Everything You Wanted to Know about Swag and Collusion in the Gaming Industry

By David Piner -
13

I was going to write about GemGate again today, but you know what, let's talk about something a little bit more interesting and useful. Shay recently mentioned in her column about how developers wine and dine the press and this can be seen as colllusion by others (when it's not), and I think it's a bit eh, almost on the harsh side to kinda say that. Now, I know there is that GamerGate thing going on, but as far I am concerned most of it is he said she said about a veritable cornucopia of topics requiring hundreds of very long summary articles, except in instances in which real abuse and harassment has happened and there is nothing in the world cool about that. It's getting worse too, with more people being attacked, and I just, I don't want to talk about it but I don't like it and people seriously need to stop the abuse and harassment because it just isn't right, no matter the reason or the context or the point. 

Anyway, Shay talks about how developers shower the press with free swag and this could be construed as some form of bribery or collusion by outsiders looking in. I disagree with how people feel, much like SHay, and I really don't see how swag can change an opinion of someone. This opinion seems "different" because obviously free stuff is an attempt to turn someone over to your side and give five billion stars right? Wrong. Swag is one of the least interesting things for a games journalist compared to interviews and conversation with developers. 

Remember - MOST swag is the same crap you get from a timeshare presentation or your local industry faire. USB keys, cheap mass produced trinkets, pens, phamplets, etc. Promotional materials meant to further branding. 

I'm going to attempt today to explain in really deep detail everything you ever wanted to know about swag, from its acquisition to how every member of the press could literally leave or take any physical swag given to them.  

I'm not going into discussion about parties, because you guys can go to those things to. Just look up local timeshare seminars. It's like the same thing and you'll get a swag bag and the wonderful awkward feeling of standing around a group of people you're vaguely familiar with while a few people talk to each other and you're thinking in your head boy golly gee I wish I was home in my bed right now. 

This is also my column and my opinion, and not neccessarily Ten Ton Hammer or anyone elses. I could be wrong and delusional, who knows, but all of this is generally how I personally feel and what I have observed.

Reader Relationship

I contend that most swag given to us is for our users, because the vast majority that I've seen is for giveaways: game keys, trinkets, collectors editions, etc. The general idea here is that if they bribe our readers and help support us, we will see more interest in their game on our site, and are more likely to continue to cover it because we aim to please our readers and our readers only. Because you guys, yes you the reader, is our audience and you're the ones that determine what content we write, what content we don't write, what questions we ask, and everything because our goal is to provide you with the very best information about games relevant to an MMO player's interest.

Obtaining Swag

We obtain swag from one of three primary methods:

  • Mail: Developers may randomly mail us swag, 90% of the time it is for giveaways (i.e. going to you) and 10% of the time it's a review copy of something. Game keys are more likely through eMail, which I throw away large portions of them because it's not within our range of coverage / nothing something that's interesting / cold called. I don't mind cold called keys, a lot of times it's AWESOME for you guys! There might be a gem in the rough and I wouldn't have touched it without a key to go and check it out.
  • Conventions: We get a swag bag just like you guys and if we meet with a developer, they may offer their own swag bag (which a lot of times they hand out as prizes in their booth). As I list below, most developer swag is just beverages, because you're dying of thirst and you're not going to listen to them if you're about to faint from dehydration or hell, somewhere to sit. Man, sitting is great.
  • Press Meetings: Individual meetings with a collection of the press. This is an ENTIRELY different article about how these meetings don't really ever benefit one particular press outlet or they will favor a few specific press outlets, I'll make a quick header down there to not fill up this part about it. Anyway, they'll offer free dinner, food, beverages, and some swag which is promotional materials already sitting in their office that they usually snag up and hand out.

I don't know of where else it comes from. The vast majority of swag that comes isn't specifically for the press, but for giveaways as part of a promotion, and any kind of cool thing that we get is usually to participate in some kind of cool event they're doing, either some kind of ARG or just a fun series of videos like this one, where ArenaNet gave us a dragon pinata to film its destruction:

There are also times where we get swag that isn't... swag for us. Up above you'll see a box I got of WoW collector editions used in a giveaway. Below, you'll see that my WoW account doesn't have a collector edition. Our readers are always served before us, always, and a lot of times that is really just what swag is for.

The Types of Swag 

Let's first talk about the different types of swag. There are three main categories of swag as far as I am concerned. Pamphlets and flyers, collectibles, and in-game codes. These are the three types of swag handed out. The pamphlets and flyers are generally 1 to 5 pages of key talking points about a game. There is some cool art and everything on them. Then there are collectibles, ranging from plushies to action figures and fake hobby swords. Finally, the most common form of swag is the in-game items. 

Pamphlets and Flyers 

When you're at an event, you generally sit down for a 30 minute to an hour long presentation. During this presentation, there is a lot of talking points, so some developers try to help by handing you a pamphlet with notes already taken for you. I don't know how other outlets do it, but here at TTH we generally look over the information to see what we do and don't have to write and are generally very thankful for these. 

The reason being is that they aren't some huge illuminati conspiracy full of lies, but instead, generally spellings of different game mechanics, nuanced numbers, how things work, etc. The reason we're thankful is because it gives our notepads more space for opinion and thought than trying to quickly spell out some obscure name for a dungeon. 

When we receive these, they're shoved into a bag, and are looked at again when we need to write about the game, otherwise, they all get 86'd. 

Collectables 

These are the most "scandalous" of the cool swag items because they're like gifts, which can be construed as a bribe, but let me tell you what they really are alright. They're annoying and trite and I could personally do without them, along with the vast majority of the legitimate press. These collectibles are cool, to some extent, but the vast majority of time it's additional weight you have to carry with you. 

So when someone gives you a really nice action figure in a box, you now have a box that you have to carry around convention space with you, in addition to your laptop, video equipment, tablet, phone, your own physical body, and the swag bags. 

A lot of the swag is thrown away, just because no one cares. If someone gives me an action figure for a game that I don't care about, I still don't care about it, and if I do care about it then that's great that I got an action figure, but I ALREADY care about the game. 

These types of swag only work on people who already enjoy a brand or a franchise. In which case, since you already enjoy it, getting an action figure isn't going to make you enjoy it more. A USB drive isn't going to make you enjoy it more. An art book isn't going to make you enjoy it more. You're not really even going to enjoy it until 10 years from when you got it as some kind of memory of the event. 

To state again, most stuff is available to everyone, the press usually gets more to hand out, but like the Shroud of the Avatar coin, that's given to everyone who meets Lord British. I have mine, it's in a random bag around here. I seen him hand them out to everyone who signed up on his sheet.

In-Game Items 

The thing here is that yes we take free game codes from developers and we're very honest about it. We take the codes in order to write about the games you want, because at the end of the day, bias is present if we buy or don't buy the game. Whenever we buy a game, we're putting our own personal cash on the line to buy it, and now we have the bias that our money is in a game we didn't want to buy and probably didn't want to play. When a developer gives us access, it's most often only to the "press betas" but sometimes this does extend to an actual copy of the game. 

Here at Ten Ton Hammer we take bias very seriously and are very open about when we get free codes when it's relevant to what we're talking about (i.e. reviews). I promise in any review I post, I will be sure to mention if the game was given to me for free, because there is bias either way.  

Now, I know a lot of you would say, "but if you buy the game doesn't that give you more of an authentic opinion" and I can see the merits of that, but at the same time, we go through so many games, that at the end of the day, I promise you that giving me some game time just gets you guys more coverage. 

Some may say that being financially invested gives a more authentic representation of a game, but our content is timeless. Pricing isn't. What we may have to buy at $59.99 may be $29.99 next week and that might be the price point it should be. As you can see though, there is bias either way, so the only important thing here is that you have to be open about if you get a game for free or not. 

This is the only "controversial swag" to me, because at the end of the day, if you get the game for free it's going to create bias. If you pay for the game, it's going to create bias. The bias is going to exist one way or another, when it comes to reviews. For me, I'd rather have access to games to cover to write guides for my readers then review the game on the merits of itself then to pick and choose games I can afford and cover only them, and review from the perspective I'm heavily invested in this game and need it to perform to some standard now.

Oh and the vast majority of personal keys given to us, specifically, are so we can get into the game and play it and discover how things work to share with you. Sometimes we get boosts, developer walkthroughs, etc. all as tools to help us describe how to do something in the game. 

USB Keys 

One item I forgot about was the USB things that you get. Those are useful and cool and I'm very thankful for each one I receive, because they contain awesome images for you guys, and for me I can always use more USB drives. Of course, I usually electric tape over the branding, not to be mean but just because I don't want to stare at logos all day while I'm on the PC. 

I am really thankful though and I do appreciate it and it's practical and useful, both for our readers and as an after effect me, but USB drives are given away in every industry and no one is going to muddy their opinion or improve their opinion based on an 8GB USB dongle. 

Clothing AKA T-Shirts and HOodies

It's cool and it's neat, but the goal here isn't to bribe you with a shirt, but to entice you to wear their brand everywhere. These are handed out to everyone. Realistically these have the highest value of most of the swag items, because a shirt is worth $5 to $15 or whatever American Apparel sells their shirts for these days. I don't wear any of the gaming shirts I have and usually give these away as fast as possible, because they're usually out of your size and I don't wear shirts with branding on them, generally just plain colored polo shirts. 

Other Swag 

The best swag in the entire world is diet pop / soda or bottled water. I swear to whatever deity you wish (that is nice and cool), that something to drink is just the best most cool thing ever and if a developer really wants me to pay attention to them, they can hand me a water or some pop or something because at a convention, every single ounce of stuff is weight that is going to go straight to your feet and water is way too heavy to carry with you. 

I know I sound like a brat, but when you're sweating and you're tired and you've just sat in the hallway Indian style for half an hour waiting your turn (with no way to get up and move) for something and now are running late which requires you to run outside in 90 degree weather for half a mile to get to another appointment, something to drink is pretty much the coolest thing in the world. It has an actual realistic value and I wish swag was literally just soda cans with some stickers on them. 

There isn't much in the world of swag beyond that. Developers are very careful when they hand swag out that it's not of much value, it's just a branding thing, and none of it really is much different then your dad's convention he went to that one time and came home with this really neat pen that writes upside down. Did he tell you about that huge elevator at the hotel and how he was such a renegade because him and Steve in accounting rode it to the top floor while drunk (they both had two screwdrivers oh boy and a bud light) and they got the best view ever he's got a picture not sure where it is tho.

Boondoggling 

Yeah, doesn't happen, unless you count maybe a screwdriver or a tequila sunrise on the house as something of some kind of merit.  

Oh and that's a word people use sometimes when there is an excursion that has no merit or point other than to party. I'm sure it happens between marketing and advertising arms of these companies or with CEOs but the media isn't bribed with $1,000 dinners and drink $5,000 bottles of wine or anything like that.

Swag's Effect on the Media 

There is literally none, outside of some bias created in a review from receiving the actual game for free. I do not feel anything from anything given to me. I never go oh boy, look at this USB thing or look at this amazing stuffed animal. I go oh boy, how am I going to get this around the convention with me with the miles of walking I'm going to have to do and now am I going to fit this into my suitcase. 

I'm not going to lie to you - some people may be enticed by these trinkets, but for the most part, everyone I've ever met sees swag with a giddy "yay some game I played in my childhood is awesome and I have this trinket" or "ugh should I 86 this or what is this going to get seized when I check my bag its kind sharp do they let this on airplanes?" 

That bag to the right is huge, so big it was hard to get a shot with my camera. It's done that way to make a statement and push the brand in front of your eyes, but to me, you know what that is, a huge bag. A way too huge of a bag, that you gotta roll up or something to put somewhere because if you throw it away you're being rude, if you say no you're being rude, and it's kinda neat to have a huge bag but at the same time you gotta carry that around with you for miles.

I think a lot of people have this imaginary perception that there is something glamerous and mystical about these free swag bags and for fans of games I can totally see why, which is why we often when we get swag offload it to our fans because we'd rather see it go to someone who could enjoy it then to collect dust in boxes and boxes. 

I got a lot of boxes at my place, let me tell you. Several boxes are full of action figures, art books, and box copies of free-to-play games (ugh). In that box, there are like two items that I like kind of, and they are not in the box and they're USB things that I use on my computer, wrapped in electric tape, and shoved in to the top of my dusty PC sitting idle until I need to take something that isn't in the cloud with me. 

At the end of the day, you can say in a way that swag is bribing the media to pay attention to them, but ultimately, it's more of a promotional / marketing thing than some kind of targeted thing. It's a song and dance that people do, they don't have to, but they hope that it gets more attention to their game or product, or after leaving whatever gathering, you see it and remember it.

Traveling 

Swag sucks on the go. You have to take an empty suitcase with you, pay to check it, then press and break all of the swag to fit it all in because you're not sure what is important and what isn't and you're tired and you just really want to get home. 

Parties 

Hah, tricked you, I'm going to touch briefly on this. If you want to hear more cool (lol) party stories, feel free to hit me up in the comments, but let me be modest with you. Most of 'em suck. Unless of course you're some super shallow person who gets happy about something vaguely fun and awkward. 

Let me tell you something about the parties, I much rather be at home playing the game then attending these parties. Only a few parties were of any interest and they weren't even branded or anything, it was just literally sitting somewhere drinking on a sofa with people in a bar or something of moderate interest. 

Riding ATVs and sipping liquor is like a regular weekend for me and having a game developer pitch in to pay for it is like, I don't know, nice I guess but I literally could give 2 the swear word with f involved in it  and then subtract 2 so that none were given that day over the parties. Actually, I do care, because parties mean something to drink and you know what I REALLY like? Yeah, some pop or a bottle of water or something. 

Yesterday, I went and got a hair cut by some dude who is my friend and is booked solid for weeks, but cuts my hair after work because I can never make an appointment, then went to a "fine dining" establishment and ordered a burger with my roommate who ordered prime rib but it sucked compared to the dumb burger I got so he had to switch it out, then came home and played WoW while drinking Jaeger and Monster. That's the life, let me tell you. I don't need some developer waltzing in there and being like yo David let's do the same thing you do every day, but with us! Oh and no WoW either unless you're standing under what feels like a heat lamp playing some sectioned off content we wanna show you. We all wanna be home too, but our job requires us to be here, so yay let's have fun. 

Isn't that fun? Exciting? Hundreds of miles away from your own bed and you're standing here while we just spent the ENTIRE DAY giving you a timeshare presentation about our game, including nothing but boilerplate, then now we're all just gonna hang out and be friends okay. It's more like a freaking war, because our job is to get the information you, the reader, wants to know. They on the other hand want to feed us information that they want you to know.  

Yeah some of the parties have ATVs or are at some swank bar or something, but most of the time it isn't some wining and dining thing, it's more or less the developers are sitting there working a job. They've got some mandate to do something with the press. Would you rather just sit around on a sofa and watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy and pass out some Great Value popcorn or do something mildly entertaining? 

You can't transmute that into content. It's not like if a game sucks you can be like oh boy, they bought me dinner, better think of something good to say. I mean that's just dumb. 

Oh and FYI ATV parties are like super rare, most parties get you a single drink ticket, have regular gamers there as well, and you leave early because to me our readers are more important than sitting around buying extra drinks. 

Press Meetings

Generally, press meetings are where they directly wine and dine the press, with the general intention of trying to argue to us about why we should cover their game, why our readers are going to care, and what cool things are happening with their game. Generally, these events are where most of any bias could ever come from, because some developers will throw multiple of these and give some outlets some very intimate time to discuss the game, while others they will corral into a big group which gives no favor to anyone.

The press craves something called an "exclusive" which is where one site gets some info other sites don't have. When you ask questions and interact with a large group of your press peers, you don't obtain an "exclusive." Some media outlets are favored by developers, for various reasons, ranging from outlets with more reach to their demographic are obviously way more favorable to them to for real collusion with outlets 

Conclusion 

I think that any allegations of collusion over swag bags is just ill-informed hysteria brought along by the age old concept that some ideas seem way cooler on paper than in reality. I don't appreciate most of the swag I'm given because it's really just mostly... trash and I don't mean to be mean, but I guess I am? Stacks of stuff I don't care about doesn't affect my opinion and if Blizzard gave me a Murloc plushie I'd be like YAY! then immediately go back to writing about how stupid it is that the expansions take like 438904573 years to come out while they sit and expand into the world of the most casual casual gaming. 

If you've gotten this far I just have one thing to say: I seriously think that anyone with any sense of professionalism doesn't care about the clown show antics and care more about the content and their readers, because at the end of the day this is a job and a passion, this isn't some kind of boondoggling expedition to see what personal gain I can make. My personal gain comes from your happiness and giving you guys the information you love. 

If you have any swag related questions, feel free to comment below. 

One final comment, my boss(es) have all left much more of a lasting impression than any developer on any outing for their kindness, comradery, and support than any of the trinkets, free drinks, or USB dongles that anyone else has given me. Many other members of the press appreciate their team more than anything, because at the end of the day that's the people you go home and work with, the developers are just part of the overall process.

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About The Author

David "Xerin" Piner
Get in the bush with Xerin every week for his column, Respawn, as he analyzes the hottest trends, buzz topics, and absurdities in MMO gaming. With over 10 years of working in the MMO industry and experience with games, Xerin brings his experience to the table to provide interesting thought provoking articles and helpful guides to the MMO masses.

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