The gaming press is up in arms today after Bethesda announced they would no longer provide early copies of their games to reviewers. This began with Doom back in May and prompted many at the time to speculate they were trying to sweep a dud under the rug. While the game exceeded expectations, it left a lot of sites rushing to get reviews out the door. The news that this will be the way of all Bethesda games from now on is understandably concerning for publications whose stock and trade is prompt reviews. Bethesda’s reasoning for this is, allegedly, a desire for reviewers and customers to experience the game at the same time. The problem with this is firstly, that games reviewers and general consumers have entirely different reasons for playing the game, and secondly, Bethesda is already busily handing out early copies of Skyrim Special Edition to influential Youtubers
This leaves only the disappointing conclusion that Bethesda is withholding review copies to maintain greater control over their sales and avoid any bad press that might jeopardise those precious pre-orders. As pre-selling becomes a greater part of the industry’s marketing strategy, publishers grow more risk averse when it comes to the press. Only this week, Jim Sterling of thejimquisition.com is reporting that publishing giant EA has effectively blacklisted him because he is perceived as a “wild card”. Both publishers want to remove that unknown element, a reviewer whose opinion they don’t already know.
I won’t speculate about what’s coming from Bethesda, bugs aside their games have been unfaltering high quality, it’s folly to suggest this implies a lack of confidence in their products. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for studios like Warner Bros. or Ubisoft, that have much more shaky records, and would benefit greatly from getting the likes of Assassin’s Creed Unity or Arkham Knight out the gate without any reviews. When they follow in Bethesda’s footsteps, and follow they will, it’ll take one more chip out of consumer confidence.
This has been taken by some as a death knell for the gaming press; the final blow to an industry that got too clever. There is a passionate and vey entrenched crowd who were much more comfortable in the days of “Planet Quake” when everyone had a fanpage, everyone liked everything, and the press only existed to hype sequels and host patches. Youtube shares some of that pioneer spirit of the early web, with small creators carving up uncharted territory and discovering fertile ground. But the gold rush has started, the big companies want a piece of the action too, and they’re not afraid to buy it. While much ink has been spilled about how Youtube is the new media; consumer and critic all rolled into one, it should be concerning to Youtube viewers and gaming press doubters that those same Youtubers are regarded as consistent producers of positive coverage by big companies who want your money.
While it’s true the balance of the media is changing, I’d like to suggest a more positive interpretation for the gaming press. The field has grown up. It has been a difficult few years, but in the last decade it has matured with the artform. As games like Bioshock and Deus Ex talk more about art, and ideas, and emotion, so does the press. Similarly, as digital media becomes more intricate, it begins to affect how we play games, and how we pay for them. In the era of DLC and micro-transactions, the business side of the industry is influencing the player in more and more direct ways. In recent years the press has become much more comfortable discussing how the business of video games works, and why we should care.
We like to talk about video games like they’re a young medium, a new art form, but that isn’t really true anymore. Video games are going through their difficult adolescence. As creators fight with consumers about what games should and should not be, the indie market is freed the death grip from the old studios. We see greater signs of an industry in crisis. The future has never been brighter for games, and never worse old companies who aren’t interested in games as an art form and never were.
Bethesda might seem untouchable, their games are great sellers and critical darlings and they own some of the most successful franchises of all time. In an industry where critical success seems as random as a toss of the dice, they’re one of the few studios that doesn’t seem to be wandering blindfold. Yet they must confront the same crisis. The bubble is at bursting point, the pre-order gravy train is one more No Man’s Sky away from derailing, and to squeeze one more analogy into this sentence, the boot will soon be on the other foot.
Five years ago when Skyrim launched it got rave reviews. It cleaned up on Metacritic and went on to be one of the most successful games that year. In fact, during its launch window it received only one modestly critical review, from the UK’s Official Playstation Magazine. I don’t have a copy of a five year old print magazine to hand, but here’s an extract neatly saved by Metacritic. (sans author, unfortunately.)
“I love this game, I really do, but I can’t give it the score I want in its current state. That would be unfair to anyone forking out £40 for a something that might work. It might not. The most amazing game of the year is in there somewhere. I really hope Bethesda can get it out.”
This is the only review that discovered the infamous Skyrim PS3 bug, a game crippling error that gradually reduced the framerate until the game was unplayable. All outlets would be on the story after launch, but only one caught it in time to warn PS3 owners not to buy the game. Why did it go unnoticed? Bethesda only sent out review copies on Xbox 360. This didn’t stop a huge number of outlets publishing the same review for both platforms, of course, and despite the fact that OPM got a PS3 copy there’s no evidence anybody else seriously considered it necessary.
This lack of scrutiny is a large part of the reason trust in the gaming press has been eroded. In 2011 publishers could rely on this lack of scrutiny. They could rely on a press that was more concerned with early coverage, and exclusive screenshots than on effect, implications, and influence. Things have changed. It has been slow and divisive at times, but the results speak for themselves. While Bethesda has always tried to play the press, they’ve lost confidence in their ability to guarantee a good story, even without getting that bad review they fear so much. This is a sign that games journalism is living up to its responsibilities; for the first time in a long time it feels like the medium is truly necessary. And when the next Arkham Knight or No Man’s Sky rolls around, the press can say what it thinks without worrying about embargoes or getting blacklisted in future.
Also after five or six real dogs get through, maybe the consumers will finally learn to stop pre-ordering games.