At Arm's Length

Dear Robert:

Here’s a question for you. It’s inspired by the knowledge that the demo for Microsoft’s upcoming Xbox release Forza Motorsport is circulating amongst the gaming press, but is not yet in wide enough circulation for any of the game bloggers I know to have played it yet. The question is “Why aren’t demos like this going to the blogosphere first?

One of my primary interests is game blogging. I write intelligent, straightforward, in-depth, and (I think) fair commentary on video games, their design, and implementation. I must be doing something right, because quite a few game designers seem to read and enjoy my weblog, in addition to game players.

With one notable exception – Pete Hines of Bethesda Softworks, who very courteously returned my phone call – I cannot get the game developers’ press or marketing liasons to give me the time of day.

Microsoft and a few other companies seem to have “gotten” blogging. They understand that the credibility they gain from letting some light shine in to what they’re doing via sincere, honest communication beats a hundred press releases. So why are the game divisions of these companies – and let’s include Microsoft here – still just sending review copies and demos to the same tired old media game magazines and sites, rather than trying to cultivate relationships with credible bloggers (and I humbly include myself among that number)?

I read the big online game magazines, sometimes. So do my friends. Everyone I know realizes that, barring a disaster of Ishtar proportions, they toe the corporate line. Gamespot, IGN – these guys aren’t credible. Every single reader understands that they are, generally, not reading honest impressions, but simply reworded press releases.

Guys like Tycho and Gabe at Penny Arcade are credible, and I think that Microsoft realizes it – they understand that there’s a risk that the Penny Arcade guys might disparage their product to their entire audience, but they take the risk on occasion because when the Penny Arcade guys say “This game rocks,” their readers know it’s not just marketing propaganda.

I doubt there are many game bloggers out there with the readership of Penny Arcade, yet. But a hundred (or more) credible voices talking honestly about a game’s strengths and weaknesses, in detail, will carry more weight than yet another in an endless string of meaningless “9.2” ratings from Gamespot.

The word “game” doesn’t appear once on the list at http://blogs.msdn.com/bloggers.aspx, although I’ve chanced upon the occasional article (for example, from the Flight Sim team). Electronic Arts is being drawn and quartered on Slashdot and elsewhere for their rumoured employment practices, and as near as I can tell they have no legitimate blogosphere presence to present another face to the world. What if there was a credible blogger at EA, who had a history, who had developed a trusted relationship with his readers, who could step forward and say “Hey, wait a minute. It’s not like that. I love this company. Here’s why.”

So given that the game companies themselves aren’t blogging, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t understand how bloggers that don’t work for them could be an important part of getting the word out about their games.

You get it. The .NET team gets it. The SMS/MOM team gets it. How do we get the game companies – at Microsoft, and elsewhere – to get it?

I want to say to them: “We’re out here. We want to tell the world about your games. We want to talk about them. And we want to do it honestly.”

Why not try talking with us, instead of at us?