Prey Shows That Bethesda's Review Policy Is Even Bad For Bethesda

Prey, the newest game from Arkane Studios, is most enjoyable when you take your time exploring its corners and crevices. It's a quiet, unsettling game, one that can turn into a real drag if you try to rush. So why did Bethesda force reviewers to blaze through the game as quickly as possible? And what kind of lasting damage will this have?

For the past year, much to the dismay of critics everywhere, Bethesda's marketing team has refused to send out early codes for their games. For Doom, Dishonored 2 and now Prey, Bethesda has provided review copies less than 24 hours in advance, giving reviewers little time to play through those games before they launched. In a blog post last year about this decision, Bethesda offered a laughable justification, writing that: "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."

(It's worth noting that Bethesda has blacklisted Kotaku for three and a half years now, and while of course we have continued to cover the publisher's games fairly and honestly, this particular policy has no effect on us. Incidentally, Bethesda did not respond to a request for comment on this article.)

This strange, disdainful decision was slammed by critics when Bethesda announced it last spring, but the publisher has maintained its policy nonetheless. This makes Bethesda an anomaly. Traditionally, game publishers will send out review copies to press one to two weeks in advance, often with a "review embargo" of a specific time and date on which critics can post their thoughts. This allows everyone to stay on the same page. A critic at IGN doesn't have to worry about being scooped by a critic at GameSnacksWeekly because they have both agreed to the same embargo. The timeframe may be tight, depending when review copies hit, but nobody has to rush to be first on the web.

Yesterday, for example, we received a copy of Fire Emblem Echoes from Nintendo, giving us a solid 11 days to play through the game before it comes out, on May 20. Atlus, God bless them, sent us codes for Persona 5 nearly two months before it launched. Although publishers like Activision haven't typically offered early reviewer access to online-only games like Destiny, and once in a while a publisher will send out codes late, those are the extraordinary cases. Most publishers are happy to give out early codes for their single-player games, with rare exceptions (like 2K Games).

With Prey, as with the last two Bethesda games, the landscape is different. Nobody received the game until May 4, the day before Prey launched. IGN and GameSnacksWeekly would again be on the same page, but here there was no embargo; whoever blazed through the game and wrote his or her review first would get all of that sweet, sweet traffic from algorithm-heavy websites like Google and Facebook that reward speed over quality.

Although many reviewers -- including IGN's (and Kotaku's) -- have taken their time with the game in hopes of writing in-depth critiques, others did not. Prey reviews were popping up as early as May 5, despite the lack of early code. Some of these early Prey reviews have been positive; others have been harsh.

I'll leave it to readers to decide which reviews are worth reading, but there's one outlet that adds a great deal of significance to this dilemma: Metacritic, a website that aggregates reviews and spits out a nice, big number for everyone to look at.

As we've reported extensively, Metacritic has a huge impact on the video game industry. Game developers' bonuses are sometimes tied to Metacritic scores, and publishers like to ask for a studio's previous scores before deciding whether to greenlight a pitch. Often, developers will put their games' Metascores on résumés and job applications. Despite Metacritic's many problems -- and the arbitrary, meaningless nature of review scores in general -- the number still carries weight in the video game industry.

As of May 10, Prey has an 80 on Metacritic. Although that number may jump up and down a bit before it settles, it is not considered fantastic. (From what I've heard anecdotally, most publishers' Metacritic bonuses require games to hit an 85 or 90. I don't know if Prey has any such bonus.) This Metascore is based entirely on the thoughts of critics who have had the game for four or five days.

Boggles the mind, doesn't it? Arkane Austin started developing Prey in May 2013, nearly four years ago. Reviewers have offered thoughts and scores, contributing to the big number that will hang on Arkane for the rest of the studio's existence, after playing the game for less than a week. Those reviewers cranked through the game under sub-optimal conditions, rushing to beat the clock (and the competition) despite the fact that most Prey players will have far different experiences.

I don't envy anyone who had to review Prey. It's certainly not pleasant to have to beat a video game and then write up coherent, interesting thoughts under such brutal time constraints. And I certainly don't begrudge websites for wanting to publish reviews in as timely a fashion as possible, nor would I ever say that one reviewer's opinion is less valid than another's.

But still… I can't help but wonder how that Metacritic number would look if Bethesda had given reviewers proper lead time with Prey. I've spent the past few days playing this game, soaking in the atmosphere and sneaking around to read emails and hunt down side quests. If I had to rush to finish it for a review, I'd be stressing out every time I ran out of ammo or failed to take down one of those damn fire Phantoms. Maybe I'd switch to Easy or try to cheese the game just to finish. I'm enjoying the game far more because I don't have to worry about those constraints.

Bethesda's failure to give reviewers that same opportunity does a disservice not just to customers who won't get timely reviews from their favourite critics, but to the developers at Arkane, who spent four years on this game only to watch reviewers stamp numbers on it after just four days. There's no way to know whether Prey reviewers would have felt differently if they weren't rushing, but regardless, Bethesda's policy is a bummer for everyone -- even Bethesda.

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Comments

    You guys should just have a list of publishers and template one of these many articles about xyz game having no media release etc etc etc.

      I don't understand why every one is complaining about the review policy.

      They released a hour of the game for everyone to play before it came out so you could form your own opinion about purchasing the game instead of reading some idiots biased opinion like the likes on ign who are paid off by game devs to give shining reviews about games that are turds cough cough call of duty score near perfect scores but release the same game over and over again wtf.

      Bethesda has given out a demo which doesn't even happen any more so kudos good job.

      I think reviewers are just cut because Bethesda doesn't make them feel special and treats them like the general public I can see why when you guys give out unreliable reviews as reviewers play through on one system just because the experience is good on one doesn't mean it's good on all take arkham knight total turd but we were told it was good even know it was a stuttering crashing turd on PC and still is.

    Most sensible people have a fairly good idea whether they'll enjoy a piece of media without reading reviews. Reviews are something I look at much later to find out what the general consensus is.

      Agree. I remember a time when the internet was in it's infancy and we bought games based on how cool the covers were and enjoyed them without having to read about what every single cretin has to write about it on the internet.

      If you need to be told what games to buy by reviews, then you're not a gamer.

      I think 'most' is an exaggeration. Many, many gamers base their purchases on reviews because they want to make an informed decision about whether to buy a game. Possibly the majority of gamers, but if not it is still a large number. The article is correct in that Metacritic scores have a big affect on initial sales - what more proof do you need?

      Last edited 11/05/17 7:53 am

    Phil Savage is currently being uhhh, savaged in the comments section over at PCGamer for the 79 he gave Prey. Its an odd one.

      That's because many gamers are imbeciles who won't buy a game unless some random on the internet gives it some abritary score of 95%. These kind of people can't think for themselves and have the delusion that if a game isn't the second coming of Christ it's not worth touching. Binary thinking.

        COD still sells although its reviews are middling. I think its actually the opposite over at PCCG, people are angry it didn't score higher (Mass Effect Andromeda got 80 for example). Plenty of people think its freaking awesome and don't feel the reviews reflect it.

          I guess COD is gonna sell regardless it's a bit of an anomaly. for most established franchises you get this mob mentality from fan boys in which they attack reviewers for doing their jobs.
          It's like the review score actually influences how much they enjoy a game. Again, these type of people don't think for themselves.

            Polygon did a really good article about this titled "Let's talk about that 'bad review' of Breath Of The Wild" and summed up the outrage people feel when things they like (or bizarrely, things they want to like but haven't even played yet) score badly

            "It’s not about praise for those who made it, it’s about praise for those who bought it"

        There was some article I read, like a decade ago, it might've been Hyper? Or Edge? Or some magazine, it was a written one anyhow, that basically stated the only review score that *seemed* to matter these days to people (and this was in the 00's, was the glorious '9'. And even then, people wanted the 'range' score, they wanted 'high 9s'. They wanted 9.5 or 9.6 or something, if it was 9.1 they were turned off too! Ridiculous. I learnt to stop reading scores a long time ago and just play a damn game. I've got games that apparently 'suck' that I highly enjoy, and games that are supposedly good that bore the crap out of me. It's just become a case of 'stop listening to review scores and judge for yourself' for me.

          Exactly how I approach things.

            Hey if I listened to reviews anymore, I wouldn't have sunk 2100 hours into ARK by this point lmao

              I have spent more time playing The Evil Within than I care to admit. It was fairly polarising when reviewed. But I knew I'd love it.

          Kinda depends on the size of your Mega-City One Bucks collection though, doesn't it? If you can only afford one AAA a year, for example, you'd be pretty damn pissed buying on spec based on [cough]No Man’s Sky[/cough] a publisher's advertising and blurb.

          Last edited 10/05/17 10:21 am

            Maybe, but that's a personal issue. I'm not saying don't read reviews at all, I'm just saying don't use them as the gospel of whats good and bad.

            Not that I'd recommend giving them business, but EB gives you the option of returning within a week if you don't like a game.
            I realise everyone has finite levels of cash to spend on games but I think many gamers worry too much about FOMO when they could easily just wait for a game to come down in price and play any one of thousands of other games in the meantime.
            By that time the dust has settled and you have a pretty good idea about whether the game is excellent/average/bad based on reading articles or watching videos.
            But I still think gamers need to trust their instincts more and scour reviews less.
            If a new dark souls game came out tomorrow I wouldn't really feel much risk in buying it blind.

          Absolutely agree.

          Ubisoft games generally get good reviews, but I stopped playing them. You can totally have a game that ticks every reviewers box for what they expect gamers want, but still not be a game for me, a longstanding gamer of some 25 years.

          Most games I'll buy on the reputation of the devs. For unknowns, I'll read as many reviews as possible to paint a picture of the game and decide for myself. The scores themselves don't matter. I usually get far more out of an article that's framed more like a discussion than a review. For that reason I always used to like Rock Paper Shotgun's "Wot I think" articles when I was a PC gamer for that reason.

            the one thing with RPS is that you need to make sure you look at who is doing it, If John Walker is doing it, it will be pretty negative in general, unless it does something he finds abhorent then he will savage it. Conversely Alice generally gives a more balanced and positive views when she is doing a "Wot i Think"

              Don't read it any more, because I don't PC game any more. But I checked it this morning and they had a Wot I Think on Prey. By John Walker. And it was very favourable.

              Some things I don't agree on. I love the mimics, for example.

          I was heavily attached to review scores when I was younger. Felt like I'd perfectly calibrated an understanding to what a 93 from Nintendo Gamer meant and how it differed to a 94 :P Though for the most part their ratings aligned pretty well with my own tastes, only time I got burnt was with 007 Nightfire which they loved but I did not.

          Though yeah the scores are far less important now that I've seen and played enough to have a good idea of what's what even from just a trailer or two.

      "Game was OK, heaps of problems, 99%! would shill for [publisher] again" -- gamespot

      Last edited 10/05/17 11:20 am

      Bethesda probably refused to pay him for a stellar review don't worry mate call of the turd will give him a bonus to write about how good the same game released every year still gets almost 10s.

    Although unrealistic in the internet climate of 'me first' and counting clicks, it would be delicious if the review site community unified and blackballed companies which have idiotic policies like Bethesda. Give them no press and see how they react.
    Again I realise this is not gonna happen but it would be cool.

      Honestly, if Bethesda aren't going to give reviewers time to formulate a proper review, reviewers should stop reviewing their games "properly". If they send out the review code for a game only one day before release, play the game for one day then review what you played as if it's the entire game, including docking points for having "an inconclusive ending that didn't tie up anything" (because obviously you didn't actually beat it). Yeah, you'll be criticised for giving a false review, but if Bethesda want to fuck with reviewers (who actually have an important job to do that their stupid policy is screwing with) then fuck them right back.

    Schreier's unable to prove this is in any way bad for Bethesda, the whole sorry farce has been because they've been able to orchestrate everything the way they've wanted and pulled the strings of everybody right up until not only the game's launch, but the critical 'word of mouth on social media' buzz time.

    Game reviews/news outlets outright dropping the pretense that they aren't as beholden to Metacritic as ordinary punters isn't exactly surprising, but it's still disheartening.

    Also, he doesn't get to say his piece on review scores in general, it detracts needlessly from whatever his original point was and it doesn't really wash with the rest of an industry that's operated on that basis for what, almost forty years?

    Last edited 10/05/17 9:55 am

    I think a lot of gamers need to dispense with constant hyperbole. "Oh my god this game is trash it got 79/100" and so on. It's so lame.

    I think the marketing was a little off? I honestly didn't know much about it until a few weeks before release.

    Someone at work was talking about Prey before it came out. I was like, "really? A sequel to a game that was meant to be vaporware at one point, and turned out to be a competent fps? Why do you even care that much about that? Oh wait, I remember that bounty hunter concept trailer... sounds okay I guess, oh it's slightly different, cool, bro"

    See, what he should have said was, "Hey Dok, those developers who made some of the best games you ever played inspired by one of the best games ever made are making a new game inspired by one of the other best games you ever played." I wouldn't need to read reviews.

    I saw Paul Tassi on Forbes complaining because his initial impressions were very cool on the opening hour, comments lambasted him for it, and it made it to metacritic as a review in progress. No self awareness that this is like giving commentary on the prologue to Dishonored 2 and saying that it's ultimately an uninspired shooter in a unique setting.

      That's some NMS level hype right there.

    Why is meta critic held in such high esteem anyway?
    It's not like they have a strict vetting process for 'professional reviewers' and their scoring system is flawed.
    Then we have the user reviews... YouTube-level moronic hyberbole.
    "0/10 this game is cancer, your mom is a whore" etc

      Exactly what I was trying to articulate.

      its because dev bonuses are normally tied to it and we already have seen what happens when a game doesnt reach that score with Fallout New Vegas.
      I just gunna leave it there because i know most of you roll your eyes at me when i go off on Zenimax and Take 2 for being absolute shit cunts

      Because sadly it's still a viable metric for somebody weighing risk vs reward in a investment situation.

      The base score isn't really the end metric they look at and no real weight is given to ridiculous hyperbole.
      They would take the base score, count the positive and negative reviews, factor in sales numbers and then apply estimates based off trends to get a final outlook at the games performance.

      It's not 100% accurate, but it's enough.

    It's contempt for gamers, is what it is. Despicable Bethesda trying to control the bad messaging of reviews, hoping to rely on Gamers who can't wait for reviews to buy their games. It's Anti- consumer assholism.

    I for one have no trouble waiting. I will wait one year till all the patches come in and the game is heavily discounted.

    Prey already has issues with lost saves. It's Disgusting.
    Never pre-order from Bethesda and never buy their games early.

    It might be a Zenimax directive too.

    Oh, and Metacritic doesn't make score based publisher decisions, shitty publishers make shitty publisher Metacritic decisions.

    I use Metacritic for their user scores which are far more accurately generally, than the ridiculously biased critic scores which are totally unreliable.

      Never preorder ANYTHING. Are you completely out of games and have absolutely nothing else to play? Then OK, sure, go out and get a game the very instant it becomes available, before you even know whether or not it's going to be any good. But NO-ONE will EVER be completely out of games and have absolutely nothing else to play (unless they're so poor that they sure as shit wouldn't be able to preorder a new AAA game anyway) so this applies to absolutely NOBODY, and anybody who preorders games is an idiot. YOU. CAN. WAIT. OK?

    Reviews are opinions and not objective fact except when things are actually mechanically broken. Doesn't seem like Bethesda have actually been hurt in any way - in fact given how people were banging on about 'no review copies must mean it's shit' when Doom came out, I'd say they've done better than expected.

    There's a plethora of 'journalist' and end user reviews out there, and somebody will meet your general likes and dislikes. Big name reviews like Kotaku or PCG just don't matter as much anymore. We've been told not to preorder games in the past, so why do we need early reviews then? Shouldn't we just wait for the rave to try it out?

    Aggregating scores and opinions nurnerically is also problematic - I remember PC PowerPlay ran an article once that basically said 'if it's 9/10 it's good or biased, anything less it's shit or biased.' Maybe it's time to get away from numbers as a whole and stop treating reviews as objective metrics of a game's worth but rather as opinion.

    Remember when John Walker reviewed ME Andromeda and basically called it shit, and everyone got upset at it? Walker hates AAA games, he's not the target market. No doubt he serves the alignments of those like him, but it's irrelevant to people who like AAA games and disagree with his opinion in general.

    Reviews are broken and overvalued. Can't blame Bethesda for taking a step away from it.

      Couldn't agree more, and while I'm sure it isn't the case hear at Kotaku you see so many cases of blatant paying for good reviews its hard to trust. With the dawn of war 3 release I saw one review from a major critic site that went along the lines of a list of complaints then proceeded to give it a 9/10.

      As for Prey I'm pretty sure there was a demo out for it before release so anyone who wanted to could check it. Now I'm not saying i think not giving review copies to sites like kotaku is a good thing but I don't believe its the massive wound out of pride to bethesda that people seem to make it out to be.

    Maybe reviewers shouldn't rush through the game just to be the first one with a review out?

      It's their job. The one with the first review gets the most reviews gets the most money. Asking them to not even try to have the earliest review is asking them to do their job suboptimally. Maybe developers shouldn't be putting reviewers in a "rock or a hard place" position where they have to choose between two ways of doing their job badly (turning in a rushed review vs turning in a late review)?

      If Prey is actually as fantastic as I hear it is, these reviewers are going to look like idiots.

    TBH the only written reviews I read are those here on Kotaku. That said, before I've read the review I've generally already watched videos from YouTubers I follow (as they play similar games to me) and I know whether I like the game or not.

    I just read through Kotaku reviews because they're generally well written and might mention something I didn't see from the first hour or two of gameplay like bug issues etc that the YouTubers deal with off camera.

    This'll probably only hurt Bethesda when they release a big name game that turns into a dud, since the only information anyone will be going on is their reputation.

    Review scores are flawed anyway.

    A reviewer will tell you that this "is one of the worst games ever made" and then give it 5/10.
    "No redeeming features" - 52%
    "Pissed blood for a week after playing this" - 4.9

    Until reviewers are prepared to consistently use the entire range of scores, and give the garbage games the scores they deserve, the Metacritic model is skewed.

    Reviews are inconsistent and messy at best for the most part. We should not rely on them to make our decisions when buying games. I listened to reviewers talk about Journey and paid $15 for that piece of trash that is barely worth a 3/10.

    What a whiny, moany article.

    Or...the reviewers could do a 1st impressions, then a full review 3 days later.

    Sacrificing integrity for clicks.

    Pathetic.

    A winner is Bethesda.

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