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Bethesda BS: Preying on Consumer Ignorance & Complacency

[NOTE: While this blog is chiefly inspired by a certain N4G article’s comment section I mean no disrespect against the users indirectly referenced. It’s the arguments I’m interested in and I have a limited time until Prey (2017) releases so I wanted this to be more of a topical blog. I hope there’s a healthy dialogue in the comment section.]

Bethesda is one of the most ubiquitous brands in the video game industry. Their published games, mainly in the PC & console markets, of the past one-and-a-half years are considered critical successes. They have millions of fans worldwide and have received dozens upon dozens of E3 and GOTY awards. They’ve had their share of mistakes in the past (1) (2), but rarely have such mistakes garnered apathetic—even positive—responses like their updated early review policy.

For anyone familiar with the whole DOOM (2016) review controversy (3), this should come as no surprise. For those out of the loop: DOOM’s MP beta didn’t exactly go over smoothly with many who participated. Conveniently enough, Bethesda then decided to withhold early press codes of the game because they wanted both consumers and reviewers to have the same MP experience (to paraphrase it) for the…series that’s never been about MP ever. Normally this would be a sure sign of DOOM being a critical flop; in actuality, it went on to be one of the best surprises of 2016. But what appeared to be a one-off decision was later blanketed to all Bethesda-published games from now on (4).

The policy began during the holidays with Skyrim: Special Edition, Dishonored 2, and now Bethesda’s next AAA title on the horizon: Prey/PREY (2017). And what possible prevarication did they use for such a policy with all of these exclusively single-player games, you may ask? Well, they just want…fans and reviewers getting access to it at the same time. Nothing fishy here! When I noticed this policy revalidation I expected a lot of umbrage from every N4G member; instead, a select few assented to the positives of how this could wound traditional games media (5). And while I despise the ignominious behavior of several journalists, and previously-lacking site guidelines from before, I still want to propound why that’s a myopic outlook and the dangers this practice presents.

Now I’m not sure how many recall or kept tabs on Bethesda’s games released during the holiday season because, in case you hadn’t, the PC ports for both were revealed to be incredibly buggy at launch (6). So already this notion of reviewers and consumers ‘sharing’ experiences at the same time was really just their way of burying guaranteed pre-release negativity that would’ve jeopardized sales. And since Bethesda kept their fists incredibly tight on who’d get early access, no one—like those ‘parasitic’ reviewers—had the opportunity to warn about the PC version's current state.

Now, even if reviews don’t appear to carry the weight they used to with the general public (7) can we see why Bethesda’s review policy is unconscionable and clearly anti-consumer yet? That even if this curtailing of information won’t affect the majority of consumers it’s still artificially closing an informational pipeline for the cynical reason of profit motive?

I don’t think it should take long to consider why this is happening now either. Remember just how buddy-buddy mainstream reviewers have been with Bethesda games for over a decade now? People still—insanely—consider Fallout 3 to be one of the best RPG’s of the previous decade! Just having some fun. Anyways, the timing isn’t tough to consider when harsher criticisms have been applied to the most recent releases of their biggest IP’s: The Elder Scrolls Online (8) and Fallout 4 (9). And, overall, they weren’t even being that harsh to begin with, which goes to show just how safe Bethesda wants to place their bets.

None of this is to say game critics deserve to be in everyone’s good graces. I’ve spoken about their failings at length before and still hold them to be quite inconsistent today—which invariably pushes me to improve as well. Having said all that, I don’t quite follow the ire of traditional games media to the level I’ve seen. I mean…hasn’t this whole “ethics in games journalism” rant these past few years resulted in several sites updating their disclosure policies to that of standard enthusiast press? I figured that’s the most realistic bet one could ask for. Even if there’s clear cases of some sites not meeting that standard, at least one can find SOME semblance of a standard compared to that of alternative media.

There’s one caveat Bethesda—conveniently enough!—overlooked when sharing their new review policy: select streamers approved by them would be able to receive early copies. Game streamers have become a huge deal to modern gaming culture, and publishers are not ignorant of their influence. From the likes of PewDiePie (10) to JonTron (11), there’s popular examples of streamers making videos whose sole existence was to act as long-from advertisements. Just say so in the description (hopefully not hidden behind the ‘Show More’ tab) and you’re good to go. This occurred with Skyrim: Special Edition too as—naturally—some streamers received early copies weeks in advance of its release for the price of their soul (12) (13). Okay, fine, I’m privy to fan culture and get the idea of liking Bethesda’s games. I can’t completely hold their enthusiasm against them. But it does bring a question to the fore: what does it say about Bethesda that the only people they want getting early copies, engaging with their product, and critiquing it have to be, like, a few degrees from being a total shill for the company?

Of course publishers aren’t legally obligated to give out early copies for reviewers; however, it sets a deplorable cultural precedent. I know I linked that pie chart earlier about reviewer influence, but I’d argue there’s a more invisible-yet-tangible contract with early review copies. It’s become an expectation across almost any artistic medium in helping to facilitate discussion in admonishing or endorsing certain titles, creating an environment of healthy criticism in the process. Whilst not limited to this, I think trust developers like Naughty Dog have received over the years stems from this sort of understanding they and their publisher seem to have—at least with ND-developed titles. I can still recall when Uncharted 3’s review embargo was lifted roughly two weeks before it came out. I thought that was a cool move on their part, showing a confidence in their product rarely seen to such an extent from others in the industry. Even IF the majority of consumers were set on purchasing, it still showcases a respect for said 'cultural contract' and a yearning to have people discussing your completed project as soon as possible; conversely, Bethesda's showcased a disrespect for this when a spreadsheet just so happened to suggest it wasn't in their best interest.

“What do you then propose?” you may be asking. For starters, it’d be nice for everyone to be on the same page about the negative effects of this decision; further, that extenuating such an anti-consumer practice because of it potentially harming modern games journalism (those meanies!) is really narrow-minded if you were to carefully consider the long-term ramifications. Everyone else except the publisher’s potential profit margins, and the few streamers which may inevitably help said publisher, get a raw deal.

Once past this acknowledgment, I’m ambivalent as to what parameters ought to be made for publishers who makes these types of policies. What I’m incredibly confident will NOT make effective change whatsoever are sanctimonious speeches with no meaningful follow-through (of which I'm also guilty of committing). I get the yearning to vent frustrations after being burned from time to time, annoyed at the sorry state certain games are launched. But the bottom line is these companies don’t start—truly—considering these complaints until their bottom line is damaged in the process. As to what extent that entails is, as I said, tough for me to narrow down
.
For some, the go-to is abolishing pre-orders altogether. A scorched earth approach. But in today’s context of re-releases, packaged physical copies of previously-digital-only titles, etc. there’s complexities I don’t think are often considered. Perhaps make an effort to getting all Bethesda games in the second-hand market from now on? Never purchasing another Bethesda title (developed and/or published) again until this is rectified? I leave that up to you. Personally, I’m curious to see just how quickly they’d change their tune by simply holding off on a Bethesda game you really wanted a couple of weeks after its release.

“Bethesda: No early review copies.

You: Okay. I’ll just wait until the consensus is in to see if it’s worth my time.

Bethesda: Umm…what?”

Since the AAA industry seems to be so reliant on first week sales to gauge success, I figure they’d get the message quite clearly. And that’s not even much of an ask for this situation. Maybe even that is too lenient of a response—of which I’m happy to see what you think in the comments section.

In conclusion, I’m, uh, probably concluding this too soon. There’s a broader cultural analysis to have about publisher-reviewer relations, consumer culture, and the AAA industry at large that haven’t been broached enough here. But as I stated earlier, I wanted to focus specifically on Bethesda because of the discussion I recently had (5) and how topical this dilemma is—with the potential of affecting someone’s purchase. If you are one that’s really interested in the new Prey and have thoroughly read this: hopefully I’ve presented some info here for you to consider. This policy erodes conversation (specifically in the pre-release phase) in simple and also oft-not-considered ways, hinders a specific method of information for nefarious reasons, and the only significant way to have your voice heard about this grievance is with your wallet.

Links:

1. http://www.pcgamer.com/beth...
2. http://www.gamesradar.com/h...
3. http://kotaku.com/bethesda-...
4. https://bethesda.net/en/art...
5. http://n4g.com/news/2049589...
6. https://www.extremetech.com...
7. http://www.theesa.com/wp-co...
8. http://www.metacritic.com/g...
9. http://www.metacritic.com/g...
10. http://www.playstationlifes...
11. https://www.youtube.com/wat...
12. https://www.youtube.com/wat...
13. https://www.youtube.com/wat...

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Community26d ago
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coolbeans26d ago

I hope everyone enjoyed the blog. Please feel free to leave your comments and/or questions down below. I don't mean to be very pushy against those who may have pre-ordered Prey (2017) already, but I'd really like those who ARE in that group who may have read this to reconsider. In the end, it's your decision. But regardless of where are opinions may lie on this issue and how to handle it, I'd still appreciate seeing what you have to say on this issue.

LordMaim26d ago

Right in the Bethesda post:
"We also understand that some of you want to read reviews before you make your decision, and if that’s the case we encourage you to wait for your favorite reviewers to share their thoughts."

If people are concerned, if people have even the slightest amount of doubt whether the game will be good or not, don't prebook the game, don't buy the game until reviews come out. Its not as though there's a possibility of shortage in this digital era, so it isn't a requirement to buy/book early anymore.

If you need reviews, just wait. This isn't anti-consumer. No one is forcing you to buy anything sight unseen.

coolbeans26d ago (Edited 26d ago )

Okay, Bethesda had a laughable bromide ready for my concerns in their press release. So what? I know I'm sounding condescending, but you're starting off with Bethesda's PR as a response--which I'm familiar with. As this blog's already shown, I'm more interested in their actions. Sure, they can say 'oh be sure to be careful with making a pre-order' but that's just spin. If they really were so nonchalant about it then why put a certain sliver of content (usually cosmetic) behind a pre-order bonus?

"If you need reviews, just wait. This isn't anti-consumer."

Yes it is. Curtailing information in such a way that ends early reviewing of games (what used to be a standard across any medium) for profit motive is why those terms exist. Yes, no one's being FORCED to engage in that transaction. That's the norm in free market societies. Doesn't mean there's not some kind of manipulation on their part in keeping content behind pre-order bonuses.

LordMaim25d ago

Its not PR, its a fact. Just wait till reviews come out if you are concerned that they're trying to hide a bad product. No one is forcing you to buy on day one.

And if you're worried about pre-order bonuses, just wait until it drops in price and buy the pack. They always release that stuff in post release DLC, and you'll probably save money and still get your reviews.

How is it for profit if it hurts their first week's sales? We have an advanced statement that there would be no review copies, we have a discussion about this being held openly on media outlets. They're being transparent, and advising people to wait. How does that translate into increased profits for Bethesda? If they release a bad product, then they're only damaging their reputation so the risk is on them. So far they're 2 for 2, one of which (Dishonored 2) was from the same developer as Prey, so I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until I see differently.

People who buy games without reading reviews by definition wouldn't be affected by lack of reviews. People who wait for reviews can play it safe, no one is stopping them.

coolbeans25d ago (Edited 25d ago )

-I mean...now you're kinda confusing terms here. We're talking about an official company statement being spread to the general public (i.e. PR); at the same time, it is fact that waiting is a thing people do. Can we please move on beyond the simple principles like "you don't HAVE to buy it" yet? This is why I called that part of Bethesda's post a bromide. It's such a overused, simplistic statement that really adds nothing to the reasoning behind this review policy in the first place. Yes, we're in a society (mostly) based around free market principles so no one's forcing you to purchase this game. And, yes, people are capable to wait for something to release. These notions were already assumed when writing this up which is why I moved past them to discuss Bethesda's questionable track record and the greater cultural context.

-"And if you're worried about pre-order bonuses, just wait until it drops in price and buy the pack."

So a piece of content that was already ready for the game's arrival gets cynically removed as a trinket for pre-ordering and those wishing to be 'smart consumers' waiting for reviews don't get it until it's available for purchase separately--potentially at a much later time. When have we hit this magical threshold of some corporate move being considered anti-consumer? This goes right back to my first response to you of how Bethesda's words and actions aren't lining up.

-"How is it for profit if it hurts their first week's sales?"

We're talking about free market capitalism here. Decisions such as this can only suggest profit motive as being the contributing reason for such a move.

-"We have an advanced statement that there would be no review copies, we have a discussion about this being held openly on media outlets. They're being transparent, and advising people to wait."

Once again, there's words and then there's actions.

-If we're talking about the PC version, they'd technically be 0 for 2 at launch. Conveniently, this business decision occurred right before those two games were to release. Did you see this part of the blog?

LordMaim24d ago

We can move beyond "you don't have to buy it immediately" if you can explain to me how buying when you feel comfortable with your purchase is somehow anti-consumer.

"So a piece of content that was already ready for the game's arrival gets cynically removed as a trinket for pre-ordering..."
This is hardly a new occurrence for any developer, Bethesda or otherwise. Not sure how it relates to this situation uniquely.

"We're talking about free market capitalism here. Decisions such as this can only suggest profit motive as being the contributing reason for such a move."
Again, it specifically impacts their first week's sales, arguably the most important period for investors to demonstrate profitability. Profit may be a motive, but I'm guessing the delta between lost sales due to delayed reviews and lost sales due to spoilers and let's plays break in favor of making people wait.

-"We have an advanced statement that there would be no review copies, we have a discussion about this being held openly on media outlets."

"Once again, there's words and then there's actions."
Yes, and their actions are to be transparent, and advise those with concerns to wait.

"If we're talking about the PC version, they'd technically be 0 for 2 at launch. Conveniently, this business decision occurred right before those two games were to release. Did you see this part of the blog?"
Sorry, never played the PC versions. Console versions ran fine for me. However, this again would be an issue resolved by waiting for reviews.

coolbeans24d ago

-You mean as I already had within the blog and the link to the N4G comment section that inspired this blog? Okay, I guess I'll break this down categorically again. For starters...

"...if you can explain to me how buying when you feel comfortable with your purchase is somehow anti-consumer."

You're setting up a strawman here. I have to ask again: have you read the blog and perhaps also perused some of my links provided? Never am I ranting against Bethesda for telling people to buy 'when they're comfortable.' I'm going after their review policy from a consumerist + cultural perspective. I've been focusing on the consumerist perspective in this comment chain. Anyways...

-It's common tradition for traditional games journalism to receive early review copies to discuss the game.
-While it's not the ONLY method of pre-release communication, it's one of the few where people are playing it 'out in the wild.' It's not just selected bits that can be played in previews or betas.
-Bethesda has cut off this early method of communication w/ spurious reasons as to why.
-The artificial halting of free-flowing information about a product BY a corporation is, by it's very nature, against the consumer (i.e. anti-consumer).
-BONUS: Bethesda is also lying about not giving out early review copies. As I shown in the blog, two certain streamers (unashamedly huge fans) got early access to Skyrim: Special Edition. Once reviewers got their hands on the PC version, several reported on it being incredibly buggy.

Does this suffice?

-"This is hardly a new occurrence for any developer, Bethesda or otherwise. Not sure how it relates to this situation uniquely."

Because, as stated previously, it goes against their seemingly-humble statement about telling fans to wait for reviews to come in if they're not confident in pre-ordering. "You're more than welcome to wait until reviews come in...but you won't get this pre-order goodie which looks so cool. Get your pre-order today!"

-"Yes, and their actions are to be transparent, and advise those with concerns to wait."

Advising people to wait literally is just words though. And, no, their actions aren't transparent. As detailed in this blog, only the safest of bets (i.e. extremely uncritical streamers) were given early copies of Skyrim: Special Edition when Bethesda said they weren't going to do that for anyone. Again, have you read this blog?

-"However, this again would be an issue resolved by waiting for reviews."

You mean just like I mention in my blog?

Nu20d ago

Skyrim Remastered has areas in it where the water doesn't appear or draw in. Bethesda sucks when it comes to ironing out the bugs and glitches.

LordMaim19d ago

Yep. Read the blog, read the links. Your argument that this move is anti-consumer isn't compelling. Their motive might be for profit but not in the way you think. No early reviews means no leaks, no chance of code being pirated in advance.

Providing review copies may be a "common tradition" but they're under no obligation to do so. And Bethesda still does, but only 24 hours ahead of time instead of a week ahead of time. Reviews come out a week later instead of release day. People can wait a week to purchase a game if they are worried about the quality of a game. If they can't wait, then caveat emptor. That's not anti-consumer, that's common sense.

You actually should be arguing that pre-order bonuses are anti-consumer, but that would invalidate the premise of your argument since they're not unique to Bethesda.

coolbeans19d ago (Edited 19d ago )

-"Their motive might be for profit but not in the way you think. No early reviews means no leaks, no chance of code being pirated in advance."

No, there's still an easy chance for code to be pirated in advance still. Broken street dates are also still a thing. You state my arguments are compelling, admit the part of my argument in this move being 'for profit'...then add two other dynamics into this discussion that:

a.) Aren't really bolstered much beyond one sentence
b.) Doesn't negate the particular reason I'VE argued why they've done this

I know I've acted smarmy with some of responses to you, but...c'mon now.

-"And Bethesda still does, but only 24 hours ahead of time instead of a week ahead of time. Reviews come out a week later instead of release day."

Say you've read the blog but still ignore the part where Bethesda's given out near-month-early copies of Skyrim Special Edition to streamers who just so happen to be HUGE fans of the series. That shows they haven't just cut off reviewers but also stacked pre-release discussion in their favor.

-"If they can't wait, then caveat emptor. That's not anti-consumer, that's common sense."

Hooray! Took longer than expected to see that lazy argumentation apply. You, just like others, haven't struck against my listed deductions so I'm still going to say those apply here as to why this is indeed anti-consumer--especially in the official dictionary understanding of the term. I appreciate you sticking with it (genuinely), but come away unimpressed with the meat of your rebuttals.

-"You actually should be arguing that pre-order bonuses are anti-consumer, but that would invalidate the premise of your argument since they're not unique to Bethesda."

I've stated my disliking of the standard cosmetic pre-order bonus in the past. And no, it actually wouldn't when you consider it. While pre-order bonuses do seem to be the rule, were someone like Bethesda to strip out even greater chunks of the game for pre-orders there'd be something of a unique situation applied to them as well. But that's hypothetical. In reality, the line of reasoning I've set up for Bethesda's review policy cutting out early criticism of the game, disingenuous words of being a 'careful consumer,' and their pre-order bonuses that reveal how disingenuous they are is (currently) a unique anti-consumer position no other publisher has taken.

+ Show (5) more repliesLast reply 19d ago
Septic26d ago

I don't agree with late review embargoes at all. That shows a lack of confidence or transparency on the devs part to me.

But Prey did have a demo, which I hear is underwhelming but I have yet to try it myself.

I'm in agreement that this anti-consumer

DefenderOfDoom226d ago

I talked to someone who plays a lot of new video games and he is like 23 years old and streams them on TWITCH . He said after playing the PREY demo " PREY is the type FPS game i never knew i wanted to play , so i went out and bought it thru a pre-order ." I said back to him , that was the way 90's FPS campaigns were made . No hand holding and you have to think about where to go and what to do next.

LordMaim25d ago

Its not a late review embargo. There is no embargo at all. If someone wants to rush out a review day 1, they can (mind you, I'd think twice about trusting that review.) Still, if anyone is concerned, just wait to buy it. Its just that simple.

CrimzonRazor23d ago

Trusting a day one review wouldnt be bad depending on the games length, say game is 8hrs long and releases at midnight. You could easily play the game fully and release your review by noon. Alot of shooters would fall into this. I would go by what site releases the review on how trust worthy the review is.

Tetsujin26d ago

I already learned this gen not to pre-order games anymore, and now if there's no demo/beta available I'll wait until a video is online for a game before I buy it to see what it is (or borrow/watch a friend).

With the review embargo one of the first things argued is leaked story content, or spoilers, and the companies will argue this is why they want to wait so everyone is on the same playing field. I do agree with some of the points from the blog since there is some areas where it makes sense. Some companies like streamers like PewDiePie because he makes obnoxious jokes and content to "curb" people from the main game itself and instead concentrate on him, and if he says the game is fun/good then his followers will buy it because he said it's a good game, not because it actually is.

With Bethesda and the review embargo, I'd go back to Destiny with Activision. I remember on N4G specifically there was an article about waiting until the game released to write a review, and the point made was "the game servers aren't available." Some of the community agreed and debated in favor of Destiny, while others like me thought it was odd how other multiplayer-esqe games allowed reviewers to play before release dates. Then the whole point of "sold review copies" started which made some other companies decide no and wait. If a company is that concerned about a review copy being sold, or too much story content be told, make an NDA where the game is talked about, the story isn't spoiled, and instead provide a digital version over physical so it forces people to not be able to resell it (and make it account locked so it can't be accessed by other people).

As a whole, I call the embargo situation BS on the companies. Most of them lost a lot of their talent for various reasons, and instead of taking risks to get back on top they'd rather play it safe and release what everyone else does - garbage.

26d ago
Chaosdreams26d ago

Personally, I pre-order if the game intrigues me after doing my share of research (In this instance, Prey intrigues me - I'd like to own it as soon as possible - get the pre-order goodies). Once the game is released, I, as the consumer/gamer, digest what's been delivered. If the game is broken, a mess, horrid - I take that as a lesson, and I don't pre-order a game from that series, ever again.

Do I think having no reviews prior to a games release, as anti-consumer? Yes. Absolutely.
Am I surprised they are embracing this practice? No, not at all.

If the publisher in question burns me on multiple titles across multiple developers, I don't pre-order anything from them, ever again - until they clean up their record (which, let's be honest, they don't). But if they want to continue burning, then they will. I however, learned - and won't be burned again. Example being, I no longer pre-order anything from Activision (and those beneath them). And EA is now in that bracket as well (and all those beneath them). Ubisoft is up there too.

That's just how I go about it. I listen to the opinions.

In the past I myself have wanted people to avoid pre-ordering games from a certain series. But ultimately people have their own passion / need / love / desire, for a game or experience. You can't stop someone, you can only help teach them so they themselves avoid the burn in the future.

coolbeans26d ago

I appreciate the response. You and I seem to have some parallels on when to pre-order. Though the method's been pretty much ditched by me when it comes to AAA games and more indies or physical releases of previously-digital-only stuff I may have played a little bit of somewhere else.

Now I don't mean to put you in an uncomfortable position, but I can I still implore you to reconsider that when it comes specifically to Prey? Consider the following:

-Arkane Studios doesn't have a consistent track record on PC now since Dishonored 2 released (if you're getting the PC version)
-The seemingly questionable development cycle of Prey (as far as Human Head's Prey 2 getting dropped for this one)

Now you don't need to say yay or nay here. At the end of the day, it's your decision which I can't stop. And I hope you don't get burned on this one.

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