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.
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?
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.
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.