Recently, Bethesda made a news post on their blog discussing how they would be handling review copies for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2, their two holiday releases this year. Outlets that usually receive review copies days in advance are getting both of these games only one day before they launch. While there is nothing in the post that explicitly states that this is a new policy that will continue after this year, there is also nothing to suggest that they would do otherwise.
I should get my personal biases out of the way first. I am attempting to pursue games criticism as a career. This is almost certainly a bad development for me personally. A major publisher undermining the reviews process has obvious negative implications for anybody either currently working in or with aspirations to work in this field. However, I am not currently receiving games from Bethesda or any publisher. This does not affect my current work on this site whatsoever, but you should still consider the fact that I have a vested interest in the survival of game reviews.
So with that out of the way, let’s get to the point.
This is one of the most anti-consumer decisions that a publisher has made in recent history.
Videogame reviews are important. Aside from all art critique being important on a cultural and intellectual level, videogame reviews, more than any other type of media review, can inform purchasing decisions. The bestselling videogames still cost $60 each. I follow the industry closely and know which games are coming out that I definitely want to buy, but not everybody pays that much attention. There are plenty of casual video game consumers who on November 11 or November 12 will google “Dishonored 2 review”. What they see after a quick glance could be the difference between buying or not buying the game. When this happens, they should have the widest possible breadth of opinions available to them. Instead, the only thing they will have at their disposal is a bunch of reviews from no-name sites that were rushed out to generate attention. There are plenty of problems that I have with game reviews, and I could write an entire essay about them, but they do serve a purpose. However, in order to properly serve that purpose, the reviewer needs to be given an appropriate amount of time to fully experience the game. This new policy from Bethesda only serves to provide a lack of information at the time when the most people are looking for information.
For years it has been common knowledge that when a videogame company sends out late review copies, it probably means bad things about the game. It is the equivalent of a movie not being screened for critics. It tells people not to pre-order and to wait for outlets they trust to play through the game first. While this doesn’t necessarily help the everyday google user that I talked about earlier, it does help a consumer who is more informed but still needs to read reviews for budgetary reasons or games they are on the fence about. Bethesda is completely blurring this line, and they were either super sneaky or lucky with the launch of Doom this spring. Reviewers were not given copies of Doom until very late, and it lead to a lot of concern amongst fans. However, Doom reviewed and sold very well. I started playing it recently, and I agree that it is a fantastic game. It is more than possible to believe that Bethesda didn’t know what they had with Doom. The marketing for that game was bad, and the multiplayer beta was poorly received. It is reasonable to assume that they didn’t realize there was a thirst for that type of single-player campaign and were concerned about Doom’s reception. However, that has started to make people question the concern over late review copies. If great games are being given out late, then why should people be concerned? It doesn’t help that they are rolling out this policy with two games that will probably be well received. Skyrim already reviewed well in 2011 and was the consensus game of the year (despite a terrible PS3 version that the press mostly ignored), and Dishonored 2 is the sequel to a critical darling and has gotten nothing put positive coverage up to this point. So when Bethesda comes out with Prey next year, a game that shows promise but is far from a sure thing, people won’t read into the fact that they aren’t giving out early review copies. I would like to think that the enthusiast community is smart enough to see through this and not accept this kind of behavior from Bethesda, but reading through some Neogaf threads on the matter has left me discouraged to say the least.
But taking a step back from why reviews are important and how this move undermines them, I want to take a look at Bethesda’s stated reasoning for this move and expose it for the blatant hypocrisy that it is. They say, “we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time.” That’s a nice sentiment, not wanting regular fans to feel left out or feel like others are being given unfair special treatment (aka “the ability to do their jobs”), but it falls apart pretty quickly. Just four days before this blog post from Bethesda, youtuber Grohlvana who makes Elder Scrolls and Fallout videos for a subscriber base of about 165 thousand people posted a video entitled “Skyrim Special Edition PRE-RELEASE GAMEPLAY! – Part 1.” He did not steal this copy off a production line or decide to just re-upload official videos of a game he’s excited about. As he explains in his own words, “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.” In the two weeks since he has uploaded 11 Skyrim videos. It is clear that Bethesda cares less about “everyone…experiencing our games at the same time” and more about controlling the messaging surrounding the game. Grohlvana is a safe bet if you only want positive coverage of your game out there. A professional critic who has less interest today than they had five years ago in Bethesda’s tired, stale, and shallow formula might not be as beneficial for the game’s sales (Note: The game currently has an 80 average on Opencritic, which is not a bad score by any means, but is a far cry from the 96 metascore that the original game had). I want to make it clear that I have nothing against Grohlvana. He would probably refer to himself as an entertainer and not a critic or a journalist. He is just making videos for his audience to enjoy, and while they’re not for me, I respect that. But Bethesda deciding that they can get the word out about their game without the hassle of “real critique” is worrisome. It’s also ironic considering just six years ago they were holding bonuses hostage behind metacritic scores.
I don’t want to make this just a Bethesda issue though. While they are the only company who has come out and made this a policy, they are far from the only publisher trying to downplay the significance of reviews. 2K sent out launch day review copies for Mafia III and Civilization VI last month, while Warner Bros. was caught paying youtubers to only show positive aspects of Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor without worrying about disclosure. This has been a chilling development for a while; this Bethesda policy just advanced it and removed any semblance of doubt.
What Bethesda’s doing is wrong, and at some point members of the press need to put their foot down and take a stance. They are the only people with the ability to solve this problem, and it is solved through more than just telling people not to pre-order. While that helps, it really puts all of the onus on the consumers, most of whom don’t follow games closely enough to receive that message. The press reaction to Bethesda’s post is encouraging, but it’s not there yet. IGN had three stories about the topic, including a well thought out response to the policy from Review’s Editor Dan Stapleton. Polygon posted a story about it that warns people not to pre-order. Kotaku Editor-in-Chief Stephen Totilo wrote a highly recommended piece about the status of reviews as a whole while noting that this doesn’t really affect the way they do business. Game Informer included a concise but strong opinion at the end of a news article covering the game. Plenty of other outlets have written great responses, and some sites, such as GameSpot, have remained silent on the matter.
Writing about this and exposing why it’s a problem is a great start, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The press is often used to drum up excitement for games. Preview cycles are planned by PR and marketing teams. This is normally a gray area in terms of ethics (real ethics, not GG ethics), but it’s tacitly accepted that they can do this without letting early excitement color their judgement once the actual review comes around. After all, they are fans of games themselves, and you want games to be good and to give developers the benefit of the doubt. And there is some benefit to knowing stuff about a game before it comes out; it lets people who are working on a limited budget plan ahead a bit. However, nobody benefits more from preview coverage than the publisher. The understanding has always been that in return for previews that are developer guided and optimistic when negative, the press gets to freely criticize a game around release. The publisher benefits from introducing the game to that site’s audience, but they don’t get to take advantage of them. With Bethesda betraying one side of this deal, the press should stop feeling obligated to hold up the other. I would implore journalists to stop doing previews for Bethesda games. Cover straight news and leave it at that. Cover the game fairly once it releases, but do not help the publisher generate pre-orders and then turn around and tell people not to pre-order. I have to give credit to Giant Bomb for taking this stance. On the Giant Beastcast last week, Jeff Gerstmann said that he would have cancelled a Dishonored 2 preview that they only turned down due to scheduling issues, and on the Giant Bombcast he said that they “probably won’t devote a lot of our time to preview coverage of their games on a go-forward basis.”
I am going to take my own advice here. Whether or not I cover Bethesda games will make no substantial difference, but I have to take at least a symbolic stance. Until this policy changes, I will not cover any Bethesda games until they release. I will cover big news stories that I think can lead to interesting discussions. I also believe that developers have the right to have their art critiqued, so I will not shy away from writing reviews or OOTs for Bethesda games. However, I will not cover game announcements, pre-release footage, or E3 press conferences, and I will not include any Bethesda games in yearly previews or similar pieces. Bethesda doesn’t even know that I exist and this won’t make me lose any of my non-existent readers. But I need to practice what I preach, and I truly believe this is the best way for outlets to handle this situation. I hope more of them realize this, and I hope Bethesda eventually changes the way the handle reviews.
Note: This piece was lightly edited in September 2018 as part of a site overhaul. Also, hey, Bethesda changed their policy, and Pete Hines mentioned it was because they were annoyed at the coverage it was getting. So, good on the games press for not rolling over on this one.