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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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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who