The new Bethesda review policy may hint at the future of game coverage
With just a day until its next release and a few weeks until the launch of its next big original title, earlier this week Bethesda quietly announced a change in its game review policy. In a post on its blog, the publisher and developer announced that it would no longer send out review copies to members of the press days or weeks in advance as it has in the past. Instead, it will hold wait until the day before the game’s release.
The news was not received well, and some outlets have claimed that they will no longer cover Bethesda in any capacity. Many saw it as a cynical ploy to avoid the backlash of negative reviews, while others simply called it an anti-consumer stance fueled by arrogance. There may be some truth to that, but the answer is probably much simpler.
Bethesda just doesn’t need reviews anymore.
That doesn’t mean that the publisher/developer doesn’t respect its fans, it just means that reviews are no longer an important factor in the launch of a game. And don’t be surprised if some of Bethesda’s peers in a similar position decide to take a similar move in the future.
“At Bethesda, we value media reviews, ” wrote Gary Steinman, Bethesda’s Global Content Lead. “We read them. We watch them. We try to learn from them when they offer critique. And we understand their value to our players.”
“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.”
While there is a very real possibility that this decision could eventually hurt Bethesda’s brand, in the short term, from Bethesda’s point of view, reviews offer very little positive and a whole lot of negative. That’s as much a sign of the times as a new business model.
Bethesda is in a somewhat unique situation. It only releases a handful of games each year, and they are all giant, AAA blockbuster titles that take years to develop. Most are also franchises with established fanbases. When Bethesda announces a game, that announcement alone is headline news – and it no longer needs a relationship with the press to do even that. Just look at Rockstar Games and Nintendo.
Last week, Rockstar tweeted a simple, red logo. People on Twitter went berserk, assuming (correctly) that it heralded Red Dead Redemption 2. A few days later it confirmed that with the release of a teaser for the game, again via Twitter. Rockstar also sent out press releases, but it didn’t need to. The news was quickly trending on Twitter and most – if not all – major gaming sites wrote about it.
The same was true of Nintendo and its reveal of the Switch. Press releases were sent out, but the announcement video did all the heavy lifting. In fact, Nintendo gave no details about the new system beyond what was in the video. It even went on to later confirm that it won’t reveal anything else until January.
In both cases, neither company needed the press – or at least it didn’t need to go out of its way to work with the press. They benefited by the coverage, but they didn’t need to actively work with journalists to spread the message. When it comes to sending out review copies, it is as much about building a relationship as the actual critique. That relationship isn’t as vital as it used to be though, at least not for the publishers.
Bethesda, Rockstar, and Nintendo are all in an industry that is intricately connected to new forms of communication, including social media and streaming platforms like Twitch. If they want to make an announcement or show off an upcoming game or piece of hardware, they don’t have to rely on the press. That means they don’t have to send review copies to enhance that relationship for future coverage.
Reviews also don’t have the same meanings that they used to.
With publishers like Bethesda, fans know their games are on the way. The publisher/developer is also on a hot streak right now with franchises like Elder Scrolls, Fallout, and Doom. These series have a reputation of quality that we tend to take for granted. When they receive high scores, it’s expected. If they underperform, the game is considered a failure or the reviewer is seen as corrupt and/or foolish. Plus, good reviews no longer guarantee great sales. Look no further than Bethesda’s Rage, which received fairly strong reviews, but didn’t sell well enough to earn a sequel.
There’s also very little consensus on reviews. Fallout 4, for example, has scores ranging from 100 to 60 (on a scale of scale of 100). That’s a huge discrepancy, so much so that it makes reviews less of a critical analysis and more about opinions. If someone wants to find a glowing review of Fallout 4, they can find it. If they want to hate it, they have that option too.
In that, reviews are a bit like pundit-based news. People often choose not to accept new facts in favor of finding opinions that validate their beliefs. The same is somewhat true with reviews – at least for the major, heavily-hyped games.
In the case of Bethesda, for a review to actually help sales it needs to be nearly perfect – something that is exceedingly rare. Anything less could hurt it. Not having a review would potentially be better than an average score.
The catch is that not giving out review copies at all would look like Bethesda is burying the game. They have to give out review copies – but it can do it on its terms. Besides, in the modern day of citizen journalists, there’s no way to stop reviews. Even if not a single member of the press reviews a game, if it’s big enough, there will be plenty of reviews from gamers themselves.
Companies like Activision could follow a similar strategy with some of its games – early reviews aren’t going to make a huge impact on Call of Duty, for example. Longtime fans will buy it regardless, and those on the fence can find plenty of reactions after it launches. Unlike Bethesda, however, Activision has other games, smaller releases that it needs the press to help get the word out. The same is true of Electronic Arts, 2K Games, and others. They need that relationship. Bethesda doesn’t.
So while Bethesda’s move is probably going to rub a lot of people the wrong way – both press and fans – it’s not really all that surprising. At the moment there aren’t really any other publisher/developers that are in the same position as Bethesda. But if they were they probably wouldn’t hesitate.