I went to see Watch Dogs in Paris recently. I can't tell you anything about that yet for embargo reasons, but thanks to the Force of Revelation that is PCGamesN's Steve Hogarty, I can tell you about the "asset stick" I was handed before we boarded the train to the venue. It's an Asus Google Nexus 7 tablet - leading man Aiden Pearce's "favourite" tablet, supposedly - which now sells for about £200 brand new. Also in the accompanying Watch Dogs-branded napsack: a bottle of mineral water, a leather tablet case and a box of Smints. I'll admit to keeping and eating the Smints. OK, I've drunk the water too. I'm only human, you monsters.
We don't intend to hold onto the tablet, obviously. It'll be given away to charity, as per a (perfectly polite and amicable) phone conversation with Ubisoft PR after I returned from the trip. I'd intended to write about all this alongside the publication of our preview in the not-too-distant future, but seeing as the cat's out of the goodie bag, here are a few observations.
The ethical repercussions of being casually slipped a £200 slab of computer hardware during a preview tour are, or should be, obvious. A devil's advocate might argue that accepting such a gift is no different from having your travel, food and accommodation paid for, but as RPS editor John Walker pointed out a year or two ago, there's a difference between necessary expense and being effectively offered a large sum of money, no questions asked. It comes down to practicalities, in short. I generally pay for my own travel and food when attending events around the UK (when I don't, my employer does), but the cost of overseas tickets and hotel bills, particularly when arranged at short notice, can be considerable.
That's not to say I should expect a publisher to pick up the tab, and there's clearly an on-going discussion to be had about what constitutes an appropriate level of financial support: staying in a Novotel isn't quite as questionable as being put up in the Hilton. But I can just about square a free hotel room with my conscience - and more importantly, where you're concerned, I don't feel that seizing these opportunities affects my ability to write transparently about a game. A £200 tablet? That's taking the courtesy a little too far.
What strikes me most about Ubisoft's gift isn't how cynical, but how breathtakingly unaware it seems. Reader trust will always be more bankable than publisher hands-outs, and in my experience, games journalists have never been under greater pressure to deal with the industry honestly and responsibly. The ubiquity of modern internet ensures that scandals travel at light speed, and online communities like Reddit are only too happy to hunt down and spotlight any news a writer or company may hope to "bury". Making such a move in the current climate isn't so much naughty as it is doomed to backfire, like trying to infiltrate a wolfpack while clothed in bits of char-grilled beef.
Watch Dogs is already a controversial topic, thanks to the delayed release and the alleged "graphics downgrade" from Ubisoft's E3 2012 demo. Somehow, I don't think this will help. That's a shame, because the game deserves better than to be written off as an instance of dodgy dealing. I look forward to telling you about it soon, hopefully after the cloud of negativity this is likely to generate has dispersed.
Update - An Ubisoft spokesperson has sent OXM a comment about our story, which is reprinted in its entirety below:
During a recent Watch Dogs preview event, a number of UK journalists were given gift bags containing a tablet that was preloaded with Watch Dogs videos, screenshots and relevant links. This isn't in line with our policies for working with journalists who cover our games, as we understand that gifts of this kind might be misconstrued. We apologize for the error and are sorry for any confusion.