Editor's blog: Exclusive reviews?

What you're actually looking at.

On Thursday we published our review of Killzone 2. You probably spotted that. What you might also have noticed is reports that we - in the words of our friends at Kikizo - "agreed an exclusive with the publisher", in this case Sony.

Exclusive reviews are about as old as games themselves. Well, they're certainly about as old as I am. To some extent they're a peculiarity of videogames, but that's a subject for another time - what's driving a lot of discussion at the moment is the question of whether they're credible, because of the seemingly paradoxical relationship that must exist between the publication reviewing the game and the people who made it.

The conundrum is pretty clear. Any period of exclusivity relating to a big game - whether it's a review, a preview, screenshots or video - is beneficial to the publication hosting it, but in the case of reviews it's also the publication's job to protect its readers by honestly examining the game and deciding whether it's good or not, and explaining why. Given that videogame publishers are so openly desperate to control public opinion of their output, the assumption is that the content of an exclusive review must be controlled in some way by the publisher, or else they wouldn't dare agree to it.

That view is supported - at least at face value - by a number of public spats over reviews down the years. The one that springs most vividly to mind is Atari's DRIV3R, which met with wildly hostile reviews in the summer of 2004 - except for a pair of exclusive reviews that both decided it was worth 9/10. Then last year, IGN explained its exclusive review of Grand Theft Auto IV by revealing that it effectively traded a week of frontpage preview features beforehand to secure it.

There's no proof - and I'm not suggesting - that the content of any of the reviews mentioned was actually drawn up or directly manipulated by the people who published the games in question, but it's not hard to see why exclusive reviews light up the message boards and comment threads whenever their status is confirmed.

Which brings us to Eurogamer's Killzone 2 review, which is an exclusive in the sense that it is published several days ahead of a general embargo to which other publications have agreed. Other reviews released on Thursday include IGN, Jeuxvideo and Gamereactor, and the word is that an avalanche of others will blanket the internet early next week. So how did it happen? And am I writing this from the comfort of a glimmering Sony yacht made out of diamonds, as legions of surplus Blu-ray diodes rub lotion into my neck and Kaz Hirai serenades me with his version of the Ridge Racer jingle?

Well, I'm not on a yacht (and I'm not sure I want to be on that yacht, now I've made it up), but I can tell you what happened. Late last year, Sony's UK PRs told me that we could have a brief "regional" exclusive on the Killzone 2 review. It's not the first time this has happened with Sony - the same was true of LittleBigPlanet - so the rules were well established. The rules are: I'm happy to do it, providing that it's a game that I want us to cover, and providing Sony understands it does not have advance access to the text, and does not have text approval.

With that agreed, we received copies of the game before Christmas to begin preparing - along with a finished build of the game a week or so before yesterday's embargo - and as well as playing the single-player game to completion, our reviewer Dan Whitehead was able to play online with a large group of people mustered by Sony in order to assess the multiplayer aspect, having already experienced a large part of it on last year's closed beta test.

Dan then wrote the review. The only influence Sony had over proceedings (besides filling out the multiplayer games with their own staff, who Dan viciously murdered) was to specify when it could be published: 5pm GMT on 29th January. I wasn't asked to publish any additional content, and Sony only discovered that the game was getting 9/10 when I told my PR contact as a courtesy after the publication date had been finalised.

Whether Sony would have back-pedalled and tried to get out of it had Dan decided to give the game a lower score is something I can only speculate about. I don't know. But I can say that nobody from Sony has ever asked us to hold off publication of a review - exclusive or otherwise - beyond the embargoes agreed across all publications given advance access to review code, preview sessions or developer and executive interviews. Even when we've delivered an unflattering verdict - as with echochrome and MotorStorm: Pacific Rift last year - nothing was said to me in anger, and no attempts were made to shield you from what we thought.

Not every publisher behaves this way. There are others - in my experience - who are happy to agree to an exclusive review, but only if they agree with the score. But as I've discussed before in a previous blog about the impact (or lack of it) that advertising has on editorial, I believe there is no long-term future in a website - or publication of any sort - that attempts to secure commercially valuable commodities that betray the sovereignty of editorial in the process. So if we don't think something is worth the score a publisher wants, it doesn't get the score a publisher wants, and the review goes live with the general embargo. This has happened about half a dozen times in the past year, and occasionally results in punitive measures taken against us by the publisher in the shape of restricted access or withdrawal of advertising money. Such is life.

Ultimately, it's up to you whether you think that's a fair way to operate, but the most important point is that, as I wrote earlier this month, if you disagree with something on Eurogamer - whether it's the selection of content or the text therein - you are simply disagreeing with our conclusions, which are our own, and it's up to you whether they amount to a site you want to read.

Tom.

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