I first heard about it back in June. But apparently it has recently been ruled on by the FTC that bloggers must disclose when they get free stuff. Personally, I’ve never gotten a free game, and while I’ve gotten free movie passes they’ve never been sent to me specifically for review, I obtain them in other ways (more on that tomorrow). But, other bloggers do get free games sometimes, or at least offers of free games, so there has been some discussion on the subject.
Being that free games are often sent out by marketing departments, and the goal of marketing departments is to try and get favorable review out in the wild where potential buyers can see them, the concern is that bloggers given free games might give a undeserved favorable review in order to continue getting free games. Sadly, in part, this is why most game review magazines and sites tend to use the “7 to 9″ scale of rating, reserving 10’s for truly astounding games and anything less than 7 for unmitigated pieces of crap, letting even a mildly entertaining game with numerous flaws still get a 7 out of 10. Of course, the reality is that these places are actually reviewing on a 5 point scale: 6 or less, 7, 8, 9, and 10. So getting a 7 there is kinda like getting a 2 out of 5. Do you normally go see movies that get 2 out of 5 stars?
Now, while no game company really wants to get poor ratings, not all poor ratings are created equal. Rather than trying to seek out favorable ratings, what they should be seeking is “fair” reviews. By fair I simply mean that the game will be reviewed on its own merits, in detail, and then given a score intended to reflect the value of the game to that reviewer. THEN companies should encourage people to read reviews instead of just viewing ratings. Metacritic is the devil because it does the opposite, placing all the focus on the score and the reasons behind the score disappear. The result is publishers pushing for higher ratings when what they should be pushing for is the abolishment of numerical ratings. But players seem to demand “at a glance” ratings systems because its easier on them, even though in the end they are mostly being lied to. Its all counter-intuitive and somehow self-reinforcing at the same time.
Personally, when I am trying to decide if I want to purchase something, I actually seek out poor reviews. For example, on Amazon.com I may skim through the 5 star reviews, but I will read every single word of every 1 and 2 star review. The reason is simple: people tend to more specifically describe their dislike of something than they do their like of something. I’ve written about this before. The main reason for this is that the only thing I can guarantee about a reviewer is that they are not me.
Take movie reviews for example. Let’s say I was going to review Zombieland. On a 10 point scale, I’d give the movie a 9, on a 5 star scale it would get a 4.5 or maybe even a 5 (I’m not a fan of the .5 in a rating scale). But if you were looking for a movie to go see, the fact that I gave the movie a 9 out of 10 is less important than if you like zombie movies, gory movies, or comedies. Even if you like zombie movies, Zombieland isn’t Dawn of the Dead, it is more like Shaun of the Dead, and that’s more important than my rating. On the flip side, suppose I had given Zombieland a 2 out 10 and said, “This movie was just as dumb as Shaun of the Dead. If you liked that piece of crap, I guess you’ll like this too.” And if you loved Shaun of the Dead, then despite my rating of a 2, you should probably see Zombieland. When I get in to the idea of the value of bad press, well, I’ve already seen many dozens of reviews for Zombieland that were little more than “This was awesome! Must see!” But all the negative reviews I’ve read have been very descriptive, and I think would actually be more helpful to people not sure about the film decide whether the film is something they’d enjoy or not.
In the end, though, I suppose I do agree with the FTC that people should disclose if they have gotten freebies, especially if they are going to comment on the value, like saying a game is or isn’t worth the $60 box price. I’m not sure it should be a law with fines though. At the same time, I don’t think people should discount a review just because the reviewer got a free copy, and I think marketing departments should push for quality reviews and not worry so much about just getting favorable ones. They should reward reviewers who clearly spend time with the games and write well, not just those who blow smoke and tell them what they want to hear.