Bethesda has formally clarified their position on media reviewing games. The publisher will not offer pre-release review copies to games press. This policy can be applied retroactively to DOOM‘s release in May of this year.
Bethesda-published games include DOOM, Fallout, Elder Scrolls, Dishonored and Prey. They have more, too, but those are the banner current titles.
With the upcoming launches of Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2, we will continue our policy of sending media review copies one day before release.
For myriad reasons that could build an article of their own, game press and gamers are, in some ways, at odds. With Bethesda’s announcement that they “want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time” comes a “victory” for gamers. “Ha,” they say on message boards. “The filthy game critics aren’t special after all!”
I offer, instead, that we’re in this together. As consumers.
I may review games, but I more often play them as a personal passion. I know it’s the same for gamers, too. I’m still playing Overwatch every day despite having reviewed it months ago. I play games because I love them, and, at the end of the day, I’m a consumer like the rest of you.
“I’m upset because what Bethesda’s doing is dishonest.”
What Bethesda’s doing here isn’t as harmful to sites like TechnoBuffalo as it is to consumers. We can wait to review Dishonored 2. We never write our reviews for traffic. Instead, we create them so that we can be an informed outlet that’s up on gaming standards and in on the discussion. That could be different for other sites. Some huge gaming sites always have early access to games, so their reviews are likely great for traffic. Ours? They’re fine. Being a day or two early or a week or two late, though, doesn’t make a difference for us.
I explain this because there’s an impression out there that reviewers like me are upset because we’ll miss traffic. That’s not why I’m upset. I’m upset because what Bethesda’s doing is dishonest.
“DOOM was amazing, and it released without reviews.”
You’re right, anonymous reader, DOOM was amazing. Our review ran a whopping 20 days after release. We could have rushed it out sooner, it’s not exactly a long game. But our own Eric Frederiksen wanted to make sure he had a good feel for it.
Eric loved it. Heck, almost everyone loves it. id Software made a brilliant game, and Bethesda decided to skip launch day reviews. It worked out.
What about when it doesn’t work out? What about when Bethesda, known for buggy games, releases a title with problems?
Fallout 4 was a solid game by all accounts. We offered that it was worth a buy, but we explained that it suffered from frame rate problems and glitches. Consumers were informed ahead of release. If frame rates mean the world to you, you knew that Fallout 4 suffered stutters. You could, thanks to reviews, avoid the game until it’s patched.
Under Bethesda’s new policy, you won’t see much nuanced critique before their games launch. You could point to YouTubers as media that has access to games ahead of release, but you need to understand something. Game makers often pay channels to feature games ahead of release. This is not a criticism of YouTubers. I don’t think they’re wrong to do what they do. It would be wrong of consumers, though, to consider those pre-launch videos as part of a game review. They’re not. They’re trailers. They’re commercials. They’re great marketing efforts.
I’m not entirely sure these publishers even know how to handle YouTubers. Clearly, with cases like Pewdiepie getting access to a demo for The Last Guardian before anyone else, publishers know that the potential for YouTubers to sell a game is huge. Is it worth their money, though? I don’t think they know, and I think they’re in the process of figuring it out.
There are previews and hands-ons, sure, but those are usually easier on games. Developers get a pass since they’re in pre-release form, so coverage is thinner.
Launch titles? Big games are $60 a pop, and companies rely on consumers buying early to make a profit. That’s why pre-order bonuses get stuffed into games ahead of release.
If you pre-order the game and keep your purchase, you tell companies that you don’t care about reviews. I know that some pre-order and then cancel if a game reviews poorly. If you don’t cancel, you’re essentially saying “yes, continue to sell me content before I know if it’s good.”
Make no mistake, Bethesda wants your money.
Bethesda is a well-liked developer and publisher. They should be. They have a history of wonderful games.
Don’t think that just because they make great games means they aren’t a business. Games are art, but this decision wasn’t made by artists. This decision was made by the company selling the art.
Bethesda’s execs decided that consumers didn’t need reviews on launch day, not the person writing the game’s story. Bethesda execs are the ones cramming pre-order bonuses and season passes into their games, not the person responsible for art design.
“They don’t want sales of their software hurt by consumer knowledge.”
You might not rely on reviews to make a decision for games. That’s fine. I do. We don’t review everything here, so I go out and read reviews or wait for a friend’s impressions before I buy. I wait until the game launches. Always. I’ve been burned way too many times by bogus trailers and pre-order incentives.
Bethesda’s policy is worse than that. Bethesda’s taking an industry standard for games and throwing it out the window. Why? They don’t want sales of their software hurt by consumer knowledge.
Bethesda doesn’t want you to make a smart decision on launch. That may sound aggressive, but I mean it. They also don’t need our reviews to sell games. Minor titles, small indie games or games that are coming from lesser known developers, rely on reviews in part to generate sales. Reviews are a platform for the games to succeed. Bethesda? They’ll sell games regardless of reviews. A publisher like Develolver? They need the coverage.
I’ve been thinking about this new policy since its announcement, ranting and raving on Twitter randomly.
Still mulling over this Bethesda nonsense. What leg would they have to stand on if DOOM was, say, as buggy as Fallout 4?
— Joey Davidson (@JoeyDavidson) October 25, 2016
Yeah, they made that Elder Scrolls game you love so much. So what!? Bethesda’s not your friend. They’re a business. And right now, they’re a business that’s made a wholly anti-consumer decision. They’ll get away with it because of their software library. Then what?
Then other companies will do it. Why wouldn’t they? It’s a smart move for a publisher. Don’t give people a chance to step off the hype train before it rolls up to launch day. Keep their pre-order. Get them in GameStop to buy games day one. Throw some crappy skinned weapons and missions at them.
As the head of the gaming department at TechnoBuffalo, this doesn’t affect me. Our reviews will be read at the same rate regardless of publication date. Honestly? Sometimes publishing late is better for us with traffic. There’s a peek behind the curtain for ya.
As a gamer? As someone who will buy games 10 or 20 years from now? As someone who might not be a reviewer down the line? This is total crap. This is a loss for consumers who like to make informed purchases.
What can we do? Is it time to fire up the change.org petition machine? Do you gather our pitchforks and torches, set off for Bethesda and demand the head of the exec who did this? Do we boycott their games?
No. We wait. We wait until launch comes. We wait for friends to play the games. We wait for the chance to rent the games. We wait (boy do I miss these days) for a proper demo. We wait for that reviewer we trust to speak up.
We exercise patience.
As consumers, we’ve been massaged into developing horrid cases of FOMO. That is fear of missing out. Game and movie makers know this. So, they capitalize. They hype up the rarity of being there on day one in order to inflate sales. Don’t be afraid of missing out. The games and consoles will be there a few days or weeks after launch.
Heck, thanks to the patching models these same devs and publishers use, games will almost always be better the longer you wait.
Wait. Always wait. Be an informed consumer. Make a smart purchase. Don’t throw your money at bad games.
I can’t overstate this: You vote with your wallet. More than yelling on Twitter, more than a change.org petition, more than commenting on blogs. Your buying power is the ultimate decision maker. Use it.