The blockbuster videogame is nowofficially Too Big to Fail.
Bethesda, publisher ofSkyrim, Fallout, and Dishonored, said this week that it will stop providingadvance review copies of its games to the media. This is an inconvenience for the likes ofWIRED. But it’s a far bigger problem for you, the consumer who wants to know what you’re getting for your money.
Officially, Bethesda saysin its blog post announcing the move was that it encourages skeptical players to “wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts” before buyingSkyrim Special Edition and Dishonored 2. But that’s something of a Hobson’s choice when Bethesda includestantalizing extra contentavailableonly if you pre-order the gamesbefore they’re available—and, importantly, before reviews hit. Bethesda, and the publishers surely lining up to follow it down this road, want you to pay full price for a game before you know if it’s any good.
Beyond denyingconsumers the chance tomake an informed purchase, this will spura race to the bottom as game reviewers, desperate to be first to publish their thoughts, rush out whatever they can on the tightest of deadlines.
Make no mistake: the only winner is Bethesda. But then, this highlights the corner that publishers have painted themselves into. They’ve created a world in which nothing canbe allowed to imperil the successful launch of their blockbuster titles.
Bethesda is the first to hold back early review copies as a matter of policy, but many others have done this on occasion. 2K Games did not provide any early copies ofMafia III this monthIt’s clear that publishers of blockbusters increasinglysee pre-release or even release-dayreviews as a liability.
Let’s first interpret this as charitably as possible: “Day-one patches” let publisherscontinue tweaking gamesuntil about a week before launch day, and release thatpatch just in time for launch. This means that the final final version of the game, the one you will play, might not be available until release day.
But this would be true of only some games,and besides, Bethesda’s blog post doesn’t even mention this. The truth is probably closer to what I discussed two years agowhen Ubisoft provided early copies of Assassin’s Creed Unity but prohibited reviewers from publishing their thoughts until 12 hours after the game went on sale. The release of a triple-A game follows months ofmarketing, advertising, livestreams, previews, and increasingly elaborate preorder campaigns. By the time the game comes out, itspotential audience already knows allabout it. What benefit is a review, if most consumers have already spent their money.
Reviews offer no benefit to publishers. If they’re bad, consumers mightcancel their preorders and everything goes south. That could have catastrophic, even fatal consequences for a publisher that relies on a handful of blockbuster releases for its livelihood. So don’t consider this no-reviews policy in a vacuum: It’s just one change we’re likely to see enshrined inthe triple-A game industry as budgets top $100 millionand the stakes only escalate.
This could set the table for another change: givingplayers early access to games, provided they pay early, pay more, or both. Early access to Bethesda’s Dishonored 2 is part of the game’s standard preorder package, which means all you need to do is spend $60 without waiting to hear whether the game is any good. But for Microsoft’s Gears of War 4, early access was a perk confined tothe game’s $100 “Ultimate Edition.” Electronic Arts, meanwhile, lets paying subscribers to its EA Access service play the first 10 hours of some titleslong before they hit store shelves.
As I’ve said before, if you’re not a fan of such policies, the best thing todo is to stop preordering games. I realize this is easier said than done: After all, who doesn’twant those sweet preorder bonuses? But you will face this dilemma more often. Bethesda is the first mover here, but it won’t be alone. Of course WIREDwould love to offerearly reviews, but it’s not going to do us muchharm if we don’t. This really only hurts you, the consumer. But blockbuster games simply cost too much to make and market, and Bethesda has decided it simply cannot risk you deciding to see if a game is any good before giving it your money.