On Bethesda and Pre-Release Review Codes

It is high time for us to stop coddling Bethesda.

Let me just start by saying that I historically have been a huge Bethesda fangirl. Recently, however, the company has tested my love for them because of their new review policies. Since the release of DOOM, Bethesda decided that they will only be releasing review keys for their games one day before release because they “want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time”1. This is absolute horseshit, on two levels.

  1. If you are releasing review keys the day beforehand, “the media” are still not “experiencing the game at the same time” as people who get their copies the day of release, so their excuse for this decision already smacks of insincerity.
  2. Despite their claim that they “ encourage you to wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts.”1 their marketing is clearly designed to pit the consumer’s own patience for reviews against their desire to maximize purchase value.

I’ll be focusing this article on the second point, but the first one is equally important, if more self-explanatory. First, let’s put the decision in context and figure out why Bethesda’s new policy is so particularly egregious.

In the early days of videogame industry growth (the 90s and early 2000s), games were a bit of a niche hobby, and reviews weren’t as big of a deal.  Now, video games have become a big business, where reviews matter more because good reviews = more investment.  Reviews are, essentially, free advertising for good games and valuable feedback for bad ones and so it makes good business sense for companies to give out review copies well before release, so that they would get the following reviews and advertising.  

However, companies may not have necessarily completed their game, and the released review copies would’ve reflected that, and so the review embargo was born.

Review embargoes set a date and time at which reviewers are allowed to release their reviews, usually a day or so before the game’s release.  The positive spin on a review embargo is that (assuming review copies are provided well ahead of time) the reviewers are able to create a comprehensive picture of the game for review, rather than rushing to release theirs in the first wave of reviews (which is a significant boost to the attention a review receives).  The negative is, of course, that consumers still have to wait for the day before a game’s release to see reviews for it, and with games advertising pre-order bonuses and building hype for months before release, a consumer’s desire to maximize what they get out of buying the game is pitted in a war of attrition against their patience and desire for reviews of the product before purchase.  Still, with consideration for reviewers, the embargo is not a wholly bad practice.

Bethesda’s new policy backtracks the advantages of an embargo to reviewers, further harms consumers, and only benefits the publisher themselves.  Because the review copies are only released the day before launch anyway, Bethesda has no need for an embargo.  The reduction to competitive pressure on reviewers from an embargo no longer exists, and in the case of Bethesda’s games, reviews available at release take the form of brief, unplanned first-impressions videos, and hurried professional reviews from critics who likely have not even finished the game.  This puts enormous pressure on any critic without a loyal following and with a desire to release reviews in time for pre-order bonuses, and makes consumers wait until moments before release for uninformative reviews to make a decision about where to spend their money.

Since the review policy was initiated with DOOM, Bethesda has had 5 major releases.   DOOM’s reviews have been mostly positive, but its multiplayer mode was largely panned and noted to be seemingly “tacked on,” (a problem I will talk about in another post).  Dishonored 2, on the other hand, had a mediocre release in terms of sales at release2, though ultimately reviews turned out to be positive except on PC, which had major port problems, and Prey is getting positive initial reviews, though again launched with flimsy sales despite little competition3. Bethesda has been using their 80+ review scores as evidence that they should continue the new policy, basically saying “everything’s been ok so far, so what’s the harm”. In the original blog post on the new policy, they also say that if we, the consumers, really want reviews, then we should just wait for them to come out a week or two after release.

Now, I have a problem with this for two reasons: hype-driven marketing and pre-order bonuses.

In terms of marketing their games, Bethesda is not doing anything new.  Games nowadays are sold on hype from trailers and presentations from conventions. Preorders are being used as a metric for the success of a game before it’s even been reviewed or released.  Bethesda can hype up their games as much as they want, that’s fine (why else would they be paying a marketing department?), but the new review policy that essentially keeps informative reviews away from consumers tells me they expect us to buy their games based on hype and trust in their company. I may love Bethesda, but I wouldn’t trust a company to know what I like and what I want to play, and I’m sure a lot of other people feel the same way.

Even worse are pre-order bonuses. Bonuses say “Buy this game before release and we’ll give you a leg up on other players, or extra content that you will get to experience before anyone else” (What happened to wanting everyone to experience the game at the same time?).  Such bonuses are common in big game releases, but for a company that has said they “understand that some of you want to read reviews before you make your decision,”1 they don’t seem to understand that people who want to read reviews also want to have all the content that’s for sale.

Even with incentives, I as a consumer have no way of knowing that I will want to invest $60+ into a game. Not just from the company-produced trailers, hell no. But if I wait for some reviews to come out, and make my decision based on those, I may have missed out on content because I never pre-ordered it, and honestly, I think that sucks.  Bethesda has instituted a catch-22 policy pitting my patience against their time-limited content.

Legally, I’m pretty sure the consumer has no right to a review of the product before it’s released, but ethically, it’s the right thing to do. If Bethesda continues to have this policy, I think they should stop offering pre-order bonuses for games they will not release codes for. We consumers will have only a small idea of what we’re getting and we’d be paying out the ass for something mysterious.

We do have the steam refund policy, and Bethesda is using refunds as the “demo” for Prey. While PS4 and Xbox One have demos of the first hour of gameplay, Arkane’s creative director disregarded PC users saying “Steam players can just return the game [prior to playing] two hours so it’s like a demo already.”4 Which, I’m sure, is not how Steam’s policy was intended to be used.

Given that Bethesda’s releases since the blog post on their new review policy have not been performing as well as previous Bethesda games, I have to ask what good the policy is doing.  There has to be some reason Bethesda would want their games to “be experienced at the same time”. Maybe it’s that they haven’t been very confident in the quality of their releases lately.  Doom had its extremely weak, tacked-on multiplayer.  Dishonored 2 had only one of the two studios from the first game working on it (the other was developing Prey).  Skyrim Special Edition was a rehash of a 5-year-old game that still had some of the bugs the previous version launched with.  The Elder Scrolls card game was a card game. Maybe Bethesda’s become excessively concerned about games being leaked (i.e Fallout 4), which we have evidence of because Bethesda’s implemented new anti-piracy tech on new releases since Fallout 4.

These are somewhat plausible theories about why Bethesda would do this, but the fact remains that it’s hurting consumers and it’s making fans lose trust in the company, so whatever reason Bethesda has for using the policy needs to be fixed in some other way.

Get your shit together Bethesda, because I like to play, not get played.

 

Sources:

  1. https://bethesda.net/en/article/42QH1pTNpKSYIcgKK2C4wW/bethesda-and-game-reviews
  2. http://metro.co.uk/2016/11/14/dishonored-2-sales-down-38-on-first-game-in-uk-charts-6256531/
  3. http://metro.co.uk/2017/05/08/mario-kart-8-deluxe-beats-prey-in-uk-sales-charts-6622298/
  4. http://www.pcgamer.com/prey-creative-director-says-steam-refunds-are-like-a-demo-already/
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