Bethesda, publishing giants who’s games include Fallout, Skyrim and Doom, have recently announced they will no longer be allowing press early access to their games, only sending games one day before official release. Why? They claim it is to create ‘a level playing field’ with everyone, players and media alike, experiencing new releases on day one.
This is a load of bullshit.
Firstly, this does not create a level playing field for players/consumers. It means that if we wish to play a game from the day it comes out, we have to enter blind. There are no quality reviews to let us know if it’s worth spending our money on. I have no idea how this is fair to those of us dolling out our hard earned cash on these products. Bethesda suggests we all just wait until our favourite reviewer is done with the game if we’re really so keen on knowing what we’re buying.
But anyone who has played a game, especially an open world affair like Fallout or Skyrim, knows that this can take a while. Games can last anywhere between 8-100 hours, so factoring in our life responsibilities, a games reviewer has a gruelling marathon ahead of them. Then once the game is finished, our poor reviewer has to take the time to digest and write their review. All this means that critical takes on games could now take a while to come out. And some of us may not want to wait that long to play.
Let’s be honest, when a big, anticipated game is released, we all want in on the action anyway. There is cultural conversation around mainstream games, and of course we want to be involved in that. Telling us we need to wait days, a week (or more) to read a review to find out if a game is worth it, means we can’t participate in this conversation. So, we’ll end up buying these games before the reviews, which is in Bethesda interest, not ours, or miss out. When I can’t afford a game, I like to at least read reviews to stay clued into the conversation. Now you buy the game or get shut out.
This decision needs to be further put into context by stating two things: one, games are expensive; and two, Bethesda has a history of releasing buggy games. Of course, other developers and publishers have released games recently that are full of bugs and glitches – look at the mess that was and is Street Fighter. I’m not saying all games should be 100% perfect because of course there will be bugs that will be missed until there is a large and active player base. However, when you’ve paid £40, £50, or even £100 for a game, especially from large studios, it should not be a big ask that these games ship with minimal bugs. These publishers should be selling finished and complete products. But with the rise of patches and dlcs, it is worrisome that this new policy will allow Bethesda to push back finding fixes until after the game has shipped. I don’t have much money, I can’t afford to spend money on a game, then have to wait for patch fixes. I haven’t bought Skyrim or Mafia 3 yet because of reports of bugs, which without reviews I wouldn’t know about them.
Bethesda, or any other publisher, obviously don’t want consumers to actually wait. They want people to just buy their games based on marketing and pre-release hype. This can be seen in pre-order bonuses, designed to encourage players to buy the game well before any reviews or press coverage is out. Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty offered those who pre-ordered the chance to play the game before its mainstream release. In the lens of reviews offering a critical eye to games, these kind of pre-order bonuses make me uncomfortable enough as it is. Now, in light of Bethesda’s attitude towards the press, it’s even worse.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that this level playing field doesn’t count if you are a lets player whose content can be treated as advertisement by publishers. The relationship between youtubers and publishers has previously been flagged as potentially dodgy. In the run up to Skyrim Re-master release, Bethesda sent copies of the game out early to streamers and youtubers. Those chosen were fans of the game, those Bethesda had obviously judged would shine a positive light on their product. I often watch let’s plays as a way of deciding if I want to purchase a game or not, but let’s players are not (usually) reviewers. There’s a difference in playing a game for entertainment and for critical appraisal.
Much of the gaming community is still feeling very sore about No Man’s Sky. Yes, that was a new, indie studio, but it shows that pre-release reviews are essential. Media and press plays an important role in keeping companies accountable to their audience. I’m sure many working at companies like Bethesda love games and aren’t some kind of cartoon villain trying to swindle the poor working gamer out of their money. But for a big company like Bethesda, at the end of the day their aim is to increase their profits and this new review policy is designed to do just that.Bethesda is not the only publisher to adopt this practise, but hopefully it will be the last. I believe that this new policy from Bethesda benefits no one but Bethesda.