Opinion Piece

Review Embargoes; The Good And The Bad

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With reviews for Assassin’s Creed: Unity being held until 12-hours after the game’s launch the topic of embargoes has once again become a point of heated debate, sparking articles and massive forum threads. So let’s jump in shall we? Because if everyone else is yelling their opinions about it, why can’t I?

Exactly what is an embargo and how do they work? Simply put an embargo is an agreement between a publication/journalist/Youtuber or reviewer not to publish any review or other critical work before a set date. Typically these aren’t actually legally binding agreements as most embargoes are just a gentleman’s virtual handshake that you accept when getting review copies. You get an Email offering the review code along with information regarding the embargo. You say that’s fine, and that’s that. However, while such agreements probably would not hold up in course most websites wouldn’t dare break an embargo because doing so almost guarantees never getting review code from that specific company again, and the trade-off isn’t worth it. Sites need code to do their job. Many people would argue that websites having to buy their own games would be a good thing, but that’s untrue for two reasons; the first is that small sites, such as myself, simply could not afford to do that, and second it would mean no reviews for launch, so consumers would be blind except for what the publisher lets them see. I can’t afford to buy game after game for the sake of this site because I don’t have enough money to so do. Unless readers are willing to personally help fund their favored smaller websites it’s a sad but true reality of the situation. So, no,while such embargoes wouldn’t hold up in court most outlets would never break them anyway because it would be like shooting yourself in the foot. Very occasionally an actual written contract may arrive. For example I signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement when reviewing Dishonored, a document that I naturally read several times in great detail before putting pen to paper.

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So why do embargoes exist? Well, the “correct” answer is simple: fairness. The idea of an embargo is that forces every website to publish their review at the same time and thus ensure that nobody gains a tonne of extra traffic by being the first one to yell their opinions across the Internet. And yes, publishing a review before anyone else does indeed generate a lot of extra traffic which in turn translates to advertising revenue, especially important for a lot of the smaller sites who don’t have financial power of something like IGN. Therefore embargoes aim to stop websites playing a total of five minutes of the latest release before tossing out a half-assed “review” in order to beat everyone else to the punch. In this regard review embargoes are actually pro consumer, theoretically encouraging quality reviews by giving writers plenty of time with the game.

However, these days getting review code well in advance of release is becoming rarer unless you have a vast audience. I received my own copy of Assassin’s Creed: Unity on Saturday, just a few days ahead of its official launch, and Rogue only turned up yesterday.  Many games don’t actually arrive until launch day, the exception being Indie developers who tend to be far more willing to get their work out there ahead of launch. Naturally large websites like IGN and Gamespot do tend to get code much further ahead of official launch. The decline of advance code is an aggravating one from my perspective because I want to form an opinion and provide it to my readers ahead of launch or at the very least in time for launch, which is why I love companies such as Koch Media who often provide games up to a month ahead of them hitting store shelves. Sadly having an early review matters less often as a pre-order culture now exists in which a terrifying large portion of gamers are convinced to order the game before they know anything about it.

This brings us to the darkside of embargoes in which they can be used to potentially hide a game’s flaws and squeeze out extra pre-orders., ensuring that the poor saps suckered into whacking down a pre-order by the lure of pointless DLC or other such nonsense never learn of the game’s fatal flaws or all-round shittiness until it’s too late. How often these days do we not see reviews until launch day, by which point those people with a pre-order are already playing and discovering performance problems or horrible design. The embargo for Unity lifted a full 12-hours after the game’s launch, leading many to speculate if it was designed to hide the game’s performance issues. In my own review I mentioned some of them, although now that I’ve finished writing and am allowing myself to read other reviews I note that I seemed to have been quite lucky and experienced only relatively small drops in framerate.

And then there’s the concept of “exclusive” reviews in which other publications are held to a set date while one site or magazine gets to publish a review, completely shattering the idea of what an embargo is while raising questions of games getting high scores in return for the exclusive deal which guarantees a load of extra views. It’s insulting, frankly, and while it may be a standard thing among the big sites to smaller outlets like myself it’s a never-ending source of frustration, although it has to be said that if a smaller site was offered a huge exclusive they’d probably take it without hesitation. I’d like to think I wouldn’t, but then who knows?

It’s hardly surprising that gamers take a dim view on the practice of embargoes, then, associating it with crap games being hidden away until the very last-minute or major issues that need to be kept out of the public’s sphere of knowledge or even some website getting an exclusive. It’s a slightly unfair assumption, of course, as not every game with an embargo that holds reviews until launch day turns out to be bad or chock full of problems.Some games turn out just fine regardless of the embargo, which actually makes so tightly controlling the date that reviews can be released a bit odd as one would assume that company confident of their title would be happy for reviews to arrive before launch.

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Take Dragon Age: Inquisition as a good example. Despite not being out until November 18th reviews have already gone live and the scores have been almost universally good, a  strong contrast to Assassin’s Creed: Unity where reviews were locked until 12-hours after launch and have been far more mixed. Inquisition, amazingly for an EA title, is a perfect example of how embargoes can be good for everyone: the outlets win because nobody got a head start, the publisher wins because they have lots of good scores and quotes to parade around before launch which may result in more sales and the consumer wins because they have information prior to the game arriving. They probably even have time to quickly whack in a pre-order so that it arrives for launch.

These days more and more games are arriving full of problems that need to be patched, all while publishers push the pre-order culture, prodding people into pre-ordering while also restricting reviews until launch or even slightly after. Embargoes have gone from being pro-consumer to anti-consumer, and as a pro-consumer that irritates me no end. I uphold a policy of never rushing to meet an embargo, hence why many reviews here are later than other sites or aren’t even up until after launch if code wasn’t available until the last-minute. Meanwhile sites like Kotaku and people like  TotalBiscuit have announced they won’t be accepting any code if it comes with an embargo which doesn’t lift until after a game’s launch.

The problem is neither TotalBiscuit or Kotaku’s stand will make a difference unless far more outlets are willing to do it. In the case of both of them it’s hard to see if anybody will win: refusing the code is a moral stand, one which I can understand and have considered myself many times, but on a practical level it means consumers won’t get a potentially honest review filled with handy information, even if it is after launch. Sure, it won’t help those who pre-ordered to publish a late review, but it could help those that didn’t. Still, their goal is to try to bring a halt to the practice of leveraging embargoes for the publisher’s gain and that’s an admirable one.

So how can we stop it? Naturally outlets would need to simply stop accepting review code for games with embargoes which don’t lift until after launch, or even on launch day, for that matter. They’d also need to start actively pushing for publishers to start providing code earlier with embargoes that lift ahead of launch. The problem we face there is that until such a refusal on the behalf of outlet begins to change the mindset of publishers consumers will suffer to a degree as that means many reviews wouldn’t even be available up to a week after launch. Furthermore there’s going to be a problem getting sites on board; it’s in their interest to accept the embargo so they can produce reviews. Even if the big sites sign up to the idea there will other outlets who will continue to agree to embargoes because then they’ll have reviews up of triple A titles that nobody else has. Ergo a good chunk of the large, influential websites with huge circulation would need to agree to refuse such embargoes in order to ensure publishers felt the impact where it hurts: the wallet. It doesn’t seem likely at this pint.

As for what the average gamer can do pre-orders need to go. pre-orders support the idea of embargoes because you’ve already signed up to buy the game regardless of reviews, and by time launch comes it’s too late to cancel. Essentially you go in blind, trusting that you’ll get a quality product in return for…well, maybe some pointless shiny skin or a tiny mission which will doubtless turn up as paid-for-DLC later anyway. In return for your obedience the publishers get to wave lovely numbers in investor’s faces, and will continue to pull off stunts like post-launch embargoes in order to add more day-one sales to those pre-order numbers.

The benefit here is that we’d also cut of the pre-order culture, which is inherently anti-consumer because it results in content often being pulled from the game itself to encourage early sales when it should have simply been included in the full package for everyone to enjoy. In return customers get content they should have gotten anyway, and the joy of having the game on launch day, which usually means having no reviews to go bu. Some cite getting the game a day or so early as their reason for pre-ordering, but is an extra few hours of time really worth ending up with something like Aliens: Colonial Marines or the crippling problems of Battlefield 4? How many times does it need to happen? Others say it’s to ensure a copy, but videogames are so very rarely in danger of being out of stock these days and there’s always digital copies. So is the prevalence of such poo consumer treatment really because we’re too damn impatient to wait an extra day to help ensure a decent product?

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Collapse one trend and we could collapse both, making for a better world in which to be a gamer. Sadly it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.While forums are filled with people complaining and websites decry the practice few are willing to actually follow-up on their words with action. Gamers keep putting in pre-orders and getting hyped for the next big release, only to be stung, get angry, calm down and repeat the cycle.

I’m no exception. Here I am writing this piece in order to maybe sway a few people, but what exactly have I actually done? I’ve written an Email that’s been sent across my PR contact expressing  hatred of embargoes that lift after launch, and once again reaffirming that no review from me will ever be rushed to meet an embargo. I’ll take the time the game needs. I’ve considered taking the same stance as TotalBiscuit and Kotaku, but can’t see enough benefit yet in doing so. As much as I hate the practice I’ll continue taking code provided I can at least publish the review for launch, but each time I’ll again tell the publisher that such a practice is foolhardy, and be ignored.

Of course for a small outlet like mine most triple A code doesn’t arrive until launch day or just before anyway, so launch day embargoes don’t mean a whole lot anyway. But maybe we should start talking about it more. Maybe I should start announcing lift dates for embargo and what review code is coming when. At least then you, dear reader, would have a tad more insight into what’s going on. Indeed, isn’t in the interest of every site to do that? To tell readers this is when an embargo lifts, so check back at X time for the review? On that note Far Cry 4 code, at least for myself and other independent sites, is going out today, which means it should be here on Saturday. That in turn means a review from me may or may not be available at launch or around that time, depending on the size of the game and how much furniture my new puppy decides to savage.

Embargoes are not bad things, inherently. Indeed, they should be a good thing but more and more we find them being used to support bad practices. Like so many terrible things within the industry we e can choose to stop it, to bring it crashing down. But it seems we fact the same problem as humanity has faced throughout history; an inability to co-operate and band together until things have gone too far.

 

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