By John Walker on June 17th, 2010 at 1:00 pm.
Review embargoes are a very normal part of games journalism. Companies will put restrictions on when publications are allowed to talk about games before they’re released. For previews this is done to control the dissemination of information. For reviews it’s to allow certain publications to have an exclusive, or more muckily, because they don’t want negative reviews to appear too much in advance of the game’s release. It’s potentially murky territory, but since it’s their game, they get to choose the conditions in which they make them available to magazines and websites before commercial release. It’s not unusual for everyone to be told, “Reviews of game X may be published at 5pm on the 26th”, and then you’ll see all the sites have their reviews appear at once.
What’s far more rare is a company attempting to control the publications of reviews after a game has been released. Especially not ten days after. This is what Realtime Worlds are astonishingly trying to enforce for APB.
The response to the closed beta has not been positive. Once the NDA was lifted (and in many cases well before) many players have reported that the customisation is extraordinary, but the driving and shooting are both poor. Which is an issue in a driving and shooting game. I’ve not played a single second of APB, and thus have no opinions on it either way, and am not in a position to break any form of NDA or embargo. But the impression I’ve picked up is negative. RTW could perhaps have picked up a similar vibe.
In such circumstances you might expect a developer to embargo reviews until the moment of release. The game goes live in the States on the 29th June, let’s say at 9am. So reviews might normally all appear at 9am on the 29th. So as expected, on 4th June, an email accompanying the Key To The City event details from PR agency Indigo Pearl, working for RTW, explained that the beta code is reviewable, with an embargo for the 29th June. Exactly as we’d expected.
But then on the 10th June, two days before the Key To The City open beta began, the a correction was sent out. We were informed that the Key To The City was in fact for previews only. We were told that reviews can be “finalised” when we have the released version of the game, which we’d get on 29th June. And then they added that reviews are embargoed until 6th July.
This is extraordinary. They are attempting to tell press that they cannot write a review of the game for a full week after the game is available for the public to buy.
It is, of course, impossible to enforce. The public will be able to write anything they wish about the game anywhere they wish from the very first second it’s available. Of course. Because to prevent this would, well, involve Realtime Worlds taking over the planet and beginning an international oppressive dictatorship. And while they’re certainly an ambitious developer, this is perhaps beyond their realm. So of course the gaming press can equally write about a released game whenever they choose, and a company attempting to prevent this is ludicrous and unenforceable.
So what’s the argument from their side? Well, we approached Indigo Pearl to ask for a comment from Realtime Worlds, and were promised one would be coming. That was a week ago and we’ve heard nothing. So we can but suppose:
MMO developers are incredibly sensitive about the amount of time a game is played for before reviews are written. It’s becoming increasingly common for negative or even average review scores to be met by the developer/publisher going into the reviewer’s account logs and publicising how much time they spent playing the game. Now, this is arguably simply imposing accountability on the reviewer, and is a discussion for another time. But in imposing a week’s embargo on reviews, they may perhaps be attempting to ensure that no reviews of the fully released code go up before they think a fair opinion might reasonably have been formed.
It’s reasonable for a developer to say that a review cannot be based on beta code, and to play in a beta you do agree to certain conditions. Most developers, by open beta stage, agree that it is suitable to be reviewed from, since it’s extremely unlikely it will be dramatically different from the boxed, released code that appears a couple of weeks later. Open betas are more about stress-testing servers than fixing the game in time for release. But there’s no reason why RTW shouldn’t refuse this. So perhaps in imposing their week late restriction they believe they’re ensuring fair reviews of finished code.
Or perhaps they’re trying to prevent reviews from appearing during the peak week for sales. Which, if the game proves to be poor, would certainly be to their advantage. If this is their reason, then they are attempting to silence criticism of their commercially released product, preventing consumers from receiving appropriate purchasing advice.
Whatever their reason is, they’ve crossed a very obvious, very ridiculous line. When anyone anywhere can post a review to their blog, a comments thread, or a site’s reader reviews section, it’s beyond daft to think that the site itself cannot.
Yes, it’s impossible to entirely separate this argument from that of for how long an MMO should be played for before publishing a review. But this is not a decision for publishers/developers to make. And certainly not one they can enforce.
But it’s one they’re still trying to. Today journalists received keys for the current open beta directly from Realtime Worlds, which were accompanied by this message:
“Please note that there is no embargo for preview coverage and you will be able to post screenshots from the game to support this.
Before finalising reviews, we want you to experience the full, rich experience of APB as it is meant to be seen. We want you to see wild customer customisations, player progression and clans making an impact on the living breathing city of San Paro. This key code also therefore grants you, along with our pre-order customers, VIP early access before the official launch day. June 26th in North America and June 28th in Europe.
The review embargo is Tuesday, 6th July at 8am UK time.”
It’s now, incredibly, ten days after the game is available to the public before reviews are “allowed” to be published.