A post by Kyle Orland on his The Game Beat blog examines the practice of beta code giveaways, and why it's not necessarily a good thing for game journalist to be participating in. The beta codes in this case are for the Halo Reach Multiplayer beta.
His first point is that Microsoft or Bungie could have done this themselves, without the participation of the enthusiast press:
If Microsoft and/or Bungie wanted to give a limited set of lucky gamers access to this beta (before the hordes of Halo 3: ODST owners get their hands on it May 3), they surely could have come up with a contest or random drawing of their own to facilitate it. Instead, they've handed handfuls of extra beta codes to seemingly every game journalist on god's green Earth and [have] given these journalists free reign to hand out the codes in whatever manner will attract the most page views, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, etc. (and trust me, a giveaway for access to an anticipated game like this has the potential to attract a LOT of attention).
For game publishers big and small it is a cost effective way to generate buzz for an upcoming game, gain a free pool of testers to knock the bugs out prior to launch, and as a simple way to gain favor among web sites and game journalists you favor (because, let’s be honest here, a good portion of being a good game journalist is about how much access you have).
For game journalists the benefits of getting involved might be to drive traffic; increase Twitter or Facebook numbers, lend credibility to a web site or person serving up the beta codes (I.E. "we have good access to an important company like a Microsoft or a Bungie"), or bring fans to a publication that they might not normally visit. The practice isn't necessarily wrong, but it may have unintended effects on journalists that participate:
But think for a second about the image of the game press that this journalist giveaway system conveys to the readers. Throughout the week, anyone who pays attention to the game press has been inundated with tweets and blog posts and "news stories" (note the subtle scare quotes) featuring journalists hawking beta codes like a barker at the county fair. Even the low-key giveaways carry with them the idea that Halo: Reach is a game worth playing -- after all, you can't really offer a contest for something without implicitly endorsing it as something that is desirable to win. Is it really possible to enthusiastically push beta access to a game one day and then credibly critique that game the next?
Some would argue that it is easy to separate enthusiasm from critical analysis when evaluating a product, but at the very least it can give impressions of favorability - even when none exists. Then there's another unintended influence - the fans themselves:
Appearances aside, I can't help but think Microsoft knows these kinds of giveaways have a subtle effect on the way a journalist sees a game and its fanbase. Sure, as journalists we might know abstractly that a lot of gamers are really excited about Halo: Reach. But in giving away beta access, journalists are put directly in touch with the most rabid fans of a game, who will be clamoring for those beta keys via e-mail and comments and twitter replies and all sorts of direct appeals. By making journalists intimately aware with how much their readers want this game, these giveaways can't help but influence the way it gets covered in the future (and if you think a journalist is going to ignore the directly demonstrated passion of their readers, you're nuts).
Orland closes with a familiar criticism of the "enthusiast press" - sometimes it seems like the media is all just an extension of the PR process.
..I guess the implicit boosterism on display among journalists in these Halo: Reach beta giveaways struck me as a little less subtle than usual. The next time you wonder why game journalism is often seen as just an extension of video game PR, remember "events" like this.
I recommend you go and read the entire blog post and draw your own conclusions.