Publishers vs Press: A Precarious Balancing Act
Can we Jump?!
At last! They are doing it! Final Fantasy Online XIV Online is getting a reboot! Was the interface fixed? Did they find a solution for the copy-pasting of the environment? Do they actually give an explanation of what levequests are now? And the question of all questions: can we jump?!
Final Fantasy XIV Online Reboot has hit closed beta. As a renowned games journalist you have been granted a single key to unlock the grand doors to a new and, hopefully, much improved version of the lush lands of Eorzea.
You install the beta-client, click through the necessary wall-of-texts called NDAs, agreed, yes, agreed, log-in, done, create character, go!
The first thing you do: hit spacebar. Nothing. You try again. Still nothing. Is the key binding different? No. Wait, there is still no jump?!
The second thing you do: tweet that they are made up of a bunch of, excuse the French, ass-hats for not implementing jump, again. Frustration!
After a minute or two your bewilderment is broken off by the sound of the phone purring on the table beside you. You reach over and answer, still slightly stricken, “hello?”.
NDAs and Embargos
NDAs, or Non-Disclosure Agreements, are actually more than just walls of text. In relation to computer games they most often contain a message which sounds akin to “any information even remotely related to this intellectual property is confidential and if you spread any confidential information you will pay the price”. This price can range from simply being denied further access to a closed beta, to being added to the black list of a company or to even getting fired by your own employer, possibly as a consequence of pressure from the publisher of the game in question.
NDAs concern matters of legal practices. If you break the contract, you break the law and you can be held accountable. However, besides these ‘hard’ (or formal) agreements there are also ‘soft’ (informal) agreements, called embargos. Now consider the scene sketched above, but replace the NDA with an embargo and the case with revealing a number a screenshots. Getting fired over this would obviously be unlikely, but the possibility of repercussions from the game publisher towards the journalist and the company he is affiliated with can very well be real. The journalist can for example be placed on the black list of the game publisher, resulting in radio silence towards the journalist. But why would game publishers create these formal and informal agreements and enforce them?
To answer this question I will briefly explore further cases, observations and opinions regarding NDAs and embargos and relate these to academic literature concerning the nature of game journalism and the implications these NDAs and embargos have on the practices of game journalists.
The Balance of Flows
The fictional scene illustrated in the introduction displays a number of key relations in the network between the three main actors: the industry (the producers), press and audience (the consumers). A straightforward model to visualize this network is as following:
This model represents a dynamic relation between the industry, journalists and the audience which can both be appropriated from a bottom-up or top-down perspective. However, the focal point is located at the journalists. As such, journalists can be regarded as the gatekeepers who are positioned between the industry and the audience. As gatekeepers the role of the journalists is to determine “what kind of knowledge is passed on to consumers” as well as structure “the ways that gamers are, in turn, able to evaluate that knowledge”.
In this model there is a flow of information and attention, or ‘eyeballs’ as it is sometimes referred to in the business. These flows both pass through and by the journalists. For example, firstly regarding the flow of information, publishers will sometimes directly release information about a product without relaying it to the press first. Secondly, the flow of attention is an essential component for both the industry and the journalists since this is a direct source of revenue: the more eyes you have focused on your product, or the more buzz you are able to create with releasing information, the more attention you are able to gather and this can be translated into direct or indirect revenue. This also highlights the counter-clockwise rotational aspect of the model which is based on a system of feedback where the flow of information results in the flow of attention and elicits the desire from both the audience and journalists for, once again, more information since there is a demand. This plays into the concept of fundamental economics regarding demand and supply.
However, between receiving the information from the producers and relaying it to the consumers there is a large grey area of what journalists actually do with the information that has been handed to them. This grey area is influenced by NDAs and embargos. These hard or soft agreements can have an influence in determining whether the journalist will lean to the black side of the grey zone and follow the ‘orders’ of the industry or to the white side where the journalist will release information regardless of demands and requests from the industry for the sake of independent journalism and to justly inform the audience (“My interest is not in making sure that Sony has positive news or that the timing of their news is correct, my job only is to inform the readers of news as quickly and accurately as I can.”).
Looking back at the model it can then be said that these agreements also have agency in so far that they have influence over the network and the different flows inside this network, for example when a journalist does not follow a set embargo and releases screenshots before the deadline set by the publisher. The actor network theory, formulated by French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour (2005), further explains this agency of nonhuman agents in relation to human agents and how these constitute a processual network. The agency of NDAs and embargos can then be used to explore the influence these arrangements have on the processes in the network as displayed in the model.
A Dried up Flow
A drastic influence an NDA or embargo can have on the network is regarding the information flow from the industry to the journalists. When a journalist breaks an agreement with a producer the producer can decide to cut off this flow of information. This results in the drying up of the flow and consequently results in lesser attention towards the journalists since they have less information to offer. However, the model should not be interpreted as that straightforward. It is a dynamic model of balancing options. All the three actors are involved in this framework of balance, most notably the producers and journalists (since the consumer mostly just want the information, one way or another). Firstly, for example, the producers wish to remain ‘friends’ with the journalists, since after all, the journalists are a main component of directing attention towards the product. However, when these journalists prematurely release information, which was accompanied by an NDA or embargo, it can be damaging for the producers business since it, for example, directly influences their marketing plan to create the maximum amount of buzz. As such they will wish to remain in control of the information flow and implement NDAs and embargos to do so. Secondly, the journalists have to make the choice of whether they wish to adhere to the producers’ desires and demands to secure the flow of information, or take the risk of losing this security but winning in (short-term) attention since they took the gamble of releasing virgin information.
Nonetheless, in the end the relationship between game journalist and industry will always be one that is mutually beneficial (Mosco, 1996). Consequently, both the industry and the game journalists will have to nurture this relationship and use both their influence and power to maneuver within the grey area of NDAs and embargos and find an appropriate balance between the black and white edges. If they don’t, their actions might end up being mutually detrimental. People might get fired. (Source: Gamasutra)