It's pretty unusual for me to be wrong, or at least for me to admit such a thing, but this is one of those times where I simply have to bow before Certis' superior ability to intuit the bull-headed nature of impatient publishers. It looks as though the release date for Star Wars Galaxies is solid, and a scant eight days from release the veil of secrecy, though painfully threadbare and about as opaque as a dirty window, remains tenaciously hung. The non-disclosure agreement that beta testers electronically sign everytime they log into the game remains, at the time this is being written, in effect but who is this extended NDA taking aim at? Certainly, with little enforcement and no serious repurcussions for the casual gamer who may spout his vitriol or gush lovingly his praise in a thousand message boards, it is the independent gaming websites who are being hushed, who still have something besides honor to lose in not following the NDA.And in it all, the question is begged: what is the relationship between gaming sites and the games they love to love/hate.
Here's what Galaxies Community Relations Manager Kevin O'Hara had to say about the NDA staying in effect:
Essentially we donÃ‚'t need negative press about some bug that wonÃ‚'t be present in the released version of the game. Is keeping the NDA in place the proper solution? ThatÃ‚'s actually debatable. Some people would argue that we are trying to hide something by doing so. They are right, but not in the way they think. WeÃ‚'re not trying to hide a bad game as we have tons of people who are loving SWG. We just donÃ‚'t feel it is appropriate to air our dirty laundry when we are in the process of getting it to the dry cleaners.
Earlier in the same post, he also makes the statement, "however, if you were to gander at the beta forums, the casual viewer (and more importantly, the media) would see many posts about problems." Because of the NDA, I can't comment on whether I think his concerns are valid or not, but to be honest, that's not what's piqued my interest here.
It strikes me that the real concern here is over the possibility of negative press that might be generated in lifting the NDA, or, more specifically, the perceived likelihood of inaccurate amateur reporting. I believe that when O'Hara speaks of 'the media' he's not sweating publications like PC Gamer or sites like Gamespot. No, what the Galaxies crew really doesn't seem to want is a timely preview from the kind of place that you're visiting right now.
That's not to say I think Kevin O'Hara has a picture of our illustrious mascot Stan taped over his monitor and a big red X drawn over it. This isn't really about Gamers With Jobs in particular, but the kind of site we represent. Like many other sites, we are completely autonomous. We are not trained journalists, we have no corporate oversight or sponsorship, have no restraints on our level of professionalism, and are not really incorporated in such a way that game developers and publishers could exert any pressure on us. Essentially, when Galaxies lifts its NDA we are free to tell you that it is more fun than griefing player-killers in Battlefield 1942, or worse than eating overcooked Rocky Mountain Oysters (which would be a negative in our book), and regardless of our well founded or entirely erroneous perspective, there is nothing LucasArts or SOE can do to control our output. Worst of all, there are people who might incomprehensibly value our opinion.
I'm not suggesting that developers want to write their own previews and feed them to traditional outlets, or even that places like PC Gamer or Gamespot are beholden to developers, but they tend to treat previews differently than independent sites. Most pay sites treat a preview as an opportunity for a developer to spout PR platitudes, and reserves any kind of real judgement for the inevitable review. Independents, however, can and usually will over the course of a paragraph or an article, pass judgement on an unreleased title. Some would say they're being quick to judge, others might call it a valuable warning about potential issues with a title, and, of course, some sites are worse about vaulting unsupported criticism than others. It is this uncertainty that Galaxies is avoiding at the minor expense of unneeded coverage.
For a lot of games (Postal 2 comes to mind as a recent example) any publicity is good publicity, but for a game like Galaxies the need to manage that exposure is much more important. The Sims Online showed the MMORPG genre two very important things: first, that strong market presence entering the genre is not enough to guarantee overwhelming success, and second, that an open beta and free public discussion leading to release might actually hurt sales. Galaxies is clearly one of those juggernauts, a game that already has all the market presence it could hope for, a game that will not be helped by amateur previews inaccurately (or accurately) reporting problematic issues to consumers on the fence.
And through all this, it seems that Galaxies is indicting gaming sites as questionable providers of information, a criticism that seems to be going around these days. But, I tend to think it is precisely our sometimes renegade presence that establishes independent sites as valuable entertainers and informers. I think one of the primary reasons that people will read an independent, if amateur, gaming site is because they know that the opinions expressed do not come from a controlled source, but from gamers that report from that perspective. What is lost in inaccuracies is made up for in a more visceral response, and the fact is that for all the nuances of reporting that may be missed by our ilk, we are much more likely to very honest about the successes and flaws of any given game.
Without making any statement on the realities of the game, I as a consumer would be very concerned about the state of a game that refuses to lift its NDA so close to release.
Consistency in accurate reporting is, of course, an issue we all need to look at closely - and, on a personal note, I like to think GWJ is ahead of the curve on that issue - but I doubt seriously that LucasArts would be quite as concerned about the particulars if they genuinely believed that the overall response would be positive. It strikes me that holding the NDA in place is a lot like taking the fifth amendment, it isn't an admission of guilt, but it sure doesn't look good.
I'll be rather interested to see how the NDA debacle plays out, whether it proves a salient strategy in controlling misinformation, or if it becomes an issue with consumers itself.