Last year, Bethesda unveiled a questionable policy around game release. Namely, that they have decided to hold off on releasing review copies of their games until the day before release. This started with the Doom release and has run for all games since, up to Prey. Despite their claim that ‘At Bethesda, we value media reviews’ this policy suggests differently.
Media reviews, while potentially biased, are – obviously – valuable for gamers. How many massively hyped games have turned out to be terrible? Looking at you, No Man’s Sky
The Main Issues & What It Means For Us
The most glaring flaw in this policy is lack of information. Without pre-release reviews, how do we know if these games are terrible? We don’t. Pre-ordering is often risky business in gaming, with bugs and unfinished releases getting depressingly common. This move effectively makes every early purchase a pre-order.
Not to mention the strangest element, what do Bethesda gain from this? It’s oddly unfounded. They don’t really have anything to fear from early reviews.
I mean, they may just expose a game as being downright awful. But, to give Bethesda credit, I’ve rarely played one of their games that let me down. They’ll hopefully never release a game as legendarily bad as Superman for the N64. Or ET for the Atar. A game so bad they literally buried it. But that’s not really the point – they could, and we wouldn’t know until it was too late.
The gaming media are more likely to tear them apart because of a decision that looks geared to stop them doing just that.
Are There Actually Any Benefits For Consumers?
I spent a while racking my brains for any benefits this may have for us humble consumers. I wanted to give Bethesda the benefit of the doubt. Don’t ask me why. I don’t think it’s entirely cynical as all it really does is postpone you buying a game. But I couldn’t really come up with any actual positives. Yes, early reviews may expose early bugs or glitches. But arguably these would let Bethesda patch said bugs before wholesale release, giving them a helping hand.
A level playing field is great in many areas, but not here. Media reviews give us a chance to see if we want to pick up a game. Without them, consumers are left to their own devices.
Painted as a decision centred around fairplay, it deprives consumers of a chance to get information before release. This either means taking a gamble on early purchase or a long wait to see if the game is actually any good.
What do Bethesda Get Out Of This?
Obviously, Bethesda must be gaining something from this Policy. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it. But what exactly is it they’re getting?
As mentioned above, the choice seems oriented around protecting Bethesda from bad reviews.
But…they don’t really have any. The releases since this policy are Doom, Skyrim Special edition, Dishonored 2 and Prey. None of these have had bad reviews. Far from it, actually. The releases have been well received. They all hover at around 7 or 8 out of 10. This makes it seem an even more unusual decision.
The obvious benefit from Bethesda’s standpoint, is the frequency of reviews. Rather than having a glut of articles around release, they get a steady stream. Because reviews come out when players or the media finish them, it means games are being talked about for longer.
Sure, this a controversial policy. And there are release bugs that might be missed and cause mass outrage. Early reviews may pick these up and allow it to be dealt with more discretely. But like Oscar Wilde said, ‘There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.’.
This policy gives Bethesda a chance to sustain interest in their games and this means more sales over a longer period, in theory.
Is It Hitting Bethesda Where It Hurts?
So how is this decision affecting sales for Bethesda? Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to be having a hugely negative effect. Sales are holding steady.
Sure, early sales – as you’d expect – are down. The key difference is that rather than seeing an initial burst in sales, they’re now spread over the opening few weeks or months. As reviews gradually work their way out, people are still keen to buy.
Prey did see a weak launch period, we can assume because of the review policy scaring people from early purchases. But currently it’s sitting pretty at the top of the UK sales charts. So clearly no long term knock on there. The later reviews seem to have helped it after release.
Likewise, Doom hit the same spot for a time last year. Skyrim Special edition is admittedly a known quantity, but sold around 600,000 units on PS4 in the first week. So for most of the big releases, were not seeing a fall in sales. Bethesda are performing well in the markets.
Dishonored 2 on the other hand, had glowing reviews, but relatively poor sales. The late review policy didn’t really sustain it either, as it was released in an ever saturated Christmas market. But it still made solid sales, and is a definite outlier when you look into other releases.
So, consumers don’t seem to be letting this policy affect them on the whole. Nobody is really shying away from buying their games. Maybe Bethesda are such a well known company people trust them enough to look past it.
If it was causing damage we’d probably see a change in policy. For now it looks set to continue. But it remains a controversial and baffling decision, hurting early sales and denying consumers vital information.