Recently Kotaku put out an article complaining about Bethesda’s policy on review copies. You can read the whole thing here, but allow me to summarize the main talking points for you. Essentially Kotaku is unhappy with Bethesda because their general policy on review copies is that they don’t distribute them in advance of release date. And when they do release them in advance, as with the recently released Prey, it’s with such a negligible amount of time before launch that they might as well not have released them in advance at all. The author goes on to say that this is a bad decision on the part of Bethesda for a number of reasons. Some of the more important reasons are that A) Such a policy forces reviewers to rush out reviews too quickly to get a proper feel for them, often leading to lower scores due to an inability to adequately experience the game. B) The low scores hurt developers because supposedly some publishers, while it was never actually stated that Bethesda was one of these publishers, give bonuses based on Metacritic scores that hit a minimum of 85 or higher. The article states that Prey was resting at 80 at the time of publishing. C) Metacritic is a bad system that causes problems and somehow this is not only Bethesda’s fault but the responsibility to go against their own policies/beliefs is a must in the wake of the current system. That basically sums it up.
I really didn’t like this article. As a long time game reviewer, I don’t actually disagree with the author’s general opinion that it is quite inconvenient that Bethesda doesn’t give out their review copies in advance. But the bulk of his points, general philosophy, and reasons for judging Bethesda negatively are mostly preposterous and overlooking the bigger issues at hand which stem from a flawed reviewing industry, not a flawed development/publishing industry. That’s not to say that the development/publishing industry isn’t flawed, because it for damn sure is, but in the case of this article, for once the publisher can’t rightfully be blamed. For the purposes of discussion I’ll keep the conversation focused on Prey as the article did.
The first point that needs to be addressed is that Prey had a pre-release demo. It wasn’t on PC so that’s a fair point of contention but at least a demo was released a week in advance of the game, giving a large percentage of potential buyers the ability to try the game in advance and giving basically 100% of potential buyers a chance to at least see the game in action in advance of the launch date via services like Twitch and YouTube. I myself posted a lengthy playthrough of the demo a week prior to the game’s launch. Whenever a demo is released, reviews cease to seriously matter. Maybe not to developers but to consumers they’re nearly irrelevant unless you don’t personally have access to the demo. Demos have become a rare thing. Most AAA titles don’t get them anymore sadly, and for a really unethical reason too. But when a game, like Prey, gets a demo the reviews are at best just to read for kicks. Why do I need anyone to tell me whether or not to buy a game when I can play the game myself and make an informed buying decision?
Remember that the only true purpose of reviews is to help uninformed or on the fence consumers that have not played the game in question make a buying decision. They aren’t for people who have already played a game to read and either troll if they disagree with it or jerk off to it if they agree with it. People who have already purchased or played the game aren’t the target audience and honestly have no business commenting on a review unless it’s genuinely to answer a question from someone who actually is considering buying the game or to debate a legitimate point of contention with the review because they feel it misrepresents the game and/or misleads readers into making a bad buying decision. Otherwise reviews aren’t for people who have already played a game. That means that in the case of Prey very few PS4 and XB1 owners had/have any real need to look at reviews of the game. If you’re interested, you play the demo, which is long enough to get a fair understanding of it, and make your own informed purchasing decision. I played the demo, was unimpressed, and did not buy the game. I’ve yet to read a single review all the way through for Prey, because I have no legitimate reason to, since I already tried the game.
To address the author’s point about having to rush out reviews when given a short or no lead time to launch with a review copy. This is not the publisher’s fault. There is no law that says your review has to go out first. This is a personal issue with your business/industry that is made inconvenient by Bethesda’s policy. But so what? Bethesda, or really any publisher/developer, doesn’t actually owe review firms anything. Review firms owe Bethesda for providing them games to review, whether free or not, so they can continue to have a business. Really the race to be first published shows inherent flaws in the review industry more than anything else. A traffic based compensation system does nothing good for anyone because it leads to click bait writing, rushed content, and a general lack of quality in today’s journalistic system where marketing and social media do more than quality content ever will. Not to mention, such complaints show a lack of brand loyalty from your reader base. Or at the very least a fear of such a thing. If you run a quality firm then you should be able to retain your readership. If you can retain your readership then it doesn’t really matter if your review comes out first or not. But if you don’t run a quality firm then it would make sense to be unhappy about Bethesda’s decision about review copies because you’re always vying for the click bait audience to stay afloat. Yet that still isn’t Bethesda’s problem because it’s not their responsibility to keep review firms happy. In fact they would probably prefer if they all ceased to exist and just worked directly with private content creators.
The author’s second point about review scores and how they affect Metacritic numbers which can translate to bonuses is based on a lot of speculation. In the article it’s stated that his information on the subject is all anecdotal and he provides no specific sources for these claims. It’s also kind of weird to assume Bethesda knows nothing about how Metacritic works and how their review copy policy affects their scores. If anything this is an intentional measure to keep developers loyal to Bethesda by artificially controlling the numbers. Is that a bit scummy? Sure. Is it in any way an actual problem for the people at Kotaku, IGN, or any other review firm? Probably not really. I mean it’s not like those firms artificially control access to content or opportunities in the gaming journalism industry right?
I will say though that if it is in fact true that the minimum score for developers to get a bonus is 85 on Metacritic then that’s another example of a totally unbalanced and unrealistic expectation of success. An 80 is a good score. For some it’s a great score. Personally I hate the number system for reviews. As a reviewer who genuinely tries my best to be fair and honest with every single review, whether AAA or indie, I find picking the number to be the most difficult, most stressful, least useful part of writing a review and judging a game/movie. First off, it gives people an excuse not to actually read the review. Many people just look at the number and don’t take the time to try to understand where that number comes from or if it’s even legitimate. We’ve all read at least one review where the number said one thing but the review said something completely different. It’s also extremely difficult to be completely fair about choosing that number. I have a system, as I’m sure most experienced reviewers do, and I believe in my system. I’ve crafted it over the course of writing more than 100 game reviews. Yet even today I still struggle with making sure I’ve actually picked the right number for a game. Other than supporting Metacritic, there’s little gained from the number in terms of actually helping the consumer. It also hurts developers more often than helps them in a world where standards are so high that an 80 is supposedly considered a weak score.
While I may agree with the general idea behind the Kotaku article, my point still stands. The article is not motivated by a genuine desire to help consumers or developers. It’s selfishly motivated to help review sites continue to take advantage of a system that is unfair to begin with often at the expense of developers and consumers alike. I may not completely agree with Bethesda’s choice to not distribute review copies in advance, but I 100% support their conscience decision not to support these review sites that have become so arrogant that they believe they can dictate the way publishers do business. That is the right of the consumers who actually pay for their games. Not those who get their software for free regardless of the situation. Before you ask, yes I am aware that Kotaku is blacklisted by Bethesda. But the article is not written with a focus on Kotaku. It’s written for review sites in general and as such should be discussed in that way.