Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars No More

May 18, 2008 at 11:18 (News, Rants, Video Games)

For almost a year, an anonymous industry insider set the rumour mill turning.  From the bitter break-up of the Bioshock dev team, apparently worked near-to death under Ken Levine, to the unexpected watercolour workings of the forthcoming Prince of Persia trilogy, Surfer Girl broke enough significant news in her time that it seems an unjust slight to send her off without so much as a blog-post salute.  She was often wrong, of course, but as EA’s pre-title pop-ups might have observed a few years ago, it’s in the game.  The business of rumour-mongering is hardly one of certainties and sure-fire assertions – to read through her predictions without that proverbial pinch of salt on your tongue is a fools’ errand indeed – but as often as not, Surfer Girl, sworn enemy to PR shills everywhere, was more on-the-money than any Quartermann.

A curious thing, happened, though.  After an initial flurry of attention, Surfer Girl’s words began to go unheeded.  She’d front-and-centre a story more worthy of readers’ time and attention than any of Kotaku’s infamous game cakes or Destructoid’s ill-advised lolcats, but not even those bastions of apparently unrated news reportage picked up on her statements.  Neither of those blogs are afraid to run rumours – with every other issue of EGM, a post inevitably pops up to alert those without subscriptions to the collective speculations of that magazine’s staff.  But not Surfer Girl.  Or, at the least, never linking back to Surfer Girl.  Not since December of last year has Brian Crecente’s tower of editors even mentioned her, despite the official confirmation of numerous rumours she’d run since – the existence of Resistance 2, a Viva Pinata sequel, Guitar Hero 4, a new Fight Night, We Ski; I could (and Surfer Girl does) go on.  In the face of interminable updates on purposeless, if cool-looking case mods and yet more cake-cooking mamas, not to mention Ashcraft’s patented pornographic asides or the increasingly meaningless predictions of industry analyst Michael Pachter, the audiences these blogs cater to would certainly think these stories newsworthy.  And yet: nothing.

Why, then, was Surfer Girl given such short shrift?  Her credibility, uncertain as it might have been when her speculations began, was as assured by the end as any PR spokesperson.  You don’t stop reporting on Phil Harrison when he wilfully wrongfoots the media, or on Peter Moore or Jack Thompson or any one of the industry figureheads whose words have transpired to be, shall we say, as misleading as they are calculated.  And moreover, Surfer Girl made no such pretences to credibility – didn’t even identify herself beyond an affirmation of her sexuality and an interest in surfing and George Lucas’ timeless trilogy, each of which facts, thin on the ground as such things often are, were questioned during her tenure at blogspot.  Rather, she seemed content to allow the Chinese whispers she started to speak for themselves.  When Surfer Girl was wrong, she posted a correction; and when press releases confirmed her assertions, she was no braggart.  So you have to wonder why, exactly, she was blacklisted – and blacklisted she most assuredly was, in essence if not in the more literal sense.

Almost certainly, the trouble is that she was never sanctioned.  Our beloved industry, you see, is governed by the same bottom line as any business.  It’s a rare day indeed when an original game arrives on store shelves, and still more precious a day when such a title sees its no doubt meagre budget back.  But under no circumstances can such a thing happen without a significant amount of marketing money behind it.  To get the word out, to stand a chance of competing against the juggernauts of the medium – the Halos and the GTAs, the annual Calls of Duty, Maddens and FIFAs – for people to hear about your little game above the deafening clamour that surrounds more established franchises will cost you dearly; and no amount of arms and legs are likely to cover this bill.  Literature has the Bookers and the Cannes film festival does for cinema, but ours is an industry with an often insurmountable barrier of entry, and the IGF is at this stage not much more than a stomping ground for giants such as Sony and Microsoft to pick and choose which so-called ‘indie’ games they’d like to infuse with their own bank balance.  With no ideal outlet in sight, cold, hard cash – and lots of it – is what such developers need to reach the mainstream, and the alternative is little better: an enthusiast press built upon a foundation of advertising.  A press which must cater almost exclusively to the apparent needs of its fans, or else sacrifice its readership; a collection of magazines and websites which are often satisfied to reword press releases and publish them as previews and reviews.

There’s been an awful fuss of late about the objectivity of such outlets.  Last year, parent company CNET’s sudden removal of former Gamespot head-honcho Jeff Gerstmann foregrounded the issue after a proliferation of paid banner ads conflicted with his negative review of Kane and Lynch.  It’s a concern that’s remained ever since; more recently, IGN editor Hillary Goldstein’s exclusive review of GTA IV ruffled a few feathers with his apparent assertion of a perfect game where any player knows none exists.  And at risk of starting a rumour of my own, can it really be mere coincidence that after more than a decade of employment, Dan Hsu last month vacated his position as EIC of the 1UP network so soon after openly discussing the network’s falling-out with Ubisoft?  Editorial integrity is of paramount importance, but at what cost does it come?  This far, and no further.  There’s nothing particularly difficult to discern here: the enthusiast press are pretenders to objectivity, well-meaning or otherwise – it simply cannot sustain itself otherwise.  If you want your exclusive, or to be in any way catered to by the PR firms that so often represent developers these days, you cannot put out a negative first look; your review score must not fall below a certain threshold.  Deny the mounting allegations of bias and moneyhats all you like: whether or not you agreed to terms to win your coverage, a tacit understanding exists between publicity representatives and the enthusiast press.  The fact that the enthusiast press has itself taken to covering such stories cannot be but a positive step, but the sun will rise and the sun will set – at the end of the day, marketing still rules.  There’s no two ways about it.  Kotaku and IGN and Ace Gamez and 1UP and Destructoid and Gamespot are all subject to that backwards caveat.

But not Surfer Girl.  She went against the grain, and in the end, she suffered for it.  The careful, dare I say misguided timetabling of pre-release information meant little to her.  It hardly takes an insider to say that Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 3 is on the way, but that she should say as much goes against all the plain-sight secrets of the game-making business.  Certainly the wider audience of Kotaku and other such blogs would care to read such news, and the writers responsible for that news resource – not to mention the others – surely know as much themselves; any amount of time in this loose-lipped industry will net you a boatload of similar secrets.  But – embargoes: the gentlemen’s agreements so familiar to those involved in the enthusiast press.  They are at the very heart of what amounts to a parasitic relationship between such publications and the publicity departments they have little choice but to rely on.  And for such transgressions, is it a stretch at all to suggest that some memo was circulated behind the scenes of such press outlets?  Acknowledge Surfer Girl at your own risk, they might say.  Reiterate her lies and forget your exclusive hands-on with Mass Effect 2 or the like.

Perhaps she hurt as many developers as she helped in the year she spent blogging – perhaps she did – but her speech was free and it opened up more avenues of inquiry than the calculated leaks and self-confessed fabrications of PR shill Quartermann.  Between bouts of rumour-mongering, Surfer Girl talked repeatedly about the question of integrity in games journalism.  She blew the whistle on unsustainable periods of crunch-time at companies such as Bioware, wrote about employee burnout and the inhuman treatment some of those folk involved in the industry must suffer through or else miss their rent payments.  When she signed off for the last time, she wrote that the purpose of her blog was to “force folks to pay attention to important things going on in the real world” and lamented the failure of her agenda, going so far as to urge those writers who – although they’d long since stopped covering her had not likely stopped visiting – might speak up about the shuttering of her shop to “focus on the plethora of more important things such as [quality of life] issues”.  I go against her advice, sage though it may be.  Game development is certainly hard, unforgiving even; that much we need not second-guess.  But secretive though such practices may be, they’re not limited to the industry the video-game faithful hold in such high regard.  No-one particularly wants to acknowledge such unsavoury practices – no more than they mean to speak out of turn on some embargoed issue – but if we are to stand a chance of combating such bullying behaviour, we must first accept that it exists.

However, the end of Surfer Girl’s brief reign casts a revealing new light on another, more pervasive danger.  Whatever their professions to the contrary, can we really trust the enthusiast press?  Do the popular industry blogs remain as unbridled as their boasts suggest?  All my cynicism aside, I for one think not – and that’s an unfortunate conclusion to arrive at.  The sad fact is that amongst the restless swell of press releases and purportedly objective game criticism, Surfer Girl will be forgotten soon enough.  For now, for her honesty and her gossip and the freedom which allowed her to express those things, we should salute her.  But the question of the credibility of video game-oriented media must remain – and with the importance of ad dollars on the increase alongside ballooning development budgets, I’m afraid a definitive answer to that charge might be a long way off indeed.

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3 Comments

  1. Dead_By_Dawn said,

    This is wildly off-topic but did you just quote Star Trek in a gaming post?[/geek]

  2. allthingsuncertain said,

    You mean “This far, and no further”?

    Damn right I did. 😉

  3. allthingsuncertain said,

    Oh my God, automated emoticons, how do I kill them make them die no God no…

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