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With a blog post on their official website, the folks at Bethesda Softworks announced that the company won't be sending advance review copies to press outlets anymore. While the writer of the post stresses that company "value[s] media reviews", it certainly means that people who pre-ordered the company's titles will go in completely blind. While some might argue that reviews haven't really swayed buyers' purchases in a while, especially for triple-A titles, that seems like a bad precedent to me:
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. While we will continue to work with media, streamers, and YouTubers to support their coverage – both before and after release – we want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time.
We also understand that some of you want to read reviews before you make your decision, and if that’s the case we encourage you to wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts.
It's not surprising, then, to see outlets react negatively. While not all journalists are outraged, none seems quite pleased with this decision. For an example, check this article from Rock, Paper, Shotgun on the matter:
We think this is a bad thing for you and for everyone other than Bethesda.
It’s a bad thing for you because it fundamentally means you will be in a worse position from which to make purchasing decisions before and on the day of a game’s release. It will lead to more people wasting more money on games they don’t like or which don’t work and it will embolden other publishers and developers to do the already-common practice of withholding review copies more regularly.
Bethesda explain that they’re outlining the policy now because when they held back DOOM review copies, it “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.”
This is true. Traditionally, when a company holds back review code it’s because they know that the game they’re releasing has flaws and they want to delay the low scores of reviews til as late as possible. At the very least they want to withhold information from consumers until after the release of the game so that those who pre-ordered don’t have a chance to cancel those pre-orders. In the instance of DOOM, this turned out not to be the case – a bunch of us loved it including Alec in his review. More and more frequently review copies are being withheld as a matter of course, regardless of the game’s quality.
The post further explains that Bethesda “want everyone, including those in the media, to experience our games at the same time,” though they don’t specifically say why. I’ve seen people guessing at reasons such as the increasing prevalence of day-one patches, but that seems a poor reason: day-one patches have been coming on PC for a long time and reviewers have always been expected to accept a certain number of minor differences between review code and finished games. They also don’t reveal their hypocrisy: final code for Skyrim’s Special Edition is currently in the hands of ‘influencers’. Bethesda might argue that these do not count as “media review copies,” but they’re deliberately omitting the disparity from their policy in favour of the impression that they’re attempting to create a level playing field.
While Bethesda points out that DOOM (the first game with which they experimented this policy) went through an initial phase of skepticism only to receive a very warm reception at release, I think it's pretty obvious that the only ones to benefit out of this move are Bethesda and its internal studios.