped over to the horde side it’s frankly a quite boring. I could definitely spend those hours doing more fun things. Like trying out another game.

@Tesh: I’m not sure if I need to write them back. When I made reviews for newspapers I never ever thought for a second that I needed to give them feedback. They sent us stuff. Sometimes we wrote about it, sometimes not. No explanations were ever given.

@Fimlys: yeah, I’m like you. I already have a job at day time. I’m very careful to keep my blogging free from pressure and expectations of any kind.

@We Fly Spitfires: I wouldn’t really think of it as a sellout and I don’t blame bloggers who do those reviews. They’re surely serious in their intentions. But I think I’ll be better off not going for it.

@Ty: Oh yes: I’m definitely not a friend of ads on blogs. I can understand that some selfhosted bloggers use it to finance their expences. But when the ads are promoting things that are violating the rules, such as gold and account selling, I’m really put off.

@Arioch: well… I guess it would make sense if I compared another MMO with WoW. But a solo-game? I’m not so sure.

@Anonymous: no.

@Suzanne: Well, actually they’ve already got what they wanted, haven’t they? After all I’ve mentioned their upcoming game at this blog. And they didn’t even have to give me any free copy to get that mentioning!

Carra said...

From a professional reviewer I'd expect him to have a lot of previous experience. Being able to compare it to recent rpgs like Risen, Divinity 2, Mass Effect or Fallout 3 is a must to properly review an rpg. And even better if you have played some even older classics like planescape torment or baldurs gate.

But from a blogger? Just write what you like. And you shouldn't be afraid to tell us if it's not your kind of game. Worst case scenario they won't send you their next game. But it's only useful to accept the offer if you plan on spending at least a few hours with the game.

As for Dragon Age. It's a game I'm looking forward to. Even if Biowares previous rpg was a bit dispointing to me. Not that it was a bad game, it was very good. But it wasn't great like KOTOR.

Sadly their marketing stunts have lowered my expectations. Their trailers were full of blood, gore, sex and Marilyn Manson music. Not the kind of thing I expect from a mature company aiming at an adult public.

Kromus said...

You know what- I reckon' you'd be a good game reviewer.

You have the journalism skills, you have the great way of looking at things throguh different angles.

Well derserved spot of flattery I might say.

Tal said...

I don't think you should be too worried about not being fair to your audience. After all, if they've been reading for a while, they already know what to expect. If they aren't looking for a review written by a "single-player-RPG-noob" they can (and probably will) ignore your review. On the other hand, because this is a WoW blog, there's a decent chance that there are people reading who only play MMOs, and might appreciate your take on a single player game.