Bethesda vs. the Pre-Release Review

Originally published on Trevor Trove on October 25, 2016

I have to hand it to the Public Relations team at Bethesda: they are getting really good at brazenly announcing news on their blog that makes them look like the saints, even when they’re piling on a load of shit.

A month and a half ago, they brazenly announced that – months after promising the feature – the PlayStation 4 versions of Fallout 4 and Skyrim would not include mod support after all. And they audaciously put the blame square at Sony’s feet. Less than a month later, a new post revealed some sort of compromise had been reached and the PlayStation 4 versions of the games would support mods after all, albeit in a limited fashion.

Last week, they were pleased to announce that they will be working as a publishing partner with Nintendo on the new Switch device, but were also quick to point out that the imagery of Skyrim shown running on the console is not indicative of an official announcement that Skyrim will run or is in development for the Switch. Because why disrupt sales for the game coming out this week when you could get people to buy it now and then potentially again in six months in a more portable form?

And today, Bethesda once again published on their blog an announcement that they would no longer be providing advance copies of their game to reviewers, but are trying to spin it as though it is in the player’s interest.

They begin by saying they “value media reviews” and spend the rest of the post completely undermining that opening statement.

And the annoying thing is I get it. In a day and age where the excessive video game hype culture can get millions of people to pre-order a game and buy in without hearing anyone else’s first-hand accounts of the game, why would Bethesda risk disrupting that revenue by giving critics a chance to point out a game’s shortcomings and give people a chance to cancel their pre-order?

The Bait and Switch of Fallout 4

Looking back on it now, the abbreviated time between Fallout 4’s reveal and release, with no formal hands-on preview coverage in between seems less like an exciting marketing strategy and more like one of fiscal responsibility: get as many copies of the game sold through pre-orders as possible before people start complaining about the game being a disappointing Fallout 3.5 rather than a more worthy successor. And I say that as someone who pre-ordered the special edition and gave it my Game of the Year award despite its flaws.

But the overwhelming response to the game was much more lukewarm in the month after release. If the media had gone hands-on with the title, I imagine most of the preview coverage would have driven the conversation in that direction that much sooner, ultimately putting a dent in sales and leading people to wait until a Game of the Year edition or eventual discounts.

Even with their Season Pass, Bethesda shrewdly announced that more content would be on the way but they were going to have to charge more for it. Under the guise of benevolence, they gave people a chance to buy the Season Pass at the original $30 price point or be penalized for waiting with a $50 price point. All for the promise of content that was not yet playable and half of which would not be announced until E3 of this year; all of which was critically underwhelming. But what do they care? They already got our money up front.

And Now Back to Today’s Announcement

In today’s blog post, Bethesda tries to subtly criticize the media and review sites for the perception surrounding Doom this year when they didn’t provide advance copies of that title either:

“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.”

A couple things.

First, this narrative conveniently disregards the fact that the multiplayer was largely seen as a forgettable disappointment. Now obviously, Bethesda isn’t going to highlight that response in their own press release. But that’s where me and many other industry personalities come in. To remind you of the actual history. Not just the parts Bethesda wants you to remember. And to top it off, the reason Bethesda gave for not providing pre-release review copies was centered entirely around this (lackluster) multiplayer.

“DOOM is a robust game comprised of a single-player campaign, online multiplayer, and SnapMap. We believe all three elements are important parts of the complete DOOM experience, and are meant to be experienced as part of a complete package. As DOOM’s SnapMap and multiplayer modes both require access to a server that won’t be live prior to launch, review copies will arrive on launch day.”

Do you smell that? It’s more Public Relations spin.

Second, the argument implicit in the blog statement is that a good game should be exempt from industry standards. When conventional wisdom and years of examples reinforce the thinking that a game not sent out in advance might be a bad sign, your test case for this new “no pre-release copies” strategy is going to be held to those same standards. The quality of a game (good or bad) is not the criteria for whether a game should be reviewed in advance.

Pre-release reviews benefit the consumer by providing them additional opinions of a game before they drop the money to play it on day one and help set expectations. But since those opinions are more likely to hurt Bethesda in this hype-culture than help Bethesda, they’ve made the call to walk away from them. So in the span of two months, they’ve openly run the risk of burning bridges with Sony and games media/enthusiast press/influencers/etc. in moves that suggest to me the notion that Bethesda believes it has enough goodwill with their fans that they can get away with abandoning these relationships.

Like I said, I have to hand it to them. That’s ballsy.

How Does This Affect Trevor Trove?

Bethesda’s decision has no direct impact on me or this site. I’m nowhere near being high-profile enough to be on Bethesda’s media list. I have purchased every game I have reviewed for this site. Even with Brut@l, which was provided to me by the developer, I had already purchased the game as I intended to try it out anyway. The offer from Stormcloud Games just meant I had the game a couple weeks in advance and was able to provide actual pre-release content on the game to inform my audience ahead of time whether or not it might be a game for them.

That said, I did have Dishonored 2 on pre-order through Best Buy. In order to be a part of the conversation when the most eyes are on these games, I try to play a lot of them as they come out and get my reviews up in a timely manner. Pre-ordering is a simple means to do that. As a Best Buy Unlocked member, I get new games at 20% off and occasionally get a $10 Best Buy certificate on those pre-ordered titles. Dishonored 2 pre-orders also come with the ever-enticing pre-order bonus content and the real kicker: Dishonored: Definitive Edition. Two games for the price of one. Even if Dishonored 2 sucks, I’ll have at least gotten a remastered version of a game that I genuinely enjoyed in the original.

But today, to send the tiniest of messages, I canceled my pre-order for the game.

As a Best Buy Unlocked member, the 20% discount will still be there for me regardless of when I buy the game. Amazon Prime members, however, only have a two-week window after the game launches before their discount disappears. So the reality of the situation, implicit in Bethesda’s messaging to those fans that they are encouraging “to wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts” certainly means missing out on the pre-order content, copy of Dishonored: Definitive Edition, and in many cases those fans will actually wind up paying more for less content.

This is where I get the most frustrated on this issue. The whole mentality to “speak with your wallet” is very catchy but not always a viable option for those who still want to play the content (or who, like myself, are looking to cover it). We will wind up paying more for the experience because we took a principled stand against a corporation that doesn’t actually give a shit about our principled stands.

I’m fortunate enough to have a job that affords me the luxury to buy many of these games at or near full price in order to write about them when all eyes are watching. But to the people with more limited financial means, sometimes pre-ordering makes the most financial sense compared to the alternative.

What Does it Mean for Reviews?

Ultimately, the reviews for games like Skyrim Special Edition, Dishonored 2, and any others that follow suit will suffer. Embargoes are often implemented in order to give everyone equal time to craft their content and even out the playing field. Instead, sites and reviewers will burn themselves out rushing through games like these in an effort to be the first to publish and will potential overlook aspects that the average player (who isn’t trying to rush through a 10- to 20-hour game in a weekend) would experience. In this instance, that’s putting added stress on whoever is selected for these reviews at sites like IGN, Gamespot, Polygon, etc. to deliver in what is already one of the busiest times for reviewers.

But perhaps one of the harshest realities of gaming in the modern age though isn’t that pre-release reviews can tell people if a game is good or bad; it’s that they have to tell you if a game is playable or not. Will you be able to even get through the campaign? Or will the PlayStation 4 version of Skyrim Special Edition repeat history and completely brick your system? It would suck to be any of those people who pre-order the game in advance assuming that at the very least they would get a product that, you know, worked.

Caveat emptor.

In Closing

I’ll be interested to see how the media sites push back on this decision from Bethesda. Already, many of the editors and sites I follow have come out against this kind of move. I’ll be curious to see if larger sites confront the matter head-on with an op-ed similar to this one. Will they continue operating business as usual and treat the company and their games like any other triple-A relationships? Or will they stand up against this bully-tactic and say, “Ok, we’ll forego regurgitating your press releases and trailer reveals. If you don’t see value in our audience, you can find them yourself. Prey has way less name recognition so you’re probably going to need help getting eyes on that one, right?”

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