Publishers Don’t Care About You, They Just Want Your Money

This week, Ubisoft released For Honor, a creative hack and slash action game in which you (as a knight, viking or samurai) attempt to carve up an army of NPCs and other real life players. By all accounts from the game’s open beta last weekend, the combat is solid and fun to play. The game looks promising and there’s obvious reason to be excited for it. Ubisoft has chosen to not turn on the game’s servers for press until the day of the game’s release, however, meaning that there will be no reviews for the game until after its release. And while this might seem on its face like boohooing from outlets that we aren’t getting special treatment, it’s also concerning because this seems like the future big game publishers are heading down and that’s not good for either press or players.

Who exactly a publisher giving out review copies hurts or benefits can be broken down into three different categories. There’s the publisher who, no matter what they say, are at the end of the day out to serve their best interests and their shareholders. There’s me, the journalist who wants to be able to tell my audience as early as possible what exactly I think about a game or what it might be wrong with it. Then there’s you, the player, who really, behind all of the marketing speak and soapbox talk from me, everything is really about. So, let’s go into each one of these areas and see what each of these people have to benefit or lose from this move.

 

Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a game launched with notorious bugs, specifically on PS3 version.

 

Publishers

This is the part of the equation that stands to benefit the most from this whole change. Publishers like Ubisoft or Bethesda, who took this stand very publically last year, are making this move because they feel like the public knowing more about their game ahead of its release just doesn’t make business sense. When Bethesda announced their decision last year they stated, “at Bethesda, we value media reviews. We read them. We watch them. We try to learn from them when they offer critique. And we understand their value to our players,” and then went on to say how they were going to use their policy to completely devalue them.

It’s obvious why Bethesda and now Ubisoft are doing this for the most part and it’s because they want you to pre-order and spend all of your money on their products before you really know what exactly is going on with them. At the end of the day their business model is to sell as many copies of a game as they can. If they feel as though reviews or critical coverage of their game before release will in any way negatively affect the sales of one of their titles, then it makes sense from a purely business standpoint to minimize that risk. They don’t want to you to hear from some reviewer that The Elder Scrolls VI is buggy before you buy it, they want you to fork over your money and find out for yourself. Once your money is in their pocket, it doesn’t matter if the For Honor servers go down tomorrow. They have your $60 and they can wash their hands of you. This isn’t to say that this will always happen. Last year Bethesda released the critically acclaimed DOOM and Dishonored 2 without sending out review copies. But, as a publisher if you’re not sure how the press is going to react to your game and how they might spin the narrative around it before release, why even take that chance?

Ubisoft's For Honor the latest in this troubling gaming trend.

Ubisoft’s For Honor, the latest in this troubling gaming trend.

 

The Press

While it’s easy for me to wag my finger at publishers who I think are going about their business in a shady way, it’s a lot harder to point that finger back at myself, and games media as a whole and ask why am I so up in arms about this. The plain and simple fact is that it hurts our business. If we don’t get games early, then on release day it becomes a race to see who can get their review up as soon as possible. This means that if a writer at another publication rushes through a game, they get their review up first and by default garner most traffic. A reviewer rushing through a game, however, does less to serve the public good than might seem. While a game like Playdead’s Inside can be beaten in a few hours, something as big as say The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim from Bethesda isn’t really feasible to play through as quickly while still properly engaging with all that it has to offer. This means that reviews for bigger games will either take far too long to be published or won’t be representative of a traditional player’s experience of how a game is meant to be played because a reviewer is pushing through a 100 plus hour open world adventure as quickly as possible.

If you’re reading this thinking, “oh well some reviewer has to rush through a game, so what? I don’t care about their opinion anyway,” that’s a fair point of view to have. What you’re missing, however, are some of the hidden costs that come along with pre-release copies of games. Whether or not you care about my opinion in regards to the base building elements in Fallout 4, there’s a level of objectivity that comes with letting you know that Fallout 4 is filled with bugs and framerate drops. Sites like Digital Foundry who specialize in frame rate tests will not be able to tell you ahead of time whether big open world games have performance issues because there’s no pre-release copies for them to test.

If that still doesn’t bother you, think about how guides will suffer without pre-release access. How many hours did you spend looking for collectibles in Watch Dogs 2, even while following a guide? Now think about how incomplete those guides are going to look a couple days, even weeks out from a game’s launch if a guide writer doesn’t have access to a pre-release copy of the game. It might seem like a lot of self-aggrandizement is going on in the case of a lot of video game writers, and don’t get me wrong, video games coverage is far from perfect. We really do serve an important purpose in the industry, though, and without us, publishers are able to get away with dubious practices without someone calling them out for it.

Bethesda’s Fallout 4, which launched riddled frame rate hitches and bugs galore.

 

You

The person who really matters at the end of this whole saga is the gamer. Industry politics aside, your experience with a game and the amount of information you have to make a buying decision should be the top priority when it comes to any new release. In Bethesda’s case, they lay out their rationale in their post saying, “we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time.” In a vacuum, it seems like a reasonable thing to want. To put everyone who is going to play your game on an even playing field with no one having an upper hand or early access to a game before anyone else. On the other hand, is it worth sacrificing more consumer knowledge before a game comes out? Sure, on release day plenty of sites will put up their review in progresses, or “early impression” videos in which they tell about their short time with the game. But, as was the case with a game like Destiny, these impressions can’t comprehensively cover a game properly without experiencing all it has to offer.

The best advice one can offer is to just wait until after reviews come in for these games and skip picking things up day one as it’s the best way to ensure that you aren’t getting the short end of the stick. The downside to that is though with games being increasing online and multiplayer focus the first month or so of a game is when its playerbase is at its most vibrant. Missing out on the time when everyone is on the same level can make a difficult barrier to of entry for a lot of online games. Then when it comes to single player titles, you miss out on the zeitgeist that occurs when all of your friends gather round to talk about what they’ve been playing. The talking heads you follow on twitter are tweeting out cool stories from their time with a game. The group chat you have with your friends about what exactly you did to beat this boss in Bloodborne. These are all conversations you just aren’t a part of. It’s a lot like going to a movie with friends, as you walk out you’re all able to immediately talk about what just happened and give your instant reaction. While waiting might be the most practical advice to give, it kind of takes away the social aspect of gaming that a number of contemporary games delve into.

 

What To Do About It

A piece of art just isn’t as fun if you don’t have anyone to share it with. On the other hand, in order to be a responsible consumer, companies are making it hard to be part of the conversation around a game as soon as it comes out. While it’s not the ideal solution, not buying into the pre-order culture and hype machine that surrounds modern AAA is one way to tell game companies to shove it. If you care about being a well-informed consumer, then hitting these companies in the wallet by not pre-ordering games and buying into their marketing speak is the best way to go about things. If you think I’m being a crybaby because I’m not going to get to play Prey a week early, then by all means plop down your $60 and preorder it today and found out how good it is with all the rest of us. But if you think reviews a worthwhile consumer protection mechanism and companies don’t think it’s valuable to send out review copies of their games pre-release because you’re just going buy whatever you’re selling anyway, then let them know you don’t think their games are worth your time or money by not handing over your cash before you’re able to make a real decision about what they have to offer.

  • BiffChadwell

    I agree with everything said here, but I feel like there should be a fourth group besides the Publisher, Journalist and Consumer – the Developer. The people who make the game? This definitely affects them as well.

    I mean, the publisher is holding their work hostage, basically – its out of their hands. But they need it to be successful, so if the publisher botches the launch, and the game doesn’t pick up “launch momentum” and disappoints at retail, they get closed down… by the publisher. We’ve seen games like Evolve, Battleborn, Watch_Dogs 2 – as well as lower profile releases – all stumble out of the gate, and then really hurt the studio behind them. There’s multiple factors for that, of course, but the impact on the talented people who made the game is definitely felt as well. They too are a group that stands to gain from this approach, in a less malicious way than the publishers, as it means simply getting a little more time to work on the servers and infrastructure before going live.

    It reminds me of Movie Studios these days, announcing release dates for movies before scripts even exist? The big western game publishers are ripping off big Hollywood in several ways, and this is one of the grossest considering its a lot harder to fit game development into a box and say “It’ll be done ON THIS DATE”, y’know? Really sucks for the artists, coders, and designers putting these things together.

    Also there’s probably something to be said about this being about BIG western publishers. I actually bet smaller care about the gamers 🙂 People like Xseed and Devolver have nothing but reputation and word-of-mouth to go by – they certainly don’t have the marketing bucks to compete with the big, Hollywood-esque garbage spewers at EA, Ubi Soft, etc. But they do get to support games that have good communities. Come in and give games like Shantae and STRAFE an actual release and marketing push that they otherwise wouldn’t have. Of course they want these games to succeed and make them money, but like, the fact they’re publishing Kickstarter games says that they recognize their fans wanted to see them support those games, and they actually went for it. The way smaller, better publishers work is very different from the way the “Big Dogs” work, y’know? There’s a lot more transparency, because they care about their community, because when you can’t market a ton, you NEED a strong community to support you. Hence, why XSeed will do things like talk about all of their games on their localization blog, or get famed modder “Durante” to fix the Little King’s Story PC Port 🙂

  • DarthDiggler

    @Charles Blades

    Publishers Don’t Care About You, They Just Want Your Money

    You don’t think this is using a very wide brush?

    This article is just red meat for people who whine and cry about DLC, season passes, etc. etc. while ignoring the economic and business realities of the industry.

    Video games is a hobby driven by disposable income. If you can’t risk $60 on a video game maybe you should adjust your priorities. That being said even if you buy a lemon of a video game today there is after market value via the used game market.

    Here is the problem I have with this entire argument. Its a big strawman argument. You are taking your opinion and positioning it as fact.

    Any company in business has to deliver value to their customers. Game publishers, studios and even the press are not immune (for example this article full of myth and cliche offers litter value to anyone who is intellectually curious).

    There is just far too much competition in this marketplace to rest upon one’s laurels. We gamers are not morons, we are savvy consumers and we can make up our minds about the games we are going to buy even before we read a review. Speaking of reviews I think for the most part people have already made up their mind prior to any review on weather or not they will get a game.

    I am kind of sick to death of gaming websites that suggest that gamers are mind numbed robots, it is insulting to the very audience you cater to. Do you really think your audience can’t make decisions on their own without input from Hardcore Gamer? People who write for gaming websites these days seem to have an inflated sense of their own value. Sure I am sure your reviews are useful, but at the end of the day I don’t think people are going change their mind based on reviews. Not saying it will never happen. Peeps will read a bad review and it won’t change their mind to get a game because they already want it. Peeps not planning on buying a game may not even seek out a review for said game even if the review says the game is stellar.

    • Scott Clarkin

      Game making should be treated like an art, not a business, if they stopped treating it like a buisness and started actually respecting the customers and fans I’d have no problem with them holding back review copies.
      Capitalism has ruined some aspects of gaming, alot of dlc is just stuff you used to be able to unlock in a game, the industry isn’t hurting they could use some of their profit to improve and add things for free, instead of pushing the envelope and grasping onto the greed.
      But it is like that with every mainstream form of art, unfortunately

      • cnetherway

        Agree with Scott 100%. Capitalism is the bastion of the rich, but the detrimental death of all things fun for the majority. With gaming, I’m old enough to remember the days when things were still done for fun. Remember pre-release commercials? Remember when you actually knew about a game before paying for it? Companies compound the issue as well by having deplorable or nonexistent customer service. As an example, not to pick on Bethesda, but the release of skyrim se is an absolute mess. They have my money, now I have messages in to the customer service department by way of tickets, and posts on their forum, it’s been almost two weeks and no response so far. There is just no way to reliably get ahold of them, and zero accountability.
        Gaming companies nowadays are playing a tricky game, Ubisoft I have learned from my own bad experiences, do not buy ahead of time. The quality just isn’t there, and the promises and pronouncements pre-launch never hold up anymore. The game is, slap something together quick, get hype going, don’t let anyone see the actual game, collect money, move on to next sloppy project.
        It’s getting old folks, I love video games, but I’ve almost sworn them off. There are dozens each year that look great pre-launch, but after I have them, I realize I now own a shined up turd.

  • Jbumi

    Don’t rush the reviews. I’ll wait. If I’m on the fence about a game, reviews are very important to me. I won’t care that I bought the game, say, a month after release rather than day one.