Video games press is weird. The idea that widespread corruption has ruined our industry is patently absurd, but the proximity of developers and journalists is admittedly a bit too close for comfort. It was born out of an old, practiced sensation, like brothers in a foxhole. We were a unified front against the stubbornly close-minded folk like Roger Ebert and his tirade against the medium.
But what we do, taken on its cold hard merits, is vital, as is all journalism. We are the fourth estate. While (thankfully) the responsibilities of clearing our industry of the malicious and shining a light on the dire is minimal compared to the likes of city papers that cover police blotter and government actions, video games media is still the backbone of standing up for the people. Programmers, marketers, designers, writers, and, most importantly, consumers.
The bulk of what this site is may not seem like it—what with it primarily being composed of think pieces on what makes one bow better than another or YouTubers being terrible people—but look at all the reviews that come out. Reviews are not to help give clarity to popularized feedback on games and movies (though they do) and they don’t simply allow writers an excuse to trash on bad products (though they do); reviews are to protect consumers.
Protect them from what? Well, protect them from businesses. Businesses that would otherwise have you believe you’re their friend. For the most part, they can be rather innocuous. They price a mobile game maybe a few dollars too high or they simply can’t keep up with fan demand and servers crash. But other times, it’s almost criminal.
Consider the entirely busted pile of dirt that was Assassin’s Creed Unity and the severely underserving Driveclub. Journalists get their hands on games like that before you do and tell you about it so you aren’t bamboozled out of your money. Let’s just prevent the problem of you buying a bad game from the get-go rather than shouting about it afterwards how they ripped your cash from your gullible hands.
Worse than that, video game sales trends are pointing towards hostile. Preorder customers now get access to a game days in advance at the price of committing their money to something they have no indication being good or bad. Spending more money on special editions get you extra content that, otherwise, is completed and ready to ship to all players. It’s so bad that news outlets have guides about them, the most heinous one actually hitting this year.
The latest actually happened a while ago, but I only really began to ruminate on it yesterday. Over the weekend, I blitzed through Dishonored 2. It’s a 16-hour game (at least) and you generally have to play through it twice to get a good feel for what makes the two characters Emily and Corvo unique, if anything at all. I’m one of the lucky few that gets to dictate exactly how and when my pieces come out. Others? Not so much.
The problem is that Bethesda recently announced that they’d stop sending out review copies to press in advance. In the case of Dishonored 2, most outlets got code the afternoon before general release. With all the other things like news, press releases, trailers, videos, podcasts, and whatnot, a full review of a lengthy, meaty game like Arkane Studios’ latest in less than a day would be impossible, especially if you have to put it under a careful editor’s eye or a specialized design process.
Reviews for Dishonored 2 became a race. Some places like Polygon opted for pre-review pieces that, by necessity, open with all the negatives of the game rather than the positives. That way they can fully steep in the game and put out a more comprehensive piece as their experience dictates, not as time would force them. Large outlets like GameSpot and IGN are blessed with a huge staff, so it’s not improbable they gave it the weekend treatment and got their reviews up yesterday, too.
Smaller places, though, struggle. They rely on those embargoes. There is no race. They, just as everyone else, can give any particular game its fair shake. You can give something like Dishonored 2 its full two run-throughs. We’re back to the wild west of everyone ingesting games as fast as possible and churning out copy at a blistering pace. We’re less thoughtful, less precise, and more careless, three fundamental parts of being a journalist, let alone a critic.
That, on its own, is mostly amenable. Writers and staff and editors will adapt; tight deadlines are what every tick of the clock sound like to a journalist. The criminal part of it is that it’s a great and absolute disservice to consumers like you. Not only are you left without any purchasing advice once the game releases (you’ll just sit there every Tuesday and Thursday twiddling your thumbs and debating on rolling the dice on buying the latest title) but the advice you do get, untimely as it is, will be subpar.
This takes the already tumultuous and tenuous relationship between the disparate parts of the industry of publishers, consumers, and press and takes it to the breaking point. “We value media reviews“? It doesn’t seem like it. And the point about Doom being good despite early reviews? Nonsense; the logic doesn’t follow.
Informed consumerism is what we’re built upon. Movie reviews give you a good indication of what to go see every weekend. Word of mouth lets you know about what phone to buy. This move only serves to benefit publishers with a bevy of consumer loyalty, a predictable and money-laden set of folk that will buy a game sight unseen. These consequences may not be apparent in something like Dishonored 2, an otherwise excellent stealth game from a similarly excellent developer, but they soon will be. And this day will be the one we talk about.