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. It’s something all gamers should factor in as they assess when and how they’ll 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 last spring’s 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 neighborhood as 2K Games, which provided media review codes for Mafia III, Civilization 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 10 am, 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 color 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 favoring 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-review”s 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 maximizing sales, which they seem determined to do by increasing pre-release hype. Even publishers that are getting more conservative about reviews tend to be excited to offer lots of access for previews and pre-release 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 $20 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’ve 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 maneuver 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.