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“No reviews means no possibility of negativity”

Games critics weigh in on Bethesda's decision to withhold review codes for upcoming games

Bethesda has taken the unusual step of announcing it will only send out Dishonored 2 and Skyrim Special Edition to critics a day before release.

That means that once those games hit digital and retail shelves, consumers will be unable to read reviews on the products - they will either have to wait or risk it.

"At Bethesda, we value media reviews," began the company's statement on its blog.

"We read them. We watch them. We try to learn from them when they offer critique. And we understand their value to our players. "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.

"With the upcoming launches of Skyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2, we will continue our policy of sending media review copies one day before release."

Doom is an interesting example for Bethesda to cite.

Based on GfK UK figures, the game's opening week (physical only) sales were relatively low and was not even a third of the sales achieved by Uncharted 4 (which was released the same week).

"GfK data suggests that the delayed reviews for Doom gave the game a longer tail at retail."

However, its second week performance - which was after the positive reviews for the game began to surface - was surprisingly strong. It's not unusual for core action titles to see sales drop by 70 to 80% in their second week, however Doom's second week sales drop was just 35% (by comparison, Uncharted 4's sales fell by 78%). It suggests that the delayed reviews for the game actually resulted in Doom enjoying a longer-tail performance at retail.

Of course a more cynical reading of Bethesda's announcement is that the move is designed purely to protect pre-orders of both Dishonored 2 and Skyrim Special Edition. 

"I don't think anyone's under any illusion as to what Bethesda is doing," says Leon Hurley, executive news editor at Gamesradar. "No reviews means no possibility of negativity, just well-controlled positive messaging via trailers, gameplay demos and YouTubers. Gamers buy the game mentally in their heads, long before it's out. Removing any potential last minute dissuasion is an obvious benefit to sales."

Tom Orry, the editorial director at Videogamer.com, observes that in the case of Bethesda, the firm is probably less concerned about poor critical receptions due to their generally strong track record. "Bethesda has hit the mark fairly consistently in recent years, and so consumers that care about review scores will probably already be expecting great things," he says. 

"In this particular instance, there will likely be a lot of members of the press writing articles on the situation, all most likely saying similar things about how the policy is bad for consumers, while highlighting that Bethesda's line-up is impressive and that Doom turned out great. Nestled in between the negativity, there will likely be a lot of positive coverage gained from the announcement of an anti-press and anti-consumer policy."

There is one line in Bethesda's statement that games critics have particularly taken umbrage with, namely: "We want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time." 

What's more important? A swathe of reviews dissecting a game and exposing some warts, or billions of video views showing it looking amazing?

Leon Hurley, Gamesradar

Wesley Yin-Poole, deputy editor at Eurogamer, observes that: "YouTubers have had the new Skyrim for a while now." Although it was not part of Bethesda's statement, the perception amongst some critics is that YouTubers and streamers will likely receive preferential treatment over traditional media.

Hurley adds: "The show of support for YouTubers is simply Bethesda accepting them as part of the advertising process. As we've seen with some releases, get the visibility right and people buy it even if the reviews are less than great. Cutting reviews out entirely maximises that.

"I can't really blame Bethesda for doing it. What's more important? A swathe of websites and magazine reviews dissecting its game and potentially exposing some warts, or billions of video views showing it looking amazing?"

However, Orry believes that, in time, favouritism to YouTubers may begin to wane. " I expect as that area of media matures and fewer people toe the line, that arrangement will have to be revisited."

Of course, the idea of reviewing games after they've been released is not particularly new for the games media.

"Games are changing. There are so many Day One patches and games with significant online portions, that it's hard to review games before they're launched anyway," states Eurogamer's Yin-Poole.

"Now, Bethesda's games don't tend to fit into that category, they're usually story-driven or expansive RPGs. But as a trend, we've been reviewing games post-launch, or on the day they come out, for a while. It's Eurogamer policy to make sure that we are playing the game that our readers are getting."

"There are so many Day One patches and games with significant online portions, that it's hard to review games before they're launched anyway"

Wesley Yin-Poole, Eurogamer

He adds: "But I am surprised about is that they've taken the time to put a blog post about it. I don't know any publisher that has done this before."

Gamesradar's Hurley concludes: "There's increasingly a move away from preview, review and finish coverage anyway. You're not competing for a single big review traffic win, you're after the longer lasting interest of a community that bought the game, sticks with it and wants more. Look at all the sites that do posts on Destiny's Xur every week, or cover the latest Overwatch tweaks.

"In that respect if Bethesda release a sinker it won't go unnoticed, it just means it's too late for any of the people who bought it. As we've seen with No Man's Sky, if people aren't happy then everyone knows about it. Hello Games still gets the money though. Games are getting more expensive and riskier prospects so It makes sense to maximise your chances of success. Bethesda just stated that clearly."

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Latest comments (14)

Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 11 months ago
There is one line in Bethesda's statement that games critics have particularly taken umbrage with, namely: "We want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time."
Yeah, I don't quite understand this. Name me another form of media that routinely puts-out releases that hit everyone at the same time. Hollywood certainly doesn't. The music industry has done, but it's the exception not the rule - Bowie's last album, for instance. Books? Was the last Harry Potter released to reviews at the same time it hit the shelves? Even modern art exhibits tend towards critics being allowed a first look.

And I can understand it from a certain perspective with certain games - multiplayer games especially live or die on the community, so having it timed perfectly... Sure. Maybe. But certainly not single-player games. And whilst
"Bethesda has hit the mark fairly consistently in recent years, and so consumers that care about review scores will probably already be expecting great things,"
is true, it's also worth bearing in mind that Bethesda is a publisher as well as developer. Saying Dishonored 2 will be as good as Dishonored 1 is one thing - Arkane is a proficient developer. But the bug-ridden cock-up with Skyrim on PS3 (as an example) should be held-up as an example that not everything Bethesda release is quality right-out-the-gate.
As we've seen with No Man's Sky, if people aren't happy then everyone knows about it. Hello Games still gets the money though. Games are getting more expensive and riskier prospects so It makes sense to maximise your chances of success. Bethesda just stated that clearly."
Or, to put it another way - Bethesda are now placing a large amount of financial risk on those who pre-order or buy Day 1. Given cancellation policies of companies, it seems likely that if a review notes problems or negatives, it'll be too late for anyone who bought the title early. Now, more than ever before, seems a good point to stop pre-ordering titles if you're not willing to be disappointed.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 11 months ago
Why waste money on an honest opinion, when you can buy the opinion you like on Twitch for those first day sales? After that Hollywood sends its regards concerning the drop-off rates most games have regarding to their sales

For decades, previews of games tried to be as neutral as possible. With no early review copy on the line, I can imagine the tone of previews will get rougher again. It certainly happened to Hollywood, where behind the scenes rumors and gossip with a strong clickbait focus can be found instead of neutral previews and pre-release reviews.
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Andreia Quinta Photographer, Studio52 London11 months ago
If anything I think it might lead to worse professional reviews. If review copies are held up to the last minute, how many reviewing websites will try to (barely) play the game and publish their review first before some other site does it and lose all that sweet web-traffic? A day, even 12 hours can make all the difference.
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Jordan Lund Columnist 11 months ago
The problem is two fold:

1) Bethesda isn't operating in a vacuum. For decades now, when Hollywood refuses to screen a film for critics, the consensus among the public is that it's bad or that the studio has something to hide. If a reviewer runs a preview with the ad copy and images and a big sub-headline reading "Game was not provided for review," that stigma is going to carry over to Bethesda's games.

2) Doom aside, Bethesda doesn't have a good track record for stable games at launch day. Just about every one of their titles has had significant day one issues requiring immediate patches and patch cycles to make them playable. By the time the Game of the Year editions roll around, they're just about perfect, but that takes a long time.

Do they really want people's first impression of a game to be the Twitch stream where an NPC's head spins around clockwise in the opening sequence? Or worse, continual crashes and blue-screens?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Jordan Lund on 26th October 2016 5:09pm

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Todd Weidner Founder, Big Daddy Game Studio11 months ago
Books, films, music are finished products, with games being patched up to opening day, its a different animal. To be honest I dont blame them, there are no sites anymore that I rely on for reviews, I simply go watch it being played on you tube and make up my own mind.
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Anthony Chan11 months ago
I am torn on this. While suppressing the press via Bethesda's strategy appears counterproductive; one could argue general perception for reviewers is not all that rosy either. Personally I take all reviews I read, watch and experience with a grain of salt. There are redditers out there who are more vocal about how biased, unprofessional, or unfair reviewers typically are. Others comment that the lack of transparency in terms of benefits and the fact that reviewers could be seen as self-serving as their job/income depends on a steady flow of AAA games hitting their desk to generate page hits, really taints the objectivity of reviewers.

So what does that all mean? It means if Bethesda said NO to reviews, does it really hurt the game when many already do not trust reviews to begin with.

For myself I now tend to stay away from reviews and focus more on previews of gameplay videos, demos, interviews, and just speaking with others on forums. Gone are they days where a consumer can simply trust a single or couple reviews. Now, the consumer must gather information from multiple sources to make an educated decision.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Anthony Chan on 26th October 2016 5:58pm

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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 11 months ago
To be honest I dont blame them, there are no sites anymore that I rely on for reviews, I simply go watch it being played on you tube and make up my own mind.
For myself I now tend to stay away from reviews and focus more on previews of gameplay videos, demos, interviews, and just speaking with others on forums
I get this point-of-view, I really do, but Bethesda's decision is short-sighted. The industry ought to get to a position where people can read a review from any single source, and trust that the review is an open, honest, subjective view of the game. Sourcing reviews from multiple sites is smart (buyer beware and all that), but at the same time minimises what reviews should be, for the buyer - a subjective opinion piece with a critical view of the technical aspects. We should not have to "read around" in order to be confident we know everything (games are not cars), and it can lead to a "fanboy" mentality, where people disregard valid reviews because they don't align with a personal view.

Edit: I wonder how or if this is going to affect publishers relations with non-gaming media? The Washington Post did a mini hands-on of Civ VI 4 days before its release. It's all right for Bethesda to say that they want everyone to experience it at the same time, but I can't see the WaPo or New York Times acquiescing to this as easily as gaming media (which will grumble and whine, but accept it all the same). Or, possibly, they will - instead of reviewing a Bethesda game, though, they'll just review something else instead.

Edited 5 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 27th October 2016 9:24am

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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany11 months ago
"the game's opening week (physical only) sales were relatively low and was not even a third of the sales achieved by Uncharted 4 "
It may be just me: but maybe the issue there was more because they released a game the same week as the heavily anticipated Uncharted 4 than because of not sending review copies to the press.
What's more important? A swathe of reviews dissecting a game and exposing some warts, or billions of video views showing it looking amazing?
I guess that answer depends on if you are the final customer, the reviewer or the distributor of the game.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Alfonso Sexto on 27th October 2016 8:38am

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Ian Griffiths Senior Product Manager, Hutch11 months ago
No-one is forcing players to purchase the game before reviews. If reviews mean that much to you then wait until they are out and then make a decision.

I personally find most reviews pretty useless as they rarely meet my expectation. I've played game that got a 10 on IGN and I wouldn't rate them above a 5. Alien Isolation got pretty bad reviews but I think it was one of the best games of the past 5 years.
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Morville O'Driscoll Blogger & Critic 11 months ago
No-one is forcing players to purchase the game before reviews.
And yet publishers do exactly that with pre-order enticements. Certainly players can not buy them, but let's not kid ourselves that there isn't a very powerful sales-pitch aimed at players to purchase before a review falls.

I personally find most reviews pretty useless as they rarely meet my expectation. I've played game that got a 10 on IGN and I wouldn't rate them above a 5. Alien Isolation got pretty bad reviews but I think it was one of the best games of the past 5 years.
No offense meant, but this is just cherry-picking people's opinions. Which is entirely fine, you're entitled to do that. But reviews are there to give a subjective opinion - the less we have of them, the less critical appraisals we have of the products our industry creates.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 27th October 2016 4:30pm

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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games11 months ago
“No reviews means no possibility of negativity”

It also means no possibility of a positive review.
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Stanley Kwon Publishing Strategy, EA11 months ago
An interesting write-up but I would caution against tying the strategy to any sales performance indicators. Doom released on a Friday and Uncharted released on Tuesday.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Stanley Kwon on 27th October 2016 11:58pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 11 months ago
Given the current state of many AAA to indie titles that ship in all sorts of states that require something like a week to month (or more) of patching and fixes, I'm gathering we'll see other companies start doing this.

I tend to take my time on reviews anyway, as I'm a firm believer in the non-Hollywood box office approach to reviewing games: enjoy the ride as opposed to rushing to be first or loudest with impressions. Some games that I've started were janky in a few spots, but those are the ones I don't write about fully until they get fixed to the point where I can play them and not run into most of the issues that stopped my progress.

That said, this is problematic on a few levels as many have noted.
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Alfonso Sexto Lead Tester, Ubisoft Germany11 months ago
@Morville O'Driscoll:
"And yet publishers do exactly that with pre-order enticements. Certainly players can not buy them, but let's not kid ourselves that there isn't a very powerful sales-pitch aimed at players to purchase before a review falls."

Temptative and pressure, indeed. But I don't see an obligation there; its not like they say "preorder this game or loose it forever" (and even if they did; the obligation behind it would still be debatable. :)
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