Industry insiders share their feelings on Bethesda’s new post-launch reviews policy

Bethesda review policy

Last week, Bethesda – the publishers behind The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Dishonored, Quake, and Doom – revealed a blanket policy for their upcoming releases. From now on, they won’t be handing out early copies of their games to critics, only allowing early access for preview content. Reviews and other critical assessments won’t be available until post-launch. 

Hopefully you can get the lowdown on some of our upcoming PC games list before launch. 

The release of Doom earlier this year – a game which reviewed well despite review code arriving to critics on release – seems like the catalyst for this decision, or it at least helped cement it.

“At Bethesda, we value media reviews,” Bethesda said in the announcement. “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.”

The post goes on to say that the publishers want “everyone, including those in the media, to experience” their games at the same time, and that they urge customers to wait for reviews if they’re not sure.

This decision has been met with plenty of criticism, both from critics and from customers. Most have been coming to the same conclusion: that the move is anti-consumer. But is there more to it?

We wanted to see how the rest of the industry feels about the move, so we asked a bunch of industry insiders, from PR experts to developers, how they feel about the change in policy.

Here’s what they said…

Alexis Kennedy – freelance Bioware writer and Failbetter Games founder

I guess Bethesda are feeling invincible at the moment. Nearly everything they put out is excellent, and they can generate hype with a blink and a fart. I wonder, then, if we’re seeing their high tide mark – because I think they wouldn’t do this unless they were supremely confident that everything they touched would turn to gold, and I think that kind of confidence is unhealthy in a technology company that needs to generate hits.

The policy itself: obviously I wish they hadn’t done it. Firstly because I’m a gamer too, and I’d like to be able to read a couple of reviews when my purchase finger is itchy, but secondly because one of the things that makes me happy about the industry is the steadily rising quality of discussion and criticism. I mean there are a billion idiot YouTube comments for every ten thousand player comments and every hundred insightful articles, but there is so much good commentary out there and it feeds back into the quality of the games that developers make. This is a big-picture externality kind of thing – I think the Bethesda policy will have an incremental chilling effect, more so if other companies join in.

I hope that if day-one review code becomes common practice, it’ll be good for studios that practice more open production approaches and engage more with their communities – because it differentiates us, and it means that the big studios will suck up less of the oxygen in the press. But I’m really looking for a silver lining there.

Stefano Petrullo – Renaissance PR

Renaissance PR

PR is a difficult job and games are extremely complex experiences nowadays. I personally believe that every company has the right to decide how open and which kind of access they give to the various media and influencers. Supporting or condemning Bethesda’s decision is not a matter of black and white, despite what the internet may suggest, and the big picture is often more complex than it appears.

Personally, I believe one of the pillars of my job as a PR is putting people in the best condition to write about the products I represent. This can be translated in different situations/requirements for different games, and sometimes open your product to criticism. This is part of the game in 2016.

As an example, we all know about the general issues with games that have a strong multiplayer component: if the servers are not up and populated, it is impossible to recreate the condition a player can experience at release – and as we saw in the past, some media decided spontaneously to not review games at launch because of this. In this instance, you see some companies decide not to review the game at launch, while others opt for an early impression piece, explaining that it’s not the full experience. What is right and what is wrong? I do not believe we will find an accurate answer mostly because there is not one. They are simply two of the many different approaches to the same situation.

These days, many games evolve and enrich themselves post launch. Launch day is not anymore the culmination of a product, but instead it’s often the start of a path to make a game better. We can see this in different segments of the industry, from triple-A to indie, and even in Early Access. I believe constant communication is important, to your consumers/media and influencers, being as transparent as possible.

What I suggest to all my clients is to work with all three groups at the same time and as early as possible: give access to the consumer when possible, embrace media and influencers at the same time. Offer angle, perspective and rationale about certain choices you made about game design, release date, etc. This is my methodology, but I am not suggesting is the right one, simply one of many approaches to the complex world of public relations in 2016/7.

Jonathan Biddle – One Bit Beyond founder

I think this approach has partially come about due to a change in audience behaviours. YouTube has become a driving forcing in terms of convincing many players whether a game is suitable for them or not, and it looks like Bethesda have run the numbers and concluded that they come out on top by cutting traditional written reviews out of the equation.

Typically, YouTube footage and Let’s Plays, etc, don’t make qualitative assessments of a game, and lack in-depth, nuanced criticism, meaning that mainly the positives of a game are communicated. With this being the case, why would Bethesda run the risk of low-scoring written reviews? The reviews will still come in time, but maybe release hype will get the better of many people’s patience in the meantime? The players that resolutely won’t buy until they’ve read a review will still do exactly that, so there would be no loss here.

Furthermore, it seems that by seeding only ‘influencers’ with pre-release copies, Bethesda get to more tightly control their message; for example, ensuring that a more stable PS4/Xbox version is played, rather than the still-unoptimised PC version. It basically makes things easier for them to control and predict. Cutting the reviewers out simply removes one more variable that is out of their control. This is logical behaviour for a publisher who has invested multiple tens of millions in a title: mitigate risk, control the message, maximise the return.

I’d be very surprised if Bethesda haven’t gone into this without some serious research, so I suspect that they will come out on top. I would also expect other publishers to follow suit in time, but ultimately, what is good for Bethesda, isn’t good for consumers. As a purchaser, you’ll be left with less information about a game, its state at release, and how suitable it might be for you, and Bethesda’s plan is to totally capitalise on that, if you’ll let them.

Paul Kilduff-Taylor – Mode 7 Games joint managing director

This is an aggressive move by Bethesda which just serves to demonstrate the power that bigger publishers can still wield.

I absolutely do not believe that the reasoning behind this is to allow them to sneak out substandard products, however. Trying to time a completely finished multi-platform release, get it out to reviewers effectively, secure embargoes and so on is like herding puppies down a corridor filled with meat and squeaky toys: it is a horrendous nightmare and most publishers would do unspeakable things to be rid of it. Bethesda have the clout and they’re going for it: there is no way anyone can enforce these unspoken industry rules about how to engage with the media.

The problem is, though, that this is going to exacerbate some existing problems with the way games are marketed. When you combine powerful, ‘influencer’-based, pre-release sponsored content with a strong desire that many customers have to pre-order or purchase on day-one, you can end up in some potentially nasty situations.

Saying “just don’t pre-order” is a bit like saying “just don’t enter the lottery”: it’s generally good advice, but it’s also a facile response to a very deep set of behaviours and desires. Not only that, a blanket anti-pre-order stance ignores some brilliant customer/developer relationships which can be forged by early adopters helping to fund indie games. It is impossible to stop people pre-ordering; the media just needs to take publishers and developers to task if they abuse that privilege.

All I can say is that I hope Bethesda continue to take their relationship with their customers seriously: mutual trust and respect have to be the foundation and they are in a position of immense control at this point. Indies who need a pre-order period because coordinating coverage around release is so challenging, and who also rely on the revenue from Early Access releases to complete their projects simply have to pray that bigger publishers don’t destroy the trust of consumers for good.

Dan Pearce – Four Circle Interactive founder

I’ve seen a lot of talk about how Bethesda’s review policy is anti-consumer and I understand where that fear comes from. That said, I do think that there are a few justifiable reasons for doing this from Bethesda’s side. Console games usually are sent off to platform holders a month and a half before they come out, so things like day one patches give the developer a few weeks extra to polish the game and fix any outstanding issues.

For big, complex Bethesda games that’s a big deal. Giving reviewers access prior to that patch could lead to misrepresentative coverage, which could permanently hurt how people perceive the game. There are obviously some more worrying reasons why Bethesda could have made this change, but I’m going to wait and see how this impacts their next few releases before I make a judgement.

Andrew J Smith – Spilt Milk managing director

The gamer in me is a bit miffed at Bethesda’s new policy – they seem to be cutting out the press in a pretty brutal way, and I want to see what a game is like before it comes out – but that gamer is old and out of touch.

Right now, if I want to see how a good a game is, I ask mates, watch videos and read reviews – no one source of information outclasses the other. So what if written reviews for some games are no longer as useful as they once were? They can still be incredibly insightful, and if they grow to fill a more cultural & critical role in terms of their content as opposed to pure buying guides, then I’d be really happy.

Maybe we’ll start seeing other publishers follow suit. Maybe we won’t. I don’t know what the future holds, and really this might come back to bite Bethesda in the arse… withdrawing from the press could be seen as withdrawing from a loyal segment of the community, and lord knows a game sells nothing without a community behind it.

I don’t really understand the idea of cutting off a portion of that – especially when day one impact is hugely important to everyone in the market – but they’re unlikely to be making these decisions in a vacuum or as a purely emotional thing. There will be stats and figures that show them they’ll sell better as a result of this move and ultimately I can’t really blame them for that.

Gary Chambers – Introversion developer

I can understand it from a business perspective – if all they care about is the money then for them it makes perfect sense. It seems pretty disrespectful to both the games press and the people actually buying the games though.

To me it seems like a very shortsighted approach with no consideration for the effects it will have on the industry in the long-term.

Andrew Bennison – Prospect Games managing director

With Fallout 4 and Doom, Bethesda succeeded in testing a new approach to game launches. Rather than play the media game, they are pulling out of it and saving money in the process.

With such massive IPs they don’t need prolonged marketing campaigns and flashy events, consumer loyalty and new media virality can do the work for them. An increasing number of developers are focusing on connecting directly with consumers and with an overall positive response, I can’t see that changing any time soon.

Dan Muir – PR Hound

PR Hound

It’s a bold move, really and it’s one that could, potentially, impact massively on their sales. Being a gamer, I look for reviews of games in advance before actually taking the plunge and purchasing.

Removing the early access to critics, how will the consumer know whether Dishonored 2, Prey 2 or even Quake Championships are any good, or just another No Man’s Sky? Limiting the information available to the consumer, prior to a game’s launch, is clearly a shrewd move to sell more copies. All good if you’re a PC gamer purchasing from Steam – you can simply request a refund if the game’s not up to much. But what about the console gamers? Can they get a refund on their digital or physical purchases, because the game failed to deliver? No.

Read reviews, watch YouTube videos and tune into some streams before you lay out your hard-earned cash. If you, the consumer, do this, rather than going the pre-order route – then maybe, just maybe, Bethesda will change their mind.

Martin Wahlund – Fatshark CEO

I think that it is all to get the journalists or streamers to try the best possible version of the game. Sometimes you need to deploy a late patch before you want to put your game in the hands of journalists.

William Pugh – Crows Crows Crows director

Journalists should be more like sycophantic YouTubers who care only about views and maybe then they’ll get access to the Skyrim 12: Supreme Edition five days early!

Journalists have CROSSED LARGE COMPANIES for the last time, and if you want to provide consumers with accurate information about the product they’re buying outside of carefully-crafted press releases then you need to AT LEAST make up a song similar to diggy diggy hole.

[Writer’s note: sorry about William]

Rob Fearon – Retro Remakes

I think, mainly, it’s tremendously short-sighted. Obviously, the only thing to gain from it is to reduce the media’s ability to critique a product before launch, otherwise why else hand it off to folks you know they’re going to internally consider an extension of their marketing efforts over folks who can make or break a game long term. But it’s a really fragile move.

If we take their word for it (which I don’t, really), that they came away from Doom with a critical hit whilst not handing out review copies until the last minute, then we’ve got to ignore how close they were to near sinking the game with their marketing efforts focused on a lacklustre-at-best multiplayer experience, where they’d obviously budgeted around the lacklustre-at-best multiplayer add-on. I’d have hated to have been on that team knowing that they had a really good game in their hands and marketing were doing the best to make it difficult for anyone to ever know.

But the thing is, their poor marketing was salvaged by the press, salvaged by some very enthusiastic press folks saying ‘no, really, this is dead dead good and you will like it’ alongside a few months of incredibly deep discounting. So it’s simply not true that they don’t need the press, if anything they got lucky that the game was quality enough to stand its ground and people would champion it. Months of that need never have happened if they’d got the work into people’s hands (not *ahem* influencers *ahem* sooner). But what happens to the team who don’t have Doom on their hands? What happens if it’s not your safety nets like Dishonored is now or Fallout or Skyrim obviously is? It’s risking sinking a team or a game in exchange for control over critique and this is so short-sighted and unnecessary. It’s like they’ve totally learned the wrong lesson here and marketing has ran away with the ball.

And of course, in a few years time when the ad money crush hits YouTube or Twitch as it always does, where do they move to then? Obviously, they can just go back to courting the press but was any of that really worth it? Was it worth unbalancing an already fragile ecosystem for such a short-term, possible gain? I can see the logic and I can see the corporate sense behind it, it just seems a shame they feel like nothing will bite them on the bum from it. Videogames seem very determined to go against a lot of systems we’ve built up to improve consumer trust so *shrugs*.

As for me, I have a vested interest in making sure every avenue possible is open to me. Not just for me but for the next person coming into games who needs a leg up, and the press are a vital part of that. Games are very much an ecosystem, like I say, it’s a fragile one but it kinda works. Enabling the press ensures there’s an outlet for folks whose work doesn’t fit into a show-not-discuss sort of box, it enables sensible considered words rather than at-a-glance stuff and YouTube, Twitch et al are not there yet.

I’m here still because the press have helped lift me there. I’ve been around a long time, I’ve seen the difference an article makes to folks without the spend of a bigger indie, never mind Bethesda. I’m still here because of one particular post when I nearly kicked the bucket. Stuff that maybe registers as small fry when you’re counting page views in your back end makes an enormous difference to indies – just check out some of the stats itch published a year or so ago. Traditional press is still the biggest driver for small works. From small columns in the back of magazines when indies didn’t really share coverage to what we have and where we are now, it’s the difference between some people playing a game and no people playing a game.

And given the right game, the right people having access to it, this can work wonders for everyone. I doubt Minecraft would be what it is today without the relentless championing of certain quarters. In the end people find a game they want, developers get a shot at making another one. So of course I’m going to endeavor to get my next game into the hands of the press as soon as I can. The only reason I didn’t manage it last time round was because I had such a tight deadline to make the entire thing, I was working on it until the very last day.

Of course, there’s a chance I’ll make a duffer and get slaughtered, but isn’t that the game we all play? They can’t all be winners, right? Invariably, as an indie, the press will just ignore me anyway if I’ve really mupped it, so better luck next time and that. But I’m grateful and thankful for the support I get and the support I have, some things can’t be directly measured. So I guess if Bethesda take their ball home, that’s more space for us to not be that. We’ll see, I guess.

Andy Hodgetts – The Indie Stone

Just to warn, this issue is so separate from anything we experience or have to concern ourselves with as indie developers that the whole opinion could probably be summarised as: “it’s their prerogative to do what they want – and it’s for consumers to decide whether or not they like it.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much my opinion on the subject. Nobody is owed anything, nobody “deserves” a review copy of something if the publisher decides they don’t want to give one – for whatever reason. I’d imagine your average consumer would probably not look too favourably on a publisher who does this because it does sort of appear as if they want to avoid negativity by doing this. At the same time, since I can’t read minds, I can’t know that this is their reasoning or whether what they’ve stated on the subject is all that was considered.

I would imagine that they’ve weighed up the pros and cons of taking this stance and have decided that this course of action is best for them. I can certainly understand, given how often fairly critical bugs are fixed last-minute or as part of a day-one patch, that a publisher wouldn’t particularly want an early, more broken, version being reviewed regardless of whether or not that review is updated later. But ultimately, this is really between the publisher and the consumers, who will decide whether or not they’re tremendously keen on buying games without reviews available.

James Brooksby, CEO of Edge Case Games

Our philosophy is to keep our players informed from concept to delivery – they have helped us shape the game, and have ultimately made it better. Media, influencers and the community can chat with our devs in game or in the forums and we have changed our plans and direction based on feedback.

We use data to help shape decisions, but a big reason we have managed to reach the 1,000,000 registrations milestone is open development. It’s not easy, but it has been very worthwhile.