Embargo

Control! You will only write when we say you can write!

The Twitter feeds of various videogame media types exploded today, when one website broke the embargo on Irrational Games’ new project, BioShock Infinite, which left everyone else wondering what to do. With the name now out in the big wide world and being spread by non-media folk, games journalists had to decide whether to follow suit now it wasn’t a secret, or remain quiet for an additional few hours until they were allowed to reveal the game’s existence. Most chose the latter.

The embargo set the exact date and time at which preview articles detailing last night’s Bioshock event were allowed to be printed. This is a long-standing tradition in the videogames industry, where PR campaigns are carefully planned and any potential leaks are a massive potential nuisance. Anyone who defies an embargo will likely find that they are persona non grata when the next big game comes calling.

As someone who isn’t part of the industry I view embargoes with suspicion, particularly when they relate to being unable to print reviews of a game until the day before it comes out, or even, on rare occasions, when it’s already on the shelves. The PR game is becoming a kind of failed version of Fight Club (“The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club”), where what would previously have been pub-talk is emblazoned loud and clear on services such as Twitter. The social networking aspects of modern life make the keeping of industry secrets far more irritating than before.

Typically, a videogames journo will post something on Twitter like: “Just seen amazing game! Can’t say anything about it!” and variations thereon. So don’t bloody say anything, then. Sometimes this is just attention-seeking, but it can be annoying beyond measure. It’s the key forever hanging just out of reach.

And speaking of Reach, as in Halo Reach, as in the Halo series of videogames, as in Halo 3 (smooooooth link!), I managed to obliterate an embargo once (I must emphasise that I didn’t sign anything) a week before the release of Halo 3, when a rumour started spreading on the web that Argos was mistakenly selling the game early to anyone who keyed in its product code in-store. I was writing for a site called Press Start Online at the time, and a plan quickly formed in my mind. I raced to the nearest Argos, and after a very nervous wait during which I was sure I’d been rumbled, I managed to get my hands on a copy of the most hyped game ever, shortly before Microsoft brought their mighty group of lawyers down hard on the company. I then had to go back to work and wait until the end of the day to play it.

I knew that the reviews embargo lifted on Sunday. It was currently Wednesday, and since I had a retail copy of Halo 3, I was free to do as I pleased with it. I basically had four days to complete the game, write a review and scoop the entire internet. The only slight flies in the ointment were having to do this around my full time job, and the fact that it was my girlfriend’s birthday on the Saturday for which a massive party was being arranged. Oh, and I planned to propose to her in front of her friends and family at the gathering, which was a far bigger secret than anything Irrational Games could cook up. Stressful? A tiny bit. All self-inflicted.

In the event I managed to mightily piss off my girlfriend by barely helping in the party organisation, as I was so busy hammering Halo 3. At times I thought she was going to kill me. I just managed to finish the game and write the review before any of the big sites put their own verdicts up. Press Start Online gained over 600,000 hits from the review in 48 hours, which was absolutely crazy. And luckily my girlfriend accepted my proposal and is now my wife. A slow week, then.

So while I hate embargoes, I do look back on that week in September 2007 and also kinda like them.

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