Last week Bethesda announced a change in their policy with regards to how they distribute review copies of their games, stating that with the upcoming releases of Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonoured 2, “[We will send] media review copies one day before release.” This represents a diversion from their previous – and almost industry-wide norm – of sending review copies in sufficient advance of a game’s release. As such, media outlets will be unable to provide comprehensive and reflective reviews of Bethesda games prior to launch, a policy that I believe is not just dangerous, but aggressively anti-consumer.
Bethesda’s recent and controversial decisions, as you might expect, has those like myself coming out against their new policy, and those who have come out in defence of this policy. Of those defences, the most common one is that, “Bethesda doesn’t owe us anything”. Now on the one hand, that statement is true, Bethesda is a private company which owes only to pay their shareholders and their employees. However, like most companies, Bethesda is dependent on us, their consumers. Without us, they would not have risen to their current position within the video game industry and their games would not have sold the spectacular numbers they have. Furthermore, to continue being successful, releasing new games, and growing as a business, they will once again be dependent on us dipping into our wallets and handing over our hard earned cash. And, to be fair to Bethesda, I want to play their next Elder Scrolls game and their next Wolfenstein game. It is this mutual desire that has resulted in norm we have known for so long. Bethesda want to sell their games to us and we want to buy them if the games are good, so Bethesda allows media outlets to review their games, we then use those reviews to decide whether or not to give Bethesda $60 for their game. But Bethesda wants a world in which they can have our cash, without having to concern themselves with how reviews may potentially impact our decision whether to buy their games. However, we don’t have to and should not take this new policy lying down. Just as some may say Bethesda doesn’t owe us anything, we don’t owe them anything either.
I strongly believe that consumers are entitled to a reasonable amount of knowledge about a product before said product releases. I use the intentionally vague word “reasonable” because obviously, these criteria will differ from product to product. When buying clothing, it is perfectly reasonable to want to watch a fashion show for a line of clothes before they release, maybe less reasonable to ask to see toasters showcasing the different ways that they can toast bread! Limiting the products in question to solely video games, again, there is a difference from game to game with regards to what is reasonable for the consumer to know prior to release. For instance, with a game like Dark Souls 3, consumers were shown, in total, several hours of game footage, which is a mere drop in the pond for such a lengthy game. If consumers demand the same for a game like Uncharted 4, you not only risk spoiling key story aspects of the game, but several hours of Uncharted 4 that relate to a much larger portion of the entire game. It’s for this very reason that video game reviews are so important; a piece of clothing won’t look different after you wear it for so many hours, and a toaster won’t suddenly start toasting marshmallows instead of bread. However, video games evolve and change as you play them, be it through introducing new gameplay mechanics or concepts, a developing narrative, the difference between one level and the next, or one of those frustrating final bosses that ruin the ending of a game. You can’t judge a game simply by spotting it on a shelf, in the same way that you can with other products. Reviews are necessary so that we don’t make ill-informed decisions by simply “judging a book by the cover”.
So why are Bethesda no longer sending out review copies?
Well the two reasons they state are, firstly; “Since then DOOM has emerged as a critical and commercial hit, and is now one of the highest-rated shooters of the past few years.” and secondly; “We want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time.” The first reason is effectively a PR way of saying, “It worked out for us last time, so why not try it again?” There are certainly numerous advantages for Bethesda if they can get away with not sending out early review copies. For instance, Bethesda isn’t going to make an intentionally bad trailer for their game. Trailers are pieces of marketing, and are therefore designed to showcase the best parts of a game to sell as many copies as possible. Secondly, marketing materials tend not to show parts of a game that are significantly worse than the rest of the game, be it from a graphical/performance standpoint, or be it from a game design/story standpoint. Reviews, on the other hand, are not as kind, they are not produced to sell games. If a game is bad, a review says as much, and reviews can often hurt the sales performance of games. Of course, reviews can also help sales by highlighting great or amazing games that hardly anyone was paying attention to – however, Bethesda games rarely fall into that category, with titles such as Fallout 4 and Dishonored 2 being some of the most highly anticipated games of this generation, and as such a large portion of their revenue will have been driven by pre-orders. If you pre-ordered a game a positive review won’t make you change your mind, but a negative review could, and thus reviews can be particularity hazardous to the sales of high profile AAA games.
As for the second reason, it rings hollow for two reasons, ironically. The first of these reasons is that people have already experienced one of the two games that Bethesda states this new policy will apply to; Skyrim Special Edition. Skyrim is a game that people haven’t just played, it is a game that people have torn apart, rebuilt, and invested more hours into than a college degree requires. As such, I hardly doubt that there is anything new in Skyrim Special Edition for players and reviewers to experience “at the same time” – if there is, Bethesda, I will happily eat my words. Secondly, members of the press have already played Dishonored 2, after Bethesda’s E3 press conference. Yes, there was also your average Joe and Jane who got the opportunity to play Dishonored 2 following the aforementioned conference, but that just further emphasises the fact that we will not all collectively experience Dishonored 2 for the first time together. Additionally, with a 24 hour advantage over the rest of us mere mortals, reviewers who are sent copies of Dishonored 2 will have a chance to beat the game before we even break open our copies – a pedantic point, yes, but one that shows the insincerity in Bethesda’s press statement.
To cut Bethesda some slack, there are some reasonable reasons as to why they may not want to send game copies out in advance, outside of the obvious, profit-focused reasons, of course. Recently games such as No Man’s Sky, and Mafia III did not send out review copies as their games were reliant on a day one patch, that could not be provided much in advance of the release (due to the respective studios still developing said games). As such, it is reasonable to not want a reviewer to critique a game it its unfinished state. Some customers may respond by explaining that they do not have access to the internet or sufficient bandwidth to download day one patches, and thus games should be reviewed without patches installed so that review are relevant to them. My response would be that a significant majority of consumers do have access to day one patches and that reviews should serve the majority in most cases, but I do sympathise with the point. In the case of games like No Man Sky we are in muddy water, with no one answer being the correct decision. However, at least the motives of the developers in this instance are understandable and reasonable – they aren’t against the consumer being uniformed, they merely want them to be “correctly” informed – as opposed to the more self-serving defences Bethesda have given.
A second argument in defence of such a policy, is to democratise review culture. Right now, video game review culture, while existing for other entertainment products, is dominated by revenue-based publications. These publications often have early access to games, allowing them to publish reviews before their counterparts on smaller websites and services such as YouTube and Twitch. Who’s to say that the review of an Gamespot, IGN, Polygon etc. employee is more valuable to customers than that of a YouTuber or even my fellow writers here at Ground Punch? With an increasing emphasis on the person over the publication, often audiences follow the former over the latter, as can be seen with those personalities who have left major outlets in part to further curate and serve their own audience. If Bethesda had come out and said they wanted to end the iron grip that traditional games media has on games coverage, that they wanted to modernise review culture in line with the evolution’s occurring as a result of YouTube, Twitch and smaller sites being able to gain more traction, I would have some sympathy for them. But they didn’t. I presume that, quite frankly, they don’t want to democratised review culture in the way I outlined above. Maybe they do, but are too scared of the potential fallout from such a move. Instead, they spouted some PR spiel in an attempt to mask, what I believe, is an intentionally aggressive anti-consumer move, albeit one that will most likely improve their bottom line.
So why are the choices that Bethesda are making “anti-consumer”? The answer is simple. Without reviewers being able to spend ample time with games to play them, and construct a reflective and informative review of said game, we as consumers are less equipped to make sound purchasing decisions. Now you may argue that if you are that concerned with making a sound purchasing decision, why wouldn’t you just wait until most outlets have published their reviews? And yes, that is a valid point, in fact I would urge everyone to not buy any Bethesda game until full reviews are published, if for no other reason than to act in protest of the company’s new policy. The problem is that most people won’t wait, and why should they?
Our current society is not conducive to waiting, that’s the sad truth. If you are not consuming content the moment it’s available, you are being left behind. The most obvious example of this is the circulation of spoilers immediately after any piece of entertainment releases, sometimes even before they release. It’s not just that one jerk friend on your Twitter of Facebook feed either, as outlets struggle with wanting to be a part of the conversation as it is happening, in order to maximize views and clicks, while not spoiling anything for the rest of their audience who may be visiting their site for unrelated content. Think of all the incidents you or people you know have experienced, where article or video headlines spoil an element of a game, movie, or TV show.
The 21st Century is fueled by moments as they happen, but the same events can become forgotten history just mere hours after they have occurred. As such, we are almost in a perpetual race to be up to date, to know, to be a part of the conversation. This type of social pressure encourages us to make day one purchases, or even purchasing a game well ahead of its release, so that we can be a part of the conversation as it is happening, and more importantly, before it moves on to another topic. Bethesda must be aware of this social pressure, this social need, and I fear that they have made the above changes to their review policy as a direct result. Surely they know that in 2016, a large portion of consumers would rather buy a game day one, rather than have to wait for two weeks to read a review that they more than likely would have read, if the review had been available prior to the game’s release? And if I’m right, Bethesda is being downright exploitative!
As video game consumers, we have few opportunities to make an informed purchasing decision. With rare exception, demoes are now a thing of the past. Yes, it is worth noting that the lack of demoes has, in part, been replaced by open betas for certain multiplayer games, and even more so by Steam’s refund policy (whereby you can play a game for two hours and then receive a full refund if you decide the game is not for you), but how reflect are these glimpses of the full game? Take for example Destiny, where many consumers thought the game’s Beta only showcased a small portion of the game’s content, when it fact it showed off the first quarter of the game’s campaign. Unlike with products such as clothes or cars though, in most cases, we can’t try the game on or take it for a test drive. Video game publishers do not have a robust customer service team that you can contact with questions about the game, in the same way that you might, for example, ring up Dyson’s customer service to ask questions about the features of a certain vacuum cleaner before you purchase it. For the most part, our only opportunity to become informed about a game before making a purchase is to read or listen to reviews, either from ‘professional’ reviewers, or unprofessional reviews I.E. friends, co-workers etc. Yes, there are trailers and recorded gameplay demonstrations, but these can suffer from being based on early game builds that will change as part of development – occasionally being mere conceptualisations of the game, not to mention the significant bias of marketing which I outlined above. Reviews are precious to the video game consumer as being our primary source for informative, unbiased, well written, honest, and in-depth opinions of the product we are potentially about to buy. If media outlets are racing each other to release reviews first, will their commentary be as insightful, informative, and in-depth? Will their review be as valuable if it’s rushed? Any attempt to devalue the utility of a review is anti-consumer, and we must do everything we can to resist.
You may be asking, “Why do we need to resist?” We need to send a strong message about the type of review culture that we as consumers want. Right now, the norm of games being sent out for review in advance may still be in existence, but it is under threat. If we want to keep the norm in place, this is a battle we need to fight, and we need to fight it right now! Bethesda is a huge influence of the industry as a whole, and it will be tempting for other developers and publishers to follow suit – not to mention all the developers who preceded Bethesda in making alike decisions. Thankfully, it is still the norm for developers and publishers to send out review copies in advance, upheld by the big three – Activison, EA, and Ubisoft – along with a majority of AAA developers. However, that norm is being slowly eroded, and if it is destroyed, so too will one of the only advantages we currently have. Any attempts to change review culture, in a future where almost every developer and publisher has followed in Bethesda’s and company’s footsteps, will be an uphill battle, and one that we will most likely lose. Resisting these changes is not about punishing any one developer or publisher, and it’s not about pulling support for their games – we can send a clear message by simply waiting until reviews are out and then purchase said game accordingly. Instead, it is about asking them to meet us in the middle, curating an environment in which both the player and the developer can thrive. Please, I urge you from one consumer to another, stand up for our rights, and stand up for a games industry that works for all; for developers, but also for the gamers who play their games.
For transparency; while staff members at Ground Punch have received review copies of games from other developers and/or publishers, we do not currently have a relationship with Bethesda or Bethesda Softworks, and so are unaffected by their recent policy changes. Furthermore, the above is my expressed opinion as an individual and is not a commentary or representation of Ground Punch’s stance on this issue.