You’re Going To Get Fewer Early Game Reviews From Everyone

You’re Going To Get Fewer Early Game Reviews From Everyone
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Bethesda Softworks, makers of Skyrim, Dishonored and other fine games and franchises, is the latest game publisher not rushing to have their games reviewed, at least not by game reviewers, something all gamers should factor in as they assess when and how they will find out if a game is worth their time and money.

In a blog post today Bethesda global content lead and former games journalist Gary Steinman explained that Bethesda “value[s] media reviews” but will now only send out review code of their games a day before launch, making it physically impossible for all but the shortest games to be reviewed the day they’re out.

“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,” Steinman wrote, explaining that the company had already done that with DOOM.

“While we will continue to work with media, streamers, and YouTubers to support their coverage — both before and after release — we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time.”

That puts Bethesda in the same neighbourhood as 2K Games, which provided media review codes for Mafia III, Civilisation VI and other big fall releases at midnight New Zealand time on launch day this fall. That meant that reviewers had access to their Friday-launching games at 6 or 7am ET the Thursday before.

Bethesda blacklists Kotaku, so their change here is unlikely to affect our ability to review their games. As for 2K, we’d have loved to have reviewed Civ VI for release day but won’t suffer from publishing an informed review of it days later.

There are many reasons for this move toward release day review copies, some of them perfectly good. But before getting to that, it’s necessary taking a brief detour and point out that Bethesda’s post today is, to put it nicely, misleading. While review copies may not have been sent to media yet, Bethesda sent finished retail code to at least one YouTuber a month ago.

As YouTuber Grohlvana explained at the start of an October 21 video of the game, “So Bethesda got in contact with me. Yes, the Bethesda, and said that since I had been such a great supporter of all of their series, they decided to send me Skyrim The Special Edition early, about a month early, honestly.”

“They sent me the game. They, like, overnighted it. I got the Xbox One edition very early in the morning, like, at 10am, and I was able to produce some videos for it.”

So much for “everyone” experiencing their games at the same time.

Grohlvana’s explanation allows for another take on Bethesda’s actions, showing that the publisher may be slow to enable games media reviews but was eager to hook up an enthusiastic YouTuber with a finished copy of the game a month before anyone else.

Publishers love working with enthusiastic YouTubers these days, and why not? Game makers are delighted to leverage the excitement of YouTubers, who themselves provide a worthy service to gamers by putting gameplay footage of new games online.

For many game publishers, YouTubers are what the so-called “enthusiast press” used to be: fans just thrilled to have access and eager to colour within the lines while raving about video games.

It’s an oversimplification, of course, and there are and always have been good independent-minded people doing uncompromising work in both fields. But the trend toward favouring access to YouTubers has been obvious for years.

It’s hard to blame publishers for wanting to avoid having their games reviewed prior to launch. Many games with extensive online systems and big day-one patches can’t be fairly and thoroughly assessed before they come out.

An increasing number of games have one of those or both. Pity the game designer who worked for years on a game’s online multiplayer that a reviewer barely tried or couldn’t even properly test in the rush to run a day-one review.

At Kotaku, we’ve been running late reviews intentionally for years, holding back for any game that we didn’t feel we could fairly assess until after release. Others outlets have done the same, eschewing the rush. This fall is rife with “pre-reviews” and “provisional reviews” running at outlets such as Rock Paper Shotgun, Polygon and IGN.

Some games, however, can still be fairly assessed prior to release, and it’d be nice if companies made their decisions on a game-by-game basis. Some do, and some also release their day-one patches at day negative-two or thereabouts, to give reviewers a chance to play the game in its updated state. The platform-holders, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, all tend to be very good about providing review copy access days and weeks ahead of time.

Game publishers are, of course, interested in maximising sales, which they seem determined to do by increasing pre-release hype rather than enabling better access for reviews.

Even publishers that are getting more conservative about reviews tend to be excited to offer lots of access for previews and pre-release hype trailers. (About a month before Civ VI came out, we were offered a chance to preview a large portion of that game. We declined, preferring to wait for the finished game.)

Publishers are also finding creative ways to lock in players’ dollars early, before they might even stumble across a review. These days, we have beta access doled out as a pre-order reward. Bethesda will let you play Dishonored 2 a day before launch, as long as you pre-order it.

EA let people jump into Battlefield One three days early if they paid $US20 ($26) to be an “early enlister,” though EA’s review embargo at least lifted before then.

Game makers are entitled to send out copies of their games whenever they want, and if they have determined that their games can’t be judged prior to release, so be it. If that reflects a truth of the medium not relevant to books, movies and music, so be it.

Media and fans will have to condition themselves and learn to distinguish between when the last minute review offerings are legitimate and when it’s a manoeuvre around critical media.

The challenge for editors and reviewers will be to allow those who need to play the game and assess it to do so without feeling rushed, to be unworried by the fact that they may still working on the review while gamers are already buying and playing the game.

Ample review lead time is preferable. We can’t always expect game publishers to provide it. Worst case, though, reviewers get their copies of games on release day.

We prefer covering games after they’re out, anyway. That’s where the players get involved and where things really get interesting.


  • I’ve been saying it for years.

    It’s a publisher’s industry. Not a platform holder’s, nor a hardware manufacturer’s, definitely not a Japanese one either.

    The big ones, the absolute top-tier companies like Ubisoft or EA, do deserve credit for cannily plotting a course into digital.

    This is a bad move, however.

    So that’s why you adapt to it, support the mid-tier and up-and-coming developers like you say you do, games media.

  • in some senses youtube content creators do way more for games releases these days than the ‘media’. Mr Fruit is the best example. He never does anything close to reviewing a game as a whole but with his enthusiasm he shows us what he likes about it, jokes about the real rubbish or broken things. For me that is how I approach any creative thing. Nothing is devoid of some positives. Its only by watching really trashy things can you know what you do appreciate. He has a way of just playing the damn game. As it is. He doesnt harp on how it doesnt do X, Y, Z, just plays the game as it is. Sometimes wishing for other features.but not damning the product totally for what it is currently.

    Reviewers these days are either 1) the media whose opinions are a bit elitist or in some cases paid for. they rarely sound personal, more a generic company statement. 2) the toxic cesspool of metacritic and Steam reviews. full of people either making some political down-voting or basically saying, worse game ever, its not as good as X, whats the hell were the devs thinking.

    No thanks to all of that. I watch gamers streaming it. People like MassiveG, Mr Fruit who sound like they still remember how to have fun even when things arent perfect. This gamer is over cynicism, I dont need to be told how great (or bad) something is, I just need to be shown what something is like by mature people who arent afraid to laugh when things go bad. I have my go to people I enjoy watching, who even if I dont always agree with their choices (like say Jim Sterling taste in games, as opposed to his awesome jiminquisitions) I find their opinions interesting.

  • Quite a number of years ago I worked on a games support hotline, offering technical support and also game advice such as cheats and walkthroughs. Astonishingly, all too often a game would be released without giving us a copy first (and we were the “official” support line). Sometimes we’d only find out a game was actually out when someone called up asking for help and we’d need to apologise and explain we haven’t been given a copy of the game yet, let alone had a chance to actually play it ourselves or prepare any kind of support material for our database.

    I dunno if this has changed at all, it’s been many, many years since I was doing that. And the internet is a thing so most people would just Google the answers these days anyway. But this story just reminded me of those times.

  • Hm, I’m in two minds about this.

    The idea of everyone playing the game at the same time is admirable. Similarly, I 100% agree that with online multiplayer games, it’s important to review the game in it’s actual live state with hundreds of thousands of real players stress testing the servers etc. Day 1 patches can also make a big difference between review code and live game.

    At the same time, often – not all of the time, but often – publishers not sending out review code prior to release, or embargoing reviews until release day, can be a bad sign.

    There’s a bunch of games I would have considered buying if it hadn’t been for pre-release reviews. Or vice versa, like when Monolith lifted the review embargo on Shadow of Mordor because all the reviews were so positive. That prompted me to buy the game on release day.

    Of course, the argument is consumers shouldn’t buy the game on release day anyway, until reviews have come out etc. But people do buy on release day, and pre-release reviews are important to inform consumers.

  • I think I prefer reviews to come out after the game has been out for a little while, so that reviewers have had enough time to play the game thoroughly and enjoy it, rather than rush through it for the sake of a quick write-up.

    I tend to do it myself. I run a YouTube channel, and my reviews for Digimon Story, Pokken Tournament and Forza Horizon 3 came out 3-4 weeks after release. Sure, they didn’t get many views but whatever. I played the game thoroughly and have a more conclusive opinion of it.

  • Fair enough. They’re in the business of selling as many games as possible, and if they see this as a better way of doing it, so be it.
    If people want to buy day 1, caveat emptor. Otherwise people can wait for full reviews, no-one is forcing them to buy before reviews come out.

  • I think its good, maybe now reviewers will actually take the time to review in depth instead of the click bait crap we get alot of now, even worse are the reviews by people that hate a particular genre and push that feeling into the review, while i dont think devs/publishers should just give their game to specific reviewers they know will do nothing but praise the game (isnt that almost the same as paying for a good review) i do think it’s ok for them to give the game first to people that they think do the best types of reviews for their game, ie giving a rpg to someone who primarily plays rpgs, i buy whatever i think looks fun anyways and if i lose out so be it but now days at least with big games from certain devs and publishers we can make a pretty informed decision by past performances

    • There is definitely a ‘race’ to have the first reviews out and even sites that give ‘controversial’ scores to get clicks.

  • This is no surprise – no way I would let my multi million dollar 3 year project be foiled at the final stages by a journalist with an agenda. It’s called risk management, and any publisher with an interest in making money would do well to do the same.

  • No more pre-release purchase for me as if NMS hadn’t already burnt me…

    Also what the hell is this new format? it sucks

  • Let’s face it, Game Publishers and developers don’t need you anymore. You’ve effectively written yourself out of the loop between developer and consumer by treating like you deserve these things rather than earning them. Publishers can rely on youtube personalities and streamers for their reach to customers.

    Why would a publisher work with a gaming website these days? The website is going to try and get a review out regardless because they need clicks to generate revenue.

    • Publishers can also pick youtubers which are likely to be favourable towards the game as well.

      Why would any publisher bother with gaming journalists, for potentially bad reviews that hurt sales, when you can give it to a handful of overenthusiastic youtubers and twitch streamers and get a fist full of views and impulse buys.

  • I’m pretty pleased with this. I actually think we’re saturated with reviews and many of them are poor quality due to reviewers rushing to have their say as quickly as possible. Also, despite being written by those (sort of) in the know, reviews on media sites are still just a subjective opinion of one person and aren’t as important as the first paragraph of the piece states.

  • In an age where games aren’t even released finished, preventing early reviews is an even greater act of arrogance than ever.

    Also, there will be some backlash on sales that they haven’t thought of yet…

    • No there won’t. They wouldn’t do it if it hurt sales.
      By not giving a game to the press for review, but instead giving it to enthusiastic twitch streamers or youtubers, who are big (and bias) fans of a franchise, you are likely to get good advertising and more sales.

      Give it to a reviewer who may not like the genre, franchise, or have a shit tonne of other games to review and just want to get through it, and potentially get worse reviews and less sales.

  • Isn’t one potential response ALONGSIDE discussing the transparancy of such a practice; to simply learn to inform yourself about promotional material so you can make choices whether to buy/not buy/wait without someone providing you with instructions on what to think based on their own subjective experience? It seems like people are really resistant to any semblance of personal responsibility. Whilst the bethesda issue is transparant a few changes could mitigate the effects but people are so steadfast in their dismissal of responsibility over their own choices.

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