Inside Judges’ Week, the games media’s secret pre-E3 event

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An elite band of games editors have already seen the biggest new game reveals of E3 2013. Last week, up to 40 members of the North American games press were invited to take part in Judges Week, four solid days of interviews and demos hosted by game publishers keen to showcase their forthcoming titles ahead of the busiest week in the games media’s calendar.

It is organised every year by Spike TV’s Geoff Keighley and Machinima’s Rob Smith, and takes place “in hotel rooms, conference rooms, and rental spaces around the Santa Monica area,” says one attendee, who wishes to remain anonymous. Attendees’ votes go on to form the Game Critics Awards.

Generally, the heads of each media outlet are invited, although editors can send staff members in their place. Reputable freelancers are also invited, and over the last few years some of the demos that take place throughout the week have been open to all press, though some have ‘judges only’ components. The event is paid for by larger game publishers – “I have no idea how much it costs to participate, but I doubt it’s cheap,” says our source.

“We’re not roughing it during the event, but neither is it glamorous,” he says. “It’s a very professional environment, and the demos are mostly utilitarian. It’s an exciting week, but if anybody’s thinking it’s a glamorous event, they’ve got the wrong idea. Most of the participants are seasoned journalists who are unmoved by amped-up environments and hype speeches, so most publishers don’t bother with that kind of thing.”

Judges regularly clock up 12 hour days at the event, and are driven from location to location. There’s very little time in between demos, and for most, non-disclosure agreements are signed; but publishers are surprisingly relaxed about keeping the event confidential. “The environment is one of trust, so publishers don’t go through any extraordinary lengths to keep things secret,” says our source. “They’re helping us provide timely coverage to our audiences, and in exchange they get a guarantee that we’ll have quality time with their games.”

One unnamed outlet is banned completely from Judges Week for defying the terms of its NDA, but overall, leaks from the event are rare. “Keep in mind that we’ve all been doing our jobs for a long time, and no one wants to jeopardise good relationships by breaking promises,” says our source. “It’s one thing to serve your audience by reporting on information gleaned through sources: it’s another to make an agreement and then violate it.”

“Yes, sometimes details will leak in advance of E3 and we’ll report on the rumours that circulate, but confirming or refuting them based on what we’ve seen at the event is a violation of the spirit of the event.”

It is tempting to believe that game developers and publishers use the event for early press feedback –tweaking how they reveal the game to the public at E3 based on the thoughts of the journalists in attendance. But our source can’t recall that ever happening – while the environment is certainly one of trust, this doesn’t extend out into actual collaboration.

“After the demos developers almost always ask us about our thoughts, but this is generally just polite chatter,” says our source. “Although most feel comfortable offering a thought or two on the demo, we’re not there as consultants, and developers seem to understand and respect that.”

The rest of us will have to wait another month to discover what new game reveals E3 2013 brings; until then, a small group of the games media must bite its collective lip.