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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

I Heart Freebies

If you haven't heard, the FTC recently enacted a rule that amatuer netizens must disclose products they receive for free or face up to $11,000 in fines.

For the sake of this argument, let me disclose - I've gotten a handful of free games from a few companies. My favorites so far being Bad Company, Godfather II and to an extent Pure as they weren't entirely on my radar before emailing back and forth with PR people and quite enjoyed playing them. It should also be noted that I've gotten several games which, for one reason or another, I've gone ahead and bought anyway and allowed someone else to play the free version (which generally gets added as feedback for review). This includes Dead Space and Spore.

The biggest impact, I think, is that I've written a few paragraphs on games I normally would not have written about. Games don't get a free ride here. The attention the game gets is in merit with the game itself - I found Dead Space an interesting game from many angles, and it got a lot of attention (and I didn't technically get it for free). Pure is a fun racing game with a couple twists - and it got a few paragraphs.

The FTC's logic is that consumers have a different relationship of trust between small amateur blogs like this one than "traditional media". I'm that guy on the street, and G4 is apparently Ted Koppel. The summary from the FTC themselves goes:

The revised Guides also add new examples to illustrate the long standing principle that “material connections” (sometimes payments or free products) between advertisers and endorsers – connections that consumers would not expect – must be disclosed. These examples address what constitutes an endorsement when the message is conveyed by bloggers or other “word-of-mouth” marketers. The revised Guides specify that while decisions will be reached on a case-by-case basis, the post of a blogger who receives cash or in-kind payment to review a product is considered an endorsement. Thus, bloggers who make an endorsement must disclose the material connections they share with the seller of the product or service. Likewise, if a company refers in an advertisement to the findings of a research organization that conducted research sponsored by the company, the advertisement must disclose the connection between the advertiser and the research organization. And a paid endorsement – like any other advertisement – is deceptive if it makes false or misleading claims.
-- FTC Publishes Final Guides Governing Endorsements, Testimonials []

Course, the problem the FTC is delineating between "word-of-mouth" marketing and traditional marketing. What's the distinction between here and Joystiq? Or here and a PR guy like Major Nelson? Or the official Sony blog? Let's ignore the fact the anachronistic concept that any of this is actually "word of mouth" at this point (if Cathode has ever increased any sales, trust me - it is "by way of Google" not by "word of mouth") - my biggest problem is that the leap form "material connection" to "paid endorsement".

So let me be clear - I'm completely willing to admit to having "material connections", despite them being rare, small and frequently in the wrong format. I am most certainly not saying anything on this site has ever, ever, even approached "paid endorsement" and I think the FTC is tossing a lot darts to hit a very narrow point on the board.

I agree with the FTC here in spirit, and think that doing something like seeding community sites to gather support is a fairly vile use of the 'net. I'm just not sure including bloggers who get a review copy merit being tossed into that bunch. I know I don't really appreciate it.

In summary? I love freebies. Mostly because I love the fact that there are PR people out there pushing games. It means I get a chance to engage people (and it has been more than PR peeps - like this interview with a SWAT 4 dev ... remember PR is the gateway) about games before they come out. I don't really care if it's a big label, indie title or some guy's homebrew ... if the project looks interesting, I like to have the conversation.

And if you want send me a version of your game to review - I'm likely to review it. If the fact that I got it free actually factors into my opinion of the game, I'm thinking that can't be a very good game. I'm thinking it would fall under "this would have been a waste of my time, were it not for the price" category.

Which avid readers would know I make note of when reviewing anyway.

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