Thursday, June 23, 2011

Duking it out with consumer information capture

As some of you might know, the fine gentleman to the right is Duke Nukem, foul-mouthed star of the long-awaited video game Duke Nukem Forever.

Some backstory for the uninitiated: Duke Nukem Forever had a long (really long -- like, fifteen years) and troubled development history. For a many years no one thought it would ever be released. Turns out we were all wrong: two weeks ago it appeared on store shelves, to thunderous hype and more than a little bewilderment.

And it sucked.

It must have really sucked, because it basically got panned everywhere. Video game reviewers are not a group known for their inviolable journalistic principles, or their habit of doggedly speaking truth to power, but they mostly agreed: DNF would probably have been better off left in limbo.

It's not the game that's interesting to me, though. It's the controversy that's exploded after the game was released. Apparently, a member of the Redner Group, the game's PR firm, sent the following frustrated tweet:
Too many went too far with their [Duke Nukem Forever] reviews…we are reviewing who gets games next time and who doesn’t based on today’s venom
By"games next time," he's referring to the generally-accepted practice of publishers sending out advance copies of games to reviewers, in the hopes that early rave reviews will build sales momentum.

To the gaming community, this all seemed a bit too close to blackmail. Angry posts were written, people were fired, PR contracts ripped up. Ill-advised defenses were mounted. Apologies were made and assurances given.

The end? Not really. Just because Redner said the wrong thing doesn't mean that Redner is wrong. In fact, I almost appreciate their honesty. The distribution of review copies happens across the industry, and no one thinks they're sent out because of game developers' commitment to impartial consumer reviews. The practice is unabashedly a tit-for-tat exchange: we'll give you the games you need to ply your trade, and you give us the good reviews we need to sell our games.

You might expect market forces to correct this problem: after all, a game reviewer who pays fifty dollars for each new game would surely earn more than fifty dollars worth of credibility with his readers. And if review copies were the only thing at play, I'd agree. But the flap over review copies is only representative of the real problem: access.

A reviewer or reporter who rubs a game developer the wrong way could find himself without access to the precious lifeblood of games journalism: the ability to go behind the scenes with developers and see exciting new games. And game journalists know that preview stories, breathlessly detailing the Next Big Thing, are the bread and butter of their trade. Few press outlets could survive the total loss of access.

I'm not saying that game developers use access rights as a bulwark against bad press (although I wouldn't be surprised if it were common). But everyone in the industry must be acutely aware of the way things work, anyway. Everyone must know who is holding all the cards. And there's no way that it doesn't impact what reporters write about games.

The effect is easy enough to see: anyone who has ever picked up a game magazine knows what a joke preview articles are. You could read a hundred of them before you found even the slightest expression of skepticism. Either the writers are fawning idiots who are blown away by the repetitious mediocrity that is most games... or they're simply under pressure not to bite the hand that feeds them.

What I'm describing is basically a form of informal regulatory capture. (I know that it's a bit strange to call game reviewers "regulators," but to a certain extent, that's the role most people expect them to play: punishing bad firms with bad reviews.) The interests of the regulators have become intertwined with the interests of the regulated. It's not an uncommon problem, of course. Even the access-for-coverage dynamic should be familiar to anyone who works in politics. (Think about this the next time you read an article that uncritically parrots the words of an "anonymous, high-ranking White House official." Why does no one ever seem to out that guy?)

Ordinarily the solution to capture is conceptually straightforward (if difficult in practice): build better regulators. There's a vast literature on how to structure a regulatory institution so that it can resist industry influence.

But that's pretty clearly not the solution here. That's because, understandably, there's no one around to do the building. It's just not important enough of an issue. The makers of Duke Nukem Forever hadn't dumped radioactive waste into the Mississippi. They weren't even designing SUVs that roll over, or selling toxic baby toys. They just made a crappy game and tried to pawn it off on as many people as possible. Life goes on.

And honestly, we're not just talking about the video games industry. At the highest level of abstraction, you see a similar dynamic in many industries that provide consumer goods. The industry is holding all the goods and most of the money, and the consumer reporters and reviewers are forced to buddy up to the companies they're supposed to be criticizing. Cars! Wine! Consumer electronics!

It must distort the market -- consumers need information to make purchasing decisions, and the information reaching their ears is skewed in favor of the firms already participating in the market.

Anyway, I don't have any solutions here. On one hand, consumer goods are one area where I generally favor a laissez-faire approach (after addressing safety concerns and the like). On the other, I don't like having to say, "Well, these industries aren't important enough to regulate, so we'll just endure the costs." And those costs, taken in the aggregate, seem substantial! No one is going to be calling for a federal video game regulator because they disliked Duke Nukem Forever*. But how much money do we waste every year making bad purchasing decisions because we don't have access to good information? Probably a lot!

The only response that jumps to mind -- and this is more a thought than a proposition -- is somehow placing all consumer reviews, for all the different products, under one very large roof. That way the welfare of the consumer reporters isn't dependent on any one industry, and heavily dependent on the credibility of the agency as a whole. Of course, there's about a thousand reasons this would be impractical and creepy, starting with implementation, and heading quickly into the inherent absurdity of living in a world where the National Board of Game Evaluation gives Modern Warfare 3 a 5.4, citing "lack of innovation" and "dull multiplayer."

So where does that leave us? I'm not sure. I'd like to find a better way of doing things -- but I just don't see one out there.

*Except maybe me, apparently.

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