Bethesda Outline Anti-Consumer Review Policy
It's bad for everyone but Bethesda
Bethesda, developers of Elder Scrolls and Fallout and publishers of Dishonored, Doom, Wolfenstein and more, say that their policy now is to send out "media review copies" one day before their games come out. That's what they did with DOOM earlier this year and that's what they intend to do with the approaching releases of both Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2.
We think this is a bad thing for you and for everyone other than Bethesda.
It's a bad thing for you because it fundamentally means you will be in a worse position from which to make purchasing decisions before and on the day of a game's release. It will lead to more people wasting more money on games they don't like or which don't work and it will embolden other publishers and developers to do the already-common practice of withholding review copies more regularly.
Bethesda explain that they're outlining the policy now because when they held back DOOM review copies, it "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."
This is true. Traditionally, when a company holds back review code it's because they know that the game they're releasing has flaws and they want to delay the low scores of reviews til as late as possible. At the very least they want to withhold information from consumers until after the release of the game so that those who pre-ordered don't have a chance to cancel those pre-orders. In the instance of DOOM, this turned out not to be the case - a bunch of us loved it including Alec in his review. More and more frequently review copies are being withheld as a matter of course, regardless of the game's quality.
The post further explains that Bethesda "want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time," though they don't specifically say why. I've seen people guessing at reasons such as the increasing prevalence of day-one patches, but that seems a poor reason: day-one patches have been coming on PC for a long time and reviewers have always been expected to accept a certain number of minor differences between review code and finished games. They also don't reveal their hypocrisy: final code for Skyrim's Special Edition is currently in the hands of 'influencers'. Bethesda might argue that these do not count as "media review copies," but they're deliberately omitting the disparity from their policy in favour of the impression that they're attempting to create a level playing field.
Betshesda also say that they "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." That reads as particularly disingenuous to me. They "encourage you to wait" with this single sentence in a blog post which most of their audience will never see. Meanwhile, they encourage you to pre-order their games now on their own online store and every other online store, and in physical GameStop stores, and in adverts. In the case of Dishonored 2 that encouragement is backed up with "1-day early access" (just like the media), plus the Dishonored Definitive Edition, and the Imperial Assassin's Pack DLC. Bethesda know that even the most popular reviewer or review outlet cannot compete with people's love of their games or with the marketing onslaught they can afford to promote their game.
To be clear, I don't think the quality of Bethesda's games is the issue here. By all accounts, DOOM is good. Wolfenstein: The New Order was good. I loved Dishonored and everything we've seen of Dishonored 2 so far has been promising. Fallout 4 released with plenty of bugs, as the Fallout and Elder Scrolls series seem to do, but was still beloved by many, is still being played by tens of thousands right now on Steam, and was supported post-release by the developers with plenty of bug-fixing updates.
But I don't think any of this matters. Because as noted above this is fundamentally a statement by Bethesda that they want their consumers to be less informed for longer when they make purchasing decisions. It's also emblematic of an industry that wants to control the flow of information for themselves for longer. Companies do this either by handpicking and sometimes paying the "influencers" they want to work with, or by hiring their own writers and journalists (the review policy post is written by Gary Steinman, former editor of PC Gamer US) and streamers to talk about their games in the way they want them talked about.
In both instances, it's tempting to forgive Bethesda's policy as the inevitable act of a profit-seeking company: they have spent tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on creating something and so naturally want to do everything to guarantee its success. We are also not entitled to review code just because we want it. But I don't think we should simply accept companies acting in unethical or amoral ways simply because it nets them more money, as if the pursuit of money was an inviolable force that could not be tempered in the face of honesty and decency.
I hope it's clear why being less informed is bad for you. Bethesda's games might have been good of late, but that doesn't mean they won't release another Elder Scrolls Online, another Wet, another Rogue Warrior. It doesn't mean that their currently strong series' won't misfire.
I hope it's clear why the information that Bethesda release officially - even when it's livestreams done in partnership with media outlets as per those happening today and tomorrow with Twitch, IGN, GameSpot and PC Gamer - is less trustworthy than a review, because Bethesda will choose what parts of the game they show. These livestreams, like game trailers, exist primarily to sell the game and not to inform you about the quality of the game, and make the press - ourselves included - complicit in the marketing of games.
Of course, some people will also argue that this is simply our sour grapes: we're not being given preferential treatment, other people are, and this hurts our business. I hope that it is clear why things that are bad for the games press are bad for readers of the games press, too, however. Most of all, I hope it's obvious that though games companies have always done this, it will only happen more and more, because the games press is at a bigger disadvantage than ever thanks to the solely ads-funded business model and the audience being happier than ever to get their information either direct from a developer or from a favourite streamer or writer even if that person is employed or being paid by the game developer. There are lots of games companies already doing the same thing, such as 2K Games withholding Mafia 3 and only giving Civilization 6 review code to a single UK site. In many ways, I prefer that Bethesda have chosen to at least be clear about their policy upfront and in public.
If you do care, what can you do about it? Stop pre-ordering for starters, since to pre-order is to willfully abandon your ability to make a fully informed purchasing decision. Wait for reviews from genuine sources, even if they arrive a week after a game's release date. Refuse to be swept along by marketing which aims to create artificial cultural moments in order to make you feel like you're 'missing out' on something by not being able to take part in the immediate day-of-release Twitter conversation about a new game. For our part, we'll continue to write honest reviews whether we're able to publish them on the day of the game's release or long after.