Feeling bewildered by the lack of reviews for hotly anticipated games? Nick D. explains review embargoes and the potential side-effects they have to the industry.
How many people noticed the distinct lack of reviews leading up to the release of Bungie’s new IP, Destiny? Despite its huge advertising budget, and the massive amount of anticipation surrounding the game, there was not a single review to be until after the release. The reason for this is simple – Activision, Destiny’s publisher didn’t send out review copies to reviewers, thus forcing them to quickly scamper to compile a review after the release date. This is becoming less of an unusual practice. In some cases, reviewers will be given their advanced copy and be ordered not to release the review until a certain time, often a day before or on the day the game gets released. This occurred with the release of The Sims 4 recently. The problem with this practice is that, in most cases, the lack of a review means that the publisher is expecting low review scores and they don’t want these review scores to impact the sales of the product. As you might expect, this doesn’t fill average gamers with confidence towards the industry. Today, I’d like to look at the practise of review embargoes and how they damage the industry as a whole.
The purpose of the embargo isn’t necessarily malevolent. If a game is ready well before the release date, and the publisher sends out review copies very far in advance, they may want to slap a gag order on the reviewer. This is reasoning that reviews can be used to build hype, and, if reviews go up too early, people might forget about the game. There’s nothing like a string of reviews on every gaming site to build awareness, and an embargo ensures that they will be up in a coordinated way. However, there is a massive temptation in place for publishers to misuse the system.
You see, pre-order numbers are useful to publishers. They let them quantify some of the game’s success well before the release. At the same time, many gamers rely heavily on reviews to make their purchase decision, more so than with movies, television, or music. There is a reason publishers will give bonuses to developers who score over a certain Metacritic number. AAA video games are simply too expensive new for many to take a blind dive, which is why Steam Sales and the like provide a new lease on life for games that didn’t quite match the high standards of many reviewers.
Accordingly, publishers can use review embargoes to purposely avoid giving purchasers all the facts until they’ve already put their $60 on the table. This will lead to fewer cancelled preorders to be sure; however, it also erodes any kind of confidence that gamers have in the system (As a side note, the fact that publishers do this is a good piece of evidence that reviewers aren’t bought off to give great reviews, something many of the more conspiracy-minded gamers tend to overlook). After all, when you see the amazing graphics of Ryse: Son of Rome, and there’s all sorts of next gen-infused hype surrounding it and the Xbox One as a whole, it could be a bit jarring to see a 60 Metacritic score. This is exactly why there was a strict review embargo for this game. The publisher didn’t have confidence in it, and feared lowered sales due to bad reviews.
This kind of thing happens frequently in the film industry. Trust me, the next time a big Michael Bay movie comes up, you won’t see any reviews until after opening night. Other movies, ones who’s publishers have confidence in like say Guardians of the Galaxy will have their reviews up much sooner. It’s an attempt to trick people into believing the publisher’s hype, and not other purchasers or the opinion of professional reviewers.
The problem here is that movies are so much cheaper than games. Being lied to by publishers and the veil of a well put-together trailer doesn’t hurt nearly as bad as slapping $60 down straight out. And there are far more movie reviewers than video game reviewers, so each individual’s opinion matters less than the opinion of IGN’s reviewer for example. All of this serves to make gamers more reliant on reviews for other media, and make tricking gamers by withholding reviews even worse.
I don’t want to pick on Destiny too much, but Bungie actually responded to the quasi-embargo, so I feel it’d make a good example of a strange case. Bungie’s official word was that they couldn’t give advance copies to reviewers because the servers weren’t up, and any review based on the non-online experience would be missing a massive piece of the puzzle, and would actually mislead gamers instead of helping them with their purchase choice. This seems reasonable at first blush even if I doubt their inability to set up servers in advanced for reviewers since other online-centric games don’t have similar problems.
But the real problem was that this excuse simply wasn’t true in hindsight. There isn’t a ton of interactivity between players in Destiny, and, at release, there wasn’t even a raid available, meaning only small-scale strikes really needed any form of cooperation. Other than that, the online modes were standard FPS fare. Not to criticize Bungie, but this was far from a game that couldn’t be reviewed properly until the world was fully populated. The real reason for the embargo became apparent when the sub-80 reviews started coming in.
It’s important to remember with Destiny’s example that it had broken all sorts of preorder records. The stakes were high on Activision to maintain this number. If they had allowed sub-80 reviews of one of the years biggest games to go out prior to release, you can definitely bet that more than a few would be cancelled. As it happened, Destiny broke more records upon release, despite some blow back from the community. In other words, by forcing gamers to purchase based on hype and not reviews, Activision’s gambit paid off. They have actively been encouraged to pull this again.
You see, I respect companies who have the guts to give gamers all the information they can on their game before release, and trust that gamers will make the decision to make the decision that is best for them. This is a very old-fashioned approach because it’s simply not as effective as manipulating the system. It should go without surprise that my recent example of such behaviour comes straight from Nintendo. Hyrule Warriors was a fairly anticipated mashup by Koei’s Dynasty Warriors series and Nintendo’s Zelda series.
The reviews for this game went up weeks in advance, and they weren’t amazing. Not bad, mind you, simply 75 on Metacritic. To put that in perspective, Destiny scored better at 77 on Metacritic. Now, it’s important to realize that the stakes were much higher on the new IP Destiny than the fan service romp from Koei, but it’s still an important comparison. I respect Nintendo for allowing reviews to go up so early far more than I respect Activision. There’s that level of transparency that lets me know that I can trust the games that Nintendo publishers. Whereas, I’m now hesitant to buy anything published by Activision without a review backing it up.
And it’s all about confidence. Without confidence in the system, everything breaks down. If games are being hyped up to high heavens, every disappointment creates a new slew of jaded purchasers who won’t fall for that again. AAA games need massive sales and a lack of confidence by the gaming public is a huge blow against their future viability. As I continue to hammer through this article, games are expensive new. AAA publishers cannot wait until future Steam Sales to get their profit – they need it now. If they can’t rely on the quality of their games, they will resort to less above board tactics. But the more they do this, the fewer people will fall for them, and the harder it gets for them to continue operating. Worse still, confidence in high quality games begins to fade as gamers continue to feel jaded to the publishing industry.
So, what we’re left with is trust and reputation. Both of which need to be established before purchasers and vendors can work together in a conducive environment. Unfortunately, with review embargoes, we have publishers trying their best to trick purchasers, and gamers becoming unwilling to trust the industry they love so much.