On October 25th Bethesda’s Global Content Lead Gary Steinman published a brief post on the company’s official blog, succinctly explaining that going forward they will no longer send early copies of their games to journalists for review purposes. Instead, outlets will receive their copies just one day before launch.
At Bethesda, we value media reviews.
We read them. We watch them. We try to learn from them when they offer critique. And we understand their value to our players.
Earlier this year we released DOOM. We sent review copies to arrive the day before launch, which led to speculation about the quality of the game. 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.
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. 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.
We also understand that some of you want to read reviews before you make your decision, and if that’s the case we encourage you to wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts.
Skyrim Special Edition releases globally on October 28 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. Dishonored 2 releases globally on November 11 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC.
The statement provoked a negative reaction from many in traditional games media, some of whom cried out that the move is a deliberate play to sneak sub-par games into consumers’ hands without being held to a standard of quality.
I reckon this will become an industry standard. Why risk losing those precious preorders over reviews? https://t.co/PF12h8uszs
— Jim Sterling (@JimSterling) October 25, 2016
To be fair to Bethesda, there are some potential benefits to the decision that aren’t so unreasonable. For one, online gameplay is becoming more and more central to video games these days, and the population/stability of a game’s servers pre-launch are rarely representative of those games once they launch. Similarly, more and more games are receiving patches day one or later that fundamentally change or improve a game’s performance. So by the time a modern video game has actually launched, it may be in a wholly different condition than it was one three weeks ago when sites like GameSpot and Polygon put together their reviews. Lastly, online ‘influencers’ like Angry Joe on YouTube have become a huge source of coverage versus traditional outlets, and publishers may consider that kind of coverage more beneficial than conventional criticism altogether, feeling written game reviews to be a thing of the past.
What makes it hard to take those points into consideration is the two-faced language in Steinman’s statement. His wording indicates that Bethesda both understands the value of reviews, but also actively wants to remove them from the equation until their games have launched, which is an alarming contradiction, especially in a games industry where day one sales dramatically influence a title’s success. He doesn’t really explain why they feel this is a worthwhile change either, other than very excitedly boasting about how much money they made with DOOM using this practice, so, congrats on the new car? I guess?
The thing we want to be explicitly clear about is this: Regardless of Bethesda’s intentions, holding back review copies is unequivocally anti-consumer. It only affects Bethesda fans in a negative way, and it’s worrying how few of these fans are talking about it, especially when you factor in our pre-order culture which is unlike anything else in the entertainment industry. Considering how hostile and petty gamers can be when we don’t get what we want, we’ve essentially rewarded publishers for giving us less and less for our dollar at every step of the way, and as a whole seem totally fine with this latest step in that campaign.
At this point in time, pre-order sales are a focal point for every major publisher out there today, and it’s been that way for maybe the last decade. This has never been more apparent than with Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs in 2014, which had record-breaking pre-launch sales followed by a pretty dissatisfactory reception on launch. Droves of people threw money down for the game based on pre-alpha demos and trailers that ended up being wildly misrepresentative of the final build. Today, Watch_Dogs is still a financial success for Ubisoft, but you wouldn’t know it based on the general disdain that fans seem to have for it. In 2016, Ubisoft published The Division, which faced a remarkable 93% drop-off in player count after its first 3 months on Steam, despite being touted by Ubi as one of its fastest-selling games ever. How many pre-order sales do you predict for Watch_Dogs 2, which is coming out this year? My guess is a lot.
Bethesda isn’t blind to the pre-order market. They are very much aware of Fallout 4’s pre-sale numbers. One way or another Bethesda realized that opening the door to early criticism is a hurdle they don’t need to consider anymore, and with the eagerness fans have shown to buy something sight unseen on faith alone, there’s no reason for them to think otherwise. At E3 last year, the same day they officially announced Fallout 4, they asked fans to pre-order the season pass for $60, adding that they had no idea what it would be, but promising it would be worth the full price. And they received applause for it. If today George Lucas asked you to buy tickets for a movie he’s planning to film next year, how many of you would head to the box office? $60 USD is a lot of money to give away ahead of time for pretty much anything right now, and video games don’t have the best track record when it comes to delivering on quality.
Bethesda is doing away with early criticism of their work and daring consumers to change irresponsible buying habits that show no signs of stopping. Killing off early reviews is not a sure sign that Bethesda will stop caring about making good games, but it absolutely opens the door for it. Dishonored 2 releases November 11, 2016. We hope it’s a strong follow-up to one of the most refreshing new IPs in years. But we hope it succeeds based on the game’s actual quality, and not a nifty pre-order incentive.
Images: Ubisoft, Bethesda